Alternative Version, Get This!, Live!, New! Now!

Sunshine From Leith

Ross Wilson has had a colourful life, growing up in difficult surroundings on a Leith housing estate, opting out of school from a very early age – “abandoning my education, I’m embarrassed to say,” – and finding himself in situations that none of us would wish to be in. Despite (or because of) this, he’s quiet, unassuming and completely humble.

His song ‘Grateful’ that opens Blue Rose Code’s 2016 album ‘And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing’ distils perfectly his life so far.

When I wake in the morning now, I try to be thankful,” he sings, in an effortless East Coast croon. “Did you know that I almost died? I’ll never be cool….I’ll never be good looking….I’ll never be rich, but Lord I am grateful.” It’s a simple song; short, direct and enhanced at the very end by a terrific gospel-tinged choir that competes with the Staple Singers for uplifting joyfulness.

Ross’s audience is grateful too. I watched him perform live over two extraordinary evenings in Irvine’s Harbour Arts Centre last weekend. A super-intimate venue that holds just 100 folk, the HAC is possibly our country’s greatest hidden secret. Audiences and performers alike have really taken to its ‘gig-in-your-living-room’ feel. The front row is a decent arm’s stretch from the headliners’ fretboards, the back row closer to the action than the front of all other ‘intimate’ venues and the performers there really respond to the cosiness of it all.

Blue Rose Code is Ross Wilson. Depending on the gig, he can have 3, 4, 5 or indeed, as when he’s fronting his amazing Caledonian Soul project, dozens of musicians on stage with him. He’s been in the HAC before as a 3 piece. On Friday and Saturday his band appeared as a duo, the sum of the parts a fraction of the greatness on display. Playing two different sets, Ross took us by the collective hand and led us through the whole gamut of human emotions. Accompanied by the fabulous Andy Lucas on keys, the duo whipped up a quiet storm of intensity.

Wilson doesn’t so much play his guitar as attack it; pinged harmonics zing across the room while back of the hand percussive beats provide rudimentary four to the floor rhythm. Listening to him play, it’s as if a tap has been turned on, a slow drip at first before gushing and overflowing, unable to be held back. Melodies cascade and tumble from his fingers, complicated arpeggios formed from open-tuned guitars and a handspan as wide as the Clyde. Jazz chords give way to ancient folk melodies that in turn part their way for minor key melancholy. It’s rhythmic, tuneful and breathtaking.

When he sings, it goes up a whole other level. Anyone can sing, but no-one can sing like Ross Wilson. It’s all in the phrasing, y’see. He stretches words beyond all recognition, he st-st-st-stops suddenly, breaking into spontaneous scatting, he barks, yelps and laughs off-mike and he takes these brilliant long run ups from the back stage to the microphone, using the dynamics of an amped-up voice like no-one I’ve ever seen. Any singers in the room over the weekend must’ve gone home with a few pointers on how to get the best from their voice in the live setting.

Behind him, strapped in for the ride of his life, Andy Lucas riffs behind the guitar on his keys; piano one minute, Fender Rhodes the next, forever on a mission to incorporate a lost blue note or a major 7th flourish. It’s a beautiful sound, incredibly nuanced yet totally spontaneous. On Friday the duo sound-checked with recent new track Red Kites. By the time it appeared in the show, it was twice as long, Andy had added a second vocal and Ross was off on some freeform guitar odyssey. For the entire weekend, Lucas never takes his eyes from Wilson’s fretboard. He knows when to cut in, when to take over and when to play softer, allowing the spotlight to shine on Wilson’s unique talent. It’s incredible stuff.

Blue Rose CodeBluebell

The music on offer is superb. Recorded, it’s quite the thing, the perfect soundtrack for a Saturday night in or a Sunday morning sudoku. In the live setting though, the songs soar, a scorching cross-pollination of Chet Baker’s stoned jazz, the voodoo folk-blues of John Martyn and the meandering twilight ambience of the Blue Nile. You really should investigate if these reference points are your kinda thing. It’s led to Ross being offered tours of Canada, the west coast of America and Australia. With 4 studio albums to his name alongside a handful of live albums and non-album EP releases, Ross Wilson has quietly built a mightily impressive back catalogue. A cottage industry with no financial help from anyone other than his supporters, it deserves a wider audience and greater recognition. He’s easily one of Scotland’s greatest talents, a real hidden gem of a songwriter and a peerless performer.

