Live!

Just One More Thing, Ma’am

The crumpled gumshoe Columbo would utter that phrase in the closing scenes of nearly every show, usually when snaring the perpetrator with undeniable evidence, his cleverly chosen way with words that followed, spoken smilingly and friendly, almost incidentally, triggering the draining of the colour from the face of the criminal as the realisation dawns that they’ve been caught.

The Trashcan Sinatras are all big Columbo fans and, in the spirit of Peter Falk and the weekend I’ve just had, it would be remis if I didn’t utter that famous phrase in relation to its own closing scenes. So, if I may…

…just one more thing.

Where to begin?!

I met Gideon Coe off his train in Glasgow and we walked across the city to Mono, a vegan cafe/bar/venue, attached to Stephen Pastel’s record shop. Gid (as I can now call him) was familiar with Glasgow, but I enjoyed my unofficial role as tour guide while we walked. “That’s the spot where Bob Dylan watches the pipe band in ‘Eat The Document’. This is the decaying yet still functional Panopticon theatre where, in the early 1900s, Stan Laurel performed for the first time. Over there by the Clyde was where Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant performed a surprise show at Glasgow’s Big Day in 1990. Naturally, being oblivious to the Stipe show taking place, my pals and I went to see Wet Wet Wet and Sheena Easton instead.” And so on and so forth.

Gid is on first-name terms with all the Mono staff and happily shoots the breeze while I mooch about the racks and wish I had £500 to spend on records. We eat in the cafe. Grab a drink from the bar. “Are you having a drink drink?” Gideon asks conspiratorially, and the scene is set for the rest of the day and night ahead.

More unofficial tour guiding takes place on the walk to the hotel – it’s impossible to snag a taxi in Glasgow these days, especially when the cup final at Hampden has just reached its conclusion a couple of miles across the river – so we take in the sights. “That’s the BBC over there,” I point. “Yes, I’ve been known to work there,” replies Gideon with a knowing smile. Oh, aye. Duh.

We check in, change our shirts and are quickly back out again, walking now to the Mitchell Theatre for our Aye Write slot. We chat about the order of the show, the questions he’ll ask, the parts of the book that will make for good conversation… and it all starts to get very real. Stephanie, Ian from Last Night From Glasgow and assorted Trashcans are already there. Pre-match nerves are de-jangled through red wine and whisky. Bob the promoter has allowed the show to overrun, and wonderfully, the band now has a half-hour set to play. The figure of 300 tickets sold is banded about as we walk the long walk through the Mitchell’s marble and deco-rich halls and suddenly we’re backstage, the thrum of the expectant audience wafting through the curtains as we’re fitted up with those wee Howard Jones-type head mics. The seating plan is shared and agreed, Bob goes out to introduce us and we walk out into the void.

First thoughts? Folk are clapping. It’s roasting hot. This seat is comfy. The carpet is springy. I didn’t need to bring water. Is my shirt wrunkled at the waistband? I can’t see anyone in the audience, not even a silhouette. It’s dark out there, but there’re folk out there all right. They laugh at the right parts, clap Stephanie’s photos as if she’s just declared that petrol is now a pound a litre and fail to heckle at any opportune moment when one of us pauses to gather our thoughts before answering Gid’s questions or prompts.

John is a great spokesman for his band, sometimes contradicting the version of events in the book, always engaging and positive and with a neat way with words. “Irvine was a wee town that was in a huff with itself,” he says at one point. Ian hadn’t planned on being on stage beyond the first two minutes, but there he is, allowing the story to unfold around him and sharing the odd nugget of LNFG/TCS detail when the conversation heads that way. Stephanie talks of the record’s dude-like producer Ray Shulman and the clean eye of the book’s designer, Brooklynite Chris Dooley, and she and Gideon marvel at the real-life location of the fictitious Cakebrick Road in the lyric of Earlies.

And then, after what seems like only five downhill-without-the-brakes-on minutes, our part is over. We are ushered off stage, de-headsetted and, to a smattering of rippled applause, take our seats at the front for the Trashcans’ set.

And what a set they played.

