Alternative Version, Get This!

Uneasy Listening

When Jerry Dammers slipped off his loafers and eased The Specials into the exotica-tinged territory that constituted the More Specials album, it may have smoothed the edges from their punkish, knock-kneed ska, but their socially-aware ethos and political stance was as razor sharp as ever. You might go as far as arguing that, essential as that first Specials album undeniably is, the second album More Specials is exactly that – more special.

It’s there in the arrangements and choice of instrumentation. The icerink ska of Do Nothing, the mariachi march and doom-laden backing vocals of Stereotype, the mile high fabulousness of International Jet Set; every track a jerky off-beat work of art, presented in 2 Tone monochrome but coming at you in full-on technicolour. While most bands of the era were reinventing guitar music or pioneering synth-based pop, The Specials now lifted their influences from the lounge music of the past and re-presented it as the in sound from way out. It’s no coincidence that not long after, The Beat raided their dads’ old Andy Williams records for inspiration before crashing the charts with their take on Can’t Get Used To Losing You.

The Bodysnatchers’ Roda Dakar was a guest vocalist on More Specials. Known for just the one hit – a 100mph take on Dandy Livingstone’s People Do Rocksteady – The Bodysnatchers were already splintering into the Belle Stars by the time Dakar had taken up Dammers’ offer of joining The Specials on stage for occasional backing vocals.

An interesting band in the 2 Tone story, The Bodysnatchers had just one original track of their own, yet despite 2 Tone’s inclusive, anything goes stance, they were discouraged from releasing it. Putting her theatre background to good use, Rhoda had riffed a spontaneous freeform lyric – a true story – over the top of a Bodysnatchers groove during rehearsal and unwittingly gave birth to one of the most contentious records of the era.

Pulling no punches, The Boiler told the story of Dhakar’s friend who’d been raped. 2 Tone’s parent label Chrysalis took one look at the lyrics and baulked, leaving The Bodysnatchers’ version at the very back of the vault marked ‘unreleased‘.

Jerry Dammers though recognised the track’s importance and, during those More Specials sessions, set about recording the perfect backing track for Dakar’s story.

The SpecialsTheme From The Boiler

Continuing in the vein of More Specials, Theme From The Boiler is similarly tinged with exotic mystery. In a time signature that Dave Brubeck may have had trouble with, it grooves along on a bed of John Barry beat guitar, muted trumpets and a loudly-programmed Linn drum machine. As the track progresses, a hollow vibraphone weaves its way in and out of the murk, the muted trumpets giving way to skronking background free jazz as the guitar revs its way into full-on Duane Eddy. Not yer average backing track by any means.

When the vocal was added, the track took a terrifying, nightmarish turn into the depths of despair.

Rhoda with The Special AKA featuring Nicky SummersThe Boiler

Despite very limited airplay – it vanished from most playlists after the first week – The Boiler managed to chart, thanks to an ever-growing demographic of 2 Tone devotees who’d buy everything on the label as soon as it was released. It remains one of the strangest and most unsettling records you will ever hear.

I first heard The Boiler between Rat Race and Gangsters on an old 2 Tone compilation taped from my pal, and as a 12 year old with a healthy obsession for the fast dance-based excitement of Madness and The Specials and The Beat, it was the last thing I expected to hear.

It’s the most shocking record I own. When it boils down to it, most ‘shocking’ records are really just swear-filled schoolboy gigglers. That’s you, Bodies. And you too, Relax. The Boiler deals in actual human pain, as shocking as a sudden slap across the face but a thousand times worse.

The opening line  – I went out shopping last Saturday – is fairly disarming and you quickly settle in for the listen, unaware of where the record is going until it’s too late. Possibly the first record to address the subject of rape, it was raw and brutal and left this pre-teen listener feeling decidedly uneasy. Forty years later, it still does. Those screams as it ends….

It is the only record,” said Dammers solemnly, “that was ever made quite deliberately to be listened to once and once only.”

 

Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

Lookin’ At You, Kid

There’s nary a wasted line on The PretendersKid. Lean and low-fat yet packed full of melody and mood, it still sounds out-of-the-box fresh 41 years later. Riding along on a breeze of glistening, chiming, ringing guitars, it’s a heady amalgam of countryish punky jangle and street-sussed Chrissie Hynde sass. Listen as you read, won’t you?

The PretendersKid

It’s the guitar riff that makes it, of course, James Honeyman-Scott taking his guitar for a twangin’ walk up and down the frets; bending, sliding, hammering on and pulling off one of new wave’s greatest guitar lines.

He takes a back seat during the singing, happy to answer Chrissie’s softly crooned, conversational vocals with lovely thick tremeloed chords between the gaps. First chance he gets though, and he’s back to a reprise of that riff. After the second verse there’s a crashing, tumbling middle eight before the whole band sets him up for the solo. And what a solo!

