Different Drum is a song written by lamb-chopped ‘n bobble-topped Monkee Mike Nesmith in 1965. Although there’s not a Monkees‘ version as such – it appeared only in an episode of The Monkees when Nesmith sang it in faux-Dylan fashion (you can watch it, 16 mins in, here) it’s since grown to become one of his most enduring songs.
It was a hit a couple of years later when a young Linda Ronstadt-fronted Stone Poneys took their none-more ’67 baroque pop version to the higher reaches of the American charts. Bypassing Ronstadt’s usual arrangement of weeping pedal steels and twangin’ Teles, Stone Poneys’ version favours harpsichord, chamber orchestra strings and a rinkle-tinkle saccahrine-sweet music-box approach. It’s OK, but if y’ask me, in the scheme of things it fails to match up to the fantastic version by The Lemonheads.
The Lemonheads‘ version was the one that first brought the song to my attention. Stuck away on the 3rd disc of a Rough Trade anniversary box set, it stood out amongst the Einsturzende Neubatens and Throbbing Gristles for daring to have an actual tune and a memorable melody. What an old fart I am. Always the missing link between Gram Parsons and Kurt Cobain, Evan Dando’s one-take rollicking fuzz-filled romp sounds off the cuff, spontaneous and exactly the kind of thing he might’ve thrown together when the producer uttered the words, “Got anything for the b-side, Evan?”
The Lemonheads – Different Drum
He makes it sound easy, does Evan. A tune that suits his voice, he plays those wee descending guitar runs just like George Harrison used to do in the good old days. It sounds like he and the band are having a whole lot of fun. There’s a bucket of feedback splashed over the middle eight and if you listen closely, a brilliant Thin Lizzy-inspired harmonising twin guitar riff in the outro. A breathless rush of power pop, you can practically see the swish of his Californian sun-bleached fringe between the verses as his transformation into the poster boy for the polite end of the grunge revolution is complete.
And talking of power pop, how about Sussana Hoffs’ and Matthew Sweet’s faithful version? Dedicated scholars of 60s pop and what constitutes A Tune, Sweet and Hoffs (under the moniker of Sid ‘n Susie) find the requisite jangle and harmonies to ensure their verison of Different Drum is one of the best.
Sid ‘n Susie – Different Drum
Maybe it’s the voice, or the fact she plays a mean Rickenbacker, but Susanna Hoffs stirs things in me that I didn’t even know needed particular stirring in the first place. Anyway, you could do worse than find yourself a copy of her ‘Under The Covers‘ project, wherein Matt ‘n Sooz tackle the best of the 60s and 70s with a reverential attention to detail and an almost ‘we’re not worthy’ level of adoration. You can find all 4 albums for the price of a Costa Coffee these days. Reason enough, surely, to treat yourself this Easter.
More interesting , perhaps, and no less thrilling, is the shambling, almost on the verge of being in tune version by The Pastels.
The Pastels – Different Drum
More West End than West Coast (check out those Glasgow Uni-infused softly rrrrrrolled rrrrrs – “we’ll both live life longerrrr” – ), Stephen P lumbers through it like Great Uncle Bulgaria, a duffle-coated messiah for folk who know that the most important things in life are a great record collection and a homegrown, home-cut fringe.
Led by a jangling 12 string and just within a earshot, a highly strung banjo (is it? I think so), it’s almost perfect. Forever on the point of collapse, there are sadly sweeping, weeping strings, cutesy-cute backing vocals and a kids’ Casio keyboard tootling away in the background like some long-forgotten fairground ride. By the time the slide guitar has wheezed its way into the mid-point picture, you’ll convince yourself that this is just about the best cover of Different Drum you’re ever likely to hear. It’s a beauty.
Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…
“If I could be in any band,” enthused Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, “I’d be in BMX Bandits.” Not The Beatles. Not Black Sabbath. Not Led Zeppelin. But BMX Bandits, the cult band from Bellshill in Lanarkshire. This was no small claim. Back in 1992 when Nirvana was omnipresent, Kurt Cobain was in turmoil with himself. Months previously, his band had released Nevermind, the epoch-defining multi-million seller crammed full of Beatles-meets-Sabbath by way of Zeppelin radio-friendly slacker anthems, an album that would in time make Nirvana as definitive as some of those very acts.
