There’s a great little authentic soul scene bubbling just under the surface, a handful of artists who’ve strode proudly in on the back of Michael Kiwanuka’s door-opening wide lapels and wormed their way into the more discerning listeners’ ear space thanks to their abilities to take the best of those late ’60s/ early ’70s soul pioneers (Stevie, Curtis, Marvin) and re-present them as shiny new things, played and produced with effortless majesty. At the forefront are the excellent Black Pumas, previously featured here, along with the also-featured Curtis Harding and Leon Bridges.
The newest cool chops on the block belong to Boulevards, the name by which North Carolina’s Jamil Rashad preferes to go by. He’s not new to this. Bandcamp throws up some self-released tracks that are a good five years old, but in the interim he’s thankfully thrown off the questionable and gadsy Kravitzesque approach to what constitutes ‘retro’ and reimagined himself as a pimped up, cooled out Blaxploitation soundtracker.
His fourth album – Electric Cowboy: Born In Carolina Mud, due out in February ’22 will perhaps be one of the early go-to albums of next year. If you like the references above, I think you will, as Shaft was wont to say, dig it.
Better Off Dead floats in on a lush tapestry of whacked-out wah wah and paranoid orchestration, pistol crack snare and movie-esque synths. Boulevards takes the first verse – sumthin’s wrong wit’ me, I can’t barely breathe – singing the tale of the after-effects of a week-long bender and, just as you’re falling into hungover step with him, guest vocalist (New West labelmate) Nikki Lane eases her way in on a shimmer of silver strings to tell her side of the story – noses start to bleed…when can I take a seat?…I need a hit you see…tell me I’m alive… It’s Lee ‘n Nancy ‘n Isobel ‘n Mark for the strung-out post-millenials in your life and it’s utterly fantastic.
Those chords are great; luscious and creamy major 7ths with just the right amount of echo and reverb, and when they make way for the slow burning solo, it’s exactly what you were wishing for; a string bent, multi-phased, morphine-dripping long-lost cousin of the Isleys’ That Lady. You can practically see the technicolour flow from the speakers as it floods the room. Reading the credits alongside the press release here, it would appear that it’s the work of Black Pumas’ talented Fender bender Adrain Quesada, a neat way of squaring the circle, of passing the baton on to the latest trailblazers in the soul underground.
Fill yr Boulevards boots at New West Records here. You should also take the time to investigate Nikki Lane. A bit country, a bit Southern Soul, she is, apparently, the real deal.
Reissues. Man! All those albums you bought 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 (even) years ago are back out again in a dazzling array of coloured vinyl, with extra sets of alt. takes, outtakes and half-arsed half-takes, all boxed up in tactile packaging, with hardback coffee-table books to accompany almost every one of them (yes, the irony is not lost on this particular author of one of those very books). The music fan – not yr Spotify streaming, playlist loving, iPhone blasting freeloader – but yr forever record-buying, empty walleted polyvinyl addict is being mugged on a weekly basis.
Let It Be. Screamadelica. Nevermind. New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Sunflower/Surfs Up. Urban Hymns. All have recently been afforded (afforded being something of an oxymoron) the privilege of the deluxe treatment. ‘kin Urban Hymns?!? At what point is an album considered such a classic that it needs a 6 LP box set? Urban Hymns is a good album ‘n that, but only good, and very of its time; Spandau Ballet in a bucket hat – some killer, some filler, hey ho. How they’ve managed to fill 6 LPs – 12 sides! – is dazzlingly baffling.
Even Radiohead are at it. When they recorded the tracks that made up Kid A and Amnesiac back in the early ’00s, they chose to release them as two separate albums, with Amnesiac following Kid A by six months or so. A brave new direction for the band, Kid A took a while to grow on many and, just as it was beginning to unravel and make sense, along came Amnesiac which, despite being recorded at the same time, is a very different record. Together they would have made for a very sprawling and very difficult double album.
Many would argue that this is exactly what these brave new pioneers of music should’ve done at the time, so they must now be thrilled that Radiohead have repackaged both records as one, and not as a double album, but a triple – on white or red vinyl if you were quick enough (and plenty of you were, as it’s now all over eBay at silly prices) – with a third record of alternative versions, forgotten oddities and the odd dangly carrot of an unreleased beauty to hook you in. Madness, silliness and of course, you need it all. The record companies know it. They buff it up. You shell it out. And everyone’s a winner.
That lost Radiohead track is a beauty, right enough. Sparse, atmospheric and unravelling, If You Say The Word is neither electronic enough for Kid A nor obtuse enough for Amnesiac. Folk who tell you they liked Radiohead until they got weird (yawn) will love it. It sounds as if it was recorded in the big, airy Capitol Studios in LA, Sinatra at the lectern, Hal Blaine playing jazz paradiddles on the kit and the ghost of Nelson Riddle arranging it all behind the scenes.
