There was a film shown on BBC4 recently, a restored print of Aretha Franklin‘s astonishing take-me-to-church Amazing Grace concert. Filmed over two nights at the start of 1972 in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, it captures Aretha at the absolute peak of her spiritual powers.
The accompanying album would go on to be her best-selling album ever but on film it’s even better. Originally intended to be packaged as a double bill alongside Super Fly, new technology (and the death of Aretha – she was against its release) has enabled the film to be dusted down from the archives and completed in all its intended glory. I was lost, but now I’m found, as the song goes. A-men to that.
In this little church, Rev James Cleveland leads the worshippers through condemnation and contemplation, the good book instructing all in attendance with its life lessons masked in metaphor and moral. Dressed head to toe in their Sunday finery, the audience whoop it up, amen-ing and thank the Lord-ing with increasing fervour. By the time the Gospel according to St Aretha is in full swing, the tiny room is a hootin’ and a hollerin’ free-for-all.
The cameramen can be seen in nearly every shot. Respectful of both location and occasion, they squat in the aisles, hide behind the choir, hunker down in the front row. There are numerous unflattering shots of Aretha angled from below – you know those double-chin selfies you take because you can’t actually take a selfie? Those. Miles of electrical cable wind their way around the feet of everyone in attendance. It all adds to the sense of you, the audience, being in the eye of the holy storm.
At one point, one of the guerilla cameramen swings his handheld across the front row and picks out a giddy Mick Jagger, all tousled, shoulder length hair and pout, eyes closed and lost in the heavy holy vibes. You can almost reach into your TV screen and hold it, it’s that powerful.
Aretha Franklin – How I Got Over
Ghosting in on a rolling piano riff that over-keen Name That Tune contestants might name incorrectly in 5 as Otis Redding’s Hard To Handle, How I Got Over runs the whole gamut of ‘Retha’s religious celebration. Electric organ and finger poppin’ Fender bass bring the immediate groove, dragging an excitable drummer and a smokin’ hot gospel choir along for the ride.
You know that way that the human voice, like a finely tuned racing car engine has to warm up a wee bit before it can go full pelt? Well, How I Got Over comes mid-set, so Aretha is well warmed up by this point. She starts up here…and ends waaaay up here. It’s an extraordinary vocal, sweat-soaked, calling and responding to the heavenly choir who sashay their way from start to finish in a riot of spontaneous handclaps and octave-climbing hysterics behind her.
Aretha goes all-out freeform, fucking with the unspoken rules of how secular songs should be sung. This isn’t the stuffy mid 70s Scottish church of my Boys’ Brigade past, with a meagre crowd of withering simperers mouthing the words over a creaky dust-blown and cobwebbed organ, this is mid 70s California; black, soulful and uproarious, all-out communion with a crack rhythm section flung in for good measure.
Aretha is on fire, ripping it up the way she’s done already on Rock Steady and Respect and all those Atlantic Soul benchmarks of perfection that have gone before. Live, in the house of God, she’s turned up another notch – from ten to eleven (to heaven?) – a full force gale, gritty and dirty one moment, feminine and sweet the next. Heck, if it wasn’t for the words she was belting out with wholy holy abandon, you might forget you’re actually listening to a gospel record at all.
Amazing Grace is more a truly great Aretha live album – songs of found love and acceptance rather than lost love and rejection – than the religious curio you might be forgiven for thinking it is.
It’s church music, Jim, but not as we know it. Seek it out.
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 Smiths – This 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 Smiths – This 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 Smiths – This 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 Smiths – This 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.
The neighbours to my kitchen side have been slowly building an extension for the past couple of months. The battering and hammering and shouting and swearing usually begins at eight in the morning and lasts until mid afternoon, earlier if there’s rain or other such setbacks. “Did you just drill through that fuckin’ thing?!?” I heard accusingly one day as I hung the washing out. There was a muttered, muffled reply followed by a “You fuckin’ idiot!” and a good two or three days of silence and inactivity. I don’t know quite know where the drill was bound for, but it seems the boy did indeed drill through the fuckin’ thing.
Back on track, the racket continues. Amongst the blaring Commercial FM – adverts every five minutes punctuated by out of tune builders singing to Ed Sheeran – my garden has been filled with the sound of summer – brain crushing nail guns, all compressed air and heart-stopping rat-a-tats, bandsaws that grind their hellish grind right to the very back of your fillings, unidentifiable dull thuds – perhaps the boy receiving his punishment for the misplaced drilling, and an ever-permanent coating of red brick dust that blows only in our direction the minute a brick requires cutting. It’s quite the sound and sight.
A day or two ago it was building to a perfect, swirling crescendo, bandsaw and bawling builders and the bang bang bang of the nail gun all trying to outdo one another. A hellish cacophony of noise. And it hit me – I’ve heard this before. That jarring, pummelling racket, disconcerting and never-ending, uneasy listening that the ears have trouble adjusting to…..it’s My Bloody Valentine! Specifically You Made Me Realise. Ha! You made me realise indeed.