In just a dozen seconds, Honeyman-Scott fires off the perfect musical interlude. He’s further up the frets now, not too high – certainly not as high as those other uncultured guitar stranglers and string manglers who aim for the 15th fret and leap off from there – and his guitar rattles and rolls with a Mr Sheen-like Byrdsian jangle, all slurry pull-offs and bending 3rd strings, before finishing off on an audacious and perfectly executed pinging harmonic.

With little time to catch breath we’re back into the breakdown where the band drops out save for some thumping toms and accompanying bass. A high in the mix jud-jud-juddering Townshendesque acoustic chord signifies we’re on the run home. The jangle is free-form now, the band loosening their collective collar and undoing the top button of their super-tight jeans, relaxing into the multi-layered silvery mercurial brew they’ve created out of thin air as Chrissie reprises the chorus and Honeyman-Scott plays another sublime variation of the solo.

The engineer or producer or whoever it was who thought it was a good idea to fade him/them out needs their stoopid head examined, they really do. Three minutes of post-punk new wave pop joy undoubtedly deserved to stretch its skinny legs for a good half minute more, even if that meant taking it, like Chrissie’s fringe, to just about beyond the considered optimum length. I doubt anyone would’ve complained.

Flashy without being arrogant, the guitar playing on Kid is something that, given equal measures of practice and patience, any dedicated guitar player could work their way up to replicating. Just ask that other king o’ the six string, Johnny Marr…

 

Get This!

Bric-a-Brac From The Knick-Knack Rack

I don’t know what was more surprising – the fact that a couple of nights ago I caught myself flat-footedly pounding the streets around my house in a close approximation of what the dog walkers who gave me a wide Covid-mindful berth might’ve called ‘jogging’, or the fact that, mid gasp, John Cooper Clarke‘s Post-War Glamour Girl popped up at random to help soundtrack my wheezy inward journey. Even though I was in sight of my house when the track started, I was sufficiently slow paced that I was able to play it two and a half times before I finally made it to the drive. I stood, catching my breath, sweat pooling out around my neck and upper chest, wondering just what good I’d done myself, as I let it finish for a third time.

Post-War Glamour Girl

Expresso bongo snaps of rome
In the latin quarter of the ideal home
Fucks all day and sleeps alone
Just a tiger rug and a telephone
Says a post war glamour girl’s never alone.

In the seventh heaven on the thirteenth floor
Sweethearts’ counterparts kiss
Limbo dancers under the door
Where human dynamos piss
Adults only over her pubes
Debutantes they give her dubes
Beatniks visit with saxophones
And the way she eats her Toblerone
Says a post war glamour girl is never alone.

Mau mau lovers come and go
Dreamboats leave her behind
A baby-doll to go man go
On the slopes of the adult mind
A murder mystery walk-on part
A dead body or a gangland tart
Near the knuckle close to home
Criminal connections you can’t condone
A non-doctor’s anonymous drone
Says a post war glamour girl’s never alone.

The section of the populace
They call the clientele
The moguls of metropolis
Defenestrate themselves
In the clothes of a rabbit
You develop a twitch
One of the little sisters of the rich
Amorous cameras clamour and click
Her rosary beads are really bones
Rebel rebel they bug your phone
The post war glamour girl’s never alone.

Yes there’s always a method actor hanging about
There goes Mr Tic-Tac out of the back
With some bric-a-brac from the knick-knack rack
The dumb waiter reminds you of home
(And the nice boy from Sierra Seone)
The action painter’s got up and gone
Nevertheless it’s never been known
For a post war glamour girl ever to be
What you would call
Irrevocably – alone.

 

It’s a terrific track, a dazzling poem full of measured metre and alliterative imagery, delivered in Clarke’s scattergun Salfordian drawl, shooting from the lip and painting an aural picture of a life less salubrious.

The words – perfect in their own right – are given the chance to shine thanks to the slinky funk bass that bubbles it along like a moonlighting Blockheads in a cocktail bar. The music, played by producer Martin Hannett and Be Bop Deluxe’s Bill Nelson, is great. There’s a keyboard line stolen from an old Studio One record (the title of which will escape me until 5 minutes after I press ‘publish’) and there’s a textured Talking Heads art-punk guitar line that surfs the wave then dives under the surface, driving the whole thing to its groovy conclusion. If you’re new to the track, prepare to be dazzled…

John Cooper ClarkePost-War Glamour Girl

JCC came to prominence via the same fertile Manchester punk scene that spewed forth following the Sex Pistols famous Lesser Free Trade Hall show. Instantly recognisable, his image was reflected in his poetry: sharp, cutting and stylish yet rough around the edges, scuffed with asphalt, powered by cheap speed and nicotine, Dylan ’66 drawn in blotchy ink by Ralph Steadman.

