Hard-to-find, Peel Sessions

Boiling Point, Top League

I interviewed Martyn Ware once. It was 5 days after Paul McCartney’s show at Hampden Park, should you wish to date it, and I was still flying high, buzzing on seeing a two and a half hour benchmark set of hit after hit after hit, faithfully and loudly reproduced to within an inch of the songs’ original sound and feel.

Yeah, to us, The Beatles were shit,” he sniffed in his mellow Yorkshire accent. In the mouth open, dead air gasp of disbelieving shock that followed, he continued. “They meant nothing to my generation of musicians. Nu-thing. We looked to Germany, to Kraftwerk and beyond, for our inspirations. Guitars were dead to us, even with the influx of punk groups that were springing up everywhere. To us, the guitar stood for excess and Led Zeppelin and private jets and symbols of phallic insecurity. Not all of The Beatles music was rubbish, but I wasn’t a fan and they certainly weren’t year zero for any of the people I was making music with. Punk, and the possibilities it threw up, was our point of reference. In Sheffield especially, we chose keyboards over guitars…and I think we all made a pretty good go of it.”

Had this conversation been carried out on Zoom – still a twinkle in some Silicon Valley digital developer’s eye – I’d have seen the wry, upturned smile that followed. Ware and his pals certainly made more than a good go of it. His DIY, learn-as-you-go aesthetic, first with the Human League and then with Heaven 17 and later with BEF, saw him involved in the production of some of his generation’s most well-known yet decidedly idiosyncratic tunes.

The Human League’s first single, released way back in 1978, is a case in point.

The Human LeagueBeing Boiled

It’s futuristic sounding, even now. A hissing, spitting, fizzing, electronic groove, all metronomic synthesised hi-hat and piston-powered forward propulsion that’s as industrial-sounding as the city from whence it came. Its rubberised electro bassline, part Bootsy Collins, part Larry Graham, adds requisite pop charm, offset somewhat by Phil Oakey’s monotoned vocal.

Listen to the voice of Buddha‘ he deadpans, while the rest of the band make music from anything they can plug in. Morse code dots and dashes of synth ping pong and teleprompt their way across the electrified airspace. The clickety-click of computerised clockwork maintains the tempo – slow and steady, never speeding up, never slowing down – while gently popping bubbles of Prophet and Korg and Moog coalesce nicely in the ether, the ghosts of Kraftwerk and side 2 of Bowie’s Low hanging heavy in the analogue fug. It’s a brilliant debut single, some would say never bettered, by a band who, with a different approach and new line up, would go on to ubiquity and massive chart success.

Being Boiled has long-been a favourite of mine, right up there with the nothing-like-it-at-all Mirror Man and its Supremes-ish ‘Ooh-ooh – ee-oohs’ that take me right back to a time and place. If I was a betting man, I’d wager that Steve Strange was a big fan of Being Boiled too. There is, obviously, in Visage’s Fade To Grey, more than a whiff of similarity in those vibrating, humming chord changes.

*Bonus Track!

For maximum hard boiled analogue thump, you need the Peel Session version from August ’78. It’s, like, out there!

The Human LeagueBeing Boiled (Peel Session 8.8.78)

 

By the way, never trust anyone who says they don’t like The Beatles. It’s all for show. Whether it’s the throwaway Yellow Submarine or the avant gardisms of Revolution 9, The Beatles have a tune for everyone. You knew that already though.

Get This!, Hard-to-find

Jumpy Record

Feel Like Jumping by Marcia Griffiths is a perfect slab of baked in the sun pop-reggae. In 1968, a few years before she was one of the I Threes, providing backing for Bob Marley and The Wailers during his imperial, ubiquitous phase, she was a young hopeful, given the chance to make her own mark on Jamaican music. Signed to the mighty Studio One and produced by Coxsone Dodd, Feel Like Jumping was written by Griffiths’ partner Bob Andy, so prolific a writer that you might call him the Lieber AND Stoller of that early reggae scene.

Marcia GriffithsFeel Like Jumping

Breezing along on a wave of jaunty, rasping brass and Motown-ish ‘woo-hoo-hoos’, Feel Like Jumping has the same great 1, 2, 1-2-3 bassline that first appeared on The Ethiopians Train To Skaville, powered Toots and the Maytals’ 54-46 Was My Number and, 20 years later, would pop up again, sampled and looped by Double Trouble to form the bedrock upon which the Rebel MC proved just how Street Tuff he was. I’m sure Paul Simonon was more than familiar with the rhythm and feel of its ten note pattern as well. Sped up, it wouldn’t sound out of place on any of The Clash’s more caustic ramalamas. Slowed down, it makes the ideal anchor for dub.