My Bloody Valentine – You Made Me Realise
MBV’s gig in the Barrowlands (1992?) is the reason I suffer tinnitus. It’s whining away in the background right now, a permanent reminder of why you should consider ear defenders if you’re a regular gig goer. They’re just not very cool though, eh? Midway through You Made Me Realise, after the machine-gunning snares and off-kilter harmonies and the lurching open-tuned riff, right when the bass and guitars and drums lock into that chuga chuga swirling groove, Kevin Shields stomped on the pedal marked ‘Aural Sickness‘, hid himself behind his lank fringe and for a good while, maybe 6 or 7 full minutes, let rip an ear-splitting shriek of howling white noise, band and bass and drums and everything playing as one.
Like a Panzer attack, it reverberated from the front of the stage, crept over the tops of heads and into the lugs and set up camp, pulsing and refracting and phasing and flanging until the sub frequencies began playing tricks. My eyes hurt! People actually left and I was at most 15 seconds away from throwing up when Shields peeked out from behind the fringe and nodded the others back into more tuneful action. Close call. I know lots of folk love this sort of thing, but man! It was just too loud.
There’s a good article currently doing the rounds where The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli talks about his favourite music. You can hear his Sopranos’ character voice – Chris-tuh-fuh – leaping off the page as you read about his love of Chuck Berry and the New York Dolls and doo-wop. A great article, he talks about other bands and artists that you might not expect him to like…including, quite unbelievably, My Bloody Valentine.
Imperioli mentions leaving a Dinosaur Jr gig early, the support act MBV having drained him of all emotion ahead of the headliners. Drained of emotion maybe, or just feeling plain sick. I wonder if he suffers from tinnitus too?
* for the record, I love My Bloody Valentine, especially You Made Me Realise.
Notwithstanding a title that could easily apply to the mess the UK government is currently making of things, Life During Wartime is the greatest-ever Talking Heads track, and here’s why.
Their first two albums – ‘77‘ and ‘More Songs About Buildings And Food‘, good as they are, were mere amuse-bouches for what would follow. On those albums, Talking Heads developed an out of step sound far removed from the shouty three chord ramalama of the bands of the day. They flirted with wired, claustrophobic paranoia, the vocals delivered with one-eye-over-the-shoulder nervous energy, the music transmitted via guitar strings as tight and tense as a head-to-head on Hart To Hart. Hints of the funk bubbled underneath, suppressed perhaps, or maybe subdued due to a lack of confidence. By 1979’s Fear Of Music though – that’s three albums in three years, Radiohead! – they’d hit their stride.
Fear Of Music was a conscious decision by the band to make an album that ran deeper than the standard two or three singles plus filler model that was prevalent at the time. With an eye for Duchamp and an ear for disco, they set up in a New York loft, transmitted their sonic ideas via extra-long cables out of the windows and into a mobile studio parked outside, and went about creating a record that was equal parts cerebral and celebratory.
With Eno again at the controls and a supporting cast including The Slits’ Ari Up and some wild guitar Frippery from the former King Crimson soundscaper, the band stretched out to great effect. Polyrhythmic African beats and twin chattering desert guitars carry I Zimbra to the fringes marked ‘far out’. Police sirens, scratchy no-wave guitars and body-popping bass propel Cities to great, new uncharted territories. The breathy relief of ‘Air’, all bing-bonging keys and guitar riffs and tones that surely made the young Johnny Marr reach for his six string and crib some notes is as wired and weirdly funky as Funkadelic, and deliberately so, you’d have to think.
It’s the penultimate track on side 1 that hits the sweet spot between art and dance. Just two chords from beginning to end (Am and E, should you fancy riffing along with it) Life During Wartime begins on a funky gutteral groove, a combination of on-the-one grinding guitar, bass, keys and drums. No countdown, just Bam! and we’re into it. It’s magic.
Talking Heads – Life During Wartime
There’s hardly time for the band to develop the theme before Byrne announces himself on vocals. His flaky, jittery performance is less singing, more acting, the way Christopher Walken, say, might deliver the plot-defining lines of a particularly tense thriller, Mad Max as scripted by Stephen King.
Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons, Packed up and ready to go
Heard of some grave sites, out by the highway, A place where nobody knows
The sound of gunfire, off in the distance, I’m getting used to it now
Lived in a brownstone, lived in a ghetto, I’ve lived all over this town
This ain’t no party! This ain’t no disco! This ain’t no fooling around! No time for dancing, or lovey dovey, I ain’t got time for that now!
