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McCartney 3

As the 70s confined the 60s to history, Paul McCartney was public enemy number one. Looking for a scapegoat to blame for the break-up of The Beatles, all fingers pointed in his direction. Just 7 days after the band’s lawyers made the rumours official, he released his debut self-titled solo album, stealing the march on The Beatles Let It Be album, still a month away from hitting the shops.

Recorded on the hop between Beatles’ sessions, sometimes booking into Abbey Road under an assumed name, McCartney was written, played and produced entirely by the man himself. Despite the inclusion of Junk and Maybe I’m Amazed (and the autobiographical Every Night) – two three bona fide McCartney classics, the critics hated it/him. They blamed him for the Beatles split, they thought him cynical for having an album ready to go so quickly and they poked holes in what they considered half-finished songs and ideas.

Paul McCartneyEvery Night

Hindsight of course brings fresh ears and perspective to the album. Recorded just half a year on from McCartney’s kitchen sink ‘n all Abbey Road medley, the yin to the solo album’s lo-fi yang, its close-miked and down-home recording offers an honest insight into McCartney’s state of mind at the time. Contentment sits side by side with piano balladry, scrubbed acoustics and interesting instrumentals.

Paul McCartneyMomma Miss America

Momma Miss America runs the gamut of McCartney’s talents; groovy keyboard, compressed drums, funky bass played like a lead guitar and a stinging solo straight offa Abbey Road‘s The End. It’s one of the album’s most enjoyable tracks. Remember that Kia Ora advert from years ago – “It’s too orangey for crows…“? They shoulda used this to soundtrack it.

While McCartney isn’t an 18 carat gold 10 out of 10 debut, it’s a great portent of what was just around the corner.

Ram is McCartney’s first great ‘solo’ LP. The only album to be credited as ‘…by Paul and Linda McCartney‘, it came just 13 months after McCartney. Stop and consider McCartney’s output at this time; September ’69 saw the release of Abbey Road. April ’70 saw his debut released, just a few weeks before The Beatles’ Let It Be album, and in May ’71, Ram made itself known. That’s an astonishing run of releases. Most musicians would happily retire on the strength of those records in such a short space of time.

Ram was recorded in New York featuring session musicians including future Wings stickman Denny Seiwell. A direct answer to the critics’ accusations of McCartney‘s lo-fi, low budget, low quality material, McCartney went all-out for an album that could match anything he’d done in The Beatles. Recording began in October 1970 (just six months on from that debut release, remember, and bang in the middle of a court case surrounding the dissolution of The Beatles) with McCartney very much in control (and in love). When he’s not singing of married life – Eat At Home and The Back Sea Of My Car painted a picture of domestic bliss – he’s airing his dirty laundry in public. Too Many People was a thinly-veiled dig at John and Yoko and collectively, the remaining Threetles considered 3 Legs very much an attack on them. Again, the critics hated it. Lennon too. They thought it smug, inconsequential and irrelevant. Given the backdrop of music at the time – The Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Who’s Next, Led Zeppelin IV, Sabbath’s Master Of Reality – you could say that McCartney was well out of step with the fads and fashions of the era. Which, of course, makes Ram all the more incredible.

I’ve been somewhat obsessed the past week or so with Heart Of The Country. Leading off side 2, it’s a simple countryish strumalong, a rootsy and rustic distant cousin of Mother Nature’s Son, played by McCartney on a down-tuned guitar, loose and light and airy. Reflecting domestic life on High Park Farm on the Mull Of Kintyre, I want a horse, got a sheep, he sings, wanna get me a good night’s sleep….looking for a home in the heart of the country, it’s easy to see why McCartney could easily get up the noses of critics and ex Beatles. The accompanying video only hammered the point home.

The best bit about the song, of course, is when McCartney breaks into that free-form scat section. Pitched somewhere between his own Rocky Raccoon and Stevie Wonder’s future Sir Duke (I wonder if sly ol’ Stevie was taking notes?) it’s further proof that McCartney did not give two hoots what anyone thought of him. On first listen it sounds throwaway, nonsensical and off-the-hoof, but listen back…the scat mirrors exactly what he’s doing on the fretboard…..and what he’s playing is hard to master. My fingers have tied themselves in knots this week attempting its ridiculous rapid-fire jazz.

