Glyndebourne is a majesterial stately home deep within the Home Counties, famous for staging regular opera events for the well-heeled of Englandshire. It also provided the inspiration for Glistening Glyndebourne, a locked-in and whacked-out spacey instrumental on John Martyn‘s 1971 Bless The Weather album.
John Martyn – Glistening Glyndebourne
The tendrils of jazz – Pharoah Sanders, mainly, but with a hint of Kind Of Blue-era Miles Davis creep around the opening chords like the free-flowing smoke from a Gitanes in a Parisienne jazz club. Eastern tinged piano scales and the dull woody thunk of Danny Thomson’s stand-up bass skirt around one another in search of a melody, neither taking the lead yet both unwilling to play second best. Just as you’re working out where the melody might come from, a richly-picked acoustic guitar tumbles from the fug; twisting, turning, looping, ech-ech-ech-ech-echoing into the ether, dense layers of rippling, waterfalling six string that sounds like nothing before it.
A jazzer at heart, John Martyn wanted to replicate the warm sustain that a horn has. A brief period learning the saxophone proved fruitless, but the Echoplex gave John the next best thing. Played with a wah-wah and filtered through his new box of tricks, he managed to create a sound that was as soulful as a horn section and as otherworldly as an Ornette Coleman solo.
Glistening Glyndebourne rises and falls, speeds up and slows down, grabs you by the ears and takes you with it on its six and a half minute journey. I’m a sucker for it. The squeak and scrape of new strings under lightning-fast fingers, the call and response in the bluesy, ricocheting riffs, the pulverising drum beat that carries it swiftly along. It makes for excellent late night music, with the lights low and a good malt in the bloodstream.
Almost half a century later it still sounds like the future. If you listen closely, you’ll hear the sound of The Edge cribbing notes in preparation for U2’s rise to world domination a decade and a half later. Listen closer still and you’ll hear Nick McCabe stumble upon the sound that’ll help define The Verve as trailblazing cosmic travellers in an era of clunking, meat and potatoes rock-by-numbers.
Martyn’s next album, Solid Air, would feature Echoplex on half the tracks, a sound that quickly became ubiquitous and signature, but on Bless the Weather, Martyn was still a doe-eyed acoustic folkie in search of the unknown. Glistening Glyndebourne is the sound of John Martyn simultaneously landing on his musical feet and taking off into the stratosphere. Joni Mitchell had the weird tunings. John Prine had the lyrics. John Martyn had the Echoplex.
There’s a good argument for suggesting George Harrison‘s All Things Must Pass album is the pick of the solo Beatles’ output. In 1968, post White Album, George spent some time in Woodstock with Bob Dylan. Hearing the Zim’s stories of how The Band wrote; with equity, without hierarchy, everything considered on merit, he realised he was getting short thrift in The Beatles. Both John and Paul failed to give George’s songs the attention they deserved, instead throwing him the odd patronising scrap of encouragement when a space or two needed filled on an album. Discourteous and dismissive, Lennon & McCartney didn’t take George’s stuff nearly seriously enough and the youngest Fab, lacking clout and perhaps confidence, left many great songs in the archives.
In 1970, the floodgates opened. Spread over 6 sides of vinyl, the songs that made up All Things Must Pass showed the world – and his former bandmates – what they’d been missing.
From the title in – The Beatles are finished, get over it, to the cover – a serious George, sitting in the middle of four metaphorically upturned garden gnomes (as similar to one another as The Beatles were at the height of Beatlemania), George throws open the doors to his vaults, brings in some high profile friends and adds life to songs that would’ve graced any late-era Beatles release.
You can practically see the double denim and scratchy beards as the whole things oozes past in a haze of hash and henna. George’s trademark slide guitar is all over it, gently weeping and effortlessly gliding off of the grooves and into that corner of the world that would be known from then on as soft rock.
It’s the opener, I’d Have You Anytime that sets the tone. Co-written with Dylan at that ’68 session, it’s produced by Phil Spector and features Beatles’ friend Klaus Voorman on bass. Guitar and drums are provided by the musicians who would soon become (Derek &) The Dominoes. Ol’ Slow Hand himself plays a tasetful slo-mo guitar part which would be more than a little bit recognisable to Beatles fans. Not content with stealing his pal’s wife, in order to keep I’d Have You Anytime softly rockin’ through the ether, Eric Clapton steals most of George’s solo from Something as well.
George Harrison – I’d Have You Anytime
A decade or so ago I’d Have You Anytime was a feature on one of my in-car CDs. Segued between World Party’s All I Gave and Elliott Smith’s Bottle Up And Explode!, the three tracks, all double tracked harmonies and wistful regret, regularly re-played (again! again!) to the point where I was sick of all of them.
George’s song happened to be playing one time as I was making my way through Crosshouse and past the hospital, back to the Kilmarnock bypass that would take me home. As the road opened up ahead, from one lane to three in preparation for the big roundabout at the Brewer’s Fayre pub, I happened to glance left to the car I was overtaking.
The woman driving it – she was about ages with me, but that’s got nothing to do with the story – was bawling her eyes out. Proper uncontrollable tears, mouth twisted and agape, lips joined by a few lines of stretchy saliva, face red and swollen. It was fairly distresssing.
