Affiliating yourself to tribal youth culture was once the be all and end all for musically-inclined teenagers, but you don’t need me to tell you that. Pre Stone Roses, the teenage Ian Brown was at various times a scooter boy, a northern soul disciple, a mod and a punk (a ‘monk’?!). When the future king of the swingers heard a local rumour that The Clash were in a Manchester recording studio he and his pal dropped any immediate plans they might’ve had and set about tracking down the only band that mattered to them. Unbelievably, they happened past a local music shop just as Topper Headon was trying out one of their kits. Even more unbelievably, after standing around watching The Clash’s heartbeat thrash seven shades from the kit, Brown and his pal were invited back to the studio by Headon to watch The Clash in action.
What unfolded was not any old recording session. The Clash were in the studio to record Bankrobber with reggae artist (and Clash support act) Mikey Dread in the producer’s chair. On the band’s timeline, the track would be released between the ubiquitous double London Calling and hotch-potch triple Sandanista! albums, a stand alone single that CBS originally refused to release. “It sounds like David Bowie playing backwards,” they argued stupidly. Only after import copies began selling in chart-bothering quantities did the label relent and release.
The Clash – Bankrobber/Robber Dub
It’s a terrific single, a million miles from the tinny, phlegm-spittled ramalama of their early stuff and a surprising left turn from some of London Calling‘s more arena-ready and FM-friendly tracks.
Bankrobber is epic, widescreen Clash; dub-inflected, full of twanging spaghetti western guitars and never-ending. Those doom-laden backing vocals went on for so long they ended up on The Specials’ Ghost Town the following year.
Bankrobber was the next logical step in dub for The Clash, coming a few months after their faithful attempt at Willie Williams’ Armagideon Time which appeared on the b-side of London Calling‘s lead single. In an unlikely instance of punk karaoke, the original plan for recording Armagideon Time involved the band visiting the famous Studio 1 in Kingston to record their vocals on top of William’s backing track. This was nixed straight away but as Mick Jones lamented, “they were happy enough to sell us the publishing for it though.”
Recorded (and renamed) with Kosmo Vinyl in London, The Clash’s version is free-form and ad-libbed after the 3 minute mark. Vinyl’s instruction for them to stop after ‘the perfect length for a pop single’ was roundly ignored, with Strummer shouting, “don’t push us when we’re hot!” Listen for Kosmo Vinyl’s voice and revel in The Clash’s musicianship and spontaneity from then on in.
The Clash – Justice Tonight/Kick It Over
Willie Williams‘ ‘original’ version was itself built around the backing track for Real Rock, an early Coxsone Dodd/Sound Dimension release (and a future posting for sure), drawing a direct line from the pioneers of roots reggae to the trailblazers of punk.
I wonder if Ian Brown and his pal were aware of that back then in that recording studion in Manchester.
As is the way at this time of year, lists, polls and Best Of countdowns prevail. Happily stuck in the past, the truth of it is I’m not a listener of much in the way of new music. Idles seem to dominate many of the lists I’ve seen, and I want to like them, but I can’t get past the singer’s ‘angry ranting man in a bus shelter’ voice. I’ve liked much of the new stuff I’ve heard via 6 Music and some of the more switched-on blogs I visit, but not so much that I’ve gone out to buy the album on the back of it.
If you held a knife to my throat though, I might admit to a liking for albums by Parquet Courts and Arctic Monkeys, both acts who are neither new nor up and coming. I listened a lot to the Gwenno album when it was released and I should’ve taken a chance on the Gulp album when I saw it at half price last week, but as far as new music goes, I think that’s about it. Under his Radiophonic Tuckshop moniker, Glasgow’s Joe Kane made a brilliant psyche-infused album from the spare room in his Dennistoun flat – released on the excellent Last Night From Glasgow label – so if I were to suggest anything you might like, it’d be Joe’s lo-fi McCartney by way of Asda-priced synth pop that I’d direct you to. Contentiously, it’s currently a tenner on Amazon which, should you buy it via them, is surely another nail in the HMV coffin.
2018 saw the readership of Plain Or Pan continue to grow slowly but steadily in a niche market kinda style, so if I may, I’d like to point you and any new readers to the most-read posts of the year. You may have read these at the time or you may have missed them. Either way, here they are again;
An article on the wonder of The Specials‘ b-sides.