No sooner had McCartney released Ram than he was back in the studio. By the end of the year, just 7 months later, the first Wings album would be released. That album, an underplayed and undervalued minor classic, deserves a whole post of its own sometime soon…

Get This!, Gone but not forgotten, Live!, Most downloaded tracks

2018 (Slight Return)

As is the way at this time of year, lists, polls and Best Of countdowns prevail. Happily stuck in the past, the truth of it is I’m not a listener of much in the way of new music. Idles seem to dominate many of the lists I’ve seen, and I want to like them, but I can’t get past the singer’s ‘angry ranting man in a bus shelter’ voice. I’ve liked much of the new stuff I’ve heard via 6 Music and some of the more switched-on blogs I visit, but not so much that I’ve gone out to buy the album on the back of it.

If you held a knife to my throat though, I might admit to a liking for albums by Parquet Courts and Arctic Monkeys, both acts who are neither new nor up and coming. I  listened a lot to the Gwenno album when it was released and I should’ve taken a chance on the Gulp album when I saw it at half price last week, but as far as new music goes, I think that’s about it. Under his Radiophonic Tuckshop moniker, Glasgow’s Joe Kane made a brilliant psyche-infused album from the spare room in his Dennistoun flat – released on the excellent Last Night From Glasgow label – so if I were to suggest anything you might like, it’d be Joe’s lo-fi McCartney by way of Asda-priced synth pop that I’d direct you to. Contentiously, it’s currently a tenner on Amazon which, should you buy it via them, is surely another nail in the HMV coffin.

2018 saw the readership of Plain Or Pan continue to grow slowly but steadily in a niche market kinda style, so if I may, I’d like to point you and any new readers to the most-read posts of the year. You may have read these at the time or you may have missed them. Either way, here they are again;

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  • An article on the wonder of The Specials‘ b-sides.
  • Songs about snow and inclement weather.
  • Some words on the punk Beatles. Pete Shelley was very much still alive at the time of writing and retweeted the article.
  • A look at how the best reggae musicians steal the best soul tunes and make them their own.
  • Lush’s Miki Berenyi talks us through some of her favourite music. The most-read thing wot I wrote this year.
  • Stephen Sondheim , Leonard Bernstein, Tom Waits and Pet Shop Boys. Here.
  • First thoughts on Arctic MonkeysTranquility Base Hotel & Casino.
  • Why Eno‘s Here Come The Warm Jets should be in everyone’s record collection. Here.
  • Skids’ Richard Jobson waxes lyrical about Bowie. Here.
  • Some words on the quiet majesty of Radiohead‘s How To Disappear Completely.
  • Brendan O’Hare, loon drummer and all-round public entertainer in Teenage Fanclub chooses his favourite Teenage Fanclub tracks. Here.
  • The punk poetry and free scatting jazz of Patti Smith. Here.
  • A first-timer’s guide to Rome.
  • Johnny Marr live at the Barrowlands.

Feel free to re-read, Retweet, share etc.

 

See you next year.

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You Know You Should Be Glad

In an era of artificial style over actual content, of press, publicists and pushy people foisting all manner of rubbish into yer blogs and onto yer airwaves, we should appreciate Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The New York three piece have more fire in their collective rake-thin bellies than most. A riot of shiny shiny bobbed hair, caustic barbed wire guitars and neanderthal tub thumping, they’re a welcome and necessary interruption to yer Slaves and Sleafords and whoever else is flavour of the month. They rarely appear on any ‘Best Of…’ and ‘Essential’ lists, they hardly ever pop up in the 6 Music playlists and I can’t remember the last time they toured anywhere near here, but it’s perhaps for those very reasons that when I listen to them they suddenly sound more vital and necessary than any other band around.

Their Is Is EP from 2007 (11 years ago already. Jeez!) is the one to go to. Five tracks long, it’s a snotty, arty and pretentious distillation of all that is great about the band. Vocalist Karen O drawls like the hipper, more street-smart sister of Chrissie Hynde with eye-bothering fringe to match. Brian Chase’s drums are loud and mighty in a John Bonham kinda way and perhaps the most vital ingredient in the band’s art attack.

