Cover Versions, Gone but not forgotten, Peel Sessions

Turn The Heater On

You know that timeless footage of Joy Division in their rehearsal space, when they play Love Will Tear Us Apart; Ian Curtis with the Vox Phantom Teardrop worn almost at his Adam’s apple, Bernard channeling his inner Kraftwerk, Hooky, low-slung and serious and Stephen, tongue out in maximum concentration over his hi-hats? ‘Course you do.

It was filmed in TJ Davidson’s rehearsal rooms, a converted Victorian mill on Little Peter Street, the third point of a triangle that’s formed if you draw lines between the rehearsal space and Salford and Prestwich. Like the mystical, musical ley lines that so hypnotised Bill Drummond just over the Pennines in Liverpool, you might come to the conclusion that there’s something in that cosmic hippy shit after all.  Between them, Salford, Prestwich and those rehearsal rooms on Little Peter Street have been responsible for creating some of the best music we will ever hear. But you knew that already.

British singer Ian Curtis and guitarist Bernard Sumner of post punk band, Joy Division, at TJ Davidson’s rehearsal room, Little Peter Street, Manchester, August 19, 1979. photographer: Kevin Cummins

That room didn’t half look cold though. Long, bare floorboards, damp red brick walls and a worryingly bowed ceiling, it looks a less than inspiring place. It’s got a certain feel to it, of that there’s no doubt, but I’d imagine it might take many a band a good wee while to warm up to room temperature and start producing the goods in there. Maybe, now I think about it, that’s why Ian’s hand is permanently frozen in that G chord position while he wears the guitar.

The others gamely play on, heating the blood and warming the heart, despite the subject matter in the song. While a youthful Morris lays down his signature sound with all the mechanical precision of an industrial revolution stamping machine, Hooky’s bass reflects the damp sheen from the walls, a nice metaphor for the icy keyboard lines glistening over the top. Suffering for their art, Joy Division created a piece of music that will still resonate 100 years from now.

A couple of years later, when Joy Division had become New Order, the band found themselves recording a Peel Session. In tribute to their late vocalist, the band chose to play a cover of Keith Hudson‘s Turn The Heater On. While Ian Curtis was said to be a huge fan of the roots reggae track, I like to think that the others perhaps thought back to those freezing days at TJ Davidson’s and, with a nod and a wink, set about recording their own version.

New Order Turn The Heater On (Peel Session 1st June 1982)

I’d no idea until much later on that the track was a cover version.

It fits that early New Order aesthetic perfectly, coming as it does midway between the glacial thaw of Movement and the spring bloom of Power, Corruption and Lies. Sad, far-away vocals, sparse, polyrhythmic drums and a mesmeric chicka-chicka head-nodding dubby exterior, what’s, as they say, not to like? The icing on the cake is the addition of the mournful melodica, gasping and wheezing the long notes, the saddest traffic jam you’ve ever heard, burrowing its way into your brain before taking up camp long after the track has spun to its conclusion. Is that why they call it an earworm?

As it turns out, if you leave the melodica aside (something Bernard had difficulty doing in 1982), New Order’s version is fairly faithful to the original.

Keith HudsonTurn The Heater On

Recorded in 1975, Turn The Heater On is classic reggae; clipped guitars, thundering bass and squeaky organ vamps, topped of by a gently soulful vocal. I’ve a feeling too that while New Order might have been requesting that you do indeed turn the heater on, Keith Hudson may have been requesting a blast of heat from a different source. Perhaps not though.

It’s a great track, one I’m grateful to New Order for pointing me in the direction of. Played back to back with New Order’s reverential cover, they make for great late autumn/early winter listening. Turn the heater on, indeed.

Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

Got Scott?

Aw man. Scott 4. A magic album slowly soaked in pathos and regret and towel-dried with inventive orchestration and outlandish arrangements. I’ve played it many a time, my old set of mp3s unearthed at the advent of broadband when the darkest corners of the internet begat a never-ending flow of everything one could ever need and plenty more besides.

I don’t have a copy. It’s easy enough to get of course, but I don’t want any old version, half-speed remastered or otherwise. It’s got to be an original ’69 copy, spinning in cavernous, timeless mono, its silver Philips label reflecting the handsome majesty of its creator on the gatefold sleeve. I keep looking, but those eyewatering prices don’t ever seem to drop. There is though a narrow space for it on the shelf next to those first three eponymous albums and one day it shall rest easy right there.

Scott 4 was the first album of all-original Scott Walker material. It was a commercial flop at the time, blamed partly on the fact Walker insisted it be promoted as a Scott Engel album, but more than likely it sank and was unceremoniously deleted due to the ‘pop’ climate of the time.

One-time teen idols didn’t release flamenco-tinged, brass ‘n string swept torch songs, especially not at the tail end of a decade where guitar solos, in direct proportion to the guitarists’ hair, were becoming longer and more outlandish with each release. As swinging London turned an autumnal burnt umber, Walker’s music was perfect, poignant and peerless, but it ultimately done for him.