Talking Heads – Life During Wartime (alternative version)
The alternate version that was considered then rejected for the album is worth hearing too. There’s more emphasis on the guitar, with little staccato morsecode signals that are quickly drowned out by a freeform, freeflowing freakout that may well be the work of Fripp himself. Whoever is playing it is certainly going hell for leather with a guitar line that wouldn’t be out of place on Bowie’s Lodger album or Eno’s Here Come The Warm Jets, even if the player does run out of steam roughly three quarters of the way through the track. As interesting as it is, the released version remains definitive; urgent, insistent, incessant and never anything less than vital when it comes on.
While Byrne’s lyrics suggest an uneasy tension, part Baader-Meinhof reportage and part first-hand experience of NYC’s Alphabet City, the band compenasate with the groove. The subject matter might be uncomfortable, they say, but you’ll feel better after shuffling that skinny white boy ass of yours across whichever sticky dancefloor is nearest. It ain’t the Mudd Club or CBGB’s, it’s not even the Attic anymore, but as far as advice goes, it sure works.
Talking Heads – Life During Wartime (live Central Park, NYC 1980)
In the live setting, the track morphed even further into the funk. You’ll find it of course, in perhaps definitive form, on the ubiquitous and well-played Stop Making Sense, but it also appears (as above) on the second record of the double The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, arguably a more accurate representation of the band at two points in time.
On the second record, the extended ten-piece version of Talking Heads, including soul singers and multiple multi-instrumentalists and living and breathing actual funk merchants in the shape of Bernie Worrell delivered a sped-up version of Life During Wartime that positively grooves with a cross-pollination of punk’s edge and funk’s sheen. No concept, no arty angle, just a band playing their stuff on stage. Close your eyes though and you can see those ten musicians moving as one to the infectious stew they themselves are cooking up. It is a party, and it is a disco. They’re definitely not fooling around though.
I always thought he looked like he was about to topple over, the mid 60s Bob Dylan. With the stripy pipe cleaner-thin spindles he called legs carrying the weight of that fantastic dark blue suede military jacket, the Ray-Bans stuck high up that hooked nose and the wildly exploding crow’s nest ‘fro, not to mention the ideas constantly forming and reforming in that speed-addled super-brain of his, it’s amazing that the top-heavy troubadour never once fell flat on his face. On the contrary, mid 60s Bob was The Man, one step ahead of his manager and his band and his audience, barely giving consideration to anyone willing and able to catch up with him.
Dylan et al (DA Pennebaker in the top hat) at London Airport, May 6th 1966
By the time he’d hopped over from Dublin in May 1966 to commence his tour of the UK, Dylan was 4 drummers in with the previous three, including Band legend Levon Helm, jumping the good ship Bob in favour of a quieter life. Incessant nightly booing, it seemed, wasn’t what any of them had signed up for. Dylan arrived here a bona fide superstar, the voice of a new socially-conscious generation, every show sold out in advance. Aloof, arrogant and quotable in abundance, The Zim riled the stuffy British press. He didn’t play their expected game. His one press conference, at London’s Mayfair Hotel, was a testy affair. Music journalists were sat side by side with the more straight-laced journalists from London’s press establishment and so questions came from a bristling mix of the informed and the ignorant; What d’you like? What d’you loathe? There seems to be an electric element creeping into your sound…. What d’you think of England? Are you married? (Answer: I’d be a liar if I answered that, and I don’t lie.)
When the Melody Maker’s Max Jones suggested that he didn’t hear protest songs any longer, a weary Dylan shot back.
“All my songs are protest songs! You name something, I’ll protest about it! All I do is protest!”
Even Keith Altham, the most cutting-edge, most well-respected music writer of his time and the golden boy at the NME to boot, found himself on the wrong end of Dylan’s surreal wit. “Why is it,” he asked, “that the titles of your recent singles, like ‘Positively 4th Street’ and ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’ bear no apparent connections with the lyrics?”
‘It has every significance,’ returned Dylan. ‘Have you ever been down in North Mexico?’
Dylan batted everything off with an abstract absurdness that came easy to him. He treated the journalists like morons, prompting one to complain that “Cliff Richard was never like this,” firing back the funniest, most-perfect answers you might ever read.
Q: What do you own?
A: Oh, thirty Cadillacs, three yachts, an airport at San Diego, a railroad station in Miami. I was planning to bus all the Mormons.
Q: What are your medical problems?
A: Well, there’s glass in the back of my head. I’m a very sick person. I can’t see too well on Tuesdays. These dark glasses are prescribed. I’m not trying to be a beatnik. I have very mercury-esque eyes. And another thing—my toenails don’t fit.
With everything being captured for posterity by DA Pennebaker’s shoulder camera, Dylan and an unwitting press played their part well. It’s all there in the wired, messy travelogue Eat The Document if you didn’t know already. If only for the brief clip of Dylan and his band standing at the corner of George Square in Glasgow, tapping their toes to a passing pipe band right outside where the Counting House pub stands these days, seek it out.
