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.
Radiohead – 15 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 InRainbows 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.
Radiohead – 15 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.
If you happen to find yourself in an isolation situation over the coming days and weeks, you could do worse than while away the time by watching this two, three, four, more times. It’s David Bowie at one of his creative peaks – a 45 minute show from 1979, Musikladen in Bremen, filmed for German TV and up on YouTube (or just below here) for you to gawp and gasp at any time you like.
Beginning with Heroes‘ Sense Of Doubt, all Clockwork Orange menace and icy, crystalline strangeness, it finishes to muted applause – “Where’s the rest of my band?” asks Bowie rhetorically – before they ease their way into a thumping, swirling Beauty and The Beast, the band waking up, falling into step and coming alive.
Where on Heroes the track is the sort of processed art rocker that Bowie would make his own as the ’70s played out, on this live version, the band grind it out with a jarring rhythm uncannily like The Stranglers on Down In The Sewer. Now, I’m not suggesting that Bowie stole from The Stranglers – he didn’t really need to – but Heroes was released six months after Rattus Norvegicus, and it’s possible…just possible…that he’s magpied a riff and feel from the punk scene and reinterpreted it in his own way. That’s a very Bowie move, after all.
Bowie’s band is disparate. It’s a line-up that, when read on paper, really shouldn’t work – a 7-piece gathering of hot shots and big hitters including Moog protege Roger Powell on synth, desperate to coax futuristic sounds from his instrument whenever a space in the music allows and the jazz-trained Sean Hayes on complementary keys.
At the back, there’s Carlos Alomar, his slick rhythm guitar as steady and regular as the Soul Train and just as dependable. There’s an all-in-white ‘n mirrored shades electric violin player (a dead ringer for BA Robertson, but clearly, it’s not) who perfectly plays the arty scratchings of a prime time Velvets’ John Cale with no expression of emotion whatosover. And stage right, hanging there like a long drip of docile, grinning water is Adrian Belew, colouring the fantastic mish-mash of sound with notes as loud and outstanding as the choice of shirt he’s worn for the occasion.
Magicking up whammy bar-driven howls of electrified liquid mercury from a battered old Stratocaster, Belew plays no chords, only unconventional hair-raising solos; long and winding, full of squealing and screeing sussss-ttt-aiaiaiaiai-nnned n-o-o-o-o-t-essss that last entire rhyming couplets and in the case of Heroes, entire verses. At various points, Bowie looks on in quiet admiration. Fuck, he’s thinking, my band is good…and this guitar player is on a whole other level altogether. Before long, Belew would be enhancing Talking Heads’ live sound in similar fashion, but for now he’s Bowie’s.
Bowie’s band are out of this world, totally against the times – it’s 1979, remember, and the musical world is largely constrained to three minutes of jerky riffing and laddish ramalama – and they are flying. Having fun too. As is Bowie himself.
All teeth and cheekbones, and dressed in high-waisted leather trousers and a billowing, massively-collared shirt that my dad might have described as flouncy (a get-up that Spandau Ballet would later sell their plastic souls for), he’s serious, majestic, stately on a brilliant version of Heroes, playful and relaxed on a rollin’ and tumblin’ run through of Jean Genie, and having the time of his life on a rockin’, noo-wavey TVC15, with nothing less than great Bowie hair throughout.
All facets of his personality are duly covered, with the period from Station To Station and the Berlin trilogy captured wonderfully for anyone (like me) who was far too young or unborn to appreciate it at the time. Imagine living in a world where David Bowie never existed. Unthinkable.
They say that if you chop down a tree, you can count the rings on the discarded piece of trunk and that will tell you how old it is, Likewise, if you count the lines on Paul Weller‘s face, his true age will be revealed. There’s a few lines around the eyes there, ones that first appeared after he split The Jam. Another couple on the brow courtesy of those record company people who misunderstood the Style Council’s brave new steps into house music and refused to release the bulk of it. Yet more around his mouth, the product of worrying over a slow-starting solo career. At the last count, PW had 63 such lines etched onto a face that at times resembles a cartographical ordnance survey map. Last night in Glasgow though, the wizened auld Weller looked trim and tanned, a spritely grandad with a 40+ year collection of songs at his fingertips and a two and a half hour slot on the Barrowlands stage in which to breeze through the back catalogue and play like a man half his age.
