Ali Farka Touré was the guitarists’ guitarist, his bony-fingered multi-flowing rhythms sending chattering and cascading African blues out into the dusty ether. His speciality was in finding the sweet spot in which to riff, his band of tribal-robed desert bluesmen laying down and locking in to the steady groove to allow him the freedom of expression on top. His playing was nothing short of breath-taking; dextrous and elastic, primal yet boundary-pushing, a Saharan sand-coated John Lee Hooker, flash but without the player himself being flashy. When Ali took off, you took off with him.
Out this week is something of a tribute record to his songs and legacy. Ali’s son Vieux has teamed up with everyone’s favourite Texan guitar artists Khruangbin and, in what’s becoming something of a habit with the trio, created an interesting and highly musical collaboration.
Named simply Ali, the album is a real beauty, with Vieux taking the essence of his father’s music and passing it over to Khruangbin to add their respectful and reverential twist.
Midway through you’ll find the effortless Tongo Barra, five and a half minutes of clean and chiming, freeflowing high line guitar, an ever-moving, shape-shifting enigma with more melody per mile than the entirety of your record collection combined.
It’s a magnificent example of what happens when two worlds collide. Vieux, with his chanting, expressive Malian vocals and peerless guitar playing surfing atop a glorious gumbo of Khruangbin magic. Drums and bass are locked tight but loose, verging almost towards Fools Gold territory in places; solid and repetitive, driving forward but with space to breathe, to stand aside and admire.
Touré’s guitar is non-stop and continual, intertwined with Mark Speer, his Winkleman-fringed six string foil in Khruangbin, gushing like a burst and overflowing NYC fire hydrant in the sun. Hammer ons, pull offs, double and triple stops, spidering up the frets and slinking back down again, a funky one chord head nodding groove, powered, if these old ears don’t deceive me, by a cranked-up Roland Jazz Chorus and played with nary a hint of effort.
Right now, Tongo Barra hangs above all other music like an omnipresent and fluid dust cloud. I can’t get enough of it.
I once blew the chance of an interview with Nancy Sinatra after she took exception to the ‘Phil Spector’ handle under which I wrote.at the time. “Why on earth would I want to be interviewed by Phil Spector?” she asked aghast, failing to realise that it wasn’t yr actual wig-headed murderer that was cold calling and asking for the chance to chat about making records with Morrissey. “He was a strange, strange, man and I want nothing to do with him.” Fair point, Nancy. Fair point. Lesson learned – never use daft pseudonyms on the internet. I should have signed up to her long-gone fan forum under my real name.
Those records Nancy Sinatra made with Lee Hazlewood defy both time and pigeonholing. Often kitsch and sometimes countryish yet nearly always lush and orchestral, their parping brass and earthquaking vocal lines may well have wafted straight offa the grooves of a Tindersticks or a Cat Power record. Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue vamping it up on ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow‘? Pure Lee ‘n Nancy, The entire whispered, gothic ouvre of Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell? Total Lee ‘n Nancy. Their influence, committed to wax over half a century ago, still resonates.
If James Bond had been a lonesome, wandering cowboy, Summer Wine may well have been his theme tune.
Summer Wine – Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood
This version of Summer Wine wasn’t the first one Hazlewood had recorded with a female sparring partner – the first version features little-known actress Suzi Jane Hokom – but the better-known take, using the original backing track slowed down to treacle-wading levels of sluggishness, is the one you need.
Road-worn and roughed up, yet clean and pretty, it’s the perfect summation of all things Lee ‘n Nancy. The ping-ponging vocals – she crystal clear and high registered, he singing from the soles of his grit covered cowboy boots – sound like they’ve been recorded in separate studios and miles apart, yet they’re woven together into a time-shifting storyline of mutual seduction with a twist in its tail. Lee is the silver-spurred outlaw, a stranger in town that jingles his way into the consciousness of bored local flirt Nancy. Together, (adopts Hart To Hart voiceover) it wasn’t quite moida, but (spoiler alert!) Lee awakes after a night of metaphorical summer wine to find both Nancy and his boots have gone.
It’s a great record, from the sweeping strings that droop and divebomb in direct proportion to Hazlewood’s handlebar moustache to the honeyed brass section that vamps its way towards John Barry’s signature Bond riff hoping that no-one, least of all Barry’s lawyers, will notice. The assembled musicians, most likely members of the Wrecking Crew although information on that is scant to non-existent, strum, scrape and snap their way through it, laid back and louche, melancholic cowboy noir in a clip-clopping minor key. Stirring stuff.
Summer Wine is practically a standard these days and has been recorded by many.