It was this backdrop that informed the charged nature of the shows. Playing the same two sets each night, Dylan opened with a set of acoustic songs, just him, his guitar and a selection of harmonicas. They were generally very well-received, as rightly they should’ve been. Dylan was on top form, rolling out fantastic versions of some of his best-loved recent songs; She Belongs To Me with its slightly altered lyric, the eee-long-gat-ed phrasing in It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, the lean, mean and near 12 minute Desolation Row, the definitive Mr Tambourine Man, its clearly enunciated words and perfect clarity sticking two fingers up the naysayers who’d sneer that Dylan couldn’t sing. It was the perfect set that would prove to be Dylan’s concession to the accepted notion of folk for the night.
After a short break he’d return, leading his band, a clobbering riot of Cuban heels and mohair suits and unkempt hair and electric guitars who’d plug in and play loud. Dylan too strapped on an electric, a Telecaster, wearing it over the shoulder the way a huntsman might take his gun out to shoot deer, a suitable metaphor given what would unfold. The second set always started with Tell Me, Momma, a gutterpunk garage band blooze that was the unholy sound of Pete Seeger and his axe and his high and mighty ways about folk music au-then-ti-ci-tee being blasted far and high over the Grand Coulee Dam. Never released as a studio version, the only official release comes via the Albert Hall 66 Official Bootleg – which was actually recorded in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester a week or so beforehand. But you knew that already.
Bob Dylan – Tell Me, Momma (Manchester, May 17th 1966)
The start of this recording, with the band clattering across the wooden stage to take position, the muffled and hushed, expectant audience, Dylan’s off-mike harmonica trills and the boot stomp count in that leads to the slap-in-the-face pistol crack snare never, ever fails to excite.
And then, when the band comes in…oh aye! They cook up a terrific howling storm; loud, raucous and in your face. Dylan looks his audience straight in the eye, takes aim and fires.
“But I know that you know that I know that you show, something’s tearing…up…your…mi-ii-ii-ind.”
If this fails to thrill you, if this fails to make you jump up and punch the air and shout, “Go Bob!” as loud as you can, then I can’t help you. No-one can. It’s his voice. He’s stoned or speeding or upping or downing or something, but Bob’s vocal is just great. Slurred yet enunciated, sloppy yet eager, he has you right there and then. Around him, out-with the eye of the storm, merry chaos ensues. A beat group?! At a folk concert?! With keyboards and electric bass and drums and everything?! Robbie Robertson, Dylan’s cooler than ice foil on the left fires of wildly sparking, cheesewire-thin electric riffs on his own arctic white Tele, played high up in the mix so as to cut through the chaotic racket. It’s incessant 12 bar blues played with fuck you punk spirit, the greatest sound around. And, at the end, applause. Real clapping and stuff. It wouldn’t last though. In Manchester, once the audience realises this set ain’t gonna be like the last one, the applause gives way to a slow handclap after only the second number, I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met).
Bob Dylan – I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) (Manchester, May 17 1966)
Previously cast as an acoustic blues on his Another Side Of… album, it’s reborn in ’66 as another beat-driven garage band rocker, heavy on the Hammond, always returning to its signature amped-up guitar riff. By the second song in, half his audience have chucked him for good. Those that stayed with him though had electric ideas of their own. Listen carefully to I Don’t Believe You and you’ll hear the genesis of The Faces’ Cindy Incidentally, a story for another time.
If this is your kinda thing, hunt out Jewels & Binoculars, a 26 CD bootleg of every parp ‘n fart from Bob’s harmonicas in 1966. It’s the gemme, as they say round these parts. Until then, here’s Bob and his band entertaining a confused Dublin audience. Wonderful stuff.
Not for the first time, I spent a wee bit of time over the weekend with Romeo Stodart, the gentle and quietly-spoken lead vocalist with the Magic Numbers. He was over in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute to headline the first night of Butesong, a boutique singer/songwriter festival held in a grand old Victorian hotel which I was involved in promoting. After a set of solo and Magic Numbers’ material, where he discussed the genesis of each song played, encouraged the audience to fill in the missing harmonies normally provided by the other Magic Numbers and told amusing tales of life in one of our most consistently great bands, Romeo joined the audience in the bar where, by 3 in the morning, he’d whipped out his guitar and was taking requests for songs from the stragglers still determined to avoid bed for the night. The back catalogues of Neil Young, The Smiths and The Beatles, amongst others, got a good going over, much to the delight of those there. At one point he handed me his guitar – a beautiful old Martin acoustic that played like a dream – and, 5 sheets to the wind with a good 10 hours worth of gin in me, I regaled the stragglers with my greatest hit, A Wee Roll ‘n Slice (you should hear it – it’s a belter!) a bum note-filled bashing of McCartney’s Junk and sausage-fingered kickings of Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me and This Charming Man. “Great Johnny Marr riffing!” our new best pal lied kindly. “Play us another.” There was still time for a spirited go at the Trashcan Sinatras’ Hayfever – “I love those major 7ths, man!” before the relieved guitar was put back into its case. Not yer average Friday night then, and one to remember.