“Yes! Yes! Yes! Oh, fackin’ yes!” he shouts down the mic by way of introduction, the sound-clash of The Beatles’ retro-futuristic Tomorrow Never Knows still ringing in our ears, clearly as excited to be here as the heaving throng of fey hairs and nae hairs in front of him. “We’re gonna play some noo ones and old ones, so ‘old tight!”
A quick one-two of White Skies and Fat Pop‘s Cosmic Fringes give way to a career-spanning set that’s almost as long as the outgrown lockdown curtains that frame his grinning face; My Ever Changing Moods, Shout To The Top, Peacock Suit, Hung Up, Brand New Start, Sunflower… it’s incessant and breathless, sung perfectly (yet with a gubful of Wrigley’s on every line), played expertly by a 6-piece band that includes Steve Cradock, his now-regular guitar foil, alongside the brass-totin’ Jacko Peake, the go-to guy on the Acid Jazz scene, and The Strypes’ Josh McLorey on stand-in bass duties.
The set ebbs and flows between old ones and new ones, fast ones and slow ones, guitar ones and piano ones. Heck, even the songs themselves ebb and flow with well-rehearsed breakdowns and meandering codas. Above The Clouds is still great white-boy soul; effortless, cool and sounding as if it might have floated in off the grooves of What’s Going On. Wild Wood is pastoral and bluesy, an on-the-one rootsy stomp that prompts mass singalong. Main set closer Into Tomorrow – the grooviest live version he’s played yet, transforms smoothly into the parping That Spiritual Feeling, all military-tight snare, Coltrane-ish sax melodies and noodling bass, before returning and ending as it began.
There’s lots of this. Amongst the give ’em what they wants and give ’em what they needs, there are moments of pure self-indulgence where the song choices allow the guitars to wander, as wide and expansive as Steve Cradock’s white slacks but with requisite clanging echo or pseudo-psychedelic swirl. On the caustic, carbolic Brushed, a violently furious Weller thrashes his guitar like the punk wars never happened, falling into step with a grinning Cradock as they provide some sort of mod-friendly twin axe attack, a mere Telecaster ‘n double denim away from full-on Quo. It’s all very brilliant, and topped off in dramatic, crowd-pleasing fashion.
After a short speech where Weller sings the praises of the Glasgow Apollo and the old guys who’ve been with him from the start, he looks to the younger members in the audience and with a this-is-for-you wink of an eye, he’s into the wham-bam (Jam) of That’s Entertainment and Town Called Malice. A one-two that slays any remaining doubters that Paul Weller is still vital, relevant and one of our greatest-ever songwriters,
I was teaching a class last year when the word ‘struttin’‘ came up. Not strutting with a ‘g‘ at the end, but the more street-smart struttin’. What did the word mean, someone asked. Their grandfather had had to put strutting on his shed to strengthen the roof, but given the context of the sentence, struttin’ made no sense. Immediately, instantly, at once, I thought of John Travolta in the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever. “Let me show you,” I replied, and rather than replicate the Travolta strut in front of a group of 10 and 11 year-olds (that would’ve been all sorts of wrong) I rattled across the keyboard impatiently until I had the Saturday Night Fever opening scene cued up on YouTube. With a thumb hovering over the space bar should I need to pause proceedings – what swearies and/or nudity might be lurking around the next frame? – I turned up the volume, turned off the lights and by the metaphorical seat of my pants, pressed play.
