For a while at the tail end of the 90s/beginning of the 00s, Bob Dylan went through a wee phase of revisiting his religious period. Not in the full-on way he had done with the ‘Christian Trilogy’ of Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot Of Love 20 years previously, a trio of albums packed full of religious imagery, the odd gospel arrangement and a complete and utter declaration of faith. Bob likes to wrongfoot his audience, so in a career that had thus far packed in blues and folk, electric guitars and drugs, motorcycle crashes and stream-of-conscience novels, Mick Ronson and panstick make-up, turning to the power of the Lord was as good a move as any.
After several years in the wilderness (the leather gloves and top hat combo while wandering around Camden like some sort of Dickensian pied piper for all and sundry being the zenith of that particular phase), he kick-started his return to relevance with his Never-Ending Tour, a tour that still zig-zags across the planet to this very day. As a way of hitting the ground running, he’d often start these shows with a giddy run-through of an old Christian foot stomper. Short and sharp, they often wrong-footed the audience (again) who maybe expected a Maggie’s Farm or Dignity as the opener. They also served as a sort of second sound-check; as any sound engineer will tell you, the sound in a room changes dramatically once the audience are in. That wee two minute skip through at the start provided the engineer one last chance, as Depeche Mode might say, to get the balance right.
One such nugget he often kicked off with was his frantically scrubbed take on the Stanley Brothers ‘Somebody Touched Me‘. Bob Dylan – Somebody Touched Me (live, Portsmouth, England, Sept. 24th 2000)
Tight and taut, the song gives Bob maximum mic time. His band stretch their backing vocals for all they’re worth with ragged yet righteous harmonies. There’s a couple of wee breaks in between the verses for the band to break loose like Led Zeppelin III gone country, while the engineer, fingers hovering over faders and switches, fine-tuned the mix. By the time of the second last verse in the version above, Bob is audibly breathless, high on the music and running at full pelt just to keep up with the backing band.
Having witnessed Bob in concert around this time, I can practically see his wee tip of the hat to the audience and the twinkle in his eye as he shouts ‘Thangyew!’ at the end, with an audible smile in his voice, ready to lead his band into the heavyweight double whammy of To Ramona and Visions Of Johanna, two guaranteed crowd pleasers.
Bob in 2001, his Oscar perched atop the amp on the right.
That wee Oscar went everywhere with him for a while.
Lazy writers will often go on about Bob’s songs being indecipherable until, like, the last verse, or they’ll snort that they didn’t even know he’d played Mr Tambourine Man until they got talking to a knowledgeable Bobcat on the train home afterwards. Rubbish!
He may play games with the arrangements and phrasing, but his voice is as clear as it ever was. He e-nun-ci-ates perfectly. Anyone who tells you his songs are unrecognisable in concert is a moron, plain and simple.
He’s due back on these shores in a few months time. Whether I go or not remains to be seen; the last couple of times I’ve been to see him I felt he was a wee bit mechanical in places and going through the motions. Much of the night, it could’ve been any pick-up barroom band that was being let loose on one of the greatest canons in popular music, Bob stuck stage left and standing behind his keyboard like a Thunderbirds puppet hanging from invisible strings, but there were still flashes of undeniable brilliance to suggest he still has it. It’s those wee flashes that keep us hoping he’ll pull another cracker out the bag, as he did at the Barrowlands in 2004, my favourite Bob show of all.
There’s also, morbidly, a faint chance that the next time may be the last time he plays. And you wouldn’t want to miss that. Just like the tour though, I hope ol’ Bob is never-ending.
Van Morrison‘s Astral Weeks is a critics’ wet dream of an album, consistently frothed over and placed at the upper reaches of ‘Best Albums Ever’ lists. It’s a particular kind of album; a heady mix of rock, folk, jazz, and soul which doesn’t always hit the mark for me, but, when it does, bullseye!
The critics considered The Way Young Lovers Do to be the stand-out track, but, they reasoned, for all the wrong reasons.
Reviewing Astral Weeks, self-styled barometer of hip opinion Clinton Heylin said it “sticks out like Spumante at a champagne buffet.”