Believing – quite rightly, as it turned out – that he could make a living from poetry after seeing Pam Ayres perform on TV, he was the go-to guy for mould-breaking punk and post-punk acts who wanted a different sort of support act.

Fans of Joy Division, Buzzcocks, New Order, The Fall, even Duran Duran’s audience caught JCC in full flight; fag in hand, his battered notebook held out at squinting distance in front of him, all jutting elbows and chiselled chin, Beatle boots on legs rake-thin, a clad-in-black anglepoise lamp, scribbled words through writer’s cramp, with a bird’s nest hairdo, scruffy, entwined, keeping warm his fertile mind, the dark glasses allowing no-one in yet letting all the aura seep out. A true one-of-a-kind. For more on JCC, you could do worse than pay a visit to his Desert Island Discs.

JCC supported The Fall in Irvine in 2004. Did I go? ‘Course not. I have a terrible habit of missing all the interesting gigs in my home town. I did see The Bootleg Beatles though. Totally different songs, but if you’d been able to squint through a spare pair of Clarke’s dark Raybans, I’m sure they’d have looked quite similar.

New! Now!

Paul Well-ooh-arr

An extended period of working from home has allowed me to indulge in the wee pile of new releases I’ve never quite got around to giving my time to. Paul Weller‘s On Sunset is this week’s Home Office Record of the Week. It’s mainly terrific – the emphasis on mainly – a well-produced collection of tracks that finds Weller continuing to stretch and reach further than a man of his vintage should ever need to. He could easily be sitting back in his Chesterfield, admiring the reflection of his grown-out feathercut in the satisfying glow of his numerous gold discs, Patrick Cox-ed feet up and taking it easy, but no, he’s gone all out to create an album that’s soulful, full of substance and sonically brave.

The opener Mirror Ball is kinda the album in minature.

Paul WellerMirror Ball

A seven and a half minute epic, it starts understated – Disney-by-way-of-Mercury-Rev – before, curtains thrown open, it bursts into 21st century sunshine soul, taking in Beatleish mellotron, Isley Brothers guitar, Curtis Mayfield strings and rinky dink Philly riffing.

It’s essentially his Starlite single from a few years back, filtered through a late Summer heat haze and laid out on a bed of scorching white Californian sand. No bad thing at all, especially when it shimmers towards its grandiose end on a bed of overlapping vocals, random radio bursts and the funky squelch of Dre G-Funk keyboard lines. As far as album openers go this year, I can’t see it being bettered.

The album continues in similarly grab-all manner, Weller’s autumnal voice wrapping itself around Faces Hammond, honeyed Stax horn blasts, pastoral folk, a nod and a wink to Slade’s Coz I Luv You, and Gil Evans wandering piano lines. It’s easy to play spot the reference, wrapped up and re-positioned somewhere north of the Style Council and just to the left of those first couple of solo albums, glistening in state-of-the-art production and flying with confidence. Weller wears his influences proudly on his sleeve but makes them into his own thing. Always has done, always will do.

As it continues to spin, On Sunset builds itself up to be quite the classic…until the runt of the litter makes its appearance.

A right clunker and no mistake, Ploughman pops up near the end and it’s unintentionally hilarious.

Paul WellerPloughman

Channeling his inner Wurzel, Weller eschews the tailor-made pinstripe suit and cashmere sweater for a boiler suit and flat cap, ditches the classic open-top for a John Deere and climbs aboard. He flicks his 20th Benson & Hedges of the day to the side, jams a sheaf of wheat between his teeth in replacement and, with balls of steel, begins to sing in a full-on zider drinkin’ West Country accent about ploughing his earth and living a menial but honest living. The subject matter is fine. The musicianship  – even the flown-in Inspiral Carpets demo that masquerades as a hook line – is fine. The delivery though is unintentionally hilarious.

Who at the record company let this pass muster? Are the folk around Weller too scared to point out when his quality dips? With a career such as his, you are of course excused the odd faux pass – whole albums in some instances, but Ploughman finds our hero aimlessly ploughing a ridiculous furrow all of his own, less Modfather and more Modfarmer. What were you thinking Paul Weller? This aberration just knocked a potential 10/10 album down to a 9.

(That opening track though…. that’s a cracker.)

Weller this evening. Tractor not pictured.