Elastica tend not to appear on many of the lists that constitute the Best Christmas Songs In The World…Ever. Back in 1995, only a year or so since they’d been ever-regulars on the covers of the music press yet long enough to have found them residing in the same ‘remember them?‘ category previously kept warm for them betwixt debut and follow-up album by the Stone Roses, they recorded a BBC Session for Mark Radcliffe that included a loose cover of Ding Dong Merrily On High.
It’s loose in all manner of the word. A band plagued by serious, secretive drug addiction could hardly put their name to a song called Ding Dong Merrily On High. And rather than run through a facsimile of the winter favourite, they instead rewrote most of the words, played the recognisable Christmas carol melody on gnarly bass and, with a nod and a wink to Patti Smith, kept the Latin chorus intact and renamed their version Gloria.
Elastica – Gloria
It’s not bad in an arty, angular sort of way. Guitar strings scrape, the drummer keeps enthisiastic metronomic precision and Justine sulks her way through it doing her best Mark E Smith impression from behind her swinging, shining indie fringe. I wonder if they’d heard The Fall’s Christmas Peel Session by this point?
That’s a rhetorical question by the way. Of course they had.
Recorded around the same time as Elastica were the hot new thing, The Fall‘s Peel Session from December ’94 was notable for two things; One: The band did not one but two faithful, in a Fall kinda way, versions of Christmas standards. Two: The expanded line-up of The Fall at the time featured the glam-tastic sight and sound of two drummers, a shrivelled liver Glitter band for old post-punkers everywhere. Karl Burns was welcomed back into the fold and onto the drum stool after a 9 year absence alongside Brix, last seen on Fall duty 6 years previously.
Like malt whisky, that other great festive favourite, I find my appreciation for The Fall grows with each passing year. I discovered them around the time of Extricate and flirted with their back catalogue from thereon in, but it never really grabbed me in the way that I know it grabbed others. I admire them greatly though, whether they’re sawing their way through Eat Y’Self Fitter or going full-on garage band for their essential take on Mr Pharmacist or keeping it sparse and minimal on Hip Priest or spitting their way through Spoilt Victorian Child or….y’get the idea. There’s a Fall that’s suitable for everyone. It just takes some folk a while to find it.
The larger line-up in 1994 fairly suits the music. They bite and snarl their way through a daft version of Jingle Bell Rock, one-fingered keyboard parping the melody, lyrics changed to suit Captain Mark’s mood, the groop bottling the Christmas spirit in barely over a minute.
Hang on a minute! Christmas song done in band style? Rewritten lyrics?! BBC sesssion?!? I wonder where Elastica got that idea? They even nicked the snappy rattle of The Fall’s drum beat for their Christmas tune. They were never the most original of bands, Elastica, but then, you knew that already.
The Fall – Jingle Bell Rock
Post Office rot in hell, Friday night on Oxford Street,
All walking with green M&S bags, join them up with old beef and sprouts,
That’s the Jingle Bell Rock.
Not quite yer finger-poppin’, frost dusted holiday hit first crooned by bobby soxxer favourite Bobby Helms. That’s the Jingle Bell Rock indeed. And who’s complaining?
I’ve Been Watching You by The Southside Movement is exactly the sort of record that could have even the most conservative of Sunday drivers pick up the pace to an even 32 mph and cruise the streets while Detroit leaning like a Fedora’d pimp in heat-hazed Harlem. Its mid 70s groove, a head-nodding amalgamation of on-the-one funk bass lines and metronomic kick drums is tailor-made for the job. One look at the band responsible for putting such a groove together should give you an idea of what it’s like, should you be lucky enough to be listening to the track for the first time.
The Southside Movement – I’ve Been Watching You
The mid-paced care-free groove belies that fact that underneath the funk there’s a mildly stalkerish theme going on, essentially the tale of a married man watching unseen as the (married) woman of his desires goes about numerous clandestine affairs. Spy and the Family Stone, if you will.
Its four-to-the-floor funkiness wasn’t at all lost on the Beastie Boys. Where other rap acts take a huge chunk of something groovy and loop it forever in the foreground, I’ve Been Watching You was ‘bitten’ (the band’s term for underhandedly borrowing a desirable part of a record that could be played by the band themselves) and used as the basis for So What’cha Want, one of the Beastie Boys’ greatest tracks.
Starting with the sound of the Southside Movement’s bass drum spinning in full effect on an old Technics turntable, Ad Rock jumped on board, adding extra kicks and snares and building layer upon layer of that huge dunk, kack, da-dunk, kack… rhythm. It’s Trampled Underfoot While The Levee Breaks, the sound of John Bonham playing loudly in a cave. Slightly sloppy but very massive.