Pffffft! What does he know? Compared to the brevity and substance of the majority of the tracks, The Way Young Lovers Do is light and airy. It features a lyric that you don’t need a degree in English and/or codebreaking to decipher. It is, ‘serious’ music fans, a 3 minute pop song. For me, The Way Young Lovers Do is the stand-out track, but for all the right reasons.
It skitters along on a weird time signature of jazzy triplets played on a lightly brushed drum kit that’s doing it’s best to keep up with a frantically scrubbed acoustic guitar. The musicians on the track, all time-served jazzheads, were delighted to find they’d be given free reign to play as they fancied. The stand-up double bass player can’t quite believe his luck. He’s all over the track like a free-form be-bop rash.
Not one to labour over the small details in the studio, Van sketched out the track on his acoustic guitar and encouraged the others to fall in behind him. Going against the grain of late 60s studio work, Van didn’t prepare chord charts or musical scores. Instead, the whole thing was kept together with head nods, subtle glances and the unspoken telepathy that happens between seasoned pros. What was recorded for posterity is essentially the first run-through of the track.
Van Morrison – The Way Young Lovers Do
And what a track!
Van scats and scooby-dos like a hard-boppin’, finger-poppin’ Celtic Louis Armstrong, wailin’ those words with a phrasing and maturity that belies his 23 years. Stabs of brass more usually found on a primo slice of Stax soul puncture the ambience like an accusing finger in the face of a non-believer. “Whaddayamean you’ve never bin in love, ell, yoo, vee…..”
A vibraphone shimmers like one of those self-same young lover’s hearts, while the strings (overdubbed later) swoon and sweep as the melody rises. This is pure joy abandon, as good as it gets, really.
On this track alone, Van really is The Man.
Contrast Van’s original with Jeff Buckley‘s extended, improvised take. Borne out of the cafe culture that fashioned his sound, Jeff’s version is just him with his beautifully-toned Telecaster playing through a Fender Twin Reverb amp, a combination of delicate, ringing picking, muted riffing and high intensity. A staple of his live shows, he never seemed to play it or sing it quite the same way twice. Jeff’s version often exceeded the 10 minute mark, with some versions approaching Zeppelin-esque proportions. Here’s an incredible version from the Bataclan in Paris taken from the European release of the same name. Intense, moody, stratospheric. You might even say it’s funky.
Jeff Buckley – The Way Young Lovers Do(Live from the Bataclan)
And then we have Starsailor. Currently residing alongside Toploader and Embrace in the Rewind section of Poundland, here was a band that pinned their flimsy influences to their poorly-tailored sleeves. Naming the band after an obscure Tim Buckley album, they took his vocal leaps and phrasings, welded them to the guitar stylings of the boy Jeff and had the sheer cheek to do their own version of The Way Young Lovers Do with all the grace (no pun intended), all the soul, all the nuance and style stripped from it. It’s a well-produced version, just not very good.
I lost track of Rufus Wainwright a wee bit after he started scoring operas and high-fallutin’ it in a dinner jacket. Including a couple of live efforts and a ‘Best Of‘ LP, his album discography is now into double figures, but for me the high water mark is the first volume of ‘Want‘. Initially sold as two separate albums, Want 1 and Want 2 were later repackaged as a double album and, as an introduction to all things Rufus, you could get no better. If you can bottle the sound of pathos, the odd high camp moment and great hair, Want 1 is the result.
Halfway through Want 1 is the incredible Go Or Go Ahead. Go Or Go Ahead is a drug song, but not a scuzzy, junkie-confessional, claustrophobic itch-fest that has you running for the shower before the last note has faded. Go Or Go Ahead drips in melody and is wrapped in harmonies sent from the heavens, ridiculously uplifting and bathed in enough arms-wide-open melodrama to make even Mount Rushmore shed a tiny tear.
Rufus Wainwright – Go Or Go Ahead
The way the songs builds and builds, from major to minor acoustic strum and brilliant tumbling “do-dn-do-be-doos”, via the middle section with a pitch-shifting guitar break courtesy of Charlie Sexton (moonlighting from his duties in Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour band) to the BIG “look in her eyes!” section where Rufus and his sister Martha are overdubbed a gazillion times to create that incredible Spector in stereo wall of sound is absolutely spectacular. By comparison, it makes other ‘big’ songs (McAlmont & Butler’s ‘Yes‘, The Smiths’ ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me‘, Jeff Buckley’s ‘Lover, You Should’ve Come Over‘, for example) seem almost trite and insignificant. In the grand scheme of things, Go Or Go Ahead is the daddy of them all.