Gone but not forgotten

Listen Without Prejudice

When George Michael died suddenly on Christmas Day 2016, the broadcaster Andy Kershaw made a bit of a twit of himself on social media, decrying the reaction to George’s death as somehow trivial. He was only a pop singer, seemed to be the underlying theme, he wasn’t a ‘real’ musician worthy of such deity and deference. Now, I quite like Kershaw. He’s certainly not had his troubles to seek – no need to go there in this article – but he’s an engaging fella with a good story to tell. He has a Gumpish knack of popping up in all the right places at all the right times; when Mandela makes his first public appearance as a free man after the best part of three decades in jail, a blagging Kershaw is the first western journalist to shake his hand. He was there in Rwanda, reporting on the genocide as rivers full of human bones lay stagnant at his feet. He broadcast wide-eyed and winging it as Live Aid was beamed into every other home on the planet, his boyish enthusiasm a decent substitute for having no idea at all what he was doing.

He wrote a book about it all – No Off Switch – that rattles along at the same breathless pace he normally reserves for cueing up the latest Bhundu Boys release, copious tales of office-sharing with John Peel and working with/for the Rolling Stones and so on and so forth between the meatier chapters for added measure, and I not only promoted one of his one-man shows in support of the book, I went for a pint afterwards where we sat enthusing about Neil Young and the John Peel show  – y’know, proper music – and the beaches of the west of Scotland whilst his dog Buster farted quietly in the corner. But the online kicking he received following his George Michael comments was just about enough to see him scuttling back to anonymity once again. He says what he thinks, does Kershaw, but that Boxing Day in 2016 he was overwhelmingly told he was talking nonsense.

George Michael was fabulous. A proper pop star. I know that, you know that, we all know that. And when a popstar from your youth dies, a wee bit of you dies along with them. George looked great, he carried mystique and he could sing like no one else. The fact that he was also the nation’s best-known dope-smoking gay cruiser made him tabloid fodder, but the table-turning he did when he released Outside was exactly the sort of two fingers to the press that the public didn’t know it wanted until George did it. The outing may well have signalled the begining of a long painful decline, not artistically, but mentally, that would see George pay the ultimate price, but that’s speculation for someone else in another article.

Post death, stories occasionally pop up between the cracks that shine a spotlight on his philanthropy – donating annual six figure sums to NHS nurses, paying off student debt, handing total strangers money for IVF treatment, anonymously ringing up TV studios to reach out financially to people who’ve aired their money problems live on daytime TV.

Turns out he was a bit of a good guy.

And it seems he always was. Giving Andrew Ridgley half the writing credit and future royalties to Careless Whisper was a very generous gift, a healthy pension – £10 million and rising – at a time when Wham! had barely made a record and were more concerned with Top of the Pops than pension pots. The story goes that the song was written by George long before Wham!’s first album, but was deemed far too mature for their debut so was held over until album number 2. At the time of writing, neither George nor Andrew could have predicted quite how stellar their band would become in the next few months. By a lucky stroke of equity, George Michael set Andrew Ridgley up for life before they’d had so much as sniff of success.

George Michael was also a massive music fan. Equally at home listening to Mogwai as he was to Massive Attack, he didn’t just listen to music, he listened to music, picking it apart, analysing the arrangements, working out why certain sounds and tones and counter melodies had the effect they had on him. He loved the sonic texture of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. He drowned himself in Rufus Wainwright’s back catalogue. Amongst others, he highlighted Pet Shop Boys, Kanye West and Nirvana on his 2007 Desert Island Discs episode. He was influenced, it appears, by all manner of disparate sources.

When Wham inevitably imploded and the solo career came calling, George was keen to keep a tight control of his music. Not for Michael the reliance on a team of sessioneers working half a dozen different sessions a week. Get those guys in, he reckoned, and you begin to sound like everyone else who’s using the same musicians. Instead, George did one of two things; he learned how to play the part himself or he dictated how it should sound to the musicans he trusted to play it. Thus, every part on every record is ‘played’ by George Michael, scholar of music, analyser of arrangment, conduit of heart-stirring emotion.

The pinnacle is Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1‘s Cowboys & Angels.

George MichaelCowboys & Angels

His voice – controlled yet aching – rises and falls with all the dynamics that you’ve come to expect from one of the greats, telling the true tale of an unrequited love triangle – girl fancies George, George fancies an unattainable guy, no-one gets what they want. It’s the ones who resist that we most want to kiss, wouldn’t you say? George aims for the heart and hits the bullseye.

A masterclass in sophisticated arrangement, it’s just about the most adult thing in the George Michael back catalogue. It’s light, airy, spacious, a headswim of music swirling inside a snowdome, George bang in the middle with the sophisto jazz waltz skirling around him like confetti blown in on a breeze of Lalo Schiffrin and Nelson Riddle. Those richocheting rimshots and lightly dusted ride cymbals, that neo-classical piano line and the creeping strings, the meandering sax solo, that none-more-Marvin Gaye bassline…. every note crafted by George and played exactly as he demanded. It remains, of course, the only George Michael single not to grace the top 40.