Lana del Ray and her then-partner, Barrie-James O’Neill (from Scots nearly-weres Kassidy) soundtracked a terrific home video of hazy Californian beaches, Laurel Canyon porches and windswept hair with their take on the track. Adding the audio to the visuals makes the video feel like some bleached-out, drawn-out Hollister advert, but don’t let that discourage you from what is a great version. Lana’s suitably femme fatale-ish vocals; sultry, close-miked and just on the right side of huffy are a good foil for O’Neill’s tobacco-coated Scots’ croon. Extra points for the none-more-Lee moustache.
What’s Inside A Girl? by The Cramps is a riot of primitive rock ‘n roll riffage and neanderthal tub thumping hooked to semi-pervy lyrics delivered in reverb-rich vocals; in short, the perfect introduction to one of The Great Bands. If you’ve never heard What’s Inside A Girl? or its parent album, A Date With Elvis, you ain’t nuthin’ but an incomplete music fan.
The Cramps – What’s Inside A Girl?
It’s Ivy’s guitar that’ll hook you first. Six strings of electroshock therapy, feral and fried and white lightning-bright, the true sound of a hollow-bodied Gretsch plugged in to an impatient amp and turned up loud, her electrified strings alive and buzzing and looking for any excuse to sneak a bit of howling feedback into the proceedings.
She shifts between rhythm and lead, her big, twangin’ countrifed chords dissolving into a creeping and snaking, Eastern-tinged wander up the frets – the very sound of anticipation and danger that The Cramps seem to project within the first bar of any of their records.
Nick Knox, eh, knocks seven shades o’ shit from his rudimentary drum kit – tom/kick, tom/snare…tom/kick, tom/snare…tom/kick, tom/snare…tom/kick, tom/snare – the jungle drums that signalled to anyone looking for a decent alternative to what passed for music in 1986 to look no further.
Straight of back and dark of shade, Knox is the tribal heartbeat of The Cramps, a drummer so skilled in repetition, metronomic swing and discpline that that guy from Rush should be laughed out of the room to a chorus of Can Your Pussy Do The Dog? It takes skill to be flashy and polyrhythmic on a drum kit as large as a theme park ride, but it takes real skill to keep it dumb and simple on a couple of upturned dustbins. Flash or trash? You decide.
Then there’s Lux. Mr Ivy. Stick-thin, wolfish eyes, hair that can be Frankenstein fringe-severe one record then Little Richard stacked and pompadoured the next, often in high heels and perhaps not much else, the length of the microphone disappearing down his throat mid-verse as he country hick hiccups his way across the vocals, a hillbilly that would be run clean outta town by every other hillbilly within eyesight and make no mistake.
A vocalist rather than a singer – and you’ll know that that’s important – on What’s Inside A Girl? he runs the gamut of his schtick; breathless and gulping, subversive and suggestive, stealing old rock ‘n roll lyrics when he thinks no-one is paying close attention. The little alliterative run he goes on in the second verse – boots, buckles, belts outside…whatcha got in there tryin’ ta hide? – tells you all y’need to know. Magic stuff, it has to be said.
Our friends Scott and Gill were married yesterday. With DJ services provided by Rockin’ Rik under his Songs Ya Bass guise (Songs Ya Bass is an occassional club night in Glasgow with a catholic music policy and friendly crowd – it’s billed as ‘the club for people who don’t go to clubs any more’ and finishes in time for the last train home) it was always going to be a wedding reception unlike most weddings north of the border. Rik’s choice of music did not disappoint and his eclectic mix of hip hop, punk, ska, soul, pop, The Clash (always The Clash) ensured the dancefloor stayed busy until the very end.
It was wonderful to see the groom, his best man and his pal twisting and contorting unselfconsciously to What’s Inside A Girl? as Lux and co twanged and banged their way across the room at a decent volume.
Pausing only to shout the occasional lyric in the faces of his friends, Scott looked like the happiest man on the planet right there and then. A wop bop a loobalop, a lop boom bam, as they say.
This song is a beauty. It begins with a four to the floor bass drum ‘n boot-heeled stomp; urgent and glam, exactly the sort of beat that would reduce lesser frontmen to demand the audience showed him their hands in above-the-head crass communion.
Buzzcocks – Fiction Romance
Not Pete Shelley though. A guitar line follows, waspish and chugging, two notes playing in unison with the kick drum. Zhung-zhung-zhung-zhung-zhung zha-zhung, zhung-zhung-zhung-zhung-zhung zha-zhung. A second guitar falls into line. Same riff, different effect. Chorus? Flange? Both? It’s as shiny and metallic as the record sleeve that houses the album upon which it can be found and it’s full of the promise of what might follow. The drum roll that clatters in exactly where you expect it to wakes the bass payer from his slumber and the band, Buzzcocks, now playing as one, is a fraction faster, a fraction keener.