I wanted to get her attention, ask if she was OK, but her eyes remained crying, her gaze on the car in front and the impending rush hour roundabout. I too had to focus on the traffic around me. Easing forward in first gear, I had a car in front of me, another behind. I was two, maybe three cars from the front of the queue, anticipating where I might be able to join the roundabout. The car on my left nudged forward simultaneously but the driver wouldn’t shift her gaze.
Ping-ponging my attention from right (is that a gap?) to left (is she OK?) I eventually zoomed onto the roundabout. The car to my left stayed. As I made my way round the roundabout, I lost her in my rear view mirror. I’ll never know if she was OK.
Had she been at the hospital and received bad news? Had she been visiting someone who’d died? Had she been dumped? Or sacked from work? I don’t know. I’ll never know. But everytime I’d Have You Anytime comes on, I’m back at the roundabout, watching a woman break down in the car next to me. Funny how music works, isn’t it?
Grangemouth is a wee industrial town on the eastern side of Scotland, famous for the oil refinery and its belching chimneys and gas flares that rise strangely beautiful and plentiful into the skies above the Firth of Forth. You might spot its post-apocalyptic Mad Maxian skyline as you look for (and miss) the bypass turn-off that takes you to the Kelpies (just us?)
Even in these times of renewable energy and eco awareness, not to mention more accessible further and higher education, the refinery is still the town’s largest employer. The route for many of Grangemouth’s young people is seemingly mapped out from the day they are born: leave school, start work at the refinery, retire, die. If you do these things in that order, you’ve won at life.
It was against this backdrop that Cocteau Twins were born. With a desire to never set foot inside the refinery, their shared love of The Birthday Party, Kate Bush and Siouxsie Sioux saw them land a record deal with 4AD, find favour with John Peel and subsequently burrow deep into the ears of fans of leftfield music the length and breadth of Peel’s reach. You knew that already though.
Against the occasional industrial clatter of drum machines, it was the basslines (Will Heggie initially, Simon Raymonde not long after); bending, bulging, melodic and Hook-ish that carried the music forward.
This rhythm section gave freedom for Robin Guthrie to splash all manner of dazzling, sparkling guitar sounds across the top; crystalline and glass-shattering one minute, fuzzed-out then gossamer-thin the next. Echoing, chiming, phased and flanged, Guthrie took the sonic bravery of The Banshees’ (etc) John McGeoch and developed a style of his own that would help define the Cocteau Twins’ sound. Vocal-free, the tracks alone are very much music to lose yourself in – other-worldly, pretty and lilting, melancholic yet uplifting – the best sort of music.
The Cocteaus’ secret weapon was, undeinably, vocalist and focal point Elizabeth Fraser. When you add her vocals to the heady mix, the tracks take flight as high and far and wide as her vocal chords. She didn’t so much sing as soar, and she did so without the use of words that you might find easily in the pages of a Collin’s Dictionary. Fraser swirled and swooped largely nonsensical gobbledegook and it sounded fantastic.
Occasionally, recognisable words might jump out at you. That ‘burn this whole madhouse down‘ line on Iceblink Luck, for example, is so memorable precisely because it’s one of the few Cocteaus’ lines sung in plain English. Indeed, much of the song appears to be, unusually for them, in the mother tongue. It takes a fair bit of sonic squinting to work them out, right enough.
Cocteau Twins – Iceblink Luck
Most of the time, the vocals are heady and hippy, a mythical strangetalk language all of their own. Sung with an unparalleled style and phrasing, it’s Fraser’s vocals that are the true trademark of the Cocteau Twins.
Now and again, Fraser’s vocals will grace other records, Massive Attack’s Teardrop, for example, or more recently Sam Lee’s Old Wow album. When Felt recorded their Ignite The Seven Cannons album with Robin Guthrie in 1985, it was inevitable that the producer would call for his partner to add her celestial quavers at some point. The recording sessions were fraught with ego and anguish – Felt’s Lawrence, a stickler for detail and band aesthetics was encouraged to sign a contract that would forbid him from being present at the mixing.
Guthrie used the opportunity to Cocteau-fy much of the music with sea-deep reverb and an ambient swirl. He also finalised an 11-track album that the ‘Perfect 10’-loving Lawrence couldn’t cope with. “We’d have been better doing an EP with Guthrie instead,” he moaned to Uncut a few years ago. “A standalone 12″ like Joy Divison’s Atmosphere or Wild Swans’ Revolutionary Spirit.”
Felt – Primitive Painters
The lead single from the album proved be one of Felt’s most enduring tracks. Over time it’s become, like the reference points above (and no doubt to Lawrence’s delight), a classic 12″ single of the era. Featuring a freeform Fraser who’d been handed the lyrics minutes beforehand, Primitive Painters is a waltzing, loping, cyclical groove, chiming with 12 string intent and mooching ennui. It’s not a tune that particularly goes anywhere, until Fraser enters on the chorus. From then on in, the whole thing lifts off spectacularly for a good 6 minutes before crashing triumphantly to a long, slow fade-out.
Playing now, it evokes those days when the Chart Show would show you a run-down of the indie top 10, most of the records playing behind a picture of the record sleeve or a promo shot of the band in lieu of an actual video.
Fast forward a decade and the Cocteau Twins, not quite history, will limp on for one more LP. Fraser and Guthrie have separated and she is now in a relationship with Jeff Buckley, someone else who knows his way around the outer octaves of a vocal chord. Fiercely private people, their relationship proved fairly creative.