At the risk of sounding pretentious, George Michael was a bona fide auteur. An artist, a proper musician. Cowboys & Angels is the one to play to cloth-eared twonks like Kershaw who didn’t consider him such. It swings, man. It seems he even took ol’ Blue Eyes’ advice on the matter.

 

 

 

 

Alternative Version, Gone but not forgotten, Live!, Peel Sessions

Eye Opening

A Taste Of Honey was written by playwright Shelagh Delaney when she was just 19. Set in Salford in the mid 50s, it tells the story of a 17 year-old girl, Jo, and her mum, Helen – ‘a semi-whore‘ – who leaves her daughter to go and live with a younger, richer man. Jo begins a short-lived relationship with a black sailor. She gets pregnant but he is sent to sea, oblivious to the situation he has created. The girl takes in a lodger to help pay the way. The lodger, a gay man, cares for her and looks after her – “you’re just like a big sister to me!”  – and promises to be there for her at the birth of the child, until Helen storms back into Jo’s life and he is forced to take a step back.

As openers go, it doesn’t get much more scene-setting than that. The whole play is a brilliantly-written kitchen sink drama that zings along with unpretentious Northern honesty and questions class, single-parenthood, ethnicity, misogyny and sexuality. Choosing not to sweep the irregularities and complexities of life under the carpet, but to highlight that such things are in fact normal, I can only imagine that for the times it was fairly groundbreaking.

Born in Salford in the 50s, Morrissey was naturally drawn to the writings of Shelagh Delaney.

You told me not to trust men calling themselves Smith,’ says Jo to Helen at one point in A Taste Of Honey, and, like a flying bullet, the words leap of the page.

Seed planted firmly under the quiff, when the time came to name their band, the singer presented the group with the perfect, Delaney-influenced moniker. In an era of forward-thinking acts with multisyllabic names and the latest in musical equipment, The Smiths had defiantly set out their stall.

Morrissey would use Delaney’s image on a couple of Smiths sleeves – that’s her on the Louder Than Bombs compilation and the cover of the Girlfriend In A Coma single – and in reshaped form in the title of Sheila Take A Bow – and in the early days, the moping magpie wasn’t shy of stealing a line or two (or more) to help flesh out the narrative in his songs.

Reel Around The Fountain‘s “I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice,” for example is taken straight from A Taste Of Honey. And the phrase ‘Marry Me!‘ – scrawled on Morrissey’s skinny torso and revealed in heart crushing fashion midway through a Top Of The Pops performance for William It Was Really Nothing is a recurring phrase in the play.

Then there are key lines such as ‘six months is a long time,’ ‘I’ll probably never see you again,’ ‘I’m not happy and I’m not sad‘ and ‘the dream has gone but the baby’s real‘ – the line around which he based the entire plot for The Smiths’ This Night Has Opened My Eyes.

A Taste Of Honey, it’s fair to say, provided a rich seam of lyrical plunder for Steven Patrick.

The SmithsThis Night Has Opened My Eyes (Peel Session, Sept 83)

In a river the colour of lead‘, it goes, again a straight steal from A Taste Of Honey, ‘immerse the baby’s head.’ (also a reference to a line near the end of the play.) Hot on the heels of the Suffer Little Children/Moors Murderers scandal, this line caused many a management bristle when it was first heard. ‘Wrap her up in a News of The World, dump her on a doorstep, girl.’

The song is basically A Taste of Honey set to the perfect musical acccompaniment; downbeat, introspective, black and white in epoch yet technicolour in ambition. It features a prime slice of brooding, counter-melody Andy Rourke bass. Johnny’s dual lead and rhythm guitar playing is soulful and considered, mercurial and slinky yet choppy and jazzy, a zillion miles away from what most other 20-year old guitar players with a Stooges fascination might conjure up. It’s a great example of the early Smiths in action.

The SmithsThis Night Has Opened My Eyes (Hacienda, 24.11.83)

This Night Has Opened My Eyes is a bit of a mongrel within The Smiths small but perfect, imperial catalogue. An early staple of live shows, its melancholic and delicate undertones were considered a bit too fragile for the debut album. It was first magnetised to tape at the band’s second Peel Session in September 1983, just a month or two after the aborted Troy Tate sessions that largely failed in capturing The Smiths electrifying live sound.

A year later, just as the group was recording another version with John Porter, the Peel Session version appeared on Hatful Of Hollow. It remains the only recorded version of the track to be officially released.