Radiohead – If You Say The Word
Forget strings and orchestration though. The ‘Heid do things differently. Where Nelson Riddle might write a string line, Jonny Greenwood plays understated, minimalist Fender Rhodes. Where Sinatra might look to the brass for the melody, Radiohead ride in on the back of Ed O’Brien’s complex, wonkily-timed guitar arpeggios. Where a sweeping orchestral line can pick you up and carry you off, Radiohead coat their symphonies in icy blasts of Radiophonic Workshop found sound and arctic ambience.
Underpinned by subtly wandering bass lines (think Holger Czukay playing Andy Rourke on Stars In Their Eyes) and layer upon layer of counter melodies, a centre-stage Thom sings his angsty, existential lullaby in a swirl of space dust and atmosphere. You must wonder what other beauties Radiohead have hidden in the vaults, queuing up to be drip-fed with every subsequent super-deluxe release. The crafty bastards.
How are your eating habits these days? With COP26 taking place a couple of farmers’ fields and a few country miles over the horizon from my back window, I, like everyone else I suppose, should be making more of an attempt to cut out the red meat. Our eldest is full-on vegetarian, something I’m proud of her for having the conviction to stick to, but it does make dinner time a mess of multi-cooking. As a family we try and have a couple of meat-free meals a week, but we could be doing more. Mike Joyce (clang) told me that when Morrissey (clang!) pointed out to the other Smiths one day that you wouldn’t eat a dog, so why would you contemplate eating a cow, he had no answer to it and turned vegetarian there and then. I nodded earnestly while in a non-preachy way Johnny Marr (clang!!) outlined the benefits of veganism and urged me to “give it a try for a bit“, but an hour later I was in a chip shop stuffing a smoked sausage supper down my brass neck. Shamefully and with a side dollop of regret, I must say, but still…
Someone I doubt very much who, in their early days, gave much thought to being carbon neutral and eco-aware is Robert Plant. Led Zeppelin came galloping into town like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, cruising on the jetstream of The Starship – their own private Boeing 720, crash-landing only to pillage and plunder and play some rock and roll before gallivanting out again in a haze of hennaed hair and the sighing swoons of every female within radius. Simpler times the ’70s, so they say. Eco-schmeco.
I met Robert Plant once. July 1995. I was working for Our Price, helping train the counter staff to use a new-fangled barcode scanning stock control system we’d invested in. The job took me everywhere from Inverness to Leeds and many places in-between. I travelled mainly by rail, read a ton of books as I did so and spent the duration of the job finding out where my £15 a night meal allowance would stretch to best. (The Qismat Tandoori in Elgin, if you’re interested.) In the July I was to go to our new shop at Glasgow Airport and begin training the staff on the ins and outs of our new payolla-proof system. Emptying my bag at my mum’s, I dumped most of the stuff I now deemed unnecessary for my time at the airport, including, crucially, my well-thumbed copy of Hammer Of The Gods, the infamous, unauthorised Led Zeppelin biography that dug the dirt on groupies, snapper fish and the physical and metaphorical muscle of Peter Grant. Of course, the first customer – the first customer! – through the door was only yer actual Robert Plant. As he arrived at the counter and the wee stack of CDs he was buying were being rung through, I engaged him in conversation.
“I’ve just being reading a book about you.”
“Oh yeah?” he said, genuinely interested.
“Yeah… Hammer Of The Gods…” I offered.
“Oh!” he said, with a wry smile, looking straight at me. He didn’t quite twirl those golden curls through his fingers the way he absent-mindedly did mid set in ’73, but he might as well have done. He was still a bit of a looker. The light from the Albert King CD he had been inspecting glinted in his clear blue eyes – rock god eyes that have seen more than you or I will ever see – and he spoke his words of wisdom.
“Yeah… Jimmy didn’t come out of that one looking too good, did he now?!”
It was at this point I was wishing I could get him to sign a CD, but with the counter being small, narrow and unpassable, there was no opportunity to squeeze past the most famous rock star I’d ever met and pick one from the racks. And by now I was cursing myself for having dumped the book from my bag. Then, out of the blue, the girl serving him presented him with the shop’s autograph book. “Yeah, sure,” he smiled, taking the pen she had offered.
