Gone but not forgotten, Sampled

Covert Operations

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 BoysSo 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.

Gone but not forgotten

Smash Hit

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.

Gone but not forgotten

Keith Martin

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 GunHeard 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 LeftOmerta

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 HopeLandslide

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.

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

Rimbaud 2: It’s A Pay Check, Jack

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

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

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

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

Patti SmithLand

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

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

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

Patti SmithPiss Factory

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

Footnote

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

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

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

Cover Versions, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

She And Him

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

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

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

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

Some Velvet Morning is the one for me.

Nancy Sinatra & Lee HazlewoodSome Velvet Morning

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

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

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

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

Nancy Sinatra & Lee HazlewoodSummer Wine

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

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

Lee HazlewoodThese Boots Are Made For Walking

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

Nancy SinatraLet Me Kiss You

Gone but not forgotten

The Queen Is Dead

Long live the Queen.

Aretha Franklin was one of the greats. Her releases on Atlantic Records, that sensational run of mid-late 60s albums defined her. But you knew that already.

Her performance on this is my favourite 3 minutes of Aretha.

Aretha FranklinDon’t Play That Song

The Muscle Shoals backing band grooves mightily, knowing instinctively when to come in, when to drop out, when to step back and allow the vocal to take centre stage.

The spaces between the notes might supply the requisite funk, but it’s Aretha’s inclusion that turns it up a notch or two.

It’s her phrasing. Man! Ain’t no-one can sing like Aretha. On those “You lied!” call and response parts, her voice soars, just that little bit higher than the brass, just that little bit freer than the backing singers, just that little bit more majestically than anyone else.

Soar on, Aretha.

 

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

MCR NYC

If it’s scratchy, scuffed at the knees post-punk with a groove yer after, all roads lead to the twin metropoli of Manchester and New York.

A Certain Ratio are something of an enigma. They’ve been around long enough to have witnessed every important youth movement since punk and have steadfastly ploughed their own furrow, grooving somewhere between the hands-in-pockets introspection of Joy Division and the hands-in-the air exhibitionism of the Hacienda and the rave culture it gave birth to, while sometimes dressed like wonky extras in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. They’ve seen off grunge, grime and good old Britpop as well as the entire careers of The Smiths, New Order (the real New Order that is) and just about every influential band these isles have produced.

Revered by all manner of bands whose funk DNA pops up in the least likely of places, from Talking Heads and Happy Mondays to Red Hot Chili Peppers, ACR have the dubious fortune of being incredibly influential yet incredibly unheard of. It’s just the way they like it. They have the freedom to bypass trends, to surf across the wave of whatever zeitgeist is hip that week and get on with the job of making records for themselves.

Du The Du from 1979’s The Graveyard And The Ballroom album is the perfect jumping off/jumping in point.

ACRDu The Du

 

 

It fairly rattles along on a barbed wire bed of steam-powered, clattering industrial funk, with powerhouse drummer Donald Johnson somehow making his kit the lead instrument. Lo-fi guitars that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Josef K record do their chicken-scratch thang, an Asda-priced Nile Rodgers played by cosmopolitan Mancunians. The vocals, all pent-up anxiety could be Ian Curtis on Lemsip. There’s even an elastic band bassline midway through which threatens, but never quite gets to Level 42 on the muso-meter. I defy you not to wiggle at least a finger to it.

Du The Du also happens to be the track by which LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy measures (measured?) his own funkiness. If the New York band’s latest track seems weak by comparison, it’s binned forever until something more in keeping with ACR’s wonky, jerky funk turns up. Du the right thing indeed.

Talking of New York…

Such a melting pot of cultures and styles is always going to be responsible for inspiring exciting new trends and movements. ESG was formed by the three Scroggins sisters from the Bronx. Given a variety of instruments by a mum keen to keep them on the right side of wrong, the group took equal inspiration from their Motown favourites and the nascent New York hip hop scene. The result, in a way, was neither. As with ACR, much of their stuff is sparse, cold and music for the feet rather than the head.

A show in Manhattan’s Hurrah club brought ESG to the attention of Factory’s Tony Wilson, himself no stranger to an ACR record (he’d go on to release 5 of their albums on Factory). Wilson brought ESG to Manchester where they recorded with Martin Hannett, fresh, believe it or not, from manning the desk as ACR recorded Du The Du. There’s serendipity right there for you. Or plain old musical incest. 

ESG wouldn’t go on to sell all that many records, but in the intervening years they’ve been a clear influence on bands such as Luscious Jackson and Warpaint. They’ve also found themselves heavily sampled by acts looking for something beyond the usual James Brown riff; Beastie Boys, Tricky, even TLC have found gold within their basslines and rippling drums, leading to a late-era ESG releasing the telling Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills EP.

1982’s Dance To The Beat Of Moody from their EP of the same name is where you should start though:

ESGDance To The Beat Of Moody

 

 

As fresh as a hot pretzel on Avenue Of The Americas, it’s great, innit? You wouldn’t be in the least surprised if it were to pop up on BBC 6 Music next week, rotated heavily on the a-list as the hottest new thing. It’s only 36 years young. Original vinyl is almost impossible to track down though and, even of you’re lucky enough to uncover a 1983 press of Come Away With ESG, you’ll need a small bank loan to pay for it. Thankfully, the wonderful Soul Jazz do a good run in re-presses.