Griffiths does a brilliant call-and-response vocal with her backing singers, la-la-laing and woo-hoo-hooing her way throughout the record as the band plays head-noddingly and disciplined behind. Clipped guitars, barely-tickled hi-hat, that joyful vocal loud and centre. If music had facial features, Feel Like Jumping would be a big, round, smiley face.

Griffiths’ backing band was effectively a version of The Skatalites, known by 1968 as Sound Dimension, Studio One’s in-house version of The Wrecking Crew or The Funk Brothers. In their own right, Sound Dimension cut some brilliant instrumental records, like the whacked-out dub of Granny Scratch Scratch

Sound DimensionGranny Scratch Scratch

If Talking Heads hadn’t been listening to this before coming up with Slippery People I’ll eat my oversized white suit in shame. C’mon Byrne, ‘fess up.

As much as they were a crack unit worthy of their own album release, the musicians in Sound Dimension were encouraged more to provide the backing tracks for Studio One’s solo stars – Marcia, John Holt, Ken Boothe, Dennis Brown and others. Any of those artists’ records from 1967 onwards – Young, Gifted And Black, Ali Baba, Everything I Own, Money In My Pocket – songs that you will know, love and play on repeat – feature the combined, tight ‘n taut talents of Sound Dimension.

I go through phases of playing reggae and ska non-stop (usually at the first sign of sunlight) then sicken myself to the point where I send it all back into hibernation again. It’s always the perennial Feel Like Jumping that pulls me back in and has me turning the bass notch on my amp clockwise an extra notch or two. Here we go again.

Get This!, Hard-to-find

Purified Soul

If Motown was hit factory-produced street-smart pop and Stax was its rougher round the edges punkish southern soul sister, then Fame was the mongrel hybrid of both. A studio with a hit-making pop sensibility that retained its southern fried Muscle Shoals identity, Fame was responsible for recording some of the greatest under-the-radar soul music in recorded history.

At this point, musical trainspotters and soul aficionados will roll their eyes and reel off a list of 20 essential Fame tracks that everyone should know immediately, but as a label, Fame is relatively undervalued; the Hollies to the Beatles and the Stones, the Inspiral Carpets to the Roses and the Mondays. Great, yet overshadowed by more greatness.

Released on Bell Records in 1966, I’m Your Puppet was written by the gigantic combined talents of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham (the pair of songwriters responsible, as you know, for such titans of popular song as The Dark End Of The Street and I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)). Penn’s version was released first, but it was the version by James & Bobby Purify that really connected with radio stations, and ultimately record buyers.

I’m Your Puppet – James & Bobby Purify

It’s a wonderful song, with a lyric of helpless puppy-dogged affection that will ring true with anyone who’s ever fallen hard for someone else. And that’s everyone, right?

Pull the string and I’ll wink at you…

Snap your fingers and I’ll turn you some flips…

I’ll be wonderful, just do what I’m told…

Treat me good and I’ll do anything…

I’m yours to have and to hold…darlin’, you’ve got full control of your puppet

In a handful of verses, it runs the whole gamut of what soul music is; a universal theme welded to four chords of gently lilting musical accompaniment, all tinkling pitched percusssion and clipped guitar, slightly out of tune piano runs and honeyed sax for added emphasis, always, always just a notch lower in volume than the vocal sung sincerely and with requisite tear-jerking pathos and emotion. Then there’s the major to minor key change in the bridge, the call and response section, the parts where James and Bobby trip over one another to get their own vocal adlibs in… the very definition of what soul music is.

Oft covered, it’s exactly the sort of track that Alex Chilton could’ve mastered with Teenage Fanclub back in the early ’90s when they briefly showed up as his backing band, Norman and Gerry providing the close-knit harmonies atop Chilton’s choppy guitar riffage and world-weary delivery. For a couple of reasons, this will forever remain an unfulfilled wish.

Another underheard Fame beauty is Two In The Morning by Spooner’s Crowd.

Two In The MorningSpooner’s Crowd

Cut live in the studio, Two In The Morning is, as the label suggests, the Fame house band led by Spooner Oldham grinding their way through a mod/soul/r’n’b groover that owes a great deal to Green Onions and any number of those great swinging mid ’60s finger-clickers.