All photographs courtesy of Chris Colvin

Alternative Version, demo, Hard-to-find

In Search Of The La’s

In 2003, MW Macefield wrote a book called ‘In Search Of The La’s‘. Subtitled A Secret Liverpool, the author donned his best Inspector Clouseau raincoat, popped an oversized magnifying glass into the top pocket and hopped on the train to Lime Street in the hope of tracking down Lee Mavers, the wayward genius responsible for steering the good ship La’s aground. Despite reforming for a short, badly-received tour a couple of years after the book hit the shelves, and an even less successful venture a few years after that, I’ve now come to accept that The La’s are back residing in the ‘where are they now?’ category.

A good La’s detective will tell you that this promo pic of the band does not relate to the line-up that played on the tunes below.

Mavers’ legend continues to grow by the day and in the smallest corners of the internet he’s regarded as our generation’s version of Syd Barrett or Peter Green; the band leader with (way) out there ideas that were too far gone for even the most open and creative of minds in his band.

Lee tuned his guitars to the hum of his fridge.

In order to baptise his recordings with the relevant credentials, he demanded the Abbey Road desks he’d procured remain covered in their original 60s dust.

Despite at least a dozen goes of recording an album, he said nothing came close to the demo they’d recorded themselves of non-album b-side Over. Over, as you may well know, was recorded live. To 4 track. In a stable. There’s a Jesus pun to be had here, but Mavers is not the messiah, he’s just a very haughty boy.

The small but (im)perfect body of work he’s given us rattles and rolls and chimes and chirps with effervescent Scouse enthusiasm and a scrubbed, scuffed, skirl. Alongside the actual album, you’ll find all manner of demos and outtakes if you look hard enough. The La’s album was given the Deluxe treatment about a decade ago and the inclusion of the extra tracks shone a light on just how many producers they worked with in their vain search to nail the perfect version. The 4 CD box set that appeared afterwards only goes to confirm this. Dig deep and you’ll uncover new things in old tracks. My sister a few weeks ago gave me a copy of the BBC Sessions album. Playing the record is much more La’s than sticking on a CD as you go about your business, and I’ve been re-listening with open ears and open mouth. Some of these session tracks knock the released album versions for six.

One of the oldest La’s songs, the version of Doledrum from the band’s 1987 Janice Long session is the perfect example;

The La’sDoledrum (Janice Long session, 2.9.87)

Those percussive Magic Bus off-beats are magic! Maver’s vocal is strong, his rhythm playing an excellent counterpoint to the skifflish back-beat. Paul Hemmings sprightly solo in the middle is mightily whistleable. but it’s John Power’s high falsetto backing vocal that’s the song’s secret weapon, carrying the whole thing to the perfect multi-vocalled end. Like so much of The La’s material, there’s so much going on in such a simple song. Listen to it. Listen again. And again. I guarantee you’ll spot something new each time.

Possibly even more upbeat is the long-shelved version recorded with John Leckie;

The La’sDoledrum (John Leckie version)

Faster and with less emphasis on the percussive off-beats, the Leckie version features elongated Mavers’ harmonies and a lovely, subtle Power aah-aah-aah sigh where the solo should be. Mavers would probably tell you that this version is unfinished, or is lacking the requisite magic or doesn’t have enough 60s dust sprinkled atop. For what it’s worth, it would have been a worthy addition to that one and only album. The version that made the final cut is positively lethargic by comparison. Indeed, visit the forum on thelas.org and you’ll find plenty of discussion around the tracklist of the perfect La’s album; the Leckie mix here, the Bob Harris mix there, the Mike Hedges mix for this, the John Porter take for that. It’s a happy minefield when you get going.