As the Bee Gees’ slick guitar line and steady disco beat filled the classroom, 30 or so wee heads bobbed in unison – ah-ha-ha-ha – to Stayin’ Alive while it played behind Travolta’s character as he strutted – strutted! – along the busy Brooklyn thoroughfare, (“Hey! To-neeey!”) all dimples and demi-quiff, the cock of the walk in his tight leather jerkin and Cuban heels. “Ah!” said the class in unison. So that was struttin’. The class understood. We moved on. “What did you do at school today?” would be asked later on at home. “We watched Saturday Night Fever,” would come the reply, to the bafflement and/or concern to some and/or all of the parents.
Over the years in the classroom I’ve managed to crowbar in such disparate references as the Stax Records snapping fingers logo, the choreography of The Ramones in concert, The Beatles’ ‘…Mr Kite‘ when doing a piece of writing on circuses and a gazillion records from the ’60s when we studied the decade.
“This, boys and girls,” I said triumphantly as I placed my old Dansette Major Deluxe on a table at the front of the classroom one day, “is a 1960s mp3 player.”
This led to the formation of the Friday Afternoon Record Club, when pupils brought all manner of 7″ singles from home and we’d listen to and discuss them. The first rule of Friday Afternoon Record Club though, is to never mention it, so we’ll leave it at that. The head teacher would’ve had a fit if they’d known we’d been listening to David Essex and Status Quo and Kelly Marie (b-boo, b-boo!) instead of something less culturally-relevant instead.
Had the learners in front of me recently been that wee bit older when we’d been discussing the meaning of struttin’, I might’ve extended the concept of the word through Tom Waits‘ Nighthawk Postcards.
‘Let me put the cut back in your strut,’ he sayssings scats, sounding like Louis Armstrong chewing on sandpaper. ‘And the glide back in your stride.‘
Nighthawk Postcards is a sprawling, eleven-minute jazz-inflected monologue, Waits rasping and riffing and painting highly visual pictures with well-written words, the aural equivalent of the suggested stories in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Not for nothing does the song and its parent album take nomencular inspiration from one of Hopper’s most-celebrated works.
An inebriational travellogue as it’s introduced, the bass player wanders in straight off the grooves of a Charles Mingus 78 and continues to walk all over the yellow-lit, yellow-stained ambience with hep jazzcat grooviness. There’s a low-key, full-blown jazz drummer, a saxophone player who can’t wait to be let off the invisible leash that tends him to the background and a brilliantly loose-knuckled, laid-back piano player – on this recording not Waits, surely – there’s no way he can riff and scat and rap his way across those notes and spaces while playing at the same time, is there? Is there?
Tom Waits – Nighthawk Postcards
The words leap off the record, instantly visual and scene-setting. Waits loves wordplay; busses that groan and wheeze, eyelids propped open at half-mast, a sucker born every minute and you just happened to be comin’ along at the right time. And he loves colours; neon swizzle sticks, a yellow biscuit of a buttery cueball moon, obsidian skies, harlequin sailors, piss yellow gypsy cabs… one line in and he’s got you hooked forever.
Stop whatever you’re doing and step into Tom’s low-rent, sawdust floored world. He’s funny, he’s soulful, he’s part bluesman, part jazzateer and part down-on-his-luck crooner – he breaks into Sinatra’s That’s Life at one point, making Frank’s version sound like the eternally happy collected works of PWL by comparison. The audience – they’re actually not at Raphael’s Silver Cloud Lounge as Waits might have you believe at the start, but live in the studio (L.A.’s Record Plant) – a bold move in 1975 – whoop and holler and guffaw and groan at all the right moments. The song… the whole Nighthawks album… is a masterclass in performance.
The band aren’t exempt from the odd show-offy moment either. When Waits sings of the L Train sounding like the ghost of Gene Krupa, the drummer clatters a perfectly brushed onomatopoeiac rail-rattlin’ Krupa beat in response. Rehearsed? You bet it is, but it’s a great moment. At the mention of P.T. Barnum, the sax player eases into a fluttering take on Julius Fucik’s ‘Entrance of the Gladiators‘ (you know it – look it up) before fading back into the shadows. It’s Waits though who’s the real star of the show. He’s one of the greats, and on this record his writing and delivery and all-round uniqueness is second to none. But I suspect you knew that already.