Shelley is straight into the vocal. A fiction romance, I love this love story, he goes, and you’re lured into a false sense of what the song is about. The chords shift from F to A – an unusual change from a band who made a bit of a trademark of playing unexpected chord changes – and, just as the guitar playing suggests trouble ahead, the vocal turns sour. That never seems to happen in my life. Ah. So it’s another unlucky in love love song from a band who made a bit of a trademark of writing and playing unlucky in love love songs. Not just any old unlucky in love love songs, though. Buzzcocks played them with a whip-smart ferocity while Shelley delivered them with a knowing coquettishness. Unpretentious and everyman, Buzzcocks were and are remain entirely peerless. You knew that already though.
Here comes the chorus? Bridge? Refrain? I dunno, but it’s perfect. Those F-shapes are slid up the frets and back down again, changing the gears, dropping the speed until we’re back to The Riff and Buzzcocks are off and galloping once more. By the time we’ve breathlessly pogoed our way to the outro, the band is locked in as one to the flow of the music – headnodding Stooges sludge played by effete Boltonians. Fiction roma-aaance!Fiction roma-aaance! they repeat and repeat, underlining once and for all that this love thing is a work of fiction entirely, then, just when you least expect it, they switch gear into another riff for the entirety of the last whole minute, ending on a vocal-less Beatles For Sale aping I don’t get you-ooh. A band that references itself! How arch! It’s outrageous and groovy and one that most bands would happily swap their vintage Les Paul jnrs for.
There’s a swirl to the music, a floaty air of proggish punk/punkish prog wrapped in stomped-on effect pedals and Martin Rushent’s complementary production. Not for Buzzcocks the glam tourettes of Sex Pistols nor the biscuit tin production of the first Clash album. They knew what they were after from the off and captured it perfectly. They sound timeless…which they are. If y’don’t like Buzzcocks, y’don’t like life.
Buzzcocks’ debut album Another Music In A Different Kitchen was so-titled after the band borrowed and butchered a line used by Howard Devoto to describe one of Linder Sterling’s collages. As essential to punk as the artwork of Jamie Reid, Linder’s collages largely featured pin-ups and topless models torn from top shelf magazines and relocated to domestic subservience. Their heads and faces were usually replaced by steaming kettles or hissing irons and they’d be placed on top of a sideboard, perhaps, or maybe a kitchen worktop. Chaotic art that allows for discourse and social commentary. Subversive and smart. Like the band wot embraced it.
Nothing will ever prepare me for the speed of the passing years quite like a memory linked to music. A quick brain-frying calculation tells me that March 1994 was over 28 years ago. Twenty! Eight! Years! That this happened almost three decades ago yet is still fresh and ripe in the memory is testament to the power of pals and music and the inter-linked way in which my brain (and possibly yours too) relates everything in life to some musical reference point or other.
Primal Scream were playing in Ayr, the end of the same week, as it happens, when Give Out But Don’t Give Up was released. Not quite the epoch-defining masterpiece of its predecessor Screamadelica, the gig was nonetheless sold out to the point of being over-sold. Long-starved of decent touring acts, half of the county, and roughly 95% of every Ayrshirite under 25 was in attendance, rammed in, shoulder to shoulder and desperate to hear what may well have been the country’s greatest ‘underground’ band at the time. We were ‘Scream veterans (naturally), having seen them at least three times previously around Screamadelica, although as much as anyone might like to claim otherwise, none of the five of us had been hip enough to have seen them play Vikki’s in Kilmarnock, a venue so compact it would make King Tuts feel like an arena in Kansas.
Ayr Pavilion though was a good venue; smaller than the Barrowland, more clubbier in feel, with a balcony ripe for Quadrophenia-style derring-dos and a nicely sprung dancefloor on which to zone out and get down to the Scream Team’s E-fuelled and vaporised MC5 jams. That huge acid-fried sun logo hung from the back of the stage and Screamadelica material still featured heavily in the set – I mean, why wouldn’t it? – with Denise Johnson taking just as much and possibly even more of the vocals than the stick-thin Bobby Gillespie who, at one point, pointed to my Keef ‘Stones Slay The States‘ t-shirt and gave me a fat, flat, tongue-out gesture of solidarity and acknowledgement.
Bobby shaking his perfect Jeff Beck crow’s nest mop and breaking into a mile-wide smile before making a real-live Stones logo just for me isn’t though the first thing that springs to mind whenever I think of Primal Scream in Ayr.
It’s Orange Juice.
