Alternative Version, Get This!, Hard-to-find, Peel Sessions

Murderous Thoughts

Let’s call it here and now: Meat Is Murder is The Smiths best album.

It’s certainly not the debut, the band’s unsatisfactory attempt to chase a sound worthy of the songs. Compared to the Brasso-bright, spit ‘n polish, ring-a-ding-ding of those early Peel versions, the debut album weighs heavy; lumpen, and one-dimensional. The drums sound leaden and lifeless. The guitars – it’s always about the guitars with The Smiths – sound as if someone has taken a fat thumb to their edges and rubbed the sparkle clean off. Flat and uninspiring, the production doesn’t do those fabulous riffs any justice at all. Unique, extraordinary songs, but assembled badly.

Don’t even consider The Queen Is Dead. Those songs…man, great, great songs…but whoever signed off the running order needs their head examined. The title track aside, every other song is misplaced. Side one collapses from the music hall titter of Frankly, Mr Shankly into the death doublet of I Know It’s Over/Never Had No One Ever – undeniably serious mood music pieces, yes, but totally misplaced. Stick I Know It’s Over at the end of side 1 instead and you’ve got a great closing track. Never Had No One Ever? That’s totally ripe for the graveyard slot of second last track on side 2. Pick any ten records from your collection and look at the running order and then tell me that the second-to-last track isn’t the weakest on the album. It’s certainly not where There Is A Light That Never Goes Out should be hiding. That should be sitting up front with Bigmouth… and the big boys, or maybe even afforded the honour of being the big statement closing track. Good as Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others is – and it’s one of their very best – go out on a romantic, swaying high, Smiths. Don’t relegate your best songs to the twilight zone.

Yeah, and the smart money (even Johnny’s, they say) might be on Strangeways Here We Come, but for every crashing gothic masterpiece (Last Night I Dreamt...) there’s The Smiths-by-numbers (Stop Me If You Think…), for every barely-disguised love letter from singer to guitarist (I Won’t Share You) there’s the instantly skippable Death At One’s Elbow. It’s a good album, Strangeways, probably even great, but it isn’t their greatest. That honour goes to Meat Is Murder. Here are half a dozen reasons why.

Reason 1. Little elfin Johnny, in his blown-up Keith Richards hair-do and diamante clutter, is on fire across every bit of Meat Is Murder. He runs the whole gamut of his nimble-fingered arsenal; alternative tuning on the title track…alternative tuning and Nashville tuning on the cosmic and zinging Headmaster Ritual…that fine, layered coating of acoustic liquid mercury across Well I Wonder…the Stooges Metallic KO of What She Said, the rockabilly knee-tremble of Rusholme Ruffians…the proud Chic-isms that give way to those great, ringing discordant jazz chords near the end of Barbarism Begins At Home…the clattering chatter he conjures up across Nowhere Fast‘s multiple overlapping tracks and kaleidoscope of chords…

Johnny came up with them all. On Meat Is Murder he is barely 22 and he’s not yet reached a peak that his peers, never mind his guitar-strangling lessers in bedrooms up and down the country, can only dream of.

Reason 2. Morrissey. Separating the art of the 26 year-old singer from the 63 year-old artist is necessary here. Look, not at what he’s become, but at what he was once capable of. With every lyric on the album, he’s extremely funny and articulate and political and opinionated and principled and, above all else, loveable. ‘I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen,’ ‘heifer whines could be human cries,’ ‘belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools, spineless bastards all,’ ‘What she read, all heady books, she’d sit and prophesise, it took a tattooed boy from Birkenhead to really, really open her eyes.’

Even if he pinched large chunks of Rusholme Ruffians from Victoria Wood, no one was crowbarring lyrics like this into pop songs in 1985. Arguably, no one has crowbarred stuff as unique and searing and insightful and right-on since.

Reason 3. That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore is one of The Smiths’ finest torch songs. From its bright-as-brass-buttons opening to its layered and textured false ending, it’s a beauty. It’s the perfect marriage of Morrissey’s moping introspection and Marr’s guitarchestra, the singer identifying with those who are kicked when they are down, the guitarist going to town with studio effects and multi-layered riffs.

The SmithsThat Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

Those little echoing triplets that fall from his fingers to create rippling pools on still pond water still tingle the back of my neck when they come in (around the minute mark at first, then forever after) – an ear-opening epiphany in 1985 when I realised that guitar players enhanced their electric sound with gizmos and wizardry to create the sounds they imagined in their heads. The haunting (and haunted) backwards effects he weaves through the ‘happening in mine‘ section before the fade out are ace.

Johnny has since said (OK, he told me, right?) that The Smiths never quite managed to do it justice live, but with the technology available today, That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore would have undoubtedly been the centrepeice of The Smiths live experience. We’ll never know.