What’s the scoop, Betty Boop? Whadayamean you’ve never heard Nighthawks At The Diner?!? Do yourself a favour and add it to your collection. Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back, as I’m sure Tom must have growled across a tune of his at some point or other.
Years ago, in the grim and distant past, I was doing some supply teaching work. Back then, much like it is nowadays, permanent teaching jobs were thin on the ground as to be almost non-existent, so any call from any school was gratefully received.
“Are you able to work tomorrow…?”
“…in the nursery?”
“Uh… … …Yes.”
It was that bad. Imagine trying to secure a mortgage on that kinda deal. One day I was asked to go to a school and take a primary 7 class for a couple of days. The class teacher doubled-up as a member of the school management team and was on a course, so I was asked to cover.
Two things tend to happen if you’re called in as a supply teacher. Either you go into the classroom the back of eight o’clock and on the desk is a detailed plan to follow; numeracy and literacy lessons for every differentiated group and/or individual, a selection of topic-based activities that the kids can choose to do in any order, an art lesson perhaps, a short story… far more than you’ll ever need, but enough to ensure your day is action-packed with work set by a conscientious teacher at all of the learners’ abilities. Alternatively, you might find a quickly scribbled note instead. “Feel free to do whatever…as long as they’re busy…Lucy and Emma will give out any jotters you’re looking for. Don’t let Jayden sit next to Reuben or you’ll have a fight on your hands. They’ll want to sit together, and they’ll try it on with you, but I’ll have Reuben’s mother up at the school if you do and she’s a pain in the arse, so please don’t.”
As it was, this particular time fell somewhere in the middle.
“The kids are working on subtraction. They have their own work and know what to do. They have gym after the break. We’re doing gymnastics but if you want to do something else I don’t mind. For literacy, here’s a reading comprehension book. Normally I differentiate depending on the groups, but just pick one exercise and do it with the whole class if it makes it easier for you. They also have the laptops this afternoon. We’ve been learning how to set up a class database, but again, do as you please.”
I flicked through the comprehension book. It was the usual teaching aid full of book extracts, poems and made-up news reports, all with a variety of questions that, if answered correctly, would demonstrate each pupil’s reading ability. Then, jumping out at me from the the bottom corner of one page was a picture of Bob Marley, a classic shot of him in closed-eyed freeze frame, his defiant fist punching the air like the exclamation mark on a political soundbite. It accompanied a passage about the slums of Kingston in Jamaica; crime, poverty, hardship. Stone me! I’d found my literacy lesson.
When the time came, I asked the class if anyone had heard of Bob Marley. Straight away, half a dozen hands shot up. With a massive, knowing grin, one wag filled us in. “Ma br’er huz a poster a’ him oan his wa’. ‘E’s smokin’ a massive doobie in it!” Righto. So we knew who Bob was. Did we know where he grew up, I asked. No-one did. We read the passage about life in Kingston, about the shanty towns and high-rise tower blocks where people lived on top of one another and where gun crime, murder and gang warfare was a normal way of life for much of the population. Bob Marley was held up as an example of someone who’d managed to escape this life and was now one of Kingston’s most-celebrated sons. The passage carried a tale of morality; work hard, be good to others and you can make a better life for yourself. I’m not sure that message got through to the kids in the class, most of whom were still sniggering at their classmate who’d said the word ‘doobie’ to this unfamiliar teacher, but there we were.
“‘No sun will shine in my day today…the high yellow moon won’t come out to play.‘ It doesn’t matter the time of day, I pointed out, if you live in this part of Kingston, you’ll live in permanent darkness. Bob Marley wrote that.”
“‘Darkness has covered my light and turned day into night… No chains around my feet but I’m not free, I know I am bound here in captivity…’”
It’s amazing when a casually-acquired knowledge of Bob Marley’s music will come in handy.
“How d’ye ken a’ that?” they asked. For the first time in my nascent supply career, I had a classroom hanging on everything I said.