With a record company keen to milk the band for all they were worth, Cobain withdrew. Commercialism wasn’t a game he was keen to play. His two fellow band mates, the drummer in particular, were much more comfortable with their sudden and quite unexpected lofty status, but not Kurt. He sought solace in the music he wished he was able to put out; lo-fi, fragile, arty, tinged with pathos and a punk sensibility, but most of all, played and recorded for fun. Fun, it seems, was in inverse proportion to Nirvana’s record sales. It’s not hard to see why the poster boy for 90’s disaffected youth held a flame for BMX Bandits. His favourite band, led by the enigmatic Duglas T Stewart has all those things in spades.
Kurt in his ‘Fat Elvis’ phase
“We’re just one of those bands,” summarises Duglas T Stewart, Bandit-in-chief for 30+ years and curator of one of our most-loved musical collectives, “that’s historically been lucky enough to have had, throughout all the line-up changes, great musicians. Norman Blake….Stu Kidd….Jim McCulloch….Francis MacDonald….Eugene Kelly…. Regardless of who they go off and play with, they’ll always remain a part of this band. Being in BMX Bandits is a bit like a stay at the Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave!
Norman ‘left’in 1992, but has contributed to every album since, up until the new one (‘BMX Bandits Forever’, released May 26th). Both he and Eugene have said that the happiest times they’ve had making music was when they were in BMX Bandits. It’s a chance to step out of the limelight for a wee while, take side stage rather than centrestage. I think that’s what maybe appealed to Kurt when he said what he said.”
To celebrate the release of BMX Bandits Forever, Duglas and co-vocalist Chloe Philip will lead their renegade 7-piece band in a couple of rare live outings. They’ll play the small-but-perfect Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine on the 18th March and following the album’s release, they’ll celebrate with a launch gig on May 27th at St Luke’s in Glasgow.
The Irvine date is particularly appealing, given that it’s 25 years since BMX Bandits last played the town. On that occassion, they played atop a flat-bed truck stage outside the famous Ship Inn, coincidentally next door to the HAC.
Back then, Duglas and co. were just one of the many bands who found time to veer left at Glasgow and fit in a date on the Ayrshire coast. In recent years, it’s sadly, frustratingly, been less of a thing.
“I’ve really vivid memories of that Irvine show,” recalls Duglas. “You tend to remember the more unusual shows. Eugenius were on the same bill. Gordon and Eugene were both ex-Bandits, so lots of our pals were there. There was no holding back with the audience. Sometimes at a Glasgow or Edinburgh show, the crowd can be a wee bit too cool for school. But the Irvine audience just went for it.
It was a great time to be BMX Bandits. We’d just released ‘Life Goes On’, our first album for Creation and our stock was high. Alan McGee kept saying, ‘You’re gonnae be a hit! You’ll be in the charts!’ I’ve friends who’ve been lucky enough to have had singles, or in the case of Eugene who had Nirvana covering his songs and Joe (McAlinden) who did very nicely on the back of Rod Stewart recording one of his, friends who’ve made a lot of money from songwriting. I’m genuinely happy for them – we’ve all come from the same musical background, so in a funny way, their success is also my success.
‘Serious Drugs’ was the big BMX Bandits hit that never was. It was melodic, but it was still noisy, with loud guitars to the fore, yet totally non-macho. It flew in the face of what was hip at the time. Paul Weller has said since it’s the best single ever released on Creation and Radio 1 went so far as to A-List it, guaranteeing it so many plays a day. Unfortunately for us, its release coincided with Radio 1’s Anti-Drugs Week. A song called Serious Drugs, even if its message is very anti-drugs, could never be played over the week, so it had kinda flopped before it even had the chance to be a massive hit. Ironically, The Shamen chose to release ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ the very same week, a song that very clearly promotes drug use…..and Radio 1 found nothing wrong with it.
The view from the stage, BMX Bandits live in Irvine, July 1992
That Irvine gig 25 years ago was, if memory serves me correctly, a really great gig. On a patch of land overlooking the harbour, 1000+ folk (the picture above doesn’t do it justice, believe me!) momentarily turned our wee part of the world into the best place on the planet. The Harbour Arts Centre holds just a fraction of that audience, and amazingly, there are still a handful of tickets left for their upcoming show. Will BMX Bandits once again turn our wee part of the world into the best place on the planet? You better believe it!
