Get This!, Live!

(Mc)Nabbed In The Act

Hifff y’wanna have hhhittt zhingelzzz ‘n sell a tonna rekids,” Keith Richards once said to me, “you need’t’add a chick’s name to the song title. Th’chicksss go mad f’rit and their owld fellazzz have t’buy them…hur hur hur!

Ian McNabb does more than a passable Keef impression. He’s midway through his second set at Irvine’s small but perfect Harbour Arts Centre and introducing Understanding Jane, the breakneck bar room thrash that first pricked these ears to the scorched beauty of The Icicle Works when I was a Tesco part-timer with £9 a week to blow on music.

Of course,” says McNabb self deprecatingly. “Evangeline…Jane…Melanie…It never worked for me.”

The solo acoustic version of Understanding Jane that follows is a rootsy, 12 string country romp that would sit neatly between your Gram Parsons and Waterboys records, McNabb’s guitar sounding full fat and thrumming, his wheezy harmonica stirring up the dusty ghosts of yore as his scuffed boot heels (actually, make that comfy Sketchers) stomp the beat.

Ian McNabb, soundcheck, Harbour Arts Centre, Irvine 18.6.22

I’m worried this one sounds a bit too much like Neil Young,” he’d winked at me at the soundcheck earlier, before embarking on a very Neil-ish harmonica-enhanced and fingerpicked downhome beauty. For good effect, and to test this listener I suspect, he throws in the odd line that keen and eagle-eared Young watchers the world over will spot from those old bootlegs now being dusted down and released with regular, wallet-emptying frequency as part of his Archives series. “I’m happy that y’all came down!” he says with a mile-wide toothy grin.

I’m happy that McNabb came down too – he’s on fine form in our wee Arts Centre and, with a vast back catalogue to draw from, he’s chosen to forego any support act in favour of playing two full-length sets the likes of which Broooce and ol’ whiny Neil himself might baulk at the length of. Indeed, a Springsteen show might appear as short and sharp as a mid ’70s Ramones run-through by comparison. McNabb has set his stall out with a selection of variously-tuned guitars and a keyboard that’s set to stun and it’s clear from the off that we’re here for the long run.

Much of the material in the first half draws from recent album Our Future In Space and the lockdown-recorded Utopian. Highlight for me was the misty-eyed Makin’ Silver Sing, played at the keyboard with lovely elongated synth pulses and hanging-in-the-air majesty.

Many of the bands that come through our venue feature jobbing musicians; the guitar player from band x also plays in band y and happens to play in a ceilidh band at the weekend when he’s not laying down the groove to I’ve got a feelin’ that tonight’s gonna be a good night in the bill-paying wedding band that keeps him in petrol and plectrums. We once had a support act turn up after driving 5 hours from the very north of Scotland, play a half hour set to a disinterested and half-empty room and turn back around again to make the long drive straight home because both the singer and drummer were starting the early shift in the local tourist trap hotel at half six the next morning.

That notion, folks, of four guys against the world went out the window long before U2 started depositing their rubbish records on your iPhones while you slept. On Makin’ Silver Sing, Ian McNabb captures it perfectly. It’s a brilliant and underheard beauty, with the bonus of a great video. Do the right thing and listen…maybe even buy it. It’ll keep the songwriter in petrol and plectrums – he favours Roger Waters-branded picks as it so happens.

The second set is jam-packed with the big ones – Birds Fly, Hollow Horse, When It All Comes Down – before finishing, of course, on a raucous and well-received Love Is A Wonderful Colour. McNabb is very funny throughout, singling out individual audience members for a dose of rapier Scouse wit, breaking into spontaneous snippets of Live And Let Die (“‘appy Birthday, Sir Paul!“) and the Neil Young aping Horse With No Name whenever it occurs to him to do so. Take your eyes and ears off him and you’ll miss something funny, I tell you.

As much as the big hits are pleasing on the ears, it is though, another keyboard-led track that further blows me away. New track Harry Dean Stanton is jaw-dropping in execution; a swirl of room-filling electric piano and enough reverb and echo on the crystal clear vocal-ocal-ocals to drown a (Crazy) horse. Wonderful stuff.

Ian McNabb plays Leaf in Liverpool this coming weekend. You know what to do.

 

Get This!, New! Now!

Ceci n’est pas un article de blog

Betwixt and between the hotchpotch of raggedy-arsed guitar stranglers and expensively-suited slick blues musos, world music groovers and torch song balladeers, you might have spotted Belgian funk/pop act Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul on Later the other week there. They wouldn’t have been too difficult to spot, dressed as they were from expertly coiffed head to carefully-considered toe in banana yellow and, as Jools Holland swept his arm by way of nasal introduction, began playing the sort of effervescent funk that makes rhythmically-challenged non-dancers the world over twitch a toe in admiration.

