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“Sslaaa…”

Not everything goes better with (a) coke. “I swiched from coke to pep and I’m a connoisseur,” drawls Sly Stone on In Time, the opening track on Fresh.

It‘s a terrfic track from a terrific album. A one-chord groove, darkly claustrophobic with pitter-pattering proto drum machines fighting for space with highly-regarded sessioneer Andy Newark’s loose-limbed paradiddles and shuffle, it features the Family Stone in full-on funk effect; horns blasting between the lines, brother Freddie riffing out a nagging counter melody amongst the electric keys and triple-part harmony backing vocals, while Rusty Allen’s bass is a-poppin’ throughout. Miles Davis loved the discipline and groove of the track so much he’d make his band listen to it over and over again to get them in the zone before performing. “Sslaaa iz whey iz at,” he’d tell anyone listening at the time.

Sly & The Family StoneIn Time


Carrying on where he left off with the previous year’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Fresh gets its slightly murky sound from Sly’s over-recorded master tapes. Sly by name and sly by nature, he would regularly invite young ladies back to his studio and promise them a slot on the up-coming album in exchange for some good ol’-fashioned lovin’. Once gone, their vocals would be erased from the tape to make space for the next eager hopeful. A shameful practice, you’ll agree, but one that adds to the legend of Sly.

Fresh features no high octane danceable r’n’b. Although one or two of the tracks fared well on 7″, there are no instant hits on it. It’s best listened to in a darkened room, late at night, with your choice of libation close at hand. It’s a creeping, crawling, fevered itch of a record and without a doubt my favourite in Sly’s ouvre.


Here’s If You Want Me To Stay, the 2nd track in on Fresh, ruined spectacularly 20 years later by those soul-free fornicators of funk, Red Hot Chili Peppers. Don’t ruin it by seeking their version out. The original is whey iz at. But you knew that already.

Sly & The Family StoneIf You Want Me To Stay

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PJ Tips

pj h

PJ Harvey‘s The Wind (from her excellent Is This Desire? LP) has been, to use a pun, blowing the cobwebs off my speakers for the past few days. For such a slight ‘n skinny woman, PJ’s tune packs more muscle than it has any right to. It‘s her Barry Adamson moment; filmic, bass-heavy and full of brooding menace.

PJ HarveyThe Wind

It fades in on a ripple of marimba and a stutter of just-plugged-in guitar, with PJ’s vocal quickly taking centrestage.  Whisper-in-your-ear sultriness one moment, understated falsetto the next, it tells the story of St Catherine of Abbotsbury who built a chapel high on a hill.

st cats

It’s a real chapel, still there to this day and located in the village of Abbotsbury where PJ lives, or indeed lived at the time of writing the song (as much as I’m a fan, it wouldn’t be the done thing to go around the more rural parts of Dorset in the hope of bumping into her in the dairy aisle of the local Waitrose. Really, I have no idea where she lives. A fancy flat in London with a weekend retreat in the Cotswolds? I dunno.)

Anyway, The Wind tells a straightforward story. No coded lyrics, no double meaning. Just a good, honest folk song about religion and singing.

Catherine liked high places
High up, high up on the hills
A place for making noises
Like whales
Noises like the whales
Here she built a chapel
With her image
 An image on the wall
A place where she could rest and rest
And a place where she could wash
And listen to the wind blowing

The whole track is carried along by the bassline. When it comes in, after that second ‘noises like the whales’ line, it brings to mind some New York street punk, hands deep in the pockets of his leather bomber jacket, docker’s hat pulled hard and low over his forehead, eyes shifting from left to right and back again, looking to start trouble, looking to avoid trouble, but, looking for trouble.

It’s produced masterfully by Flood who brings an electro wash to the finished result. In fact, it wouldn’t sound out of place on any given recording by Harvey’s fellow West Country contemporaries Tricky and Massive Attack. There’s subtle tingaling percussion, quietly scraping cello and layers of synthetic noise. When the vocals begin their counter-melodies in the chorus, it’s pure Bjork.

