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Cliff Richard Was Never Like This

I always thought he looked like he was about to topple over, the mid 60s Bob Dylan. With the stripy pipe cleaner-thin spindles he called legs carrying the weight of that fantastic dark blue suede military jacket, the Ray-Bans stuck high up that hooked nose and the wildly exploding crow’s nest ‘fro, not to mention the ideas constantly forming and reforming in that speed-addled super-brain of his, it’s amazing that the top-heavy troubadour never once fell flat on his face. On the contrary, mid 60s Bob was The Man, one step ahead of his manager and his band and his audience, barely giving consideration to anyone willing and able to catch up with him.

Dylan et al (DA Pennebaker in the top hat) at London Airport, May 6th 1966

By the time he’d hopped over from Dublin in May 1966 to commence his tour of the UK, Dylan was 4 drummers in with the previous three, including Band legend Levon Helm, jumping the good ship Bob in favour of a quieter life. Incessant nightly booing, it seemed, wasn’t what any of them had signed up for. Dylan arrived here a bona fide superstar, the voice of a new socially-conscious generation, every show sold out in advance. Aloof, arrogant and quotable in abundance, The Zim riled the stuffy British press. He didn’t play their expected game. His one press conference, at London’s Mayfair Hotel, was a testy affair. Music journalists were sat side by side with the more straight-laced journalists from London’s press establishment and so questions came from a bristling mix of the informed and the ignorant; What d’you like? What d’you loathe? There seems to be an electric element creeping into your sound…. What d’you think of England? Are you married? (Answer: I’d be a liar if I answered that, and I don’t lie.)

When the Melody Maker’s Max Jones suggested that he didn’t hear protest songs any longer, a weary Dylan shot back.

All my songs are protest songs! You name something, I’ll protest about it! All I do is protest!

Even Keith Altham, the most cutting-edge, most well-respected music writer of his time and the golden boy at the NME to boot, found himself on the wrong end of Dylan’s surreal wit. “Why is it,” he asked, “that the titles of your recent singles, like ‘Positively 4th Street’ and ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’ bear no apparent connections with the lyrics?

It has every significance,’ returned Dylan. ‘Have you ever been down in North Mexico?

Bob Dylan, press conference at the Mayfair Hotel in London in 1966.

Dylan batted everything off with an abstract absurdness that came easy to him. He treated the journalists like morons, prompting one to complain that “Cliff Richard was never like this,” firing back the funniest, most-perfect answers you might ever read.

Q: What do you own?
A: Oh, thirty Cadillacs, three yachts, an airport at San Diego, a railroad station in Miami. I was planning to bus all the Mormons.
Q: What are your medical problems?
A: Well, there’s glass in the back of my head. I’m a very sick person. I can’t see too well on Tuesdays. These dark glasses are prescribed. I’m not trying to be a beatnik. I have very mercury-esque eyes. And another thing—my toenails don’t fit.

With everything being captured for posterity by DA Pennebaker’s shoulder camera, Dylan and an unwitting press played their part well. It’s all there in the wired, messy travelogue Eat The Document if you didn’t know already. If only for the brief clip of Dylan and his band standing at the corner of George Square in Glasgow, tapping their toes to a passing pipe band right outside where the Counting House pub stands these days, seek it out.

It was this backdrop that informed the charged nature of the shows. Playing the same two sets each night, Dylan opened with a set of acoustic songs, just him, his guitar and a selection of harmonicas. They were generally very well-received, as rightly they should’ve been. Dylan was on top form, rolling out fantastic versions of some of his best-loved recent songs; She Belongs To Me with its slightly altered lyric, the eee-long-gat-ed phrasing in It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, the lean, mean and near 12 minute Desolation Row, the definitive Mr Tambourine Man, its clearly enunciated words and perfect clarity sticking two fingers up the naysayers who’d sneer that Dylan couldn’t sing. It was the perfect set that would prove to be Dylan’s concession to the accepted notion of folk for the night.

After a short break he’d return, leading his band, a clobbering riot of Cuban heels and mohair suits and unkempt hair and electric guitars who’d plug in and play loud. Dylan too strapped on an electric, a Telecaster, wearing it over the shoulder the way a huntsman might take his gun out to shoot deer, a suitable metaphor given what would unfold. The second set always started with Tell Me, Momma, a gutterpunk garage band blooze that was the unholy sound of Pete Seeger and his axe and his high and mighty ways about folk music au-then-ti-ci-tee being blasted far and high over the Grand Coulee Dam. Never released as a studio version, the only official release comes via the Albert Hall 66 Official Bootleg – which was actually recorded in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester a week or so beforehand. But you knew that already.

Bob DylanTell Me, Momma (Manchester, May 17th 1966)

The start of this recording, with the band clattering across the wooden stage to take position, the muffled and hushed, expectant audience, Dylan’s off-mike harmonica trills and the boot stomp count in that leads to the slap-in-the-face pistol crack snare never, ever fails to excite.

