Alternative Version, demo, Gone but not forgotten, Live!

Bob Marley and The Scholars

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…?

Yes!

…morning only…?

Eh, yes.”

…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 WailersConcrete 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 WailersConcrete 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.

Live!

Catapulted Into Conscience

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.

Get This!, Live!

Bobtogenarian

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 DylanLike 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.

 

 

Get This!, Live!

Bible Belter

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 FranklinHow 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.

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

Eye Opening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get This!, Live!

Tinnitus

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

Good luck recreating that unique MBV sound…

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.

Kevin Shields, My Bloody Valentine.

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.

Alternative Version, Get This!, Live!

This Ain’t No Foolin’ Around

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 HeadsLife 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 HeadsLife 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 HeadsLife 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.

 

 

 

 

Dylanish, Get This!, Live!

Cliff Richard Was Never Like This

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?

Bob Dylan, press conference at the Mayfair Hotel in London in 1966.

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 DylanTell 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 DylanI 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.

 

 

 

Live!

Furry Meek Brother

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 NumbersMornings 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 NumbersHurt 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 NumbersRoy 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.

 

Get This!, Live!

Just Dragonflies

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.

RadioheadCodex

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.

RadioheadCodex (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.