Reason 4. The Smiths changed lives. Saved lives, even. Like, literally. The title track is responsible for a whole swathe of impressionable teenagers – and at least two Smiths besides Morrissey – to forego eating meat and adopt vegatariansim as a way of life.

“As soon as we had recorded this song, I became a vegetarian,” Mike Joyce told me in 2017. “Morrissey’s argument was rock solid. I couldn’t even be that bullish to say, ‘…but I like meat.’ The cruelty involved is reason enough. You wouldn’t eat your cat or your dog, so why eat a sheep or a pig? Whatever Morrissey argued, you could only reply with, “You’re right, you’re right.” There was no counteract to it. It should be illegal, there’s just no argument for it. ‘Meat Is Murder’ is a sheer political statement. It shaped my life and my kids’ too, who’ve all been brought up vegetarian.

Accompanying the lyric, all sorts of magic is going on. Suitably doomy and disconcerting for the words being sung, Johnny plays around on an open D riff, cyclical and repetitive, hynpotic and ethereal.

The Smiths Meat Is Murder

It’s matched by a jangling piano – not noticeable on first listen, buried as it is underneath the abattoir grinding and cattle cries, but it’s there, tinkling along like springtime Manchester rain while studio-treated guitars echo and scrape and scratch their way through the murk, Andy’s bass as elastic and stretchy as tendons.

Reason 5. Ah. Andy’s bass. The unsung hero of the band, the thinking man’s favourite Smith, Andy Rourke can play the fuck out of that thing. While Johnny gets all the spotlight, Andy quietly goes about creating tunes within tunes, fret-surfing melodic runs that could easily stand on their own two feet (or four strings).

The SmithsNowhere Fast (Peel Session, 1984)

The trampolining rubber bandisms that carry the aforementioned Rusholme Ruffians…the counterparts he plays to Johnny’s guitar in The Headmaster Ritual…the driving force in Nowhere Fast that allows Johnny to fly off-piste and back again…Andy is a key ingredient here.

The rather-too obvious track to highlight is the extreme funkability of Barbarism Begins At Home, all slap ‘n thunk, an old tune of his and Johnny’s from pre-Smiths days that wouldn’t have worked on that debut album, but here, on Meat Is Murder‘s inclusive, catholic patina, it shines brightly.

Reason 6. The Headmaster Ritual. Rusholme Ruffians. I Want The One I Can’t Have. What She Said. That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore. Nowhere Fast. Well I Wonder. Barbarism Begins At Home. Meat Is Murder.

Perfectly sequenced, perfectly pitched, it is, rare for the era, an album of few single releases; Headmaster and Barbarism in foreign countries only, That Joke in the UK (a chart-busting number 49 with a bullet). The Americans couldn’t handle an album with no hit singles though, so they crassly wedged How Soon Is Now? right before Nowhere Fast at the start of side 2. They have form for spoiling perfectly perfect albums, the Americans – look at what they did to some of The Beatles’ catalogue for proof – and while How Soon Is Now? is an undoubted Smiths classic, it should remain standing alone as the greatest 3-track Smiths single ever. But that’s an argument for another time.

I welcome your misguided outrage in the comments…

 

Alternative Version, demo, Hard-to-find

Christmas Rapping

This was timed to go out a couple of days ago, then hastily postponed to make way for the Terry Hall stuff. By comparison it seems trivial now, but I can’t save it for the new year, so on with the show, as they say.

Yule dig this…

Remember Flexipop!? Back at the start of the ’80s, when the freshest of music was borne from a creative and punkish, DIY attitude, a couple of disillusioned Record Mirror writers started Flexipop! magazine. Adopting a maverick approach to publishing that was similar to the bands of the music it would feature, Flexipop! flouted the rules of their game and, in a blaze of cut ‘n paste ‘n Letraset ‘n day-glo fonts gave Smash Hits, Number 1 and even the hallowed trio of inkies a run for their money. Their star would burn briefly – 37 issues (one issue a month for three years) – but brightly.

Their USP? Every issue of Flexipop had a free 7″ flexidisc stuck to the cover. Sometimes single-sided, sometimes double, and sometimes even a 4-track EP, each flexi contained a unique, can’t-be-found anywhere else recording of that issue’s cover star; The Jam‘s Pop Art Poem on see-through yellow plastic, for example, or a luminous, Fanta-orange pressing of The Pretenders Stop Your Sobbin‘ (demo, of course), even a 23 second recording of Altered Images wishing you a happy new year, and this… Blondie and Fab 5 Freddy riffing and rapping, some of it loosely Christmas-related, across the top of the demo to Rapture.

