Raw Power, Iggy & The Stooges 3rd album, the first to be credited to Iggy and… and featuring a slightly different line-up to the late 60s version is a loud, abrasive, violent album. Danger lurks around every panther-snarled verse and every slash of razor blade guitar. It’s uneasy listening and totally essential.
Bowie and Pop, Berlin drug buddies, relocated to Germany in a failed attempt to kick their habits and, in Bowie’s case, help kick-start his pal’s solo career. They even did so in matching outfits.
You can say what you will about the drugs, but they certainly made for prodigious times. Bowie crammed in an insane amount of work over this short period of time. His Berlin trilogy of albums with Eno notwithstanding, as well as manning the mixing desk for Iggy he regularly found time to be out on the randan with a visiting Lou Reed, a combined weight of 8 stones and a generous handful of grams.
Dave, Iggy and Lou. There’s your Berin trilogy right there.
One of the first tracks Bowie and Pop tackled was Tight Pants.
Iggy Pop – Tight Pants
From the enthusiastic count-off and in, Tight Pants is overloaded gutterpunk blooze straight outta 1972; nagging, insistent, a proper primal scream of snakehip guitars with needles ramped round in the red.
There are Supremes handclaps perhaps, or maybe just a heavily slapped snare – it’s hard to tell from the cardboard box production – alongside riff upon riff of juddering guitar, vying for earspace with the Iggy barks and yelps, but far as garage band rockers go, it’s a whole lot of don’t-give-a-damn snarling fun, with a guitar solo in the outro that sounds like a wheezing tramp running over broken glass.
Tight Pants was eventually redone, louder, clearer, less murk and maybe perhaps less menace, renamed Shake Appeal and ended up on Raw Power, with Bowie firmly at the controls to ensure those needles (on the monitors not intravenously) stayed as far into the red as they could go.
Iggy & The Stooges – Shake Appeal
It’s oft-considered a sloppy production, out of step with the musical landscape of the era, but it certainly captures a proto-punk spirit that would, within a few years, be omnipresent in the underground.
Most of your favourite bands have listened to Raw Power back to front and inside out in an attempt to capture its flying majesty. James Williamson’s guitar in particular is a beautiful maelstrom of whirling feedback and ear-splitting, jagged riffing, the real star of the show in spite of Iggy’s hang-dog American drawl. Fantastic stuff. Play loud, as they might say.
The schools break up today, bereft, perhaps, of much of the frantic downhill-without-the-breaks-on rush to cross the ts and dot the is on the paperwork, but also lacking in the uncontained excitement of hundreds of young minds who’ve already switched off and are planning great adventures in the great beyond for the next few weeks. The sound of excitable kids in a playground on the last day of term is one of life’s greatest sounds – up there with John Lydon’s plegmy rrrrrrightttt now, hurrgh hurgh hurgh! snarl at the start of Anarchy In The UK and those honeyed Beatles Yeeeaaaah! harmonies right at the end of She Loves You.
Teachers in Scotland will return a week earlier than normal this year, and (to our dismay and disappointment) to full classes – our government’s way of bowing to public pressure and addressing the lack of traditional schooling in the previous few months. As a working parent I totally get the need for schools to be back operating as ‘normal’ – children getting only two days a week of teaching in an actual school isn’t nearly enough – and we need to allow the country to get back to work, but it all seems more than a bit rushed. For what it’s worth, I reckon schools – the grubbiest Petri dishes of all – are being squashed back way too early and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if by perhaps October, a second wave of Covid has struck, forcing some (all?) schools to adopt the blended learning model that our profession has worked so hard to put in place. Who knows.