Written (“you got me writing lyrics on postcards“) while Rufus walked the streets in a less than salubrious area of San Francisco during the middle of an addiction to crystal meth, it’s lyric is full of self-loathing, celebrating the vacuousness and vanity of hollow celebrity. Or something like that. More scholarly people than myself could write pages and pages on the metaphors within each line. Sure, there are references to Judy Garland, gin and Mars, the God of War, but I suppose you take your own meanings from them. Me? I just dig the tune. It’s a belter, isn’t it?
Another ‘street’ song, 14th Street from the same LP is another high, Rufus’ voice on top form, his band sounding Spector-huge once more. During our one visit to New York I found myself subconsciously singing this as we crossed yer actual 14th Street on my way into Chinatown. I can see it in my head as I type right now.
Rufus Wainwright – 14th Street
Now. If you do one thing this week, fill that gaping hole in your collection with Want. You’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.
Somehow, some way, Plain Or Pan has turned 9. Or, to be more accurate, is just about to turn 9. But at this time of year, when you can never be entirely sure if it’s Sunday morning or Thursday night and inspiration goes out the window along with routine and work ethic, it’s tradition that I fill the gap between Christmas and Hogmany with a potted ‘Best Of‘ the year compilation, so I’ve always made this period in time the unofficial birthday for the blog.
Not that anyone but myself should care really; blogs come and go with alarming regularity and I’ve steadfastly refused to move with the times (no new acts here, no cutting edge hep cats who’ll be tomorrow’s chip paper, just tried ‘n tested old stuff that you may or may not have heard before – Outdated Music For Outdated People, as the tagline goes.) But it’s something of a personal achievement that I continue to fire my wee articles of trivia and metaphorical mirth out into the ether, and even more remarkable that people from all corners of the globe take the time out to visit the blog and read them. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, one and all.
Since starting Plain Or Pan in January 2007, the articles have become less frequent but more wordy – I may have fired out a million alliterative paragraphs in the first year, whereas nowadays I have less time to write stuff and when I do, it takes me three times as long to write it. To use an analogy, I used to be The Ramones, (1! 2! 3! 4! Go!) but I’ve gradually turned into Radiohead; (Hmmm, ehmm, scratch my arse…) Without intending it, there are longer gaps between ‘albums’ and I’ve become more serious about my ‘art’. Maybe it’s time to get back to writing the short, sharp stuff again. Maybe I’ll find the time. Probably I won’t.
The past 9 years have allowed me the chance to interview people who I never would’ve got close to without the flimsy excuse that I was writing a blog that attracted in excess of 1000 visitors a day (at one time it was, but I suspect Google’s analytics may well have been a bit iffy.) Nowadays, it’s nowhere near that, but I still enthusiastically trot out the same old line when trying to land a big name to feature. Through Plain Or Pan I’ve met (physically, electronically or both) all manner of interesting musical and literary favourites; Sandie Shaw, Johnny Marr, Ian Rankin, Gerry Love, the odd Super Furry Animal. Quite amazing when I stop to think about it. You should see the list of those who’ve said they’ll contribute then haven’t. I won’t name them, but there are one or two who would’ve made great Six Of the Best articles. I’m not Mojo, though, so what can I expect?
A quick trawl through my own analytics spat out the Top 24 downloaded/played tracks on the blog this year, two for each month:
Michael Marra – Green Grow the Rashes
Wallace Collection – Daydream
Jacqueline Taieb – Sept Heures du Matin
The Temptations – Message From A Black Man
New Order – True Faith
Bobby Parker – Watch Your Step
Jim Ford – I’m Gonna Make Her Love Me
Doris – You Never Come Closer
Ela Orleans – Dead Floor
Mac De Marco – Ode To Viceroy
Teenage Fanclub – God Knows It’s True
Iggy Pop – Nightclubbing
George Harrison – Wah Wah
Magazine –Thank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again
Future Sound Of London – Papua New Guinea
Bob Dylan – Sad Eyed Lady Of the Lowlands (mono version)
Richard Berry – Louie Louie
REM – Radio Free Europe (HibTone version)
The Cribs – We Share The Same Skies
Johnny Marr – The Messenger
McAlmont & Butler – Speed
Talking Heads – I Zimbra (12″ version)
Style Council – Speak Like A Child
Darlene Love – Johnny (Please Come Home)
And there you have it – the regular mix of covers, curios and forgotten influential classics, the perfect potted version of what Plain Or Pan is all about. A good producer would’ve made the tracklist flow a bit better. I just took it as I came to them; two from January followed by two from February followed by two from etc etc blah blah blah. You can download it from here.