 

A Soulwax production, Ceci n’est pas un cliché is propelled by the sort of tight snapping bass line that any self-respecting breakdance crew could make excellent use of. Snap-snap-slide…snap-snap-grrrrowl. Great stuff. Retro ’80s pitter pattering rhythms keep the flow in motion, shocking pink-varnished fingersnaps, electro bloops and off-beat splashing hi-hats add the colour. On the Later appearance, there’s a great airy whoosh near the end – that same production technique employed by John Leckie in the middle of Made Of Stone – and, after the duo countdown from 7 to zero, it drop outs completely before recommencing the funk exactly and precisely on the one.

You’re a cold as icccce, goes Charlotte. I wanna make you feel real nice. It’s daft and it’ll possibly prove to be as irritating as that Wet Leg single, but for now it’s the sound of my early summer.

Ceci n’est pas un cliché takes its title from fellow Belgian René Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe, a perfect example of his surrealist humour-inflected art. This is not a pipe, he says, eyebrow arched and metaphorical question mark floating above his head. …or is it?

Charlotte and Bolis fill the lyric of their track entirely with cliched lines borrowed from songs that have gone before. I woke up this morning, I throw my hands up in the air, wave ’em like I just don’t care, my heart is beating like a drum, down on my knees, begging please…etc etc. Either it’s a lazy, quick-fire way to add a lyric to a track already completed or it’s a genius commentary on the banality of pop music. Like all art, the answer to that lies in the beholder. Me, I’m erring towards the latter.

I think the album – there’s a great earwormy track called, knowingly, Making Sense Stop – will be worth investigating too.

 

 

 

 

Get This!, Live!, New! Now!

Roddy (Claim To) Fame

Idlewild frontman and focal point Roddy Woomble quite often steps away from the day job to indulge the folkier side of a personality that is perhaps quashed and lost in the blustery storm that his band cooks up whenever they get together. My Secret Is My Silence, released back in 2006 is a good starting point if you like this sort of thing; the title track itself is a lovely, lilting, fiddle-driven end of the evening affair that is exactly the sort of song that sounds just right five minutes before the bells when the curtain is drawing on an old year and re-opening to a new. He’s got a great voice, pitched somewhere between Michael Stipe and Ewan McGregor, and sings in an honest, unpretentious fashion. As I say, worth checking out.

Soundcheck, Harbour Arts Centre, Irvine

Even better is his ‘current’ release, Lo! Soul. I use those inverted commas as the album is now a year old, but it’s only just come to my attention on the back of an excellent ‘solo’ show at the tiny but perfect Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine last week. I use that second set of inverted commas because, despite being billed as a solo act, he arrived with long-time Idlewild foil and current hip name to drop Andrew Mitchell.

As Andrew Wasylyk, Mitchell has released a handful of hard-to-find records that meld the intricate and jazzy compositions of prime time David Axelrod to the very best of UK library music of the ’60s and ’70s. They chime and vibe and meander tastefully like soundtracks to long-forgotten films of more innocent times; of walking lazily to school and endless hazy summers and adventurous bike rides out into the countryside where housing estates now nestle. The music of Gregory’s Girl or any of those Bill Forsyth films of the ’80s might be a good reference point for any reader struggling to make sense of this in their internal sound system as they read, but truth be told, they’re far more sophisticated, far more hip than even any of those beauties. You can imagine my disappointment when he told me he hadn’t thought to bring any of his own music to the merch stall. Seek out Fugitive Light And Themes Of Consolation for starters. And go and see him live with his 8-piece band who’ll be hitting the road anytime now. You can thank me the next time you see me.

Wonderfully, Lo! Soul combines low-key Roddy with peak-performance Andrew. Mitchell’s keys and synths are all over the record and it’s spectacular as a result. Big, clanging, minor key, grand piano chords give way to wonky and wobbly Moog, fizzing and squeaking and vintage and essential. The record has a lovely ebb and flow, Roddy’s unselfconscious croon filling the gaps left by the keys, leading the way whenever producer Mitchell reigns in the instrumentation. Pitter pattering drum machines rattle the rhythm throughout, as little soundscapes sandwiched between the beats and the vocals colour it all with a mystical sheen; synthesised ’70s Philly soul strings, spring showers of Fender Rhodes, tinkling and descending piano triplets… they’re all in there. It’s a really great wee record.

The standout track may well be Architecture In L.A..

Roddy WoombleArchitecture In L.A.

Sounding like the magpie eclecticism of peak Beck hotwired to Prince’s Lady Cab Driver, if De La Soul haven’t cut, sampled and looped that little horn motif and added a Daisy Age happy rap on top by the middle of July and conquered the world with it, I’ll be very disappointed. Even Roddy himself could be the toast of the festival season if he were afforded the opportunity of playing on the main stage as the sun sets to orange and an expectant crowd, hopped up on happy pills and expensive alcohol, look to cut a rug and get their party started. “All the ladeez do this…” (waves to the left) All the fellas do this (waves to the right)” I tells you, it’d work.