Blondie & Fab 5 FreddyYuletide Throwdown

Ice-cool Debbie: Hey – you don’ look like Santa t’me. I never saw a Santa  Claus wearin’ sunglasses!

Freddy: Cool out, without a doubt!

Ice-cool Debbie: Merry Christmas, ho ho ho!

And off they go, Freddy telling the listener where he grew up, Debbie pre-empting Run DMC and the Beastie Boys by double tracking him on the line ends, referencing guns, disco and ‘the nicest snow’ – which is possibly not a reference to the inclement weather. 

Debbie Harry, Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Flash, Tracy Wormworth (bass, The Waitresses), Chris Stein

Christmas duets come in all shapes and sizes; Bowie ‘n Bing, Shane ‘n Kirsty and now Debbie ‘n Freddy. Lost to the archives, Blondie re-discovered Yuletide Throwdown a year ago while pulling together the material that would make up their catch-all box set.

It’s an interesting peek into their creative process, the version here replete with those descending chimes and rinky-dink funk guitar, the horn motif and Debbie’s ‘Ra-ah-pt-yoor!‘ refrain, yet sluggish and sludgy…and pretty good as a result. I don’t know why they chose to speed it up before release.

“When we first recorded Rapture, it was slower. This was the first version,” Stein said. “We decided to make it faster. The slower tape was just bass, drums and guitar doubling the bass, I don’t think much else. I took the tape to my home studio and added stuff, then Debbie and Fred did their vocals.”

I’m a sucker for a demo or an alt. version, and this version of Rapture certainly falls into that category. Play once, and once only at this time of year, file it in the section of your brain that’ll serve you well come the toughest of music quizzes and then forget all about it until next December.

*Interestingly, the b-side of the Blondie/Fab 5 Freddy single sounds like it might be totally magic. Credited to mystery band The Brattles, it turns out they were a band of pre-pubescent punk rockers aged between 8 and 12: Werner, 12 (Guitar), Dagin, 8 (Drums), Jason, 9 (Vocals), Emerson, 9 (Bass) and Branch, 10 (keyboard). Makes Musical Youth look like the Grateful Dead.

The record shows that The Brattles opened for the Clash twice, shared a rehearsal room with the New York Dolls and we were produced by Chris Stein of Blondie. Ah, so there’s the connection. I suspect Bartholomew Carruthers, if he’s reading, will be able to give me the full rundown. Until then, must investigate…

 

 

Alternative Version, Hard-to-find

Johnny Cash And I Spent Some Time In The Joint Together.

It’s the time of the year when the world falls into two camps: those who like to dress up in fright wigs, cake their face in plaster of Paris and smudge some tomato sauce around their dad’s old ripped shirt to wander the street for sweets from strangers…and those who think it’s all a load of nonsense.

I’m firmly in the second camp. I hated Hallowe’en as a child and I hate it just as much as a parent. Our kids are older now and they wouldn’t be seen dead (no pun intended) in a skeleton costume or a zombie outfit, yet we still persevere with entertaining doorsteppers and (euch!) ‘trick or treaters’ – like Hallowe’en itself, an Americanism too far- because, as my selfless wife points out, our kids benefited from the neighbours when they were younger, whether those neighbours had young children or not. Fair enough, I suppose.

Someone who loved dressing up, who made a whole 40+ year career of it, was David Bowie. After he died, everyone I know went on some sort of back catalogue pilgrimage, reappraising the seemingly ‘weak’ records and finding previously disgarded or misunderstood gems within their grooves. One such album was Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). One step on from his holy ‘Berlin’ trilogy, Scary Monsters… found the magpie-ish Bowie stepping into the ’80s and embracing the nascent New Romantic scene, taking the most interesting parts and presenting them as his own. Everything on the record, from the clown costume on the front cover to the synthetic squall and squeal of Robert Fripps’s wandering guitar parts deals in artifice and pretence.

David BowieScary Monsters

Interestingly, the title track got its name from the blurb on a Corn Flakes advert. ‘Scary Monsters and Super Heroes‘ were the novelty toys of the time and the singer, forever switched on, adapted it for his own needs. It’s a beauty, Bowie in full-on Anthony Newley, his cockernee vocalisms cutting through the racket of the band, hellbent on bashing out their own take on post-punk and sounding not a million miles away from some of those more straightforward Joy Division records. The drums, repetitive, clattering and full of interesting fills, sound like they could’ve been played by Stephen Morris himself. And the pedal-stomping Fripp is all over the track like a free-riffing rash; outrageous and discordant, the grit in the groove. Violent, aggressive, and straight-up avant garde rock, I doubt the track would’ve been half as colourful or interesting without him.