Yeah Yeah YeahsRockers To Swallow

On opener Rockers To Swallow he manages to sound like Adam & The Ants playing When The Levee Breaks. Elsewhere, his cymbal splashes and gut-punching floor toms provide a suitably tribal back beat upon which Nick Zinner’s guitar(s) shine. A genuine original, he wrings seven shades of hell from his machine, with a cheesegrater-thin ear-splitting riff here, a feedback-soaked squeal there and a filling-loosening slab of Sabbath in-between.

Yer actual Johnny Marr rates him as one of the current greats, having heard the band blasting noisily from his son Nile’s stereo. A couple of years ago I tried to swap a beautiful Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ tour book, signed by Zinner himself, for one of Nile’s dad’s guitars. He relented of course, but still left with the book. What did I expect?

Yeah Yeah Yeahs  – Isis

 

Yeah Yeah YeahsKiss Kiss

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Is There A Time For East 17?

In football parlance, a passenger is someone who, for one reason or other, isn’t giving their all for the team. “See that Jones? Nothing but a passenger the day. He’d be better aff oan the bench so he would.” The way a bus carries its passengers to their destination, so a passenger’s 10 team mates will carry him through the game’s 90 minutes. A passenger is a shirker, half-arsed and unprepared to put in the hard graft to help the others shine. No one likes a passenger.

 

In the early 90s, U2 were spearheading a post-modern zeitgeist. Their most recent albums, Achtung Baby and Zooropa had been toured globally featuring all manner of interactive stuff – TV channels flickering through the static behind the drums, phone calls to world leaders live on stage, stage sets featuring eastern European cars, giant lemons and papier mache versions of the band that were even better than the real thing…. the sort of stuff that in more recent times acts such as Coldplay and Arcade Fire have developed for their own means and which is now the standard in arena-sized rock shows. The Glasgow Zoo TV confession box was a particular highlight, with one devious wee guy announcing to 50,000 of us that there was a party following the show at his pal’s flat in Shawlands. He gave out the address too. Anyway…

Those two albums. Eno worked his magic on them, weaving an underbelly of atmosphere, ambience, and abstract artiness that allowed the tunes to shine with just the right level of weirdy wonkiness. Effectively, he rescued U2 from disappearing up their own cowboy-hatted backsides, dragging them back from mass-market mid America to rebrand them as cool European soundscapers. While Achtung Baby is undoubtedly the better of the two albums, Zooropa has its merits. Not so much the ‘follow up’, the never-quite admitted to third in the trilogy, Passengers Volume 1 album.

Just like those half-arsed footballers, the Passengers album was let down by tunes bereft of ideas and suffered from being an exercise in indulgent steps too far. Following a shelved plan to record music for a low-key film by director Peter Greenaway, the concept was for U2 to write the themes for a dozen or so imaginary films – United Colours Of Plutonium, Ghost In The Shell, Always Forever Now, and so on – and to use the exercise as a way of expanding the work they’d been doing with Brian Eno. Nowt wrong with that of course, but the results proved to be less than essential listening. Indeed, such was Island Records bewilderment with the finished result, they suggested U2 released it under an assumed name. If the record company didn’t ‘get it’, it stood to reason the record-buying public, those same millions who’d bought the band’s last 2 albums, would also struggle with the music therein. The album was released with muted fanfare to general indifference and has since found its rightful place on the margins of the U2 catalogue.

However…

One track on the album stood out as a stone-cold classic.

PassengersMiss Sarajevo

 

Miss Sarajevo fades in on a bed of crackling vinyl and lush Edge guitar, all shimmering reverb and gentle delay. Its stoned beatbox groove allows a close-miked Bono to croon all manner of throw-away lines; Is there a time for keeping a distance? A time to turn your eyes away? Is there a time for kohl and lipstick? A time for cutting hair? Is there a time for first communion? A time for East 17? Here she comes…

It’s beautiful. Stupid and meaningless, but in the middle of an album hell-bent on self-indulgence and abstract expression, it hits you between the eyes like The Ramones gatecrashing the 70s. And just when it can’t be any better, the Edge greases his guitar upwards, Craig Armstrong’s string arrangement swells fit to burst and none other than Pavarotti pops up, bathed in pathos and regret and sounding like gentle thunder. Ah, you think, Bono’s voice was deliberately quiet so that when Luciano arrived on the scene you’d sit up and take notice. Clever that, both the production and the surprise of hearing Pavarotti blow Bono’s voice into the abyss with little more than a gentle sneeze. Incredible stuff.