Its influence is, naturally, immense. You’ll hear its echoes in the unexpected chord changes and deeper grooves of any Michael Head record. Marc Almond appropriated much of its tragedy, hammed it up and built a career around it. Bowie nicked his baritone. Leonard Cohen pickpocketed the wordy couplets and female harmonies. You could ask any number of your favourite artists and most of them would enthuse well into the wee small hours about the super soaraway Scott 4.

Scott WalkerThe Old Man’s Back Again

The Old Man’s Back Again is an extraordinary piece of music. In three and a half minutes, it takes on nylon-stringed acoustic guitars, wordless Gregorian chanting and a lyric about the repressive Czech government and melds it into a brooding piece of immense, orchestral art-funk.

The voice – we’ll get to that in a minute – takes centre stage, but its surrounded by the most disparate of collective parts. It’s the bassline you’ll notice first. An on-the-one groove, all frugging Fender, woody tone and rubbery stretch, it’s rumoured that the player is none other than Engel himself.

A veteran of the pre-Walker Brothers studio session scene, the young Scott proved to be no slouch across four strings and if the playing is indeed him, then he’s just gone up another 20 notches in my estimations. Rattling and rolling alongside the anonymous loose-limbed jazzer on the drums, it very much creates the sort of rhythm that forced Serge Gainsbourg to cock an ear, put down the Gauloises and get to work on what would become his Histoire de Melody Nelson album.

The case for the prosecution of Serge is further strengthened by the addition of a shimmering string section. Likely the work of Philips’ arranger du jour Ivor Raymonde, the strings – freeflowing and wild – give the whole thing a cinematic ambience, a feel that’s enhanced when those uhming and ahing backing vocals come creeping in from somewhere below Walker’s waistline.

Sensational stuff, and bang in the middle is the voice, as golden as its singer’s hair and effortlessly in tune. It’s the phrasing. And the pitch. And the tone. Walker’s range on The Old Man’s Back Again is actually fairly narrow, but the control he has over his singing as he tells a tale that could well have fallen from the page of a Tolstoy short story is quite the thing. Many will try, but on this form, no-one comes close. Or likely ever will. His vocal on Duchess is maybe even better. Go and find it..

Full fat voice, chicken-skinny legs

 

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

Rasta-Far-Out

The ghosting season is upon us, the one time of year I truly despise. I hated it as a child. I hated it as a parent when my kids were young enough to participate. I just hate it. The dressing up… the greediness… those creeping Americanisms of going trick or treating for candy around cobweb-frosted front doors and plastic gravestone-enhanced gardens can do one.

Amazingly, brilliantly – God bless ye, Covid – this year there’ll be no drip-nosed grubbers standing at my door in their various states of grotesqueness, reeling off the same combination of tired and/or risque jokes (Q. ‘What’s the difference between the tyres on my dad’s car and a blonde?‘ A. ‘A blonde will go down quicker than my dad’s tyres.’) in return for a handful of Haribo and a “have you told your mum that joke?” telling-off from me. The wee girl who first let slip that horrorshow of a party piece four or five years ago, and every year since, might finally stop telling it for good now.

Anyway.

Reggae.

Bob Marley‘s Mr Brown is one of his earliest recordings, dating back to 1970. It just so happens to be a ghost song, written in response to local legend that told of a duppy/ghost that could be seen hurtling across Jamaica late at night on a three-wheeled coffin. Perched atop the coffin alongside the ghost were three crows, one of which could talk. The talking crow would repeatedly ask for a Mr Brown. If you ever saw this hideous and creepy apparition, the story went, then RUN!, because you didn’t have long left on this earth. 

Bob Marley & The (Wailing) WailersMr Brown

The tune itself is a gently lilting three chord skank, played at relaxed pace and featuring some sweet falsetto backing vocals. Guitars and keys lock the rhythm and never deviate, allowing Marley to tell the story of the out of control ghost-driven coffin and the talking crow. Not yer average subject matter, and all the better for it.

Mr Brown was produced by the ubiquitous Lee Perry. Lee Perry is synonymous with reggae. The more dubified the music, the more prominent his involvement. His blunted, mercurial touch has been applied to literally thousands of records from Jamaica and beyond, fried at the edges and sprinkled with madness but beating with a heart of thunderclapping echoes and cavernous bass.

As I get older, I’ve begun to appreciate his more outré work in much the same way age has allowed me to appreciate a fine malt. Slightly unpalatable at first, you quickly develop a taste and ponder how you could go an evening without it.

Playing around with the Wailers’ track, Perry removed the vocals, credited the instrumental to The Upsetters and manouevered it onto the flip side of the Wailers’ single. In keeping with the original’s ghostly/horror theme, it was given the title of Dracula.

The UpsettersDracula

I don’t for a second think that Bob, Bunny and Peter sat around in rehearsal saying, y’know what….what this tune really needs is a funky, alien vibration every now and again. That ever-present deep electronic shimmer that sounds like the ancient central heating pipes in a school I used to teach in was clearly the madcap work of Lee Perry. Half a century later, it’s that sound that’s become the record’s signature.

