Hard-to-find

Sloppy Mondays

It’s panto season right now, and last Friday Happy Mondays found themselves playing Kilmarnock’s Grand Hall, right through the wall from the conjoined Palace Theatre where an assortment of bit-part actors and actresses more accustomed to the outer reaches of Scottish television productions were hamming their way through an innuendo-packed Dick Whittington. Oh yes they were.

The ‘Mondays clearly felt the need to put their own panto spin on what was a gloriously ramshackle night. Bez played the court jester perfectly, greeted with cheers and mile-wide smiles whenever he bounced onto the stage and into his boggle-eyed four-step shuffle.

With a pair of maracas permanently set to ‘shake’, he’s stage left, then stage right, then up a speaker stack, then swinging off a microphone stand, then kissing Rowetta, then swapping his t-shirt with some equally boggle-eyed guy in the audience.

He’s the focal point for a band who despite their undeniable groove are as static and stony-faced as the Easter Island statues.

The role of panto villain falls to Shaun. “Check out our kid!” he drawls, looking stage left towards his bass-playing brother Paul. “Look at ‘im. ‘E’s a right miserable coooont!

Nowadays dressed in mildly expensive rather than wildly expansive clothing, he has all the air of one of those ex football casual ne’erdowells you’ll meet in the opening scenes of The Bill. “Get down from there, Bez,” he implored in the same voice you’ll know from the opening lines of Mad Cyril. “You’ll get yourself killed!

What’s the difference between me and B?” he asks the audience, as Bez ungloriously tries to remove himself from the top of the speaker stack at the front of the stage. “Bez is a grandfather.”

Oh no he isn’t!

Oh yes he is!

Oh! Yes, he is.

Think about that for a second.

 

It’s not just his dress sense that’s undergone a radical rethink. At Happy Mondays’ Barrowlands show at the tail end of the 80s, Shaun freely puffed on never-ending metre-long spliffs, sitting plastic-faced on the drum riser for the entire gig. Shaun still remains rooted to his spot between the keyboards and drums, but these days he vapes vigorously during all the instrumental passages. He vapes! Suck on that, Keith Richards!

Shaun doesn’t do much else. He never removes his jacket. He never even unzips it. He’s wrapped up for winter even if it feels like the summer of love in here. Occasionally he’ll sidle up behind Rowetta and indulge in a spot of dirty dancing. Rowetta, co-vocalist since those heady days of 1990 is tonight’s panto dame. Alarmingly shorter than I had remembered – she looked like someone had taken a photo of her from back in the day and squashed it without keeping the aspect ratio the same – she wobbled onto stage in custom-made, mile high Adidas platforms, reappearing every other song wearing a different Grand Central Design-inspired costume.

Do what you’re doing, sing what you’re singing, go where you’re going, think what you’re thinking,” she belts out during opening number Loose Fit.

I’m thinking, Rowetta, this is going to be brilliant. And I’m not wrong. It’s a clever opener. The band saunter on in dribs and drabs, easing themsleves into the riff. Rowetta arrives in full-on panto dominatrix role, slowly circling the stage, whipping up a storm with a set of kid’s streamers, building the excitement until Shaun slopes on, all hunched shoulders and hands in pockets swagger. I swear the clock at the back of the hall did a quarter of a century slow-motion reverse.

Happy MondaysLoose Fit (from Baby Bighead bootleg, 1991)

Let’s see ya, then!” he says, removing his sunglasses for the first and last time of the night. We’re off and running. This tour is billed as the 24 Hour Party People Greatest Hits tour. Whether that means a retread of the debut album (it doesn’t, as it transpires) or we’re due a run through of 30 years of Happy Mondays’ greatest material (it doesn’t quite do this either) is clearly open to creative interpretation. I’m not entirely convinced the band themselves knew what they would be playing each night of the tour.

Now and again Shaun’ll lean over the set list. “Fookin ‘ell!” he’ll moan. “Here’s another one we ‘aven’t played since 1986.” It’s a terrific choice of songs on offer, from the clattering industrial funk of Clap Your Hands and Freaky Dancing to the Balearic-kissed Donovan and Bob’s Yer Uncle.