But back to the music. Sometimes you’ll hear a tune or even just part of a song that fits the current state of mind. Y’know, you’ll be driving home from work on an early summer’s evening, happy to be finished for the day, visor down and fake Ray-Bans shielding you from the rare Scottish sun, and Brass In Pocket comes on. As your left hand reaches out to turn up the volume, your right elbow automatically places itself on the window sill (Detroit leaning, dontcha know), just about one hand on the wheel, and you lean back and down into your seat just a touch more than you had been, your head bobbing in time to James Honeyman-Scott’s spacious, chiming riff. Serendipitous moments like this are few and far between, so when they occur you tend to remember them.
The better weather brings the cycling – lockdown’s greatest hit – and cycling up and down the west coast always sounds better when soundtracked by Underworld. The multi-layered rhythms encourage that extra 10% of effort that you never knew you had, the band’s propulsive thunk pushing you outwards and back in again. Occassionally in a quiter moment, the sound of a newly-oiled chain whirring through the sprockets will creep in to enhance the mix and again you think, this is alright!
It’s happening right now, as I type. I’m listening to Secretly, a softly looping instrumental by The Elevated Presence.
Secretly – The Elevated Presence
Part Albatross – listen for the whoosh of the gong and the gently thrumming bassline – and part Johnny Marrchestra guitar heaven, Secretly is a lovely textured wash of acoustic and electric guitars, ambient ephemera and pinging, unravelling melodies overlapping and looping into 4 minutes of music that could sit happily between your Durutti Column records and Mogwai’s less-heavier moments.
What you won’t hear as you listen though are the birds outside my window, high in the trees next to the Ayr-Glasgow railway line, warbling and twittering and chattering and whistling as the near-empty 11.05 to Largs rattles past. They say that mankind’s loss with Covid is very much nature’s gain, and with this much going on around me, it’s hard to disagree. All music sounds better with the added ambience of bled-in bird noise. Today it’s The Elevated Presence that’s benefitting.
The Elevated Presence is an on-going side project of sorts from Trashcan Sinatras’ guitarist Paul Livingston. The Trashcans are kinda mainstays around here, their world-weary uplifting melancholia and sparkling tunes never far away, so it’s always great to hear anything from the TCS camp, in any form that may take. The tunes that constitute the catalogue of The Elevated Presence are, I imagine, the ones that don’t quite fit with the Trashcans’ ethos. They’re interesting, introspective, self-indulgent in places….and certainly worth investigating as a result. Listen closely and you’ll hear chord structures, guitar tones and counter melodies that would colour and enhance any Trashcans’ record.
Sunchords – The Elevated Presence
The hazy Sunchords is the perfect example. All ringing arpeggios, slowly spiralling riffs and woozy, wonky whitewashed tremelo, it’s crying out for a heartstring-tugging vocal and tear-soaked crescendo. In its instrumental form it’s filmic, Lynchian even in its quiet assurance, and the most perfect sunbleached music for the songbirds outside my window to harmonise to.
If this is your kinda thing, you could do worse than nip over to The Elevated Presence page on Bandcamp and check out the 5 other tracks that are currently available for next to nothing. Flying Bike‘s Elliott Smith-ish picking that gives way to a frantic Flamenco breakdown, Toska‘s steadily unravelling melody, the atmospheric crackle of The Grasshopper Mouse Howls At The Moon…all contain the DNA that makes Trashcan Sinatras so essential. In their own way, these Elevated Presence tracks are just as required listening.
Grangemouth is a wee industrial town on the eastern side of Scotland, famous for the oil refinery and its belching chimneys and gas flares that rise strangely beautiful and plentiful into the skies above the Firth of Forth. You might spot its post-apocalyptic Mad Maxian skyline as you look for (and miss) the bypass turn-off that takes you to the Kelpies (just us?)
Even in these times of renewable energy and eco awareness, not to mention more accessible further and higher education, the refinery is still the town’s largest employer. The route for many of Grangemouth’s young people is seemingly mapped out from the day they are born: leave school, start work at the refinery, retire, die. If you do these things in that order, you’ve won at life.