Removing Marley’s vocals also allowed Perry the opportunity to incorporate the instrumental version into his soundsystem and toast across the top of it should he fancy doing so. Forever forward-thinking.

Eco-aware long before there was such a thing, Lee Perry not only grew his own herbs, he recycled tunes for his own benefit. In a burst of foresighted creativity, and long before many a future hip-hopper or soundscaper was out of short trousers, Perry actually sampled the vibe from another record entirely and enhanced the Wailers’ and, subsequently, his own tune.

Jackie MittooPeenie Wallie

He’s lowered the pitch, from toe-tapping shuffling ska to head-nodding deep-fried reggae, but you can hear exactly where Perry welded the backing track onto the Wailers’ own easy skanking shuffle, enhancing and filling out what is a fairly straightforward run through by a band still finding their musical feet.

The track’s title – Peenie Wallie – intrigues me. Here in Scotland, if someone is unwell, pale faced, or indeed ghost-faced, we refer to them as peelie wallie. Not a million miles away from the Jackie Mittoo title. I’ve often thought the owner of Studio One might’ve been referring to such a person, albeit in slightly interpolated form. Which of course, would bring us back onto the subject of pale-faced make-up and ghouls and ghosts.

*Bonus Track!

“And for our next track….!”

Bob Marley & The WailersDuppy Conqueror

Bob and the Wailers went on to record an ‘answer record’ to Mr Brown, the self-explanatory Duppy Conqueror. Proving that there’s great mileage in reggae, it too used a variation of the same backing track as Mr Brown.

Poke your nose in and you’ll discover that reggae is full of wonderful, recycled tunes. You knew that already though.

 

 

Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

It’s A Topper

The whole of The Clash‘s Sandinista! might be almost too much to take for the first 40 years of listening, but one day you’ll wake up and it’ll all make perfect sense. It’s an exhaustive listen, a triple album that cliché would have you believe would be better off trimmed to a double, but it’s great precisely because it’s so sprawling and genre-hopping: dub reggae, punk rock, soul, rockabilly, whacked-out proto hip-hop, stadium-sized riffage, Clashified covers of Mose Allison, the Equals and The Clash themselves (how meta, the hipsters might say today)…. you name it, Sandinista! has it all.

Side 1 of 6 sets the entire stall out, spinning wildly through the perennially groovy Magnificent Seven and the take-it-to-church Supremes stomp of Hitsville U.K. via Junco Partner‘s head-nodding roots reggae before alighting on Ivan Meets G.I. Joe.

Ivan… comes at you like a rush of hot dusty, musty air from out of the westbound tunnel at Ladbroke Grove underground station, a clattering, echoing, rattling racket that arrives suddenly, hangs about for a prime-time 3 minutes then rushes off again, a blown-up trail of what the fuck was that? left in its wake. Four songs in and The Clash have merged more ideas and genres than most bands would dare to tackle in a lifetime.

The ClashIvan Meets G.I. Joe

A fantastically-arranged track and surely a blueprint for the future Rock The Casbah, Ivan Meets G.I. Joe is a Cold War dance-off that predates Frankie’s Two Tribes by a good three and a half years. Where Frankie revelled in the fight, The Clash suggest the two superpowers might be better off hitting the dancefloor than one another. The entire track is smothered in added bleeps and whooshes, Howitzer explosions and rapid-fire machine gun fire. It’s certainly dance music Jim, just not as we know it.

Joe Strummer may have written the vast majority of the words, but it’s the drummer that this track really belongs to. Arranged by Topper Headon, he incorporates pounding piano, a juddering brass section and a tight-but-loose disco drum beat that showcases his talents. In concert, the track afforded Topper his Ringo moment, the spotlight leaving the other three to jump about in the shadows for the duration. Y’can say what y’like about Topper, but you won’t hear many bad words about Ivan Meets G.I. Joe.

Forever principled, The Clash eschewed individual songwriting credits on Sandinista! Lower royalty payments would allow them to sell the album at a fan-friendly price and despite pressure from those at CBS, they were adamant that the entirety of the album they’d presented would be the album that was released. Turning money into rebellion (!) they gave up all royalties on the first 200,000 copies sold, enabling the six sided album to be sold for not much more than the price of a standard LP. Can you imagine any act suggesting this nowadays?! (Can you imagine (m)any acts selling 200,000 albums nowadays?)

My copy of Sandinista! came from a second-hand record shop in Liverpool. A victim of the punk wars, its sleeve had seen better days, but the three records (and the copy of the Armagideon Times inside) were in amazingly well-preserved condition. For the price of a medium Costa, it was rescued and rehoused and won’t be going anywhere other than my turntable ever again. Like all the best albums, every time it plays, it throws up something new. I’m sure you knew that already though.

