Gone but not forgotten

I Don’t Understand This Thing At All

A work colleague pointed me in the direction of Tunnel 29, Helena Merriman‘s brilliant docu-novel of life in Cold War Berlin as the wall went up and it split into the Americanised west and Soviet-controlled east. The parallels with the war in Ukraine are never far from the mind as you read; the under-the-radar planning and meticulous thinking that kick-started things…the sudden, desperate need to escape the iron fist of Russian rule…the sheer numbers of Soviet troops surrounding the area; heavily armoured, well-drilled, seemingly impervious and always advancing, greedy for land and territory at any cost…with the unholy whiff of war crimes following their every leader-sanctioned move. If you didn’t know, the book might read like a Ukrainian refugee’s diary from this morning.

Merriman’s collected stories refers to a famous picture that I wasn’t aware of until now.

In the picture, taken in 1961, 19 year old Konrad Schumann, a recently-recruited member of the Bereitschaftspolizei (the riot police), is seen leaping the barbed wire fence that separates east Berlin from the west. Konrad is in mid-air, throwing off his gun, literally in the process of defecting from state-controlled aggression to the freedoms of the west; hamburger joints, rock and roll, education, opportunity.

It’s a powerful picture, with the blurry group of gossiping east Berliners looking pensively on and the half-hidden image of a West Berlin TV cameraman capturing it forever on film as young Konrad springs from the barbed wire he had been surreptitiously tramping down in the hours and minutes leading up to his leap to freedom.

The ‘wall’ was only three days old at this point. Put up without warning in the middle of the night, it snaked and scarred its way through Berlin, right down the middle of roads, across gardens, between houses, separating friends and family wherever they happened to be. Men and women who worked in the factories of West Berlin were suddenly cut-off from their terrified and confused families in the east. Men and women who worked in the factories of East Berlin were suddenly cut-off from their terrified and confused families in the west. Neighbours could look out at one another from across the barbed wire, but they were forbidden from talking to one another. They weren’t supposed to wave, acknowledge one another in any way at all. It fell to hastily-recruited border guards like Konrad to put the necessary muscle on them to ensure they complied. People in the east who were caught talking to their loved ones in the west were taken away by the Stasi, the secret police. Tensions were high.

West Berliners contrived to assist their eastern friends to escape. The less-guarded spots on the fence became escape routes, until more guards were added. Under cover of dark, many east Berliners swam the 30-yard wide stretch of River Spree to safety on the west bank. When the authorities found out, they simply dragged barbed wire under the water and blocked any opportunity of escape by river.

The guards on duty were very quickly the focus of abuse. As he paced his patch, Konrad was called a pig, a facist, a concentration camp enabler. The day before the picture was taken, a thousand-strong mob of protestors had been driven back by bayonet-wielding Soviet troops, but Konrad knew they’d be back.

He began to formulate a way of escaping without capture or punishment. One wrong move meant the end of his life. His decision process was sped up on day three with the sudden and unexpected arrival of concrete posts and steel plates. Quite rightly, the Russians had realised that their concertinaed barbed wire was insufficient in keeping easterns inside. Something more discouraging, more permanent was required.

For two hours, whenever no one was watching, Konrad would stamp and tramp the wire down to jumping-over height, building himself up to the state of mind where he’d be ready to leap. A few bystanders on the west picked up on what he was doing. When he was approached by one, Schumann faked a “Get back or I’ll shoot!” cry, before whispering to him that he was going to jump.

News of his planned escape travelled across west Berlin. A newsman appeared. A couple of photographers. A police van. The police in the west were friendly. They would help Konrad, but he needed to act fast. A crowd of westerners over the fence was not unusual, but they were encouraging him rather than decrying him. At some point, Konrad’s superiors would discover what was going on.

At 4pm, he flicked his half-smoked cigarette to the Soviet-controlled pavement, stepped back and faced the wall of barbed wire, took a run up and leapt. In mid air, he discarded his submachine gun, an unintentional but beautifully-timed metaphor. Photographer Peter Leibing, also 19, froze the moment forever. It remains an iconic photograph of late 20th century war.

Taken to safety by the police, Konrad was interrogated until found to be an ally. He was given a plane ticket to Bavaria, where he started a new life as a winery worker.