Happy MondaysKinky Afro (from Baby Bighead bootleg, 1991)

Stand-outs were a filthy Kinky Afro, a steroid-pumped 24 Hour Party People and a helium-high Hallelujah, dedicated to Kirsty MacColl. A euphoric mid-set Step On, a song that didn’t really do it for me back in the day (too populist for this old grump, y’see) did its very best to raise the roof on Friday night. The encore – an e-longated and trippy run through of Wrote For Luck was almost worth the price of admission alone.

Happy MondaysWrote For Luck (from Baby Bighead bootleg, 1991)

I say almost. Tickets for the gig were quite expensive. For a 30th anniversary show, you might expect it to be longer than 14 songs, over and out in about an hour and 20 minutes. I certainly did. By the time the last notes of WFL had stopped crashing off the Grand Hall’s walls, most of the band had run from the venue, steadfastly refusing any requests for signatures and selfies and were in a car on the way to their hotel “somewhere near Glasgow.” It’s the one gripe I have. That, and the fact I’m still waiting on the “quick 5 minutes” interview I’m sure they promised me before the show.

 

Hard-to-find

Somewhat Marrvellous, Somewhat Disappointing

My work today took me to Kilmarnock’s grand old Grand Hall, scene of the Ballroom Blitz and the venue in which during October 2015 Johnny Marr played a one-song soundcheck (The Headmaster Ritual) to an audience of one (me) before playing then signing my trusty old Telecaster and a couple of Smiths records before being joined by his band for the soundcheck proper. I was there today for a multi-agency course, part of which involved networking the room by finding the other lost souls who happened to have the missing parts of the same jigsaw that I’d found on my chair when I arrived. “Snowman?” some fellow room circulator would ask uncomfortably in your general direction. “Sorry, I’m an elf,” was my standard ridiculous reply. Once located, my fellow elves and I were allocated a table and a task, part of which involved telling a story to someone at your table. Given the venue and the fact that the chap next to me had already mentioned Gruff Rhys and Super Furry Animals, I fancied that he’d quite like my Johnny Marr story. As it turns out, he did, especially when I got to the punchline about how he played Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others on my guitar, his silver nail polish twinkling with each open-stringed twang.

There’s a version of Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others that appears on the new-ish Queen Is Dead box set. It’s listed as a demo and has all the hallmarks of a band finding their uncertain way with a new tune, but it’s quite spectacular. Johnny’s riff hasn’t quite developed into the full-blown shimmer of the album version, but, much like a moonlit sea in your favourite Mediterranean bay, it sparkles with a lucid quicksilver glisten, 80s chorus pedal effects ‘n all . It’s worth stopping to consider that Johnny was only 22 years ‘old’ when he wrote and recorded it, which brings more than a tear of frustrated disbelief to my eyes every time I think about it. When I was 22 I was still trying to master the bastard F chord. Johnny, of course, would choose to play his F by sticking a capo on the 4th fret and playing the much easier C chord, but how was I to know that back then?

The SmithsSome Girls Are Bigger Than Others (demo)


There’s a general feeling amongst the Smiths community that there was a great opportunity lost with the box set. I have to admit to a creeping sense of disappointment with it. It looks great and it sounds great, which is surely all that really matters, but at the eyewatering retail price (that I happily paid) I can’t help feeling a wee bit let down. I’ve lived with it since October and rather than dive in feet first with a hamfisted and potentially regretable review, I’ve waited this long before making my mind up.

It does look great. Sturdy and big, with the black shadow of the famous album cover looking righteous and regal on the front. (It is The Queen Is Dead, after all). But what was wrong with the original’s iconic racing green colour? Or the inner sleeve artwork? Where’s the Salford Lads Club image? That’s as much a part of Smiths’ heritage as the music itself. The new image, the girl wearing the Hatful Of Hollow t-shirt at the Westminster riots is a cracker. It says more than 1000 words ever could, but it’s a modern image. I get it. I appreciate why it’s there. But to include it at the expense of the original is just wrong, wrong, wrong. Perhaps Stephen Wright, the photographer that day at Salford Lads Club wanted a hefty fee for including his picture. Who knows?

And what about sleevenotes? Most box sets of this gravitas carry an extended essay from one or more of the makers and shakers. The Queen Is Dead has nothing. Smiths geeks such as myself love eeking out new information. When Mike Joyce told me a few months ago about the colour of shirt Morrissey was wearing when he recorded I Know It’s Over, well, stone me! I had to lie down in a darkened room for over 4 minutes. It’s mindless minutae to some but total treasure to me. And I’m far from alone in Smithdom. Where were the pictures of the recording sessions? The Smiths larking about with half-filled tea cups? Andy Rourke making bunny ears behind Morrissey’s untoppable quiff? They just weren’t there. That’s what was disappointing.