See you in the new year. First up, Rufus Wainwright. Cheers!
In ‘No Direction Home’, Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan bio-documentary, a twinkling-eyed Bob recounts how he stole essential folk and blues records from a friend. “Just being a musical expeditionary,” is how Bob put it. Clearly, the records had an influence on the young magpie-eyed Zimmerman, and you could argue that they helped shape his first few forays into songwriting. You could even argue that it was a good thing he liberated the vinyl – he might never have written the melody to a song like ‘Girl From the North Country’ or ‘With God On Our Side‘ without them. Someone else’s loss is everyone else’s gain. Think about that for a minute.
I’ve been living for the past few days with the latest, stupendous collection in the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series. Volume 12 (entitled ‘The Cutting Edge’ – which is exactly what it is) comes in a multitude of wallet-busting formats. Keeping in line with my purchases of the previous 11 collections, I went for the sensible 2CD version. It’ll fit snugly on the shelf next to the rest of them, a glorious potted treasure of some of the very best bits of Bob’s previously unheard work.
When this edition was first announced, there was a collective frothing of the mouth from Bobcats the world over. At the very top of the scale was the Deluxe 18 CD version, containing every note, every mis-placed harmonica parp, every cough, splutter and stumbling intro that Bob and his band had committed to tape in the whole of 1965 and 1966. A whole two years-worth of Bob outtakes from his most golden period – the alchemist at work, the ‘thin, wild, mercury sound’ in creation. A Dylanologists dream. And nightmare. Have you seen the price tag?
“A steal at $600!” remarked my pal in an email. “Which is exactly what I’ll be doing as soon as it makes its way into the darkest corners of the internet!”
And now that those 18 CDs have indeed made themselves very comfortable in a dark Dylan-shaped corner of the world wide web, steal them we did. Someone else’s loss is everyone else’s gain, and all that jazz.
What is there to say about the recordings? That they’re fantastic almost goes without saying. It’s a wonderful glimpse into Bob’s psyche, into his working process in the recording studio. The collection quickly debunks the myth that Bob was a spontaneous worker, that he pulled the songs from the air, assembled his band and recorded them in the time it took to batter through them.
Bob Dylan – Visions Of Johanna (Take 7 Complete)
There are multiple versions of every track. Some replayed as frantically scrubbed skifflish Bo Diddley rockers, some as barrel house blues worthy of a scene in Boardwalk Empire. Many sound like the versions you know and love, half-baked and not quite right but essentially the blueprints for the finished versions. The sequencing of each track takes you on a journey from first sketch to final run through, a trip that’s often wild and wandering, but never less than thrilling. Stinging electric guitars vie for your attention with honey-coated keys and rasping brass, though central to the mix is always Bob’s voice; close-miked in the acoustic ones, bawling like a garage band rocker in the fast ones, all the time (to quote David Bowie) that perfect mix of sand and glue. Anyone who says that Dylan can’t sing is a moron, right?
Bob Dylan – Just Like A Woman (Take 16)
Now and again a favourite track will pop up disguised as a New Orleans funeral dirge or a full-blown electric rocker. It can be good fun playing ‘name that tune‘ or spotting a lyric from one song that finds itself embedded in a different song by the end of the session. And Bob has a wicked way with a title. Whether or not he has the ‘real’ titles in his head or not, he plays merry havoc with the engineer.
“83277 Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat Take 1”
“No! No! This isn’t Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat…this is Black Dog Blues!”
“Oh…I’m sorry…Everyone’s startin’ together. Right on the beat. Black Dog Blues Take 1. I want everybody together from the top and all the way through, because one take is all we need on this, man. It’s there! Ok! We’re rollin’ on one…”
And what follows are umpteen takes of Obviously Five Believers. Obviously.