It was against this backdrop that Cocteau Twins were born. With a desire to never set foot inside the refinery, their shared love of The Birthday Party, Kate Bush and Siouxsie Sioux saw them land a record deal with 4AD, find favour with John Peel and subsequently burrow deep into the ears of fans of leftfield music the length and breadth of Peel’s reach. You knew that already though.
Against the occasional industrial clatter of drum machines, it was the basslines (Will Heggie initially, Simon Raymonde not long after); bending, bulging, melodic and Hook-ish that carried the music forward.
This rhythm section gave freedom for Robin Guthrie to splash all manner of dazzling, sparkling guitar sounds across the top; crystalline and glass-shattering one minute, fuzzed-out then gossamer-thin the next. Echoing, chiming, phased and flanged, Guthrie took the sonic bravery of The Banshees’ (etc) John McGeoch and developed a style of his own that would help define the Cocteau Twins’ sound. Vocal-free, the tracks alone are very much music to lose yourself in – other-worldly, pretty and lilting, melancholic yet uplifting – the best sort of music.
The Cocteaus’ secret weapon was, undeinably, vocalist and focal point Elizabeth Fraser. When you add her vocals to the heady mix, the tracks take flight as high and far and wide as her vocal chords. She didn’t so much sing as soar, and she did so without the use of words that you might find easily in the pages of a Collin’s Dictionary. Fraser swirled and swooped largely nonsensical gobbledegook and it sounded fantastic.
Occasionally, recognisable words might jump out at you. That ‘burn this whole madhouse down‘ line on Iceblink Luck, for example, is so memorable precisely because it’s one of the few Cocteaus’ lines sung in plain English. Indeed, much of the song appears to be, unusually for them, in the mother tongue. It takes a fair bit of sonic squinting to work them out, right enough.
Cocteau Twins – Iceblink Luck
Most of the time, the vocals are heady and hippy, a mythical strangetalk language all of their own. Sung with an unparalleled style and phrasing, it’s Fraser’s vocals that are the true trademark of the Cocteau Twins.
Now and again, Fraser’s vocals will grace other records, Massive Attack’s Teardrop, for example, or more recently Sam Lee’s Old Wow album. When Felt recorded their Ignite The Seven Cannons album with Robin Guthrie in 1985, it was inevitable that the producer would call for his partner to add her celestial quavers at some point. The recording sessions were fraught with ego and anguish – Felt’s Lawrence, a stickler for detail and band aesthetics was encouraged to sign a contract that would forbid him from being present at the mixing.
Guthrie used the opportunity to Cocteau-fy much of the music with sea-deep reverb and an ambient swirl. He also finalised an 11-track album that the ‘Perfect 10’-loving Lawrence couldn’t cope with. “We’d have been better doing an EP with Guthrie instead,” he moaned to Uncut a few years ago. “A standalone 12″ like Joy Divison’s Atmosphere or Wild Swans’ Revolutionary Spirit.”
Felt – Primitive Painters
The lead single from the album proved be one of Felt’s most enduring tracks. Over time it’s become, like the reference points above (and no doubt to Lawrence’s delight), a classic 12″ single of the era. Featuring a freeform Fraser who’d been handed the lyrics minutes beforehand, Primitive Painters is a waltzing, loping, cyclical groove, chiming with 12 string intent and mooching ennui. It’s not a tune that particularly goes anywhere, until Fraser enters on the chorus. From then on in, the whole thing lifts off spectacularly for a good 6 minutes before crashing triumphantly to a long, slow fade-out.
Playing now, it evokes those days when the Chart Show would show you a run-down of the indie top 10, most of the records playing behind a picture of the record sleeve or a promo shot of the band in lieu of an actual video.
Fast forward a decade and the Cocteau Twins, not quite history, will limp on for one more LP. Fraser and Guthrie have separated and she is now in a relationship with Jeff Buckley, someone else who knows his way around the outer octaves of a vocal chord. Fiercely private people, their relationship proved fairly creative.