Whoever had the foresight to stick an autograph book at the till in an airport record shop deserves a medal for quick thinking. It was full of all sorts – Bjork, Keith Floyd, Robert Downie Jr. There was even a wee Rolfaroo in there. Can we still mention that? Anyway, Robert happily obliged, adding his name in a large, swooping, blue inked signature. I noticed at the time (and can still picture in my head now) that it looked very similar to the ‘ZOSO‘ logo on Led Zep IV. A neat coincidence.
I’m not a rock fan by any means – all that pillaging and plundering and bare-chested daftness and whathaveye – but I do love a good amount of Led Zeppelin; those first four albums mainly, plus selected parts of Physical Graffiti. They’ve had their shameful moments, well-documented in that (genital) warts ‘n all book, but sometimes – most of the time? – it’s OK to separate the art from the dubiously-moralled artist. And shallow as I am, I am a sucker for a sloppily-played, turned up to 10 guitar riff. Sometimes, when the urge strikes, and usually only if the house is empty, nothing other will do than a proper baws oot blasting of Led Zeppelin.
Led Zeppelin –Custard Pie
Custard Pie is the perfect example of that tight-but-loose label that Led Zep acquired, Jimmy’s guitar to the fore, slapdash and funky but ultra-together, propelled by a wall of thunder behind, the drums almost leading on the off-beat, John Paul Jones riffing around on a clavinet or something similar in the gaps in-between. Robert opts for a restrained guttural croon, rockin’ yet soulful. Swathes of wah-wah and wailing harmonica carry the song to its conclusion, a no-frills, no nonsense rock and roll boogie, Jimmy up the frets and playing to the very limits of his abilities.
Custard Pie is the riff my fingers fall into whenever I pick up a guitar these days. It’s a beauty, ideal for stretching the pinky and working on the timing of the right hand, although I usually give up sometime around the first notes of the lightning flash solo. I’ve no patience for cock rock wizardry such as that. Nor have I much truck with the outdated and iffy subject matter (a Plant-based diet of a very different sort). Great rockin’ tune but.
My Bloody Valentine damn-near bankrupted Creation to make an album only a fraction as exciting, as intense, as self-indulgent as Faust‘s Krautrock, a track so good they named an entire genre after it. Julian Cope, in his worth-stealing Krautrocksampler book, called the track ‘a continuation of (Faust’s) whole trip‘. He’s right, of course. A dozen minutes of head music; expansive, noisy and pretty, pretty essential. Kosmische!
It lurches in on a slur of stretched 3″ studio tape…or perhaps a divebombing whammy bar…and layered fuzz guitars, overlapped and saturated to white noise levels of intensity, fall into a snaking groove pattern, panned from left speaker to right and back again, an instant head trip.
Der-der-derder-der-duuh…Der-der-derder-der-duhh. From underneath the blanket of restrained, compressed noise creeps a tambourine, its steady rattling jangle enhancing the drumless, beatless rhythm that’s unfolding in front of your ears.
Here comes the bass…woody and electric, looped and repetitive, recorded in an era long before Ed Sheeran and KT Tunstall and even loopers themselves were a thing. Disciplined, repetitive and worming its way into your consciousness, it’s now the lead instrument, a counter-rhythm to the relentless guitar noizzze that came before. Dum-deh-dehdeh-deh-dum…Dum-deh-dehdeh-de-dum.
But wait…is that a vocal? Is it? A sort-of chanted, Tibetan monk-influenced calling from some far-off metaphorical mountaintop? Remember when John Lennon had this idea – and he had it first, by a good eight years – for Tomorrow Never Knows? This is what I think he had in mind, if indeed a vocal is even here at all. I mean, I think there is. I’m sure of it. I think I am.
And now there’re drums. It’s Keith Moon tripping up and falling down the stairs, landing the right way up and falling straight into the beat; propulsive, steady, not in your face but driving the whole thing ever-forwards.
That guitar ambience that kicked it all off? You’d forgotten about that, hadn’t you? It’s still there, of course, aural background wallpaper, the splashes of colour in an otherwise steady and unshowy room. But as soon as you remember the guitars, there they are, suddenly at the fore again; fizzing static bursts of beamed-in-from-the-outer-edges art rock and long, howling notes bent out of shape by distorted wah-wah and studio trickery. Just as your mind alters to the staggered groove – are we at the end of a bar or midway through? – a keyboard floats in, keeping time with its Farfisa parp. Or is it actually a manic Velvet’s violin, noise-as-art aesthetic, screeching/keeping time like John Cage on Black Angel’s Death Song, trying painfully to be heard above the apocalyptic din? Maybe it’s both. Who knows? Who cares?
Shh! Listen! That quiet, respectful popping noise you hear near the end is the sound of Stereolab crying into their Rice Krispies, totally defeated. We’ll never be as good as this, they admit, though they’ll continue to give it a good try.