And then, when the band comes in…oh aye! They cook up a terrific howling storm; loud, raucous and in your face. Dylan looks his audience straight in the eye, takes aim and fires.

But I know that you know that I know that you show, something’s tearing…up…your…mi-ii-ii-ind.”

If this fails to thrill you, if this fails to make you jump up and punch the air and shout, “Go Bob!” as loud as you can, then I can’t help you. No-one can. It’s his voice. He’s stoned or speeding or upping or downing or something, but Bob’s vocal is just great. Slurred yet enunciated, sloppy yet eager, he has you right there and then. Around him, out-with the eye of the storm, merry chaos ensues. A beat group?! At a folk concert?! With keyboards and electric bass and drums and everything?! Robbie Robertson, Dylan’s cooler than ice foil on the left fires of wildly sparking, cheesewire-thin electric riffs on his own arctic white Tele, played high up in the mix so as to cut through the chaotic racket. It’s incessant 12 bar blues played with fuck you punk spirit, the greatest sound around. And, at the end, applause. Real clapping and stuff. It wouldn’t last though. In Manchester, once the audience realises this set ain’t gonna be like the last one, the applause gives way to a slow handclap after only the second number, I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met).

Bob DylanI Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) (Manchester, May 17 1966)

Previously cast as an acoustic blues on his Another Side Of… album, it’s reborn in ’66 as another beat-driven garage band rocker, heavy on the Hammond, always returning to its signature amped-up guitar riff. By the second song in, half his audience have chucked him for good. Those that stayed with him though had electric ideas of their own. Listen carefully to I Don’t Believe You and you’ll hear the genesis of The Faces’ Cindy Incidentally, a story for another time.

If this is your kinda thing, hunt out Jewels & Binoculars, a 26 CD bootleg of every parp ‘n fart from Bob’s harmonicas in 1966. It’s the gemme, as they say round these parts. Until then, here’s Bob and his band entertaining a confused Dublin audience. Wonderful stuff.

 

 

 

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Not All Ladies Love Cool J

At the tail end of the 80s, Sonic Youth‘s Kim Gordon sat down with LL Cool J to interview him for a piece in US music magazine Spin. A fan of his music – she loved Cool J’s first album, Radio – the plan was to show how the artists maybe had something in common. Despite each coming from wildly differing marginalised backgrounds, Gordon, a woman from the underground punk rock scene and Cool J, a black man from the misrepresented rap scene would/should be able to empathise with each other’s experiences of prejudice in music. They had a tenuous common link in Def Jam supremo Rick Rubin who’d come out of the same scum-rocker scene that allowed Sonic Youth to grow and develop, but, really, that was about it.

Sonic Youth’s bass player quickly discovered she had very little in common with the hot to trot rapper. Indeed, it wouldn’t be out of sorts to say she didn’t really like him….and he didn’t really give two hoots in any case.

With his current album Walking With A Panther tearing up the Billboard Hot 100 and a fleet of luxury cars parked outside his brand new, furniture-free home, LL came across as very much the stereotypical big-shot rapper, a boy from the projects who had landed very much on the soles of his box-fresh sneakers, his frat-boy opinions on subjects as divisive as what made comedians funny and how to treat women drawing a clear line in the sand.

Amongst the tension, there’s a genuinely funny moment when Gordon prods Cool J into giving his opinion on contemporary rock music. As well as admitting to a love of Bon Jovi (“both their albums“), he just doesn’t get the obvious parallel between Iggy in the late 60s and his own experiences 20 years later.

 

The experience wasn’t a total flop though. Gordon went home and turned the meeting into song. Kool Thing is the howling sound of fringes flicking eyelids and torn-at-the-knees 501s, a dirty great tsunami of wonkily-tuned surf-punk guitar with a rhythm to ride on. It was the perfect output for expending post-interview pent-up frustration. To use that well-worn cliché, it rocks. Rawks, even.

Sonic YouthKool Thing

With references to Cool J (‘Kool thing, walkin’ like a panther’) and a lyric that takes exception to LL’s objectification of women, it’s fairly hard hitting. Political, pro-feminist, angry, anti-misogynist, it ramps up another level when Public Enemy’s Chuck D pops up to ‘tell ’em ’bout it. Hit ’em where it hurts.’

Hey, kool thing!” instructs the uber-cool, street-smart Gordon.

Come here, sit down. There’s something I go to ask you.

I just wanna know, what are you gonna do for me?

I mean, are you gonna liberate us girls

From male white corporate oppression?

Tell ’em ’bout it indeed. Maybe Kim Gordon thought that by changing the ‘C’ in ‘Cool’ to a ‘K’, LL wouldn’t realise it was about him. She was probably right. I wonder if he’s aware of it yet. I doubt, with his Benz, his BM, his Audi and his Porsche lined up in the drive of the house he called Fantasyland that he’d be all that bothered. I may be wrong, but I don’t think LL Cool J ever replied in rap to Gordon’s dis. Unusual for a rapper, that.