If Miss Sarajevo were to soundtrack a film, it’d be for the slo-mo shoot-out scene in a Scorcese restaurant, where most of the main protagonists and a couple of unfortunate waiters meet their untimely and very bloody end as Pavarotti’s tremulous tenor washes over them. Think of this as you listen. It makes perfect sense.

Not surprisingly, U2 aren’t blind to the beauty of Miss Sarajevo, featuring it at least twice on subsequent Best Ofs, proving I suppose that a good track is a good track, no matter how it first makes itself known. “There’s a thin line between interesting music and self-indulgence,” pointed out an insightful Larry Mullen a decade on from Passengers’ uneasy release. So said the drummer who didn’t get to play on the one stand-out track.

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Gallic Bred

The duo of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel have been making music as Air since 1995. Like Brian Wilson, but with access to all manner of analogue synths and samplers rather then the Wrecking Crew and the cream of the L.A. studio set, they’ve created a unique and focused sound, part space-pop, part ambient electronica, that is instantly recognisable.

The ubiquitous Moon Safari album might’ve brought them to the mainstream – you can find discussions on its merits in places as disparate as MumsNet and the Steve Hoffman music forum – but before it and since you’ll find some of their best work. Top of the pile is Playground Love, the track they recorded for Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides.

AirPlayground Love

Built around a beautiful chord progression, it starts off with four clicks of the drumsticks before slowly morphing into a stoned and luscious groove. A sleepwalking Fender bass pads softly down the frets. Real drums lollop with all the energy of a fat-tongued dog in front of a Christmas fire. Vibraphones tip toe around the edge of your consciousness, flowing hypnotically like the oil in that old Castrol GTX ad from the 70s. The vocals (provided by Phoenix’s Thomas Mars) are breathy, close-miked and forever on the edge of asleep. Out of the blue, with an extreme burst of lethargy a lazy saxophone meanders in and out of the words and music, sprinkling the track with the same sort of magic dust that was first found on Pink Floyd’s Us And Them.

Playground Love wouldn’t at all sound out of place on Dark Side Of The Moon. Its slow-motioned timelessness is just right for these Autumnal days and dark nights we’ve suddenly found ourselves in, an aural blanket for lost souls and late-night listening sessions. Listen carefully and you can just about see the blue curl of Gauloises snake around the melody of those understated cooing backing vocals like the crumpled ghost of Serge Gainsbourg on heat. It’s terrific stuff.

Get This!, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find

Rimbaud 2: It’s A Pay Check, Jack

A dozen or so years ago, a concert celebrating the life and work of Robert Burns took place at Culzean Castle on the South West coast of Scotland, not far from where I’m typing. I’m quite into Burns, in an enthusiastic amateur kinda way. I get involved when it’s that time of year in the schools and organise the school Burns Supper. I’ll put together wee groups of kids who’ll eagerly sing Green Grow The Rashes (the Michael Marra arrangement) while I get to rock out gently with some well-rehearsed finger picking on my guitar. At home, we’ve done Burns Suppers celebrating the bawdier side o’ Rabbie that they don’t teach at school, helped along by the sort of food and drink you’d be hard-pushed to find in a school dinner hall. There are tons of Burns scholars out there who take it far more seriously and who could bore the breeks off most of us with their ability to recite his most obscure work which is why, when the concert was announced at Culzean  – with headliners Lou Reed and Patti Smith – I thought I’d give it a miss. “I don’t really fancy hearing Lou ‘n Patti pretend they know the inner workings of Burns’ songbook when they could be doing their own stuff instead,” I reasoned. Big mistake as it turned out, as Lou and Patti by and large did their own stuff, regardless or not of what the promoters had signed them up for. Patti even made the Scottish news on TV the next night for gobbing on the side of the stage, offending those stuffy, ancient scholars I’ve just mentioned. Old punks, eh. What’re they like?