Ahead of the upcoming shows and album release, Duglas took time out from rehearsing – “We don’t rehearse too much, actually. I tend to find you can over-rehearse and by the day of the show, you’ve lost something. You don’t want it too smooth. It’s better being a wee bit rough around the edges” – to talk about his favourite tracks. When he sent these through to me, they came with the caveat that he’d likely pick a different set of songs next week. “Had you asked me last week, Jonathan Richman would definitely have been in there, but these tracks are the ones that’ve stuck with me for years.”
Paul Williams – Someday Man
Paul Williams is incredibly well-known in the States, but in the UK, there’s next to zero knowledge of him. His songs have been a big, big part of my life. He wrote the songs for The Muppets’ Christmas Carol, an album that’s had as much influence on me as any rock album. He wrote ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ and ‘Rainy Days And Mondays’ for The Carpenters….The Rainbow Connection….the soundtrack to Bugsy Malone. I’ve only ever watched that film I think twice, but I know all the songs. He won an Oscar for ‘Evergreen’, the theme song for ‘A Star Is Born’, sung by Barbra Streisand. He even collaborated on the last Daft Punk album. Everything he’s been involved in has real heart.
Paul Williams – Someday Man
Someday Man is mind-blowing. You might know it from The Monkees’ version, but the original has a real gravitas and depth. It’s got that Wrecking Crew kinda feel. The changes of tempo! The not knowing where it’ll go next! The overall feeling you get when you listen to it is one of poignancy and hope.
Beach Boys – The Night Was So Young
This is my favourite track from my favourite Beach Boys’ album (1977’s Beach Boys Love You). It’s an album held in high esteem. Alex Chilton said it was his favourite Beach Boys’ album too. And Brian Wilson told me it was his!
Beach Boys – The Night Was So Young
Brian wanted people to feel loved when listening to his music. Music was everything – it was sanctuary. As someone who was incredibly messed up, in the early years by his father, in the later years by bad management, Brian wrote this for himself. It’s a beautiful track. It embraces you. You can sit late at night listening to it, alone, but you’re not totally alone. ‘The Night Was So Young’ comforts you. It’s an aural cuddle.
The Shangri-Las – Give Him A Great Big Kiss
The Shangri Las are my favourite-ever girl group. There’s two distinct sides to them; the celebration songs and the melodramatic heartbreakers. They said more in their songs than film makers with a big budget can do in 2 hours. These songs are movies without pictures, over and done with in 2 and a half minutes.
The Shangri-Las – Give Him A Great Big Kiss
The use of reverb and sound effects, the spoken-word sections, the delivery… it could fall into pastiche, but Mary Weiss makes it real. I love the call-and-response vocals. ‘What colour are his eyes? I dunno – he’s always wearin’ shades.’ The best bit though? ‘Dirty fingernails – Oh what a prize!’ Hahaha! How dreamy! Shangri Las’ records are full of excitement, joy, humour and musical twists. There’s been no-one ever quite like them since.
Robert Mellin & Gian-Piero Reverberi – The Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe
This piece of music is responsible for some of my earliest musical memories, of music affecting me deeply. How could sad, beautiful music make me feel good? I’ve spoken to Jarvis Cocker and he’s told me he feels the same way whenever he hears it.
In the early days of primary school, they’d show The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe during the school holidays. As it was a French-language programme, the BBC re-dubbed it and decided to replace the original score/theme tune with Robert Mellin and Gian-Piero Reverberi’s piece – a vast improvement on the original. I can’t remember much of the actual show, but the music, and the emotions it created, has stayed with me. It’s sad and sentimental. It’s uncontrollable. It’s the key to what I’ve always tried to do with my own music.
Bill Wells featuring Lorna Gilfedder – My Family
At less than a year old, this is my most contemporary choice. Bill lives, eats, drinks, breathes and, yes, dreams music. He’s an extraordinary talent. He’s collaborated with a whole host of interesting artists; Yo La Tengo, Future Pilot AKA, Norman Blake…. a whole bunch of people. His Aidan Moffat collaboration was on a completely different level of brilliance. Really terrific.
Bill’s a jazz guy, and not conservative by any means. Despite its appearance as wild and free, jazz is actually quite conservative and lead by certain rules. Bill’s an outsider who went against the grain of jazz. He finds sad beauty in music. He has the saddest chords. Unusual rhythmic ideas. He has a knack of spotting the right people to work with.
If arranged differently, this track could be a massive hit for a contemporary soul diva. As it is, it’s a very understated piece, with the least earnest, not over-emoted in the slightest vocal you’ll hear on a contemporary piece of music. The singing is understated in a Peggy Lee/Frank Sinatra kinda way, and the track is all the better for it. Bill is easily one of the giants in music today.