This time a dozen years ago I was a gape-mouthed, goggle-eyed, free-spending tourist in New York City. Look up, look down, look all around, as the song goes. There’s something happening all the time no matter where you rest your eyes, although you should never rest your eyes in the one place in New York for very long. “Get outta the road ya freakin’ jerk!” shouted a commuting cyclist as I stepped into the cycle lane on the Brooklyn Bridge in an attempt to snap the most perfectly symmetrical of shots. I needed two goes, on account of the fact the cyclist damn-near killed me during my first attempt. Wow. Even the locals make you feel like you were a bit-part player in some never-ending, ever-changing movie.
One afternoon we took a trip on the Staten Island Ferry. We’d missed our chance at an actual trip to the Statue Of Liberty, but this ferry ride, the Rough Guide book assured us, afforded close-ups of the iconic landmark as the ferry shuttled across the Hudson River on its short journey between New York’s most out of the way borough and Manhattan. In the event, those close-ups weren’t all that close, but we dutifully snapped and posed and what have you like the tourists we undeniably were, the statue a Lego-sized symbol of freedom in the hazy background.
The greatest thing about the ferry ride was happening outside the terminal back on the Manhattan side. A group, a posse if you will, of breakdancing b-boys, all baggy pants and backwards Mets and Giants and Rangers caps were blasting proper old-school electro hip-hop from the largest ghetto blaster you can possibly imagine and were taking it in turns to breakdance; a wee gang of headspinning, robot-walking, toprocking and freezing show-offs. They were terrifc and they knew it. A memory of it will sometimes flash into my mind and I will kick myself for not taking a video clip – or even a solitary snapshot – of the spectacle. The simpler days before camera phones, I suppose.
Ezra Koenig is the vocalist and focal point of Vampire Weekend, one of a slew of weedy bands who grew from the cracks in the wake of the success of The Strokes in the early millenium. If you wore a guitar and size 28 inch jeans and lived within fringe-flopping distance of New York State, chances are you’d be offered a record contract by a label desperate to find the next guitar band to die for. I don’t mind Vampire Weekend in the slightest, but they inhabit that era in time for me when bands seemed to appear from nowhere and by the time they’d played the Barrowlands were onto their third or even fourth album. Where the fuckdiddilyuck did they come from? I’d often remark to no-one in particular. I’m too old, too lazy and too stuck in my ways to catch up. Oxford Comma though. Good tune with funny words. I like that. And Sunflower Bean. I like that too. I bet I’d be properly into them if I allowed myself.
SBTRKT is the shouty and vowel-shy nom de plume of Aaron Jerome, remixer to acts as diverse as Radiohead, MIA and Underworld. Sometimes glitch-itch-itchy and t-t-t-twitchy and sometimes turbo-charged, hi-gloss electronica, his music, much like those bands of the early noughties has pretty much passed me by too. This track has made its mark though.
SBTRKT featuring Ezra Koenig – New Dorp. New York.
IT’S BTY, WTH LYRC FROM ZR BTNW DRP, TWN N STTN SLND THT TKS T NM FRM TH DTCH PHRS FR NW TWN.
Damn! That’s impossible to keep doing.
Fading in on a whoosh of ambient New York traffic (though not on my version above, for some reason!), it’s the bass that hits you first, a proper subwoofing tectonic plate-mover. Almost immediately, the lyric threatens to fall into The Sweet’s …’and she thinks she’s the passionate one‘, but just as quickly falls into its own pattern. The vocals are flat and electronically treated, SBTRKT and an un-named female vocalist doing some sort of spoken word duet about New York and Manhattan and gargling gargoyles (tourist tip: always look up in old Gotham) and Ezra taking over with crisply annunciated words about cities to run and keys to the kingdom and the colour (or is that color?) yella.
‘My girl got a limousine, it’s a full-time job just to keep it clean,’ he says. ‘Got a speaker in the trunk y’know it weighs a ton…‘
Ezra, mate. Play this at any volume while you’re driving and you’re liable to stall and blow the windows in and blow the tires out, or at the very least be travel sick into your lap. I was once sick after a very loud band practice in my kitchen, the subfrequencies from the bass guitar bouncing off the tiles and zapping straight into my recently-eaten lunch, lying dormant in my stomach. Not for long…
I doubt Ezra ever practiced in a kitchen. An Ivy Leaguer from NYC, he’ll have got that record deal without too much bother. I’m glad he and SBTRKT found one another for that tune. Percussive, catchy and the creeping, claustrophobic cousin of David Essex’s Rock On, it’s the very definition of a banger; top of the Rock, top of the pops.