And the music? Well, it sounds fantastic. Johnny has done a smashing job remastering it. It’s clean, vivid, shiny and new, which I can say no more about my well-thumbed original. From now on, the new version is my go-to copy. I still have the original, of course, beautifully autographed by the wunderkid guitarist, so it’s not as if it’s going anywhere anytime soon, but I doubt I’ll ever play that particular copy again.

The demo tracks sound fantastic. Compared to the slightly ropey mp3s that circulated a few years ago, these sound like freshly-minted masterpieces. My problem is the lack of demos. There are, if you know where to look, more versions of these tracks out there, the parping Penny Lane by way of Coronation Street take of Frankly, Mr Shankly for starters. It’s by no means an era-defining complete set.

The SmithsFrankly, Mr Shankly (demo)

 

Likewise with the live album. I like the sleeve image of a skewed and wonky Jack Kerouac which, if you squint a bit and use your imagination, looks a wee bit like a morning after the night before Johnny. It would’ve made for a decent budget-priced release in its own right. It’s taken from a late-era Smiths show, with an interesting career-spanning setlist played by a band at the top of their game. It’s good ‘n all, but it sounds kinda flat. It certainly doesn’t have the metallic feral velocity of the Rank album. If you want to hear late-era Smiths in all their volume, stomp and glory, that’s the one for you. And as with Rank, it’s an incomplete show. Maybe the box set includes all of the show that was recorded, but I doubt it. What a missed opportunity!

For the vinyl lover – and there are literally thousands of Smiths fans who bought this boxet – the non-inclusion of the Derek Jarman-filmed Queen Is Dead promo is a glaring miss. There were other opportunities. What about a download code? That’s standard with any vinyl release nowadays. They might even have considered a second live disc of QID-era tracks. There’s that terrific Thank Your Lucky Stars bootleg that does the rounds. It’s sensational. And what about a cleaned-up version of the only ever live take of Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others? It’s worthy of inclusion for Morrissey’s extra Carry On Smiths verse alone.

The Smiths  – Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others (live, Brixton Academy, 12.12.86)

Maybe I’m expecting too much. Maybe not. But in an era when anyone from Bon Iver to Bon Jovi can get away with releasing a 10th Anniversary Edition album with all manner of bolted-on goodies, it does look like the people looking after The Smiths sold us short. The gullible fools that we are.

Hard-to-find

Code Crackers

I begin this post with one eyebrow arched in the direction of the tagline at the top of the page: ‘Outdated Music for Outdated People’ it reads, a tagline carrying more than a knowing inference that if you’re of a certain age you’ll like the subject matter herein. Not only that, but that you very likely also have the capacity to recognise your own status as an old fart, stuck, like my original copy of Bringing It All Back Home, in the grooves of yesteryear, unable to break out of the rut, incapable of turning that dial much farther away from the musical welcome mat that is BBC 6 Music, much less jump on board the next big thing.

I’m so stuck in the past that I can’t listen to a new band without yawning about how Pixies or The Beatles or the Velvet Underground or bore, bore, bore, someone else has done it already. Did I stop to think about how it works both ways when it dawned on me that I’d discovered the wonders of Neil Young via Teenage Fanclub? Did I heck. These days, I find it hard to spot talent in front of my very eyes until they’re three albums to the good and the act is suddenly playing the ABCs and O2s of the world. “How did they get so big?” is a familiar out-loud ponder when I read the gig listings. “Who even are they?

 

Blue Rose Code is such an act, four impeccable studio albums to the good, equally at home in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall as they are in the backroom of a forgotten East End pub. Their component parts are everything an (outdated) person such as you or I might look for in ‘new’ music; every mention of the band will point out a hint of the the wild, Celtic soul of the double denim ‘n flares era Van Morrison, a reasonable intake of the voodoo folk/blues of John Martyn and a smattering of Chet Baker’s late night jazz. For what it’s worth, to these ears they’re all that and more. If you like Elbow or the Blue Nile or Talk Talk or Joni Mitchell, you’ll love Blue Rose Code. Chances are, you know that already though.