Jeff Buckley & Elizabeth Fraser – All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun
It’s a slightly uneasy, voyeuristic listen, this song. Not because it’s difficult to listen to – it’s not – it’s fantastic – but because it’s evidently very personal. A metaphor for their developing relationship maybe, All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun should be listened to through a filter of a conscience. Basically, you’re eavesdropping on a private moment between two people – Fraser’s unselfconscious giggle at the start makes that startlingly clear.
Since the track leaked, she’s said how disappointed she is that it’s out there, unfinished and raw. Yet out there it is, so listen we must. Their duet – a studio off-cut remember – stands up with the best of both artists’ work.
They’d have made beautiful babies, Buckley and Fraser, and this song is the sonic equivalent. Imagine how it might’ve sounded with Buckley’s shining, liquid mercury Telecaster singing across the top of it, Fraser’s vocals double-tracked and harmonising new melodies, a rhythm section with meandering bass, cymbal splashes and restrained bombast. We can only imagine.
L McCarron. Avril Campbell. Graham. Hugo. T Heywood. RP Baker. Brenda Clack. Anne Jefferis. We’ll get to these people shortly. But first, a story that is also a life lesson.
It’s early 1985. The plans for Live Aid haven’t yet been hatched but Band Aid is still very much in the collective conscience of a nation which has rallied round to raise actual millions for ‘the starving children in Africa’ ((c) everyone’s mum, dad, gran and auntie at the time.) Doing their bit, the 2nd Irvine BBs are having a ‘Bring and Buy’ sale and, doing my bit, I hand over a pile of 7″ singles (“I no longer listen to them,” I rationalise, with alarming short-sightedness. “If I can help raise some money, I’m being a good citizen.”) Yes, maybe, but a foolish idiot to boot. Even as I give them away – Baggy Trousers, Stand & Deliver, Ally’s Tartan Army, Ghost Town, amongst half a dozen others – an internal voice is telling me not to be so bold, but before I can start a proper argument with myself, a smiling Mr Davey has taken them from me and placed them next to the pile of Topical Times football annuals, Commando books and Warlord and Victor comics. I have donated a little part of my life and I will never see them again.
I wonder what happened to them? It’s a thought that, believe it or not, creeps into my mind at least once a week. The world is collapsing around us in all sorts of unthinkable ways but what concerns me most is whether or not some happy-go-lucky browser at the bring ‘n buy stall still has my records. I’m assuming with hope that they were all bought at premium, African children-saving prices rather than binned at the end of the Bring and Buy sale, and that whoever bought them bought the entire lot rather than cherry-pick the good stuff. It was all good stuff! Surely the lucky buyer recognised that?
I wonder too, do they ever wonder who the initials ‘CMcA’ belong to? My early teenage mark was penned carefully on the lip of all my 7″ sleeves, on the back at the top, just where the record slides in, just as I’d noticed my dad’s were. Whenever I browse through old records in a charity shop (and it’s been a wee while) I half expect to turn up a copy of one or more of my errant singles. The chest thumping that accompanies the uncovering of an Ant Music or a dog-eared Dog Eat Dog is louder than the Burundi drums that first brought those records galloping into my life, but, so far, no luck. It’s becoming a nagging obsession, truth be told.
The long register of names that appear cursive and carefully printed on the labels and liners and back covers and bottom corners on many of the records in my own collection are a mystery. Who are they? Or who, perhaps, were they? Where did T. Heywood, with his one-time love of obscure Singaporian beat groups live? When did Graham choose to give all his Kinks 7″ singles to charity? Why did Brenda Clack choose to give her well-played mono copy of Help! to the British Heart Foundation shop? How did RP Baker’s mono Sgt Peppers sleeve (yes!!) end up with a stereo copy (och!) of the record inside it?
I suppose one person’s old clutter is another person’s golden treasure. And treasure hunters like us live for those moments when you happen to be in the right Cancer Research shop at the right time, when a back-breaking flick through the endless James Last and Super Stereo Sound Samplers returns an unexpected John Martyn record (aye!), or Talking Heads (aye, aye!!), or even a sleeveless Faces album. £1? Don’t mind if I do, thanks.
What journey did those records have before ending up with me? Were they, like those Two Tone and Adam & the Ants records of my own, bought with pocket money and brought home as fast as the purchasers’ legs could carry them? Were they played over and over until someone – a parent or an elder sibling, perhaps – demanded they be turned down or, “better still, off”? Did they soundtrack getting ready on a Saturday night? Did they blast at teenage parties? Or were they played once then filed embarrassingly away, unliked and unloved, before facing the indignity of being given to the charity shop along with all the other useless ephemera of life? We’ll never ever know. Well-worn, in some cases, hardly-played in others, these slices of black plastic – ‘pre-loved’, to use current parlance – are once again enjoying a new lease of life in my own record collection.
If you listen really carefully while they spin in thunderous mono and crackling stereo, their grooves breathe little sighs of joy.
Anne Jefferis may have chosen to biro a love heart around one of the pictures of Paul McCartney on the gatefold sleeve of Beatles For Sale, but then, she also enhanced the inner sleeve with stapled and sellotaped cut-out images of the Fab Four from Teen Beat or Beatles Monthly or whichever pop magazine of the era was her preferred reading material. Yellowing, crackling and flaky, the tape still holds in place most of the cut outs that were stuck there 56 years ago.