Jigsaw – Who Do You Think You Are
This has been done a couple of times, of course, by Candlewick Green and Saint Etienne, but the original is the best. It’s the kinda song I want to write! It’s like an actual jigsaw puzzle, where all the individual parts come together into one great picture of sound.
When you first hear it, you’re thinking, ‘That’s a great verse!’, ‘That’s a great chorus!’, ‘Woah! That’s NOT the chorus – it’s only the pre-chorus! HERE’S the chorus! Wow! This is terrific!’
It all comes together in a fantastic rush of melodies and counter melodies, call and response vocals, keyboards replicating backing vocals, melody versus melody. Everything fits together beautifully. And look at them! They didn’t want to look like the cool guys, they just wanted to have great music. Not fashionable, but always great. Just like the BMX Bandits.
Great choices, eh? Very Duglas, but perhaps pleasantly surprising at the same time. As I said to Duglas during our conversation, hunting down some of these records is going to cost me a fortune. I’ll be keeping a spare tenner though, for the upcoming show in Irvine. Maybe I’ll see you down the front.
Incredibly, there are still people who obliviously walk this earth who’ve never heard the skewed majesty of De La Soul‘s debut album ‘3 Feet High And Rising‘. I was enthusing about its esoteric eclecticism to a DJ pal last night when he confessed he’d never actually heard it. What?!?! Maybe it’s an age thing – when De La Soul first broke he was a right old bastard at the tail end of his 20s, deaf from a decade and more of gigging, with a set of creaky knees and a mind unable to process any new sounds that strayed too far from the cosy ‘n comfortable traditional guitar/bass/drums set-up. “Rap with a silent C” was his presumption. He preferred Bryan Adams. It was his loss.
“But….but….you’d love it!” I told him. “It’s the ‘Sergeant Peppers’ of the eighties! They sample loads of stuff – aye, there’s James Brown grunts and drum beats and Blue Note jazz riffs and Parliament and Funkadelic horn parts and all that normal stuff, but they have no regard for hip-hop rules. They liberally pinch Steely Dan guitar riffs, vocal ad-libs from TV chat show hosts, Johnny Cash vocal refrains, The Monkees, Michael Jackson – (‘I wanna raack with you!’) – Liberace, Hall & Oates, the Steve Miller Band, Bo Diddley, The Average White Band…. you name them , they’re probably on there.” They probably are.
Produced when sampling was still something of an unknown entity in recording law, De La Soul somehow managed to get away with releasing an album totally jigsawed together from the random parts of other, wildly varied records. It’s something of a psychedelic mongrel of a record, flower-power hip-hop, a gazillion light years away from the shouty, sweary undercurrent of violence thrown out by the guns ‘n poses posses. Not that there’s anything wrong with them – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is a terrifying document of mid 80s black America and I can imagine a whole generation of parents shouting at teenagers to ‘Turn that rubbish down!‘, but as a white man from the West of Scotland, I cannae really relate to the politics of it all. Give me my hip-hop gift-wrapped in a giant daisy any day of the week.
I love spotting the samples on ‘3 Feet High…’ and as my musical knowledge has grown in direct proportion to the size of my record collection, each play of it brings another familiar fleeting riff to the fore. I’d always liked the lopsided drunk string sweep, clipped guitar and keyboard stab that runs through the whole of Transmitting Live From Mars. Along with the strings, there’s some crackly breakbeats and a French language tape instructing us to ‘écoutez et répétez‘. Arch and knowing, it wouldn’t sound out of place on St Etienne‘s Foxbase Alpha.
De La Soul – Transmitting Live From Mars
I had no idea what that string part was until almost a decade later, when the Lightning Seeds put out their version of The Turtles‘ ‘You Showed Me‘. A constant refrain, the strings were clearly the same strings that De La Soul built their track around. Cleverly, De La Soul slowed The Turtles single down from 45 to 33 rpm. This gave the sample that superb slurry drunk effect.
The Lightning Seeds – You Showed Me
You Showed Me was written in 1964 by Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn. It was recorded by The Byrds, considered for inclusion on their Mr Tambourine Man album and ultimately shelved before finding favour with The Turtles. It’s an epoch-defining, West Coast hippy-dippy saccharine-sweet love song.