As a single, The Wind barely bothered the charts (number 29) before dropping off the face of the planet forever. In fact, without the aid of that there Wikipedia, I’d never have known it was ever a single to begin with. When it was released (1999), I don’t ever recall Our Price stocking it, and I was the singles buyer for my branch at the time. I ain’t no expert, but I thought I’d have known about it.

pj h 3

It does though live on forever on Is This Desire?, a high point in a back catalogue packed full of outstanding highs. It’s incredible to think that PJ Harvey has been making records for nigh on a quarter of a century. From the lo-fi scuz of Dry via the Patti Smith-isms of Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea and the stark, piano-only White Chalk right up to her most recent collection of WW1-themed songs on Let England Shake (not forgettting the one-off single in support of Guantanamo Bay prisoner Shaker Aamer), she’s one of our most consistent musicians. Daring, unpredictable and true to herself, she’s right up there with the best of ’em.

Excitingly, she has a new LP in the offing. April, I believe. The first fruits are spinning heavily on BBC 6Music every day just now, and they’re sounding terrific. But you knew that already.

pj h 4

Dylanish, Get This!

Put On Your Red Shoes And Dance The Blues

I lost track of Rufus Wainwright a wee bit after he started scoring operas and high-fallutin’ it in a dinner jacket. Including a couple of live efforts and a ‘Best Of‘ LP, his album discography is now into double figures, but for me the high water mark is the first volume of ‘Want‘. Initially sold as two separate albums, Want 1 and Want 2 were later repackaged as a double album and, as an introduction to all things Rufus, you could get no better. If you can bottle the sound of pathos, the odd high camp moment and great hair, Want 1 is the result.

rufus red shoes

Halfway through Want 1 is the incredible Go Or Go Ahead. Go Or Go Ahead is a drug song, but not a scuzzy, junkie-confessional, claustrophobic itch-fest that has you running for the shower before the last note has faded. Go Or Go Ahead drips in melody and is wrapped in harmonies sent from the heavens, ridiculously uplifting and bathed in enough arms-wide-open melodrama to make even Mount Rushmore shed a tiny tear.

Rufus Wainwright – Go Or Go Ahead

The way the songs builds and builds, from major to minor acoustic strum and brilliant tumbling “do-dn-do-be-doos”, via the middle section with a pitch-shifting guitar break courtesy of Charlie Sexton (moonlighting from his duties in Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour band) to the BIG “look in her eyes!” section where Rufus and his sister Martha are overdubbed a gazillion times to create that incredible Spector in stereo wall of sound is absolutely spectacular. By comparison, it makes other ‘big’ songs (McAlmont & Butler’s ‘Yes‘, The Smiths’ ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me‘, Jeff Buckley’s ‘Lover, You Should’ve Come Over‘, for example) seem almost trite and insignificant. In the grand scheme of things, Go Or Go Ahead is the daddy of them all.

rufus guitar

Written (“you got me writing lyrics on postcards“) while Rufus walked the streets in a less than salubrious area of San Francisco during the middle of an addiction to crystal meth, it’s lyric is full of self-loathing, celebrating the vacuousness and vanity of hollow celebrity. Or something like that. More scholarly people than myself could write pages and pages on the metaphors within each line. Sure, there are references to Judy Garland, gin and Mars, the God of War, but I suppose you take your own meanings from them. Me? I just dig the tune. It’s a belter, isn’t it?

 

rufus and melissa auf der maur

*Bonus Track!

Another ‘street’ song, 14th Street from the same LP is another high, Rufus’ voice on top form, his band sounding Spector-huge once more. During our one visit to New York I found myself subconsciously singing this as we crossed yer actual 14th Street on my way into Chinatown. I can see it in my head as I type right now.

Rufus Wainwright14th Street

Now. If you do one thing this week, fill that gaping hole in your collection with Want. You’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.