Beastie Boys – So What’cha Want
Once the beat was in place, Ad Rock looped it ad infinitum and called his Beastie bandmates in to hear what he’d done with the sample. The vocals came quickly, the trio weaving in and out in trademark fashion, their voices distorted by happy accident through the cheap karaoke mics they were using in place of the more sophisticated microphones normally found in a recording studio. When the track began taking shape, Adam Yauch suggested the band throw away the sample and play the whole thing themselves, which they ultimately did.
So, not quite sampled then (there’s no writing credit at any rate, which wasn’t uncommon in 1991), but if you strip away the layers of noise on top, disregard the whacked-out distorted vocals, dismantle the incessant guitar riff, the squeaky Hammond and the cinematic atmospheric fade-ins, the genesis of the whole record breaks down to that simple kick drum beat. Kick it!, as someone once said.
From the album Check Your Head, So What’cha Want is the product of the band’s relocation to LA, where they built a studio and furnished it with vintage equipment. Such was the era, the studio-based musicians of the day favoured more portable keyboards and digital equipment over bulky, fragile and unreliable vinatge gear from the 70s. The Beasties were eagle-eyed scanners of the classified ads and would be first to react when any listing for Fender Rhodes or Moog synth jumped out at them – a sad irony they said, as the musicians selling the equipment were usually doing so because they’d ‘failed’ to ‘make it’. Here were the Beastie Boys though; forward-thinking, vintage-loving musical magpies.
There’s a terrific Beastie Boys Book out just now, a chronological telling of the band’s history through eye-witness accounts, whacked-out recipes and mix-tape suggestions. Packed full of brilliant candid shots of the band plus associates (and NYC), it goes without saying you should have it on your Christmas list. Expect more Beastie-related stuff in the coming weeks as I work my way through it.
There have been many instances of musicians appearing on records without credit or fanfare; Eric Clapton noodling across the top of While My Guitar Gently Weeps on The Beatles’ sprawling White Album. Lennon and McCartney themselves singing backing vocals on the Stones’ version of their own I Wanna Be Your Man. Mick Jagger somewhat ironically providing backing vocals on Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain. Lennon trading vocals with Bowie on the latter’s Fame, itself a track cribbed from James Brown (or perhaps it was the other way around). David Bowie surfing low under the radar on Arcade Fire’s disco stomping Reflektor…….. these examples are the tip of a very deep and very incestuous iceberg.
Whether it be for contractual reasons, record label conflicts or just plain mischieviousness, it’s likely your favourite musicians pop up on many more records than they’d like to let on.
One of the first examples of musical skullduggery though must surely be the case of James Brown and the recording of (Do The) Mashed Potatoes. In 1959, Brown was coming to the fore as a sweat-soaked, soul-wracked, heart-bleeding bawler of gospel-tinged r’n’b. The darling of King Records, it seemed Brown and his Famous Flames band could do no wrong, until that was when Brown tried to cash in on the dance craze that was currently sweeping his neck of the woods. Despite his burgeoning fame it was apparent that no-one wanted to hear his stomping 12 bar instrumental espousing the joys of the doing the Doodle Bee. When the trend moved on to a new dance, James went to his label boss and suggested they cash in by recording (Do The) Mashed Potatoes.
Once bitten, twice shy, King Records refused to put it out so Brown took his idea to the rival Dade Records. They agree, on the condition that it was recorded under an assumed name (Dade boss Henry Stone was terrified of King Record’s Syd Nathan, the Peter Grant of the deep south soul scene), which is why along with seeing the track credited to James Brown and the Famous Flames you’ll also find it credited to Nat Kendrick & The Swans. The same band, the same line-up, the same record.
Nat Kendrick & The Swans – (Do The) Mashed Potatoes
(Do The) Mashed Potato is nothing you’ve never heard before; a standard 12 bar r’n’b instrumental, it’s a 3-button mohair suit kinda record, punctuated now and again by whoops and hollers and ridiculous potato-themed war cries;
Mash’ Pa-Tay-Das, yeah!
Hash Brown Pa-Tay-Das, yeah!
French-Fried Pa-Tay-Das, yeah!
I’ve no idea what they shout in the last part, but they sure sound excited.
It is, of course, thrillingly terrific. A primal slice of tribal us v them floorshakin’ soul. You’re either with us or against us is Brown’s underlying message and by the end of Part 1, I, you, us and them are definitely with him, one nation under a groove. Frustratingly I don’t have a version of Part 2 but I can imagine exactly how it goes.