Blue Rose Code come billed as a band when really it’s a vehicle for Ross Wilson, native of Leith, onetime of London and Bournemouth and occasionally of Manchester, to channel his fantastic songs from head to fingers and out into the world.

Pre-Blue Rose Code I was messing around in bands to little success. Blue Rose Code will always be me, but by taking on the mantle of a band name, I can play gigs with 3 musicians or 5  musicians or however many the budget allows.”

With Ross, there’s no pretence that he’s here for anything other than to disseminate his incredible songs to whoever is listening.

Blue Rose CodeOver The Fields (For John)

The titular John is John Wetton, ex of Roxy Music and King Crimson, whom Ross befriended during his time living in Bournemouth. John passed early in 2017 from cancer. His recurring end of days phrase of “Everything’ll be OK – we all go home,” struck a powerful chord with Ross and a song was born. Having recently lost my dad to cancer, well, I’m not embarrassed to say this song gets me every time.

Ross is canny enough to surround himself with the best players on the scene. His songs are just the half of it – it’s the music and the arrangements that complete them. On The Water Of Leith, the songs come wrapped in richly-embelished form. The critically-lauded launch gigs in Edinburgh and London featured a full complemement of musicians including pedal steel, a brass section and an expanded string orchestra which you can hear to great effect on To The Shore.

Blue Rose CodeTo The Shore

At his back to back Irvine shows recently in the small but perfect Harbour Arts Centre, those aforementioned budgetary constraints meant that it was a far more stripped-back but no less powerful Blue Rose Code who took the stage.  There was a tangible moment during the Friday show when the melodies tumbling freely from Ross’s acoustic guitar floated out into the ether, swirled just above the heads of the rapt audience and weaved in and out of the beautiful noise created by the electric piano on the right and the fluid, meandering electric guitar on the left and hung suspended for the briefest of moments. This was music you could practically touch, reach out and put in your pocket, the combined talents of three musicians creating something that was far greater than the sum of their parts.

When I’m asked to describe my music,” says Ross, “I usually say that people who don’t like folk music would call me folk, and people who do like folk wouldn’t.

Blue Rose CodeBluebell

The Water Of Leith skips happily between genres. Guest artists include multi-platinum country star Beth Nielsen-Chapman (that’s her on Over The Fields) and modern-day Scottish traditionalists Karine Polwart and Kathleen MacInnes. Ross semingly has no problem getting potential collaborators to work with him. Given the need to pigenohole music it might come as a surprise that he’s a massive fan of Drake. You might be even more surprised to learn that his dream collaborations would be with Kanye West and Garth Brooks – “People I wouldn’t ordinarily be expected to work with,” he explains.

In the past week or so, Ross has celebrated his own birthday, witnessed the birth of his baby daughter on the same day and been awarded Scottish Album Of The Year by tastemaker and shaker The Skinny, so who’s to say that Kanye collaboration is out of the question?

You can get your copy of The Water Of Leith in all the usual places. A very limited run of vinyl is available for sale here. I’d be quick if I were you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hard-to-find

It’s Just A Simple Metaphor

A week before my 16th birthday, with freshly-minted National Insurance card in my hand, I went into the local supermarket with my pal and left half an hour and one unexpected interview later – “Q. With what method should you lift a heavy box? A. “The mechanical method, of course.” –  with my first job. 4 hours on a Saturday morning and a further 3 on a Monday night would give me enough disposable income to buy a record and pay for a pint if I was lucky enough to be served, with enough left over to allow me to save a fiver for a rainy day. I can barely save a fiver nowadays, but back then the world was my oyster and the possibilities were endless.

That job paid for some of the best records in my collection. Once I’d discovered The Smiths, I’d buy a different 12″ each week until I’d caught up with their latest release. Likewise with New Order. The only other person I knew who liked The Smiths was Steven Cairney, so when he mentioned them in the same sentence as Echo & The Bunnymen and Lloyd Cole & The Commotions, those bands were next on my hitlist. A record collection that was thus far populated by the most generic of records – every evenly-numbered ‘Now‘ album for example, but only up until Now 8 (my gran bought me a Now album every Christmas and died after Now 8), a smattering of Adam & the Ants and Madness albums and a couple of Greatest Hits collections from Blondie and Queen – began to take shape, growing in direct corelation to the quiff on my head, previously cultivated in tribute to Love And Money’s James Grant but handily becoming more Morrissey-esque with each subsequent Smiths’ record.