The Turtles – You Showed Me
The original Byrds’ version, fact fans, was recorded at a much higher tempo, but when the Turtles’ producer first played them the track, he did so on a broken harmonium. In order to explain the chord changes, he played it at a much slower pace and before they knew it, The Turtles’ collective lightbulbs glowed brightly and they had a hit on their hands.
That string part also makes an appearance on U2‘s ‘Pop‘ album. An extremely hit and miss affair (with more misses than hits) ‘Pop‘ has the distinction of being the lowest-selling U2 album of the modern era (just the million in the States and two million in Europe!) although you could argue that by giving albums away for free on iTunes, U2 have trumped themselves since.
‘Pop‘ is a strange album. Not quite the freeform experimentalism of the Zooropa era nor the songs-with-sheen of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, it was made under the direction of Nellee Hooper, Howie B and Steve Osborne, producers more at home with a faceless dance act than a post-modern, mock-ironic rock band with an opinionated numpty out front. Due to a bad back, drummer Larry Mullen was out of action for much of the recording, so the band began experimenting with loops and samples.
The Playboy Mansion was one of the more cohesive moments on the album. A role-call of pop culture – If Coke Is A Mystery, Michael Jackson History…etc – it’s carried along on a pitter patter of processed beats, heavily synthesized Edge guitar….and that ubiquitous Turtles’ sample. It’s a cracker…
U2 – The Playboy Mansion
But what about the sample? Surely, in this day and age, the relevant musicians are given credit and maybe even cold hard cash for their efforts half a century ago? Well, De La Soul lost a court case a few years back over this very sample. The writers were awarded an undisclosed amount of money in back-dated royalties. The writers of course being McGuinn and Clark. But the string part – the signature riff, if you like – was played by someone else, an anonymous member of the Wrecking Crew very probably, working for a flat Musicians’ Union fee of $25 per day, as was the standard in those days. Pop music wasn’t meant to last. They took the money and ran. Whoever played that sweeping string part must surely be regretting that nowadays.
Edwin Starr‘s 25 Miles is a four-to-the-floor, solid gold soul belter, just over 3 minutes of pounding Funk Brothers rhythm and blast furnace brass that drives Starr’s phlegmy guttural grunts to the sweaty limits.
Edwin Starr – 25 Miles
Released in 1969 and re-released a couple of times since, it’s gained ‘classic’ status thanks in no small way to the northern soul scene where regular spinning has seen it become a talcum-dusted dancefloor filler.
25 Miles has had its fair share of cover versions. The Jackson 5 cut a version in 1969, all Motown-lite backing, call and response vocals and a fuzz guitar break that the other Edwin (with a ‘Y’) must’ve been subliminally channelling alongside Ernie Isley’s signature sound when he was recording A Girl Like You. The Jacksons’ version stayed in the Motown vaults until the mid 80s before appearing on a rare-ish Michael Jackson compilation, but if I want this blog to remain spinning happily forevermore in hyperspace, I’ll resist the urge to post it here. You can find it on the YouTube, if that’s yer thang.
Cult American band White Denim have a track that’s currently being used to soundtrack the latest Nintendo gaming advert. Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah) was the lead single from their latest album, ‘Stiff‘, and if you listen carefully, you’ll spot more than a subtle nod to 25 Miles.
White Denim – Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah)
A band that defy pigeonholing, White Denim can be both proggy and punky and Pagey and Planty and sound terrific for it. Amazing musicians, they have a unique way of trimming their tracks of excess until it’s just the bare bones of guitar, bass and drums that are left…..but what a fantastic sound they make. Definitely on the ‘to see’ list, I’ll be keeping a keen eye on any upcoming tour announcements.
But back to 25 Miles.
By far the best version is the 2011 Skamla Motown (aye!) take by the mysterious Tenoshi. I’ve always thought that Tenoshi was an underground hip-to-the-jive Japanese mod/soul DJ, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if it turned out he/she was none other than someone like Paolo Hewitt or Eddie Piller (Rocksteady Eddie, anyone?), moonlighting in spectacular fashion from their regular day job. My friend and yours, Google, has proven fairly elusive, so who knows?
Tenoshi – 25 Miles
A scuffed-up, spliffed-up skanking take on the Motown original, this 25 Miles has been taken down to Studio 1 and given a rankin’ Rude Boy makeover. It rocks, which, if it’s playing as you read, you’ll just about have worked out for yourself by now. Anoraks will enjoy spotting the great wee nod to Prince Buster/The Specials with the horn motif at the end.