Cut to sound like the listener is entering some nudge-nudge, wink-wink members’ only club or other, it’s a proper full-on strut of a record, big loose ‘n funky bass notes on the piano playing just off the beat, primitive fuzz organ supplying the melody and a “say, honey…wild!” spoken word interlude straight outta the Cotton Club or Peppermint Lounge for added bona fide authenticity.

Ideal music for kick-starting a late night on lively tunes….and, just like the studio from where it was born, sufficiently unknown as to be underplayed and under appreciated.

Get This!, Hard-to-find

Cullen Card

We asked 100 people to name a musical duo from Scotland.”

With a TV audience of millions watching and a five or six-figure jackpot prize hanging on your answer, the chances of a clued-in contestant offering up Boards Of Canada, let alone finding them in the list of Family Fortunes‘ half a dozen top answers would be slim to non-existent.

The Proclaimers!” Ding!

The Alexander Brothers?” Ding!

Eh… Arab??… eh… Strap??” Ding!

But not, never, Boards Of Canada. !Klax-on!

Boards Of Canada rarely make videos. Hardly ever (and possibly never) do press. Haven’t played live in over 20 years. The likelihood of them popping up between Phil and Ally to provide an alternative, modern-thinking, left-of-centre soundtrack while Jackie Bird brings in the bells from Edinburgh Castle is about as likely as a statue of Margaret Thatcher being erected in Auchinleck town centre. They are low-lying to the point of anonymity, and I suspect that’s the way, uh-huh uh-huh, they like it.

Formed in 1995 by brothers Mike and Marcus Sandison in the north east seaside town of Cullen, their music has given the world four albums and a handful of EPs. All are different yet all are fairly recognisable as the work of a band steeped in analogue production, vintage synths and the use of unfashionable and outdated technology as a means to produce warm, ambient electronic music that boils and bubbles with all the warm blooded soul of a beating human heart.

2006’s Trans Canada Highway EP may well be the missing link between Radiohead’s more adventurous excursions in electronica and My Bloody Valentine’s self-indulgent guitar manipulation.

Dayvan CowboyBoards Of Canada

Opening track Dayvan Cowboy is the band in miniature, its looping whitewash of fuzzed guitars, skeletal percussion and layered windrush of synths nestling murkily inside your head before the musical clouds part and, two minutes and seven seconds in, a bright light of aural sunshine sweeps the room. In dance terms, you would call this ‘the drop’. In Dayvan Cowboy, it’s the drop in reverse, the equivalent of coming up for air after a deep sea dive, a gasp of clean oxygen at the end of a journey living on borrowed air.

Gently broken hip hop beats rattle and ricochet, synthesised strings sweep across the ambient electronica, more rushing wind, more tinkling percussion, lovely wee doorbell-like chimes every now and then; head music for the soul as it peters out to its untimely multi-layered end. Someone should make one of those ultra slowed-down 3-hour versions and stick it on the internet for full-on effect. I suspect it would be just as brilliant.

All in, it’s lovely stuff and it makes even more sense in (slightly edited) video form:

Elsehwere on the EP you’ll find Left Side Drive – (LSD?) – yet more ear-burrowing, creeping electronica that features a borrowed rhythm that may well be a processed version of the beats in Massive Attack’s Karmacoma melded to slo-mo flotation tank music that very possibly was recorded in a dimly-lit bedroom or basement, with a couple of lava lamps and a copy of Pink Floyd’s Meddle for company, perhaps even the fragrant fug of Morocco’s finest curling tantalisingly around the nostrils.

Left Side DriveBoards Of Canada

Interestingly, or incredulously even, Solange Knowles – Beyonce’s wee sister – recorded a totally unofficial track that features her breathy soulful vocals floating across Left Side Drive‘s wafty ambience. It’s not the best track you’ll hear this week, but nor is it the worst. Chances are, given that it first surfaced in 2011, you’ve heard it before.

So there y’go; a track that links pop R’n’B superstar Beyonce to Scotland’s under the radar electronica pioneers Boards Of Canada. Who knew?!

Alternative Version, Hard-to-find

The Rattle of The Boyne

Three albums in, and U2 were the Bunnymen on steroids. A guitar-heavy irony-free zone, they waved their silly giant flags, planked their pixie boots firmly on their monitors and, with collar-bothering bouffants blowing gently in the stage fan-assisted breeze, set their sights firmly on world domination. Bravely, a change was required. Less bombast, more European was the brief.

Much to the horror of a label getting used to the ever-increasing ker-ching of units being sold, they parted ways with trusted producer Steve Lillywhite. Initially sounding out Conny Plank, mastermind behind much of Can and Kraftwerk’s decidedly unbombastic and very European music, the band, only after much courting, began working with ambient soundscaper Brian Eno instead. It would prove fruitful and important.