The event had me scurrying back to my Magic Numbers albums last night and as I sat to write the review of the weekend for the local paper, I fell back in love with songs that are as melodic as Teenage Fanclub’s, as harmonious as the Lovin Spoonful’s and as warm as The Mamas and Papas’ finest moments. I say ‘fell back in love with’ as I can’t remember the last time I properly sat and listened to the band. More fool me. Those songs have really stood the test of time. The debut album is suddenly 15 years old this year but the songs sound as fresh as they did on first listen. Many of them were played in Rothesay, occasionally more introspectively, now and again with more meander, sometimes with a little spoken interlude. “And this is the part,” laughed Romeo midway through a room-rousing Mornings Eleven, “when we’d really piss off the headline act who had expected us to finish our set by now.” Bah-bah-bah-bah-bah bah baaaah-ah goes the half-paced, mile-long outro, all false endings, a cake well (but not over) iced and we all sang along.
The Magic Numbers – Mornings Eleven
Magic Numbers’ albums all carry that great mix of melody, harmony and musicianship that sees them consistently put out terrific wee albums. Never quite flavour of the month, never anybody’s second-favourite group (the nation’s answer to that particular poser will always be Supergrass) they nonetheless have continued to plough a deeply rich furrow of well-crafted, expertly produced music.
2010’s The Runaway introduced anyone who was still listening to the womb-like Hurt So Good, a keening ambient swirl, the imagined results of Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross as produced by Phil Spector.
The Magic Numbers – Hurt So Good
It’s great, isn’t it? It’s the sound of heartbreak on wax, a heady flotation tank of syrupy-thick harmonies and Carole Kaye bassisms, out-there slide guitars, waterfalling riffs and that fantastic oh-oh-oh backing vocal. As far as melancholic music goes, this is up there with the best of it.
Likewise, 2014’s Alias includes the swooning Spector pop of Roy Orbison, a song written by Romeo that tells of getting through tough times by listening to the titular Big O. With softly beating Be My Baby drums, a cacophony of sweeping, weeping strings and a heart-breaking breakdown in the middle, it’s just about as perfect as you could wish for.
The Magic Numbers – Roy Orbison
Romeo is due to head out on a solo tour in the coming months. Your social media platform of choice will have all the info you require on that front. If he’s half as engaging, funny and groovy as he was on Bute at the weekend, you’d be a fool to miss him if he’s anywhere nearby. Parent band The Magic Numbers will head out later in the year in support of that 15 year anniversary. If only to catch the impressive sight of Romeo’s sister Michelle taming her wild Fender bass into submission, you should probably look out for them playing near you too. Perhaps, with renewed focus on and reappraisal of what are undeniably great songs, they’ll have replaced the ‘Grass as everybody’s second-favourite band.
Codex by Radiohead is, to these ears, the greatest track the band recorded in the decade just gone. A bold claim given the kite mark of quality assurance that comes with each Radiohead release, but given the briefness and brevity of the Radiohead back catalogue in the tenties I’m struggling to name another track from the two records and small handful of one-off releases in that period that still sounds as fresh and timeless and, well, just plain classic with each listen – and I’ve listened to it, them, a lot over the years.
Radiohead – Codex
Codex is suspended, slo-mo, flotation tank music, a song about being immersed in water that sounds exactly like its subject matter. Starting off on a wonkily-edited snippet of vocal, it ambles in on a repetitive three chord piano motif (C-Bb-Dm, if y’were wondering) before a flugel horn? A trumpet? makes itself known, the distant cousin of Johnny Marr’s eerie slide part on How Soon Is Now?, elongated and understated, the perfect precursor to one of Thom Yorke’s greatest vocals. Bathed in pathos and regret, it’s just so spot on and faultless. Those finger pointers who stab accusingly towards ol’ wonky eye and claim he can’t sing would be stopped dead in their tracks if they’d made it this far into the Radiohead ouvre.
What Yorke’s actually singing about is open to interpretation. You don’t have to look too far into the internet’s abyss to find thousands of theories regarding the lyrics, where references abound to spirituality and soul cleansing and suicide.
Sleight of hand Jump off the end Into a clear lake No one around Just dragonflies Fantasise No one gets hurt
You’ve done nothing wrong Slide your hand Jump off the end The water’s clear And innocent The water’s clear And innocent
A quietly heart-beating drum thumps its muffled way throughout the track as the horns build and the piano is soaked in an ambience last heard on Eno’s Music For Films album. Gentle strings emerge from the fog, the heartbeat louder by now and then, suddenly….it’s over. Did he jump? Did he turn around? Quietly chirping birds bring the track to a close and you’re left to make up your own mind. It’s an incredibly sad track, as filmic as Fellini and just as beautiful and timeless.
Here’s the version Radiohead did when they played the entirety of King Of Limbs on Nigel Godrich’s From The Basement show.