Of course, when the record proved a success, the steely Syd Nathan insisted on future copies being issued on his label. He also bowed to Brown’s superior knowledge of fads and fashions by allowing him and his Famous Flames to record such future ‘classics’ as Wobble Wobble and The Dish Rag. Good throwaway pop records, it should be said, but neither as thrilling nor as plain daft as (Do The) Mashed Potato.
I write a weekly column for the Irvine Herald and felt it was appropriate to publish a slightly longer version of this week’s piece here. I must begin by stating that there are many others far more qualified than me to write this, John Niven in the Daily Record for one, not to mention the numerous emotional and heartfelt tributes from his pals online, but if you’ve ever encountered Keith he’ll have doubtlessly left his indelible mark on your soul. Not for nothing was his occupation listed as ‘Pyrotechnics’ on Facebook. Once met, never forgotten. Keith, 1983. Photo by Gordon Hay
We begin this week with the sad news that one of our musical brothers has passed away. Keith Martin was a well-known Irvine face respected for his love of music, his strong political beliefs and his uncompromising attitude.
As a teenager, legally still too young to drink, I’d see Keith and his pals every Friday night in the old snug in The Turf, a studied riot of biker jackets, loud opinions and carefully considered hair, exuding the sort of attitude that can’t be faked. I didn’t yet know anyone in bands, but it was clear that Keith and his gang was exactly that. As it turned out, Keith was the focal point of the band, called the Big Gun. Not only that, but John Peel had played their single, Heard About Love, and, making it his Record of the Week, enthused over its infectious, fresh out the box melody.
Big Gun – Heard About Love
Big Gun by Gordon Hay
Over the years, through his circle of pals I got to know Keith a wee bit better and whenever I found myself in his company he would always hold court, his sense of humour as infectious as his willfully argumentative stance on just about anything that was being discussed.
Keith by Basil Pieroni
To paraphrase That Petrol Emotion, Keith was an agitator, an educator, an organiser. An English teacher in Glasgow by day, by night Keith would organise club nights in the city.
For several years he ran the Spitfire Club where the walls shook to Keith’s eclectic taste in music. Agit-punk rubbed shoulders with scratchy post punk, filling-loosening dub reggae and the hardest of hip-hop, a necessary oasis in an era of super clubs and superstar DJs.
If there wasn’t a gig to be had for whichever band he had formed, Keith would create an event to enable them to play. His band Hard Left played a heady hybrid of the swill of sounds laid down by the music policy at the Spitfire Club. If Weatherall had had his name attached to Omerta, I reckon it’d be a considered classic by now.
Hard Left – Omerta
Hard Left by Gordon Hay
In recent years Keith had been the drummer in Dead Hope, a critics’ favourite who’d released an excellent self-funded album from which they gained exposure and airplay on BBC6 Music. I believe too, that discussions are still underway between the band and a prominent indie label to have the album re-released on a larger scale. You’d love it.
Dead Hope – Landslide
Dead Hope played the tiny but perfect Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine back in April this year and stunned their audience into submission with a brutal sonic assault of caustic barbed wire guitars and gravel-throated vocals. The band would play just a couple more times, the last in Glasgow in August, before the cancer that Keith had been battling with began to get the better of him.
Keith passed away last weekend at the age of 51. He will be dearly missed by his wife Allison, his family and his tight-knit circle of pals.
A dozen or so years ago, a concert celebrating the life and work of Robert Burns took place at Culzean Castle on the South West coast of Scotland, not far from where I’m typing. I’m quite into Burns, in an enthusiastic amateur kinda way. I get involved when it’s that time of year in the schools and organise the school Burns Supper. I’ll put together wee groups of kids who’ll eagerly sing Green Grow The Rashes (the Michael Marra arrangement) while I get to rock out gently with some well-rehearsed finger picking on my guitar. At home, we’ve done Burns Suppers celebrating the bawdier side o’ Rabbie that they don’t teach at school, helped along by the sort of food and drink you’d be hard-pushed to find in a school dinner hall. There are tons of Burns scholars out there who take it far more seriously and who could bore the breeks off most of us with their ability to recite his most obscure work which is why, when the concert was announced at Culzean – with headliners Lou Reed and Patti Smith – I thought I’d give it a miss. “I don’t really fancy hearing Lou ‘n Patti pretend they know the inner workings of Burns’ songbook when they could be doing their own stuff instead,” I reasoned. Big mistake as it turned out, as Lou and Patti by and large did their own stuff, regardless or not of what the promoters had signed them up for. Patti even made the Scottish news on TV the next night for gobbing on the side of the stage, offending those stuffy, ancient scholars I’ve just mentioned. Old punks, eh. What’re they like?