Boy 2, with tough, anthemic, post-punk guitars and a wham, bam, slam of tribal drums would not be forthcoming. Instead, between them they produced The Unforgettable Fire, a multi-layered record full of darkness and light, gossamer thin textures side by side with sledgehammer unsubtleties, pinging atmospheric guitars and fluid, flowing basslines. The drums rattled, rolled and occasionally rifled, but Eno smoothed the toughness from them through a combined use of technology, considered microphone placement and a golden touch that had first come to the fore on those early Talking Heads albums.

Take Wire, the third track in. The third track is always the important marker for an album (first track is the statement piece – ‘dig the new sound!’ and the second is usually the familiar first single. Track 3 is the deciding factor; new sound for real, or false dawn?) Wire delivers.

The Edge plays seven shades of groovy, ratttttling shit from his guitar. He ping-pongs effect-heavy harmonics across the intro, divebombs his way across the verses, pulls interesting textures and notes from the spaces where Bono shuts up for a second and scrubs and scratches his guitar throughout with a metaphorical brillo pad last heard all over Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music. It’s very much in keeping with the breathless, anthemic rush of those first few albums, but placed to break you in gently, wrapped in that woozy Eno blanket of atmospherics that would come to define the record.

If Bono isn’t exactly your thing – and no one’s judging you on that – you might like the calorie-controlled Dub version that was included with a free NME single all those years ago. I must admit to having a real soft spot for this rare-ish track on account of it following a live version of The Smiths’ What She Said on the record. U2 and The Smiths, as you know, were poles apart. You weren’t really supposed to like them both. But when laziness wins out over hipness and you fail to shift yourself from sitting position to turntable commander, you might find yourself falling increasingly for this mainly Bono-free riot of clashing guitars and out-there ’80s production. Rock, yet not rock, I played it far more often than I’d ever have admitted at the time.

U2Wire (Dub)

Credit must be given to a band keen to break what was fast-becoming a successful mould. Much of The Unforgettable Fire‘s sound is due to where it was recorded. Eschewing any sort of traditional studio, U2 and Eno, along with engineer Daniel Lanois relocated to Slane Castle, an 18th century stately pile in the Irish countryside and set up makeshift recording rooms in the grand ballroom and library. The ballroom provided the natural reverb ideal for the wafty atmospherics and free-flowing arty stuff. The library was the place for close-miked rock outs. Being both rockin’ and out-there, I’d imagine Wire was recorded somewhere between the two spaces, but I may well be totally wrong on that.

Great art is borne from the most challenging of circumstances, and U2’s fourth record is no exception. The castle’s power supply was driven by a water wheel which, in turn (ha) was powered by the nearby River Boyne. When the river levels dropped in the summer time, so too did the power levels. When the levels dropped sufficiently, recording was halted. As a back-up, ‘king Bono and the band turned to an ancient diesel generator that was temperamental at best. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes when it worked it would burst into flame. An unforgettable fire indeed.

demo, Hard-to-find

Solid Gold

Paul Weller chose to bring the curtain down on The Jam – 6 studio albums and 18 singles in 5 era-defining years – with the anthemic yet wistful Beat Surrender, a piano-driven soul stomper that put a full stop on The Jam’s perfect discography and hinted at an unexpected new direction. It might have been different had their intended final released made it beyond demo form.

The JamA Solid Bond In Your Heart (demo 1)

A Solid Bond In Your Heart is the unstoppable yin to Beat Surrender‘s resigned yang. In demo form, it froths and rattles like a speed-driven floorfiller from the Wigan Casino, all floating vibraphone, four-to-the-floor incessant drums and tinny breathlessness, a talc-dusted homage to that most exclusive of subcultures. Employing the brass that served them well on The Gift and associated singles, Solid Bond flips and flaps its way to its giddy ending, Dee C. Lee’s tumbling vocal pushing Weller to the very limits of his white man does soul vocals as Bruce Foxton sprints the length of his fretboard like Duck Dunn on uppers. It’s a rush in every sense of the word.

There’s a second version from The Jam’s vaults that adds a middle eight which would ultimately disappear again by the time the track was ripe for release. Listening to it, you might spot the seeds of the dropdown in Beat Surrender. Weller certainly thought this little vignette was worthy of working on, even if it wasn’t right for Solid Bond. A bit of a rewrite and it would slot right into the epochal final release.