You can compare it to this 1996 bootleg version, recorded in Atlanta.

David BowieScary Monsters (acoustic)

Stripped back and acoustic, it’s presented in a no-frills blues arrangement, Bowie introducing it with very tall tales of his time spent with Johnny Cash, a subtle nod to Rick Rubin perhaps, to get in touch and make Bowie his next unplugged vanity project. Mere speculation, of course. And something we’ll never know.

 

Alternative Version, Gone but not forgotten

Quiff Richard

The old iPod shuffled up this wonderfully anonymous curio tonight. So enamoured with it, I was forced to break into something of a treadmill sprint so that my arms could get close enough to my trusty wee portable friend resting on the machine’s control panel and replay it. This I managed without breaking stride, which is something of a record. As indeed is this (something of a record).

I couldn’t place it. It swings like Ella ‘n Louis, but there’s no high parping trumpet or any of Armstrong’s sandpaper vocals, so it ain’t Ella Fitzgerald. It’s too cultured to be Big Mama Thornton but not stately enough to be Nina Simone. Bessie Smith? Do I even own any Bessie Smith? The darkest corners of my iPod are crammed with music from those heady days when the combined joys of wireless broadband and a decent file sharing site allowed you to download the entirety of The Beatles’ back catalogue faster than you could shout, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” – all very silly and unnecessary, as we all know nowadays – but back then I was a fiend for the stuff I thought I should have but didn’t, so Bessie Smith was a good guess. By the second play though, I’d convinced myself it wasn’t bluesy enough to be her either.

What I could picture as it played was, annoyingly, Jools Holland’s Big Band easing into a 12 bar blues at his Hootenanny, seasoned old pros shuffling to that wonderfully infectious backing, with perhaps Alison Moyet or Beverley Knight getting ready to let rip at the mic. Then, when the vocals began, I could imagine that headless, broom-wielding cleaner who chased Jerry around the kitchen in endless Tom & Jerry cartoons. I know she could scream, but I bet she could sing too; a big, housekeepin’ mama with a voice as deep as the south but as clear as the air in the cotton fields.

It’s an old blues singer I haven’t paid attention to before now,’ I rationalised, majorly annoyed by now that I couldn’t place her voice. ‘I’ll find out who she was when I stop.’ And on I ran for eight, maybe nine more steps and stopped. And checked the iPod.

Stone me if it wasn’t Little Richard!

Of course it is! I mean, it’s not one of his better-known tunes (you can name them all, so I don’t need to be doing that). There’s none of the high camp screaming that’s as outrageous as the oil slick-thick conk that’s plonked atop his head. And there’s none of the mad eyed hootin’ or a-hollerin’ that so lit a spark in the teenage McCartney, but The Most I Can Offer (Just My Heart) is a beauty. Here’s another take…

Little RichardThe Most I Can Offer (Just My Heart)

Richard’s voice is both feminine and tinged with the same burnt umber of the saxophone that provides the descending backing. The high barroom piano shifts from major to minor in the bridge – of course – and then, well! – there’s Richard right there. A little rasp at the back of the epiglottis, an unseen shake of the quiff, an imagined James Brownish drop to the knees. It’s Little Richard all right.

And then he’s back to being the vampish torch singer, his band playing out their chops with regal grace and understated beauty.

Without Little Richard there’d be no ______ (fill in the blanks) or ________ , or even ______ , or perhaps even, bizarrely, Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You. Another thing that had been bugging me as I clattered the flat-footed kilometres on the treadmill to nowhere was, ‘where have I heard those opening lines before?‘ Now I know. And you do too. Check them out!

 

Alternative Version, Cover Versions, demo, Hard-to-find

Double Dekker

It miek‘ is Jamaican patois for ‘told you so‘ or ‘serves you right‘. You get caught doing something you’ve been told not to do? It miek, man. It miek.

Desmond Dekker took the phrase and used it as both title and hook for his summer of ’69 smash hit. A proper slice of lilting rudeboy reggae, It Miek is aural sunshine for the start of September. Summer over? Not round here, mate.

Desmond Dekker & The AcesIt Miek

I’ve always wondered about the wee vocal precursor that opens the track. Stone me if it ain’t a sweet ‘n soulful, adlibbing vocal warm-up of Ave Maria, nudged gently aside when the skanking beat comes in, driven by rootsy bass and rocksteady drums. By the time Desmond has started his vocal proper, the guitars are doing the chicken scratch on the off-beat, a clanging bar-room piano is bashing out the chords and, most thrilling of all, honeyed horns from heaven burst their way in and herald the vocal refrain.