We all went, the five of us, in Derek’s Escort. As usual, I was squashed in the middle of the back seat between two of my larger pals, who moaned all the way to Ayr that there was no fuckin’ room for three of us in here, Derek. Stopping at the petrol station, Derek shook us loose for spare change – if that doesn’t date this story, nothing will – filled the car and off we went. One of our party had returned from the forecourt with a magazine liberated from a shelf that I certainly couldn’t have reached, your honour, even on tip toe, and this different sort of Escort was flung around between us, pages torn loose and stuck to the dashboard, the windows and Derek’s sunvisor without his asking. Har-de-har har! You can imagine. We were in our early twenties. It was the era of Loaded. And Loaded. We wanted to be free, we wanted to have a good time, we knew not what we were doing. Shameful harmless fun. Wince.
Derek was in charge of the tunes. He had a box of cassettes under the passenger seat and one was already in full flow by the time he picked me up. Some Velvet Underground. Some Jungle Brothers. Lloyd Cole and The Commotions. Urban Cookie Crew’s The Key, The Secret. Derek loved that. A carefully considered mix of classic and contemporary for discerning listeners such as us. As we pulled away from the petrol station, the snaking, Eastern-tinged 12 string riff of Orange Juice‘s Breakfast Time wandered on.
Orange Juice – Breakfast Time
“Tune!” shouted Derek and cranked the volume that wee bit higher. The bassline boinged its way across the car’s plastic interior, rattling the windows, shaking close-ups of vulvas and nipples loose and free.
“Breakfast time!” sang Colin in his best Edwyn-voiced impression. “Brrrreakfast time! The hands that tell me, five to nine!” Hands tapped on cold, hard, door cills, dashboards, anything, in unison to its cod-reggaed offbeat. Heads subtly nodded. Feet no doubt tapped. I played hi hat with my fingers on my thighs and joined Colin in the chorus? bridge? I’m never sure. “…souls entwine! Souls entwine! Souls en-twiiinne!” D’you know that bit in Wayne’s World when they all start singing individual lines and then headbang to Bohemian Rhapsody? Yeah, well, it was nothing like that. We were far too cool for that sorta shit.
When the song finished, Derek rewound, overshot the mark, and landed instead on the last half minute of De La Soul’s Magic Number. Now every time I hear Breakfast Time, it’s inextricably linked to a snippet of De La Soul’s daisy-aged hip hop. Funny how it works, isn’t it? By the third time of rewinding though, Derek was able to land the starting point right on that opening guitar riff – “Check that ya dobbers!!” – and we’d all be off and grooving once more. Breakfast Time was the soundtrack to the entire journey from that petrol station in Dreghorn to Ayr…and back. Without exaggeration, we must’ve listened to it 17 times or more.
The achingly hip – the kinda people who saw, possibly even supported, Primal Scream at Vikki’s – point to Orange Juice’s Postcard output as being the high watermark of their undiluted quality. Sensible folk will highlight You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever and point out that, despite being on a major label, it’s the album the band always wanted to make. The smart folk though will direct you to Rip It Up, the second album and parent to The Hit Single of the same name. Falling somewhere between the brass and rhythms of The Jam’s Gift album and the ambitious mass-market appeal of dazzling guitars married to raggedy-arsed soul, it took Orange Juice from the margins to the mainstream.
It’s just as well they looked so goddamned wonderful on the cover. Malcolm Ross sits with a lovely, yellowing Strat, a shiny leather jacket and a defined jawline so sharp it might cut your finger if you hold the record sleeve in the wrong place. Sharp indeed. Edwyn is wearing not one but two perfectly-contrasting stripy t-shirts and cheap, Asda-priced Raybans. And he looks a million dollars for it. Young, self-assured, film-star handsome. Such smooth skin.
His hair – it was always his hair – is beautiful; a collapased quiff mixed with RAF bomber pilot side shed and sheen. ‘Can I have an Edwyn, please?‘ you might’ve asked George at Irvine Cross as you sat down and his scissors clickety-clickety-clicked in 100 mph readiness. And he’d have told you no, it was impossible, no-one gets to have hair as great as Edwyn Collins; not you, not that guy who’s up after you, not even even Nick Heyward, who was clearly keenly listening and looking. Maybe it was the fact that his name was another word for ‘steal’, but he now had his winning blueprint for Haircut 100 and Smash Hits and teenage girls’ walls and a ubiquitous chart success that would somehow elude the masters. Despite the lack of success, Orange Juice had both style and substance. Talking of substance, what about that Primal Scream gig? I’d forgotten all about that. Oh, as the featured song goes, how I wish I was young again.
A work colleague pointed me in the direction of Tunnel 29, Helena Merriman‘s brilliant docu-novel of life in Cold War Berlin as the wall went up and it split into the Americanised west and Soviet-controlled east. The parallels with the war in Ukraine are never far from the mind as you read; the under-the-radar planning and meticulous thinking that kick-started things…the sudden, desperate need to escape the iron fist of Russian rule…the sheer numbers of Soviet troops surrounding the area; heavily armoured, well-drilled, seemingly impervious and always advancing, greedy for land and territory at any cost…with the unholy whiff of war crimes following their every leader-sanctioned move. If you didn’t know, the book might read like a Ukrainian refugee’s diary from this morning.