In a bizarre twist of fate, Roddy and myself actually grew up living across the street from one another, although being maybe 7 or 8 years younger than me he wouldn’t have known. His sister was ages with my sister and I’d sometimes see young Roddy running in loud and joyous circles around the front garden in his nappy when I was sent to bring her home. The Woombles then moved… to the same street we’d move to a year later. Then Mr Woomble’s job took him to Edinburgh (and then France and America, as I’d find out) and they were off.

I never forgot the name though. It’s not a common one. So, when Idlewild started making the press, I did wonder. Years later I had my thoughts confirmed when I interviewed Roddy ahead of what the local paper would bill his ‘hometown show’, when he played the first of his Harbour Arts Centre dates in 2014 or so. Funny how things come around.

Get This!, Live!

Soothe Your Fear

If you want to find me this Saturday night (21st) I’ll be on stage at the Mitchell Theatre in Glasgow for The Perfect Reminder‘s slot at Aye Write. In a gentle nudge to the casual reader here who may already know about the book and subsequent event and might be intrigued enough to buy it, or be tempted even to come along, I’ve taken a little section of the book and included an edited version below. Regular readers here may well spot several Plain Or Pan trademarks; conversational tone, light…funny even, with alliteration lurking inside every stuttering sentence and long-winded similes wherever one or two words would work far better instead. If it gets you a gig at Aye Write – the prime time Saturday night slot, no less – I’ll happily continue fashioning my writing in the style I do.

The book is set into sections, with each song getting its own chapter that’s kickstarted by some writing and followed by a carefully woven tapestry of Trashcans’ thoughts, theories and half-truths about how each song came to be. The section below focuses on I’ve Seen Everything, the title track of the album under the microscope.

Trashcan SinatrasI’ve Seen Everything

The crumbling old remains of the Art Deco Ayrshire Central Hospital in Irvine. It’s pretty much seen everything, certainly every person born in Ayrshire up to a point.

 

I’ve Seen Everything

My wife, being both morbid and practical, regularly asks what songs I’d liked played at my funeral. I usually bat away any such questions with waffled words about such things not really mattering, when of course they totally, absolutely matter. With its world-weary sigh and joyful melancholy, I’d like to state here and now that if I pass before it’s expected of me, I’ve Seen Everything should be the tune that soundtracks the curtain drawing on my life. Here’s why.

I was in the fortunate position of being around the studio a lot when the album recording sessions were in full flow. I worked in Kilmarnock at the time and the band I played in – Sunday Drivers – had a rehearsal room at Shabby Road, so on the nights when we practised, I’d leave work and go to our room early rather than get the Number 11 bus home to Irvine to go back to Kilmarnock again. The kettle was always on (even if the chances of getting any milk, or at least milk in date, were slim) and you never quite knew who you might meet in the kitchen. It was around this time that Chas Smash once poured me a mug of proper builder’s tea. “Hey you!!!” he never said, “Don’t drink that, drink this!” No milk or sugar was offered and, overwhelmed at the idea that a bona fide popstar would make me a cuppa, I was too scared to ask. ‘This is Madness,’ I thought, as I drank a mug of undrinkable tea and plucked up the courage to tell him that Baggy Trousers was the first record I ever bought.

Shabby Road was a great place. The walls, damp as they may have been, thrummed with the dull thud of bass drums and murderous singing from the half a dozen rehearsal rooms within. The damp patches and flaking paint gradually disappeared with each and every Trashcans’ release. A huge Obscurity Knocks promo poster greeted you at the top of the stairs, Paul’s outstretched skateboarding arm hiding the worst of the offending urban decor. There was a real, tangible buzz whenever you were there. The office was filled with the ephemera of working band life – a stack of mail to be answered, a wee pile of Go! Discs artist CDs, an in tray and an out tray, two ashtrays; one dirty and full of the tell-tale signs of working band life, the other clean and full of wee badges –The Cliché Kills! I Hate Music! The formidable Nanette was in charge of things, behind her desk the framed and signed portrait of yer actual Sinatra, the chairman of the board, overseeing proceedings with his clear and beady ol’ blue eyes.

One time I was halfway up the stairs to be met by Stephen, dismantling and reassembling his drum kit in the hallway. “Better acoustics,” he smiled. 

I found myself in the control room when the band happened to be listening to a playback of I’m Immortal. I swivelled in the producer’s chair as Ray Shulman chatted with me about working with Bjork and The Sugarcubes, and the cello sound that was on the just-released debut record from PJ Harvey. He was pondering aloud about adding a similar see-sawing sound to I’m Immortal. I wonder if they ever tried it?

In our room below, we’d often hear the muffled sound of these new Trashcans tunes being twisted and turned into the masterpieces they became. I have a really vivid memory of sitting alone in our rehearsal room, waiting for the others to arrive, with a flaky sausage roll and an Irn-Bru as someone – Paul or John, but I’m thinking Paul – played a repeating guitar riff over and over and over again in the room directly above. No drums or bass or vocals, just a chiming electric guitar, pausing now and again before picking up where it had left off.