The Beatles – Rock And Roll Music
Whenever I play the record, as I was doing earlier this morning, I like to think of Anne, wrapped up in McCartney (and, clearly, a wee bit of Ringo too), obsessing over the harmonies and chords and total fabness of the songs that fly off the the record with total giddy joy.
Did Anne Jefferis simply tire of The Beatles? Surely not! John Lennon’s sandpapered ‘n leathered larynx on that downhill-without-the-brakes-on gambol through Chuck Berry is enough to keep The Beatles close to anyone’s heart for evermore. Did Anne perhaps pass away, her well-loved records thrown out with the other unwanted remnants of her life? (What other records did she have?!?) We’ll very likely never know.
The music…and the people who first owned them – Anne, RP, Brenda, Hugo and the many others…all live on with every subsequent play. I hope those records of mine are still spinning somewhere too. They bloody well better be.
The revolution will not be televised solely on ABC and BBC and CBS and CNN via twenty-four hour news channels repeating graphic images Repeating graphic images Repeating graphic images The revolution will be reported by bloggers and vloggers and looters and muggers Twitters, Tweeters, fast-food eaters hashtaggers and carpetbaggers, The good, the bad and the ugly all giving their own perspective on the state of America as, overseen by a bully, a rapist, a racist, a disgrace, it swallows itself whole, a blinkered and bloated, unantidoted nation, where institutionalised hatred of non-whites is at its scraggy, entitled core and the police are given free reign to murder whoever they choose, live on camera.
The revolution will not be finger lickin’ good The revolution will be the real thing Relying on the appliance of science To get you all the news that’s fit to print Because you’re worth it.
The roots of racism run deep and long, particularly in American history and while there’s a general pretence that we’ve all moved on somewhat, that we’re nowadays more progressive, more liberal and tolerant, it’s not hard to debunk that particular myth. They say you’re never more than 6 feet from a rat, and in the same way, you’re never more than 6 seconds away from finding a racist on Facebook or Twitter. Sometimes it’s out and out Tommy Robinson-style hideousness, sometimes it comes wrapped in that old ‘don’t white lives matter too?’ blanket, but it’s all there. Racists walk among us; the man on the street. The cop in Minneapolis – the Minnea Polis, you might say. Even (especially) the inflammatory Twitterer hiding out in the White House. Society’s cancer that refuses to die.
The George Floyd story is, depressingly, nothing new. The reaction has been seen before too. But not like this. Perhaps it’s the pent up release of a country in lockdown, hiding from one epidemic while another rages at its own door, brought to a head by a President who’ll use the situation to rally around the WASPish right as he clings to a job he’s not fit for doing. I don’t know. I’ll never properly ‘know‘. That matters neither here nor there though – I do know right from wrong. We are not all equal, but we should be. That’s obvious, right?
Gil Scott-Heron’s most-famous track, from whence that attempt at politico-prose at the top was inspired was recorded in 1970, just Gil and his firm, quietly assured voice, accompanied by some groovy percussion. The very definition of beat poetry.
Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Small Talk At 125th & Lenox)
It’s an ‘answer track’ to The Last Poets‘ When The Revolution Comes, street-tough, proto-rap that leaves its cards face-up on the table – “When the revolution comes, guns and rifles will be taking the place of poems and essays.” It was written more than half a century ago, yet seems perfectly prescient for addressing America’s white elephant, so to speak, that refuses to leave the room.
The Last Poets‘ – When The Revolution Comes
A few years after recording his response, Scott-Heron re-recorded The Revolution Will Not Be Televised with added funk and jazz musicians. Its roll-call of cultural reference points and underlying message of activism over pacifism now a relaxed, meandering soundtrack, no less hard hitting but presented in soft-focus polaroid as opposed to stark monochrome. It’s a great soundtrack by which to get political. Agitate, educate, organise.
Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
I’ve Seen Everything, Trashcan Sinatras‘ 1993 sophomore album (as they say over there) had the prime eight o’clock slot in last night’s #TimsTwitterListeningParty. Curated by the mushroom-heided focal point of The Charlatans, the concept, should you not know, is simple; cue up the album, pour a drink and open your Twitter feed on as many devices as you can handle (the reason for that is clear once the listening party gets underway). At the appointed kick-off time, drop the needle, press play, click the link or whatever you do to consume your music and, as the album spins forth, follow the hashtag while the band Tweet info and gossip and recount their memories of writing the tracks, all the while interacting with the fans as they go along. You’ll need multi-taskable fingers that can fire rapid text at key moments – “that lyric!“, “that riff!” etc and simultaneously respond to comments that you find yourself tagged in. It’s a bit of a dizzy gallop to be truthful, but highly enjoyable and a great way to spend another evening in lockdown. The community spirit as it plays out is nearly as good as being at a gig. Nearly. You knew that already though.