Quickly dropped from live shows as setlists changed to keep up with the rapid, prodigious writing talents of the prinicpal Smiths, This Night Has Opened My Eyes wasn’t played live again until, serendipitously, at The Smiths final show in 1986 – “There was a sense of resolve and closure,” relates Johnny Marr, “which is why we played that song that night. I remember when we made the decision to do ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ feeling a strong sense of awareness of our own history.

The SmithsThis Night Has Opened My Eyes (Brixton, 12.12.86)

Had they been happy with the John Porter-produced version – faster, sparkling with effervescence and slighty jauntier than the Peel Session take from the year previously (although that may just be pitch issues with the bootleg tape from whence this version was borne), it remains to be seen where This Night Has Opened My Eyes would’ve fitted into The Smiths discography.

The SmithsThis Night Has Opened My Eyes (John Porter, June 1984)

Certainly, it wouldn’t have been out of place on the debut album at all, but the next 12 months were ridiculously productive. With classic singles being frisbeed out on an almost bi-monthly basis, by the time of Meat Is Murder, Morrissey and Marr had proven themselves to be in a unique world of their own.

Perhaps, like so many of the best Smiths tracks, it would’ve been the ideal stand alone single. Maybe released between the feral and stinging What Difference Does It Make and the stellar Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, a soulful interlude amongst a peerless run of releases.

It remains though a curio that has aged well through lack of over-familiarity. Whatever, I wonder, became of the young, handsome, literate, funny, unique, quirky, lovable and worshipped Morrissey? The dream has gone but the baby’s real, you might say.

Get This!, Live!

Tinnitus

The neighbours to my kitchen side have been slowly building an extension for the past couple of months. The battering and hammering and shouting and swearing usually begins at eight in the morning and lasts until mid afternoon, earlier if there’s rain or other such setbacks. “Did you just drill through that fuckin’ thing?!?” I heard accusingly one day as I hung the washing out. There was a muttered, muffled reply followed by a “You fuckin’ idiot!” and a good two or three days of silence and inactivity. I don’t know quite know where the drill was bound for, but it seems the boy did indeed drill through the fuckin’ thing.

Back on track, the racket continues. Amongst the blaring Commercial FM – adverts every five minutes punctuated by out of tune builders singing to Ed Sheeran – my garden has been filled with the sound of summer – brain crushing nail guns, all compressed air and heart-stopping rat-a-tats, bandsaws that grind their hellish grind right to the very back of your fillings, unidentifiable dull thuds – perhaps the boy receiving his punishment for the misplaced drilling, and an ever-permanent coating of red brick dust that blows only in our direction the minute a brick requires cutting. It’s quite the sound and sight.

A day or two ago it was building to a perfect, swirling crescendo, bandsaw and bawling builders and the bang bang bang of the nail gun all trying to outdo one another. A hellish cacophony of noise. And it hit me – I’ve heard this before. That jarring, pummelling racket, disconcerting and never-ending, uneasy listening that the ears have trouble adjusting to…..it’s My Bloody Valentine! Specifically You Made Me Realise. Ha! You made me realise indeed.

My Bloody Valentine – You Made Me Realise

Good luck recreating that unique MBV sound…

MBV’s gig in the Barrowlands (1992?) is the reason I suffer tinnitus. It’s whining away in the background right now, a permanent reminder of why you should consider ear defenders if you’re a regular gig goer. They’re just not very cool though, eh? Midway through You Made Me Realise, after the machine-gunning snares and off-kilter harmonies and the lurching open-tuned riff, right when the bass and guitars and drums lock into that chuga chuga swirling groove, Kevin Shields stomped on the pedal marked ‘Aural Sickness‘, hid himself behind his lank fringe and for a good while, maybe 6 or 7 full minutes, let rip an ear-splitting shriek of howling white noise, band and bass and drums and everything playing as one.

Like a Panzer attack, it reverberated from the front of the stage, crept over the tops of heads and into the lugs and set up camp, pulsing and refracting and phasing and flanging until the sub frequencies began playing tricks. My eyes hurt! People actually left and I was at most 15 seconds away from throwing up when Shields peeked out from behind the fringe and nodded the others back into more tuneful action. Close call. I know lots of folk love this sort of thing, but man! It was just too loud.

Kevin Shields, My Bloody Valentine.

There’s a good article currently doing the rounds where The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli talks about his favourite music. You can hear his Sopranos’ character voice – Chris-tuh-fuh – leaping off the page as you read about his love of Chuck Berry and the New York Dolls and doo-wop. A great article, he talks about other bands and artists that you might not expect him to like…including, quite unbelievably, My Bloody Valentine.

Imperioli mentions leaving a Dinosaur Jr gig early, the support act MBV having drained him of all emotion ahead of the headliners. Drained of emotion maybe, or just feeling plain sick. I wonder if he suffers from tinnitus too?