If y’listen carefully, you might notice the bit where it’s almost impossible to tell where the trombone slide ends and the vocal slide begins. If y’listen really carefully, you might hear a young Kevin Rowland scribbling notes and plotting his future. As I type, a little bit of bare wood floor has been worn away and polished as my feet do a soft shoe shuffle in time to the infectious rhythm. If y’don’t like this, y’don’t like anything.

Desmond Dekker was a clear influence on that late ’60s mod scene. The close crop, the three button mohair suits, the attention to detail in both sound and vision, he’s an embodiment of Mod’s ‘clean living under difficult circumstances’ mantra.

Over in mid ’80s Manchester, another gang of music obsessed clothes horses with an eye for the minutiae were doing their best to steal without anyone noticing. Shaun Ryder, magpie-eyed thief-in-chief of Happy Mondays liberally went about strangulating some of the melody from The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da – itself a skanking reggae tune, as you know, where McCartney namechecks ‘Desmond’ – and, with the help of that clattering industrial funk that HM do so well, turned it into a new Happy Mondays’ tune called, unashamedly, Desmond.

Happy MondaysDesmond

I mean, it’s not really Ob-La-Di… is it? Maybe if Shaun had sung the first couple of lines in tune it’d have been more apparent, but that lolloping, elastic band bassline and incessant, chirping guitar steers it far from the mouth of the Mersey and deeper towards a whole new sound that was brewing at the time.

Nonetheless, Michael Jackson, who at the time owned the rights to The Beatles’ catalogue, sent his lawyers straight round and quicker than you could yelp ‘Beat It!‘ the Mondays were forced to withdraw their debut album from sale, delete the offending Desmond and replace it with another tune. It miek, Shaun. It miek.

That other tune though would be Twenty Four Hour Party People and would propel Happy Mondays onto the more discerning turntables around the country, with fame and infamy not much further away than the width of a Joe Bloggs hem. A lucky break.

*Bonus Track!

Here’s a fantastic light and sparkling, piano-free run through of The Beatles doing Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da from one of those Anthology albums from yesteryear. Jigsawed together from a couple of takes, this joyful and carefree outfake gives the offically released version a decent run for its money, sprightly scrubbed acoustic guitars and lightly toasted ‘la-la-la-la-la-la‘ backing vocals vying for earspace between the skronking sax and occasional ‘chick-a-boom‘ interludes. McCartney’s woody, thunking bassline is a beauty too. Get on it!

The BeatlesOb-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (Anthology version)

Alternative Version

Spending Warm Summer Days Outdoors

I see the golf’s on. The one and only time I’ve had the brass neck enough to go busking was in 1989 when the Open was in Troon, a decent couple of drives (and maybe a sand wedge) from where I’m typing. My folks were on holiday, so naturally my house became the go-to place beyond last orders on the Saturday night. ‘The band’ rose from couches and corners in the mid Sunday morning sunshine and someone had the bright idea of suggesting we grab a couple of acoustics, a tambourine and a whole load of nerve and go and busk at the final round.

Crammed onto the train to take the two stops from Irvine to Troon, we stuck out like an amateur’s hooked tee shot in a field of scratch golfers. Smiths quiffs that had only just started to collapse as I Wanna Be Adored‘s bassline had rumbled its way into our collective conscience stood side by side with those haircuts that only famous record producers and weekend yachtsmen and the comfortably-off seem to sport – foppish, demi-wave on top, greying at the temples, fluffy over the ears, longish at the back without being a mullet…you know the sort. Their pastels, their stiff crisp collars and their perfect creases made our battered desert boots and slept-in 501s look even scruffier than normal. We quite liked being the odd ones out though, our guitars and hangovers attracting puzzled glances, especially when we got off at Troon with everyone else.

We set up pitch far, far away from a bagpiper and his cyclical repertoire of tourist-trapping tartan tunes. We found a good spot next to a hedge, along a major walkway that connected two parts of the course and sat down to consider our plan. It was mobbed. The occasional thwack of a player’s club rattling the ball far into the Ayrshire sun drew oohs and aahs and ripples of echoing applause from the throng as we quietly emptied our combined loose change into one of the guitar cases – a busker’s trick, apparently, that showed your audience that you were a bona fide attraction – and then self-consciously began tuning up.

Then we sat and looked at one another.

Passing golf fans eyed us suspiciously.

It was Grant who started.

This isAsk’,” he said to a passing female golf fan who was doing her best to pretend we weren’t there. “It was written by The Smiths and sounded nothing like this.”

No set list had been discussed or considered, but suddenly we were off, the two acoustics scrubbing out a skiffly rhythm, Grant clattering his tambourine off his elbow as he sang. No-one stopped. No-one looked. No-one dropped any change into the guitar case.