Extra points too go to whoever the assembled hand-clappers were on this version. Their palms would’ve been raw by the last note.

The JamA Solid Bond In Your Heart (demo 2)

Solid Bond is, though, far too upbeat and happy for such a milestone record. Paul Weller did the right thing by holding it back.

By the time A Solid Bond In Your Heart appeared for real, it would be as The Style Council‘s 4th single. Released in 1983 between the woozy haze of Long Hot Summer and the evergreen You’re The Best Thing, Solid Bond (and its accompanying video) would go some way to cementing The Style Council’s reputation as soul revivalists. In an age of synthetics – instruments… clothes… hair products… – The Style Council’s stance had to be admired, even if it was much maligned (or so they say) at the time.

Without the same attachment to The Jam that those boring older ‘mods’ (by it’s very definition, ‘mod’ should be forward thinking, no?) may have had, I found The Style Council nothing less than fantastic. Arty, pretentious and comical, yes, even to these young teenage eyes and ears, but with a mean streak in writing unforgettable hit singles. If you say you didn’t like them I don’t believe you.

The Style CouncilA Solid Bond In Your Heart

Funnily enough, it starts in almost the same way as Beat Surrender. Where that track has a tension-building piano flourish before the crash and release, Solid Bond vamps in on a teasing combination of six note piano and saxophone then slides itself into the stratosphere.

‘Feel’ is a word I can’t explain…” goes Weller from the very top, as the music proceeds to give you all the ‘feels’ you need; a wet slap of funk guitar, a skirl of strings and that same driving beat, muscled up through the addition of a moonlighting Zeke Manyika, no stranger to soul-inflected hit singles himself. The crowning glory is the brilliant duetting vocal that tops it off. All moves from The Big Book of Soul Tricks are duly cribbed; the ‘uh-huhs’, the ‘ooh-yeahs’ and the high high high falsetto; there aren’t enough ‘woo-hoo-hoos’ any more in music. I believe that’s because they were all used up on this record.

Solid Bond is handclappin’, finger-clickin’ ess oh you ell soul – Marvin and Tammi for Thatcher’s children, the joy of life preserved in seven inches of grooved vinyl. If I could do that gliding northern soul move that looks so blinkin’ effortless to those who have clearly kept more faith than myself, I’d be doing it right now while I contemplated getting myself a midlife-crisis inducing ’80s Weller wedge. Push it to the limit, as the man himself sings.

Alternative Version, Hard-to-find, Kraut-y, Live!

15

Plain Or Pan turns 15 this week. Since publishing the first post back in January 2007, the (ahem) power of the blog has seen to it that I’ve been commissioned to interview Sandie Shaw, rewrite articles for the national press (by ‘rewrite’ I mean take out the irreverent turns of phrase and my non-fact checked opinion) and write an actual book (The Perfect Reminder) very much in the style of Plain Or Pan. I’ve charmed half of The Smiths, pissed off an angry Boy George and remain on email-friendly terms with a handful of minor movers and shakers in the world of music. My clever and generous sister even compiled a ‘Best Of Plain Or Pan’ into a physical, one-of-a-kind coffee table-sized book for a big birthday a couple of years ago. If I never wrote another word, my legacy, it seems, is long and reaching.

Writing is a funny thing – some people hate the thought of it and would wilt at the thought of putting together 1000 or so well-constructed words on the bands and records that soundtrack their life. Me? I find it relaxing. Some choose yoga. Some go running. I write. I’d write every day if I could find the time. In the old days, I used to try and write at least two articles a week. I’d time their publication for teatime – peak reading time according to Google analytics – and I’d obsess over blog traffic and stats and suchlike. These days, I aim to write one new thing a week. It’s far more manageable and still frequent enough that the blog aggregators and number crunchers know that Plain Or Pan is very much alive, unlike plenty of other blogs who’ve tailed off to the point of extinction. Writing a blog’ll soon be so retro as to be trendsetting once more. And when that happens, POP, along with a handful of those other well-written blogs on the sidebar there, will be right at the forefront.

15 years. Not bad going.

15 Step by Radiohead sounds like an entire ‘50s typing pool simultaneously clattering out the compete works of Shakespeare in a roomful of Royal typewriters. It’s jerky, juddering and in 5/4 time. Imagine a skeletal and arty take down of Dave Brubeck’s Take 5 and, even if you’ve never heard 15 Step before, you’ll know how the rhythm goes.

Radiohead15 Step

Radiohead are possibly the most-discussed band on the internet. Theories abound over 15 Step. It’s so-called, some say, because there are 15 steps from intro to vocal; a Radiohead working title that stuck.