To an extent mirroring what would become my current working environment as the token male teacher in a primary school, I worked as the only ‘man’ alongside a gaggle of slightly older girls, all friends who went to a different school from me. They were all at least a year above me. One or two had actually left school, and were students in Glasgow. When you’re 16, 18 year old girls seem incredibly exotic and so far out of reach. These girls weren’t actually that exotic – they were mostly from the Ayrshire backwaters (which, to some, makes them incredibly exotic) but they were definitely out of reach. All had boyfriends and chittered and chattered about them for every long hour of their shift. One or two of the boyfriends had cars and one, Tony, (I may have changed his name) had a motorbike. They always asked me about my hair, which I knew was a constant source of amusement for them. “Is it sticking up when you wake up in the morning?…….How d’you keep it up?” they’d ask in barely disguised metaphors. “With Brylcreem,” I’d reply obliviously. Giggle Giggle, gaggle gaggle, chitter, chatter, chitter, chatter, hee-hee-hee! For four hours every Saturday and three on a Monday after school.

On one shift, over the click-click-click of an old hand-held pricing gun, one of the girls got chatting to me about music. “D’you like Lloyd Cole?” she enquired. I’d only just bought Rattlesnakes on the back of Steven Cairney’s mentioning of them, so I talked a wee bit about it. In truth, I loved Rattlesnakes, I still do, but I wasn’t going in feet-first with that admission. “D’you like the song ‘Forest Fire’?” she asked. It was my favourite track on the album. “D’you know what Tony wrote to me? He left a note in my bag that said ‘We’re a forest fire, every time we get together.’ Isn’t that the most romantic thing you’ve ever heard?” It was just about the most adult thing I’d ever heard at that point in my life, that was for sure, and I can never hear Forest Fire without the flashback memory, me in my over-sized company work jacket, cuffs turned up out of necessity rather than in tribute to Don Johnson, she in her work-provided gingham dress and grown-up outlook on life. Flash bastard Tony, with his motorbike and his brilliant-looking desert boots and his collapsed-quiff fringe and his just-left-school boy about town swagger has forever killed it for me.

Lloyd Cole & The CommotionsForest Fire

It’s a great track though, and probably the first I heard where I realised a guitar solo didn’t have to mean a lightning-fast blur of fingers on the 24th fret of a jaggy-shaped hideous guitar. Johnny Marr didn’t go in for guitar solos at all and was the very antithesis of what a guitar hero was supposed to be. Will Sergeant peppered Echo & The Bunnymen’s finer moments with effect pedal-heavy shimmer, something I was unable to replicate on the cheap plank of wood I had the cheek to call a guitar. But on Forest Fire, Neil Clark’s slow-burning twang fits the mood perfectly, closing side 1 of the album with a brilliant repetitive refrain. It’s a guitar solo you can sing. It’s even a guitar solo I can play. It was, for many a year, the only solo I ever needed. Even if it’s been ruined by Tony forever.

Hard-to-find

Sole Music

Who Knows by The La‘s is the track that time forgot. Their one perfectly imperfect album, famously overcooked by a succession of well-intentioned producers, prodders and preservatists, and, despite John Leckie rounding up an actual Abbey Road mixing desk that had channelled yer actual Beatles and a Lennon solo session, devoid of the requisite amount of authentic 60s dust to sate Lee Maver’s unsatisfied and unsatisfiable mind nonetheless contains a dozen short ‘n snappy, frantically scrubbed belters; Way Out, Doledrum, I.O.U, I Can’t Sleep, There She Goes – I really should just list them all – clatter, clang and chime like the best of the band’s undeniable influences.

Mavers, and therefore by default, the band, hated the finished album so much they immediately disowned it. Everyone else though was enthralled by its lo-fi urgency and keening need to drag ‘indie’ music, at the time populated by greasy-fringed posh boys from the Home Counties who played their tunes through banks of overcooked effects pedals, back to a classic songwriting mentality. Too late for the golden era of 60s pop and too early for what would become (gads) Britpop, The La’s ploughed a lone, stubborn furrow for roughly the length of time it took their visionary leader to smoke a six foot spliff to the roach before vanishing in a fragrant puff of smoke.

