Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…
Number 23 in a series:
It’s all the fault of James Grant that by 1987 I had beige chinos, a battered Levi’s denim jacket (later to be autographed/ruined by four fifths of the Inspiral Carpets outside Level 8 at Strathclyde University) and a mile-high quiff that was impossible to control. It didn’t matter whether I used half a gallon of goo every morning or battered it into shape with builders’-strength Brylcreem, by 2 in the afternoon it was wild and wayward and wavering in my eyes. Most folk at the time assumed it was in tribute to Morrissey, a reasonable assumption given that The Smiths were Kings of our world, but an assumption that was off the mark. If you’ve been reading the past couple of weeks, you’ll know that I was always far more of a Johnny fan than a Morrissey fan, and while I had a similarly collapsing coiffure (“…the rain that flattens my hair, oh these are the things that kill me…“), it was always modelled on the wee skinny frontman from Love & Money. Somehow, much to my annoyance, his never moved an inch. Which begs an obvious question….
“Haha! I didn’t use a lot of ‘product’. Maybe some Boots gel that everyone used in those days. With a wee touch of hairspray. Stick that on it and the quiff would stay like that for a week. I think I once mentioned on TV that I used Ellenet hairspray and the next day the record company took a call from them. I have what you call ‘a good head of hair’, so I never really used much. There was certainly no magic trick or anything!“
So. In the days before the internet there was Ellenet. If only I’d known…
James is a super-talented musician. Since his teens he’s been writing songs of substance that would put a writer with twice his experience to shame. In Love & Money he could effortlessly switch from neo Young Americans blue-eyed soul to sophisto-pop to Chic-esque rinky dink guitar riffing, and he couldn’t wait to fire off a flash guitar solo as slick as whatever it was that held his beautiful hair in place.
As a band we were lucky. In the early 80s, Glasgow was the epicenter of the music world. Edwyn and Clare Grogan were our standard bearers, bringing Glasgow pop to the world. Every gig we played, there were record company folk standing there waving cheque books at us. It was ridiculous but totally fantastic – everything we’d ever wanted was coming true. Love & Money signed a publishing deal and recording deal with Phonogram. They were responsible for putting out Dire Straits ‘Brothers In Arms’ – what’s the statistic? One in every 3 homes owns a copy on CD? Well, they had money to burn, and without being mercenary about it, if they weren’t spending it on us, they’d be spending it on someone else.
We ended up in New York recording studios, in LA, making videos in Tokyo. It was all quite ridiculous. Here I was, brought up in Bridgeton and Castlemilk, swanning about in some far-off place, being indulged with millions of pounds being spent on us.
My dad didn’t believe what I did for a living. He was a bin man. He’d worked as a store man in the Tennent’s Brewery. He’d fought the fascists in the Second World War. ‘You’re a whit?!?’ he’d ask. ‘A song writer?!? In a group?!?’ To him, only folk like David Bowie made records and appeared on telly. ‘Where were you this weekend?’ he’d quiz. ‘London, aye? Whereabouts? Bayswater? I know Bayswater quite well. Where did you stay?’ He genuinely didn’t believe I was doing the stuff I was doing. When (first single) ‘Candybar Express’ came out, we went on Razzamataz (Kids TV Programme) and I sat down with him to watch it. He looked from the telly to me and back again and I think then the penny dropped.
Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor took production duties on Candybar Express, a track that was promoted to within its life of an actual Top 40 chart placing. Subsequent singles always seemed to fall just as short, but while it was disappointing not to have chart success, they were given the opportunity to record the follow-up with Gary Katz, famed for his production duties with Steely Dan. Can you imagine any band today being afforded such a major label luxury? If you haven’t cracked the Top 3 with your first single (is there still a Top 3? Are there still charts?) you’re considered an ‘epic fail’, or whatever the parlance of the day is. Love & Money would go on to record 3 more LPs, to diminishing commercial success, but to much critical acclaim.
Third LP ‘Dogs In The Traffic‘ is my personal favourite, a view shared by The Scotsman who voted it the 30th best Scottish Rock and Pop Album Of All Time, just between the random pairing of Wet Wet Wet’s Popped In, Souled Out and Donovan’s Sunshine Superman (and 12 places higher than Love & Money alumni The Bathers’ Kelvingrove Baby). Opener Winter could almost be George Michael’s A Different Corner before it morphs into a multi-layered tasteful guitar wig-out. Johnny’s Not Here has a coda that could be straight off of the Sign O’ The Times LP.