Seven songs all in, six from the album in focus and an exquisite, jaw dropping version of The Safecracker from A Happy Pocket, the follow-up to I’ve Seen Everything that was so underpromoted by the record label that it never actually received an official release in the States. The ThreeCS are on fine form, Frank stage left, eyes closed, moving away from then stepping closer to the mic to allow the dynamics in his voice to shine. He lets loose an occasional wild and carefree emphasised final line, his jaw juts in and out to the acoustic groove of his guitar, his sticky-up hair looking backlit and electrified. John, stage right and grinning wildly at the thrill of playing these great songs again is the reliable heartbeat. And Davy, seated centre-stage on Aye Write’s bespoke table and looking like the Mount Rushmore of cult band bass players is nonchalant yet focused, the woody thunk of his remarkably right playing underpinning the lot.

Naturally, the crowd laps it up.

And then, we’re being ushered, Stephanie and I, to a Waterstones-sponsored table where multiple copies of our book (our book!) sit, being eyed up by a healthy queue that snakes its way around the table and back to the venue’s stairs. We sign books. Lots of them. Some for Trashcans fans, some for Aye Write regulars who hadn’t heard of the band, let alone their music, an hour ago. I get folk to sign my own copy of the book; contributors, many of whom I’d met only across cyberspace. Stephanie chuckles a lot at the absurdity of it all and I follow suit. I realise, after 30 or so signed books, that the ‘g’ I write in Craig is a bit rubbish, so I make it better for the copies that will sit on the Waterstones display underneath the ‘Signed By The Author‘ banner. That’s a picture I look forward to taking.

Signing over, and elder/younger family members safely dispatched back to Glasgow Central, we – a healthy mix of book folk and band folk, partners and pals – spill out into the still-light streets and make our way to the CCA, where we’ve a room booked upstairs but end up taking over the two floors in any case. We’re away from the riff raff and amongst hot company, as it seems much of the great and the good of the Scottish music scene is here. Drinks and shouted conversations are the order of the day, while Gideon and Davy corner the bar, deep in post-punk conversation.

By chucking out time though, our new 6Music pal has wandered off to find a taxi, not answering his phone or replying to texts. There’s an after party party going on Gid, and you’re meant to be there. Davy and I and our respective better halves load up on chips and pakora and follow my sister and Stephanie to the unsuspecting Air B’nB that will play host to our increasingly loud conversation, until 4am when Frank suggests a taxi. It comes eventually, but it’s not our booking. The driver takes us anyway then midway tells us he’ll go only to Byres Road. We get out and walk back to our hotel – a longer walk from here than from the flat we’d left. It was that kinda night.

Trashcan SinatrasWorked A Miracle

The Trashcans’ love of Columbo and board games is reflected in the lyric of Worked A Miracle… ‘My Reverend Green revolver…guessing game is over…nobody leaves this room! Nobody touches anything!” There’s a great bass line running through it, replicated in rich Ayrshire doo-wop – ‘dum-dum-dum-dum-dum‘, some sudden stops and a sinister undercurrent in the bridge. It’s something of an under-appreciated track that could well lend its title to the event we somehow found ourselves a central part of at the weekend.

Worked A Miracle indeed. I believe too, there are another five albums still to write about…

Get This!, Live!

Soothe Your Fear

If you want to find me this Saturday night (21st) I’ll be on stage at the Mitchell Theatre in Glasgow for The Perfect Reminder‘s slot at Aye Write. In a gentle nudge to the casual reader here who may already know about the book and subsequent event and might be intrigued enough to buy it, or be tempted even to come along, I’ve taken a little section of the book and included an edited version below. Regular readers here may well spot several Plain Or Pan trademarks; conversational tone, light…funny even, with alliteration lurking inside every stuttering sentence and long-winded similes wherever one or two words would work far better instead. If it gets you a gig at Aye Write – the prime time Saturday night slot, no less – I’ll happily continue fashioning my writing in the style I do.

The book is set into sections, with each song getting its own chapter that’s kickstarted by some writing and followed by a carefully woven tapestry of Trashcans’ thoughts, theories and half-truths about how each song came to be. The section below focuses on I’ve Seen Everything, the title track of the album under the microscope.

Trashcan SinatrasI’ve Seen Everything

The crumbling old remains of the Art Deco Ayrshire Central Hospital in Irvine. It’s pretty much seen everything, certainly every person born in Ayrshire up to a point.