I found myself drawn into Dirty Harry the other night. I channel-hopped my way into it during a hunt for some decent music telly just as it was starting and watched through eyes that hadn’t seen it for so long that watching it seemed like I was doing so for the first time.
It’s an accepted classic, of course, the loosely-based-on-a-true story of the Zodiac Killer – the pscychopathic Scorpio, a blackmailing maniac with a Van Morrison/Astral Weeks haircut – and you can’t get it out of your mind as you watch – who shoots women, hits school kids and extracts teeth from teenage girls, being hunted down by maverick cop Harry Callahan (no ‘g’). “Why do they call you ‘Dirty’?” his colleagues repeatedly ask, and Harry, played brilliantly by Clint Eastwood will stare them down into quiet, intimidated submission.
Harry lives by a set of police rules made for bending and frequently breaking, and has a list of against-the-book demeanours longer than the barrel of his Magnum. He’s forever being called into a supervisor’s office (or even to receive a fist-banging dressing down from the Mayor- wherever there’s a non-conformist ‘70s cop, there’s always a haranguing, popularity-infatuated mayor) where he’ll! be! shouted! at! with! incrEASING!! VOLUME!!! that culminates in a chewed “GETTHAHELLOUTTAHERECALLAHAN!!!!”, both Harry and his boss left under no doubt that Harry – Dirty Harry, remember, is off to bring justice to Scorpio by any means necessary.
Filmed in ‘70s San Francisco, the cinematography has a bleached-out, sun-kissed and almost-Instagramatic haze to it all; long, tracked shots of Lombard Street winding forever, the Golden Gate Bridge looming large, Alcatraz an unreferenced yet ominous permapresence out in the bay.
The night time scenes are so oily black as to be genuinely tense whenever the clock creeps around to the wee hours. Of course, homicidal maniacs as off-kilter as Scorpio only work under the grainy shadow of the moon, so whether Harry is running the gauntlet through a midnight wood full of propositioning perverts or he’s running breathlessly through a tunnel where you know – just know – that criminal elements lurk within or he’s running (again!) across neon-lit rooftops as bullets permanently alter the fascia of the building he’s conducting his stakeout from, Callahan spends a lot of his time in semi-darkness, semi out of breath and only ever a half-step away from life-threatening danger.
Dirty Harry is brilliantly scored by Lalo Schifrin. Knife stabs of brass puncture the murky silence whenever Harry and Scorpio’s eyes meet. Fingers-down-blackboard strings scrape across the more violent scenes. And all that running is scored by breathless, alarming, pitter-pattering percussion; frantic hi-hat action and rattling toms that replicate exactly the sound made by two sets of Cuban heels in pursuit of either freedom or justice, depending on who the camera is focused on, as they batter at full pelt down a San Franciscan sidewalk.
When are these people – the goodies as well as the baddies – going to realise that sneakers are so-called for that very reason?! A clomp of Harry’s boot heel on bare floorboard is always Scorpio’s cue to make a run for it, the tinkling, ringing vibraphone that helps build the tension giving way to full-blown percussive bombast. But then again, no Cuban heels, no highly-tense soundtrack.
Dirty Harry Theme – Lalo Schifrin
‘I know what you’re thinking…” Harry says to Scorpio at the finale. ‘”Did he fire six shots or only five..?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?’”
A film that looks great, sounds great and has instantly quotable lines in it…they don’t make ’em like that anymore, do they?
I’m particularly fond of this wee Teenage Fanclub curio. One half of a 2004 split single with International Airport (the side project of long-time Pastel Tom Crossley), each act has their version of the ‘Airport’s Association! on either side of the 7″.
Teenage Fanclub – Association!
Teenage Fanclub’s version is a lovely mid-paced chugger that grooves along at exactly the same pace and rhythm as Gerry Love tapping a battered desert boot while snapping a gub full of Juicy Fruit in time to the beat. It’s head nodding sunshine pop, all fruggable bassline and lazy, hazy double harmonies where Norman’s voice and Gerard’s seemingly mesh and melt into one another. The guitars, scrapy and scratchy at the start but clean and chiming fromm thereon in, rise and fall and ring and sparkle behind the vocals, acceding on occasion to the faintest of tinkling pitched percussion and the same thrumming atmospheric organ that fades in at the beginning.
It’s just about missing a handful of swinging fringes and some John Sebastian-conducted Lovin’ Spoonful on-the-beat handclaps, but feel free to add your own where you know they should go. You’ll probably want to pick it up a bit after the band drops out before coming back in alongside those ghosting backing vocals – “Won’t you tell it to me doctor?” Lovely stuff, it must be said.