Ask came to its rattling, jangling conclusion and we looked around at one another. A Chuck Berry riff flew out of my hands and onto the fretboard and suddenly we were busking Johnny B Goode.

No-one stopped. No-one looked. No-one dropped any change into the guitar case.

Tough crowd. I Wanna Be Adored wasn’t going to change things, but we played it anyway. It might just about get a nod of recognition around St Andrews this afternoon, but freshly minted and still underground in the summer of ’89, I Wanna Be Adored was unknown to the Calloway-clad squares of Royal Troon.

No-one stopped. No-one looked. No-one dropped any change into the guitar case.

We were midway through our second go at Ask when a wee boy shuffled up and dropped 20p into the guitar case. The four of us stopped and surrounded him with “Yes, wee man!“-handshakes and a ruffle of his wonky fringe. He ran off terrified. We played on like legends.

A woman stopped and listened. Like, actually listened. She came closer, between Grant and myself and cocked an ear to what he was singing. When we finished, she sat down cross-legged amongst us and told us it was a beautiful song.

Who wrote it?” she wondered.

It was The Smiths,” said Grant apologetically. “Not us.”

It’s lovely. Will you play it again?

For the third time we ran through Ask, getting quite good at it by this point. “Ask me, ask me, ask me!” sang Grant as we scuffed the G to C chord change with lip-curling gallusness. “If its not love then it’s the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb! The bomb that will bring us together.

Our new fan pulled an actual fiver from her purse and with a wee smile dropped it into the case. Twenty minutes in and we were suddenly making serious money. By the time the leader’s heading up the 18th fairway, Grant man, we’ll be millionaires!!

Excuse me, lads,” shouted an old fella from the other side of the hedge. He had a combover and was wearing an R&A blazer. Offical looking. “Excuse me, lads. But you’re going to have to move on…we can damn-well hear you on the greens!” He waited for a reply that wasn’t forthcoming. “I mean it, boys. You must stop now. You’re disturbing play and it’s just not on.” The bagpiper up the road was still strangling The Rowan Tree from his pipes but he was clearly exempt from it all. “Pack up now, please.”

It’s not very anti-establishment, but pack up is exactly what we did. We’d made just over £6 in our short busking career and we’d later drink our proceeds in the Crown. For now though, we cut through the hedge and found ourselves amongst the final round crowds.

Unbelievably – but entirely true – the American golfer Tom Watson appeared in front of me, surveying the landscape and eyeing up a shot up the fairway.

Can you get a toon outta that gee-tar?” he asked with a wry smile.

Aye!” I said.

Watson nodded and went back to the task in hand. Thwack! went his club against the ball as he marched his way to a very decent 4th place (I had to Google that). Ooh and aah went the crowd. “Let’s get out of here,” said us.

The SmithsAsk (June ’86 run-through)

Mike Joyce’s scattergun Moonisms on this were sadly missing in the final take. Johnny’s sparkling guitar was gratefully added. An interesting Smiths curio, if nothing else.

 

Alternative Version, Hard-to-find

The Rattle of The Boyne

Three albums in, and U2 were the Bunnymen on steroids. A guitar-heavy irony-free zone, they waved their silly giant flags, planked their pixie boots firmly on their monitors and, with collar-bothering bouffants blowing gently in the stage fan-assisted breeze, set their sights firmly on world domination. Bravely, a change was required. Less bombast, more European was the brief.

Much to the horror of a label getting used to the ever-increasing ker-ching of units being sold, they parted ways with trusted producer Steve Lillywhite. Initially sounding out Conny Plank, mastermind behind much of Can and Kraftwerk’s decidedly unbombastic and very European music, the band, only after much courting, began working with ambient soundscaper Brian Eno instead. It would prove fruitful and important.

Boy 2, with tough, anthemic, post-punk guitars and a wham, bam, slam of tribal drums would not be forthcoming. Instead, between them they produced The Unforgettable Fire, a multi-layered record full of darkness and light, gossamer thin textures side by side with sledgehammer unsubtleties, pinging atmospheric guitars and fluid, flowing basslines. The drums rattled, rolled and occasionally rifled, but Eno smoothed the toughness from them through a combined use of technology, considered microphone placement and a golden touch that had first come to the fore on those early Talking Heads albums.

Take Wire, the third track in. The third track is always the important marker for an album (first track is the statement piece – ‘dig the new sound!’ and the second is usually the familiar first single. Track 3 is the deciding factor; new sound for real, or false dawn?) Wire delivers.

The Edge plays seven shades of groovy, ratttttling shit from his guitar. He ping-pongs effect-heavy harmonics across the intro, divebombs his way across the verses, pulls interesting textures and notes from the spaces where Bono shuts up for a second and scrubs and scratches his guitar throughout with a metaphorical brillo pad last heard all over Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music. It’s very much in keeping with the breathless, anthemic rush of those first few albums, but placed to break you in gently, wrapped in that woozy Eno blanket of atmospherics that would come to define the record.