 

Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

Lookin’ At You, Kid

There’s nary a wasted line on The PretendersKid. Lean and low-fat yet packed full of melody and mood, it still sounds out-of-the-box fresh 41 years later. Riding along on a breeze of glistening, chiming, ringing guitars, it’s a heady amalgam of countryish punky jangle and street-sussed Chrissie Hynde sass. Listen as you read, won’t you?

The PretendersKid

It’s the guitar riff that makes it, of course, James Honeyman-Scott taking his guitar for a twangin’ walk up and down the frets; bending, sliding, hammering on and pulling off one of new wave’s greatest guitar lines.

He takes a back seat during the singing, happy to answer Chrissie’s softly crooned, conversational vocals with lovely thick tremeloed chords between the gaps. First chance he gets though, and he’s back to a reprise of that riff. After the second verse there’s a crashing, tumbling middle eight before the whole band sets him up for the solo. And what a solo!

In just a dozen seconds, Honeyman-Scott fires off the perfect musical interlude. He’s further up the frets now, not too high – certainly not as high as those other uncultured guitar stranglers and string manglers who aim for the 15th fret and leap off from there – and his guitar rattles and rolls with a Mr Sheen-like Byrdsian jangle, all slurry pull-offs and bending 3rd strings, before finishing off on an audacious and perfectly executed pinging harmonic.

With little time to catch breath we’re back into the breakdown where the band drops out save for some thumping toms and accompanying bass. A high in the mix jud-jud-juddering Townshendesque acoustic chord signifies we’re on the run home. The jangle is free-form now, the band loosening their collective collar and undoing the top button of their super-tight jeans, relaxing into the multi-layered silvery mercurial brew they’ve created out of thin air as Chrissie reprises the chorus and Honeyman-Scott plays another sublime variation of the solo.

The engineer or producer or whoever it was who thought it was a good idea to fade him/them out needs their stoopid head examined, they really do. Three minutes of post-punk new wave pop joy undoubtedly deserved to stretch its skinny legs for a good half minute more, even if that meant taking it, like Chrissie’s fringe, to just about beyond the considered optimum length. I doubt anyone would’ve complained.

Flashy without being arrogant, the guitar playing on Kid is something that, given equal measures of practice and patience, any dedicated guitar player could work their way up to replicating. Just ask that other king o’ the six string, Johnny Marr…

 

Gone but not forgotten

Listen Without Prejudice

When George Michael died suddenly on Christmas Day 2016, the broadcaster Andy Kershaw made a bit of a twit of himself on social media, decrying the reaction to George’s death as somehow trivial. He was only a pop singer, seemed to be the underlying theme, he wasn’t a ‘real’ musician worthy of such deity and deference. Now, I quite like Kershaw. He’s certainly not had his troubles to seek – no need to go there in this article – but he’s an engaging fella with a good story to tell. He has a Gumpish knack of popping up in all the right places at all the right times; when Mandela makes his first public appearance as a free man after the best part of three decades in jail, a blagging Kershaw is the first western journalist to shake his hand. He was there in Rwanda, reporting on the genocide as rivers full of human bones lay stagnant at his feet. He broadcast wide-eyed and winging it as Live Aid was beamed into every other home on the planet, his boyish enthusiasm a decent substitute for having no idea at all what he was doing.

He wrote a book about it all – No Off Switch – that rattles along at the same breathless pace he normally reserves for cueing up the latest Bhundu Boys release, copious tales of office-sharing with John Peel and working with/for the Rolling Stones and so on and so forth between the meatier chapters for added measure, and I not only promoted one of his one-man shows in support of the book, I went for a pint afterwards where we sat enthusing about Neil Young and the John Peel show  – y’know, proper music – and the beaches of the west of Scotland whilst his dog Buster farted quietly in the corner. But the online kicking he received following his George Michael comments was just about enough to see him scuttling back to anonymity once again. He says what he thinks, does Kershaw, but that Boxing Day in 2016 he was overwhelmingly told he was talking nonsense.

George Michael was fabulous. A proper pop star. I know that, you know that, we all know that. And when a popstar from your youth dies, a wee bit of you dies along with them. George looked great, he carried mystique and he could sing like no one else. The fact that he was also the nation’s best-known dope-smoking gay cruiser made him tabloid fodder, but the table-turning he did when he released Outside was exactly the sort of two fingers to the press that the public didn’t know it wanted until George did it. The outing may well have signalled the begining of a long painful decline, not artistically, but mentally, that would see George pay the ultimate price, but that’s speculation for someone else in another article.

Post death, stories occasionally pop up between the cracks that shine a spotlight on his philanthropy – donating annual six figure sums to NHS nurses, paying off student debt, handing total strangers money for IVF treatment, anonymously ringing up TV studios to reach out financially to people who’ve aired their money problems live on daytime TV.

Turns out he was a bit of a good guy.

And it seems he always was. Giving Andrew Ridgley half the writing credit and future royalties to Careless Whisper was a very generous gift, a healthy pension – £10 million and rising – at a time when Wham! had barely made a record and were more concerned with Top of the Pops than pension pots. The story goes that the song was written by George long before Wham!’s first album, but was deemed far too mature for their debut so was held over until album number 2. At the time of writing, neither George nor Andrew could have predicted quite how stellar their band would become in the next few months. By a lucky stroke of equity, George Michael set Andrew Ridgley up for life before they’d had so much as sniff of success.