If you’re lucky enough to own a 7″ of this (long-since deleted, it’ll set you back around £40 if it ever comes up for sale) you’ll also be aware of the lightly toasted remake of a Temptations’ classic on the flip side. Papa Was Rolling Stoned indeed. Worth seeking out, I tells ye.
Of all the bands that followed in the slipstream created by the Sex Pistols’ sonic boom, one of the most interesting is Wire.
Where the Pistols raged with a stomping glam rock fury and The Clash spat socio-political lyrics ten to the dozen, Wire were simpler. There’s no meat on their records, nothing that doesn’t need to be there. They’re packed full of lean, mean, short, sharp shocks. Rhythm and counter-rhythm live easily beside one another. Chunky, concrete block riffs drop in and out to allow vocals, backing vocals and chanted slogans the space to breath. Solos are kept to an absolute bare minimum.
There’s no need for showboating when you’re in Wire. The showboating comes from the fact you’re in Wire to begin with.
No songs outstay their welcome, either. Much of the material on debut album ‘Pink Flag‘ is over before it’s barely begun. ‘Field Day For The Sundays‘ lasts barely half a minute before it’s gone. ‘Three Girl Rhumba‘ pushes the boat out to 1 min 20 seconds. At 2 mins 37 secs, debut single ‘Mannequin‘ is a prog-bothering epic in comparison.
Wire – Mannequin
Wire – Dot Dash
Had I first heard ‘Pink Flag‘ on LP rather than CD, I’d’ve been up and out my chair like Sur Alex chasing a flag-happy linesman to check there was nothing wrong with my record. And, just for the, er, record, no ma’am, there ain’t nothing wrong with the record. It’s a fantastic example of art/punk. Songs start. Then stop. New ones start again. Then stop abruptly. Tracks run into one another, all delivered in accents last heard when Gripper Stebson was terrorising Tucker Jenkins in Grange Hill. “Is this still the same song?” “I dunno!” you’ll answer yourself. By the time you’ve worked it out, the band are onto their next song.
Wire – Pink Flag
Wire – Low Down
‘From A to B, again avoiding C, D and E. Cos E is where you play the bloooooze.’
There’s yer Wire manifesto right there. Two chords and the truth. Discipline. That’s what Low Down is. How many other bands could’ve resisted sticking a one note feedbacking ‘whuuuuuooooo‘ in the middle of it? Not Wire. Instead, they stick a great, echoing chord over it for a few bars. Keen ears will spot that it’s not a million miles away from that big clanging one in the breakdown of Primal Scream’s Loaded. Brutal and minimalist. Over and out.
How many other bands can claim a debut album that boasts 21 songs? By the time reissues were an accepted part and parcel of the music industry, the track listing on ‘Pink Flag‘had multiplied to an eye-watering, ear-saturating 38 tracks, including non-album singles and Peel Sessions.
Famously, Elastica stole great chunks of their most well-known tracks – I Am The Fly and Three Girl Rhumba – which I’ve written about before, here. A quick listen to Wire will make you appreciate where many other 90s and 00s bands were coming from. I’m sure the Holy Bible-era Manics were not unfamiliar with Wire’s uncompromising sound. Franz Ferdinand and The Cribs too. Graham Coxon scuffed the edges of Blur’s most abrasive tracks, not to mention much of his own solo recordings, with steroidal Wire-like riffage. Even the Lord God of Indie Guitar, Johnny Marr, has heard their angular twang and thought, “I’m borrowing some of that.” A quick listen to his more recent solo stuff will qualify that, not so much in sound but in lip curled, Fender-toting, noo wave attitoode.
The anglophile Peter Buck dug Wire so much he persuaded REM to cover Pink Flag‘s Strange on breakthrough album Document. It’s a great version too.
REM – Strange
Contrast and compare…
Wire – Strange
Pink Flag by Wire. Everyone should have this album. It may be forty years old this year, but it’s never too late to get on board.
Simon & Garfunkel were odd-looking; wee Paul with his monkish fringe and studied seriousness, tall Art with his receding white-fro, coming across like a beatnik boffin who’d be more at home in a Village coffee house than the science lab you could be forgiven for thinking he’d strayed from.