In the afternoon leading up to the evening’s big event, the Trashcans were sending out little reminders across social media and, in the midst of it all, the news broke that Kraftwerk‘s Florian Schneider had succumbed to cancer and passed away. In no time at all, the Trashcans’ Twitter feed had posted this brilliant picture;
It shows a wall in front of a gas works, the legend ‘KRAFTWERK’ splayed across its Victorian bricks in industrial spray paint. Not just any wall, though. The gas works are in Irvine (actually, were in Irvine – they’re long-gone), original home to both the Trashcans and myself, and were boundaried by the wall (also long-gone) on Thornhouse Avenue at the Ballot Road/Bank Street end, across from the old tennis courts (they’re still there).
When I was younger I lived at those tennis courts – my pal and I jumped the fence in the morning for a quick couple of sets before jumping back over in advance of the caretaker opening up at noon. We’d play all day on our £5 season ticket, run home for tea, run back again until it closed at 8 o’clock then hide round the corner (near TCS bass player Davy’s house, as it happened) until the caretaker had locked up again, then jump the fence one more time and play until it was too dark to see the luminous furry ball until it was past you.
When Wimbledon was on, the part-time tennisers turned up in their dozens looking for a game and it wasn’t unusual to find yourself without a court for an hour or more. That’s when the gasworks’ wall became handy. There were three parts to it – the picture shows two – and there was a clear yet unspoken hierarchy to using it. The section with the wee yellow sign and the ‘ERK’ part of the graffiti was centre court and was reserved for only the best players. Even if you were the only person there, you’d think twice before using it. Gary Singleton and his fierce left-handed serve might be along at any top-spinning second. So you’d stand on the opposite side of the road, aim for one of the other two sections and serve towards it. The wee curved section below was just about the same height as a net, so you could practise serving and volleying to your heart’s content, at least until the ball skited up from the curved section or pinged off the jutting edge that separated the three sections (where the edge of the ‘W’ above disappears next to the ‘E’). If the ball hit either of those parts, you’d lost it forever to either the gas works or the hosiery that was next to it.
Back to the photo though. Who took it? And why did they take it? It’ll be at least 35 years old. Back then, photography certainly wasn’t as disposable as it is these days. Spools were bought. Development paid for. ‘Quality control’ sticker removed in shame. Someone intentionally took this picture and kept it for posterity. I don’t know if it’s Davy’s photo, but I like to think he snapped it one grey day in 1981. As I’m writing, I’m beginning to wonder if Davy maybe even graffitied the wall then took the picture, cool proof that he’d adorned the wall should it be washed off within the week. Until the day it was eventually washed away or the wall was knocked down (whatever happened first), it had seemingly always been there. Back at the time, as I clobbered tennis balls back and forth from it each July, I had no idea who or what Kraftwerk was – ironic, given that it means ‘power station’ (close enough to a gas works, I’d argue) although by the time of The Model and Tour de France, it became apparent that this was uber-hip graffiti in a town that was anything but.
Kraftwerk – Die Roboter
There will be people far more qualified than I that will write about Kraftwerk in the next day or two. Electronic pioneers, they’ll say, with soul at their synthetic heart. Perhaps even the most influential music makers since Lennon & McCartney – just look and listen to artists as disparate as Joy Division and Afrika Bambaataa if that sounds too far-fetched. I love love love the first side of Autobahn, its German-engineered, fan-cooled engine kicking off a wonderfully meandering road trip, and I’ve a particular penchant for the German-language versions of their better-known stuff – Die Roboter, for example. Strange, linear pop made by serious-faced boffins in matching suits, it still sounds like the future over 40 years later.
I also love how Berlin-era Bowie made no secret of the fact Kraftwerk were hugely influential to him on a trio of albums that have subsequently been hugely influential on others. Influenced by/influence on…. it’s the power that keeps the music world spinning ad infinitum. Here’s the tribute to Florian that eases you into side two of Dave’s “Heroes” album.
Parade was the soundtrack album to Prince‘s royally slated vanity project Under The Cherry Moon, an artily-filmed flop that aimed to evoke the golden era of 40s Hollywood; Art Deco, the French Riviera, silvery black and white tint ‘n all, but landed somewhat short of the mark. Over the course of what is a solid 8/10 album (insert the incoming sound of a million outraged Prince fans here) that flits between Mountains‘ on-the-one shuffling groove and the wonky jazz-inflected pop of Girls & Boys, the electro-funk of Kiss and the more standard perv-pop of New Position (he just about gets away with rhyming spunk with funk in the second verse) Prince runs the whole gamut of his flashy never-ending talent. He saves the very best til last though.
It’s the piano that does it. That and the sympathetically arpeggiated acoustic guitar. And the voice. The voices, actually. Three musicians, three voices, one great song. Coming at the end of Prince‘s eight album in as many years, Sometimes It Snows In April arrives quite unexpectedly, sent down from heaven to land as softly and prettily as a snowfall in April itself.
Prince – Sometimes It Snows In April
Sometimes It Snows In April is sparse, downbeat and fragile, the very opposite of the machine-powered dirty funk that precedes it. It’s just Prince with Wendy & Lisa, making what would turn out to be their last appearance on a Prince album. It’s the perfect way to bow out too; tinkle some high up the board keys, breathe some airy vocals across the top and allow the boss to take the song where it needs to go.
It sounds almost played and recorded on-the-hoof. Unsurprisingly, Prince’s vocal is spectacular, flitting effortlessly through the octaves from whispered restraint to skyscraping falsetto, his phrasing floating around the melody with relaxed, close-miked ease.