Dylan’s wild phrasing is all encompassing throughout. He runs through Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again a gazillion times, each time the melody stretching and bending just a little bit further than the previous time, but clinging gamefully to the tune the way a rowing boat might struggle to keep course on a choppy sea. He can make whole verses fit into two lines, and he can make a couple of lines stretch to a whole verse with his eee-long-gay-ted approach. S’beautiful!
Bob Dylan – Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again (Take 1)
The studio chatter is what you pays yer money for. You can be a fly on the wall in New York or Nashville as Bob painstakingly arranges and rearranges lyrics, verses, whole tunes. His band, while handsomely paid, remain extremely patient. During a handful of takes of Tombstone Blues, Bob continually chokes over the same line.
“Aw man!” cries Bob. “I’m sorry!”
“Would it help if you put the lee-rics on a stand, Bob?”
“Naw, it wouldn’t, man!”
And off they go once more, the beat group backing their Messiah jester until he gets what he hears in his head out his mouth and onto tape. It’s all ridiculously essential music. But you knew that already. Here’s a rollickin’ fuzz bass-enhanced run through of Subterranean Homesick Blues, never before available until now.
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…
It’s all the fault of James Grant that by 1987 I had beige chinos, a battered Levi’s denim jacket (later to be autographed/ruined by four fifths of the Inspiral Carpets outside Level 8 at Strathclyde University) and a mile-high quiff that was impossible to control. It didn’t matter whether I used half a gallon of goo every morning or battered it into shape with builders’-strength Brylcreem, by 2 in the afternoon it was wild and wayward and wavering in my eyes. Most folk at the time assumed it was in tribute to Morrissey, a reasonable assumption given that The Smiths were Kings of our world, but an assumption that was off the mark. If you’ve been reading the past couple of weeks, you’ll know that I was always far more of a Johnny fan than a Morrissey fan, and while I had a similarly collapsing coiffure (“…the rain that flattens my hair, oh these are the things that kill me…“), it was always modelled on the wee skinny frontman from Love & Money. Somehow, much to my annoyance, his never moved an inch. Which begs an obvious question….
“Haha! I didn’t use a lot of ‘product’. Maybe some Boots gel that everyone used in those days. With a wee touch of hairspray. Stick that on it and the quiff would stay like that for a week. I think I once mentioned on TV that I used Ellenet hairspray and the next day the record company took a call from them. I have what you call ‘a good head of hair’, so I never really used much. There was certainly no magic trick or anything!“
So. In the days before the internet there was Ellenet. If only I’d known…
James is a super-talented musician. Since his teens he’s been writing songs of substance that would put a writer with twice his experience to shame. In Love & Money he could effortlessly switch from neo Young Americans blue-eyed soul to sophisto-pop to Chic-esque rinky dink guitar riffing, and he couldn’t wait to fire off a flash guitar solo as slick as whatever it was that held his beautiful hair in place.
As a band we were lucky. In the early 80s, Glasgow was the epicenter of the music world. Edwyn and Clare Grogan were our standard bearers, bringing Glasgow pop to the world. Every gig we played, there were record company folk standing there waving cheque books at us. It was ridiculous but totally fantastic – everything we’d ever wanted was coming true. Love & Money signed a publishing deal and recording deal with Phonogram. They were responsible for putting out Dire Straits ‘Brothers In Arms’ – what’s the statistic? One in every 3 homes owns a copy on CD? Well, they had money to burn, and without being mercenary about it, if they weren’t spending it on us, they’d be spending it on someone else.
We ended up in New York recording studios, in LA, making videos in Tokyo. It was all quite ridiculous. Here I was, brought up in Bridgeton and Castlemilk, swanning about in some far-off place, being indulged with millions of pounds being spent on us.
My dad didn’t believe what I did for a living. He was a bin man. He’d worked as a store man in the Tennent’s Brewery. He’d fought the fascists in the Second World War. ‘You’re a whit?!?’ he’d ask. ‘A song writer?!? In a group?!?’ To him, only folk like David Bowie made records and appeared on telly. ‘Where were you this weekend?’ he’d quiz. ‘London, aye? Whereabouts? Bayswater? I know Bayswater quite well. Where did you stay?’ He genuinely didn’t believe I was doing the stuff I was doing. When (first single) ‘Candybar Express’ came out, we went on Razzamataz (Kids TV Programme) and I sat down with him to watch it. He looked from the telly to me and back again and I think then the penny dropped.
Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor took production duties on Candybar Express, a track that was promoted to within its life of an actual Top 40 chart placing. Subsequent singles always seemed to fall just as short, but while it was disappointing not to have chart success, they were given the opportunity to record the follow-up with Gary Katz, famed for his production duties with Steely Dan. Can you imagine any band today being afforded such a major label luxury? If you haven’t cracked the Top 3 with your first single (is there still a Top 3? Are there still charts?) you’re considered an ‘epic fail’, or whatever the parlance of the day is. Love & Money would go on to record 3 more LPs, to diminishing commercial success, but to much critical acclaim.
Third LP ‘Dogs In The Traffic‘ is my personal favourite, a view shared by The Scotsman who voted it the 30th best Scottish Rock and Pop Album Of All Time, just between the random pairing of Wet Wet Wet’s Popped In, Souled Out and Donovan’s Sunshine Superman (and 12 places higher than Love & Money alumni The Bathers’ Kelvingrove Baby). Opener Winter could almost be George Michael’s A Different Corner before it morphs into a multi-layered tasteful guitar wig-out. Johnny’s Not Here has a coda that could be straight off of the Sign O’ The Times LP.
Love & Money – Johnny’s Not Here
Elsewhere, muted trumpets fight for ear space with keyboard stabs, weeping pedal steel, the odd brass section and the occasional orchestral sweep. All this is incidental of course, as James’ guitar and vocals are central to a production worthy of a Dulux endorsment. Bluesy one moment, and finger picked with all the deftness of Bert Jansch the next, his instrument is the perfect foil for his voice, a voice that resonates with all the depth of a life lived in song. Mature and introspective, throwaway pop this is not. It also happens to be James’ favourite L&M LP too.
“Artistically, it’s my best body of work. I find it difficult to listen to. You might gather from the lyrics that I wasn’t in a happy place when I wrote it, it took a lot out of me, but it’s gained a longevity that I’m really proud of.”
James Grant is the real deal. If you don’t believe me, seek out any of his subsequent 5 solo albums and you’ll find out for yourself.
These days, James isn’t a touring artist in the traditional sense – he rarely puts together 15/20 date tours or leaves home for a month on the road. He’s more selective where and when he plays and as a result, is one of the hottest tickets in town. Ahead of this Friday’s (6th November) sold-out show in Irvine’s Harbour Arts Centre, James took time out to give us his Six Of The Best.
Slade – Cum On Feel The Noize
This was the first record I ever bought. 25p in Woolies, Castlemilk. I was really excited by the record. I loved Slade, and Cum On Feel The Noize is a brilliant record. I met Noddy (with Lemmy, believe it or not) after one of our shows at The Marquee. Lemmy suggested we enter the stage from a giant inflatable vagina, wearing buffalo horns. A while later, Noddy was a guest on Round Table. Our track ‘My Love Lives In A Dead House’ was one of the records played. “That!” declared Noddy. “Is a Number One record!” Noddy had come through for me!
Led Zeppelin – Whole Lotta Love
Led Zeppelin were a big influence on me. I bought a second-hand, scratched copy of Led Zeppelin II from Hi-Fi Exchange. From the opening riff I just thought, “This is it! This is for me!” It was a quasi-religious experience. And Zeppelin were so famous. It was all about the music. Getting into Led Zeppelin was like joining an exclusive club. I wanted to know about music. Led Zep told me.
Talking Heads – I Zimbra
This was also hugely influential. It’s all about the groove. The record just used phonetics and created something new. It’s a very intellectual record. Made by David Byrne, of course. An intellectual man. Hearing I Zimbra for the first time was a musical epiphany.
(By coincidence, this very track was featured here last week.)
David Bowie – Starman
I watched with my school pals when he sang this on that famous Top Of The Pops episode. Is he a boy or a girl? Or an alien from Planet Zorg?!? We just didn’t know. He was just so appealing. Beautiful, alluring, mysterious. Bowie is enormously talented. Even his demos have it. The demo of Lady Stardust when it’s just him at the piano singing it, extraordinary really.