Konrad Schumann in 1981

However, it didn’t end well for Konrad. He was deeply distressed at what might happen to his family as a result of his defection. He felt shame at abandoning his comrades whilst saving his own life. Having broken the oath he swore upon when joining the police, he lived with the constant fear of death around every corner. He waited for bangs on doors than never came. He lived in anxiety-driven paranoia that he was being followed by Stasi agents wherever he went. He would read stories of eastern defectors who had been captured and tortured and never seen again. Even after 1989 and the fall of the wall, Konrad couldn’t face his family. His former comrades wanted nothing to do with him.

In 1998, suffering severe depression, Konrad hung himself in his Bavarian orchard.

The Sex Pistols proved just as divisive as the wall Johnny Rotten sang off on the jackbooted sturm und drang of Holidays In The Sun. A howl of guitars and relentless razor-sharp attack, it never sounds anything less than insistent, urgent and now.

Sex PistolsHolidays In the Sun

I’m lookin’ over the wall/and they’re lookin’ at me!

I’m gonna go over the Berlin wall

I’m gonna go under the Berlin wall

I don’t understand this thing at all

 

 

Gone but not forgotten

The ‘F’ Word

There’s a whole rabbit hole of stuff waiting for you should you choose to follow Fairport Convention‘s well-trodden path across folk, blues and raga-tinged drones. The ‘f’ word can be off-putting…sweat-inducing, even, conjuring mental images of fisherman-jumpered bawlers, red-cheeked and jowly-faced and singing heartily of measles and maidens and mirth-filled merriment. With a finger in the ear and a slap of a corduroyed thigh, throaty voices conjoin in rousing, rasping harmony as a small army of six string plank spankers in real, tangled, crumb-encrusted beards – none of those uber-oiled hairy beehives that hang silkily from the faces of the tattooed hipsters down your local vegan supermarket – bash their way to a rousing, rabbling conclusion.

Book Song, from Fairport’s second album, 1969’s What We Did On Our Holidays, debunks that stereotypical cliché and then some.

Fairport ConventionBook Song

A lilting waltztime ballad, it’s exactly the sort of track that Teenage Fanclub might’ve chosen to cover – or even craftily rewrite and pass of as one of their own – around that peerless time in the mid ’90s when b-sides were pouring from them as freely as the water from a tap. Imagine it sung by Gerry Love, with Norman coming in on pitch-perfect backing vocals. Not so far out of the question, really, especially as on the back cover, Fairport look exactly like a melding together of Bandwagonesque-era Fanclub and White Album-era George Harrison, all collar-bothering hair and close-fitting denim, archtop semi acoustics and Les Pauls. Cool as folk, as some might say.

Double (triple?) tracked harmonies float across a bedrock of zinging Eastern sitars and hammered acoustic guitars, a heady blend of eyes-closed, close-knit vocals, a gently wandering bassline carrying the tune towards the uhming and ahing adlibs. There’s a short but exquisite electric guitar break, all effect-heavy psychedelics and wide-eyed out-thereness, vying for earspace with weeping pedal steel and a screeched whiff of Romany violin. It’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment, but listen out for it then repeat and you’ll never forget it.

Sandy Denny singing alongside Simon Nicol and/or Richard Thompson is as natural, honest and unpretentious a vocal as you might ever hear. Falling somewhat like Nico jigsawing herself to The Byrds, the vocal is the light dusting of icing on a particularly groovy cake; rich in content, ideal in small pieces, just enough to leave you wanting more.

The entire album is packed full of organic, rootsy, honest (again) music. Wrapped in a sleeve that unveils new things every time you study it – proper pint pots! The Furry Freak Brothers (and Sister) of folk shaking some action! – the music within is as good a microcosm of Fairport’s ouvre as you can get; Meet On The Ledge, Fotheringay, a cover of Joni Mitchell’s Eastern Rain, a handful of traditional reworkings… Worth investigating.

Also there between the Island pink-labelled grooves is Fairport’s terrific version of Dylan’s I’ll Keep It With Mine, a slowly unravelling thing of quiet majesty that was first brought to these ears on the personal recommendation by the afore-mentioned Gerry Love. What more of an endorsement do you need?

Fairport ConventionI’ll Keep It With Mine

 

Get This!

Airplane 2

Hitting the shelves this week – ‘dropping‘, to use modern parlance – is the eagerly-awaited follow up to the Texas Sun record that Khruangbin did in collaboration with fellow Texan Leon Bridges. On Texas Sun, dustbowl desert guitars gently twanged with ambient reverb across four tracks of gospel-tinged southern soul and, from what has been heard so far, Texas Moon seems to follow in the same rich vein.