I’m off to Liverpool this coming week with an itinerary packed full of Beatle-ish activities, Tate visits and a trip to Anfield. While I’ll forever be in search of The La’s, or at least Mavers, I’ll most definitely not find the proud Evertonian anywhere near the home of Liverpool FC, and I can’t imagine he’ll be propping up the bar in the darkest corner of The Cavern Club, but, y’know, y’never know. I like to think that I’ll pass him on Matthew Street, that he’ll recognise me (we were holiday pals for a week in 1993) and he’ll punch me playfully on the arm before we step into the nearest pub for a chinwag and a gin pomade, “kiddo.”

 

Alternative Version

Top Of The Swaps

It’s May 1989 in the Barrowland Ballroom and REM are winding up a marathon Green World Tour show with the second of three encores and an inspired version of a song that reminds me greatly of Jonathan Richman’s Roadrunner. It circles around a repetitive 2 chord riff and as it builds to a groove, drummer Bill Berry gets out the drum stool and without missing a beat takes the guitar offered to him by Peter Buck and takes over guitar duties as Buck gamely assumes the sticks and continues the backbeat to the song’s conclusion with an almost, but not quite, metronomic precision. Only later, after finding a bootleg tape at the Barras market did I learn that the song was Ghost Rider, by a band (Suicide) I’d yet to hear of.

The Buck/Berry swap over was a carefully timed bit of fun, two musicians afforded the time to do their party piece by the other half of the band as the end of a fantastic, career-encompassing show drew to a close. For all I knew, REM did the same schtick every night, but that encore in Glasgow seemed spontaneous and instant and as in the moment as live shows get. I can still see the two musicians now, Buck stage left, arms outstretched offering the sacrificial axe, Berry banging away at the bass pedal as he straps on the Les Paul (or maybe it was a Rickenbacker…it was 30 years ago, after all) while Mike Mills gamely keeps the whole thing together.

Bands swapping instruments on stage is nothing new. Adam and Edge used to swap bass and guitar whenever U2 played ’40’ and The Band would routinely do likewise mid set, mid song, whenever. Fleetwood Mac used to do similar at their height in the mid 70s. Of course, they went the whole hog and swapped wives, girlfriends and partners too, but it’s when the band takes it into the recording studio that the fun really begins.

When it was time for Bob Dylan to record Rainy Day Women #12 &35, he wanted to capture the sound of controlled chaos, a wonky ‘n warped Salvation Army band under the influence of, good god!, whatever. Copious amounts of alcohol and marijuana were taken, the mood was lightened and, the piece de resistance, the musicians were ordered to swap instruments.

Bob DylanRainy Day Women #12 &35 (Take 1)

Bass player Charlie McCoy was given the forlorn task of finding a horn section in the middle of the night – “Go an’ git me a Salvation Army band!” – before too being given a trumpet as the tapes started rolling. Guitarist Wayne Moss switched to bass and Henry Strzelecki jumped from guitar to Al Kooper’s organ. Kooper plays the tambourine that rattles enthusiastically from start to finish, counting every beat, the glue that barely keeps it all together. Only Kenny Buttrey on drums maintained his usual instrument, but even then he dismantled his kit and played just the snare and the bass drum.

The recording captures the daftness of the occasion. Hoops and hollers and yee-haws and yeahs fill the gaps between the sloppily-played 12 bar blues. Dylan is on fine form. In the middle of an imperious stretch of writing and recording – the same session would yield accepted stone-cold Dylan classic I Want You – he lets his guard down, giggling and cackling his way through the numerous verses. Listening to it, you can practically see the ear-to-ear grin he sports. The whole thing is dangerously close to falling apart, which is of course Dylan’s modus operandi and the intended appeal of the finished version. A daft song with a daft refrain – ‘Everybody must git stoned!‘ – it’s the perfect product of its environment.

Talking Heads‘ 5th album Speaking In Tongues closes with the fantastic This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody). The bracketed part of the song title comes from the fact that the guitar and bass play exactly the same 3 chord melody throughout. Real musicians, ratlionalised David Byrne, would never opt to play the same thing.

Talking HeadsThis Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)

That naïve melody is a product of Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison moving from their comfort zones. Weymouth relinquishes bass duties on the track and swaps 4 strings for 6. Harrison, relieved of his guitar plays the bassline on a Prophet synthesiser.