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Disappointed. Not Disappointed

Like many of the tracks released by the constituent parts of the group that created it, Disappointed by Electronic was released as a standalone single, a gap-plugger that sated the appetite of their fans in the period between the first two albums. A fantastic gap-plugger it was too.

Bernard Sumner’s New Order were awfully fond of (perhaps even hell-bent on) ensuring singles stayed off of albums. Ceremony, Temptation and Everything’s Gone Green didn’t make it to Movement and Blue Monday, Confusion and Thieves Like Us didn’t appear on the chronologically closest Power, Corruption And Lies, although by the time of Low-Life, lead single The Perfect Kiss was a central part of the album and from then-on in, a good proportion all of their singles were used to promote a parent album.

Johnny Marr’s Smiths gave great value for money, regularly releasing one-off singles that would eventually appear as 33 rpm tracks on compilation albums further down the line; How Soon Is Now? (originally a b-side), Shakespeare’s Sister, Heaven Knows…, William…, Panic, Ask. All started life spinning at 45rpm.

Pet Shop Boys were perhaps the more conventional of the trio. On a major label they maybe didn’t have the same clout that an indie band might have on a small label (though what do I know?) and accordingly, almost all of their singles, in that imperial run from West End Girls and Love Comes Quickly through So Hard and Being Boring to 1991’s DJ Culture and Was It Worth It? were taken from their studio albums of the time.

(Photo by Kevin Cummins/Getty Images)

Disappointed is very much a product of its time and place. Chronologically, it was written around the end of 1991, when Johnny was between The The projects and just before Bernard returned to New Order to record Republic. Despite being patchy in parts (and that’s a whole other blog post), the last decent album in New Order’s original form gave us Regret, arguably the last truly great New Order single; soaring and melancholic, built on a bed of asthmatic guitar and hard-wired technology, and, from the negatively-leaning titles in, you can draw a straight line between that New Order track and Electronic’s 4th single.

ElectronicDisappointed (7″ mix)

By the end of 1991, Pet Shop Boys had amassed 19 hit singles to their name (pop quiz – name them!) Anything they touched turned to sold and gold. They were the masters at minor key pop, “The Smiths you can dance to,” as Tennant famously said at the time. Arriving on a bed of synth washes and era-defining Italo house piano – conceived by Johnny’s brother Ian – Disappointed‘s hookiness (not Hooky-ness) is immediate and immersive, mainly due to Neil Tennant’s cooing ah-ah-aah refrain.

Three seconds in and it sounds like the greatest Pet Shop Boys hit that never was. Tennant employed all the best PSB tricks; minor key melancholy, smoothed-out spoken word in the verses, flying like a kite in the chorus, those earworming ah-ah-aahs and pulsing glacial synths to the fore.

It worked. On release in July ’92, the single climbed to number 6 on the UK charts, kept out of the top 5 by Mariah Carey’s helium-voiced take on the Jackson’s I’ll Be There. Ironically enough, the b-side to Disappointed was a remix of Idiot Country.

If you know your Euro-pop, and I’m sure many of you do, you’ll be aware that Tennant tips more than the brim of his trilby to Mylène Farmer’s Désenchantée single, a massive hit on the continent in 1991. It’s there in the smoothed-out synthesizers and mid-paced feel, the down-played vocal delivery in the verses and restrained euphoria in the chorus. I don’t think it’s a coincidence either that Tennant ‘borrowed’ her ‘Désenchantée/Disenchanted‘ lyric for his own chorus. Most of us in the UK would’ve been oblivious of this at the time (perhaps even Bernard and Johnny too), a fact I’m sure the pop boffin Neil would’ve been banking on.

Seemingly content to take more of a back seat at the time, Johnny has an understated role in the single. He breaks into full-on Nile Rodgers funk for most of it, riffing across the top 3 strings like he hadn’t done since 1985’s Boy With The Thorn In His Side, his right hand rattlin’ the rhythm while his left shapes the funk, but contribution-wise, Disappointed is probably 45% Neil, 35% Bernard and 20% Johnny. The sum is greater than its parts though. It’s a great single, almost a lost single really, given the ubiquity of Getting Away With It and its not-quite-as-good follow-up Get The Message, but one that deserves reappraisal.

ElectronicDisappointed (original mix)

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It’s Not Unusual

When Tom Jones brought It’s Not Unusual parping and swinging into the 60s, all bold as brass confidence and knicker-dodging hip-shakes, little did anyone know that the record that introduced the lothario from the Valleys to the world was in fact a demo recording. Yes. A demo. Jones was just another struggling singer, one flop single to the good and looking for a break, when he was asked to contribute a guide vocal for what was to be the next Sandie Shaw single. When Shaw heard the demo she immediately passed, claiming that she couldn’t better the vocal on the demo and suggested Jones’ version was released instead. It was, and from it, Jones went on to meet Elvis, catch more knickers than he could dodge and turn a suspicious shade of orange with each passing year. A good career move, you’d have to agree.