 

I’ve Seen Everything

My wife, being both morbid and practical, regularly asks what songs I’d liked played at my funeral. I usually bat away any such questions with waffled words about such things not really mattering, when of course they totally, absolutely matter. With its world-weary sigh and joyful melancholy, I’d like to state here and now that if I pass before it’s expected of me, I’ve Seen Everything should be the tune that soundtracks the curtain drawing on my life. Here’s why.

I was in the fortunate position of being around the studio a lot when the album recording sessions were in full flow. I worked in Kilmarnock at the time and the band I played in – Sunday Drivers – had a rehearsal room at Shabby Road, so on the nights when we practised, I’d leave work and go to our room early rather than get the Number 11 bus home to Irvine to go back to Kilmarnock again. The kettle was always on (even if the chances of getting any milk, or at least milk in date, were slim) and you never quite knew who you might meet in the kitchen. It was around this time that Chas Smash once poured me a mug of proper builder’s tea. “Hey you!!!” he never said, “Don’t drink that, drink this!” No milk or sugar was offered and, overwhelmed at the idea that a bona fide popstar would make me a cuppa, I was too scared to ask. ‘This is Madness,’ I thought, as I drank a mug of undrinkable tea and plucked up the courage to tell him that Baggy Trousers was the first record I ever bought.

Shabby Road was a great place. The walls, damp as they may have been, thrummed with the dull thud of bass drums and murderous singing from the half a dozen rehearsal rooms within. The damp patches and flaking paint gradually disappeared with each and every Trashcans’ release. A huge Obscurity Knocks promo poster greeted you at the top of the stairs, Paul’s outstretched skateboarding arm hiding the worst of the offending urban decor. There was a real, tangible buzz whenever you were there. The office was filled with the ephemera of working band life – a stack of mail to be answered, a wee pile of Go! Discs artist CDs, an in tray and an out tray, two ashtrays; one dirty and full of the tell-tale signs of working band life, the other clean and full of wee badges –The Cliché Kills! I Hate Music! The formidable Nanette was in charge of things, behind her desk the framed and signed portrait of yer actual Sinatra, the chairman of the board, overseeing proceedings with his clear and beady ol’ blue eyes.

One time I was halfway up the stairs to be met by Stephen, dismantling and reassembling his drum kit in the hallway. “Better acoustics,” he smiled. 

I found myself in the control room when the band happened to be listening to a playback of I’m Immortal. I swivelled in the producer’s chair as Ray Shulman chatted with me about working with Bjork and The Sugarcubes, and the cello sound that was on the just-released debut record from PJ Harvey. He was pondering aloud about adding a similar see-sawing sound to I’m Immortal. I wonder if they ever tried it?

In our room below, we’d often hear the muffled sound of these new Trashcans tunes being twisted and turned into the masterpieces they became. I have a really vivid memory of sitting alone in our rehearsal room, waiting for the others to arrive, with a flaky sausage roll and an Irn-Bru as someone – Paul or John, but I’m thinking Paul – played a repeating guitar riff over and over and over again in the room directly above. No drums or bass or vocals, just a chiming electric guitar, pausing now and again before picking up where it had left off.

I came in one night to a cassette tape on top of my amp with a wee note from Paul. ‘Here’s some new tunes,’ he wrote. ‘The first track will likely be a single. Let me know what you think.’ When I played it back at home later on, I recognised that guitar riff, now fleshed out with happily ringing acoustics, a rootsy bass stomp and a terrific vocal, Frank seemingly duetting with himself about big mistakes and soothing your fears. By the second chorus, I felt like I’d known it all my life. By the time the trumpets parped their way down from heaven in that big, elongated outro, fighting for earspace with those ever-cascading and inter-weaving backing vocals and sounding as upliftingly melancholic as the Kilmarnock Concert Brass Band in full pomp outside the Burns Mall on Christmas Eve, I was punching the air in joy. That better be a single! I thought.

Frank: When we recorded I’ve Seen Everything we were going for that light and breezy sound. That’s quite an easy thing to capture in the studio. When it’s played live, it’s too hard to do it breezy, and our aggression and drive takes it to a whole new place.

John: Frank approached Ivor Cutler to play harmonium on the title track. He got a lovely reply from Ivor explaining why he couldn’t do it.