Others maintain it relates to death – throughout the song there are lyrical references to ‘the end’ and dying. Pistol-toting duelists in the Wild West would turn back-to-back then take 15 steps before turning and firing. There are, they say, 15 steps leading to the gallows and the ‘sheer drop’ that follows. I always thought there were 13 steps to the gallows (and 13 loops of the rope on the noose) but don’t let that get in the way of a good theory.

It relates, others say, to the Bjork-starring movie Dancer In The Dark. There’s a train of thought that every track on parent album In Rainbows relates in one way or other to a movie. Google the theories if you must. The only thing so far uncovered is a mind-blowing theory correlating the listening of In Rainbows to the synchronised viewing of The Wizard Of Oz. I dare say someone’s tried it though.

Radiohead15 Step (Live from The Basement)

But back to 15 Step. It may be rhythm-heavy and death-obsessed, but it’s also groovy as fuck, the perfect Radiohead marriage of technology and trad. Guitars play in weird time signatures (that’ll be that 5/4 thing again); all tumbling arpeggios and crunching riffs. Colin Greenwood’s bass line is pure Can; hypnotic, snaking and jazz-inflected. There’s a brilliant wee breakdown midway through that holds it all together as the players around him go off into their own orbits. There are sci-fi whooshes, sampled schoolchildren shouting “Hey!” now and again and enough head-nodding noodling parts to sate even the most chin-stroking of ‘Head fans.

Like all great Radiohead tracks, it’s not an immediate hit. It has become an inescapable ear worm only over time. More than a few plays down the years and it is, like the entire album it is featured on, one of Radiohead’s very best. But you knew that already.

Hard-to-find

Cop Yer Whack For This

Isolation has afforded me to the time to binge not on the latest Netflix must-sees or HBO’s can’t-be-misseds, but on ’70s cop movies. The grittier and grainier the better; exactly the sort of ones that influenced Beastie Boys when they shot their Sabotage video, where maverick cops in outlandish undercover clobber go rogue and off-radar to bring justice, but only after being barked at by bent, bull-nosed Irish-American superiors with names like Frank O’Connor who throw metaphorical rule books at them as liberally as the swearing and testosterone that soaks the concrete and callous locker room culture within.

The Taking Of Pelham 1, 2, 3, Mean Streets, Death Wish (1 and 2), Dog Day Afternoon, Klute… they’ve all re-grabbed the attention, 35 years or so (!) since first seeing most of them. They’re mostly (exclusively?) New York movies, soundtracked by skittering, anxiety-inducing hi-hats and brass stabs, swathes of wah-wah and jarring strings, backdropped by beige, low-rent apartments, adult book stores and litter-blown sidestreets, where cars big as bars (as the song goes) screech round corners populated by scruffy numbers runners, flashy, floppy hat-wearing pimps or down on their luck hookers-with-hearts. Even the Times Square neon and Manhattan glass and steel skyscrapers seem grubby and off-colour, nothing like the uber-polished, high-rolling landscapes that the Kims ‘n Kanyes backdrop their social media feeds with today.

One that really left a big impression was Serpico. It’s based on a true story, Al Pacino playing the titular Frank with full-on method acting. In late ’60s/early’70s New York, Frank Serpico was, as the movie poster tagline and gravelly trailer voiceover confirm, the most dangerous man alive – an honest cop who refused to adapt to the culture of the times; from the free sandwiches at the deli to the never-ending stuffing of fat envelopes full of hundred dollar bills into glove compartments in exchange for a blind eye. “Take it, Frank. You’ve earned it!” his colleagues will drawl through Cheshire Cat grins, as Pacino returns his doe-eyed, stony stare in return.

Hellbent on his mission to call out police corruption from the very top down, Serpico incurs the wrath of every department across the five boroughs to the point where he’s led to a drug dealer’s house and shot, almost fatally. Was it bad luck that he was nearly killed in the line of duty, or are waters a bit murkier? Did, indeed, his fellow officers perhaps set him up? That’s the part of the puzzle that’s kept the actual Serpico living abroad ever since.

As a film spanning 11 years, it serves as a microcosm of the fashions of the time, a Mr Ben, as it happens, of all your favourite musicians and styles. Pacino begins the movie clean-shaven, lean, mean and handsome, with great hair to boot. He looks a wee bit like an Italian-American Johnny Marr, all healthy tan and quiet, cock-sure confidence. As the movie lengthens, so too does Pacino’s hair. A moustache slowly crawls across his top lip before drooping, from Crosby to Zappa in five frames.