Merriman’s collected stories refers to a famous picture that I wasn’t aware of until now.
In the picture, taken in 1961, 19 year old Konrad Schumann, a recently-recruited member of the Bereitschaftspolizei (the riot police), is seen leaping the barbed wire fence that separates east Berlin from the west. Konrad is in mid-air, throwing off his gun, literally in the process of defecting from state-controlled aggression to the freedoms of the west; hamburger joints, rock and roll, education, opportunity.
It’s a powerful picture, with the blurry group of gossiping east Berliners looking pensively on and the half-hidden image of a West Berlin TV cameraman capturing it forever on film as young Konrad springs from the barbed wire he had been surreptitiously tramping down in the hours and minutes leading up to his leap to freedom.
The ‘wall’ was only three days old at this point. Put up without warning in the middle of the night, it snaked and scarred its way through Berlin, right down the middle of roads, across gardens, between houses, separating friends and family wherever they happened to be. Men and women who worked in the factories of West Berlin were suddenly cut-off from their terrified and confused families in the east. Men and women who worked in the factories of East Berlin were suddenly cut-off from their terrified and confused families in the west. Neighbours could look out at one another from across the barbed wire, but they were forbidden from talking to one another. They weren’t supposed to wave, acknowledge one another in any way at all. It fell to hastily-recruited border guards like Konrad to put the necessary muscle on them to ensure they complied. People in the east who were caught talking to their loved ones in the west were taken away by the Stasi, the secret police. Tensions were high.
West Berliners contrived to assist their eastern friends to escape. The less-guarded spots on the fence became escape routes, until more guards were added. Under cover of dark, many east Berliners swam the 30-yard wide stretch of River Spree to safety on the west bank. When the authorities found out, they simply dragged barbed wire under the water and blocked any opportunity of escape by river.
The guards on duty were very quickly the focus of abuse. As he paced his patch, Konrad was called a pig, a facist, a concentration camp enabler. The day before the picture was taken, a thousand-strong mob of protestors had been driven back by bayonet-wielding Soviet troops, but Konrad knew they’d be back.
He began to formulate a way of escaping without capture or punishment. One wrong move meant the end of his life. His decision process was sped up on day three with the sudden and unexpected arrival of concrete posts and steel plates. Quite rightly, the Russians had realised that their concertinaed barbed wire was insufficient in keeping easterns inside. Something more discouraging, more permanent was required.
For two hours, whenever no one was watching, Konrad would stamp and tramp the wire down to jumping-over height, building himself up to the state of mind where he’d be ready to leap. A few bystanders on the west picked up on what he was doing. When he was approached by one, Schumann faked a “Get back or I’ll shoot!” cry, before whispering to him that he was going to jump.
News of his planned escape travelled across west Berlin. A newsman appeared. A couple of photographers. A police van. The police in the west were friendly. They would help Konrad, but he needed to act fast. A crowd of westerners over the fence was not unusual, but they were encouraging him rather than decrying him. At some point, Konrad’s superiors would discover what was going on.
At 4pm, he flicked his half-smoked cigarette to the Soviet-controlled pavement, stepped back and faced the wall of barbed wire, took a run up and leapt. In mid air, he discarded his submachine gun, an unintentional but beautifully-timed metaphor. Photographer Peter Leibing, also 19, froze the moment forever. It remains an iconic photograph of late 20th century war.
Taken to safety by the police, Konrad was interrogated until found to be an ally. He was given a plane ticket to Bavaria, where he started a new life as a winery worker.
However, it didn’t end well for Konrad. He was deeply distressed at what might happen to his family as a result of his defection. He felt shame at abandoning his comrades whilst saving his own life. Having broken the oath he swore upon when joining the police, he lived with the constant fear of death around every corner. He waited for bangs on doors than never came. He lived in anxiety-driven paranoia that he was being followed by Stasi agents wherever he went. He would read stories of eastern defectors who had been captured and tortured and never seen again. Even after 1989 and the fall of the wall, Konrad couldn’t face his family. His former comrades wanted nothing to do with him.
In 1998, suffering severe depression, Konrad hung himself in his Bavarian orchard.
The Sex Pistols proved just as divisive as the wall Johnny Rotten sang off on the jackbooted sturm und drang of Holidays In The Sun. A howl of guitars and relentless razor-sharp attack, it never sounds anything less than insistent, urgent and now.
Sex Pistols – Holidays In the Sun
I’m lookin’ over the wall/and they’re lookin’ at me!