Jeff Buckley & Elizabeth Fraser – All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun
It’s a slightly uneasy, voyeuristic listen, this song. Not because it’s difficult to listen to – it’s not – it’s fantastic – but because it’s evidently very personal. A metaphor for their developing relationship maybe, All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun should be listened to through a filter of a conscience. Basically, you’re eavesdropping on a private moment between two people – Fraser’s unselfconscious giggle at the start makes that startlingly clear.
Since the track leaked, she’s said how disappointed she is that it’s out there, unfinished and raw. Yet out there it is, so listen we must. Their duet – a studio off-cut remember – stands up with the best of both artists’ work.
They’d have made beautiful babies, Buckley and Fraser, and this song is the sonic equivalent. Imagine how it might’ve sounded with Buckley’s shining, liquid mercury Telecaster singing across the top of it, Fraser’s vocals double-tracked and harmonising new melodies, a rhythm section with meandering bass, cymbal splashes and restrained bombast. We can only imagine.
Dubiety surrounds the release of Big Star‘s third album, ‘Third’. Was it a true Big Star album in the way #1 Record and Radio City were? Given that the recordings were enhanced by an ever-revolving rotation of session musicians who’d play around the axis of Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens – Steve Cropper on the version of the VU’s Femme Fatale, for example, and given that Chilton wrote the lion’s share of the original music, it’s oft been considered the first real Chilton solo album. Studio tracking sheets from the time show references to Sister Lovers (Chilton and Stephens were in relationships with a pair of sisters at the time) which may or may not have been the intended name for the new record, or indeed, a new name for a band far-removed from its original identity. Despite the poor sales of the first two albums though, Ardent were dead keen to market it as a Big Star release and so, with little fuss or fanfare, Third was sent out into the world, Big Star’s ‘difficult’ third album with unfinished songs and little of the sparkling power-pop jangle that dusted the first two.
Big Star – Jesus Christ
Towards the end of side 2 you’ll find Jesus Christ, a mid-paced, straightforward celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus. On top of the occasional Spectorish tumbling toms and a honeyed Stax sax break that gives birth to Clarence Clemons and the E Street Band, you’ll spot references to angels and stars and Royal David’s City. The song is carried by Chilton’s instantly recognisable guitar style and sound, a welcome relief following the bleak and self explanatory Holocaust that precedes it on the record.
It’s a properly great Christmas tune, uplifting and joyful, yet as far-removed from the normal records that get played ad infinitum in shops, cafes, taxis, bars, wherever at this time of year. Indeed, the only time you’re liable to hear Jesus Christ in the changing rooms at TK Maxx will be from my mouth as I recoil in horror at the ill-fitting shirt from last season’s Katharine Hamnett collection that I struggled to get on and struggled to get off again. Jesus Christ, it was tight. Forgive me father etc etc…
Big Star – Jesus Christ (demo)
Chilton’s demo of Jesus Christ is great. Just Alex and a finely strummed acoustic 12 string, it has all the hallmarks of high watermark Big Star; Chilton’s ad libbed ooh-oohs, cracked, at the end of his range vocals on the high notes and the requisite sparkling jangle. What a great canvas for the other musicians to paint on.
Teenage Fanclub (of course) do a terrific version of Jesus Christ. Released on one of the two CD singles to promote Ain’t That Enough, the lead single from the gold standard Songs From Northern Britain album, TFC were in a rich vein of writing form at the time, firing out guitar-fuelled and harmony-filled songs with ridiculous ease. That Ain’t That Enough was released in June with a cover of an obscure Christmas song as an extra track (the other was a nod and a wink cover of the VU’s Femme Fatale, funnily enough) mattered not a jot. Recorded at perfect head-nodding pace and employing the twin vocals of Norman and Gerry, it’s proper, vintage Fanclub. A heady sheen of fuzzed-at-the-edge electric guitar, a tastefully twangin’ Raymond solo and a heartfelt, sympathetic take on the original make this one of TFC’s best covers.