The guitar is sparse because the player (Prince? Wendy?) isn’t yet exactly sure of what to play. The piano (Prince? Lisa?) is similarly bare-boned. There are no drums, no electric keys, little in the way of bass. It’s Prince in the wee small hours, his musical sidekicks at his beck and call, just out of bed and jamming it all out beside him in their nightwear, adding their reverb-drenched backing vocals at the crucial moments. By the third chorus, just as the three have found their sweet spot, they bring it all to a close. “All good things, they say, never last.” Given the girls’ tenure in Prince’s backing band it’s the perfect refrain.
At one point the song was given a full-blown, power ballad orchestral make-over, but that version remains, alongside gazillions of other delights, locked tightly in the Prince vault. Someone should dial in 1999 and I reckon the door’ll swing wide open.
Anyway. The lyric of Sometimes It Snows… relates to Christopher Tracy, the lead character in the movie – played by Prince, of course – a flamboyant, flapper-era gigolo – of course! – who gads about the south of France swindling outrageously wealthy French women. Of course. In the movie – spoiler alert – Prince’s character dies and the song soundtracks the moment in the film when his former friends and lovers are reminiscing on how great he was. If you can see past the ego and the massive heid (and who wouldn’t have a massive heid if they too were as groovy and talented and attractive as Prince?) you can’t help but think it’s just about the most perfect song Prince wrote. A bold claim, but I’ll fight you for it. Or fight U 4 it, as the man himself wouldn’t have said.
There’s been no snow this April. Just splitting sunshine, shorts on and barbecues roaring. Another indicator of the unusual times we’re living through, as unpredictable as Prince at the end of Parade but nowhere near as pretty.
Pioneering DJ and soundscaper Andrew Weatherall left us today. A quick look in the more esoteric corners of my record collection will find any number of 12″ singles, CD singles and compilations stamped with his unmistakable sonic signature; dark and dubby and as wildly creative as the hair on his face. Weatherall-enhanced records always grew on you (correction – still grow on you), revealing hidden layers with each new rotation, a sound that was simultaneously out of time and ahead of time.
It was Weatherall who taught Primal Scream that their records should be marathons rather than sprints, and he transformed them from a sniggered-at Asda-priced Guns ‘n Roses into a genre-hopping behemoth, welding MC5 chants to acid house beats to gospel samples to tripped-out, whacked-out house, sometimes within the same track. Before the release of Screamadelica, I’d wager that most folk who approached music from my stubborn and blinkered post-teenage point of view – guitars are where it’s at, dance music’s all nonsense, blah blah blah- would never have heard of Weatherall. That it’s now Primal Scream’s accepted era-defining classic is due mainly to the producer’s ability to channel the group’s punk spirit with the ‘new’ sound pumping out of the clubs. Proof, should it be needed, that the sum of a classic album is even greater than its constituent parts.
It was his magnificent melding of loose and tumbling Stonesy piano and crashing guitars on Loaded that signalled a brave new age in indie guitar music. It was now OK to tuck your melodies into a bed of beats. It was perfectly acceptable to loosen and lengthen your track to the point where it bore no resemblance to its original form. It was suddenly de rigeur to have a Weatherall or Two Lone Swordsmen remix on your single. Acts as wide and varied as Happy Mondays, Six By Seven, Tracey Thorn and Wooden Shjips have all benefited from the magic beats and bloops he sprinkled on top. A Weatherall remix, to use that hackneyed old term, rocked, but more importantly, they rolled.
Wooden Shjips – Crossing (Weatherall remix)
Bocca Juniors – Raise (63 Steps To Heaven)
His production alongside Heller and Farley on Bocca Juniors‘ Raise (63 Steps To Heaven), all Hanna-Barbera sampled starts, stolen Thrashing Doves piano loops and monster beats still sends the hairs on the back of my neck tingling in anticipation. Was it really played ahead of the Stone Roses gargantuan Glasgow Green show in 1990? I like to tell myself it was. I have some sort of warped memory of going bonkers to it at the time.
His thumping mix of Primal Scream‘s Uptown is a string-driven, disco-infused variant on The Clash’s Rock The Casbah going 15 rounds with Augustus Pablo and Elecronic’s Getting Away With It. Absolutely essential, if you listen to just one Weatherall remix this week…
Primal Scream – Uptown (Andrew Weatherall Long After The Disco Is Over mix)
Sometimes, he beefed up the original record to the point where the Weatherall remix became the accepted version. My Bloody Valentine‘s Soon would be a case in point.
Sometimes, he’d take a tiny part of the original tune and steer it towards uncharted territory. The new shapes he twists from St Etienne‘s Only Love Can Break Your Heart were a step too far for these ears at the time. In the intervening years though, this slowcoach has caught up and jumped aboard.
Occasionally, the finished result bore no resemblance at all to the original record. His production on his remix of Flowered Up‘s Weekender, all 16+ minutes of it, is sensationally up there and out there, yet if the artist and title wasn’t on the label, I’ve no doubt that even the keenest of trainspotters would struggle to identify it.
Flowered Up – Weatherall’s Weekender (Audrey Is A Little Bit More Partial)
An eclectic, catch-all artist – his setlists read a bit like a random John Peel show, with the added bonus that all tracks were played at the correct speed – spanned 50s rockabilly…punk…acid house…new wave…no wave…nosebleed techno…avant garde ambience…and flowed seamlessly; dubby, clubby and ebbing and flowing like the best of nights out.