There’s a whole rabbit hole of stuff waiting for you should you choose to follow Fairport Convention‘s well-trodden path across folk, blues and raga-tinged drones. The ‘f’ word can be off-putting…sweat-inducing, even, conjuring mental images of fisherman-jumpered bawlers, red-cheeked and jowly-faced and singing heartily of measles and maidens and mirth-filled merriment. With a finger in the ear and a slap of a corduroyed thigh, throaty voices conjoin in rousing, rasping harmony as a small army of six string plank spankers in real, tangled, crumb-encrusted beards – none of those uber-oiled hairy beehives that hang silkily from the faces of the tattooed hipsters down your local vegan supermarket – bash their way to a rousing, rabbling conclusion.
Book Song, from Fairport’s second album, 1969’s What We Did On Our Holidays, debunks that stereotypical cliché and then some.
Fairport Convention – Book Song
A lilting waltztime ballad, it’s exactly the sort of track that Teenage Fanclub might’ve chosen to cover – or even craftily rewrite and pass of as one of their own – around that peerless time in the mid ’90s when b-sides were pouring from them as freely as the water from a tap. Imagine it sung by Gerry Love, with Norman coming in on pitch-perfect backing vocals. Not so far out of the question, really, especially as on the back cover, Fairport look exactly like a melding together of Bandwagonesque-era Fanclub and White Album-era George Harrison, all collar-bothering hair and close-fitting denim, archtop semi acoustics and Les Pauls. Cool as folk, as some might say.
Double (triple?) tracked harmonies float across a bedrock of zinging Eastern sitars and hammered acoustic guitars, a heady blend of eyes-closed, close-knit vocals, a gently wandering bassline carrying the tune towards the uhming and ahing adlibs. There’s a short but exquisite electric guitar break, all effect-heavy psychedelics and wide-eyed out-thereness, vying for earspace with weeping pedal steel and a screeched whiff of Romany violin. It’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment, but listen out for it then repeat and you’ll never forget it.
Sandy Denny singing alongside Simon Nicol and/or Richard Thompson is as natural, honest and unpretentious a vocal as you might ever hear. Falling somewhat like Nico jigsawing herself to The Byrds, the vocal is the light dusting of icing on a particularly groovy cake; rich in content, ideal in small pieces, just enough to leave you wanting more.
The entire album is packed full of organic, rootsy, honest (again) music. Wrapped in a sleeve that unveils new things every time you study it – proper pint pots! The Furry Freak Brothers (and Sister) of folk shaking some action! – the music within is as good a microcosm of Fairport’s ouvre as you can get; Meet On The Ledge, Fotheringay, a cover of Joni Mitchell’s Eastern Rain, a handful of traditional reworkings… Worth investigating.
Also there between the Island pink-labelled grooves is Fairport’s terrific version of Dylan’s I’ll Keep It With Mine, a slowly unravelling thing of quiet majesty that was first brought to these ears on the personal recommendation by the afore-mentioned Gerry Love. What more of an endorsement do you need?
What’s in a name? They may have been The Rolling Stones to plummy BBC announcers and chummy American TV hosts, but by the ’70s, they’d fallen mononymously into just the Stones; a name that suited the music that would come to define them.
The Rolling Stones was all about frantically scrubbed Bo Diddley rhythms and snake-hipped shaken maracas, three minutes of pop r’n’b that when played with a pout made the front row wet their knickers. As the principal players slowed down the gear changes in inverse proportion to the length of their songs and the length of their already-collar bothering hair, they became The Stones; dangerous, devious and undeniably dynamite.
Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone? asked Andrew Loog Oldham in the ’60s? No chance, mister. And there was absolutely no chance you’d want her anywhere near a skinny, sexed-up and strung-out Stone a short handful of years later. No chance at all.
There’s a guitar alchemy in the Stones that you’ll find in no other band since or ever. It’s all over Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street like A-class-enhanced quicksilver; a fluid melding together of Mick Taylor’s straightforward yet beautifully executed 6 string bluesisms and the loose riffing of Micawber, Keith Richards’ mangled Telecaster, bastardised to just 5 strings and tuned to open G.
Mick’s guitar sounded like this, Keith’s guitar sounded like that…and when they played together, they created an unattainable third sound; a new, harmonious chord full of air and promise, a new feel, a new something; magical, otherworldly and impossible to replicate. Sure, anyone can have the tools, but only Mick and Keith had the talent, the telepathy and the feel. (Well, later on, Ronnie would come to disprove that theory, but let’s not let that get in the way of things for now). And it’s only Mick and Keef (that’s the other Mick, the more famous Stone) who have the know-how to turn the rough stuff into polished diamonds.
The Stones – Tumbling Dice
My favourite Stones track will always be Tumbling Dice. It’s got everything; telepathic guitars, horns, soul, swagger, groove. That slinky, double-stringed opening riff is suitably louche and rakish, a setting out of the stall like no other.