Teenage Fanclub – Jesus Christ
My job in education has changed in recent years, meaning that nowadays I don’t get to drag my class up to sing a Christmas song in the church. I always liked the challenge of this. It was the one time of year I could put my guitar skills to proper use and I was always on the lookout for a left-of-centre song to tackle. Jesus Christ was one I often considered, but it was forever overlooked in favour of something else.
The arrangement was going to be a full-on Phil Spector epic too; some tinkling pitched percussion at the start, eking out the melody against my plaintive strums, a single voice – probably the quietest girl in the class – singing the opening lines, the whole class coming in on the ‘Jesus Christ was born today! Jesus Christ was born!‘ Then there’s my bit – “MY BIT, BOYS ‘N GIRLS!” – where I do my Alex/Norman run up and down the frets before the second solo voice – this time a boy – “And o! They did rejoice!” brings us back to the whole point of the song.
By the second chorus, the entire group is swaying side to side in time to the guitar’s rhythm. By the third, they’ve added handclaps, like a peely wally west of Scotland gospel choir. They’ve lost most of their self-consciousness by this point too. Jack at the back is still fidgeting with the zip on his school trousers and Chloe, front row and centre, has still to lift her eyes from the rich red carpet in the vestry, but look! One or two of them are even smiling. And I’m in my element, pushing it towards the end.
The chorus is repeated a couple more times before we finish in a blaze of frantically scrubbed acoustics, clashing glockenspiel and rapturous applause from the assembled parents in the pews upstairs. The head teacher, as usual, fails to acknowledge both the effort and the spectacle and we move swiftly on to the next class who shamble their awkward way through Santa Baby to the embarrassment of all in attendance. I miss these times most of all.
Here’s Alex Chilton’s fantastically louche take on TFC’s Alcoholiday. Teenage Fanclub have never hidden their love for all things Chilton-related, but on this tune the gamekeeper turns poacher. He just about steals the show too.
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.
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’s – Doledrum (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’s – Doledrum (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.”
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.
Prince – 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) (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.
Prince – 17 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.
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 Boys – Surf’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 Boys – Surf’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.
Walk On The Wild Side is perhaps Lou Reed‘s best-known song.
Lou Reed – Walk 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.
There’s a wee bit of a media-fixated Beatles renaissance going just now, what with Sgt Pepper turning 50 and fortnightly reissues of their back catalogue racked up in the Spar alongside Tank Commander Monthly and Build Your Own Millenium Falcon Weekly. It’s a great time to be discovering them for the first time. Who cares if someone’s first exposure to Hey Bulldog is via De Agostini publishing?
Fast track back to the mid 90s and arguably the first flourish of serious Beatles reappraisal since the demise of the band. With their self-proclaimed monobrowed monopoly on all things Fab you could be forgiven for thinking that Oasis had cornered the market in Beatles-influenced music. Just because they shouted louder and played louder and just were louder in every sense didn’t mean they were the only ones with a fevered fascination for the Fab Four. The louder the gob, the bigger the knob ‘n all that. If you listen closely to their music these days, is it even possible to spot The Beatles’ references? Is it? Well, aye, it is. A wee bit. Some of their less-ballsy records have the ‘feel’ of late-era Beatles – All Around The World‘s universal message sounds like the sort of song a lazy advertiser might come up with if tasked with creating a Beatley tune in an afternoon, and Liam is awfully fond of doing his best Lennon sneer atop a grandly played piano. Many of their harmonies are quite clearly direct second cousins of the real deal, but after that, I’m stumped. There are far better bands who’ve dipped deep into the best back catalogue in popular music and pulled out their own skewed version of Fabness. You’ll have your own favourites.