With each passing year their legend grows. Aborted sessions with young Liverpool musicians too young to have appreciated The La’s first time around, sporadic, erratic live appearances including a short, unpublicised tour 7 or 8 years ago (drums played by the fella who cut Lee’s grass) and a rare spotting of Lee in a Liverpool local banging the bongos at an open-mic acoustic night have all gone a way to helping maintain the myth with a much-resigned and decreasing fanbase.

That sketch above appeared online a couple of weeks ago. Purportedly scribbled by Mavers himself, it’s another reason to hang in there. What else lies in drawers, in cupboards, in studios, long-forgotten?

Will we ever hear new La’s material again? Don’t be daft. Of course not. Thanks to the world wide web, there are a multitude of La’s demos, sessions and alternate versions to gorge yourself upon. Despite this though, two things remain tantalisingly conspicuous by their absence;

1. Lee Mavers has absolutely no online presence at all. He is a 21st century hermit. A recluse happy to live off the not insubstantial royalties that pour monthly through his letter box on the back of There She Goes‘ enduring appeal.

2. You can search and search. You can ask Siri. You might even still be able to Ask Jeeves, but you’ll never find more than one version of Who Knows, The La’s track that time forgot.

The La’sWho Knows

Who Knows is fantastic. Going by its non-appearance on any of the La’s demos or live shows that circulate, it was seemingly recorded once and once only, commited to tape and preserved forever as a one-off recording. Featuring a simple, cyclical acoustic riff and a fragile, voice in the dark vocal, it floats across the ether on a vapour trail of morse-code guitar transmissions, radio static and a heavy reverb that swallows the whole track up at the end. Someone should see that it soundtracks the shipping forecast and it would be the best thing ever.

Who knows what tomorrow knows? Who knows what the future holds? Who knows?

That’s it in a nutshell. Lee. In a room. Playing for no-one but himself. Thank goodness someone (Bob Andrews, since you’re here) magnetised it all to tape. It made its only appearance on the b-side of the original There She Goes single. The cosmic, slightlydelic yin to the shiny, radio-friendly yang. Those in the know should’ve put it on the album at the expense of Liberty Ship. It would’ve made the perfect Side 1 closer. Why didn’t they? Who knows indeed.

Mavers. 2017.

New! Now!

I Know This Much Is True

BBC4 on a Friday night fairly throws up some unintended gems. A Bluebell here. A Dexy there. A pre right wing Morrissey, helicoptering a bunch of gladioli above his towering quiff immediately afterwards. It’s the iPod on shuffle, sublime to the ridiculous nature of it all that makes it so watchable. Don’t like Nik Kershaw? That’s fine. Stick the kettle on, he’ll be off in a tick. Shakatak? Might as well stick a couple of slices of bread in the toaster while you’re there. Be quick though Dad, here comes Bananarama, a right eyeful of bleached hair and bleached denim who’ll just as quickly choreograph themelves off of the stage to make way for Spandau Ballet.

Tony Hadley, in his ridiculously high-waisted, multi-pleated leather trousers and pinky-pointing, skinny mic toting foppish 80s pomp thought he was the real deal. He knows which camera is on him and looks directly at it, head slightly up and flared nostrils to the fore, straining his way through True with all the grace of a wounded buffalo.

I bought a ticket to the wuh-huh-hurld, but now I’ve come back again,”

When the rest of Spandau Ballet drop out and leave his vocals heaving the second part of that line in dead air, you just know they turned to one another in the control room during the first playback on the day of recording it and high-fived one another, banding around ridiculous words like ‘Smokey‘ and ‘Marvin‘ and ‘soul‘ and combinations thereof. Soul for Ford Capri drivers maybe, but not real soul. To coin an ancient phrase, I know that, you know that, but they don’t know that.

Then there’s Curtis Harding. You might be familiar with him already. You might not, but you should make it your business to do so. He’s the real deal, Tony, and no mistake. From the ‘Curtis’ down, it’s a classic soul name. Syllabically it’s even the same as another of those greats; Cur-tis Har-ding/O-tis Re-dding. Alongside fellow forward-thinking retro revivalists such as Benjamin Booker and Leon Bridges, his second album is the latest in a line of brand new soul (not nu soul) records that take their cues from the best of the 60s and 70s recordings that defined the genre.