Frank: While we were at the Mill, I sent a note to Ivor c/o the BBC. We all love him, of course. Songs from his albums would always be coming on the van stereo, poetic relief from the rock music.

Iain Wilson: For maybe a year, we had the A5 glossy black and white promo pic of Ivor, his reply to Frank, stuck on the top of the dashboard facing the windscreen on the red van.

Frank: It was enough, really, getting a reply from him. I’m partly (actually mostly) glad that he didn’t come over to the studio, because I was so clueless then that I would have been daft enough to over-direct him and be generally overbearing. He’d have given me an Ivor tongue-lashing. There would’ve been tears.

You can catch ace photographer Stephanie Gibson and a couple of Trashcans talk about the book tomorrow afternoon around 3 on the Nicola Meighan show on BBC Radio Scotland.

You can read the full section in the book by buying it here. And you can book tickets for the Aye Write book show, featuring a TCS set at the end here.

Do it, eh?

Live!

Aye, Right!

Indulge me.

You might remember, back in September – (Hey! Poetry!) – the sound of a trumpet being blown from these pages as long and loud and rasping as Miles Davis in the middle of an asthma attack. The reason was the imminent publication of The Perfect Reminder, a book that I wrote about The Trashcan Sinatras, one of our greatest under-the-radar bands and one of their greatest (the greatest?) under-the-radar albums – I’ve Seen Everything. If this is all sudden news to you then fear not. You can read the story behind the book here.

Since a low-key Covid-affected launch night in October (picture above) and its eventual publication, the book has found its way beyond the locality of my family and friends who felt obliged to buy it and has made its wobbly way across the Atlantic to all corners of the States and further afield to Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama where Trashcans fans – hundreds of them as it turns out – have happily bought, read and re-read the book, Tweeting about it, seeking me out as an online pal and generally being very decent about it all. Holy Fukuoka!

And now, next Saturday – the 21st May – the book will make an appearance at Glasgow’s prestigious Aye Write book festival. I’ve been telling anyone who’s still listening to me that Aye Write is the Glastonbury of book events, which, given our prime time Saturday night slot would make us the Nile Rodgers and Chic of literature. Good Times indeed.

I say ‘us’, as quite the bill has been assembled. Ian Smith, prime mover of indie label Last Night From Glasgow, whose idea it was to put together a “posh fanzine” and planted the creative seed in ma heid, will kick things off with a brief couple of minutes to explain how his simple idea ended up becoming a hard back book of 100,000 words.

The thinking man’s John Peel, the guv’nor, BBC 6 Music’s Gideon Coe will chair a panel featuring myself and photographer Stephanie Gibson. Between the pair of us, we’ll chat about how we turned our ideas into reality, the problems we faced when writing and photographing a book during lockdown, what makes the ideal Zoom background (Pete Paphides’ was particularly impressive, Chas Smash had the most exotic) and wax lyrical about the brilliance of the book’s subject matter. Gideon, as you’ll know if you’re a regular listener to his show, is no stranger to the works of the Trashcans and was super-keen to get on board, from the initial idea to what has become its crowning glory. It’s quite the thrill to have him as our anchor man for the event.

Trashcan SinatrasHayfever (acoustic live at Fez, NYC, Summer 2004)

In a lovely twist, the night will finish with a short acoustic set from three of the TCS – the ThreeCS as I’ll be calling them. Due to work some more on what may well become album number seven, Frank has actually timed a trip from his home in California to team up with John and Davy, a kinda two birds with one stone mission, where he’ll sing at Aye Write and use his time here to tweak the rough vocal tracks he put down a couple of months ago on a flying visit to Glasgow. Not, that I’d imagine, there’ll be much tweaking needed. ‘Rough vocals’ and ‘Frank Reader’ aren’t normal bedfellows.

The organisers have been keen to point out that the music bit is a bonus – “We’re a book festival, remember. It’s all about the books!” so in a weird twist of billing, the Trashcans will support us, albeit they’ll go on after us. And, as much as it might be ‘all about the books’, it’s not often we get a Trashcans show in Glasgow these days, let alone one in such unique circumstances. There should be a decent audience packed in, if only for the band’s involvement.