And so to Elliott Smith. If you’ve been visiting Plain Or Pan since the glory days of 2007, you’ll know he’s a big favourite round here. He still is. Indeed, his 4th album, 1998’s XO is currently spinning for ther umpteenth time this week. After years of being out of print on vinyl, it finally made it back onto wax a couple of weeks ago. My eye was off the ball when initial copies went on sale and I missed out on the very limited (500 copies, I think) marbled vinyl version, so I had to settle for the standard black 180 gram edition instead. No big deal really. Really. No, really! I’ve lived with the CD since the day of release, discovered when I was working on the counter of Our Price where it was a ‘Recommended Release‘ that week. I played it three times straight through that afternoon in a fairly empty shop, each subsequent play making my jaw drop a notch closer to the sticky carpet. His voice! Gossamer-light and as fragile as fuck. His playing! Beautifully picked arpeggios one moment, brightly ringing fancy chords the next, no solos but lead breaks that aped the vocal melody – just like Paul McCartney. His arrangements! Double-tracked and beautifully harmonised vocal effects, weird ‘n wonkily off-key pianos, little melodic runs up and down the fretboards and keys….. total Beatles! While the Mancunian magpies were belching loudly about their love for The Beatles, here was Elliott Smith very quietly and unassumingly wearing his obvious love for them, not only on his sleeve, but in the grooves inside the sleeve.
XO is a fantastic album. It was Elliott’s major label debut and followed hot on the heels of Either/Or, the undisputed ace in his back catalogue up until then. Either/Or is also packed full of introspective, whispered songs. Alameda. The Ballad Of Big Nothing. Say Yes. Between The Bars. Angeles. All are what you might loosely call ‘Greatest Hits’, had Elliott been fortunate enough to have had such things. All feature the signature double-tracked vocal (like Lennon), the melody-chasing guitar (like McCartney) and the unassuming resignation of George Harrison; always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Even at the Oscars, when a crumpled and bemused Elliott performed after the Good Will Hunting soundtrack received a nomination, he was the outsider. Celine Dion might’ve beat him to the gong, but who in their right mind would want to play that Titanic song 20 years later? Conversely, Elliott’s music endures.
What Either/Or lacks is clarity and sheen. It’s very lo-fi and indie. Coffee house music for misfits who’ve fallen on hard times and hard drugs. XO has a bright and shiny polish to it, reflected (gettit?) in the fact that much of it was recorded in California and LA.
Opener Sweet Adeline was the clincher for me. Just Elliott and his guitar, with descending riff and wonky chord included, the clouds part at the first chorus and sunlight bursts in in the form of glorious harmonies and barrelhouse piano, the drum sound not a million miles away from something Ringo might’ve strived for around 1967.
Elliott Smith – Sweet Adeline
I knew there and then that this was an album I was going to love. By the breakdown at the end, the whole thing sounds a wee bit like the breakdown from Sgt Pepper’s Lovely Rita. This is immediately followed by Tomorrow Tomorrow, Elliott singing counter melodies to himself while he plays the most amazing ringing guitar – a 12 string with 4 strings missing, closely miked and double-tracked (again) to sound like a whole orchestra of guitars. The songs that follow on are stellar. Waltz #2 was the album’s near hit; a piano and acoustic guitar fighting for top billing, lilting and waltzing (aye) to a cinematic end with sweeping, swooping strings. And did he really sing about ‘Cathy’s Clown‘ in the first verse? Yes! This was confirmed on the 2nd listen.
Elliott Smith – Waltz #2
The only Everly’s reference I’d ever heard in song was McCartney’s ‘Let ‘Em In‘ and here was another. It was a sign. Three songs in and I had discovered an album that remains to this day an essential album, one of my very own Recommended Releases. To paraphrase Brian Clough, I wouldn’t say XO is the best album ever written, but it’s in the top one.
There’s plenty more Beatleisms throughout; Bottle Up And Explode has an ending that George Martin would’ve loved putting together, layer upon layer of vocals and guitars and strings and weird effects and kitchen sinks. It’s very Fab.