Accomplished as they are, the two musicians lend the track a slight edgy don’t look down! feel, and the track precariously wobbles on a tightrope of new wave funk. On their previous couple of albums, Talking Heads had flirted with the polyrhythms of Fela Kuti-infused Afrobeat. That This Must Be The Place never wanders makes it all the better. As Mark E Smith was wont to quote, repetition is discipline.

If you want even more repetition, look no further than the extended version…

Talking HeadsThis Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody) 12″ version

 

Alternative Version, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find, Live!

Fly Moves And Resurrected Grooves

No-one other than the main protagonist himself will know exactly what sounds John Squire was listening to on the day the music for I Am The Resurrection tumbled forth from his fingertips, liquid mercury floating atop a bedrock carved from the groovier elements of prime-time Hendrix, but even the most lenient of high court judges would be hard-pushed not to blurt out “Take him down!” whilst pushing forward a battered copy of Tim Buckley‘s Happy Sad LP as Exhibit A in the case against the Stone Roses’ super-flash riff meister.

Buzzin’ Fly, the second song on side 1 tumbles in on a riff that ‘Roses fans should recognise instantly. Indeed, if, by the 3rd second in, flares don’t start flappin’ in time to lolloping limbs, I’ll eat my well-worn Pollocked bucket hat and give up this blogging lark forever.

Tim Buckley Buzzin’ Fly

It’s the 18 carat gold signature riff to I Am the Resurrection, innit?! The missing link between Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Tim Buckley’s ethereal 12 string carries the tune whilst Lee Underwood’s mercurial, fluid electric lead meanders happily hither and thither, yet it’s undeniably the riff wot elevated Stone Roses from mere 60s-influenced day trippers to full-on, arrogant true believers (with messiah desires thrown in for good measure).

If you were being particularly scrutinous, you might also point out the similarities between its laid-back, free-spirited guitar interplay and the shuffling backing on Stone Roses’ Bye Bye Badman and Shoot you Down. Indeed, there’s maybe even a case for considering the guitar playing on Buzzin’ Fly to be the very genesis of that entire Stone Roses album. It’s clearly an influence, any cloth-eared fool can hear that.

Back in 1989, I had no idea at all that such a tune could tumble from the fingers of anyone but the expertly-coiffed Squire. Many an hour was spent mangling my fingers into shapes previously uncharted in the forlorn hope that I might replicate even 10 seconds of the heaven-sent instrumental passage that closed Stone Roses’ debut album. From street-suss rock riffing to full-on Starsky & Hutch funk, this was a new kinda guitar hero, from roughly the same area as Johnny Marr too, but a million miles way from his crystalline jangle. Nowadays, muscle memory has enabled me to jam along faithfully to I Am The Resurrection and my ham-fisted attempts might even border on being nearly right, but back then, continual stomping on my cheap fuzz box was the only answer I had when fingers were suddenly required to travel further up the fretboard than ever before.

(Dennis Morris, Glasgow Green)

No such worries for the guitarist in the spotlight, though. Here he is carrying the tune for upwards of 10 groovetastic minutes at the original Glasgow Green show in June 1990, 29 years ago yesterday, as coincidence would have it. With the sweat dripping from the ceiling of the massive circus tent and the anonymous rave music blaring like a beacon to the demented before the band appeared and then the punch full in the face from the wee random ned as I Wanna Be Adored rumbled through its opening gears, I remember it as if it were yesterday.

Stone Roses – Elizabeth My Dear/I Am The Resurrection (live, Glasgow Green, 9th June 1990, bootleg)

Lee Underwood – remember him?! – it would appear, went no further than the 9 albums he recorded as Tim Buckley’s right hand man, but what an important element to Buckley’s sound he turned out to be. Worth investigating, is Buckley Snr.

(Photo by Kevin Cummins/Getty Images)

Worth reinvestigating also is that Stone Roses album.

I remember reading a Gruff Rhys interview where he said that he’d played the works of The Velvet Underground so much in his youth that the music was now embedded in the virtual mp3 player in his brain, just waiting to be called down wherever and whenever it took his fancy.