Established artists being offered and turning down songs is, if you pardon the pun, not unusual. The opportunity for the songwriter is clear; big artists have big hits and generate big money. Who wouldn’t want a slice of that? The Sheerans and Swifts of this world must be batting them off on an hourly basis. They’ll have layers of management filtering out only the very best of them of course, and if a writer is lucky, maybe their chosen artist will even listen to what they have to offer. Maybe.

Occasionally though, art is more important than commerce. The tectonically-paced Blue Nile have never been motivated by anything as crass as chart position or commercial success. Sure, they’ve had a (brief-ish) taste of both but for the Blue Nile, it’s music as art that’s the important thing. Their four albums stand as perfectly-considered collections in their own right, to be played as a whole from ebbing start to flowing finish, each Linn drum and symphonic sweep, every harmonising horn line and tight ‘n taut Strat part agonised over through hours – years, even – of studio sessions. The lyrics on top are just as precious, delivered as they are by Paul Buchanan’s iconic, laconic yawning drawl, a voice as idiosyncratic and essential as Bowie’s and that’s no lie.

They’re an enigma, the Blue Nile, as insular and secretive as they come, emerging only as and when they have something worth sharing. You might be walking up the Byres Road in Glasgow’s West End and imagine you’ve just passed Paul Buchanan coming out of Fopp or, later on, do a double take at the guy in the QM who looks really like PJ Moore, more grey than you imagined, more facial hair, perhaps….and then realise that it really was two thirds of the Blue Nile that you encountered in the one day. Hidden in plain sight, the Blue Nile have managed to attain the enviable position of maintaining both healthy record sales and anonymity on their hometown streets. What your Sheerans and Swifts wouldn’t give for that…

JJ Gilmour is a great songwriter (and singer, but we’ll come to that shortly.) He shot to prominence as a member of The Silencers, played massive shows in France and Germany where the band were, perhaps unbelievably but no less true, as popular as U2 and Simple Minds, before the downward slide of sales and the inevitable end. Since then, Jinky’s carved out a niche career penning the most beautiful and perfect songs, as melodic and melancholic as McCartney at his peak (and again, that’s no lie) and regularly plays shows that are heartbreaking and uplifting in equal measure. A career in stand up awaits Jinky should he choose to hang up his guitar, but comedy’s gain would be very much music’s loss.

Jinky’s songs are terrific, equally at home as stripped-back acoustic ballads or full-band blow outs. Melody is the key and Jinky’s songs have it in spades. On his last album, 2017’s Dix, JJ took the decision to record an acoustic album, augmented by occasional strings and complementary piano. Soul baring, naked and raw, it’s an album that would spin nicely at 2am after you’ve gone through the aforementioned Blue Nile’s back catalogue, with the lights low and a glass half empty.

Midway through you’ll find the incredible Glasgow Town.

JJ GilmourGlasgow Town

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Jinky wrote Glasgow Town with Paul Buchanan in mind. You can hear it in the airy space between the notes, the arrangement stripped of superfluousness, the spotlight trained on the voice hanging in the vacuum. It would’ve made a great opener on either of the first two Blue Nile albums, records that are ingrained with the grit of Glasgow’s soul, albums that shimmer within and radiate majestically at the edges.

Jinky’s Glasgow Town does likewise. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to hear him perform it live, you’ll know. Time stops, the air is sucked out of the room and all the focus is on the wee guy stage centre, baring his soul in that wonderfully expressive voice. He’s loved, is Jinky, perhaps even more than that Buchanan fella, although I’m not so sure that he’s fully aware of that.

Through a network of connected friends, Glasgow Town eventually did make it to Paul Buchanan. The story goes, as Jinky heard from one of those mutual friends, that the Blue Nile vocalist, the guy with the voice as idiosyncratic and essential as Bowie’s and that’s no lie, liked it. “That’s perfect as it is,” he was heard to say. “I couldn’t do it any better.” He was right too. If you want to own a version of Glasgow Town, go for the original.

Unlike Tom Jones, Jinky hasn’t gone on to Vegas residencies and knicker-dodging global success, but then, Tom Jones will never write a song as wonderful as Glasgow Town. Who’s the real winner?

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Leon On Me

Currently rolling across the airwaves via your more clued-in radio presenters is Texas Sun, a heady collaboration between unlikely bedfellows Leon Bridges and Khruangbin.

Bridges is the very epitome of studied soul cool; the voice an amalgamation of Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, dress sense as lean and sharp as a pair of fifties Cadillac fins, and two albums into what you suspect might be a career that’s worth following.