Elliott Smith – Bottle Up And Explode
As is Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands, a song that sounds as if it’s going nowhere until Elliott drops a clanger of a swear word and the whole thing ramps up a gear on the back of it. The ending has a great clash of sighing cellos, sighing backing vocals and a crescendo half-way between The Smiths’ Death Of A Disco Dancer and a DIY Day In The Life.
Elliott Smith – Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands
Bled White is another. Ringing guitars, electric organ and a fantastic (fabstastic?) call and response vocal. This is music made in the studio, deliberately written to sound as good as possible in recorded form.
Elliott Smith – Bled White
Many acts go for the feel of the music, the spontaneity that a live performance brings. Elliott live was by all accounts a very hit and miss live act, and going by the numerous bootlegs I’ve listened to over the years, this would seem true. No stranger to stopping songs midway through if he wasn’t feeling it, he’d half-heartedly and quite possibly deliberately lead his band through a lumpen car crash of a song one night then play a spellbinding acoustic version the next. Tracks like Bled White could never sound great live. But recorded for posterity on XO, they sparkle immortally.
Elsewhere, you’ll find the bedsit Beach Boys harmonies on Oh Well, Okay have the potential to induce real tears. The wee cello swell after a minute or so is your starter for ten.
Elliott Smith – Oh Well, Okay
Album closer I Didn’t Understand wafts in on a raft of a-cappella vocals, just like Because on Abbey Road – a track Elliott would go on to cover on the aforementioned Good Will Hunting soundtrack, funnily enough. I could go on and on. Suffice to say, XO is well worth investing in if you’ve never had the pleasure.
To finish, here‘s Elliott doing The Beatles. Reverential and respectful.
And off we go on the most thrilling song about shoplifting you’re ever going to hear. Stealing to live. Stealing to give. Stealing just because. “I enjoy stealing things, it’s a simple fact.” sings Perry Farrell in that helium nasal whine of his.
Janes Addiction – Been Caught Stealing
Janes Addiction rock. And not in a (gads) Red Hot Chili Peppers way. That word ‘rock’ brings to mind images of middle-aged men in designer ripped jeans. Accountants in band t-shirts and Rocha John Rocha leather jackets. The weekend bikers at Largs seafront. Those kinda guys. Livin’ the dream, safely, soundtracked by Def Leppard, Bon Jovi and all that rubbish.
Janes Addiction were (are?) skinny, itchy, disease-ridden junkies. Lowlife ne’er do wells. Manky jeans. Mankier hair. Battered, slept-in leather jackets. Damaged livers and syphilis givers. With a healthy Led Zep obsession, they re-booted riff rock for the pre-grunge generation. Been Caught Stealing is arguably their masterstroke. Certainly, it’s their best-known track. Anyone who tells you they don’t like Janes Addiction still likes Been Caught Stealing. It’s just a simple fact, to coin a phrase.
The bit in the middle is, crucially, when Janes not only rock, but roll. The drums, fantastic-sounding and grooving, the handclaps on the second beat, the rolling bassline, it’s a head-nodding breakdown that’ll never be bettered. Truly, it swings like Sinatra with a 7 iron.
Here they are on the Late Show, the precursor to the long-past-its-best Later….With Jools Holland.
Perfect! If The Muppet Show had been briefed with creating a gonzoid, disfunctional, rockin’ band with a penchant for PVC ‘n leopard print, they’d have created exactly this. The anti rock star at the front – check those less-than-perfect mercury-filled teeth during the close ups, his voice drenched in echoey delay for added whine….a bass player and guitarist, both lost in their own worlds, all hair ‘n sunglasses ‘n bangles ‘n beads ‘n casually fired-off lightning bolts of alt rock….a bare-chested drummer who out-Animals The Animal….Perfect!
Here’s a terrific studio outtake of the same track, acoustic-ish with added sc-sc-sc-sc-sc-scatting for free.
Janes Addiction – Been Caught Stealing (Studio Out-Take, 1989)