The hair on his head; black, glossy, superbly conditioned, billows out into exactly the same hair do as the Get Back era Paul McCartney. Just as you’re noticing this, so too do you notice that the Crosby/Zappa moustache has at some point morphed into the very same McCartney beard as well. But hang on… Just as you’re getting used to that, he adopts a bucket hat, a cheesecloth top and a pair of gently flapping jeans and he’s suddenly transformed into a refugee from Spike Island, maybe even John Squire himself.

Then, the headwear changes, from bucket to beanie and back to bucket again, and he’s first Badly Drawn Boy then Jeff Lynne. At various other points, Pacino is a dead ringer for George Best, half of Dexy’s Midnight Runners and that illustrated guy in the tattered copy of The Joy Of Sex that John Crichton found in that hedge that day round by Berry Drive in 1980.

Getchahaircut Serpico!” growls his superior in vain, which, ironically is how the movie was shot. Apparently, Pacino began the movie looking like one of the Furry Freak Brothers and everything was shot in reverse, a hairstylist and groomer on hand to shorten the locks and trim the facial hair until young Al was a fresh faced cop school graduate. Clever movie making.

Throughout Serpico, Pacino wears open-necked denim shirts, brilliantly fitted cord jackets, cool, dark aviator shades and never seems to have a problem with the ladies. Who wouldn’t want to be an undercover cop?

Hard-to-find

Shortest Day/Longest Day

The past few days have been full of positive results. Thanks to match abandonment on Saturday due to pea-souping fog, my team managed to avoid defeat for the first time in a few weeks. Result! Then, out of the blue, we sacked the manager! Result! He/we never saw that coming. (Fog joke there). And the boy has done well in his prelims. Result!

Yesterday was Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, when daylight hours sharpen to a pinpoint before slowly widening again, the time of year when local wags think it amusing to say “the nights are fair stretchin’” every other sentence.

Not that I noticed. I’ve had Covid since testing positive on Sunday. The one positive result no-one wants. Any festive oomph I may have had has since evaporated, drained from my body like the juice in a Duracell battery come Boxing Day. My muscles feel as if they’ve been put through some sort of gym session when, obviously, they haven’t, and my head thumps harder than the hangover after Mark and Amanda’s wedding in 1994. I’m drifting in and out of sleep continually. I’ve had to rewind and rewatch the last couple of episodes of Succession as I missed half of them. Squid Game came and went in a slo-mo ‘what was all that about?‘ fug. The days have been both short – is it 4 o’clock already?! – and long – is it still only Tuesday?! etc. I was most disappointed to find that Marc Riley wouldn’t be doing his usual evening show on 6 Music. The one time I’d get complete, uninterrupted time with him and he’s off. Seems he has Covid too. His replacement, Ezra Furman, has been pretty good, mind you.

I’m blaming my place of work. Covid was rampant in the week leading up to last weekend. Classes were being sent home as both learners and teachers tested positive. One class. Three classes, An entire year group. My job is not wholly classroom-based, but there was a certain inevitability that it would find me and at some point – Thursday, most likely – I caught it.

Not that I knew. I coughed a bit on Friday, but nothing more than normal for an asthmatic who uses his inhaler less than he really should. Despite the fog, I was going to the football on Saturday, so as is usual before going to a game, I took a LFT. Negative result confirmed, I duly went and very likely infected those around me. Or perhaps they infected me. Who knows?

By Saturday night I was shivery and I was beginning to think that I *might* want to get tested in the morning, just to be safe. We woke up on Sunday morning and stuck on the telly, to be met with Professor Jason Leitch, the most straight-talking expert on the box, explaining that the new variant presented itself with aching limbs, runny nose and sore head. Shit. That was me. The test was booked and taken. Driving there and back was a bit of a chore, if I was to be honest with myself, but still, surely not? I took another LFT that afternoon, ‘just to check’, and promptly forgot about it until an hour or so later when I happened to glance at the wee white plastic tray. Two lines. Two lines. It was heart-sinking and inevitable. The confirmatory results were back by 7 the next morning, Positive.

Normally at this time of year, I’ll cede to the times and offer up a bit of music with a loose connection to Christmas. Being imprisoned away from my music collection for the next week or so means that frustratingly, I can’t upload any music, so I’ve poked around the dustier corners of YouTube to find this diamond in the rough.