As Keith is wont to do, he had been toying with the riff and feel of the track for a year, leaving it aside, allowing it to stew and marinade in the swill of Stones’ rehearsals, coming back to it time and again until the Stones found themselves avoiding tax in the south of France when, by this point, it was a tune ripe for recording. Initial versions were faster, less-focused and featured a hackneyed Jagger vocal that he’d be quick to abandon.
The Stones – Good Time Woman (Tumbling Dice early version)
The whole of Exile On Main Street is a masterclass in studied looseness and the session track above plus the finished Tumbling Dice is the epitome of this. It might appear ragged and funky, but that sure takes a lot of practise. And alcohol. And drugs. And beautiful women wherever you turn. To have been a Stone in ’72…
Keith plays it initially with a gentle touch, feeling his way in with the opening riff until his band arrives – a decidely unusual version of the Stones for once. There was no Bill Wyman for starters. He’d gone AWOL somewhere in the south of France, fed up while the others worked all night and slept all day. He’d be back, just not in time to add his signature to what would become the lead single from Exile On Main Street. Bass duties were taken instead by Mick Taylor. To compensate for lack of rhythm guitar, Jagger himself was encouraged to get on board. Once they’re locked in and zoned out, Keith plays harder. Charlie follows, swinging the groove with understated power. And Keith plays harder again. Chugga-chugga-chugga. It’s rock’s most famous (some might say cliched) riff, played exactly the way you’ve been trying to master it since it first kissed your ears. Five strings, open G, remember.
The Stones worked up the slack rhythm track in Nellcôte, their rented French villa, but it wouldn’t be until Jagger had a random conversation with his housekeeper in L.A. about gambling that he’d have a lyric he was happy with. Dropping the ‘good time woman‘ lyric of the initial version, Jagger instead compares the sins of gambling to the sins of cheating and creates a lyric in simpatico to the music.
By the time Exile… was released, the Stones had overdubbed Atlantic soul brass courtesy of honourable Stone, Bobby Keys and piano, courtesy of the ubiquitous Nicky Hopkins. The ace in the pack was the three-girl choir, sashaying in on a riot of “ooooh-yeahs” and harmonised “bay-bees”. They duet with Jagger throughout, he rubbery, with a mouthful of mid Atlantic Cockney vowels – “yeo caaahn be mah paaaa-tnah ein cra-ah-aha-ahm” – and they stately and majestic, just on the right side of controlled.
Factor in the dueling guitars, the breath-gathering drop-out, the slide part that I’m not even sure is there but sounds like it is and you have one of the very best – the very best, if y’ask me – Stones’ tracks. Not Rolling Stones. Stones.
It begins on a static crackle of marching snare drum and tacked-on wack-a-wack DJ scratching and, as the dirty needle scrapes its way across a soundbed of Fender Rhodes and murky jazz, muted trumpets colour the scene as a gently reverberating electric guitar hints at a brewing storm. It’s Spinning The Wheel, the greatest single that neither Portishead nor Massive Attack put their name to.
George Michael – Spinning The Wheel
Spinning The Wheel was the third single from George Michael’s Older album. Released in 1996, it channels the sounds of the mid ’90s counter culture and offers it up to the mainstream; while the airwaves were clogged to the point of pollution by a Be Here Now-era Oasis and the multitude of bands who swaggered in on the one dimensional jetstream of their success, George was looking to the brooding darkness of trip-hop for inspiration.
Spinning The Wheel is crackly, claustrophobic and tunnel-visioned, a brooding and introspective track that would’ve sounded just almost as great being wrapped in the pained vocals of a Beth Gibbons or a Tracey Thorn as it does in George’s resigned three-in-the-morning delivery. He floats across Spinning The Wheel, cooing with his ‘Baby Love’ backing singers, double-tracking himself to great effect – “Spinning!” – at the end of verses, calling-and-responding in the overdubs, never anything less than pitch perfect and crystal clear throughout. Imagine being in the studio when they had the first playback of this! Aw man!
‘Five o’clock in the morning, you ain’t home… Six o’clock in the morning, you ain’t phoned… It seems that everybody takes their chances these days… ‘
Clandestine, cheating, undercover sex. Spinning The Wheel. ‘You got a thing about danger…aintcha gettin’ what you want from me? You got a thing about strangers…baby, that’s what we used to be.‘ It’s a seemingly autobiographical account of George’s lifestyle at the time; the open relationships and wandering eyes that lead to paranoia and fear – something he was very much happy to discuss in detail upon its release. You’ll find plenty if you Google it.
‘And I will not accept this as a part of my life…I will not live in fear of what may be… I would rather be alone than watch you spinning the wheel...’