Fellow Texans Khruangbin are also two albums to the good. Both are built around an anything-goes policy and the trio frequently magpie influences as disparate as r’n’b, psychedelia and foreign language and stir them into a heady soulful stew. 2018’s Con Tudo El Mundo should be your first point of reference if you’re unfamiliar with them.

A year in the melting pot, the 4 tracks on the collaborative EP grew out of shared tours and jam sessions and, in the shape of the title track, has yielded a modern-day stone-cold classic. Texas Sun blows like tumbleweed across a vast dustbowl landscape, big sky music that’s widescreen, expansive and wrung out on reverb and twang.

 

Caressing you from Fort Worth to Amarillo,” coos Bridges, his voice a controlled ol’ King Cole croon. “Come on roll with me ’til the sun dips low.” Weeping pedal steel slides effortlessly from the beautiful glowing orange grooves and out into the ether. Ghostly falsettos provide colour and tone in the background. And the guitar, strung-out and slow-burning, carries the whole thing home. It’s only February but if a better Lone Star State-borne shuffling love ballad is released this year I’ll head on out to the nearest Joshua tree and jab a cactus in my good eye.

The rest of the EP hasn’t yet quite matched the heights of the lead track – although I suspect at least two of them are proper growers that by this time next week will be perhaps on a par with the opener – but across those other 3 tracks there are plenty of vintage soul-influenced chops – rattlin’ wah-wah, understated Fender bass, Mayfield flutes, vibes, even a smarty pants Isaac Hayes sample – and a proper old-skool analogue sound from the production to sate your inner seventies soul boy. It’s a great record. Hopefully, an album will follow…

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Rock Goes To Collage

The Beta Band will forever be defined by Dry The Rain, the first track on their first EP that most-famously soundtracks one of the most memorable scenes in High Fidelity. That EP, Champion Versions, introduced the band’s music at a time when dumbed-down indie rock was ubiquitous, predictable and in need of a good kick square in the haw maws. The big bang of Brit Pop had long-since fizzled to a watery fart and the Big Two led the lethargic charge towards mediocrity and meaningless. Oasis was a bloated beast, cocksure with misplaced arrogance merely by being super-popular. Their music, once a glorious melding of rabid snarl and Mersey melodies – the Sex Beatles, if y’will, was now bloated, irrelevant and plain old rubbish. Blur was midway to nowhere, somewhere between slumbering, opiate-enhanced recording sessions and making cheese whilst living in actual very big houses in the country. Others limped on to ever decreasing returns; Supergrass, Gene and Elastica, for example, who’d eventually disappear down the same black hole that had claimed Marion, Menswear and Mansun before them (although some would find their way back out now and again for one last hurrah. Watch Supergrass go in 2020.)

In 1997, music was ripe for interesting change. Radiohead led the way and The Beta Band followed close behind. Dry The Rain may well be the band’s signature tune, but it’s their second EP, The Patty Patty Sound, that does it for me. Across the four tracks that constitute The Patty Patty Sound you’ll find enough weird ‘n wonky, dubbed out, clubbed up soundscapes to sate your more out-there moods. With knowing nods towards aural sculptors Can, the greats of dub reggae, the rhythms of the Stone Roses and the folky introspection of John Martyn, it’s quite something. Given its time and place, the EP really was the in-sound from way out.

It’s the opener that does it for me.

Beta BandInner Meet Me

Inner Meet Me is a solid piece of sampled and looped acoustic beat music, a cut ‘n paste sonic collage of odds ‘n sods ‘n found sounds designed to astonish and astound. It begins simply enough, with some electric bleepery and studio static before a repeating vocal plays just behind the sound of a lone pigeon cooing its way into the mix. As you might know, The Beta Band was originally going to be called The Pigeons, and after a year or so, founding member Gordon Anderson left the band soon after they relocated to London and began recording as Lone Pigeon. In a nod to their early roots, the pigeon sample is something of a band in-joke.

When it really gets going, Inner Meet Me positively swings. Acoustic guitars are played throughout with the same sort of focused gusto normally reserved for the poor soul whose job it is is to work a Brillo pad into burnt-on mince in a two day old pot. As the chord changes, the song moves into gear. The drums kick in, accompanied by percussive shakers and what sounds like a decent set of Le Creuset pots and pans being clattered on the off-beat. As you settle into it, arcade machine electro bloops and whooshes colour the mix, a reminder that Beta Band are forward-thinking retro revisionists. No-one else was doing this kinda thing in 1998 and 20-odd years later, I still think it/they sound brand new.

The EP continues with two epic sound collages – the self-descriptive House Song that, once it’s going, kicks like a mule, carried by a really great bassline and sounding like DIY lo-fi indie house, and The Monolith, a near-16 minute folktronica jam that incorporates backwards samples from their own Dry The Rain, African chanting, chiming, cascading, waterfalling guitars and plenty of birdsong. It’s not Be Here Now, that’s for sure.