I daresay the Stone Roses debut is similarly lodged in my cerebellum, but nothing beats getting out the real thing once or twice a year, placing it on the turntable and waiting (im)patiently for the low creeping bass that introduces the band one by one; bass then drums then guitar then vocals – the perfect intro. By the end of side 2, I’ve usually picked up the ol’ Fender and, capo on the 2nd fret (important that – those whippersnapper YouTubers seem to dispose of such essentials) teleported myself back to May ’89 when anything beyond the 5th fret was like a foreign language. It still is, I suppose, but I can speak a wee bit of it nowadays.

Stone RosesI Am The Resurrection

Alternative Version, demo

Just Seventeen

I write this whilst glancing furtively over my shoulder, lest one of the more strong-armed amongst the internet police should apprehend me. You ain’t seem me, right?

Since Prince passed away, bits and pieces of his stellar catalogue have begun peeking around the corner before nestling quietly in some groovy corner of the internet, seemingly far out of reach of the heavies once employed by the wee genius to ensure the world wide web remained totally Prince-free. Quite a task, all things considered, but a task that was strictly adhered to nonetheless. Now that he’s no longer around to crack the whip, it would appear that things are just a wee bit more relaxed when the subject of Prince and his online presence are broached. Which is just dandy for folk like me who are keen to write about the best music whilst providing a non-downloadable soundtrack with which to read by.

 

In 1983, Prince was at the beginning of an incredible creative streak, a purple patch even. His sprawling and eclectic 1999 album, originally released the year previously as a single album, eventually re-released as the double we know and love today, was still riding high in the charts and on the airwaves and was well on its way to becoming a 4-times platinum album.

Never one to stand still in his kitten heels and bask in the glory of success, Prince set to work on 1999’s follow-up, the soundtrack to Purple Rain. A terrible film – the words vanity project spring to mind –  Purple Rain was pardoned thanks to a ubiquitous catch-all soundtrack that genre hopped between funk, rock, soul, electro and perv ballad. The smattering of occassionally filthy lyrics brought it unwanted attention from Tipper Gore, wife of high-profile American politicain Al, and led to Gore creating the PMRC (The Parents’ Music Resource Centre) – the ultra-conservative body who took it upon themselves to lobby for the censorship of ‘inappropriate’ music. Those wee ‘Parental Advisory’ stickers on your Public Enemy albums? That’s Tipper’s doing, that is.

Not that this bothered Prince. He’d go on to record, amongst many, many others, Wonderful Ass and We Can Fuck, tracks that you don’t really need to hear to know how they go. Although, you really should hear them. That’s the beauty of Prince. Disgustingly filthy one moment then pure as the driven Minneapolis snow the next. Tunes flowed from him as freely as water from a tap, most of them brilliant and precious few in the ‘throwaway’ category. He’d be up for days on end, commiting to tape the songs he’d heard in his head minutes before. Band mates were a telephone call away at most and had to be ready anytime for the call. Incredibly productive, it’s no surprise that many of his greatest tracks slipped past almost unknown. Like 17 Days, for example. I was going through some old 7″s a week or so ago and flipped over my crackly old copy of When Doves Cry to listen to its long-forgotten b-side. Thirty-odd years later, it sounds as fresh as the day I first played it as an awkward 14 year old, scared that Prince would reel off a filthy lyric and I’d incur the wrath of my mother, the memory of having to return Dirk Wears White Sox still scarred on my memory.

Prince17 Days (The Rain Will Come Down, Then U Will Have 2 Choose. If U Believe, Look 2 The Dawn And U Shall Never Lose) (b-side to When Doves Cry)

To give it its none-more-Prince full title 17 Days (The Rain Will Come Down, Then U Will Have 2 Choose. If U Believe, Look 2 The Dawn And U Shall Never Lose), 17 Days has the classic Wendy and Lisa call-and-response yang to his four to the floor yin. Rubber band basslines compete for attention with descending keyboard riffs and a brilliant shuffling rhythm, Prince’s vocal placed ideally in the middle. And there’s not a pervy lyric in sight. 17 Days grooves along for four pop-filled minutes, a lost gem sparkling from the corner of a jeweller’s shop window.

