That tag at the top of this page – ‘Outdated Music for Outdated People‘ isn’t there for nuthin’ y’know. Joe Kane‘s latest project The Poppermost is exactly the sort of forward-thinking, retro-tastic music that floats this particular lockdown boat.
Released worldwide today, The A Piece Of The Poppermost EP is Beatles For Sale-era Fabs, all monochrome graphics and monophonic thunk. The attention to detail is obsessive; the structure and arrangements, the playing, the sentimentality… it’s all there alongside the in-jokes (Parlophoney – yes!!) and super-obscure references that even the most Beatle-obsessed Beatlehead might not spot first time around.
Borne out of a one man mission with his roots firmly planted in all things Fab – Joe has Rutled with Neil Innes, switched from right hand to left (such is his dedication and obsession with the minutiae) to play McCartney in all manner of Fabs ‘n Macca theatre acts – and he’s only gone the whole hog by recording his own music so in thrall to his idols as to be genuine rather than pastiche.
Not bound by such hinderances as, y’know, actual bandmates, The Poppermost finds Joe in his garage studio playing everything himself. Utilising an array of instruments, microphones and recording techniques, all glued together by bargain basement analogue junk – ‘shitty is pretty‘, says Joe, your innermost Fab Four desires will be sated by an affected Lennon-like ‘you wanted the werld and I gave you the werld‘ here, a woody McCartney bassline there, a multitude of 12 string chiming George middle eights, with everything held in place by multi-tracked handclaps and a Ringo-perfect compressed backbeat.
The EP is trailed by a terrific promo clip for the upbeat, clipped guitarisms of The Laziest Fella In The Realm. It’s quite spectacular.
See what I mean?
Elsewhere on the EP you’ll find Well I Will, a chugging, Beatle-wig flipping I Saw Her Standing There for the 21st century, replete with on-the-money Fab Four backing vocals, an era-defining guitar break and enough spontaneous yelps, woos and general Maccary to warm the heart of even the fiercest of Beatles naysayers. Great cowbell too.
The Poppermost – Well I Will
The EP takes a minute to gather its breath with the downbeat and ballady Get It Down, all sharply ringing acoustics and pitter-pattering I’ll Follow The Sun rhythms before rounding off in ballsy rocking manner with In & Out, a mid-temp head nodding Cavern Club stomper, all descending guitar runs and tumbling vocals throughout. Joe’s claim to be the self-styled King of the cunning coda would appear to be spot-on, given the overlapping, overloaded Fabisms in the final half a minute.
If you like your Fabness pitched somewhere between the lo-fi authenticity of The Stairs and the technicolour dreams of Jellyfish, you could do worse than head straight over to The Poppermost’s Bandcamp page to pick up your copy of ‘A Piece Of The Poppermost‘. An album will follow in June.
L McCarron. Avril Campbell. Graham. Hugo. T Heywood. RP Baker. Brenda Clack. Anne Jefferis. We’ll get to these people shortly. But first, a story that is also a life lesson.
It’s early 1985. The plans for Live Aid haven’t yet been hatched but Band Aid is still very much in the collective conscience of a nation which has rallied round to raise actual millions for ‘the starving children in Africa’ ((c) everyone’s mum, dad, gran and auntie at the time.) Doing their bit, the 2nd Irvine BBs are having a ‘Bring and Buy’ sale and, doing my bit, I hand over a pile of 7″ singles (“I no longer listen to them,” I rationalise, with alarming short-sightedness. “If I can help raise some money, I’m being a good citizen.”) Yes, maybe, but a foolish idiot to boot. Even as I give them away – Baggy Trousers, Stand & Deliver, Ally’s Tartan Army, Ghost Town, amongst half a dozen others – an internal voice is telling me not to be so bold, but before I can start a proper argument with myself, a smiling Mr Davey has taken them from me and placed them next to the pile of Topical Times football annuals, Commando books and Warlord and Victor comics. I have donated a little part of my life and I will never see them again.