Association! wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place on the following year’s Man Made album, but as you know, all the best bands – The Beatles, XTC, New Order, The Smiths, (add your own selection here: ________) – leave some of their greatest material off of the albums and keep them instead as stand alone tracks. Despite being a cover, Association! endures to this day as one of TFC’s best-kept secrets.
It’s somewhat difficult to make out lyrically, and not being well-known enough to appear on any of the internet’s lyric sites means much guesswork is required to work out what’s being sung. Repeated plays – and I’ve been playing it non-stop again for the past couple of days – throw up references to Castle Bay, boats, moving water, on the wreck of the Association – it’s about a boat! – and, I’ve got myself convinced, something about a Rubik’s Cube.
I mean, I dunno. The Fanclub could sing the obituaries page in last week’s Herald and make it sound like throw-away sun-kissed perfection, but on this track their melodic mumbling prevails. Phonetically though, it sounds wonderful.
“I’m part of the association, the circle of the free….
stereo music…yeah it’s a part of me.”
Or something like that.
The original throws up no further clues…
International Airport – Association! Channel Mash
Even tinklier than TFC’s version, and that’s a melodica in there too, isn’t it? – International Airport’s take has a home-made rough around the edges feel to it that I suspect most acts would have trouble capturing in their own way. There’s a lovely cyclical bassline to it, different to Gerry’s but no less wonderful, and some off-kilter harmonies that only add to the charm. Aggi Pastel wafts in and out at the tail end of some of the lines – “now you gotta wait and see” – and the drop-out on this version has some lovely rudimentary wheezy slide guitar accompanying the overlapping vocals.
What’s clear to hear is that International Airport had grand plans for their song – it’s lo-fi but with hi-fi ambitions – and that perhaps those plans could only be realised through Teenage Fanclub’s gift for a close-knit harmony and a closely-mic’d vintage guitar. Great songs are great songs are great songs though, no matter the bells and whistles you can hang on them. But I suspect you knew that already.
In the olden days, when times were simpler and telly was defined by three channels, none of whom broadcast before the late afternoon, you could, for fun, retune your portable black and white TV and, through the white noise and static fuzz, pick up this alien-sounding entity called ‘Ulster TV’.
Transmitted faintly into Ayrshire from Northern Ireland, Ulster showed local news and endless, boring talking heads offering up political opinion and, instead of Scotsport with Arthur Montford, it showed highlights of this thing called shinty, a game played in damp, grey, muddy conditions in sometimes packed but usually half-empty rickety old stadiums. The black and white picture and hissy sibilance of the broadcast did nothing to enhance it. The commentators spoke with a jarring hardness that was at once at odds with the received pronunciation of their BBC counterparts over the Irish Sea. I’d never heard voices quite like these ones, and I wouldn’t again until I heard Van Morrison amble across the top of Coney Island. “I look at the side of yer fayce,” he says at the end, as hard as a bucket of bolts from Harland and Wolff, instantly endearing.
Luscious and languorous, Coney Island is one of Van’s greatest ‘songs’. I say ‘song’ with inverted commas because the whole thing is a string-swollen and gently rippling mini symphony, as uplifting as the Spring movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, as heart-stirring as the Blue Danube Waltz, but with a sentimentality that never slips into schmaltz as Van recounts a story from his early years over the top of it.
Van Morrison – Coney Island
From his 1989 masterpiece Avalon Sunset, Coney Island is Van’s tale of travelling as a small boy with his mum to Coney Island, a small seaside village on the eastern coast of Northern Island. Not an actual island – Coney Island is itself a small peninsula served by a causeway that may at one point in history have been cut off from the land, hence the island part of the name (‘coney’ is an Irish word for ‘rabbit’ – they are everywhere around this part of Ireland) – it is less seaside resort and more a row of houses with a nice beach. In my own olden days, when times were simpler, I took to retuning the telly for a bit of home-made fun. In his time, young Ivan and his mum thought nothing of travelling for a whole day across Ulster to get to a beach with no amenities…and, as the song will leave you doubtless, it would be the highlight of Van’s formative years.
The picture that Van paints with his words is of a 1950s rural Ireland that wasn’t, I imagine, too dissimilar to life in the west of Scotland at the time, a life slow of pace and rich of culture; stopping off for Sunday papers. Jars of mussels and potted herring in case we get famished before dinner. Birdwatching. Jam jars. Taking pictures. Green fields. Rolling hills. Hedgerows and puddles and leaves blown up and along by the wind from the Irish Sea. It may be sepia-tinted but the Morrisons’ trip is crystal clear in the mind’s eye.