Love & Money – Johnny’s Not Here
Elsewhere, muted trumpets fight for ear space with keyboard stabs, weeping pedal steel, the odd brass section and the occasional orchestral sweep. All this is incidental of course, as James’ guitar and vocals are central to a production worthy of a Dulux endorsment. Bluesy one moment, and finger picked with all the deftness of Bert Jansch the next, his instrument is the perfect foil for his voice, a voice that resonates with all the depth of a life lived in song. Mature and introspective, throwaway pop this is not. It also happens to be James’ favourite L&M LP too.
“Artistically, it’s my best body of work. I find it difficult to listen to. You might gather from the lyrics that I wasn’t in a happy place when I wrote it, it took a lot out of me, but it’s gained a longevity that I’m really proud of.”
James Grant is the real deal. If you don’t believe me, seek out any of his subsequent 5 solo albums and you’ll find out for yourself.
These days, James isn’t a touring artist in the traditional sense – he rarely puts together 15/20 date tours or leaves home for a month on the road. He’s more selective where and when he plays and as a result, is one of the hottest tickets in town. Ahead of this Friday’s (6th November) sold-out show in Irvine’s Harbour Arts Centre, James took time out to give us his Six Of The Best.
Slade – Cum On Feel The Noize
This was the first record I ever bought. 25p in Woolies, Castlemilk. I was really excited by the record. I loved Slade, and Cum On Feel The Noize is a brilliant record. I met Noddy (with Lemmy, believe it or not) after one of our shows at The Marquee. Lemmy suggested we enter the stage from a giant inflatable vagina, wearing buffalo horns. A while later, Noddy was a guest on Round Table. Our track ‘My Love Lives In A Dead House’ was one of the records played. “That!” declared Noddy. “Is a Number One record!” Noddy had come through for me!
Led Zeppelin – Whole Lotta Love
Led Zeppelin were a big influence on me. I bought a second-hand, scratched copy of Led Zeppelin II from Hi-Fi Exchange. From the opening riff I just thought, “This is it! This is for me!” It was a quasi-religious experience. And Zeppelin were so famous. It was all about the music. Getting into Led Zeppelin was like joining an exclusive club. I wanted to know about music. Led Zep told me.
Talking Heads – I Zimbra
This was also hugely influential. It’s all about the groove. The record just used phonetics and created something new. It’s a very intellectual record. Made by David Byrne, of course. An intellectual man. Hearing I Zimbra for the first time was a musical epiphany.
(By coincidence, this very track was featured here last week.)
David Bowie – Starman
I watched with my school pals when he sang this on that famous Top Of The Pops episode. Is he a boy or a girl? Or an alien from Planet Zorg?!? We just didn’t know. He was just so appealing. Beautiful, alluring, mysterious. Bowie is enormously talented. Even his demos have it. The demo of Lady Stardust when it’s just him at the piano singing it, extraordinary really.
Roxy Music – Love Is The Drug
This is luxurious debauchery. It’s so sophisticated yet easy and it gets me every time. The bass is played with a pick. That’s not how an American band would have done it. Very English. Rather, very European to be more precise. Which, I suppose, was Bryan Ferry’s shtick.
Bob Dylan – Visions Of Johanna
This is one of my favourite songs of all time. Some of the lines in it! The imagery! ‘The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.’ What does that even mean? Yet, if you listen to Dylan, you know exactly what that means. Songs poured out of Dylan. He couldn’t help himself. As a rule, music lyrics should NEVER be compared with poetry…..but this is as close as it gets. Visions Of Johanna bridges that gap.
And there you have it – a perfectly balanced set of tracks very much in the Plain Or Pan mould. I expect you may own more than half of these yourself, but they’d make a terrific little compilation for someone less informed.
It’s also become apparent over the course of this series that David Bowie is the clear leader in the ‘most frequently selected artist’ category. And there ain’t nowt wrong with that.
You can keep up to date with all of James’ goings-on via Twitter @jamthrawn or on his excellent (chords for songs! interactive community!) official web page here.
Me? I’m off down the front on Friday night, big can of Ellenet doon ma jukes.