If Bono isn’t exactly your thing – and no one’s judging you on that – you might like the calorie-controlled Dub version that was included with a free NME single all those years ago. I must admit to having a real soft spot for this rare-ish track on account of it following a live version of The Smiths’ What She Said on the record. U2 and The Smiths, as you know, were poles apart. You weren’t really supposed to like them both. But when laziness wins out over hipness and you fail to shift yourself from sitting position to turntable commander, you might find yourself falling increasingly for this mainly Bono-free riot of clashing guitars and out-there ’80s production. Rock, yet not rock, I played it far more often than I’d ever have admitted at the time.

U2Wire (Dub)

Credit must be given to a band keen to break what was fast-becoming a successful mould. Much of The Unforgettable Fire‘s sound is due to where it was recorded. Eschewing any sort of traditional studio, U2 and Eno, along with engineer Daniel Lanois relocated to Slane Castle, an 18th century stately pile in the Irish countryside and set up makeshift recording rooms in the grand ballroom and library. The ballroom provided the natural reverb ideal for the wafty atmospherics and free-flowing arty stuff. The library was the place for close-miked rock outs. Being both rockin’ and out-there, I’d imagine Wire was recorded somewhere between the two spaces, but I may well be totally wrong on that.

Great art is borne from the most challenging of circumstances, and U2’s fourth record is no exception. The castle’s power supply was driven by a water wheel which, in turn (ha) was powered by the nearby River Boyne. When the river levels dropped in the summer time, so too did the power levels. When the levels dropped sufficiently, recording was halted. As a back-up, ‘king Bono and the band turned to an ancient diesel generator that was temperamental at best. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes when it worked it would burst into flame. An unforgettable fire indeed.

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.

 

 

 

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.

Alternative Version, demo, Gone but not forgotten, Live!

Bob Marley and The Scholars

Years ago, in the grim and distant past, I was doing some supply teaching work. Back then, much like it is nowadays, permanent teaching jobs were thin on the ground as to be almost non-existent, so any call from any school was gratefully received.

Are you able to work tomorrow…?

Yes!

…morning only…?

Eh, yes.”

…in the nursery?

Uh… … …Yes.

It was that bad. Imagine trying to secure a mortgage on that kinda deal. One day I was asked to go to a school and take a primary 7 class for a couple of days. The class teacher doubled-up as a member of the school management team and was on a course, so I was asked to cover.

Two things tend to happen if you’re called in as a supply teacher. Either you go into the classroom the back of eight o’clock and on the desk is a detailed plan to follow; numeracy and literacy lessons for every differentiated group and/or individual, a selection of topic-based activities that the kids can choose to do in any order, an art lesson perhaps, a short story… far more than you’ll ever need, but enough to ensure your day is action-packed with work set by a conscientious teacher at all of the learners’ abilities. Alternatively, you might find a quickly scribbled note instead. “Feel free to do whatever…as long as they’re busy…Lucy and Emma will give out any jotters you’re looking for. Don’t let Jayden sit next to Reuben or you’ll have a fight on your hands. They’ll want to sit together, and they’ll try it on with you, but I’ll have Reuben’s mother up at the school if you do and she’s a pain in the arse, so please don’t.

As it was, this particular time fell somewhere in the middle.

The kids are working on subtraction. They have their own work and know what to do. They have gym after the break. We’re doing gymnastics but if you want to do something else I don’t mind. For literacy, here’s a reading comprehension book. Normally I differentiate depending on the groups, but just pick one exercise and do it with the whole class if it makes it easier for you. They also have the laptops this afternoon. We’ve been learning how to set up a class database, but again, do as you please.

I flicked through the comprehension book. It was the usual teaching aid full of book extracts, poems and made-up news reports, all with a variety of questions that, if answered correctly, would demonstrate each pupil’s reading ability. Then, jumping out at me from the the bottom corner of one page was a picture of Bob Marley, a classic shot of him in closed-eyed freeze frame, his defiant fist punching the air like the exclamation mark on a political soundbite. It accompanied a passage about the slums of Kingston in Jamaica; crime, poverty, hardship. Stone me! I’d found my literacy lesson.