I wonder what happened to them? It’s a thought that, believe it or not, creeps into my mind at least once a week. The world is collapsing around us in all sorts of unthinkable ways but what concerns me most is whether or not some happy-go-lucky browser at the bring ‘n buy stall still has my records. I’m assuming with hope that they were all bought at premium, African children-saving prices rather than binned at the end of the Bring and Buy sale, and that whoever bought them bought the entire lot rather than cherry-pick the good stuff. It was all good stuff! Surely the lucky buyer recognised that?
I wonder too, do they ever wonder who the initials ‘CMcA’ belong to? My early teenage mark was penned carefully on the lip of all my 7″ sleeves, on the back at the top, just where the record slides in, just as I’d noticed my dad’s were. Whenever I browse through old records in a charity shop (and it’s been a wee while) I half expect to turn up a copy of one or more of my errant singles. The chest thumping that accompanies the uncovering of an Ant Music or a dog-eared Dog Eat Dog is louder than the Burundi drums that first brought those records galloping into my life, but, so far, no luck. It’s becoming a nagging obsession, truth be told.
The long register of names that appear cursive and carefully printed on the labels and liners and back covers and bottom corners on many of the records in my own collection are a mystery. Who are they? Or who, perhaps, were they? Where did T. Heywood, with his one-time love of obscure Singaporian beat groups live? When did Graham choose to give all his Kinks 7″ singles to charity? Why did Brenda Clack choose to give her well-played mono copy of Help! to the British Heart Foundation shop? How did RP Baker’s mono Sgt Peppers sleeve (yes!!) end up with a stereo copy (och!) of the record inside it?
I suppose one person’s old clutter is another person’s golden treasure. And treasure hunters like us live for those moments when you happen to be in the right Cancer Research shop at the right time, when a back-breaking flick through the endless James Last and Super Stereo Sound Samplers returns an unexpected John Martyn record (aye!), or Talking Heads (aye, aye!!), or even a sleeveless Faces album. £1? Don’t mind if I do, thanks.
What journey did those records have before ending up with me? Were they, like those Two Tone and Adam & the Ants records of my own, bought with pocket money and brought home as fast as the purchasers’ legs could carry them? Were they played over and over until someone – a parent or an elder sibling, perhaps – demanded they be turned down or, “better still, off”? Did they soundtrack getting ready on a Saturday night? Did they blast at teenage parties? Or were they played once then filed embarrassingly away, unliked and unloved, before facing the indignity of being given to the charity shop along with all the other useless ephemera of life? We’ll never ever know. Well-worn, in some cases, hardly-played in others, these slices of black plastic – ‘pre-loved’, to use current parlance – are once again enjoying a new lease of life in my own record collection.
If you listen really carefully while they spin in thunderous mono and crackling stereo, their grooves breathe little sighs of joy.
Anne Jefferis may have chosen to biro a love heart around one of the pictures of Paul McCartney on the gatefold sleeve of Beatles For Sale, but then, she also enhanced the inner sleeve with stapled and sellotaped cut-out images of the Fab Four from Teen Beat or Beatles Monthly or whichever pop magazine of the era was her preferred reading material. Yellowing, crackling and flaky, the tape still holds in place most of the cut outs that were stuck there 56 years ago.
The Beatles – Rock And Roll Music
Whenever I play the record, as I was doing earlier this morning, I like to think of Anne, wrapped up in McCartney (and, clearly, a wee bit of Ringo too), obsessing over the harmonies and chords and total fabness of the songs that fly off the the record with total giddy joy.
Did Anne Jefferis simply tire of The Beatles? Surely not! John Lennon’s sandpapered ‘n leathered larynx on that downhill-without-the-brakes-on gambol through Chuck Berry is enough to keep The Beatles close to anyone’s heart for evermore. Did Anne perhaps pass away, her well-loved records thrown out with the other unwanted remnants of her life? (What other records did she have?!?) We’ll very likely never know.
The music…and the people who first owned them – Anne, RP, Brenda, Hugo and the many others…all live on with every subsequent play. I hope those records of mine are still spinning somewhere too. They bloody well better be.
Like many folk in this part of the world, I made it along to Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum to see the Linda McCartney photography exhibition.
It’s an interesting curation loosely split into three sections; family, music and nature. It’s the music related shots that brought me there and they did not disappoint. Alongside the numerous Beatles and McCartney images – there’s enough previously unseen stuff to sate the mind of the most anal of Beatles bores – there are fantastic portraits of Hendrix, Jim Morrison, The Yardbirds, the Stones…. all the main players of the era.