Beta Band She’s The One

Closer She’s The One is closest in sound and spirit to the opener. A scrubbed acoustic jam replete with random bursts of noise and a twangin’ Jews’ harp, it’s indie hoedown relocated from a creaky porch in the deep south to a cramped St Andrews student flat. It’s all about the layers and the rhythms. Vocals and vocals, multitracked to the max create a circular, hypnotic groove, ever propulsive, ever moving forward.

Their next EP, Los Amigos Del Beta Banditos featured more of the same, a document of a peerless band ahead of their time, out of their minds and out of this world. It’s The Patty Patty Sound though that marks The Beta Band as more than just the ‘Dry the Rain‘ band.

 

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Sound Aphex

Aphex Twin is a true pioneer of electronic music, a self-taught and home-schooled, hands-on manipulator of sound. His first keyboard wasn’t of the electronic variety, but the piano that the teenage ‘Twin regularly took apart in order to play and record the strings inside the case rather than the keys themselves sparked a curiosity in reworking sound that has continued for the best part of 40 years.

Part musician and part engineer, Aphex was confident enough to dismantle and deconstruct the instruments available to him and then reconstruct them into strange new sound-carriers. Utilising a heady combination of boxfresh ZX Spectrum and pure brainpower, he worked out a way to record the static from a de-tuned TV and turn it into exotic soundscapes. With ease, he went from bedroom prospector to the goldmine of techno, DJing at underground events around the south of England during its heyday before eventually making his own music that he’d segue into his playlists.

His debut album, Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is properly ground-breaking. On release, nothing quite like it had been heard. By late ’92, techno was in full flow and fell into two camps; novelty and nosebleed. The novelty stuff (such as Sesam E’s Treet) popped up like an uncontrollable rash on Top Of The Pops every other week. The nosebleed stuff occasionally punctuated the strange airwaves betwixt and between the Mudhoney and Misty in Roots records on the John Peel show, sometimes (they tell me) even playing at the correct speed. It was something I learned to tough out, as the rewards on the show far outweighed the odd filling-loosening clunker in-between. But you knew that already…

Aphex Twin’s album was purely electronic, but it was head music rather than hedonistic music. With massive nods to Brian Eno and only very occasional forays into ear-splitting nosebleed nonsense, it was an album in the true sense of the word; it ebbed, flowed, peaked and troughed, taking you on a journey. It made for perfect headphone music then and it still does now. Stick it on as your subway train rattles through Glasgow’s underground and it’ll make the journey truly cinematic. Cue it up for a 20 mile cycle and the subtle percussive parts will work their way into the outside mix, hi-hats complementing the smooth groove of a well-oiled chain making its way through the sprocket. The fact it was all jigsawed together on Aphex Twin’s strange collection of hybrid keyboards and sequencers rather than in a state of the art studio makes it all the more special and unique.

Aphex TwinXtal

The opener Xtal is fantastic; smooth-rolling ambience, ghostly, synthy vocals, a beat that’s almost a hip hop breakbeat and multi-layers of subtle percussion. There’s a real flotation tank depth to the bass too, making the whole thing airy and spacious and, well, magic.

The phonetically troubling Ageispolis builds on the opener’s blueprint with synth washes, wandering basslines and a little keyboard motif that the unkind amongst you might snigger at for being too close to pan pipe to take seriously. Listen if you will…

Aphex TwinAgeispolis

This variation of techno music was subsequently everywhere, with Leftfield and Underworld adopting the atmospherics and spirit for their own gain, St Etienne remixes bearing the undeniable stamp of the ‘Twin and every anonymous contributor to the Café Del Mar series taking their jumping-off point from Ageispolis especially.

All fine records and artists, but there’s something that makes Aphex Twin’s stuff just that little bit extra-special. Maybe it’s the punk spirit in him that resonates. Making such beautiful, insular music in an era when everyone around him was off their nut and dancing bare chested to 180 bpm bangers is to be applauded. Punk in spirit, hippy in execution, those early Aphex recordings still sound groundbreaking today.

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Just Dragonflies

Codex by Radiohead is, to these ears, the greatest track the band recorded in the decade just gone. A bold claim given the kite mark of quality assurance that comes with each Radiohead release, but given the briefness and brevity of the Radiohead back catalogue in the tenties I’m struggling to name another track from the two records and small handful of one-off releases in that period that still sounds as fresh and timeless and, well, just plain classic with each listen – and I’ve listened to it, them, a lot over the years.

RadioheadCodex

Codex is suspended, slo-mo, flotation tank music, a song about being immersed in water that sounds exactly like its subject matter. Starting off on a wonkily-edited snippet of vocal, it ambles in on a repetitive three chord piano motif (C-Bb-Dm, if y’were wondering) before a flugel horn? A trumpet? makes itself known, the distant cousin of Johnny Marr’s eerie slide part on How Soon Is Now?, elongated and understated, the perfect precursor to one of Thom Yorke’s greatest vocals. Bathed in pathos and regret, it’s just so spot on and faultless. Those finger pointers who stab accusingly towards ol’ wonky eye and claim he can’t sing would be stopped dead in their tracks if they’d made it this far into the Radiohead ouvre.