Harding first learned his trade like all good soul men do by touring the gospel halls with his piano-playing mum. Following a stint cutting his teeth in the backround with Outkast and Cee-Lo Green, he made the decision to step out front and go it alone. What sets Harding apart is his determined approach to push his chosen genre forward.

Curtis finds soul in Atlanta’s punk scene. He finds it at hip hop shows. Bob Dylan records. An old Sam Cooke 78. The phased and whacked out guitar sounds on the Nuggets compilation. Soul is everywhere might well be the Gospel According to Curtis Harding. If his debut Soul Power was a thing of assured beauty, the just-released follow-up Face Your Fear is even more so. This latest collection of songs, produced by Danger Mouse in his old school-friendly, analogue-heavy studio goes a long way to dispelling the myth that classic soul is a thing of the past. Face Your Fear might well be a contender for Album of the Year. I don’t think I’ll tire of playing it anytime before his next offering, it’s that good.

Curtis employs a magpie-like approach to twisting his influences into boxfresh originality. You’ll hear the obvious instruments associated with a soul album; pistol crack snares, filling-loosening basslines, clipped chicken scratch guitar, the occasional wah-wah, honey-coated brass stabs and sky-scraping string passages, not to mention the occassional call-and-response cooing of a sweet soul sister, but it’s the way they’re arranged that steers Curtis away from potentially hokey Lenny Kravitz pastiche territory and into a brave new world of modern soul.

 

Opener Wednesday Morning Atonement, with it’s wonky effects, descending bassline and effect-heavy “Hello children…” lead vocal could’ve come straight off one of those mid 70’s Stevie Wonder masterpieces, fuzz guitar and eerie strings notwithstanding.

Curtis HardingWednesday Morning Atonement

Buy the album!   UK   USA

 

The title track Face Your Fear is Curtis aping his more famous namesake, a falsetto-led minor key mini symphony. All that’s missing is a subtle wockawockawocka bed of gentle wah-wah guitar and you’d have a cut that wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack to Superfly.

Curtis HardingFace Your Fear

Buy the album!   UK   USA

Go As You Are is the track that back in the day you might’ve called the lead single. The more keen-eared amongst you may have heard it ‘spinning’ on BBC 6 Music over the past few days or so.

Curtis HardingGo As You Are

It’s Dr John by way of Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues, atmospheric, paranoid and moody as hell, Harding’s vapour trail vocals tapering off and out into the night.

Buy the album!   UK   USA

There are great albums and there are grrrreat! albums. Curtis Harding‘s Face Your Fear is one of them. Trust me.

 

 

 

 

Cover Versions, Get This!, Live!

Beach Bummer

I’ve kinda lost my way a wee bit with Neil Young. I bought Le Noise, 7? 8? years ago, played it once then filed it on the shelf alongside all the other inessential Neil albums of the time. Chrome Dreams II, for example. Or the live one that came out around 2001 and included a couple of tracks as yet unavailable elsewhere (I think). Without reaching for either of them, I doubt I could tell you a single track on them. Jeez – I can’t even tell you the name of one of them. You buy things out of blind loyalty to an artist and that’s what happens.


I’m also out of touch with where his Archive series is up to. Are we still just on Volume 1 of the sprawling, all-encompassing Blu-Ray only release? Like many here, I suspect, I’m quite happy to admit I liberated the best of that release via one of the many Torrent sites that clutter up the darker corners of the internet. Some of the stuff probably ended up featured in posts on Plain Or Pan too. And those first couple of live shows he released on his more budget-friendly Neil Young Archives Series – the Massey Hall and Filmore shows – are essential for any and all fans of raggedly-plucked acoustic rock and ragged and raucous sprawling rock music. A quick trip to Wiki tells me there are around a further half dozen such releases, no doubt all good, but I just don’t seem to have the time to invest in them. Sorry Neil, although I’ll probably get around to Hitchiker at some point soon. It does float my boat in all the best ways; vintage mid 70s material scrubbed up for these days? Sounds great.

                                  V Festival

Why though would you want to seek out a ropey live recording featuring Neil and his International Harvesters when you could be diving headfirst instead into his self-proclaimed ‘Doom Trilogy’? Neil, never one to conform to expectations was at an all-time career high with 1972’s Harvest album. Building on the themes and musical styles of its predecessor After The Goldrush, Harvest spawned an actual hit single, with the lilting cowboy balladry of Heart Of Gold seemingly assuring Young his place at the top table of FM-friendly pop alongside other chart-bothering acoustic balladeers such as Paul Simon and Don McLean. Instead, Young yanked hard on the steering wheel and, in his own words veered into the ditch.