Don’t be fooled by the looks though, as Simon & Garfunkel were dynamite together, the masters of melody and close-knit harmonies. Their music seemed to arrive fully-formed; new yet familiar, with intricately picked ringing melodies cascading freely from Simon’s guitar while Garfunkel’s lead vocal floated on top. The first time I heard them (probably a warm and crackly Mrs Robinson on my dad’s record player), I knew the tune inside out before it had ended. By the second listen, it seemed as though their music had always been there.
As a duo, their music found fans in millions around the globe and for a wee while at least, they outsold all contemporaries. It seemed that every household in the country owned a Simon & Garfunkel album. Friends’ parents, neighbours, aunts and uncles all owned them. My dad’s pal who we called ‘Uncle’ even though he was no blood relation at all (we’ve all got an ‘uncle’ like that, haven’t we?) tucked away his Simon & Garfunkel records next to his Abba and Elton John albums. His collection, like many from that era, was hardly out there or edgy, but it wasn’t insipid easy listening either. As with the other artists named above, Simon & Garfunkel’s music is timeless. It’s both class and classic.
Formed from a friendship that stretched back years to their Queens, New York childhood, by the time they’d hit their first real success with 1964’s Sound Of Silence single and its parent album, Wednesday Morning, 3. A.M., they’d perfected their act, from the folk-via-Everlys ‘Hey Schoolgirl’, recorded as Tom & Jerry – Art was Tom, Paul was Jerry – before going their separate ways to try their luck as solo artists, before once again hooking up as the more straight-forward Simon & Garfunkel.
Throughout the 60s, their records were on constant rotation, especially in the States where Americans finally had something of their own that could rival the imported popular acts of the day. Nothing like the beat groups from the UK, they steadfastly ploughed their own furrow, gathering popularity with each record they released. In an act that almost split the duo, at the record company’s insistence, the cream of session musicians – the Wrecking Crew – were brought in to embellish their music. Songs that had been recorded as a close-miked two piece now drowned under the weight of reverb and drums and strings and – no! – electric guitars. Despite this jiggery pokery, the records sounded terrific, and their ever-increasing sales and chart positions seemed to justify the enhanced approach.
By the end of the decade though, small Paul and tall Art hated one another. Years of being in the same room, sharing the same stage, management, record label, even apartment at one point all came to a head. Offered the chance of a part in the movie adaptation of Catch 22, Garfunkel grabbed it firmly with both hands and left on the next available plane for Mexico. Simon, with little to do but write alone, turned in one of the finest songs in his back catalogue.
The Only Living Boy In New York is a straightforward tale of the events.
Tom, it starts, get your plane right on time. I know your part’ll go fine. Fly down to Mexico. Da-n-da-da-n-da-n-da-da and here I am, The only living boy in New York.
I’ve got nothing to do today but smile…..I know you’ve been eager to fly now………let your honesty shine like it shines on me…
You don’t need to read too much between the lines to see the giant-sized cracks in their relationship.
Simon & Garfunkel – The Only Living Boy In New York
It’s a brilliant song, simply strummed and softly sung. Enhanced by overdubbed and underplayed keys, a Fender bass line that Brian Wilson would be proud of and a subtle cacophony of Hal Blaine tumbling toms, The Only Living Boy In New York is Simon & Garfunkel in miniature. By the time the aah-aah-aahing backing vocals come in, it’s almost all too much. Almost, but not quite. If you play it once, you’ll want to replay it 4 or 5 times before commencing the rest of your day. But you knew that already.
Fast forward a couple of decades and another joined-at-the-hipper-than-hip couple released their own version. Everything But The Girl‘s Tracey and Ben turn in a performance that, while faithful to the original, sounds a bit flat and, for want of a better word, mumsy. It features enough of their own identity – her furrowed brow and downcast, melancholic vocals and his richly-produced guitar and naked-and-out-there singing voice – to make it a reasonable EBTH cut, but as you are no doubt aware, there are far better tracks in their back catalogue.
Everything But The Girl – The Only Living Boy In New York
Sadly, there’s no space here to include Carter USM‘s punningly-named Only Living Boy In New Cross. A terrible band with (admittedly) a great line in puntastic song titles. If two grown men wearing baggy shorts and backwards baseball caps while shouting over rudimentary drum machines in daan sarf accents is your cup of tea, head on over to YouTube. Or 1991.