I came in one night to a cassette tape on top of my amp with a wee note from Paul. ‘Here’s some new tunes,’ he wrote. ‘The first track will likely be a single. Let me know what you think.’ When I played it back at home later on, I recognised that guitar riff, now fleshed out with happily ringing acoustics, a rootsy bass stomp and a terrific vocal, Frank seemingly duetting with himself about big mistakes and soothing your fears. By the second chorus, I felt like I’d known it all my life. By the time the trumpets parped their way down from heaven in that big, elongated outro, fighting for earspace with those ever-cascading and inter-weaving backing vocals and sounding as upliftingly melancholic as the Kilmarnock Concert Brass Band in full pomp outside the Burns Mall on Christmas Eve, I was punching the air in joy. That better be a single! I thought.

Frank: When we recorded I’ve Seen Everything we were going for that light and breezy sound. That’s quite an easy thing to capture in the studio. When it’s played live, it’s too hard to do it breezy, and our aggression and drive takes it to a whole new place.

John: Frank approached Ivor Cutler to play harmonium on the title track. He got a lovely reply from Ivor explaining why he couldn’t do it.

Frank: While we were at the Mill, I sent a note to Ivor c/o the BBC. We all love him, of course. Songs from his albums would always be coming on the van stereo, poetic relief from the rock music.

Iain Wilson: For maybe a year, we had the A5 glossy black and white promo pic of Ivor, his reply to Frank, stuck on the top of the dashboard facing the windscreen on the red van.

Frank: It was enough, really, getting a reply from him. I’m partly (actually mostly) glad that he didn’t come over to the studio, because I was so clueless then that I would have been daft enough to over-direct him and be generally overbearing. He’d have given me an Ivor tongue-lashing. There would’ve been tears.

You can catch ace photographer Stephanie Gibson and a couple of Trashcans talk about the book tomorrow afternoon around 3 on the Nicola Meighan show on BBC Radio Scotland.

You can read the full section in the book by buying it here. And you can book tickets for the Aye Write book show, featuring a TCS set at the end here.

Do it, eh?

Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

Ford Escorts

Nothing will ever prepare me for the speed of the passing years quite like a memory linked to music. A quick brain-frying calculation tells me that March 1994 was over 28 years ago. Twenty! Eight! Years! That this happened almost three decades ago yet is still fresh and ripe in the memory is testament to the power of pals and music and the inter-linked way in which my brain (and possibly yours too) relates everything in life to some musical reference point or other.

Primal Scream were playing in Ayr, the end of the same week, as it happens, when Give Out But Don’t Give Up was released. Not quite the epoch-defining masterpiece of its predecessor Screamadelica, the gig was nonetheless sold out to the point of being over-sold. Long-starved of decent touring acts, half of the county, and roughly 95% of every Ayrshirite under 25 was in attendance, rammed in, shoulder to shoulder and desperate to hear what may well have been the country’s greatest ‘underground’ band at the time. We were ‘Scream veterans (naturally), having seen them at least three times previously around Screamadelica, although as much as anyone might like to claim otherwise, none of the five of us had been hip enough to have seen them play Vikki’s in Kilmarnock, a venue so compact it would make King Tuts feel like an arena in Kansas.

Ayr Pavilion though was a good venue; smaller than the Barrowland, more clubbier in feel, with a balcony ripe for Quadrophenia-style derring-dos and a nicely sprung dancefloor on which to zone out and get down to the Scream Team’s E-fuelled and vaporised MC5 jams. That huge acid-fried sun logo hung from the back of the stage and Screamadelica material still featured heavily in the set – I mean, why wouldn’t it? – with Denise Johnson taking just as much and possibly even more of the vocals than the stick-thin Bobby Gillespie who, at one point, pointed to my Keef ‘Stones Slay The States‘ t-shirt and gave me a fat, flat, tongue-out gesture of solidarity and acknowledgement.

Bobby shaking his perfect Jeff Beck crow’s nest mop and breaking into a mile-wide smile before making a real-live Stones logo just for me isn’t though the first thing that springs to mind whenever I think of Primal Scream in Ayr.

Nope.

It’s Orange Juice.

We all went, the five of us, in Derek’s Escort. As usual, I was squashed in the middle of the back seat between two of my larger pals, who moaned all the way to Ayr that there was no fuckin’ room for three of us in here, Derek. Stopping at the petrol station, Derek shook us loose for spare change – if that doesn’t date this story, nothing will – filled the car and off we went. One of our party had returned from the forecourt with a magazine liberated from a shelf that I certainly couldn’t have reached, your honour, even on tip toe, and this different sort of Escort was flung around between us, pages torn loose and stuck to the dashboard, the windows and Derek’s sunvisor without his asking. Har-de-har har! You can imagine. We were in our early twenties. It was the era of Loaded. And Loaded. We wanted to be free, we wanted to have a good time, we knew not what we were doing. Shameful harmless fun. Wince.