* for the record, I love My Bloody Valentine, especially You Made Me Realise.

Gone but not forgotten

Glisten Up

Glyndebourne is a majesterial stately home deep within the Home Counties, famous for staging regular opera events for the well-heeled of Englandshire. It also provided the inspiration for Glistening Glyndebourne, a locked-in and whacked-out spacey instrumental on John Martyn‘s 1971 Bless The Weather album.

John MartynGlistening Glyndebourne

The tendrils of jazz – Pharoah Sanders, mainly, but with a hint of Kind Of Blue-era Miles Davis creep around the opening chords like the free-flowing smoke from a Gitanes in a Parisienne jazz club. Eastern tinged piano scales and the dull woody thunk of Danny Thomson’s stand-up bass skirt around one another in search of a melody, neither taking the lead yet both unwilling to play second best. Just as you’re working out where the melody might come from, a richly-picked acoustic guitar tumbles from the fug; twisting, turning, looping, ech-ech-ech-ech-echoing into the ether, dense layers of rippling, waterfalling six string that sounds like nothing before it.

A jazzer at heart, John Martyn wanted to replicate the warm sustain that a horn has. A brief period learning the saxophone proved fruitless, but the Echoplex gave John the next best thing. Played with a wah-wah and filtered through his new box of tricks, he managed to create a sound that was as soulful as a horn section and as otherworldly as an Ornette Coleman solo.

Glistening Glyndebourne rises and falls, speeds up and slows down, grabs you by the ears and takes you with it on its six and a half minute journey. I’m a sucker for it. The squeak and scrape of new strings under lightning-fast fingers, the call and response in the bluesy, ricocheting riffs, the pulverising drum beat that carries it swiftly along. It makes for excellent late night music, with the lights low and a good malt in the bloodstream.

Almost half a century later it still sounds like the future. If you listen closely, you’ll hear the sound of The Edge cribbing notes in preparation for U2’s rise to world domination a decade and a half later. Listen closer still and you’ll hear Nick McCabe stumble upon the sound that’ll help define The Verve as trailblazing cosmic travellers in an era of clunking, meat and potatoes rock-by-numbers.

Martyn’s next album, Solid Air, would feature Echoplex on half the tracks, a sound that quickly became ubiquitous and signature, but on Bless the Weather, Martyn was still a doe-eyed acoustic folkie in search of the unknown. Glistening Glyndebourne is the sound of John Martyn simultaneously landing on his musical feet and taking off into the stratosphere. Joni Mitchell had the weird tunings. John Prine had the lyrics. John Martyn had the Echoplex.

Get This!

Addis ababa-ba-ba

That much maligned Stone Roses second album – the grandiosly titled and underrepresentative Second Coming – is a strange beast. Not nearly as terrible as many suggested at the time, it came as a crushing disappointment to those of us who’d been blown away and swept along by the dizzy 60s-inspired sunshine psychedelia of the debut. From it’s lead single in, it was very obvious that this was Stone Roses’ take on Led Zep II. Such was the bombast and bluster and wheezing asthmatic slide guitar pyrotechnics that leapt from the fretboards with Pageian dexterity, they might as well have called that first single Whole Lotta Love Spreads and be done with it. Great tune ‘n all, but we’ve heard it all before, Stone Roses. That was a claim you couldn’t ever throw at the sparkling debut, and that’s why so many of us felt let down. A five year wait for this? C’mon Stone Roses, you’re better than this.

It has its moments. Both Driving South and Begging You are Hendrix filtered through a clattering dance groove, strangulated guitars at the big beat boutique, going nowhere, but thrillingly so for five minutes. Those liquid mercury guitar fills and coke-sprinkled riffs are relentless and tiresome on most of the other tracks though – the kinda stuff you hear played by showy assistants in guitar shops up and down the country. C’mon Stone Roses, you’re better than this.

And they were. Ten Story Love Song is a cracker, Sugar Spun Sister on steroids for those of us seeking a glimpse back to the heady summer of 1989. And the way it segues on the record into Daybreak is the greatest moment on the album.

Daybreak gives you a glimpse into the real Stone Roses, shackled of expectation and pressure, just the four of them grooving along to a fantastically loose-limbed jam. It’s so out of place with the rest of the album that I’m of the impression it was never really intended to be on it at all. A warm-up session perhaps for the ‘proper’ recording to follow, fortuitously captured by a quick-thinking tape op, magnetised forever and slotted early into the album sequence.