Oor ain Eddi Reader, herself a mad Burns fanatic, was on the bill and in the encore she sang the famous ‘doot-di-doo’ backing vocals for Walk On The Wild Side alongside Patti Smith. I know people who’ll be reading this that have wide-eyed stage-side footage of the moment. Why did I not go? Why?
I’ve grown into Patti Smith in a big way. She was always there, a trailblazer for the strong, bloody-minded women from Chrissie Hynde to PJ Harvey who have a place in my record collection, but in recent years I’ve really come to acknowledge her as one of the greats. Morrissey, Michael Stipe and any Maconie-voiced BBC4 documentary will all tell you this of course, but unless you were lucky enough to be there at the time, I’m not sure her importance shines through for generations of mine and since.
Horses is her biggie, of course. A raucous brew of poetry set to music, it’s the sound of flared nostrils and itchy, twitchy jangling nerves riffing on French existentialists, Jesus and the futility of existence – the big stuff, in other words. Wrapped in monochrome with bird’s nest hair, it’s a challenging listen, certainly more difficult to get into than, say, Patti’s contemporaries The Ramones and Blondie who were street suss enough to add some pop to their schlock. The centrepiece of the album is, wonkily, mid way through side 2.
Patti Smith – Land
Land is a free-flowing example of all that Patti does best, over 9 carefully metered minutes of what musicologists might call a triptyche, with 3 parts of music played under the one theme. Every word is enunciated precisely and clearly, given equal gravitas. She howls, she whispers, she duets with herself. She’ll rap on something deeply esoteric one moment and then she’ll be singing about the watusi and Bonie Moronie the next. The words come in floods; pretentious, populist and pure. I can’t pretend to know exactly what she’s on about and I’m not certain that the young Patti in 1975 could’ve told you either. It sounds fantastic though.
Patti has a crack band behind her, rising and falling, ebbing and flowing in time to her carefully-written prose, yet for the entire track they keep it simple. At any moment, Richard Sohl on keys could break into the most heart-stopping piano run, but he doesn’t. Lenny Kaye could easily let fly with an electric burst of pop/punk bloooze, but he doesn’t. There’s ample opportunity over 9 minutes for an Animal-esque freak out on the drums, yet Jay Dee Doherty reigns himself in. With Patti Smith, it’s all about the vocal. The words are everything.
Here’s Piss Factory, her early b-side documenting her time working a crappy job for crappier money.
Patti Smith – Piss Factory
Just Kids, Patti’s autobiography about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe continues this theme. It’s a literary ride on the A Train, taking the reader right into the centre of a mid 70s New York that most of us can only imagine. Their story is played out against a backdrop of the Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City and Coney Island and features walk-on parts from Andy Warhol, Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Art, music and fashion explode and fuse together and everything and anything is possible, doable and done. Mapplethorpe struggles with a sexual identity that would eventually tear the couple apart but (or perhaps because of this) it’s a beautiful read; a love letter to and for Mapplethorpe and the city that brought them together. There they are up there, an androgynous Keef ‘n Mick for the Blank Generation. Even without the music, Patti’s words are powerful. Read it.
It was a conversation with Johnny Marr a few years ago that made me go home and re-evaluate Patti Smith until her genius really sank in. I was charged with taking photos of Johnny and his fans after a gig. The waiting line snaked around long enough that half the folk in it ended up missing their last connection home. At the front of the line was a girl who might’ve been 13 and might’ve been 33. Small, disheveled and unkempt, she’d been first to queue outside the venue at lunchtime on the day of the show and as soon as the doors had opened she’d ran for the front of the stage where she stood holding onto the barrier and never letting go until it was time to meet Johnny at the end. Johnny recognised her straight away. “Hello again darlin’!” he greeted with a hug. “How are we today? Listen – hey, listen! – make sure you get a bed tonight, eh? No more sleeping in doorways, eh?”
“Once, I bunked off the school,” he told me afterwards, “and skipped the train to Liverpool to catch Patti Smith. Sneaked in the stage door! That night I slept in Liverpool Bus Station and it was the most terrifying night of my life. That girl at the front comes to all the shows. She comes alone, leaves alone and always turns up the next day. I kinda worry for her, y’know?”
If artists have such a hold on folk that they’re prepared to forfeit a roof over their head for the night so that they can see them in concert, they’re worth listening to.