When the time came, I asked the class if anyone had heard of Bob Marley. Straight away, half a dozen hands shot up. With a massive, knowing grin, one wag filled us in. “Ma br’er huz a poster a’ him oan his wa’. ‘E’s smokin’ a massive doobie in it!” Righto. So we knew who Bob was. Did we know where he grew up, I asked. No-one did. We read the passage about life in Kingston, about the shanty towns and high-rise tower blocks where people lived on top of one another and where gun crime, murder and gang warfare was a normal way of life for much of the population. Bob Marley was held up as an example of someone who’d managed to escape this life and was now one of Kingston’s most-celebrated sons. The passage carried a tale of morality; work hard, be good to others and you can make a better life for yourself. I’m not sure that message got through to the kids in the class, most of whom were still sniggering at their classmate who’d said the word ‘doobie’ to this unfamiliar teacher, but there we were.

“‘No sun will shine in my day today…the high yellow moon won’t come out to play.‘ It doesn’t matter the time of day, I pointed out, if you live in this part of Kingston, you’ll live in permanent darkness. Bob Marley wrote that.”

“‘Darkness has covered my light and turned day into night… No chains around my feet but I’m not free, I know I am bound here in captivity…’

It’s amazing when a casually-acquired knowledge of Bob Marley’s music will come in handy.

How d’ye ken a’ that?” they asked. For the first time in my nascent supply career, I had a classroom hanging on everything I said.

I explained about Concrete Jungle, the opening track on Bob Marley and The Wailers’ Catch A Fire album. It’s basically folk music, I explained. In Scotland, folk singers sing about fishing boats and sheep farming, about the threat of nuclear war and about people they know. Bob Marley’s music is also folk music, albeit coated in sunshine and played with a reggae beat. Much discussion of what reggae was followed, ending with me asking the kids to clap out a four-beat bar of handclaps with me emphasising the stomps of my foot on the off beat while over-egging some shonky ‘ooh-yeahs’ in an approximation of Bob Marley on Jammin‘. It did the trick. Bob sang about what he knew, and on Concrete Jungle, he’s telling you how tough his life was.

In the corner of the classroom was a smartboard. Nowdays, they’re ten-a-penny in schools and there’s nary a classroom that doesn’t have one, nor a teacher who doesn’t know their way around it, but back then, smart boards were a brand new thing. I have no doubt that the smart board was in this particular classroom because the teacher, being a member of the management team, had pulled rank to snaffle one of the few that the school had sourced. I connected it up and, this being the days when YouTube wasn’t blocked by the authority’s servers, put on the version of Concrete Jungle that The Wailers had played on Whistle Test. It was dynamite.

The kids sat in studied appreciation as Marley sang the words I’d told them previously, his band playing with effortless cool. Marley might’ve been centre-stage, but it was clearly his band who were driving it. Not only did they look great, they played great too. A practically motionless and stoned immaculate Peter Tosh barely touches the strings of his guitar yet the opening notes, all open wah and weeping pain, meander fluid and free before falling into its rocksteady chicka-chicka rhythm. The easy, soulful falsetto he contributes throughout is the perfect counterpoint to the melancholy and sadness of Marley’s lead vocal. The keys, very reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition I noted to myself, (I hadn’t noticed that before) clack and squeak their way into the groove, never in the way but always there for requisite funk.

By the time the whole band has fallen into step, they’re cooking up quite a quiet storm. It’s easily one of my favourite music-on-TV clips. The kids in that P7 class loved it too. For the rest of that day in the classroom, we used the laptops to research Marley’s life and death and legacy. There was a steady stream of Bob tunes flowing from the iPod I’d rescued at break time from my car as we wrote, read and learned his story. Eking out all they could about the football-playing, ganja-smoking Bob Marley, the kids worked in small groups to create wonky and ropey but well-researched and honest presentations. Concrete Jungle is almost, in today’s parlance, a deep cut, but ask those kids (adults today) and I bet half of them would name it as their favourite Bob Marley tune.

Bob Marley & The WailersConcrete Jungle

There’s another version of Concrete Jungle, the demo that Chris Blackwell felt needed westernised to suit UK radio play. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but bereft of the shinier production of the more well-known version that opens Catch A Fire, it’s something of a beauty.

Bob Marley & The WailersConcrete Jungle (Jamaican Demo)

For the second day, I showed a map of Glasgow on the smartboard. “It’s Glasgow,” I pointed out unnecessarily. “But who can find anything relating to Kingston or Jamaica?” I drew an invisible circle around the Kingston Bridge and Jamaica Street and waited for their oohs and aahs.

Bob Marley also wrote about slavery,” I said. “In fact, his song ‘Slave Driver’ is exactly about that.” We listened to that track too and discussed it before spending the rest of the day researching the Glasgow tobacco lords and the legacy they’d left the city of Glasgow. No statues were toppled, no history was rewritten. Instead, 30 or so young minds were informed and expanded in many different ways. And all thanks to a random picture of Bob Marley that was in an old book that the teacher left out for me. Stir it up, as a great man once said.