What Yorke’s actually singing about is open to interpretation. You don’t have to look too far into the internet’s abyss to find thousands of theories regarding the lyrics, where references abound to spirituality and soul cleansing and suicide.

Sleight of hand
Jump off the end
Into a clear lake
No one around
Just dragonflies
Fantasise
No one gets hurt

You’ve done nothing wrong
Slide your hand
Jump off the end
The water’s clear
And innocent
The water’s clear
And innocent

 

 

A quietly heart-beating drum thumps its muffled way throughout the track as the horns build and the piano is soaked in an ambience last heard on Eno’s Music For Films album. Gentle strings emerge from the fog, the heartbeat louder by now and then, suddenly….it’s over. Did he jump? Did he turn around? Quietly chirping birds bring the track to a close and you’re left to make up your own mind. It’s an incredibly sad track, as filmic as Fellini and just as beautiful and timeless.

Here’s the version Radiohead did when they played the entirety of King Of Limbs on Nigel Godrich’s From The Basement show.

RadioheadCodex (TKOL From The Basement)

 

The King Of Limbs was something of a slow burner of a record to begin with; self-indulgent, insular, moody…. but like all the best albums by all the best artists, you benefit through continual listening and reappraisal. Perseverance even. Codex pops up between the glitchy, jerky dubstep of the superb Lotus Flower and the pastoral, acoustic Give Up The Ghost – a potted distillation of everything that’s great about Radiohead in three successive tracks, a triumvirate on an album that’s without a doubt a top 3 Radiohead record.

 

 

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Hot-Wired Punk Blooze

Ferox

1. Latin word: for strong, courageous, wild.

2. Can be used to describe Wilko Johnson (b. John  Wilkinson, England, 1947. Guitarist with Dr Feelgood, ’73 – ’77)

Words in the English language that borrow their root from ferox include fierce, ferocious, feral, ferment, fertile. When pre-punk guitar hero and latter-day cancer survivor Wilko Johnson straps on that Telecaster, these words also apply to him.

Plugged in, he’s the conduit for 2000 volts of white-hot electricity, half of it flowing from his guitar and out through his amp as freely as the tide in the Thames Estuary, the other half reserved for jolting the player, sparking wildly from fingers to fretboard and back again.

He wields that Tele like James Cagney with a Tommy Gun; waist height, held to the side, pointing straight ahead, and he fires off lightning-fast bolts of ferocious punk blooze, his eyes as feral as Marty Feldman’s without the squint, his gurning lips curled into a pout that’s half way between rebellious Elvis and self-satisfied “I told you so“, his thousand yard stare focused somewhere off in the distance as he concentrates on fermenting his open-handed riffs. His legs seem to work independently of the rest of him, juddering him this way then that, left and right, forward and backwards, a National Grid-powered, bowl-cut Frankenstein’s monster of six-string stupendousness.

When Wilko and his band Dr Feelgood crank into Roxette, it’s the sound of a car being hot-wired and stolen. The frantic part towards the end, when it goes double-time and the wailing harmonica clashes with the Animal-like drums and Wilko’s F-shaped riffing, is the sound of a Ford Cortina going from zero to 60 in 3 seconds flat, a screech of burning rubber and revving engine, tyre marks indelibly burned to the asphalt. Oh! To have seen this live in ’75! Play it and play it again.

Dr FeelgoodRoxette

Recorded (as is the whole of Down By The Jetty, its parent album) in pistol-packin’ mono, Roxette has a punchy, barely-contained self-restraint. Reminiscent of those great Who and Kinks and Stones singles of the 60s that seemed to leap off the grooves one louder than everyone else, it’s straight out the traps and into your ears. Wilko’s simple choppy riff is centre-stage, a standard 3 chord progression employed before and since by all the greats. It cuts like a knife, cheese-grater thin, razor sharp and fat-free. Wilko doesn’t feel the need to break into flashy fretboard wankery. It’s all in that fantastic knuckle-dusted rhythm, sparks flying as wildly and furiously as the sparks from a welder’s blow torch.

Have you ever watched Paul Weller doing From the Floorboards Up in concert? Really watched? In tribute to his hero, PW dispenses with his plectrum for the one song, riffing away like Wilko in ’78. Jings, he even employed a Telecaster on the original recording to cut through the backing band bluster of what was essentially Ocean Colour Scene at the time. Save for the boomeranging sound effects midway through (a terrific touch), it’s a slashing, ringing carbon copy of Wilko’s best bits. Artists will always pay tribute to their heroes. Weller’s is perhaps the most touching and subtle…and best for it.