George Michael was also a massive music fan. Equally at home listening to Mogwai as he was to Massive Attack, he didn’t just listen to music, he listened to music, picking it apart, analysing the arrangements, working out why certain sounds and tones and counter melodies had the effect they had on him. He loved the sonic texture of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. He drowned himself in Rufus Wainwright’s back catalogue. Amongst others, he highlighted Pet Shop Boys, Kanye West and Nirvana on his 2007 Desert Island Discs episode. He was influenced, it appears, by all manner of disparate sources.

When Wham inevitably imploded and the solo career came calling, George was keen to keep a tight control of his music. Not for Michael the reliance on a team of sessioneers working half a dozen different sessions a week. Get those guys in, he reckoned, and you begin to sound like everyone else who’s using the same musicians. Instead, George did one of two things; he learned how to play the part himself or he dictated how it should sound to the musicans he trusted to play it. Thus, every part on every record is ‘played’ by George Michael, scholar of music, analyser of arrangment, conduit of heart-stirring emotion.

The pinnacle is Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1‘s Cowboys & Angels.

George MichaelCowboys & Angels

His voice – controlled yet aching – rises and falls with all the dynamics that you’ve come to expect from one of the greats, telling the true tale of an unrequited love triangle – girl fancies George, George fancies an unattainable guy, no-one gets what they want. It’s the ones who resist that we most want to kiss, wouldn’t you say? George aims for the heart and hits the bullseye.

A masterclass in sophisticated arrangement, it’s just about the most adult thing in the George Michael back catalogue. It’s light, airy, spacious, a headswim of music swirling inside a snowdome, George bang in the middle with the sophisto jazz waltz skirling around him like confetti blown in on a breeze of Lalo Schiffrin and Nelson Riddle. Those richocheting rimshots and lightly dusted ride cymbals, that neo-classical piano line and the creeping strings, the meandering sax solo, that none-more-Marvin Gaye bassline…. every note crafted by George and played exactly as he demanded. It remains, of course, the only George Michael single not to grace the top 40.

At the risk of sounding pretentious, George Michael was a bona fide auteur. An artist, a proper musician. Cowboys & Angels is the one to play to cloth-eared twonks like Kershaw who didn’t consider him such. It swings, man. It seems he even took ol’ Blue Eyes’ advice on the matter.

 

 

 

 

Alternative Version, Gone but not forgotten, Live!, Peel Sessions

Eye Opening

A Taste Of Honey was written by playwright Shelagh Delaney when she was just 19. Set in Salford in the mid 50s, it tells the story of a 17 year-old girl, Jo, and her mum, Helen – ‘a semi-whore‘ – who leaves her daughter to go and live with a younger, richer man. Jo begins a short-lived relationship with a black sailor. She gets pregnant but he is sent to sea, oblivious to the situation he has created. The girl takes in a lodger to help pay the way. The lodger, a gay man, cares for her and looks after her – “you’re just like a big sister to me!”  – and promises to be there for her at the birth of the child, until Helen storms back into Jo’s life and he is forced to take a step back.

As openers go, it doesn’t get much more scene-setting than that. The whole play is a brilliantly-written kitchen sink drama that zings along with unpretentious Northern honesty and questions class, single-parenthood, ethnicity, misogyny and sexuality. Choosing not to sweep the irregularities and complexities of life under the carpet, but to highlight that such things are in fact normal, I can only imagine that for the times it was fairly groundbreaking.

Born in Salford in the 50s, Morrissey was naturally drawn to the writings of Shelagh Delaney.

You told me not to trust men calling themselves Smith,’ says Jo to Helen at one point in A Taste Of Honey, and, like a flying bullet, the words leap of the page.

Seed planted firmly under the quiff, when the time came to name their band, the singer presented the group with the perfect, Delaney-influenced moniker. In an era of forward-thinking acts with multisyllabic names and the latest in musical equipment, The Smiths had defiantly set out their stall.

Morrissey would use Delaney’s image on a couple of Smiths sleeves – that’s her on the Louder Than Bombs compilation and the cover of the Girlfriend In A Coma single – and in reshaped form in the title of Sheila Take A Bow – and in the early days, the moping magpie wasn’t shy of stealing a line or two (or more) to help flesh out the narrative in his songs.

Reel Around The Fountain‘s “I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice,” for example is taken straight from A Taste Of Honey. And the phrase ‘Marry Me!‘ – scrawled on Morrissey’s skinny torso and revealed in heart crushing fashion midway through a Top Of The Pops performance for William It Was Really Nothing is a recurring phrase in the play.

Then there are key lines such as ‘six months is a long time,’ ‘I’ll probably never see you again,’ ‘I’m not happy and I’m not sad‘ and ‘the dream has gone but the baby’s real‘ – the line around which he based the entire plot for The Smiths’ This Night Has Opened My Eyes.