If this happens to be your first introduction to Khruangbin (and Leon Bridges too for that matter – a guitar totin’ troubadour with a proper caramel-coated, take-it-to-church soul voice), you could do worse than dip a toe into a pair of back catalogues awash with rippling guitar and beautifully considered complementary bass lines. Let’s focus for now on Khruangbin.

KhruangbinSo We Won’t Forget

So We Won’t Forget wanders in, cocksure and insistent, the result of an unholy alliance between the Bhundu Boys and the near-cousin of Lovely Day‘s bass line ; a groovy, heady mix of chiming, chattering African highline six string and sighing girl group despondancy that carries you away in its cooing breeze for five joyous minutes.

Ideal music for lying underneath an inky black panoramic sky of constellations or for soundtracking the wee small hours as you fight off the urge to fall asleep, So We Won’t Forget is a rare dichotomy of music that sends you to sleep while making you simultaneously want to dance in floaty, unselfconscious abandon.

Khruangbin (it translates as ‘aeroplane‘ in Thai) have undeniable style in clothes as well as music. Focal points Laura Lee and Mark Speer permanently peek from beneath a pair of perfectly-sculpted fringes that even Claudia Winkleman might find irritating.

Their clothes are never less than considered – Laura takes pride in wearing a different outfit for every show Khruangbin plays (600+ at the last count). Mark is the best-dressed drip of water on the planet, poured into rake thin, mile long ’70s lounge suits that might’ve come from the wardrobe department of a Hollywood movie set. The quiet man at the back, DJ Johnson Jnr on drums is more sartorially understated, preferring instead to let his pistol crack snare and rattling hi-hats add the requisite flash.

KhruangbinEvan Finds the Third Room

You get the impression that the musicians in Khruangbin could outplay just about anyone on the planet; the funk-infatuated drummer, the on-the-one wandering and popping basslines played with great touch and feeling and those free-form bubbling guitar passages, slow bent one moment, rapidly fired the next, that wouldn’t sound out of place on the end credits of an arthouse movie, or perhaps a pivotal slo-mo scene in a Tarantino box-ofice smash.

The trick though, as Khruangbin know fine well, is to consider the notes that aren’t played. Those missing notes are what gives the music of Khruangbin a feel as wide and expansive as the Chihuahuan Desert and a groove that’s positively out-there and gravity-defying.

 

Alternative Version, Hard-to-find

The Rattle of The Boyne

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

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

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

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

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

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

U2Wire (Dub)

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

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

Get This!, Kraut-y, New! Now!

The Smile Sessions

The Smile could be considered something of a vanity project; a sideways step, an away from the day-job shaking loose and letting down of the hair until regrouping and getting down to the business of Radiohead. Just when your Spidey senses suggest the ‘Head might be due a burst of about-time-too activity, along comes Thom and Johnny’s hot new thing; guerilla gigs and sudden releases and everything.

They’ve just announced a hefty European tour that takes in the grander venues in all major cities throughout the summer months. By the time you read this it’s probably sold out and a healthy second market for over-inflated tickets at what were already over-inflated prices will be on the go and causing internet meltdown. Such is the way of life when the word ‘Radiohead’ is attached to the project.

Had the two tracks released in the past couple of weeks been done so under that day-job moniker, they may have kickstarted a media frenzy and signalled an interesting new direction for Radiohead. Instead, despite being fairly low-key releases, they point to a band that may well turn out to be something more than a distraction until the bill-paying job starts up again.

The SmileYou’ll Never Work In Television Again

The first track to emerge from the wintery darkness was the clanging, spitting You Will Never Work In Television Again, Thom Yorke snarling and swearing his way across the top of a band that sounds like The Police going toe-to-toe with Fugazi; chorus-effected guitars battling for earspace with searing feedback and a drummer that sounds like Animal from the Muppets going downhill without the brakes on.

Had this been the ‘Head and not The Smile, there’d have been a clamour of “they’ve got the guitars out again!“-type hyperbole, a feeding frenzy for the six string-starved Radiohead fan who stupidly, ignorantly lost touch round about Hail To The Thief. Here, The Smile – a power trio! – sound more guitary than yer actual Radiohead ever have.

Even better is the totally different The Smoke. Taking its cue from the skittering and skeletal repetitive beats of Jaki Liebezeit and Can, The Smoke is a bass-led noodling groove, a proper head-nodder in the vein of any of In Rainbows‘ more ambient moments.