Amazingly, thrillingly, unbelievably, Plain Or Pan is, just this week, 10 years old. Somehow, some way, that’s a decade of writing about music and featuring, on the whole, bands that lasted far less than that timescale. It was always in my mind that if I ever made it this far, I’d stop, but now that I’m here, I’m having second thoughts. I might not write with the same frequency I once did, but I like to think that whenever I put metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper, the words that tumble forth are meaningful to someone, somewhere. Judging by the stats on the sidebar there (don’t read too much into them though, I think Google screwed up that algorithm many moons ago) and judging by the continued popularity of some of the posts I’ve written (my Ian Rankin piece is by far the most popular thing I’ve ever published – every day, at least 20 people from some place on Earth click on it and read it – over 150 folk a week – amazing, eh?!) I have what’s called in the business staying power. I have followers (get me!) who read what I write as soon as it’s published, but I’m also high up the lists of many a Google search – the holy grail if you’re into stats, numbers and self-congratulatory schmaltz. So I think I’m gonnae keep going.
You can draw parallels between the writing here and any number of the bands I feature; at first, I wrote short, sharp bulletins, a bit wobbbly in places, but they fizzed with youthful energy – they’re your first couple of singles. Next, I stumbled into longer-form writing, showing enough promise even if I could have done with a decent editor – that’ll be your debut album. Gradually, I’ve moved from my comfort zone (indie music, primarily that of a Scottish bent) to embrace other musical fashions – that’ll be your tricky second album – and I’ve sort of meandered along since. To date, I’ve been going as twice as long as The Smiths, and just about as long as The Beatles. To continue for as long as the Stones, or even Teenage Fanclub would take some doing, but you never know. Make of that what you will.
Writing here has afforded me the opportunity of being commissioned (!) to conduct an interview with Sandie Shaw (the only thing I’ve ever written that paid any money, not that I do it for that). It’s allowed me to ‘meet’ some of my musical heroes, albeit via the wonders of modern technology. It’s the reason I was trending on Twitter briefly after Victoria Wood passed away (I’d written a piece outing Morrissey, if you will, for his liberal borrowing of her lyrics). It’s the reason I was called a ‘middle class Pimms drinker‘ by an upset Stone Roses fan. It’s the reason Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo follows me on Twitter. It’s also the reason I have Johnny Marr‘s number on speed dial, even if I can’t bring myself to actually call him up the way old friends do. I’ll let him call me again instead…
In the 10 years since starting Plain Or Pan, it’s been disappointing that there’s not been a musical revolution of sorts. Sure, we’ve had Radiohead giving albums away for free and we’ve had the death of the CD and the rebirth of the record. Even that Supergrass carrier bag would now cost 5p, but the music!?! It’s bland. Soulless. Beige. Or maybe I’m just getting old. Maybe I’ve turned into my dad. When I were a lad (and me dad were a lad), a musical revolution was just around the corner; the 50s had Jerry Lee and Buddy and Elvis, the 60s had The Beatles and the Stones, the 70s had disco and punk, the 80s had 2 Tone and new romanticism and indie music, the 90s had the good (Oasis, initially), the bad (Britpop, generally) and the downright ugly (the rise of laddism), and since then…. what? Not that I’d’ve been writing about it anyway. That strapline above doesn’t say ‘Outdated Music For Outdated People‘ for nothing, y’know. But we’re crying out for something new. And by new, I don’t mean beardy guys in jeans so unfeasibly skinny there’s no chance of their testicles working when the time arises. Here’s hoping the KLF shake things up a bit this year with a good slab of counter-culture stadium house. Its grim up North, indeed.
I was going to finish this piece off by featuring 10 tracks, one per year, that defined Plain Or Pan, but given that the popularity of the blog has on occassion led to the unwelcome sight of the DMCA sniffing around like dogs on heat, I’m going to resist the urge. Instead, here’s The Housemartins and their faithful, garage-band gospel take on ‘I’ll Be Your Shelter‘. The 4th-best band in Hull featured on the 5th best blog in Scotland. Or something like that.
“Let me hear the choir!”
The Housemartins – I’ll Be Your Shelter
…and in true Plain Or Pan style, here’s Luther Ingram’s 1967 original.
Luther Ingram – I’ll Be Your Shelter
*You wouldn’t believe the amount of time I spent trying to source a picture of The Housemartins wearing braces, just so I could use the tagline ‘Marx & Suspenders‘. When I’d exhausted that particular avenue, my next port of call was for a picture of Paul Heaton eating his Christmas dessert, just so I could use the tagline ‘Heaton Trifles‘. Again, no luck. Why don’t these photos exist?