Derek was in charge of the tunes. He had a box of cassettes under the passenger seat and one was already in full flow by the time he picked me up. Some Velvet Underground. Some Jungle Brothers. Lloyd Cole and The Commotions. Urban Cookie Crew’s The Key, The Secret. Derek loved that. A carefully considered mix of classic and contemporary for discerning listeners such as us. As we pulled away from the petrol station, the snaking, Eastern-tinged 12 string riff of Orange Juice‘s Breakfast Time wandered on.

Orange JuiceBreakfast Time

Ripped up Rip It Up label

Tune!” shouted Derek and cranked the volume that wee bit higher. The bassline boinged its way across the car’s plastic interior, rattling the windows, shaking close-ups of vulvas and nipples loose and free.

Breakfast time!” sang Colin in his best Edwyn-voiced impression. “Brrrreakfast time! The hands that tell me, five to nine!” Hands tapped on cold, hard, door cills, dashboards, anything, in unison to its cod-reggaed offbeat. Heads subtly nodded. Feet no doubt tapped. I played hi hat with my fingers on my thighs and joined Colin in the chorus? bridge? I’m never sure. “…souls entwine! Souls entwine! Souls en-twiiinne!” D’you know that bit in Wayne’s World when they all start singing individual lines and then headbang to Bohemian Rhapsody? Yeah, well, it was nothing like that. We were far too cool for that sorta shit.

When the song finished, Derek rewound, overshot the mark, and landed instead on the last half minute of De La Soul’s Magic Number. Now every time I hear Breakfast Time, it’s inextricably linked to a snippet of De La Soul’s daisy-aged hip hop. Funny how it works, isn’t it? By the third time of rewinding though, Derek was able to land the starting point right on that opening guitar riff – “Check that ya dobbers!!” – and we’d all be off and grooving once more. Breakfast Time was the soundtrack to the entire journey from that petrol station in Dreghorn to Ayr…and back. Without exaggeration, we must’ve listened to it 17 times or more.

The achingly hip – the kinda people who saw, possibly even supported, Primal Scream at Vikki’s – point to Orange Juice’s Postcard output as being the high watermark of their undiluted quality. Sensible folk will highlight You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever and point out that, despite being on a major label, it’s the album the band always wanted to make. The smart folk though will direct you to Rip It Up, the second album and parent to The Hit Single of the same name. Falling somewhere between the brass and rhythms of The Jam’s Gift album and the ambitious mass-market appeal of dazzling guitars married to raggedy-arsed soul, it took Orange Juice from the margins to the mainstream.

It’s just as well they looked so goddamned wonderful on the cover. Malcolm Ross sits with a lovely, yellowing Strat, a shiny leather jacket and a defined jawline so sharp it might cut your finger if you hold the record sleeve in the wrong place. Sharp indeed. Edwyn is wearing not one but two perfectly-contrasting stripy t-shirts and cheap, Asda-priced Raybans. And he looks a million dollars for it. Young, self-assured, film-star handsome. Such smooth skin.

His hair – it was always his hair – is beautiful; a collapased quiff mixed with RAF bomber pilot side shed and sheen. ‘Can I have an Edwyn, please?‘ you might’ve asked George at Irvine Cross as you sat down and his scissors clickety-clickety-clicked in 100 mph readiness. And he’d have told you no, it was impossible, no-one gets to have hair as great as Edwyn Collins; not you, not that guy who’s up after you, not even even Nick Heyward, who was clearly keenly listening and looking. Maybe it was the fact that his name was another word for ‘steal’, but he now had his winning blueprint for Haircut 100 and Smash Hits and teenage girls’ walls and a ubiquitous chart success that would somehow elude the masters. Despite the lack of success, Orange Juice had both style and substance. Talking of substance, what about that Primal Scream gig? I’d forgotten all about that. Oh, as the featured song goes, how I wish I was young again.

Get This!, Hard-to-find

Jumpy Record

Feel Like Jumping by Marcia Griffiths is a perfect slab of baked in the sun pop-reggae. In 1968, a few years before she was one of the I Threes, providing backing for Bob Marley and The Wailers during his imperial, ubiquitous phase, she was a young hopeful, given the chance to make her own mark on Jamaican music. Signed to the mighty Studio One and produced by Coxsone Dodd, Feel Like Jumping was written by Griffiths’ partner Bob Andy, so prolific a writer that you might call him the Lieber AND Stoller of that early reggae scene.

Marcia GriffithsFeel Like Jumping

Breezing along on a wave of jaunty, rasping brass and Motown-ish ‘woo-hoo-hoos’, Feel Like Jumping has the same great 1, 2, 1-2-3 bassline that first appeared on The Ethiopians Train To Skaville, powered Toots and the Maytals’ 54-46 Was My Number and, 20 years later, would pop up again, sampled and looped by Double Trouble to form the bedrock upon which the Rebel MC proved just how Street Tuff he was. I’m sure Paul Simonon was more than familiar with the rhythm and feel of its ten note pattern as well. Sped up, it wouldn’t sound out of place on any of The Clash’s more caustic ramalamas. Slowed down, it makes the ideal anchor for dub.