Roxy Music – Love Is The Drug
This is luxurious debauchery. It’s so sophisticated yet easy and it gets me every time. The bass is played with a pick. That’s not how an American band would have done it. Very English. Rather, very European to be more precise. Which, I suppose, was Bryan Ferry’s shtick.
Bob Dylan – Visions Of Johanna
This is one of my favourite songs of all time. Some of the lines in it! The imagery! ‘The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.’ What does that even mean? Yet, if you listen to Dylan, you know exactly what that means. Songs poured out of Dylan. He couldn’t help himself. As a rule, music lyrics should NEVER be compared with poetry…..but this is as close as it gets. Visions Of Johanna bridges that gap.
And there you have it – a perfectly balanced set of tracks very much in the Plain Or Pan mould. I expect you may own more than half of these yourself, but they’d make a terrific little compilation for someone less informed.
It’s also become apparent over the course of this series that David Bowie is the clear leader in the ‘most frequently selected artist’ category. And there ain’t nowt wrong with that.
You can keep up to date with all of James’ goings-on via Twitter @jamthrawn or on his excellent (chords for songs! interactive community!) official web page here.
Me? I’m off down the front on Friday night, big can of Ellenet doon ma jukes.
Bob Dylan‘s Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands is one of his very best. And with a canon of songs as rich and impressive as the one that he has casually amassed over the last 50 years, that’s really saying something. Bob Bob Shoobeedoo Wob.
Bob Dylan – Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands (Mono version)
It’s a love song, of course, waltzing in on a breeze of liquid organ, trademark wheezing harmonica and that thin, wild mercury sound that the Zim was eager to perfect around this time. A musical onion, it’s multi-layered, shrouded in mystery and code and jam-packed full of words and phrases I won’t even begin to pretend I understand.
It’s a straightforward paen to Sara Lowndes (Lowndes/Lowlands look quite similar, dontchathink?) who, at the time of writing it was Dylan’s wife of 6 months. If you listen to the self-explanatory ‘Sara‘ on the decade later Desire, Dylan admits that much;
“Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel
Writin’ ‘Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’ for you.”
Even this is coated in very Dylanesque ambiguities and contradictions though.
Some accounts have Bob writing the song in the studio in Nashville while his crack team of expensive sessioneers played cards and twiddled their thumbs in an adjacent room, patiently waiting for their boss to tell them the song was complete and ready to be committed to tape.
Others have insisted that the song arrived fully formed in the Chelsea Hotel and ripe for recording by the time of the Blonde On Blonde sessions.
Gonzoid speed freak Lester Bangs claims to have it on good authority that Dylan wrote the song whilst wired out of his nut on some cocktail of amphetamines or other, but then, he would say that, wouldn’t he?
Two or three half-truths don’t make the whole truth, but I’d wager the real story is an amalgamation of those accounts. What can’t be denied though is that the finished track is sprawling, majestic and epic (it fills the entire 4th side of Blonde On Blonde) and is the result of a one-take recording at 4 in the morning, Dylan’s dawn chorus for the dreamers and the doomed.
Sad Eyed Lady Of the Lowlands has that late night/early morning feel, understated and creeping around on tip toe, as if the band are scared to hit the strings too hard and are playing quietly so as not to disturb the neighbours, with some of the chord changes coming in slightly behind the beat a result of the band listening carefully to Dylan or watching him for their cue to change.
The musicians (including Al Kooper on keys and Charlie McCoy on guitar) didn’t really know what they were in for. They hadn’t actually heard the finished song and so were understandably rather surprised to find the song clocking in at over 11 and a half minutes. With the unspoken telepathy that comes from playing with the very best of musicians, they joined the song on its journey, climaxing when the chorus came in, only to find themselves faced with verse after verse of meandering beat prose and harmonica breaks. By the 6 minute mark most were assuming the song was nearly over, which is why it builds to a crescendo on more than one occasion. Dylan must’ve had a right laugh at their expense.
Bob ‘n Sara, 1966-ish
George Harrison was a big fan of Sad Eyed Lady… Its lilting waltz was a defining influence on The Beatles‘ under-apppreciated but eternally groovy I Me Mine……