Oor ain Eddi Reader, herself a mad Burns fanatic, was on the bill and in the encore she sang the famous ‘doot-di-doo’ backing vocals for Walk On The Wild Side alongside Patti Smith. I know people who’ll be reading this that have wide-eyed stage-side footage of the moment. Why did I not go? Why?

I’ve grown into Patti Smith in a big way. She was always there, a trailblazer for the strong, bloody-minded women from Chrissie Hynde to PJ Harvey who have a place in my record collection, but in recent years I’ve really come to acknowledge her as one of the greats. Morrissey, Michael Stipe and any Maconie-voiced BBC4 documentary will all tell you this of course, but unless you were lucky enough to be there at the time, I’m not sure her importance shines through for generations of mine and since.

Horses is her biggie, of course. A raucous brew of poetry set to music, it’s the sound of flared nostrils and itchy, twitchy jangling nerves riffing on French existentialists, Jesus and the futility of existence – the big stuff, in other words. Wrapped in monochrome with bird’s nest hair, it’s a challenging listen, certainly more difficult to get into than, say, Patti’s contemporaries The Ramones and Blondie who were street suss enough to add some pop to their schlock. The centrepiece of the album is, wonkily, mid way through side 2.

Patti SmithLand

Land is a free-flowing example of all that Patti does best, over 9 carefully metered minutes of what musicologists might call a triptyche, with 3 parts of music played under the one theme. Every word is enunciated precisely and clearly, given equal gravitas. She howls, she whispers, she duets with herself. She’ll rap on something deeply esoteric one moment and then she’ll be singing about the watusi and Bonie Moronie the next. The words come in floods; pretentious, populist and pure. I can’t pretend to know exactly what she’s on about and I’m not certain that the young Patti in 1975 could’ve told you either. It sounds fantastic though.

Patti has a crack band behind her, rising and falling, ebbing and flowing in time to her carefully-written prose, yet for the entire track they keep it simple. At any moment, Richard Sohl on keys could break into the most heart-stopping piano run, but he doesn’t. Lenny Kaye could easily let fly with an electric burst of pop/punk bloooze, but he doesn’t. There’s ample opportunity over 9 minutes for an Animal-esque freak out on the drums, yet Jay Dee Doherty reigns himself in. With Patti Smith, it’s all about the vocal. The words are everything.

Here’s Piss Factory, her early b-side documenting her time working a crappy job for crappier money.

Patti SmithPiss Factory

Just Kids, Patti’s autobiography about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe continues this theme. It’s a literary ride on the A Train, taking the reader right into the centre of a mid 70s New York that most of us can only imagine. Their story is played out against a backdrop of the Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City and Coney Island and features walk-on parts from Andy Warhol, Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Art, music and fashion explode and fuse together and everything and anything is possible, doable and done. Mapplethorpe struggles with a sexual identity that would eventually tear the couple apart but (or perhaps because of this) it’s a beautiful read;  a love letter to and for Mapplethorpe and the city that brought them together. There they are up there, an androgynous Keef ‘n Mick for the Blank Generation. Even without the music, Patti’s words are powerful. Read it.

Footnote

It was a conversation with Johnny Marr a few years ago that made me go home and re-evaluate Patti Smith until her genius really sank in. I was charged with taking photos of Johnny and his fans after a gig. The waiting line snaked around long enough that half the folk in it ended up missing their last connection home. At the front of the line was a girl who might’ve been 13 and might’ve been 33. Small, disheveled and unkempt, she’d been first to queue outside the venue at lunchtime on the day of the show and as soon as the doors had opened she’d ran for the front of the stage where she stood holding onto the barrier and never letting go until it was time to meet Johnny at the end. Johnny recognised her straight away. “Hello again darlin’!” he greeted with a hug. “How are we today? Listen – hey, listen! – make sure you get a bed tonight, eh? No more sleeping in doorways, eh?