Paul WellerFrom The Floorboards Up

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I’ll Tell You One Thing, He’s Not Building A Playhouse For The Children

Tom Waits was 70 at the end of last week. On the one hand this was quite surprising. Tom Waits?! 70?! No way! On the other though, Waits has looked at least 103 since the first time I set eyes and ears on him, round about the time they played a clip of In The Neighbourhood or some suchlike off of Swordfishtrombones on Whistle Test, or perhaps even the Oxford Road Show. This was back in the mid 80s when pop was shiny and bright with clean hair and cleaner teeth and here was Waits, crumpled and tramp-like with an electric shock of hair that even Keith Richards might’ve taken a comb to, his rough hewn chin and sharp cheekbones giving him the look of a werewolf on the verge of an asthma attack, attacking, not playing his upright piano. Cool as the proverbial fuck.

 

Waits really perfected that beatnik bum look, looking like the hobo in a Rockwell painting that had managed to peel himself free from the canvas and flop onto the nearest flat surface. It was in place for Closing Time, his first album, and he sort of grew into it with each subsequent release.

Delivered with a voice that’s equal parts gravel and gasoline, Waits sings bourbon-soaked mini operas of loving and losing, of romance and heart-break – Grapefruit Moon, for example, or Martha, or the astonishingly brilliant and Desolation Row-like Kentucky Avenue, yet he can be laugh-out-loud-funny when the mood needs lifting. Seek out All My Friends Are Married on Nighthawks At The Diner for a prime slice of all-bases-covered Waits’ melancholic pathos. In fact, listen to the whole album, it might just change your life. That’s an instruction, by the way, not a recommendation.

Tom WaitsMartha

As his back catalogue grew to be as wild and varied as the bottle selection behind a Bowery bar, so too did his approach to music. Waits’ anything goes attitude meant that accordions played polkas while bits of metal clanged rudimentary rhythms, skewed blues flipped and flopped underneath funereal Salvation Army band dirges, spoken word sections fought for your attention with ambient jazz….fantastically unpigeonholeable, that’s yer Waits.

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Regardless of the style, the substance is always there. Taken as music-free words on a page, a Tom Waits’ lyric is a work of art in its own right, as essential a read as Bukowski or Kerouac, wonderful beat-influenced poetry that will be subjected to wonky actual beats once inside a recording studio. On 1999’s Mule Variations – 20 years ago – jeez! – you’ll find two of Waits’ most incredible tracks.

Tom Waits What’s He Building?

On What’s He Building?, Waits snarls a fantastic spoken word account of a mysteriously sinister neighbour who’s piqued the irk of the singer. Static squelches its way across the band waves. Heavy tools clank. Bandsaws whine and whir. The menace creeps as Waits lays out his problems with his neighbour. Or should that be neighbor?

What’s he building in there?
What the hell is he building in there?
He has subscriptions to those magazines
He never waves when he goes by
And he’s hiding something from the rest of us
He’s all to himself, I think I know why
He took down the tire-swing from the pepper tree
He has no children of his own, you see
He has no dog, he has no friends
And his lawn is dying
And what about those packages he sends?
What’s he building in there?
With that hook light on the stairs
What’s he building in there?
I’ll tell you one thing, he’s not building a playhouse for the children
What’s he building in there?
Now what’s that sound from underneath the door?
He’s pounding nails into a hardwood floor
And I swear to God I heard someone moaning low
And I keep seeing the blue light of a TV show
He has a router and a table saw
And you won’t believe what Mr. Sticha saw
There’s poison underneath the sink, of course
There’s also enough formaldehyde to choke a horse
What’s he building in there?
What the hell is he building in there?
I heard he has an ex-wife in some place called Mayor’s Income, Tennessee
And he used to have a consulting business in Indonesia
But what’s he building in there?
He has no friends but he gets a lot of mail
I bet he spent a little time in jail
I heard he was up on the roof last night, signalling with a flashlight
And what’s that tune he’s always whistling?
What’s he building in there?
What’s he building in there?
We have a right to know

It’s the perfect soundtrack to a still-to-be-written Stephen King short story, a modern-day gothic horror tale of untold holy terrors behind suburban curtains. I wonder if Stephen King has heard it?

Rubbing uncomfortable shoulders with the creeping menace of What’s He Building? is the plaintive Take It With Me, a song so small and sad you wouldn’t believe it was the same artist who’d done both.

Tom WaitsTake It With Me

It’s a sweeping-up song, end of the night barroom jazz, a long look back on a love lost. We’ve all been there but, as usual, Waits puts it best.

Oceans as blue as your eyes,” “We lived in Coney Is-land,” “It felt just like the old days….

The memories linger, like the tendrils of tobacco and whiskey curling around the mouth of the piano player, playing to no-one but you in the corner of the bar.

In a land there’s a town, and in that town there’s a house
And in that house there’s a woman
And in that woman there’s a heart I love
I’m gonna take it with me when I go

This isn’t one of Tom Waits’ best-known songs, but it should be. Listen. Repeat. Share. Thanks.