Alternative Version, Cover Versions, demo, Double Nugget, Dylanish, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find, Kraut-y, Most downloaded tracks, Sampled, Six Of The Best

We Are 9

Somehow, some way, Plain Or Pan has turned 9. Or, to be more accurate, is just about to turn 9. But at this time of year, when you can never be entirely sure if it’s Sunday morning or Thursday night and inspiration goes out the window along with routine and work ethic, it’s tradition that I fill the gap between Christmas and Hogmany with a potted ‘Best Of‘ the year compilation, so I’ve always made this period in time the unofficial birthday for the blog.

i am nine

Not that anyone but myself should care really; blogs come and go with alarming regularity and I’ve steadfastly refused to move with the times (no new acts here, no cutting edge hep cats who’ll be tomorrow’s chip paper, just tried ‘n tested old stuff that you may or may not have heard before – Outdated Music For Outdated People, as the tagline goes.) But it’s something of a personal achievement that I continue to fire my wee articles of trivia and metaphorical mirth out into the ether, and even more remarkable that people from all corners of the globe take the time out to visit the blog and read them. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, one and all.

Since starting Plain Or Pan in January 2007, the articles have become less frequent but more wordy – I may have fired out a million alliterative paragraphs in the first year, whereas nowadays I have less time to write stuff and when I do, it takes me three times as long to write it. To use an analogy, I used to be The Ramones, (1! 2! 3! 4! Go!) but I’ve gradually turned into Radiohead; (Hmmm, ehmm, scratch my arse…) Without intending it, there are longer gaps between ‘albums’ and I’ve become more serious about my ‘art’. Maybe it’s time to get back to writing the short, sharp stuff again. Maybe I’ll find the time. Probably I won’t.

The past 9 years have allowed me the chance to interview people who I never would’ve got close to without the flimsy excuse that I was writing a blog that attracted in excess of 1000 visitors a day (at one time it was, but I suspect Google’s analytics may well have been a bit iffy.) Nowadays, it’s nowhere near that, but I still enthusiastically trot out the same old line when trying to land a big name to feature. Through Plain Or Pan I’ve met (physically, electronically or both) all manner of interesting musical and literary favourites; Sandie Shaw, Johnny Marr, Ian Rankin, Gerry Love, the odd Super Furry Animal. Quite amazing when I stop to think about it. You should see the list of those who’ve said they’ll contribute then haven’t. I won’t name them, but there are one or two who would’ve made great Six Of the Best articles. I’m not Mojo, though, so what can I expect?

pop9

A quick trawl through my own analytics spat out the Top 24 downloaded/played tracks on the blog this year, two for each month:

  1. Michael MarraGreen Grow the Rashes
  2. Wallace CollectionDaydream
  3. Jacqueline TaiebSept Heures du Matin
  4. The TemptationsMessage From A Black Man
  5. New OrderTrue Faith
  6. Bobby ParkerWatch Your Step
  7. Jim FordI’m Gonna Make Her Love Me
  8. DorisYou Never Come Closer
  9. Ela OrleansDead Floor
  10. Mac De MarcoOde To Viceroy
  11. Teenage FanclubGod Knows It’s True
  12. Iggy PopNightclubbing
  13. George HarrisonWah Wah
  14. MagazineThank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again
  15. Future Sound Of LondonPapua New Guinea
  16. Bob DylanSad Eyed Lady Of the Lowlands (mono version)
  17. Richard BerryLouie Louie
  18. REMRadio Free Europe (HibTone version)
  19. The CribsWe Share The Same Skies
  20. Johnny MarrThe Messenger
  21. McAlmont & ButlerSpeed
  22. Talking HeadsI Zimbra (12″ version)
  23. Style CouncilSpeak Like A Child
  24. Darlene LoveJohnny (Please Come Home)

And there you have it – the regular mix of covers, curios and forgotten influential classics, the perfect potted version of what Plain Or Pan is all about. A good producer would’ve made the tracklist flow a bit better. I just took it as I came to them; two from January followed by two from February followed by two from etc etc blah blah blah. You can download it from here.

See you in the new year. First up, Rufus Wainwright. Cheers!

 

 

 

 

 

Alternative Version, Get This!, Hard-to-find

Mono-Lithic

mono

[mon-oh]
Adjective
monophonic sound; monophony, the favoured recording method pioneered in the 1960s by Phil Spector.

monolithic

[mon-uhlith-ik]
Adjective

characterised by massiveness, total uniformity, rigidity, invulnerability, etc.

darlene love phil spector

Darlene Love‘s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) is massiveness incarnate. Invulnerable, invincible and right at the top of the Christmas tree when it comes to the best musical festive fare ever recorded. The only original track to appear on Phil Spector‘s A Christmas Gift For You LP, it’s a thumping major to minor rock ‘n roll tearjerker about lost love. Phil Spector originally put it together with the intention of having his wife Ronnie along with the other Ronettes record it. But after a few false starts and failed takes, he quickly realised she wasn’t singing it with the requisite oomph and instead drafted in Darlene Love.