A Taste Of Honey, it’s fair to say, provided a rich seam of lyrical plunder for Steven Patrick.

The SmithsThis Night Has Opened My Eyes (Peel Session, Sept 83)

In a river the colour of lead‘, it goes, again a straight steal from A Taste Of Honey, ‘immerse the baby’s head.’ (also a reference to a line near the end of the play.) Hot on the heels of the Suffer Little Children/Moors Murderers scandal, this line caused many a management bristle when it was first heard. ‘Wrap her up in a News of The World, dump her on a doorstep, girl.’

The song is basically A Taste of Honey set to the perfect musical acccompaniment; downbeat, introspective, black and white in epoch yet technicolour in ambition. It features a prime slice of brooding, counter-melody Andy Rourke bass. Johnny’s dual lead and rhythm guitar playing is soulful and considered, mercurial and slinky yet choppy and jazzy, a zillion miles away from what most other 20-year old guitar players with a Stooges fascination might conjure up. It’s a great example of the early Smiths in action.

The SmithsThis Night Has Opened My Eyes (Hacienda, 24.11.83)

This Night Has Opened My Eyes is a bit of a mongrel within The Smiths small but perfect, imperial catalogue. An early staple of live shows, its melancholic and delicate undertones were considered a bit too fragile for the debut album. It was first magnetised to tape at the band’s second Peel Session in September 1983, just a month or two after the aborted Troy Tate sessions that largely failed in capturing The Smiths electrifying live sound.

A year later, just as the group was recording another version with John Porter, the Peel Session version appeared on Hatful Of Hollow. It remains the only recorded version of the track to be officially released.

Quickly dropped from live shows as setlists changed to keep up with the rapid, prodigious writing talents of the prinicpal Smiths, This Night Has Opened My Eyes wasn’t played live again until, serendipitously, at The Smiths final show in 1986 – “There was a sense of resolve and closure,” relates Johnny Marr, “which is why we played that song that night. I remember when we made the decision to do ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ feeling a strong sense of awareness of our own history.

The SmithsThis Night Has Opened My Eyes (Brixton, 12.12.86)

Had they been happy with the John Porter-produced version – faster, sparkling with effervescence and slighty jauntier than the Peel Session take from the year previously (although that may just be pitch issues with the bootleg tape from whence this version was borne), it remains to be seen where This Night Has Opened My Eyes would’ve fitted into The Smiths discography.

The SmithsThis Night Has Opened My Eyes (John Porter, June 1984)

Certainly, it wouldn’t have been out of place on the debut album at all, but the next 12 months were ridiculously productive. With classic singles being frisbeed out on an almost bi-monthly basis, by the time of Meat Is Murder, Morrissey and Marr had proven themselves to be in a unique world of their own.

Perhaps, like so many of the best Smiths tracks, it would’ve been the ideal stand alone single. Maybe released between the feral and stinging What Difference Does It Make and the stellar Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, a soulful interlude amongst a peerless run of releases.

It remains though a curio that has aged well through lack of over-familiarity. Whatever, I wonder, became of the young, handsome, literate, funny, unique, quirky, lovable and worshipped Morrissey? The dream has gone but the baby’s real, you might say.

Gone but not forgotten

Glisten Up

Glyndebourne is a majesterial stately home deep within the Home Counties, famous for staging regular opera events for the well-heeled of Englandshire. It also provided the inspiration for Glistening Glyndebourne, a locked-in and whacked-out spacey instrumental on John Martyn‘s 1971 Bless The Weather album.

John MartynGlistening Glyndebourne

The tendrils of jazz – Pharoah Sanders, mainly, but with a hint of Kind Of Blue-era Miles Davis creep around the opening chords like the free-flowing smoke from a Gitanes in a Parisienne jazz club. Eastern tinged piano scales and the dull woody thunk of Danny Thomson’s stand-up bass skirt around one another in search of a melody, neither taking the lead yet both unwilling to play second best. Just as you’re working out where the melody might come from, a richly-picked acoustic guitar tumbles from the fug; twisting, turning, looping, ech-ech-ech-ech-echoing into the ether, dense layers of rippling, waterfalling six string that sounds like nothing before it.

A jazzer at heart, John Martyn wanted to replicate the warm sustain that a horn has. A brief period learning the saxophone proved fruitless, but the Echoplex gave John the next best thing. Played with a wah-wah and filtered through his new box of tricks, he managed to create a sound that was as soulful as a horn section and as otherworldly as an Ornette Coleman solo.

Glistening Glyndebourne rises and falls, speeds up and slows down, grabs you by the ears and takes you with it on its six and a half minute journey. I’m a sucker for it. The squeak and scrape of new strings under lightning-fast fingers, the call and response in the bluesy, ricocheting riffs, the pulverising drum beat that carries it swiftly along. It makes for excellent late night music, with the lights low and a good malt in the bloodstream.