Tom Waits finds everlasting beauty in the bums, broads and bourbon bars of backstreet, smallville USA. His songs – Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis perhaps the nadir of it all – are film noir set to song, the dirty fingernailed and whiskey-soaked flipside of the American Dream. But you knew that already.

Waits bookends his own tale of loss, regret and loneliness with a Christmas song (carol?) as old as time itself and the whole performance, filmed for the Paul Hogan Show would you believe, in 1979 is as unpretentious, honest and artful as you could wish for at this time of year. Waits, eyes closed and lost in song, his long eyelashes and clear skin the envy of everyone, his lupine features, all chiselled chin and high cheekbones, topped of with a sculpted mess of greased curls, is on splendid form.

All Waitsisms are present and correct. His voice, rising from a phlegmy whisper via bluesy rasp to gutteral growl, is sensational. He half talks, half sings, dragging on a blue-curling Marlboro, slipping into full-on ess oh yoo ell blue-eyed soul singer when he namechecks Little Anthony and The Imperials. The story is simple; a hooker is pregnant, hitched to a good man who promises to look after them all ‘even though it’s not his bay-bugh‘. She’s in a good place and she wants ‘Charlie’ to know. As the song continues its scuffed and scrappy barroom blues, you start to pick up on the idea that the hooker really misses Charlie, to the point that by the song’s surprising twist at the end, you might find yourself misty eyed, sentimental and nostalgic. It gets me every time, It’s that time of year after all. From one incarcerated outcast to another…

 

 

 

Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find

Rob a Dub-Dub

If you’re a regular reader of this parish, chances are you’ll own some music that features the basslines of Robbie Shakespeare. The bass players’ bass player, he died in Florida yesterday aged 68 following kidney complications. A pioneer of reggae and its many and varied offshoots, his basslines are as iconic as the genre itself; booming and thudding but always playing a tune within the tune.

Such is the fluid and ambivalent nature of the haphazard approach to such essential things as credit and copyright in those early, formative years of reggae, many of the recordings that Shakespeare played on remain uncredited. He’s there on Bob Marley‘s breakthrough Catch A Fire album, an honorary Wailer filling the spaces between the offbeat in Concrete Jungle, his melodic solidness providing the four stringed groove courtesy of his McCartney-inspired Hofner bass.

He’s there on Gregory IsaacsCool Ruler album, providing a steady rhythmic counterpart to Issacs’ sweet-toned lovers rock and uplifting spirituals, the noodling, head nodding, dread-shaking yin to Isaacs’ yang.

He’s there too (credited this time) on Peter Tosh‘s self-explanatory Legalise It album, a lamppost-sized spliff wedged between his teeth, his ganja-fuelled basslines meandering wide and expansive, slo-mo and steady. I’m listening to it now as I write this and his playing, in all its room shakin’, filling-loosenin’, flare-flappin’ majesty is really brilliant.

On many of the albums that will remain his legacy, he was joined by drummer Sly Dunbar, with whom he formed a formidable partnership that did as much for a fertile, ever changing but always grooveable scene as Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards did with Chic. Just as Nile and Bernard crossed over into unexpected territories with Madonna, Bowie and co, so too did Sly and Robbie. Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and even Serge Gainsbourg sought solace in their rocksteady riddims. Go and listen to Dylan’s Jokerman to hear the results of what happens when ascerbic folk and loose and spacey reggae collide.

Grace JonesPrivate Life

Some of Shakespeare’s (and Dunbar’s) greatest work remains the stuff he/they did with with Grace Jones. Marrying reggae and funk basslines to new wave guitars and synths, Grace’s band created ambient, atmospheric and always revealing music, incredibly unique and stylish y’know…just like the singer who had hired them.

You’ll be well aware of the big ones – Slave To The Rhythm, Private Life, Pull Up To The Bumper, their electro-fried version of Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing, etc etc, but it’s their little-heard take on Joy Division’s She’s Lost Control that pulls me in every time.

Grace JonesShe’s Lost Control

It’s, well, kinda boing-y, isn’t it?! A rubber band bassline, augmented by bicycle cranks, a trampolining wonky background noise and the guitar scrapin’, chain rattlin’ ghost of a horrified Ian Curtis, it’s spectacular (even if the 12″ version above goes on maybe a wee bit too much). It’s all in the production – rich and deep enough to make the heart vibrate, light and airy enough to tingle the senses. It’s cavernous and widescreen and just about as long and interesting as the career itself that Joy Division carved out. It is, you’ll notice, the bassline that carries it, played effortlessly by Robbie Shakespeare, the true root at the base/bass of roots reggae.