Radiohead – Codex (TKOL From The Basement)
The King Of Limbs was something of a slow burner of a record to begin with; self-indulgent, insular, moody…. but like all the best albums by all the best artists, you benefit through continual listening and reappraisal. Perseverance even. Codex pops up between the glitchy, jerky dubstep of the superb Lotus Flower and the pastoral, acoustic Give Up The Ghost – a potted distillation of everything that’s great about Radiohead in three successive tracks, a triumvirate on an album that’s without a doubt a top 3 Radiohead record.
Dubiety surrounds the release of Big Star‘s third album, ‘Third’. Was it a true Big Star album in the way #1 Record and Radio City were? Given that the recordings were enhanced by an ever-revolving rotation of session musicians who’d play around the axis of Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens – Steve Cropper on the version of the VU’s Femme Fatale, for example, and given that Chilton wrote the lion’s share of the original music, it’s oft been considered the first real Chilton solo album. Studio tracking sheets from the time show references to Sister Lovers (Chilton and Stephens were in relationships with a pair of sisters at the time) which may or may not have been the intended name for the new record, or indeed, a new name for a band far-removed from its original identity. Despite the poor sales of the first two albums though, Ardent were dead keen to market it as a Big Star release and so, with little fuss or fanfare, Third was sent out into the world, Big Star’s ‘difficult’ third album with unfinished songs and little of the sparkling power-pop jangle that dusted the first two.
Big Star – Jesus Christ
Towards the end of side 2 you’ll find Jesus Christ, a mid-paced, straightforward celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus. On top of the occasional Spectorish tumbling toms and a honeyed Stax sax break that gives birth to Clarence Clemons and the E Street Band, you’ll spot references to angels and stars and Royal David’s City. The song is carried by Chilton’s instantly recognisable guitar style and sound, a welcome relief following the bleak and self explanatory Holocaust that precedes it on the record.
It’s a properly great Christmas tune, uplifting and joyful, yet as far-removed from the normal records that get played ad infinitum in shops, cafes, taxis, bars, wherever at this time of year. Indeed, the only time you’re liable to hear Jesus Christ in the changing rooms at TK Maxx will be from my mouth as I recoil in horror at the ill-fitting shirt from last season’s Katharine Hamnett collection that I struggled to get on and struggled to get off again. Jesus Christ, it was tight. Forgive me father etc etc…
Big Star – Jesus Christ (demo)
Chilton’s demo of Jesus Christ is great. Just Alex and a finely strummed acoustic 12 string, it has all the hallmarks of high watermark Big Star; Chilton’s ad libbed ooh-oohs, cracked, at the end of his range vocals on the high notes and the requisite sparkling jangle. What a great canvas for the other musicians to paint on.
Teenage Fanclub (of course) do a terrific version of Jesus Christ. Released on one of the two CD singles to promote Ain’t That Enough, the lead single from the gold standard Songs From Northern Britain album, TFC were in a rich vein of writing form at the time, firing out guitar-fuelled and harmony-filled songs with ridiculous ease. That Ain’t That Enough was released in June with a cover of an obscure Christmas song as an extra track (the other was a nod and a wink cover of the VU’s Femme Fatale, funnily enough) mattered not a jot. Recorded at perfect head-nodding pace and employing the twin vocals of Norman and Gerry, it’s proper, vintage Fanclub. A heady sheen of fuzzed-at-the-edge electric guitar, a tastefully twangin’ Raymond solo and a heartfelt, sympathetic take on the original make this one of TFC’s best covers.
Teenage Fanclub – Jesus Christ
My job in education has changed in recent years, meaning that nowadays I don’t get to drag my class up to sing a Christmas song in the church. I always liked the challenge of this. It was the one time of year I could put my guitar skills to proper use and I was always on the lookout for a left-of-centre song to tackle. Jesus Christ was one I often considered, but it was forever overlooked in favour of something else.
The arrangement was going to be a full-on Phil Spector epic too; some tinkling pitched percussion at the start, eking out the melody against my plaintive strums, a single voice – probably the quietest girl in the class – singing the opening lines, the whole class coming in on the ‘Jesus Christ was born today! Jesus Christ was born!‘ Then there’s my bit – “MY BIT, BOYS ‘N GIRLS!” – where I do my Alex/Norman run up and down the frets before the second solo voice – this time a boy – “And o! They did rejoice!” brings us back to the whole point of the song.
By the second chorus, the entire group is swaying side to side in time to the guitar’s rhythm. By the third, they’ve added handclaps, like a peely wally west of Scotland gospel choir. They’ve lost most of their self-consciousness by this point too. Jack at the back is still fidgeting with the zip on his school trousers and Chloe, front row and centre, has still to lift her eyes from the rich red carpet in the vestry, but look! One or two of them are even smiling. And I’m in my element, pushing it towards the end.