“ ‘Heart Of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”

Interesting right enough. Friends ravaged by drugs. Failed relationships. Death. Despair. The end of the 60s ideal. Recommending Reprise Records sign this hippyish new singer by the name of Charles Manson…..


Young took the path less travelled, wrote the songs he wasn’t expected to write and ended up with a trilogy of fantastic albums. Much of this music achieved mythical, cult status as the years grew, due in no small part to  Young willfully deleting the key albums and, in the advent of the CD era, refusing to have them released on the shiny new format. Citing the poor sonic quality of the format (according to Neil, compared with vinyl only about 5% of the recorded music makes it from the CD and out of your speakers. The other 95% is a flattened, compressed version of the real thing), Neil Young hates CD with a passion. He’s analogue all the way, which is why if you can track down original vinyl copies of On The Beach, Time Fades Away and Tonight’s The Night you should buy them forthwith and revel in the tunes in the grooves.


On The Beach is easily one of my favourite albums of all time. Hardly a ringing endorsment from a barometer of hip opinion such as myself, but it truly is a terrific LP. Years ago my sister went a trip to New York and when she asked if I’d like her to bring me anything back, I replied that I’d hate to think she’d find a copy of On The Beach and not buy it. She only went and did. A first issue, Reprise Records release, with the famous psychedelic printing on the reverse of the cover too. An astonishing present.

Hardly a rollicking good time, On the Beach is the sound of depression, paranoia and nervous breakdown. But if it’s self-indulgent, self-obsessed music you’re after, look no further. Charles Manson, the young hopeful he’d suggested to Reprise had by now commited his heinous murders. Young sings about it in the scratchy, jittering Revolution Blues, assisted by The Band’s Rick Danko and Levom Helm on bass and drums and David Crosby on rattly and erratic rhythm guitar.

Neil YoungRevolution Blues

It’s the sound of anti-commercialism in every way. Downbeat, downplayed and downtrodden, Vampire Blues is an eco anthem before such things were considered, Young bemoaning the way the oil industry bore into US soil with scant regard for people or place. “I’m a vampire, baby, sucking blood from the earth,” he sings, a million miles away from Heart Of Gold and the Hot 100.

Neil YoungVampire Blues

Side 2 is even bleaker. Opening with the album’s title track, it starts in slow motion and, as the side progresses, gets slower still. To call it moody and introspective would be too kind. Dylan is moody and introspective. The Smiths are moody and introspective. Even Eurythmics can be moody and introspective. ‘Here comes the rain again’ and all that jazz. But side 2 of ‘On The Beach‘? Listen to it late at night with the lights dimmed low and a fine malt in your hand and you may just never make it upstairs to bed.

Neil YoungOn The Beach

The title track is a gorgeous, chiming ode to despair. “I went to the radio interview….I ended up alone at the microphone.” sighs Neil. “I think I’ll get out of town.” This is the same optimist who, only a few months earlier, had been singing  “I want to live, I want to love, I’ll be  a miner for a heart of gold.” Not now daddy-o. By the time you reach ‘Ambulance Blues‘, the album closer, Neil’ll be informing you that we’re all just wasting our time, “pissing in the wind“. Apparently, side 2 was originally to be side 1 and only at the last minute was Neil convinced to switch it around, something he immedialtely regretted. It means though that the album opens with the jaunty Walk On, a curveball as it turns out, before the mood of the album takes hold. If the album had been released as Young had intended, how many folk would’ve made it all the way to side 2?

*Bonus tracks!

Here’s Mercury Rev’s faithful reworking of Vampire Blues. I remember reading at the time that the band had planned to record the entire On The Beach album and add a track at a time to the b-side of future singles. Did they ever complete this? Seemingly I’ve lost my way with Mercury Rev too.

Mercury RevVampire Blues

Here’s Nina Persson of The Cardigans in her A Camp guise doing a terrific version of On The Beach at the Hutsfred Festival a few years ago. I’m sure this has appeared on Plain Or Pan before, but if you missed it first time ’round…

A CampOn The Beach