The passing of Prince has also meant, somewhat contentiously, that his triple-locked Vault has started leaking a little. Did Prince want this music released at all? Was the fact it was locked in the Vault reason enough to respect his wishes never to let it out in public? The first tantalising drips from his life’s work has just been released as Piano & A Microphone, a title familiar to those who’d got themsleves into a frenzy at the proposed tour just a year before Prince died. Two shows in the one day at Glasgow’s Concert Hall? Oh aye! Damn those secondary ticketing sites for making Prince put the kybosh on that particularly fantastic idea. The ‘new’ album features fragments of familiar songs, the odd Joni Mitchell cover, reworkings of some of his deeper cuts…..and the demo version of 17 Days.

Prince17 Days (piano demo)

Prince vamps all over it (“Good Gawd!”), loose and funky piano to the fore, with a slight emphasis on the off-beat. It’s got none of the pop/funk sheen of the old b-side, but what it does have is ess! oh! you! ell! SOUL, goddammit! Quite how (or why) Prince turned 17 Days from a free-flowing smoky jazz club number into an arena-pleasing danceathon is, like the man himself, a brilliant mystery.

Alternative Version, demo

Canvas The Town And Brush The Backdrop

There was an ancient encased clock, all polished brass and varnished wood, that kept time in the foyer outside the main hall at the old Irvine Royal Aademy. Set into the wall, it was part of the very fabric of the school and when I was a pupil there in the mid 80s it looked as old as the school itself, a building erected in 1901 to replace the original school that had become too small for the growing population of the town. The old clock, they said, had been part of that original school and was moved across as the centrepiece for the new school. Bells rang on the hours it chimed. Exams crawled past in the minutes it ticked. The headmaster’s busy footsteps echoed in time through the hall as each second swung past to and fro on the metronomic pendulum. The old school has long-since closed, converted into turn of the century offices for businesses keen to impress, but I’ll bet the old timepiece still determines when meetings start and finish, when deals are concluded and the working day is over.

The clock, they also said, was the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit And The Pendulum, his gothic horror story about a prisoner trapped in his cell during the Spanish Inquisition. The pendulum wipes away the minutes of the prisoner’s life as he tries to come to terms with and then escape from his situation. You should probably read it.

Edgar Allan Poe spent time in Irvine and was around when the original school was opened, so I like to think there’s some truth in the ‘they say’ story. If you’re a local or are familiar with the town, Poe stayed in an upstairs room in the building that is now James Irvine’s solicitor’s office at the Cross. Anyway….

The Pit And The Pendulum also makes an appearance as a line in the Beach Boys’ 1971 under-played classic Surf’s Up. From the album of the same name, the title track is a weird and wonky, dark and dense tour de force. The song’s genesis stretches back to Brian Wilson’s troubled period when he composed on a piano inside a sandpit on his living room floor. With music by Wilson and oblique, stream of consciousness lyrics by Van Dyke Parks (it’s about spiritual awakening, they say), it was to be part of the Smile album, but after that album was shelved, Surf’s Up lay unheard for 5 years before being revived as the titular closing track, a title  loaded with inference that the early cars ‘n girls ‘n fun fun fun Beach Boys was very much a thing of the past.

Here’s the Smile demo:

Beach BoysSurf’s Up (piano demo)

…and here’s the finished version that closed the Surf’s Up album; sleigh bells, percussion that sounds like rattling jewellery and stack after stack of those signature rich, thick Beach Boys’ harmonies in the close-out.

Beach BoysSurf’s Up

It’s a good album, Surf’s Up. Save the hokey 12 bar blues Student Demonstration Time that closes the first side, it’s packed full of sad melodies, ahead-of-it’s-time eco-friendly messages and home to one of the finest songs in the Beach Boys’ canon, the Bruce Johnston-led Disney Girls (1957).

Beach Boys Disney Girl’s (1957)

Also worth investiagting if you’ve never heard it before is ‘Til I Die, Brian Wilson’s whimsical, autobiographical address to the state of his health. I’m a cork on the ocean, it goes, floating over the raging sea. How deep is the ocean? I lost my way. It’s soul music, Jim, but not as we know it.