Ronnie recalls her time in the studio with Specctor:

“Phil worked everybody so hard on the album and the days kind of blurred into each other, thinking about it now. But there was a real Christmas party atmosphere in the studio, even though it was the height of summer, and a lot of great musicians were involved. They weren’t that well-known at the time but so many of them went on to become famous in their own right, like Leon Russell. Sonny Bono and Cher were involved in a lot of the stuff too, so was Glen Campbell. We worked hard, though, some days we’d be in the studio for eight or nine hours just doing one verse of one song.”

Darlene was way down the pecking order with Spector. She’d sang lead on He’s A Rebel for The Crystals and had applied her Noo Yoik drawl to umpteen of Spector’s kitchen sink productions, but Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) was one of the first times she’d been allowed to fly solo and, as you’ll know if you’ve heard the record, she soars gloriously.

The song was released with high hopes ahead of Christmas 1963, but in a bizarre twist of fate found itself released on the very day JFK was assassinated in Dallas. Holiday spirit instantly ruined, the record failed to find airplay amongst the bulletins lamenting the President’s death and was quickly withdrawn from sale. What could’ve been the greatest Christmas number 1 of all time never came to be.

Darlene LoveChristmas (Please Come Home)

darlene love phil spector 2

Spector loved the finished version. So much in fact, (and no doubt stung by the record’s withdrawal), he felt the record had year-round appeal. Such a brilliant cacophony of sound shouldn’t be kept under lock and key and only let out for one month in twelve, so he asked Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich to re-write it as a ‘boyfriend song’. Minus a few sleigh bells but not much else, it still sounds brilliant, yet somehow not quite right. Years of associating it with Christmas makes it a bit of a strange one.

Darlene LoveJohnny (Please Come Home)

This version was hidden away on an obscure b-side and failed to live up to Spector’s wish. Indeed, not a lot of people know it even exists. There you have it.

Alternative Version, Cover Versions, Get This!, Hard-to-find, Sampled

The Steal Council

There were a few Whistle Test repeats on BBC4 last week, one of which jumped out at me. Nick Lowe was leading Brinsley Schwarz through a great, soulful version of Surrender To The Rhythm, a track from their 1972 ‘Nervous On The Road’ LP. I’d never knowingly heard Brinsley Schwarz before and I was getting into the song’s groove when it hit me: That wee occasional keyboard riff! The phrasing in Nick Lowe’s delivery! I’ve heard this song before!

Placed in time somewhere post glam and pre punk, Brinsley Schawrz were part of the pub-rock movement, a gritty, back-to-basics scene where ‘real’ musicians were more concerned with the make-up of their songs than the make-up on their face. Keen and earnest, the scene nonetheless spawned Kilburn & The High Roads, who would morph into the Blockheads, the 101ers (who featured a pre-Joe Strummer John Mellor on guitar) and Dr Feelgood, a major influence on the young, impressionable Paul Weller (to this day, Weller still plays From The Floorboards Up without a plectrum, choosing instead to adopt the open-handed Wilko strum whenever he plays it live).

Weller, as it turns out, is more brazen about stealing things than you maybe realise. He has form – not only a strumming pattern from Wilko Johnson but also a career-long vocal delivery cribbed from Steve Marriott, a haircut half-inched from everyone from Worzel Gummidge to Muriel Gray and, more blatantly than any of this, the riff for Changingman that he heartilyappropriated from ELO’s 10538 Overture, something I’ve pointed out before. But long before the heady days of Brit Awards and Stanley Road etc, he was borrowing the mood, the feel and sometimes the chords and melody from more obscure tracks and passing them off as his own work.

style council

Time has been kinder to the much maligned Style Council than the dissenters might have thought back in the day (C’mon! This might cause a row down in Slough, but some of those tracks are ace – pretentious, aye! Ludicrous, aye! But ace – check out Weller’s recent tour for unarguable proof!) They were a deliberate move away from the Jam’s laddism; cricket jumpers, cycling gear, blokes with arms draped around one another, Weller at the back, pastel sweater hanging off his shoulders like a C&A catalogue model. All reference points lay somewhere between Dusty In Memphis, Curtis in Chicago and tongue firmly in cheek, and you either got it or you harked back to a time when Eton Rifles was the only thing that mattered.