A strict ‘No Photography’ notice meant that my own shots were taken on the hoof, with one eye over my shoulder, sweaty fingers trying to shoot silently and swiftly. Like a real action snapper, I suppose.
A combination of being well-connected and being in the right place at the right time, Linda shot much of the counterculture in the States, landing the role of in-house photographer at the Fillmore East in New York before blagging a job in London to photograph the Sgt Pepper’s press launch. Famously self-taught, she aligned herself to the greats of 60s music – Lennon, McCartney and Dylan, “none of whom could read music….it’s the innocence that’s important to them,” by saying that her lack of training, her lack of knowledge on what was ‘right’, helped her capture the perfect shot.
Her photographs are generally fantastic. One such shot was of Beatles fans taken from the passenger side of the car as it sped out of Abbey Road. There’s another, possibly from the same day, of Paul reflected in the rear view mirror, a London bus coming in the opposite direction. Much of it is rapid fire, in the moment stuff and as a result, far more interesting than a carefully-planned photo session.
If ever the phrase ‘winging it’ applied to anyone, it was to Linda McCartney. And once ensconced in Paul’s band, she took it to a whole new level. Paul wasn’t about to take heed of what anyone thought though. He trusted Linda with keyboard duties and occasional vocals and she gamely met the challenge. After heavy criticism of his first two albums, Paul assembled a band that he could write with and take on the road – get back to where he once belonged, ‘n all that. The result was Wings and Wild Life, an odd album in many ways, but one which has enough McCartney magic that it deserves reappraisal.
You’ll need to wait until side 2 before hitting the good stuff, mind you. There’s a theory that the running order for Wild Life album is quite deliberate, that it reflects the ebbing and flowing of a just put-together band getting to grips with one another’s quirks and foibles, seeing what one another is capable of before knuckling down to the serious stuff on the second side.
Side 1 kicks off with a throwaway one-two, a leather lunged McCartney shouting “Take it Tony!” before leading his new bandmates through Mumbo (as in mumbo jumbo no doubt, on account of the nonsense words and sounds McCartney screams with feeling throughout); four minutes of bad boy boogie; groovy rockin’ guitar, occasional “oooh!” backing vocals and Hammond interludes, all underpinned by pounding piano and McCartney’s driving bass. It’s immediately followed by the shuffling Bip Bop, another mainly instrumental track where the band lay down a groove and take it as far is can go. Which isn’t all that far at all. McCartney was embarrassed by the finished results, claiming it to be the worst song he’d ever written. The groove continues though with a quirky cover of Mickey & Sylvia’s Love Is Strange. Reimagined as skifflish tropical lite-reggae, Paul duets with Linda, mirroring the Everly Brothers’ version that he would have been familiar with.
Warm-up out the way, the band begin to knuckle down to the good stuff. The title track closes side 1, a lilting, waltzing, slow-burner of a song, all descending chords and ahead of their time eco-friendly lyrics. McCartney slides effortlessly into that Little Richard impression he’d worked on on all those early Beatles records as Linda and Denny Laine provide the harmonies in the chorus. Signs of promise then for the rest of the album.
Side 2 opener Some People Never Know may well be my favourite solo McCartney track.
Wings – Some People Never Know
It’s got all the essential McCartney ingredients; great chord progression, compressed drums, loose and funky acoustic guitar playing – those subtle string bends are what sets him apart – and a melody that apparently tumbled from the gods. A love song to Linda, it’s a critic-bashing fuck you to the haters who still can’t get over the fact Paul split The Beatles and chose instead to make records with his wife.
No one else will ever see
How much faith you have in me
Only fools would disagree that it’s so
Some people never know
It’s simple stuff. Enhanced by piano, occasional sleigh-bell and percussive handclaps it’s the sort of track that would’ve slotted effortlessly onto one of those late era Beatles albums. There’s even a weeping slide guitar part that George could’ve played beautifully straight off of the fretboard and out into the ether. Those handclaps and sleigh-bells towards the end bring to mind a busker’s version of Hello Goodbye‘s “He-llo, hey hello-ah!” outro. McCartney’s current touring band could do a really great version of it, although I’m not sure if Paul’s voice could handle the highs and lows of the scales he goes through. If you discover one McCartney back catalogue gem this week, make it Some People Never Know. I guarantee you’ll play it to death.