Griffiths does a brilliant call-and-response vocal with her backing singers, la-la-laing and woo-hoo-hooing her way throughout the record as the band plays head-noddingly and disciplined behind. Clipped guitars, barely-tickled hi-hat, that joyful vocal loud and centre. If music had facial features, Feel Like Jumping would be a big, round, smiley face.

Griffiths’ backing band was effectively a version of The Skatalites, known by 1968 as Sound Dimension, Studio One’s in-house version of The Wrecking Crew or The Funk Brothers. In their own right, Sound Dimension cut some brilliant instrumental records, like the whacked-out dub of Granny Scratch Scratch

Sound DimensionGranny Scratch Scratch

If Talking Heads hadn’t been listening to this before coming up with Slippery People I’ll eat my oversized white suit in shame. C’mon Byrne, ‘fess up.

As much as they were a crack unit worthy of their own album release, the musicians in Sound Dimension were encouraged more to provide the backing tracks for Studio One’s solo stars – Marcia, John Holt, Ken Boothe, Dennis Brown and others. Any of those artists’ records from 1967 onwards – Young, Gifted And Black, Ali Baba, Everything I Own, Money In My Pocket – songs that you will know, love and play on repeat – feature the combined, tight ‘n taut talents of Sound Dimension.

I go through phases of playing reggae and ska non-stop (usually at the first sign of sunlight) then sicken myself to the point where I send it all back into hibernation again. It’s always the perennial Feel Like Jumping that pulls me back in and has me turning the bass notch on my amp clockwise an extra notch or two. Here we go again.

Get This!, Hard-to-find

Purified Soul

If Motown was hit factory-produced street-smart pop and Stax was its rougher round the edges punkish southern soul sister, then Fame was the mongrel hybrid of both. A studio with a hit-making pop sensibility that retained its southern fried Muscle Shoals identity, Fame was responsible for recording some of the greatest under-the-radar soul music in recorded history.

At this point, musical trainspotters and soul aficionados will roll their eyes and reel off a list of 20 essential Fame tracks that everyone should know immediately, but as a label, Fame is relatively undervalued; the Hollies to the Beatles and the Stones, the Inspiral Carpets to the Roses and the Mondays. Great, yet overshadowed by more greatness.

Released on Bell Records in 1966, I’m Your Puppet was written by the gigantic combined talents of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham (the pair of songwriters responsible, as you know, for such titans of popular song as The Dark End Of The Street and I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)). Penn’s version was released first, but it was the version by James & Bobby Purify that really connected with radio stations, and ultimately record buyers.

I’m Your Puppet – James & Bobby Purify

It’s a wonderful song, with a lyric of helpless puppy-dogged affection that will ring true with anyone who’s ever fallen hard for someone else. And that’s everyone, right?

Pull the string and I’ll wink at you…

Snap your fingers and I’ll turn you some flips…

I’ll be wonderful, just do what I’m told…

Treat me good and I’ll do anything…

I’m yours to have and to hold…darlin’, you’ve got full control of your puppet

In a handful of verses, it runs the whole gamut of what soul music is; a universal theme welded to four chords of gently lilting musical accompaniment, all tinkling pitched percusssion and clipped guitar, slightly out of tune piano runs and honeyed sax for added emphasis, always, always just a notch lower in volume than the vocal sung sincerely and with requisite tear-jerking pathos and emotion. Then there’s the major to minor key change in the bridge, the call and response section, the parts where James and Bobby trip over one another to get their own vocal adlibs in… the very definition of what soul music is.

Oft covered, it’s exactly the sort of track that Alex Chilton could’ve mastered with Teenage Fanclub back in the early ’90s when they briefly showed up as his backing band, Norman and Gerry providing the close-knit harmonies atop Chilton’s choppy guitar riffage and world-weary delivery. For a couple of reasons, this will forever remain an unfulfilled wish.

Another underheard Fame beauty is Two In The Morning by Spooner’s Crowd.

Two In The MorningSpooner’s Crowd

Cut live in the studio, Two In The Morning is, as the label suggests, the Fame house band led by Spooner Oldham grinding their way through a mod/soul/r’n’b groover that owes a great deal to Green Onions and any number of those great swinging mid ’60s finger-clickers.

Cut to sound like the listener is entering some nudge-nudge, wink-wink members’ only club or other, it’s a proper full-on strut of a record, big loose ‘n funky bass notes on the piano playing just off the beat, primitive fuzz organ supplying the melody and a “say, honey…wild!” spoken word interlude straight outta the Cotton Club or Peppermint Lounge for added bona fide authenticity.

Ideal music for kick-starting a late night on lively tunes….and, just like the studio from where it was born, sufficiently unknown as to be underplayed and under appreciated.

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Power. Passion.

True story: At the tail end of the ’80s, a musician pal of mine shared not only management but a hotel with Debbie Harry. Different rooms, just to be clear, although I suspect that’s what you were thinking anyway. Weren’t she and Chris Stein an item at that time? I digress…

D’you want to meet her?” asked the manager.