Stone RosesDaybreak

What’s great about it is that there’s little in the way of overdub or studio trickery. The four constituent parts are right there in the mix, easily identifiable, each doing their own thing, creating something far greater than the sum of their parts. It’s the rhythm, section that hits you first, isn’t it? It’s the way Reni and Mani drive the track with rat-a-tatting drums and rumbling jungle bass, eyes locked on one another, not even aware of what the other two are up to, working intuitively and cooking up a proper simmering stew that keeps the whole thing moving ever-forwards, speeding up, locking in, driving us to the logical conclusion.

The solid rhythm allows John Squire to throw psychedelic shapes across the top, little splashes of colour as random and just-so as the paint spatters on those Pollock-inspired record covers. His right hand scratches the groove, his left fingers bend the notes, his momentus fringe keeping the whole thing swingin’ majestically. By the time Ian Brown comes up with the lyrics – a plea for peace and equality that’s part random geography lesson, part Rosa Parks infomercial (and a ‘love is the law here‘ line that Squire would nick post-Roses), Daybreak, for better or worse, is as loose and airy, yet tight and locked as anything off of Led Zep II.

Dylanish, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

With(out) The Beatles

There’s a good argument for suggesting George Harrison‘s All Things Must Pass album is the pick of the solo Beatles’ output. In 1968, post White Album, George spent some time in Woodstock with Bob Dylan. Hearing the Zim’s stories of how The Band wrote; with equity, without hierarchy, everything considered on merit, he realised he was getting short thrift in The Beatles. Both John and Paul failed to give George’s songs the attention they deserved, instead throwing him the odd patronising scrap of encouragement when a space or two needed filled on an album. Discourteous and dismissive, Lennon & McCartney didn’t take George’s stuff nearly seriously enough and the youngest Fab, lacking clout and perhaps confidence, left many great songs in the archives.

In 1970, the floodgates opened. Spread over 6 sides of vinyl, the songs that made up All Things Must Pass showed the world – and his former bandmates – what they’d been missing.

From the title in – The Beatles are finished, get over it, to the cover – a serious George, sitting in the middle of four metaphorically upturned garden gnomes (as similar to one another as The Beatles were at the height of Beatlemania), George throws open the doors to his vaults, brings in some high profile friends and adds life to songs that would’ve graced any late-era Beatles release.

You can practically see the double denim and scratchy beards as the whole things oozes past in a haze of hash and henna. George’s trademark slide guitar is all over it, gently weeping and effortlessly gliding off of the grooves and into that corner of the world that would be known from then on as soft rock.

It’s the opener, I’d Have You Anytime that sets the tone. Co-written with Dylan at that ’68 session, it’s produced by Phil Spector and features Beatles’ friend Klaus Voorman on bass. Guitar and drums are provided by the musicians who would soon become (Derek &) The Dominoes. Ol’ Slow Hand himself plays a tasetful slo-mo guitar part which would be more than a little bit recognisable to Beatles fans. Not content with stealing his pal’s wife, in order to keep I’d Have You Anytime softly rockin’ through the ether, Eric Clapton steals most of George’s solo from Something as well.

George HarrisonI’d Have You Anytime

A decade or so ago I’d Have You Anytime was a feature on one of my in-car CDs. Segued between World Party’s All I Gave and Elliott Smith’s Bottle Up And Explode!, the three tracks, all double tracked harmonies and wistful regret, regularly re-played (again! again!) to the point where I was sick of all of them.

George’s song happened to be playing one time as I was making my way through Crosshouse and past the hospital, back to the Kilmarnock bypass that would take me home. As the road opened up ahead, from one lane to three in preparation for the big roundabout at the Brewer’s Fayre pub, I happened to glance left to the car I was overtaking.

The woman driving it  – she was about ages with me, but that’s got nothing to do with the story – was bawling her eyes out. Proper uncontrollable tears, mouth twisted and agape, lips joined by a few lines of stretchy saliva, face red and swollen. It was fairly distresssing.

I wanted to get her attention, ask if she was OK, but her eyes remained crying, her gaze on the car in front and the impending rush hour roundabout. I too had to focus on the traffic around me. Easing forward in first gear, I had a car in front of me, another behind. I was two, maybe three cars from the front of the queue, anticipating where I might be able to join the roundabout. The car on my left nudged forward simultaneously but the driver wouldn’t shift her gaze.

Ping-ponging my attention from right (is that a gap?) to left (is she OK?) I eventually zoomed onto the roundabout. The car to my left stayed. As I made my way round the roundabout, I lost her in my rear view mirror. I’ll never know if she was OK.

Had she been at the hospital and received bad news? Had she been visiting someone who’d died? Had she been dumped? Or sacked from work? I don’t know. I’ll never know. But everytime I’d Have You Anytime comes on, I’m back at the roundabout, watching a woman break down in the car next to me. Funny how music works, isn’t it?