I explained about Concrete Jungle, the opening track on Bob Marley and The Wailers’ Catch A Fire album. It’s basically folk music, I explained. In Scotland, folk singers sing about fishing boats and sheep farming, about the threat of nuclear war and about people they know. Bob Marley’s music is also folk music, albeit coated in sunshine and played with a reggae beat. Much discussion of what reggae was followed, ending with me asking the kids to clap out a four-beat bar of handclaps with me emphasising the stomps of my foot on the off beat while over-egging some shonky ‘ooh-yeahs’ in an approximation of Bob Marley on Jammin‘. It did the trick. Bob sang about what he knew, and on Concrete Jungle, he’s telling you how tough his life was.
In the corner of the classroom was a smartboard. Nowdays, they’re ten-a-penny in schools and there’s nary a classroom that doesn’t have one, nor a teacher who doesn’t know their way around it, but back then, smart boards were a brand new thing. I have no doubt that the smart board was in this particular classroom because the teacher, being a member of the management team, had pulled rank to snaffle one of the few that the school had sourced. I connected it up and, this being the days when YouTube wasn’t blocked by the authority’s servers, put on the version of Concrete Jungle that The Wailers had played on Whistle Test. It was dynamite.
The kids sat in studied appreciation as Marley sang the words I’d told them previously, his band playing with effortless cool. Marley might’ve been centre-stage, but it was clearly his band who were driving it. Not only did they look great, they played great too. A practically motionless and stoned immaculate Peter Tosh barely touches the strings of his guitar yet the opening notes, all open wah and weeping pain, meander fluid and free before falling into its rocksteady chicka-chicka rhythm. The easy, soulful falsetto he contributes throughout is the perfect counterpoint to the melancholy and sadness of Marley’s lead vocal. The keys, very reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition I noted to myself, (I hadn’t noticed that before) clack and squeak their way into the groove, never in the way but always there for requisite funk.
By the time the whole band has fallen into step, they’re cooking up quite a quiet storm. It’s easily one of my favourite music-on-TV clips. The kids in that P7 class loved it too. For the rest of that day in the classroom, we used the laptops to research Marley’s life and death and legacy. There was a steady stream of Bob tunes flowing from the iPod I’d rescued at break time from my car as we wrote, read and learned his story. Eking out all they could about the football-playing, ganja-smoking Bob Marley, the kids worked in small groups to create wonky and ropey but well-researched and honest presentations. Concrete Jungle is almost, in today’s parlance, a deep cut, but ask those kids (adults today) and I bet half of them would name it as their favourite Bob Marley tune.
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Concrete Jungle
There’s another version of Concrete Jungle, the demo that Chris Blackwell felt needed westernised to suit UK radio play. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but bereft of the shinier production of the more well-known version that opens Catch A Fire, it’s something of a beauty.
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Concrete Jungle (Jamaican Demo)
For the second day, I showed a map of Glasgow on the smartboard. “It’s Glasgow,” I pointed out unnecessarily. “But who can find anything relating to Kingston or Jamaica?” I drew an invisible circle around the Kingston Bridge and Jamaica Street and waited for their oohs and aahs.
“Bob Marley also wrote about slavery,” I said. “In fact, his song ‘Slave Driver’ is exactly about that.” We listened to that track too and discussed it before spending the rest of the day researching the Glasgow tobacco lords and the legacy they’d left the city of Glasgow. No statues were toppled, no history was rewritten. Instead, 30 or so young minds were informed and expanded in many different ways. And all thanks to a random picture of Bob Marley that was in an old book that the teacher left out for me. Stir it up, as a great man once said.
Murmur by R.E.M. may well have been called Mumble. Or Mutter. Or just plain Mmmmmm. The young Michael Stipe, all doe eyes ‘n demi-wave was so self-aware of his voice, so self-conscious of his lyrics that he spent most of that first album being foggy, obfuscating and willfully obtuse in his delivery. Quite mmwhat he szings ommn trackszzz sssuch as Pilgrimage or 9-9 or Moral Kiosk is amnyone’szz mmm ggguess. That’s changed somewhat since the advent of the internet, but where’s the fun in that, kiddo? The mid ’80s was an anything-might-be-right approach to lyric learning, phoentics often replacing the actual words and I’m not even sure I want to know the real words nowadays anyway.