Almost half a century later it still sounds like the future. If you listen closely, you’ll hear the sound of The Edge cribbing notes in preparation for U2’s rise to world domination a decade and a half later. Listen closer still and you’ll hear Nick McCabe stumble upon the sound that’ll help define The Verve as trailblazing cosmic travellers in an era of clunking, meat and potatoes rock-by-numbers.

Martyn’s next album, Solid Air, would feature Echoplex on half the tracks, a sound that quickly became ubiquitous and signature, but on Bless the Weather, Martyn was still a doe-eyed acoustic folkie in search of the unknown. Glistening Glyndebourne is the sound of John Martyn simultaneously landing on his musical feet and taking off into the stratosphere. Joni Mitchell had the weird tunings. John Prine had the lyrics. John Martyn had the Echoplex.

Dylanish, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

With(out) The Beatles

There’s a good argument for suggesting George Harrison‘s All Things Must Pass album is the pick of the solo Beatles’ output. In 1968, post White Album, George spent some time in Woodstock with Bob Dylan. Hearing the Zim’s stories of how The Band wrote; with equity, without hierarchy, everything considered on merit, he realised he was getting short thrift in The Beatles. Both John and Paul failed to give George’s songs the attention they deserved, instead throwing him the odd patronising scrap of encouragement when a space or two needed filled on an album. Discourteous and dismissive, Lennon & McCartney didn’t take George’s stuff nearly seriously enough and the youngest Fab, lacking clout and perhaps confidence, left many great songs in the archives.

In 1970, the floodgates opened. Spread over 6 sides of vinyl, the songs that made up All Things Must Pass showed the world – and his former bandmates – what they’d been missing.

From the title in – The Beatles are finished, get over it, to the cover – a serious George, sitting in the middle of four metaphorically upturned garden gnomes (as similar to one another as The Beatles were at the height of Beatlemania), George throws open the doors to his vaults, brings in some high profile friends and adds life to songs that would’ve graced any late-era Beatles release.

You can practically see the double denim and scratchy beards as the whole things oozes past in a haze of hash and henna. George’s trademark slide guitar is all over it, gently weeping and effortlessly gliding off of the grooves and into that corner of the world that would be known from then on as soft rock.

It’s the opener, I’d Have You Anytime that sets the tone. Co-written with Dylan at that ’68 session, it’s produced by Phil Spector and features Beatles’ friend Klaus Voorman on bass. Guitar and drums are provided by the musicians who would soon become (Derek &) The Dominoes. Ol’ Slow Hand himself plays a tasetful slo-mo guitar part which would be more than a little bit recognisable to Beatles fans. Not content with stealing his pal’s wife, in order to keep I’d Have You Anytime softly rockin’ through the ether, Eric Clapton steals most of George’s solo from Something as well.

George HarrisonI’d Have You Anytime

A decade or so ago I’d Have You Anytime was a feature on one of my in-car CDs. Segued between World Party’s All I Gave and Elliott Smith’s Bottle Up And Explode!, the three tracks, all double tracked harmonies and wistful regret, regularly re-played (again! again!) to the point where I was sick of all of them.

George’s song happened to be playing one time as I was making my way through Crosshouse and past the hospital, back to the Kilmarnock bypass that would take me home. As the road opened up ahead, from one lane to three in preparation for the big roundabout at the Brewer’s Fayre pub, I happened to glance left to the car I was overtaking.

The woman driving it  – she was about ages with me, but that’s got nothing to do with the story – was bawling her eyes out. Proper uncontrollable tears, mouth twisted and agape, lips joined by a few lines of stretchy saliva, face red and swollen. It was fairly distresssing.

I wanted to get her attention, ask if she was OK, but her eyes remained crying, her gaze on the car in front and the impending rush hour roundabout. I too had to focus on the traffic around me. Easing forward in first gear, I had a car in front of me, another behind. I was two, maybe three cars from the front of the queue, anticipating where I might be able to join the roundabout. The car on my left nudged forward simultaneously but the driver wouldn’t shift her gaze.

Ping-ponging my attention from right (is that a gap?) to left (is she OK?) I eventually zoomed onto the roundabout. The car to my left stayed. As I made my way round the roundabout, I lost her in my rear view mirror. I’ll never know if she was OK.

Had she been at the hospital and received bad news? Had she been visiting someone who’d died? Had she been dumped? Or sacked from work? I don’t know. I’ll never know. But everytime I’d Have You Anytime comes on, I’m back at the roundabout, watching a woman break down in the car next to me. Funny how music works, isn’t it?

 

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

Fraser Chorus

Grangemouth is a wee industrial town on the eastern side of Scotland, famous for the oil refinery and its belching chimneys and gas flares that rise strangely beautiful and plentiful into the skies above the Firth of Forth. You might spot its post-apocalyptic Mad Maxian skyline as you look for (and miss) the bypass turn-off that takes you to the Kelpies (just us?)

Even in these times of renewable energy and eco awareness, not to mention more accessible further and higher education, the refinery is still the town’s largest employer. The route for many of Grangemouth’s young people is seemingly mapped out from the day they are born: leave school, start work at the refinery, retire, die. If you do these things in that order, you’ve won at life.