It’s the journey rather than the destination that has left its indelible mark on Van, as he and his mum zig-zag through towns and villages, past hills and hamlets as they make their way ever-closer to their wee seaside retreat. On and on, over the hill and the craic is good. The guitars ripple like water from a mountain stream. Wind-blown strings rise and swell to the ebb and flow of the elements. Cymbals splash, water on the rocks, harps gently descend as the journey reaches its conclusion…. and then, with a subtle, questioning inflection in his proud Ulsterian voice, the pay-off…
Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?
I wrote a book. A proper, hefty music biography that won’t look out of place between Ziggyology and Head-On and Beastie Boys Book and Songs That Saved Your Life and Revolution In The Head and any of those other essential reads that make up your book shelf.
The Perfect Reminder tells the story behind the songs on the Trashcan Sinatras‘ second album I’ve Seen Everything – a quietly-confident-but-knows-its-place cult book about a quietly-confident-but-knows-its-place cult act. Thanks to a small team that includes a fantastic photographer (Stephanie Gibson) and a Brooklyn-based creative director with an analytical approach to typesetting and design (Chris Dooley), the finished article turned out waaaay better than expected. We got to hold it, feel it, sniff it, on Tuesday night and it was quite the thrill. The book, tactile and glossy and heavy, is also almost three times longer than my initial (now-laughable) estimate of 35,000 words, and far-better for it.
To paraphrase David Byrne, how the fuckdiddilyuck did I get here?
With the long out-of-print I’ve Seen Everything being reissued by Last Night From Glasgow, I chanced my arm and asked if I could write the sleevenotes. I had clout, I suggested. Back in 1992, I’d been around the studio during the making of the record. I was pals with the band. I’d written articles on them for local and national press; my sleevenotes would surely be wonderfully entertaining.
Clout I may have had, but that particular gig had already been promised to crack music critic and life-long Trashcans fan Pete Paphides. You can’t argue with that, I told myself, while Ian from LNFG let me down gently by asking me if I’d like to put together a “small book-type thing, a posh fanzine perhaps” that told the stories of the songs through the eyes of the Trashcans’ loyal and steadfast fan base.
There’s a better story than that, I suggested after a minute’s thought, and reeled off plans where the five Trashcans would tell their own stories of how the songs came to be; from the underwhelming initial writing sessions that filled the band with self-doubt, through to the sparkling finished product, expertly steered and produced by the affable and dude-like Ray Shulman. Despite the band separated by the small matter of the Atlantic Ocean, it would read as if the five of them were sat round a table in The Crown, telling tales of how the album came to be, each interjecting the others with contradictory tales that, when taken as a whole, would tell a version of the truth behind the making of an album that is now considered something of a lost classic, a great Scottish album by one of our greatest bands.
Trashcan Sinatras – Hayfever
“People want to know how these fabulous songs came to be,” I wagered. “The lyrics – who wrote them, what the songs were about, who the songs were about, and the music, dripping in melody and finesse – what makes it so unattainably magic, how did they come up with that wobbly sound on Send For Henny, why is there no guitar on Hayfever…the important stuff, y’know? They’re not that bothered that Marko fae Motherwell first locked eyes with the love of his life while the clanging thunderstorm of One At A Time played furiously in the background, although we’ll make space for that too. A proper music biography must be written.”
And it was. A hundred thousand words and dozens of arty photographs and eye-catchingly beautiful font later, the book, The Book – definitely anything but small and most certainly booting into orbit the concept of ‘posh fanzine’ – whatever that is – rolled off a Polish printing press, negotiated Brexit-affected customs and landed, finally, in Glasgow. It is currently winging its way to the hundreds – that’s hundreds, Archie – of TCS fans around the globe who placed pre-orders.
It’ll eventually find its way to Waterstones, Mono and a handful of select retailers. The Perfect Reminder – titled by John from the band before a word had been typed – is very much available for order right now via LNFG. I’d recommend you read it. But you knew that already.
I was teaching a class last year when the word ‘struttin’‘ came up. Not strutting with a ‘g‘ at the end, but the more street-smart struttin’. What did the word mean, someone asked. Their grandfather had had to put strutting on his shed to strengthen the roof, but given the context of the sentence, struttin’ made no sense. Immediately, instantly, at once, I thought of John Travolta in the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever. “Let me show you,” I replied, and rather than replicate the Travolta strut in front of a group of 10 and 11 year-olds (that would’ve been all sorts of wrong) I rattled across the keyboard impatiently until I had the Saturday Night Fever opening scene cued up on YouTube. With a thumb hovering over the space bar should I need to pause proceedings – what swearies and/or nudity might be lurking around the next frame? – I turned up the volume, turned off the lights and by the metaphorical seat of my pants, pressed play.