Behind the singer, the band stir up a heady swell of classic alternative American rock, as timeless as Tom Petty’s punkish jangle, as melodic as a Wilson brothers’ full-fat harmony, yet as scuffed at the knees as a dustbowl drifter. The instruments are easily identifiable. There’s no muddy mixing here – it’s all about the angle of the jangle.
Peter Buck arpeggiates away on his open-chorded Rickenbacker, all puffy sleeves ‘n waistcoat ‘n suspended 4ths until the end of time. Bill Berry holds the beat, occassionally popping up with a stone cold classic (Perfect Circle), contributing far more to proceedings than his mere title of ‘drummer’ might suggest.
Understated star though is Mike Mills, his solidly twanging Rickenbacker bass driving the songs with a toughness that’s offset by Buck’s clattering jangle. Mills also chimes in with falsettoed harmonies – just like those Wilson brothers’ hamrnonies mentioned beforehand – adding colour and commerciality to the band’s sound.
R.E.M. – Catapult
I never saw R.E.M. live until ’89, so I can’t be sure, but I imagine Catapult might’ve been quite the rocker at those early shows. On Murmur, it’s stretched as tight ‘n taut as the skin on a tom, the verses straightjacket-slim before it bursts in a glissando of glassy up and down the neck chords and Stipe-provided backing vocals. Catapult! Ca-ta-pult. It’s the sort of chorus that I imagine the band might’ve played over and over in rehearsals, grinning as they play, admiring the chord sequence, the vocals, the drive, the way it all fits… it’s one of my favourite early R.E.M. tracks.
A few years back, IRS released a warts ‘n all set of outtakes from the R.E.M. vaults; live stuff, demos, alternate versions and the likes – ideal for folks like you and I who love that phase of the band more than the mandolins ‘n stadiums years. There’s a terrific live version of Catapult to be found. Internet research shows it’s likely to be a recording from Seattle in 1984 – peak early R.E.M. in other words. As I suggested above, it is indeed quite the rocker.
R.E.M. – Catapult
The keen-eared among you might spot a second voice; grizzly, gruff, grainy. I believe that’s the drummer, once again proving his worth to one of America’s greatest alt. bands. If you haven’t played Murmur in a while or, gasp, ever, rectify that today. It still stands up as one of the band’s best.
The poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll…the voice of the promise of the ’60s counterculture…the guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the ’70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse…who emerged to find Jesus…who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ’80s and who suddenly shifted gears and released some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ’90s… Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob! Dylan!
These are the frenz-inducing spoken words of Dylan’s stage manager Al Santos, mic’d up and out of sight, that signify Bob’s imminent arrival on stage. They’ve been spoken for the last twenty years on the never-ending tour and will no doubt continue again, just as soon as live events become a thing once more. The words came lock, stock and barrel from a review by reporter Jeff Miers in the Buffalo News, a review that so resonated with Bob that it immediately became his adopted clarion call.
Hear these words and as sure as night follows day, ol’ Bob will come rattlin’ and rollin’ out of the traps with a lively opener. It might be a crowd pleaser – Maggie’s Farm was a favourite for a while, it might be a deliberately obtuse audience wrong-footer, or it might even be a country-punk take on an old God-fearin’ standard. No matter the first song though – it’s all about giving the sound desk one last chance at mixing to the room – it signifies the beginning of a set that, much like its creator, will be long and winding with diamonds and pearls and the odd miss-firing clunker along the way.