It was against this backdrop that Cocteau Twins were born. With a desire to never set foot inside the refinery, their shared love of The Birthday Party, Kate Bush and Siouxsie Sioux saw them land a record deal with 4AD, find favour with John Peel and subsequently burrow deep into the ears of fans of leftfield music the length and breadth of Peel’s reach. You knew that already though.

Against the occasional industrial clatter of drum machines, it was the basslines (Will Heggie initially, Simon Raymonde not long after); bending, bulging, melodic and Hook-ish that carried the music forward.

This rhythm section gave freedom for Robin Guthrie to splash all manner of dazzling, sparkling guitar sounds across the top; crystalline and glass-shattering one minute, fuzzed-out then gossamer-thin the next. Echoing, chiming, phased and flanged, Guthrie took the sonic bravery of The Banshees’ (etc) John McGeoch and developed a style of his own that would help define the Cocteau Twins’ sound. Vocal-free, the tracks alone are very much music to lose yourself in – other-worldly, pretty and lilting, melancholic yet uplifting – the best sort of music.

The Cocteaus’ secret weapon was, undeinably, vocalist and focal point Elizabeth Fraser. When you add her vocals to the heady mix, the tracks take flight as high and far and wide as her vocal chords. She didn’t so much sing as soar, and she did so without the use of words that you might find easily in the pages of a Collin’s Dictionary. Fraser swirled and swooped largely nonsensical gobbledegook and it sounded fantastic.

Occasionally, recognisable words might jump out at you. That ‘burn this whole madhouse down‘ line on Iceblink Luck, for example, is so memorable precisely because it’s one of the few Cocteaus’ lines sung in plain English. Indeed, much of the song appears to be, unusually for them, in the mother tongue. It takes a fair bit of sonic squinting to work them out, right enough.

Cocteau TwinsIceblink Luck

Most of the time, the vocals are heady and hippy, a mythical strangetalk language all of their own. Sung with an unparalleled style and phrasing, it’s Fraser’s vocals that are the true trademark of the Cocteau Twins.

Now and again, Fraser’s vocals will grace other records, Massive Attack’s Teardrop, for example, or more recently Sam Lee’s Old Wow album. When Felt recorded their Ignite The Seven Cannons album with Robin Guthrie in 1985, it was inevitable that the producer would call for his partner to add her celestial quavers at some point. The recording sessions were fraught with ego and anguish – Felt’s Lawrence, a stickler for detail and band aesthetics was encouraged to sign a contract that would forbid him from being present at the mixing.

Guthrie used the opportunity to Cocteau-fy much of the music with sea-deep reverb and an ambient swirl. He also finalised an 11-track album that the ‘Perfect 10’-loving Lawrence couldn’t cope with. “We’d have been better doing an EP with Guthrie instead,” he moaned to Uncut a few years ago. “A standalone 12″ like Joy Divison’s Atmosphere or Wild Swans’ Revolutionary Spirit.”

FeltPrimitive Painters

The lead single from the album proved be one of Felt’s most enduring tracks. Over time it’s become, like the reference points above (and no doubt to Lawrence’s delight), a classic 12″ single of the era. Featuring a freeform Fraser who’d been handed the lyrics minutes beforehand, Primitive Painters is a waltzing, loping, cyclical groove, chiming with 12 string intent and mooching ennui. It’s not a tune that particularly goes anywhere, until Fraser enters on the chorus. From then on in, the whole thing lifts off spectacularly for a good 6 minutes before crashing triumphantly to a long, slow fade-out.

Playing now, it evokes those days when the Chart Show would show you a run-down of the indie top 10, most of the records playing behind a picture of the record sleeve or a promo shot of the band in lieu of an actual video.

Fast forward a decade and the Cocteau Twins, not quite history, will limp on for one more LP. Fraser and Guthrie have separated and she is now in a relationship with Jeff Buckley, someone else who knows his way around the outer octaves of a vocal chord. Fiercely private people, their relationship proved fairly creative.

Jeff Buckley & Elizabeth FraserAll Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun

It’s a slightly uneasy, voyeuristic listen, this song. Not because it’s difficult to listen to – it’s not – it’s fantastic – but because it’s evidently very personal. A metaphor for their developing relationship maybe, All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun should be listened to through a filter of a conscience. Basically, you’re eavesdropping on a private moment between two people – Fraser’s unselfconscious giggle at the start makes that startlingly clear.

Since the track leaked, she’s said how disappointed she is that it’s out there, unfinished and raw. Yet out there it is, so listen we must. Their duet – a studio off-cut remember – stands up with the best of both artists’ work.

They’d have made beautiful babies, Buckley and Fraser, and this song is the sonic equivalent. Imagine how it might’ve sounded with Buckley’s shining, liquid mercury Telecaster singing across the top of it, Fraser’s vocals double-tracked and harmonising new melodies, a rhythm section with meandering bass, cymbal splashes and restrained bombast. We can only imagine.