The SmileThe Smoke

Thom swaps full force for falsetto, easing himself into the track and wafting across it, winding his way in-between and underneath the fug whenever he sees fit. Synths follow his melody, gently arpeggiated guitars ring across the sparse backing, and woozy, womb-like sounds add muted colours to the heady stew as it plays out with understated majesty. A proper grower and no mistake.

There are a handful of clips online from those guerilla gigs and more to suggest that The Smile might be making a proper go of it in the coming months. And although any notion of Radiohead perhaps releasing new music any time soon is somewhat fanciful, I for one am not complaining

 

 

,

demo, Hard-to-find

Solid Gold

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

The JamA Solid Bond In Your Heart (demo 1)

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

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

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

The JamA Solid Bond In Your Heart (demo 2)

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

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

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

The Style CouncilA Solid Bond In Your Heart

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

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

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

Alternative Version, demo, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten

Rollin’ and Tumblin’

What’s in a name? They may have been The Rolling Stones to plummy BBC announcers and chummy American TV hosts, but by the ’70s, they’d fallen mononymously into just the Stones; a name that suited the music that would come to define them.

The Rolling Stones was all about frantically scrubbed Bo Diddley rhythms and snake-hipped shaken maracas, three minutes of pop r’n’b that when played with a pout made the front row wet their knickers. As the principal players slowed down the gear changes in inverse proportion to the length of their songs and the length of their already-collar bothering hair, they became The Stones; dangerous, devious and undeniably dynamite.

Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone? asked Andrew Loog Oldham in the ’60s? No chance, mister. And there was absolutely no chance you’d want her anywhere near a skinny, sexed-up and strung-out Stone a short handful of years later. No chance at all.

There’s a guitar alchemy in the Stones that you’ll find in no other band since or ever. It’s all over Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street like A-class-enhanced quicksilver; a fluid melding together of Mick Taylor’s straightforward yet beautifully executed 6 string bluesisms and the loose riffing of Micawber, Keith Richards’ mangled Telecaster, bastardised to just 5 strings and tuned to open G.

Mick’s guitar sounded like this, Keith’s guitar sounded like that…and when they played together, they created an unattainable third sound; a new, harmonious chord full of air and promise, a new feel, a new something; magical, otherworldly and impossible to replicate. Sure, anyone can have the tools, but only Mick and Keith had the talent, the telepathy and the feel. (Well, later on, Ronnie would come to disprove that theory, but let’s not let that get in the way of things for now). And it’s only Mick and Keef (that’s the other Mick, the more famous Stone) who have the know-how to turn the rough stuff into polished diamonds.

The StonesTumbling Dice

My favourite Stones track will always be Tumbling Dice. It’s got everything; telepathic guitars, horns, soul, swagger, groove. That slinky, double-stringed opening riff is suitably louche and rakish, a setting out of the stall like no other.

As Keith is wont to do, he had been toying with the riff and feel of the track for a year, leaving it aside, allowing it to stew and marinade in the swill of Stones’ rehearsals, coming back to it time and again until the Stones found themselves avoiding tax in the south of France when, by this point, it was a tune ripe for recording. Initial versions were faster, less-focused and featured a hackneyed Jagger vocal that he’d be quick to abandon.

The StonesGood Time Woman (Tumbling Dice early version)

The whole of Exile On Main Street is a masterclass in studied looseness and the session track above plus the finished Tumbling Dice is the epitome of this. It might appear ragged and funky, but that sure takes a lot of practise. And alcohol. And drugs. And beautiful women wherever you turn. To have been a Stone in ’72…

Keith plays it initially with a gentle touch, feeling his way in with the opening riff until his band arrives – a decidely unusual version of the Stones for once. There was no Bill Wyman for starters. He’d gone AWOL somewhere in the south of France, fed up while the others worked all night and slept all day. He’d be back, just not in time to add his signature to what would become the lead single from Exile On Main Street. Bass duties were taken instead by Mick Taylor. To compensate for lack of rhythm guitar, Jagger himself was encouraged to get on board. Once they’re locked in and zoned out, Keith plays harder. Charlie follows, swinging the groove with understated power. And Keith plays harder again. Chugga-chugga-chugga. It’s rock’s most famous (some might say cliched) riff, played exactly the way you’ve been trying to master it since it first kissed your ears. Five strings, open G, remember.

The Stones worked up the slack rhythm track in Nellcôte, their rented French villa, but it wouldn’t be until Jagger had a random conversation with his housekeeper in L.A. about gambling that he’d have a lyric he was happy with. Dropping the ‘good time woman‘ lyric of the initial version, Jagger instead compares the sins of gambling to the sins of cheating and creates a lyric in simpatico to the music.