Bob Dylan has always been there. He was there when I first started noticing these things called ‘records’, my dad’s copy (now mine) of Bringing It All Back Home sticking out between the Trini Lopez and Buddy Holly albums, the cover alluring and just beyond the comprehension of my young years. My mum worked at Irvine Library and came in one night with a video of Don’t Look Back, the on-the-road documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour of Britain. It more than resonated – some of the songs on my dad’s record were in the film – and as I watched and rewatched, I was wholly sucked into the world of Bob. It was the hair and the permashades, the houndstooth and polka dots, the Beatle boots and the stripey trousers that did it – a popstar as outlandish as Adam Ant but with an impenetrable depth and downright rudeness that set him apart from any popstar I’d ever taken a shine to.
In the film, Dylan sped from venue to venue being confrontational and contrary, aloof and arrogant, sneering and sarcastic…unlikeable in lots of ways, although he could be wickedly funny at someone else’s expense, (and that’s always something that anyone who tries to fit in with the gang will lap up) but then the film would cut to him singing She Belongs To Me or It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) and he’d be instantly forgiven, his voice; the annun-ci-a-tion,the phhhhrasssing, the barely whispered quiet parts to the rasping roof raisers delivering the songs with an intimacy I’d never heard before…and still haven’t heard since.
I went through a particularly heavy Bob phase in the mid ’90s. I’d marvel, (I still do), standing at that same spot on St Vincent St in Glasgow, just outside what is currently the Counting House pub, where, in 1966, Bob and The Band stood shoulder to shoulder with a crowd of locals watching a pipe band march past. The Americans are easy to spot; eyes hidden by shades and hair like free-growing birds’ nests while their pasty-faced Glaswegian counterparts still sport the slicked back Brylcreem ‘do of their youth. “See the guy in the middle, twirling the thing!Do they do that in the middle o’ winter?‘ asks Bob of the swinging kilts off camera. Jump ahead to 3.17 and you’ll find it.
The back catalogue, the good, the bad and the ugly of it, would spin for days, weeks and months on end. By the turn of the decade, I had a mini disc player loaded up with hours and hours of Bob and it would shuffle endlessly, leaping from Woody Guthrie folk blues and raggle-taggle gypsy ballads to Mick Ronson-riffing alternate versions and bootleg recordings of Bob around the world.
By the turn of the next decade I’d seen Bob more than a handful of times, always the same, always different, from through the drizzle at Stirling Castle as my pal pointed out, ‘that’s Bob Dylan playing Mr Tambourine Man up there,’ and the bleachers in the SECC where a spiritual, transcendental Boots Of Spanish Leather fought its way to the ears across the draughty divide, to the intimacy of the Barrowlands the very next night, not only my favourite Bob show but one that’s acknowledged as one of his very best, close enough to see him smile as his audience wrestled with Girl Of The North Country and Just Like A Woman, close enough to watch the drips of sweat fall from the brim of his hat and onto his keys as he punched out a jerky but faithful version of Ballad Of A Thin Man, close enough to witness a rare bout of audience interaction at the very end of Like A Rolling Stone. There’s something happening here indeed, etc etc.
Bob Dylan – Like A Rolling Stone (Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom, 24.6.04)
Somewhere in time, as my Bob fascination became a quiet obsession, Dylan turned the ripe old age of 60. Sixty! Man! I remember thinking, “That’s ancient!” That I’m currently eight and a half years from 60 myself is both shocking and sobering. And it’s got me thinking, why haven’t I created a Blonde On Blonde-type masterpiece? When do I get my Jesus phase? Will I ever near-kill myself on a motorbike? Who will call me Judas and boo me when I turn up at my place of work? Will anyone rake my bins for evidence of the life I supposedly lead? At what point do I embark on my own never-ending tour? And now, ol’ Bob Dylan is 80. Eighty! And I’m thinking, where are the book deals, the Nobel Prizes, the honorary rectorships, the Oscars? He’s packed an awful lot into those first eight decades of life.
The numbskulls will point out that he can’t sing (wrong!), that his songs are unrecognisable in concert (wrong again!), or that ‘Bob Dylan? Is he not dead?’ (wrong! wrong! wrong!) but those that know, know. He’s one of the greatest and will be forever. Here’s to the next eighty years.
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.