Sabres Of Paradise – Theme
The Asphodells – A Love From Outer Space
A true pioneer, his unmistakable stamp on the great records of the future will be greatly missed. For now, I’ll sate myself with the honest understanding that my knowledge of Andrew Weatherall’s work barely scratches the surface. I’m going in head-first for the next wee while.
That Bowie fella was a clever droog. In death he created one of his greatest pieces of art. The songs that make up Blackstar contained an outpouring of coded references to the pancreatic cancer that he would succumb to two days after its release. The benefit of such short hindsight allowed even the blindest of Bowie lyric decoders to join the dots and see the bigger picture. Only a small handful of folk knew, but Dave was terminally ill when he wrote and recorded his 25th album and scattered across the tracks were the clues that became so obvious in the days that followed. You know that already though.
“Look at me, I’m in heaven. I’ve got scars that can’t be healed.”
“Something happened on the day he died.”
“Why too dark to speak the words?”
“IfI’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me.”
“I’ve got nothing left to lose…I’m so high it makes my brain whirl.”
“Hope I’ll be free.”
“I know something is very wrong.”
“I can’t give everything away.”
He maybe didn’t give everything away, but he gave a huge part of himself. The font used to display the tracklisting on the back? A relatively obscure one called Terminal, funnily enough. Even the sleeve itself is a perfect artefact. Bereft of it’s contents and held to the light, it reveals a galaxy of stars that shines with all the wonder of the cosmos. A certain, intentional metaphor for Bowie’s omnipresence, it’s his final gift to us all.
Blackstar wasn’t the easiest of albums to digest at the first sitting. Much of it is skewed and, unsurprisingly, doom-laden, carried by skittering drums and the sort of skronking jazz that’s only recently found itself on the margins of the mainstream thanks to the occasional rotation of acts such as The Comet Is Coming and Polar Bear on BBC 6 Music. Be it glam or electronica or new romanticism or even speed garage, Bowie was forever at the front of the queue whenever a new musical direction was being charted, in both senses of the word.
There are stellar moments, of course, some of which take half a dozen or more plays before they’ve worked their way into your head, by which point you’re revelling in one of Bowie’s most complex, most complete albums. Blackstar may not’ve been for everyone – my local independent seller was scathing of it upon release, but for those that get it… wow! There are truly brilliant moments on Blackstar, as euphoric as Absolute Beginners, as arty as anything from Low and as essential as the rest of the high rollers that immediately spring to mind when you’re asked for your favourite Bowie albums.
This week’s highlights: the song-within-the-song moment midway through the title track…the crashing guitars that colour the none-more-Bowie vocal on Lazarus….the jerky paranoia of Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)…..the straightforward piano and electric guitar ballad of Dollar Days, an album highlight that sounds most like the Bowie of old, whatever that means. It features a great sax line too, played, I imagine (I hope) by Bowie himself. Meandering, mournful and slowly unfolding, it’s the stately sound of Bowie facing death with stiff upper-lipped dignity. In a back catalogue of fantastic highs, Dollar Days is right up there as one of his very best.
David Bowie – Dollar Days
Best of all though, arguably, is Girl Loves Me, a song smartly written in a mish-mash of two made-up languages, Polari and Nadsat.
Polari was the coded language (more decoding!) used by gay men in the 50s and 60s as a way of finding like-minded companions. With conversation based around combinations of slang and interpolated foreign words, gay men had the perfect means to hide in plain sight. Polari even made it onto the BBC when, unknown to the bosses, it was used extensively on Round The Horne.
In more recent times, Morrissey went through a short phase of adopting Polari. Piccadilly Palare, for example;
The Piccadilly Palare Was just silly slang Between me and the boys in my gang “So bona to vada, oh you Your lovely eek and Your lovely riah”
His Bona Drag compilation album too. Translated from Polari, it means ‘good clothes‘. Anyway, I digress.
Alongside his adoption of Polari, Bowie borrows heavily from Nadsat, the half-Russian, half-English language that Anthony Burgess used in A Clockwork Orange. The Russian word for ‘good‘, for example, is ‘khrosho‘, pronounced ko-ro-sho. In keeping with the book’s theme of wanton, casual violence, Burgess cleverly twisted this into ‘horrorshow‘, so whenever a character in the book refers to something as ‘real horrorshow‘, they’re expounding on how great it is. It took me a while to work this out when I first read it, as of course, four pilled-up and violent teenagers giving an old guy a kicking really is a proper horrorshow. I’d no idea for many pages that they considered a ‘horrorshow’ to be a good thing. Jeez.
As a result of it’s lyrical styling, Girl Loves Me sounds weird, wonky and other-worldly. It’s real horrorshow, in fact.
David Bowie – Girl Loves Me
Cheena so sound, so titty up this Malchick, say Party up moodge, ninety vellocet round on Tuesday Real bad dizzy snatch making all the homies mad, Thursday Popo blind to the polly in the hole by Friday
Where the fuck did Monday go? I’m go to this Giggenbach show I’m sailin’ in the chestnut tree Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?