I’m a teacher, and recently I’ve been teaching the teachers, so I’m fairly used to tough audiences who’ll ask deliberately obtuse and difficult questions. And I’m no stranger to high-pressure gigs, albeit it they were many years ago. Any hopeful young guitar strangler will have felt that rush of excitement as show time nears and the nerves begin to jingle, but in keeping with the Glastonbury idea of it all, this is our Pyramid Stage. 400 tickets in Glasgow’s plush and culturally-rich Mitchell Theatre, but not yet a sell out. I had an anxiety-inducing dream the other night that I turned up on an empty stage, one bright light in my face, and, as I blinked into focus, there wasn’t a single person in the audience. Ah, Freak Out!

Tickets for The Perfect Reminder – The Story of Trashcan Sinatras’ I’ve Seen Everything can be bought here.

It’d be great to see you. All hecklers will, of course, be encouraged ejected.

Live!

‘Wanuka Honey

After two and a half years of postponements, reschedules and juggling dates, Michael Kiwanuka finally kickstarted his long-overdue UK tour in Glasgow last night. And what an opening night!

With a crack 6 piece band behind him, he ebbed and flowed through a set borrowed from his three albums to date; songs with the spirituality of A Love Supreme-era John Coltrane welded to the thrilling psychedelic soul of The Temptations at their most flare-flappingly brilliant. Guitar lines as clean and simple as the venue’s Art Deco design gave way to whacked out wah wah and phased and flanged wasp-in-a-jar fretboard fireworks as wild and fuzzed as the Afro atop the singer’s head.

The two girls standing to his right sashayed and swayed and smouldered and smiled throughout, adding super-sweet harmonies and call and response chants at the appropriate moments like a pair of recession-trimmed I Threes, Bob Marley’s indispensable trio of on-stage backing vocalists.

At times, the music snaps and breaks its way into hip-hop territory, the pistol cracks of the drummer’s snare sounding looped and sampled, a remnant of a crate-dug ’70s gem relocated to the here and now. At other times, it veers off into out-there Floydish prog; a tickle of Fender Rhodes…a swell of Hammond…an echo-heavy guitar line that ricochets off the back of the hall and returns twice as intense. One of the girls goes all Great Gig In The Sky at one point, tearing the roof off in the process. But it all quickly comes back to the voice, spotlit and centre, gentle and effortless, a mega talent in an era when soul music – proper soul like Leon Bridges and Curtis Harding – is allowed to gestate without the major label suggesting the edges need more polishing. A-men to that, brothers and sisters. A-men to that.

Many of the big songs begin with extended, pared-back preludes, a hint of a melody or a sneaked-in bass line suggesting what’s to follow. You Ain’t The Problem is a soaring, rising call to arms, total Curtis Mayfield in its major 7ths and staccato’d strum, the girls at his side in all-out Pearl & Dean mode. Black Man In A White World is, for me, the set highlight. Political and pointed yet plain downright groovy, the off-beat handclaps carried by the band and audience as one allowing Kiwanuka to scratch the rhythm on his battered old SG and spit out the Gil Scott Heronisms of the verses.

Michael KiwanukaBlack Man In A White World

The set closes with a flowing, meandering Love And Hate; more Floydisms, more stinging Isley guitar, the vocal ghosting in from the ether between the gaps in the mood lighting, the melody flowing like someone opened up the McCartney tap at full pressure and let it flood out. Thrilling stuff.

Michael KiwanukaLove And Hate

Spiritual, emotional, highly-charged and never anything less than majestic, Michael Kiwanuka has started this run of dates in blistering form. Usually, it takes two or three shows into a tour before the artist truly finds their feet. Just imagine what this show will be like by the time the tour reaches its conclusion. Go and see him. He won’t disappoint.

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

15

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

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

15 years. Not bad going.

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

Radiohead15 Step

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

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

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

Radiohead15 Step (Live from The Basement)

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

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

Gone but not forgotten, Live!

Heißer Tramp

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 HeroesSense 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.

Live!

That’s Entertainment

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,

 

Get This!, Live!

Tom Tom Club

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 WaitsNighthawk Postcards.

‘Let me put the cut back in your strut,’ he says sings 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 WaitsNighthawk 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.

 

 

 

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.