The chorus is repeated a couple more times before we finish in a blaze of frantically scrubbed acoustics, clashing glockenspiel and rapturous applause from the assembled parents in the pews upstairs. The head teacher, as usual, fails to acknowledge both the effort and the spectacle and we move swiftly on to the next class who shamble their awkward way through Santa Baby to the embarrassment of all in attendance. I miss these times most of all.
Here’s Alex Chilton’s fantastically louche take on TFC’s Alcoholiday. Teenage Fanclub have never hidden their love for all things Chilton-related, but on this tune the gamekeeper turns poacher. He just about steals the show too.
Much as my alternate weekends are never far from Rugby Park, so too at Plain Or Pan are you never far from a few words on the Trashcan Sinatras. Their rusty yet trusty engine cranked back to life at the end of last week, not only in preparation for a 30 date acoustic tour of the States that, as you read, is a couple of shows to the good, but also with the welcome announcement that a mere 16 years after first releasing it, they’d finally be releasing Weightlifting on vinyl.
Oft-considered the jewel in a particularly sparkly crown, the news of the band’s 4th album’s arrival on the format it truly deserves has Trashcans fans all in a lather. In typically awkward Trashcans’ style, it’s only available at the US gigs or via the band themselves, where postage from America to Scotland will cost almost as much as the record itself and might take as long as November until it lands at your door. Quite which November it can be expected wasn’t specified by the band, but, y’know, very good things come to those who wait. It’s been ordered, of course…
Another surprising announcement was the news that a new rarities and outtakes compilation was available. A companion to the long-released (2003) and out of print Zebra Of the Family collection, this new 2nd volume gathers demos and sketches from the Weightlifting and In The Music eras. Generally, a time of chaos and uncertainty in the band’s history, the demos nonetheless reveal the Trashcans’ ability to write majestically in the face of disaster.
The Weightlifting material in particular reveals a band demoing songs that are fully formed and requiring little in the way of tinkering and tweaking come the time to record them properly. Are they superior to the released Weightlifting versions? Of course not, but there’s a raggedy-arsed beauty to tracks viewed in the half light of completeness.
There are a couple of goes at Leave Me Alone, the first featuring slightly altered lyrics and titled, tellingly, Leave Us Alone. Recorded in the middle of bankruptcy claims and enforced studio sales, it’s a well-named, world-weary tune that sighs the collective sighs of a band on the very edge of disintegration.
Yet, somehow, as they always do, the Trashcans pulled through. Finding themselves in Hartford, Massachusetts, they set about writing the bulk of the Weightlifting material. There’s a terrific version of What Women Do To Men, all delicate keyboard stabs and atmospheric up-the-frets bass, where the released version’s slide-into-the-stratosphere six-string trickery is replaced by feral distorted guitar and a bucketful of reverb, the pathos of the lyrics matched by the howling intensity of the band cutting loose behind. God knows exactly what those women did to these men, but it’s a cracker. Magic, even.
Trashcan Sinatras – What Women Do To Men (Hartford sessions)
Elsewhere, there are spy through the keyhole takes on the wonderfully lush Usually, a track that’ll forever be in most Trashcans fans’ top 5, the plaintive and perfect Country Air and Astronomy, a rarity previously available only as an extra track on the Japanese release of In The Music. A welcome addition, it may well be the first time some long-time fans have heard a studio version of a track that was something of a live favourite back in the day. Sadly, frustratingly, the band has missed a trick here. I’m sure I have on tape a version of the track from many moons ago that featured Frank and not John on vocals. Maybe I’m wrong though. Or, maybe, in typical Trashcans’ fashion, it’s just lost to the ether. A minor quibble, and one that’s instantly forgiven when you hear what’s just around the corner…
Best of all is new track The Dirge.
Normally, you might approach a song with such a title with mild trepidation, expecting funereal, mournful music, a wade through sonic treacle wearing iron boots. This Dirge is anything but.
Trashcan Sinatras – The Dirge (Hartford sessions)
Long, slow and elegant, it creeps up on you with guitarist Paul Livingston’s low key, low register vocals before unravelling into the kind of track you’ve come to expect of Super Furry Animals at their most melodious and Wilson-worshipping best.
There’s chiming electric guitars, tinkling percussion, unexpected chord changes and textures. Wah wahs waft around the chorus while melodies and counter melodies weave their magic. It lifts, it drops, it soars. Is that a brass part playing low in the mix midway through? And a female vocal? It might be. It should be. Normally when bands throw the kitchen sink at songs, the results are a cluttered and unpalatable dog’s dinner. But this? This is stoned immaculate.
From first listen to current, I’ve heard it in my head sung only by Gruff Rhys. Nowt wrong with that of course. If you’re going to write slow burning songs of beauty, who better to channel whilst in the middle of the creative process? Quite how The Dirge never made it out of the studio is beyond me. Weightlifting is a perfect album, but it wouldn’t have been out of place on it in the slightest. It pays to stick with the Trashcans if they’re going to throw out wee gems like this once in a while.