Girl loves me
Despite the fantastic imagery that the lyrics throw up, the refrain of “Where the fuck did Monday go?” sticks out a mile for me. When I watched my dad pass away through cancer, he’d lie in a morphine-induced sleep for days at a time. When lucid, he had no idea what day of the week or time of year, or indeed, what year it was. For us carers, minutes turned to hours which turned to days which turned to weeks. Where the fuck did Monday go indeed. It’s the perfect line. Of all the death-related ones on Blackstar, it’s the one that resonates most with me.
Bowie has been gone four years now. He’ll live on forever though.
Dubiety surrounds the release of Big Star‘s third album, ‘Third’. Was it a true Big Star album in the way #1 Record and Radio City were? Given that the recordings were enhanced by an ever-revolving rotation of session musicians who’d play around the axis of Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens – Steve Cropper on the version of the VU’s Femme Fatale, for example, and given that Chilton wrote the lion’s share of the original music, it’s oft been considered the first real Chilton solo album. Studio tracking sheets from the time show references to Sister Lovers (Chilton and Stephens were in relationships with a pair of sisters at the time) which may or may not have been the intended name for the new record, or indeed, a new name for a band far-removed from its original identity. Despite the poor sales of the first two albums though, Ardent were dead keen to market it as a Big Star release and so, with little fuss or fanfare, Third was sent out into the world, Big Star’s ‘difficult’ third album with unfinished songs and little of the sparkling power-pop jangle that dusted the first two.
Big Star – Jesus Christ
Towards the end of side 2 you’ll find Jesus Christ, a mid-paced, straightforward celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus. On top of the occasional Spectorish tumbling toms and a honeyed Stax sax break that gives birth to Clarence Clemons and the E Street Band, you’ll spot references to angels and stars and Royal David’s City. The song is carried by Chilton’s instantly recognisable guitar style and sound, a welcome relief following the bleak and self explanatory Holocaust that precedes it on the record.
It’s a properly great Christmas tune, uplifting and joyful, yet as far-removed from the normal records that get played ad infinitum in shops, cafes, taxis, bars, wherever at this time of year. Indeed, the only time you’re liable to hear Jesus Christ in the changing rooms at TK Maxx will be from my mouth as I recoil in horror at the ill-fitting shirt from last season’s Katharine Hamnett collection that I struggled to get on and struggled to get off again. Jesus Christ, it was tight. Forgive me father etc etc…
Big Star – Jesus Christ (demo)
Chilton’s demo of Jesus Christ is great. Just Alex and a finely strummed acoustic 12 string, it has all the hallmarks of high watermark Big Star; Chilton’s ad libbed ooh-oohs, cracked, at the end of his range vocals on the high notes and the requisite sparkling jangle. What a great canvas for the other musicians to paint on.
Teenage Fanclub (of course) do a terrific version of Jesus Christ. Released on one of the two CD singles to promote Ain’t That Enough, the lead single from the gold standard Songs From Northern Britain album, TFC were in a rich vein of writing form at the time, firing out guitar-fuelled and harmony-filled songs with ridiculous ease. That Ain’t That Enough was released in June with a cover of an obscure Christmas song as an extra track (the other was a nod and a wink cover of the VU’s Femme Fatale, funnily enough) mattered not a jot. Recorded at perfect head-nodding pace and employing the twin vocals of Norman and Gerry, it’s proper, vintage Fanclub. A heady sheen of fuzzed-at-the-edge electric guitar, a tastefully twangin’ Raymond solo and a heartfelt, sympathetic take on the original make this one of TFC’s best covers.
Teenage Fanclub – Jesus Christ
My job in education has changed in recent years, meaning that nowadays I don’t get to drag my class up to sing a Christmas song in the church. I always liked the challenge of this. It was the one time of year I could put my guitar skills to proper use and I was always on the lookout for a left-of-centre song to tackle. Jesus Christ was one I often considered, but it was forever overlooked in favour of something else.
The arrangement was going to be a full-on Phil Spector epic too; some tinkling pitched percussion at the start, eking out the melody against my plaintive strums, a single voice – probably the quietest girl in the class – singing the opening lines, the whole class coming in on the ‘Jesus Christ was born today! Jesus Christ was born!‘ Then there’s my bit – “MY BIT, BOYS ‘N GIRLS!” – where I do my Alex/Norman run up and down the frets before the second solo voice – this time a boy – “And o! They did rejoice!” brings us back to the whole point of the song.
By the second chorus, the entire group is swaying side to side in time to the guitar’s rhythm. By the third, they’ve added handclaps, like a peely wally west of Scotland gospel choir. They’ve lost most of their self-consciousness by this point too. Jack at the back is still fidgeting with the zip on his school trousers and Chloe, front row and centre, has still to lift her eyes from the rich red carpet in the vestry, but look! One or two of them are even smiling. And I’m in my element, pushing it towards the end.
The chorus is repeated a couple more times before we finish in a blaze of frantically scrubbed acoustics, clashing glockenspiel and rapturous applause from the assembled parents in the pews upstairs. The head teacher, as usual, fails to acknowledge both the effort and the spectacle and we move swiftly on to the next class who shamble their awkward way through Santa Baby to the embarrassment of all in attendance. I miss these times most of all.
Here’s Alex Chilton’s fantastically louche take on TFC’s Alcoholiday. Teenage Fanclub have never hidden their love for all things Chilton-related, but on this tune the gamekeeper turns poacher. He just about steals the show too.