As the Bee Gees’ slick guitar line and steady disco beat filled the classroom, 30 or so wee heads bobbed in unison – ah-ha-ha-ha – to Stayin’ Alive while it played behind Travolta’s character as he strutted – strutted! – along the busy Brooklyn thoroughfare, (“Hey! To-neeey!”) all dimples and demi-quiff, the cock of the walk in his tight leather jerkin and Cuban heels. “Ah!” said the class in unison. So that was struttin’. The class understood. We moved on. “What did you do at school today?” would be asked later on at home. “We watched Saturday Night Fever,” would come the reply, to the bafflement and/or concern to some and/or all of the parents.
Over the years in the classroom I’ve managed to crowbar in such disparate references as the Stax Records snapping fingers logo, the choreography of The Ramones in concert, The Beatles’ ‘…Mr Kite‘ when doing a piece of writing on circuses and a gazillion records from the ’60s when we studied the decade.
“This, boys and girls,” I said triumphantly as I placed my old Dansette Major Deluxe on a table at the front of the classroom one day, “is a 1960s mp3 player.”
This led to the formation of the Friday Afternoon Record Club, when pupils brought all manner of 7″ singles from home and we’d listen to and discuss them. The first rule of Friday Afternoon Record Club though, is to never mention it, so we’ll leave it at that. The head teacher would’ve had a fit if they’d known we’d been listening to David Essex and Status Quo and Kelly Marie (b-boo, b-boo!) instead of something less culturally-relevant instead.
Had the learners in front of me recently been that wee bit older when we’d been discussing the meaning of struttin’, I might’ve extended the concept of the word through Tom Waits‘ Nighthawk Postcards.
‘Let me put the cut back in your strut,’ he sayssings scats, sounding like Louis Armstrong chewing on sandpaper. ‘And the glide back in your stride.‘
Nighthawk Postcards is a sprawling, eleven-minute jazz-inflected monologue, Waits rasping and riffing and painting highly visual pictures with well-written words, the aural equivalent of the suggested stories in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Not for nothing does the song and its parent album take nomencular inspiration from one of Hopper’s most-celebrated works.
An inebriational travellogue as it’s introduced, the bass player wanders in straight off the grooves of a Charles Mingus 78 and continues to walk all over the yellow-lit, yellow-stained ambience with hep jazzcat grooviness. There’s a low-key, full-blown jazz drummer, a saxophone player who can’t wait to be let off the invisible leash that tends him to the background and a brilliantly loose-knuckled, laid-back piano player – on this recording not Waits, surely – there’s no way he can riff and scat and rap his way across those notes and spaces while playing at the same time, is there? Is there?
Tom Waits – Nighthawk Postcards
The words leap off the record, instantly visual and scene-setting. Waits loves wordplay; busses that groan and wheeze, eyelids propped open at half-mast, a sucker born every minute and you just happened to be comin’ along at the right time. And he loves colours; neon swizzle sticks, a yellow biscuit of a buttery cueball moon, obsidian skies, harlequin sailors, piss yellow gypsy cabs… one line in and he’s got you hooked forever.
Stop whatever you’re doing and step into Tom’s low-rent, sawdust floored world. He’s funny, he’s soulful, he’s part bluesman, part jazzateer and part down-on-his-luck crooner – he breaks into Sinatra’s That’s Life at one point, making Frank’s version sound like the eternally happy collected works of PWL by comparison. The audience – they’re actually not at Raphael’s Silver Cloud Lounge as Waits might have you believe at the start, but live in the studio (L.A.’s Record Plant) – a bold move in 1975 – whoop and holler and guffaw and groan at all the right moments. The song… the whole Nighthawks album… is a masterclass in performance.
The band aren’t exempt from the odd show-offy moment either. When Waits sings of the L Train sounding like the ghost of Gene Krupa, the drummer clatters a perfectly brushed onomatopoeiac rail-rattlin’ Krupa beat in response. Rehearsed? You bet it is, but it’s a great moment. At the mention of P.T. Barnum, the sax player eases into a fluttering take on Julius Fucik’s ‘Entrance of the Gladiators‘ (you know it – look it up) before fading back into the shadows. It’s Waits though who’s the real star of the show. He’s one of the greats, and on this record his writing and delivery and all-round uniqueness is second to none. But I suspect you knew that already.
What’s the scoop, Betty Boop? Whadayamean you’ve never heard Nighthawks At The Diner?!? Do yourself a favour and add it to your collection. Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back, as I’m sure Tom must have growled across a tune of his at some point or other.