George looked great around this time. Close-cropped Roman hair inked to his skull, ever-changing but always immaculately groomed facial hair that, if you waited long enough, would grow and morph in front of your very eyes, and he was too, never anything less than dressed head to toe in perfectly-fitted designer-casual suits. He had style, with the voice to match…as distinct, iconic and unmatched as Frank Sinatra, although what happened in Frank’s wee small hours were, I daresay, markedly different to George’s. Not one flying fuck was given by George over what anyone might’ve thought of his personal life, hence the subject matter of a song that was kept off the top of the charts by another act who really only wanted to zig-a-zig-ah too.
It was playing one time when my dad was round. He was going to help me decorate, so we were measuring the walls to work out how much wallpaper we’d need. As I foutered around the kitchen drawer in search of my tape measure I could hear my dad whistle and doo-de-dooing his way through the tune, probably listening out for a spot where a banjo should be playing. Eventually, his participation tailed off as he started listening to and then making sense of the lyrics.
“Who’s this we’re listening to?” he shouted, wanting to sound casually curious but failing.
“D’you like it?”
“Who is it?”
“It’s George Michael. Good, isn’t it?!”
“…Ehhh…hmm, aye…” he offered by way of agreement. I reckon he was still smarting at my mum making him return Dirk Wears White Sox to Makro many years before. Back then it was mild, punkish swearing that just wouldn’t do at all, and here I was these days listening to clandestine gay confessions set to downtempo jazz. Just a step too far for his generation.
If you happen to find yourself in an isolation situation over the coming days and weeks, you could do worse than while away the time by watching this two, three, four, more times. It’s David Bowie at one of his creative peaks – a 45 minute show from 1979, Musikladen in Bremen, filmed for German TV and up on YouTube (or just below here) for you to gawp and gasp at any time you like.
Beginning with Heroes‘ Sense Of Doubt, all Clockwork Orange menace and icy, crystalline strangeness, it finishes to muted applause – “Where’s the rest of my band?” asks Bowie rhetorically – before they ease their way into a thumping, swirling Beauty and The Beast, the band waking up, falling into step and coming alive.
Where on Heroes the track is the sort of processed art rocker that Bowie would make his own as the ’70s played out, on this live version, the band grind it out with a jarring rhythm uncannily like The Stranglers on Down In The Sewer. Now, I’m not suggesting that Bowie stole from The Stranglers – he didn’t really need to – but Heroes was released six months after Rattus Norvegicus, and it’s possible…just possible…that he’s magpied a riff and feel from the punk scene and reinterpreted it in his own way. That’s a very Bowie move, after all.
Bowie’s band is disparate. It’s a line-up that, when read on paper, really shouldn’t work – a 7-piece gathering of hot shots and big hitters including Moog protege Roger Powell on synth, desperate to coax futuristic sounds from his instrument whenever a space in the music allows and the jazz-trained Sean Hayes on complementary keys.
At the back, there’s Carlos Alomar, his slick rhythm guitar as steady and regular as the Soul Train and just as dependable. There’s an all-in-white ‘n mirrored shades electric violin player (a dead ringer for BA Robertson, but clearly, it’s not) who perfectly plays the arty scratchings of a prime time Velvets’ John Cale with no expression of emotion whatosover. And stage right, hanging there like a long drip of docile, grinning water is Adrian Belew, colouring the fantastic mish-mash of sound with notes as loud and outstanding as the choice of shirt he’s worn for the occasion.
Magicking up whammy bar-driven howls of electrified liquid mercury from a battered old Stratocaster, Belew plays no chords, only unconventional hair-raising solos; long and winding, full of squealing and screeing sussss-ttt-aiaiaiaiai-nnned n-o-o-o-o-t-essss that last entire rhyming couplets and in the case of Heroes, entire verses. At various points, Bowie looks on in quiet admiration. Fuck, he’s thinking, my band is good…and this guitar player is on a whole other level altogether. Before long, Belew would be enhancing Talking Heads’ live sound in similar fashion, but for now he’s Bowie’s.
Bowie’s band are out of this world, totally against the times – it’s 1979, remember, and the musical world is largely constrained to three minutes of jerky riffing and laddish ramalama – and they are flying. Having fun too. As is Bowie himself.
All teeth and cheekbones, and dressed in high-waisted leather trousers and a billowing, massively-collared shirt that my dad might have described as flouncy (a get-up that Spandau Ballet would later sell their plastic souls for), he’s serious, majestic, stately on a brilliant version of Heroes, playful and relaxed on a rollin’ and tumblin’ run through of Jean Genie, and having the time of his life on a rockin’, noo-wavey TVC15, with nothing less than great Bowie hair throughout.
All facets of his personality are duly covered, with the period from Station To Station and the Berlin trilogy captured wonderfully for anyone (like me) who was far too young or unborn to appreciate it at the time. Imagine living in a world where David Bowie never existed. Unthinkable.