Once, I bunked off the school,” he told me afterwards, “and skipped the train to Liverpool to catch Patti Smith. Sneaked in the stage door! That night I slept in Liverpool Bus Station and it was the most terrifying night of my life. That girl at the front comes to all the shows. She comes alone, leaves alone and always turns up the next day. I kinda worry for her, y’know?

If artists have such a hold on folk that they’re prepared to forfeit a roof over their head for the night so that they can see them in concert, they’re worth listening to.

Cover Versions, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

She And Him

In the early days of Plain Or Pan I penned under the nom de plume of Phil Spector. I suppose it was a combination of being embarrassed to put my real name to anything that might read like a 3 year old’s best efforts and the fact that I didn’t really want anyone to know I had a sideline in writing about old music that kept me from using my own actual name. Things came to the fore when my daft pseudonym cost me the chance of an interview with Nancy Sinatra. “Why on earth would I want Phil Spector to interview me?” she growled, not quite getting the fact that it wasn’t yer actual Phil Spector who’d been in touch. “He was a strange, strange, man and I want nothing to do with him.” At the time, Nancy had been working with a still-hip Morrissey, and I was hoping to base our interview around the recordings they’d been making. Alas, it never happened.

Shortly afterwards I was contacted by someone who wanted me to interview Sandie Shaw. By coincidence, another iconic singer with connections to Morrissey, this was too good an opportunity to pass up. There and then I dropped the pretence and proudly added my own name to the by-line in every article I’d written here. The subsequent interview and article with Sandie (where she name-dropped Morrissey, Debbie Harry and Siouxsie Sioux within the first 5 minutes) became the first piece of paid writing work I’d ever done.

Anyway, back to Nancy S. I’ve had her Greatest Hits rotating recently, a scratchy, crackly 11-track best of that I picked up for 50p (!) in a wee junk shop just off of Glasgow’s Byres Road. Much of it is kitsch nonsense, the sort of stuff that, had she not been the daughter of an icon, may well never had been afforded the attention it got.

The material she recorded with Lee Hazlewood though is fantastic, a heady combination of female/male, light/shade, sweet/sour on record. Sinatra’s voice is cutesy-cute, all light and airy melodies blown in from Hit Factory central. Hazlewood rumbles in like a gothic cowboy, with a voice deeper than a well and twice as dark. Together, they make the sound of milk chocolate and dark chocolate on vinyl.

Some Velvet Morning is the one for me.

Nancy Sinatra & Lee HazlewoodSome Velvet Morning

Druggy, fuggy and full of sexual innuendo, it’s a psychedelic pop masterpiece, miles away from the light and airy country pop that defines many of their duets.

Hazlewood takes the lead, gliding in on a bed of Barry-esque strings with a baritone that could rattle the lids on the coffins of the dead. He gives way to Nancy, fluttering in like a waltz-time muse. “Sing like a 14 year old who fucks truck drivers,” he instructed, with the blessing of ol’ blue eyes himself. Can you imagine anyone getting away with that nowadays?!?

The whole thing see-saws back and forth, a call-and-response danse macabre. Had it popped up soundtracking The Wickerman or a crucial scene in a Tarantino movie you wouldn’t have been surprised. Quentin T. may yet find a use for it in the future, I feel. Musically, the record is very rich. With instrumentation by the famed Wrecking Crew, it’s lush yet louche, wonky and weird and wonderful.

The other high point of their collaborations is Summer Wine, a track that has all the makings of a great lost Bond theme. There’s the innocent female vocal, parping brass and a not-so-subtle nod to all things Bond with the addition of John Barry’s ubiquitous 5 note signature theme midway through.

Nancy Sinatra & Lee HazlewoodSummer Wine

The Lee/Nancy thing was done to great effect by Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell a few years ago. A post in the near future for sure….

As a bonus for now, here’s Lee’s version of Nancy’s signature theme. It’s a cracker.

Lee HazlewoodThese Boots Are Made For Walking

And here’s Let Me Kiss You, Nancy’s take on the Morrissey track that led them to find one another, the song I never got to ask her about. Hey ho. Morrissey has quite rightly come in for a lot of stick in recent times, and whether he still holds a place in your heart or not, you can’t deny that his performance in the background of this record is vintage Stephen.

Nancy SinatraLet Me Kiss You