By the time Exile… was released, the Stones had overdubbed Atlantic soul brass courtesy of honourable Stone, Bobby Keys and piano, courtesy of the ubiquitous Nicky Hopkins. The ace in the pack was the three-girl choir, sashaying in on a riot of “ooooh-yeahs” and harmonised “bay-bees”. They duet with Jagger throughout, he rubbery, with a mouthful of mid Atlantic Cockney vowels – “yeo caaahn be mah paaaa-tnah ein cra-ah-aha-ahm” – and they stately and majestic, just on the right side of controlled.

Factor in the dueling guitars, the breath-gathering drop-out, the slide part that I’m not even sure is there but sounds like it is and you have one of the very best – the very best, if y’ask me – Stones’ tracks. Not Rolling Stones. Stones.

 

 

 

Gone but not forgotten

In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning

It begins on a static crackle of marching snare drum and tacked-on wack-a-wack DJ scratching and, as the dirty needle scrapes its way across a soundbed of Fender Rhodes and murky jazz, muted trumpets colour the scene as a gently reverberating electric guitar hints at a brewing storm. It’s Spinning The Wheel, the greatest single that neither Portishead nor Massive Attack put their name to.

George MichaelSpinning The Wheel

Spinning The Wheel was the third single from George Michael’s Older album. Released in 1996, it channels the sounds of the mid ’90s counter culture and offers it up to the mainstream; while the airwaves were clogged to the point of pollution by a Be Here Now-era Oasis and the multitude of bands who swaggered in on the one dimensional jetstream of their success, George was looking to the brooding darkness of trip-hop for inspiration.

Spinning The Wheel is crackly, claustrophobic and tunnel-visioned, a brooding and introspective track that would’ve sounded just almost as great being wrapped in the pained vocals of a Beth Gibbons or a Tracey Thorn as it does in George’s resigned three-in-the-morning delivery. He floats across Spinning The Wheel, cooing with his ‘Baby Love’ backing singers, double-tracking himself to great effect – “Spinning!” – at the end of verses, calling-and-responding in the overdubs, never anything less than pitch perfect and crystal clear throughout. Imagine being in the studio when they had the first playback of this! Aw man!

Five o’clock in the morning, you ain’t home… Six o’clock in the morning, you ain’t phoned… It seems that everybody takes their chances these days…

Clandestine, cheating, undercover sex. Spinning The Wheel. You got a thing about danger…aintcha gettin’ what you want from me? You got a thing about strangers…baby, that’s what we used to be.‘ It’s a seemingly autobiographical account of George’s lifestyle at the time; the open relationships and wandering eyes that lead to paranoia and fear – something he was very much happy to discuss in detail upon its release. You’ll find plenty if you Google it.

And I will not accept this as a part of my life…I will not live in fear of what may be… I would rather be alone than watch you spinning the wheel...’

George looked great around this time. Close-cropped Roman hair inked to his skull, ever-changing but always immaculately groomed facial hair that, if you waited long enough, would grow and morph in front of your very eyes, and he was too, never anything less than dressed head to toe in perfectly-fitted designer-casual suits. He had style, with the voice to match…as distinct, iconic and unmatched as Frank Sinatra, although what happened in Frank’s wee small hours were, I daresay, markedly different to George’s. Not one flying fuck was given by George over what anyone might’ve thought of his personal life, hence the subject matter of a song that was kept off the top of the charts by another act who really only wanted to zig-a-zig-ah too.

It was playing one time when my dad was round. He was going to help me decorate, so we were measuring the walls to work out how much wallpaper we’d need. As I foutered around the kitchen drawer in search of my tape measure I could hear my dad whistle and doo-de-dooing his way through the tune, probably listening out for a spot where a banjo should be playing. Eventually, his participation tailed off as he started listening to and then making sense of the lyrics.

Who’s this we’re listening to?” he shouted, wanting to sound casually curious but failing.

D’you like it?

Who is it?

It’s George Michael. Good, isn’t it?!

“…Ehhh…hmm, aye…” he offered by way of agreement. I reckon he was still smarting at my mum making him return Dirk Wears White Sox to Makro many years before. Back then it was mild, punkish swearing that just wouldn’t do at all, and here I was these days listening to clandestine gay confessions set to downtempo jazz. Just a step too far for his generation.

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.