Their debut single Speak Like A Child (in itself the title of a Herbie Hancock LP on Blue Note) is to this day a high point in The Style Council’s back catalogue, even if (as if turns out) you really have heard it before. With its breathy vocal delivery and airy Hammond lead, it isn’t entirely a million miles away from Brinsley’s Surrender To The Rhythm. Contrast and compare:

Brinsley SchwarzSurrender To The Rhythm

The Style CouncilSpeak Like A Child


Not content with pilfering blatantly from the past for his more soulful numbers, Weller went on the rampage through the more obscure parts of sunshine pop, alighting at Harper & Rowe’s 1967 bossanova boogaloo The Dweller and stealing the best bits for Have You Ever Had It Blue? This track was a highlight of the recent tour, the band kicking out the jams to play their blue notes under blue lighting, an inward-looking circle of nodding, noodling jazz-heads, but how many of the appreciative audience knew they were in effect listening to a carefully restructured cover version?

I’ve always loved The Style Council’s track, with its Gil Evans-arranged trumpet motif, the non-rock time signature and wordless Dee C Lee doo-be-doo backing vocals. As a 16 year-old, I thought Weller was a bit of a genius for having ‘written’ something so finger clickingly jazz. Great tune ‘n all that, Paul, but really, how did you manage to get away with it?

Harper & RoweThe Dweller

The Style CouncilHave You Ever Had It Blue?

*Bonus Track!

Here‘s The Style Council‘s With Everything To Lose, essentially the first version of the above track. No brass, different words, carefree flute etc etc

 

 

 

 

 

Get This!, Hard-to-find

Grand Speed Record

McAlmont & Butler will, for many, be forever known as ‘one-hit wonders’, the answer to a thousand pub quizzes thanks solely to the dynamic duo’s three octave, four minute single Yes. That it’s a sensational record is not up for debate. The full-length version is particularly thrilling, all reverb ‘n twang ‘n handclaps ‘n kitchen sink thrown in for good measure.

But they have another, far less well-known track that is almost just as skyscrapingly brilliant.


During the sessions for what would’ve been the duo’s third album, aborted after Butler teamed up with his ex Suede partner in crime, Brett Anderson, for the short-lived Tears project, they recorded Speed.

It starts off slow and measured, kinda like a soulful cousin of the Jesus And Mary Chain’s Sidewalking, but while the JAMC fling a bucket of feedback and forced Americanisms over the lot of it, McAlmont & Butler continue where they left off on Yes. If Dusty In Memphis had been Dusty In East Kilbride….

Faster than the Bullet trains in the east it goes, before the guitar, electric and wired, zooms off out into the air and the female choir come in on the chorus.

Lazy folk might point to the fact that it seems to take its cue from the Yes blueprint – deliberately mid-paced with tumbling toms, a Spectorish percussive backbeat atop sweeping strings, Butler’s guitar heroics and up-strummed chords, that sensational triple-octave vocal, but that would be to ignore the fact that Speed is something of a masterpiece all by itself.

It may be mid-paced, but I swear that by the time it floats and flounces its way to the end, it’s slightly faster, slightly louder and slightly further burrowed into your brain. You won’t even realise you’re doing the measured handclaps until you catch a sight of yourself doing a Jagger pose into the mirror, feather boa ‘n all. At least, I didn’t.

mcal butler live

It’s a shame that after being released on 7” and download, it managed only to scrape to a lowly number 193(!) on the charts.

Who knew the charts went that far back/down?

Had Speed been released 9 years earlier in 1995 as the follow-up to Yes, it’s a stick-onthat McAlmont & Butler would never have been left on the shelf alongside those other pub quiz answers Baha Men, Nena and 4 Non Blondes, even if they’re as far removed as possible from the talent-free lucky hit makers just mentioned – their recent tour had rave reviews every night. But you knew that already.