Damn right I do,” said the musician.

Calls were made, diaries were checked, his people talked to her people and, in the lobby of one of New York’s more salubrious hotels, my pal was introduced to Debbie Harry, all chiseled cheekbones and Cupid’s bow red lips, grown-out bottle blonde bob and a dazzling mile-wide smile; classic Harry, in other words.

Very pleased to meet you!” he said aloud.

“(I used to masturbate to you!)”, he thought internally, “(…and with this very hand!)”, his palm finally coming into contact with the object of his decade-long lust.

He-eeeyyy! Great t’meet yoooouuu toooooo!” drawled Debbie with effortless ennui, shaking his hand loosely, the vowels trailing off like verbal ellipses into the night, quickly followed by her gaze as she scanned the room for someone, something more interesting. She’d carried out this sort of shit for longer than she cared to remember. Over and done with in less time than it takes to mouth “Atomic!“, with a flick of the bob and turn of the designer heel, she was gone.

I licked my hand after, but!” he offered as a way of winding his story up. “I could still taste her an hour later.” One day he’ll maybe ask me to ghost write his life story. There are plenty stories, he assures me, just like this one.

Union City Blue is Blondie on steroids, in widescreen.

Blondie Union City Blue

The airy spaces between those twanging electrified notes that play its signature riff are just as crucial to the feel of the record as the notes themselves; tension and release in an intro that’s become immediately recognisable – “I’ll name that tune in one!” – as Clem Burke’s Moonisms on the drum kit propel the whole thing forward.

The story goes that when Blondie recorded Heart Of Glass, producer Mike Chapman forced Burke to play to a click track as a way of ensuring he kept to its strict and rigid disco beat. Burke, being a Brit Beat-obsessed mod, hated the controlled regimentation of it. But on Union City Blue, he’s allowed to cut loose, and as a result, the whole tune from the intro forward is carried along on a wave of flailing arms and splashing cymbals, Chelsea-booted kick and rifle-sharp rattling snare. He loves his drums, but he hates his drums, knocking seven shades of shit from the skins like there’s no tomorrow; the reason it’s his favourite Blondie song to play live. Young Clem is almost the star of the show…until Debbie makes herself known.

Oh oh, oh oh, what are we gonna do?

The juxtaposition between the melancholic melodrama in her voice and the controlled riot of the band behind her is what makes it. And that’s before we get to the key change.

Tunnel to the other side, it becomes daylight, I say he’s mine.’

Debbie’s voice is loud and central, the incontestable star of the show. You could fall in love with her just for her opening couplets on this song alone. Such is their power and engrained Proustian effect, I am immediately transported back by her breathy romantic yearning to a game of Subbuteo in my bedroom with Graham Crichton, my newly-bought copy of The Best of Blondie rotating continually (as he flicked to kick and I didn’t know).

It doesn’t matter that the lyrics are a load of nonsensical rubbish, it’s the sound of it that matters…the joy and freedom and soar as it reaches for the stratosphere and shoots far beyond. There are reign-ins (‘Power! Passion!‘), rock outs (‘Arrive! Climb up four flights...”) and drop outs; that little rev of bass at the 2 minutes and 3 seconds mark… it never fails to hit the spot.

Beyond their punk roots, beyond the jerky new waveisms of Parallel Lines, far beyond any of their peers at the time, Union City Blue is possibly Blondie’s finest moment. The video, a windswept Debbie in mirrored helicopter shades and orange jumpsuit, the band behind playing it straight and giving the lion’s share of the lens to the singer, only serves to enhance it.

 

Get This!, New! Now!

Sweeter Gabriel

Ten years ago, Jacob Lusk was one of the many big-voiced, big-hopes talents on American Idol that hung onto the fading coat tails of his dreams week on week until finally being eliminated at the top 5 stage. A decade later, dreams seemingly smashed, he’s back under the name Gabriels, signed to Parlophone and recording gospel-tinged soul that sounds authentically vintage but is as box fresh as a new pair of Air Jordans. American Idol’s loss is very clearly authentic, soul-stirring, respectable music’s gain. 

Sneaking out at the very end of last year, Love And Hate In A Different Time is the lead track from a long sold-out 6 track EP that’s already selling at eye-watering online prices. A low-key soul belter, Love And Hate… is all pounding rhythm, call-and-response, take-it-to-church vocals and snapping handclaps wafted straight off of some talc-dusted floor in a forgotten northern Mecca. Clomp your Weejuns at the appropriate time and you’ll convice yourself it’s 1975 and you’re hopped up on stolen Dexies in the Wigan Casino. It’s the sort of track that I know many of you will be familiar with and love already.

The music is great, on point as a long-lost 45 from the gospel/soul crossover era, the sort of thing Aretha Franklin’s early advisors might’ve had her lined up to sing on. It’s retro sounding, but brought right up to date with those wee synth whooshes – ‘eee-wooo!‘ – that separate the soul fug like a zip running up the middle of a mohair jumper. Not quite right on first impressions, yet unique, individual and totally acceptable once experienced.