If Paul McCartney had a signature move during those solo years it was that he’d revisit a track towards the end of the album (Ram/Ram On etc) and on Wild Life, a short mid side reprise of Bip Bop, this time played as a downhome White Album 12 string acoustic instrumental gives way to Tomorrow, another cracker packed full of Beatlish harmonies, unexpected chord changes and the sort of sparkling guitar that last turned up on Abbey Road. Indeed, it wouldn’t sound out of place on that album at all.
The side concludes with the downbeat but beautiful Dear Friend, a piano ballad that addresses his relationship with John Lennon. On Ram, Too Many People hinted at Yoko’s unwanted involvement in all things Beatles. Lennon replied with the biting How Do You Sleep (‘the only thing you done was yesterday, and since you’re gone you’re just another day‘) and the pair tittle-tattled back and forth. Dear Friend was written during the Ram sessions and had he chose to include it on that album, it may have had a different effect on the acerbic Lennon. As it was, by the time of Wild Life, enough public sparring had gone on for McCartney to release the heartfelt tribute to his old pal and former band mate. It’s stark, skeletal and carried by a sympathetic string section as far removed from Spector’s disastrous Long And Winding Road score as possible. A fine closer to a fine album. Get on that there Spotify or whatever and pleasantly surprise yourself. And then get yourself along to Kelvingrove at some point if you can. The exhibition runs until the middle of January next year. No excuses, really.
As the 70s confined the 60s to history, Paul McCartney was public enemy number one. Looking for a scapegoat to blame for the break-up of The Beatles, all fingers pointed in his direction. Just 7 days after the band’s lawyers made the rumours official, he released his debut self-titled solo album, stealing the march on The Beatles Let It Be album, still a month away from hitting the shops.
Recorded on the hop between Beatles’ sessions, sometimes booking into Abbey Road under an assumed name, McCartney was written, played and produced entirely by the man himself. Despite the inclusion of Junk and Maybe I’m Amazed (and the autobiographical Every Night) – two three bona fide McCartney classics, the critics hated it/him. They blamed him for the Beatles split, they thought him cynical for having an album ready to go so quickly and they poked holes in what they considered half-finished songs and ideas.
Paul McCartney – Every Night
Hindsight of course brings fresh ears and perspective to the album. Recorded just half a year on from McCartney’s kitchen sink ‘n all Abbey Road medley, the yin to the solo album’s lo-fi yang, its close-miked and down-home recording offers an honest insight into McCartney’s state of mind at the time. Contentment sits side by side with piano balladry, scrubbed acoustics and interesting instrumentals.
Paul McCartney – Momma Miss America
Momma Miss America runs the gamut of McCartney’s talents; groovy keyboard, compressed drums, funky bass played like a lead guitar and a stinging solo straight offa Abbey Road‘s The End. It’s one of the album’s most enjoyable tracks. Remember that Kia Ora advert from years ago – “It’s too orangey for crows…“? They shoulda used this to soundtrack it.
While McCartney isn’t an 18 carat gold 10 out of 10 debut, it’s a great portent of what was just around the corner.
Ram is McCartney’s first great ‘solo’ LP. The only album to be credited as ‘…by Paul and Linda McCartney‘, it came just 13 months after McCartney. Stop and consider McCartney’s output at this time; September ’69 saw the release of Abbey Road. April ’70 saw his debut released, just a few weeks before The Beatles’ Let It Be album, and in May ’71, Ram made itself known. That’s an astonishing run of releases. Most musicians would happily retire on the strength of those records in such a short space of time.