Beach Boys‘Til I Die

Here’s Brian in the middle of a Surf’s Up recording session wearing his pyjamas.

Alternative Version, demo, Gone but not forgotten, Sampled

Factory Record

Walk On The Wild Side is perhaps Lou Reed‘s best-known song.

Lou ReedWalk On The Wild Side

Its languid vocal and lazy shuffle conjurs up images of stifling summer New York heat; sticky tarmac on pavements (or should that be sidewalks?), teenage girls singing with carefree abandon on street corners, a loose-limbed groove that never outstays its welcome. Listen closely though and you’ll hear a tale of the New York underbelly, the New York that was off the beaten track yet a daily experience if you were part of the Warhol ‘Factory’ set; Hustlers hustling. Drugs and dealers. Pimps and prostitutes. Females who were shemales. This is girls who are boys who like boys to be girls long before it was a Britpop soundbite. Not for nothing was its parent album called ‘Transformer‘.

Here’s an early version, with very different lyrics and Lou pointing out the girls’ parts….

The released version is a radically re-written homage to the Factory set; the scenesters and teensters who orbited around Andy Warhol’s Manhattan Studio. There were actually 3 Factories, but that’s another story for another day.

Holly who shaved her legs was Holly Woodlawn, a transgender actress who ran away from home in Florida at the age of 15 and by the act of shaving her legs on the way literally changed from man to woman.

Candy was Candy Darling, also a transgender actress. The subject of the Velvets’ Candy Says, she grew up in Long Island – the island – and was known to perform favours in the back room of Max’s Kansas City, the hipper than hip venue/hangout that was central to the scene. That’s Candy (above) with Andy. It’s her face who’s on the cover of Sheila Take A Bow, The Smiths’ 14th single. But you knew that already.

Little Joe was Joe Dallesandro, Warhol actor best known for his role in Flesh, where he played a teenage hustler. Coincidentally, that’s Joe on the cover of The Smiths’ debut album. But you knew that already too.

The Sugar Plum Fairy was another Flesh reference, this time to the name of a drug-dealing character in the film.

Jackie was Jackie Curtis. To say the least, an interesting person, she performed bizarre cabaret dressed sometimes as a woman and sometimes in drag. With overdone glitter, big lipstick, heavily kholed eyes, brightly dyed hair and ripped stockings, Jackie’s combination of trash and glamour was considered the catalyst for the glam rock movement. Certainly, she wouldn’t have looked out of place in the New York Dolls. At one time, Curtis was mooted to play James Dean in a biopic of Dean’s life. This never came to fruition, hence the thought she was James Dean for a day line. So now you know.

Perhaps not surprisingly, such a parade of characters and subject matter fell foul of the US censors. On the released single, they removed the references to the colored girls and giving head and the record peaked inside the Top 20. In the UK, the lyrics remained as Lou had intended and Walk On The Wild Side peaked at number 10. Make of that what you will.

Walk On The Wild Side was put together by Lou alongside co-producers David Bowie and Mick Ronson.

Walk On The Wild Side – hissy outtake with David Bowie on backing vocals

It’s said that Bowie plays guitar on WOTWS, although no credits exist to back this up. Considering at this point in time (August ’72) Bowie was spreading himself between Ziggy tours, Mott The Hoople handouts and Lou Reed production duties, given his propensity to eschew all form of food for music-related activity, it’s not unlikely to suggest he did play on it. It was quite an era for Bowie when you stop to think about it.

One person who definitely did play on WOTWS was seasoned sessioneer Herbie Flowers. Later to find fame in 70s instrumental prog/jazz group Sky, the fly Flowers played two bass lines on the song, thus ensuring himself twice the fee. He played that great defining slinky rubber band bassline and double tracked it with a more traditional Fender bass part, doubling his fee from the industry standard $17 to a more eye-watering $34. Quite how he must feel these days, now that the record is a radio standard and that his part is instantly recognisable, not to mention that the bassline was liberally sampled to form the hook on A Tribe Called Quest’s Can I Kick It? is anyone’s guess, but I bet he wishes he’d gambled on taking the royalties instead of the session fee.