The musicianship is one thing; those on-the-one cinematic string slides, the loose ‘n effortless jazz club piano and a snare beat that’s absolutely ripe for sampling, but it’s the vocal that elevates the track to greatness.

Having been pigeonholed as a Temptations’ covering, Luther Vandross loving crooner, those daft judges on the telly couldn’t hear Jacob’s true voice for all it was worth. With a tone that’s soft and rounded, he sounds not unlike Antony/Anohni channeling the spirit of Billie Holliday. Falsetto, yes, but with filling-loosening bass tenor when required, and dusted in the smoky undertone of a God-fearin’, spiritual-hollerin’ veteran.

Free from the naff pigeonholing shackles of mainstream TV and a need to compromise and fit in, he’s able to talk freely of his Christianity without alienating half his TV audience or making those slaves-to-sponsors telly executives jumpy and twitchy. Consequently, Jacob is much happier in the skin he’s in…and he’s unwittingly revealed himself as the most authentic soul singer since…well, add your name of choice here: __________ .

A recent run of UK ‘club’ dates, as they say, was abruptly cancelled recently, including a show at King Tuts. Shame that. No doubt greedy agents and double-crossing promoters are lining Gabriels up for headline shows in grander venues. Catch them before they become too big is what I say.

Get This!, Hard-to-find

Cullen Card

We asked 100 people to name a musical duo from Scotland.”

With a TV audience of millions watching and a five or six-figure jackpot prize hanging on your answer, the chances of a clued-in contestant offering up Boards Of Canada, let alone finding them in the list of Family Fortunes‘ half a dozen top answers would be slim to non-existent.

The Proclaimers!” Ding!

The Alexander Brothers?” Ding!

Eh… Arab??… eh… Strap??” Ding!

But not, never, Boards Of Canada. !Klax-on!

Boards Of Canada rarely make videos. Hardly ever (and possibly never) do press. Haven’t played live in over 20 years. The likelihood of them popping up between Phil and Ally to provide an alternative, modern-thinking, left-of-centre soundtrack while Jackie Bird brings in the bells from Edinburgh Castle is about as likely as a statue of Margaret Thatcher being erected in Auchinleck town centre. They are low-lying to the point of anonymity, and I suspect that’s the way, uh-huh uh-huh, they like it.

Formed in 1995 by brothers Mike and Marcus Sandison in the north east seaside town of Cullen, their music has given the world four albums and a handful of EPs. All are different yet all are fairly recognisable as the work of a band steeped in analogue production, vintage synths and the use of unfashionable and outdated technology as a means to produce warm, ambient electronic music that boils and bubbles with all the warm blooded soul of a beating human heart.

2006’s Trans Canada Highway EP may well be the missing link between Radiohead’s more adventurous excursions in electronica and My Bloody Valentine’s self-indulgent guitar manipulation.

Dayvan CowboyBoards Of Canada

Opening track Dayvan Cowboy is the band in miniature, its looping whitewash of fuzzed guitars, skeletal percussion and layered windrush of synths nestling murkily inside your head before the musical clouds part and, two minutes and seven seconds in, a bright light of aural sunshine sweeps the room. In dance terms, you would call this ‘the drop’. In Dayvan Cowboy, it’s the drop in reverse, the equivalent of coming up for air after a deep sea dive, a gasp of clean oxygen at the end of a journey living on borrowed air.

Gently broken hip hop beats rattle and ricochet, synthesised strings sweep across the ambient electronica, more rushing wind, more tinkling percussion, lovely wee doorbell-like chimes every now and then; head music for the soul as it peters out to its untimely multi-layered end. Someone should make one of those ultra slowed-down 3-hour versions and stick it on the internet for full-on effect. I suspect it would be just as brilliant.

All in, it’s lovely stuff and it makes even more sense in (slightly edited) video form:

Elsehwere on the EP you’ll find Left Side Drive – (LSD?) – yet more ear-burrowing, creeping electronica that features a borrowed rhythm that may well be a processed version of the beats in Massive Attack’s Karmacoma melded to slo-mo flotation tank music that very possibly was recorded in a dimly-lit bedroom or basement, with a couple of lava lamps and a copy of Pink Floyd’s Meddle for company, perhaps even the fragrant fug of Morocco’s finest curling tantalisingly around the nostrils.

Left Side DriveBoards Of Canada

Interestingly, or incredulously even, Solange Knowles – Beyonce’s wee sister – recorded a totally unofficial track that features her breathy soulful vocals floating across Left Side Drive‘s wafty ambience. It’s not the best track you’ll hear this week, but nor is it the worst. Chances are, given that it first surfaced in 2011, you’ve heard it before.

So there y’go; a track that links pop R’n’B superstar Beyonce to Scotland’s under the radar electronica pioneers Boards Of Canada. Who knew?!