Catch the Trashcans on tour right now. And head over to the shop at trashcansinatras.com to order your copies of Weightlifting and Zebra Of The Family 2.
It’s common consensus that R.E.M. post Bill Berry were poor, three quarters of the important band they had once been but far less than the sum of those parts on record. After his on-stage collapse from a brain aneurysm, you can’t blame the drummer for wanting to slow things down and call it quits (he’s now a hay farmer in Athens, Georgia), and nor can you blame the other 3 for deciding to continue.
Left-field enough to maintain credibility yet popular enough to sell out stadiums the world over, it would have taken a brave Buck (or Mills or Stipe) to suggest winding things up, but their recorded output from albums 11-15 demonstrates a band limping along like a dog on three legs, one of them cocked and ready to piss their entire legacy up the wall. If you’ve the time and inclination, you could definitely put together a decent compilation of hidden gems from a run of albums that have garnered less plays collectively in this house than Maxinquaye (has anyone listened to Tricky since 1995?) Airport Man from Up, for example, would feature. As would Daysleeper from the same album and perhaps (off the top of my head) Imitation Of Life, Leaving New York, The Lifting, The Great Beyond, Summer Turns To High,Suspicion…. There’s been a few then, but none of those tracks, none of them, would’ve made the cut for 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi, the final R.E.M. album featuring Bill Berry’s essential contributions, the album that has quietly wormed its way into the Top 3 of the band’s back catalogue.
Yer man in the street may well point to the twin globe-straddlers Out Of Time and Automatic For the People, but the more switched on have other ideas. In a three-way tie with Murmur and Life’s Rich Pageant, New Adventures In Hi-Fi jostles with these ears for pole position. Michael “It’s R.E.M. at its peak” Stipe and Mike Mills are of a similar opinion.
“It usually takes a good few years for me to decide where an album stands in the pantheon of recorded work we’ve done. This one may be third behind Murmur and Automatic for the People,” said Mills to Mojo at the time of release. He knew. As Oasis et al went about their boorish business of climbing up the charts and dumbing down the nation, R.E.M. were quietly writing and recording the best album of the era, on the hoof and totally as they went.
Wrapped in a fold-out sleeve that features blurry, arty black and white shots of landscapes, lakes and long-lost diners taken by Stipe from the tour bus as they whizz past on the way to the next show on the Monster tour, it’s a terrific collection, a proper ‘road’ album.
Continuing a theme started by previous support act Radiohead, who recorded many of the backing tracks for The Bends in soundchecks and downtime, R.E.M. set about recording everything as they toured. It was a pre-determined move, the band keen to capture spontaneity with the thrill of capturing a one-take beauty fuelling their focus. From dressing room writing sessions in Philly to soundcheck workouts in Phoenix, the whole lot was committed to tape and analysed while the band’s tour bus zig-zagged its way across America. A lot of the lyrics and a few of the song titles – Departure, Leave, Low Desert – reflect the notion of travel and the end result was the longest-running R.E.M. album to date, a road-worn pick ‘n’ mix of Monster-era rock, pastoral pop and cameos from Patti Smith.
The understated opener, the slowly creeping and crawling How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us is a cracker and unlike anything the band had released to date. The 5 note piano refrain and the spy theme guitars carry it, but peer underneath and you’ll spot the shoots of electronica that came into full bloom on the next album, Up.
R.E.M. – How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us
Departure carries on spectacularly where Monster left off, grooving on a turned-up-to-11 Les Paul riff reminiscent of Green‘s Pop Song ’89. Mike Mills’ harmonies soar like they haven’t since Out Of Time‘s Belong while Stipe fires off a rapid, alliterative opening line about just arriving in Singapore, San Sebastian, Spain and Salt Lake City’s salt flats after a 26-hour trip. Travel again.
R.E.M. – Departure
Elsewhere, Stipe crowbars in obscure references to fuck-ups, fighters, and motorcycle riders and, man!, I could listen to him sing the words ‘motorcycle rider’ all day long.Departure is almost R.E.M. by numbers, but more importantly, it’s one of the last truly fantastic rock tracks the band would release.
The last words should go to the closing track. Electrolite may well be the jewel in the album’s crown. The product of a Phoenix soundcheck, wonky start ‘n all, it’s classic R.E.M., the track to turn to when you need to remind yourself what a great band they once were. Michael Stipe’s lyric, a reflection of his life in L.A. and the people watching he did on Mulholland Drive, sat untouched for two years until the right tune came along. It duly did in Phoenix, with Mike Mills offering up the piano-led track that provided the scaffolding for the finished article.
R.E.M. – Electrolite
Stipe’s Martin Sheen, Steve McQueen, Jimmy Dean refrain is the clincher, a lyric harking back to the glory days of Hollywood, an unintentional metaphor as it would turn out, for his own band’s golden era.