Ram was recorded in New York featuring session musicians including future Wings stickman Denny Seiwell. A direct answer to the critics’ accusations of McCartney‘s lo-fi, low budget, low quality material, McCartney went all-out for an album that could match anything he’d done in The Beatles. Recording began in October 1970 (just six months on from that debut release, remember, and bang in the middle of a court case surrounding the dissolution of The Beatles) with McCartney very much in control (and in love). When he’s not singing of married life – Eat At Home and The Back Sea Of My Car painted a picture of domestic bliss – he’s airing his dirty laundry in public. Too Many People was a thinly-veiled dig at John and Yoko and collectively, the remaining Threetles considered 3 Legs very much an attack on them. Again, the critics hated it. Lennon too. They thought it smug, inconsequential and irrelevant. Given the backdrop of music at the time – The Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Who’s Next, Led Zeppelin IV, Sabbath’s Master Of Reality – you could say that McCartney was well out of step with the fads and fashions of the era. Which, of course, makes Ram all the more incredible.
I’ve been somewhat obsessed the past week or so with Heart Of The Country. Leading off side 2, it’s a simple countryish strumalong, a rootsy and rustic distant cousin of Mother Nature’s Son, played by McCartney on a down-tuned guitar, loose and light and airy. Reflecting domestic life on High Park Farm on the Mull Of Kintyre, I want a horse, got a sheep, he sings, wanna get me a good night’s sleep….looking for a home in the heart of the country, it’s easy to see why McCartney could easily get up the noses of critics and ex Beatles. The accompanying video only hammered the point home.
The best bit about the song, of course, is when McCartney breaks into that free-form scat section. Pitched somewhere between his own Rocky Raccoon and Stevie Wonder’s future Sir Duke (I wonder if sly ol’ Stevie was taking notes?) it’s further proof that McCartney did not give two hoots what anyone thought of him. On first listen it sounds throwaway, nonsensical and off-the-hoof, but listen back…the scat mirrors exactly what he’s doing on the fretboard…..and what he’s playing is hard to master. My fingers have tied themselves in knots this week attempting its ridiculous rapid-fire jazz.
No sooner had McCartney released Ram than he was back in the studio. By the end of the year, just 7 months later, the first Wings album would be released. That album, an underplayed and undervalued minor classic, deserves a whole post of its own sometime soon…
In their early days, Low were known to obtusely turn the volume down at gigs rather than up, so that their audience was forced to listen to them. Perhaps that’s why they’re so called, named in a defiant, low-volumed protest to the ramshackle, turned-up-to-11 grunge bands of the day. Or perhaps it’s because the audience would often sit on the floor at their shows, again in defiance of the crowd surfing and body slamming that was commonplace on their circuit. I imagine though that they’re called Low simply because they have the knack of mentally bringing you down.
Low inhabit an arcane, sepia-tinged world where time slooooooows down, crawls to an eventual halt and, with a lethargic burst of lung-bursting effort, rolls into creaky reverse. Not for them the modern day currency of of a sampler or sequencer or ProTools production. Heck, they’ve only just discovered electricity. Low’s is a world where Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris are king and queen, where major chords segue into minor chords over the course of marathon-lengthed songs that belie their actual three and a half minutes and where an Everly Brothers harmony aces all. Listen carefully and you might hear the faint whirr of an old tyme 78 cranking up ethereally in the background.
They’re hard work, are Low. Their current album Double Negative has wormed its way quietly into the critics’ ‘Best Of 2018′ lists but I found it a bit slow, a bit samey and as tortuous as a month of Sundays. Perhaps I need a second listen. Perhaps I need to listen to it once, in all honesty, all the way through without feeling the need to tap my watch face and check that time was indeed moving forwards before giving up at track 3? 4? 9? I dunno. Perhaps I’ll do so after removing this pencil from my eye. Their Christmas album is a bit cheerier, the go-to hipster choice for those seeking a Mariah and Slade-free festive period, but it still has its treacly moments.
If you want to indulge in a little Low, may I point you in the direction of their slo-mo, downbeat shuffling take on The Smiths’ Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me. Soaked in reverb, bathed in pathos and moving majestically between Johnny Marr’s majors and minors, it’s fantastic. Gothic cowboy music at its very best.
Low – Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me
Or you might want to try their achingly hearfelt take on George Harrison’s Long Long Long. The quiet Beatle’s original was never the most upbeat of tracks to start with but Low take it somewhere new. It sneaks under the radar and ebbs and flows, falls and rises and falls again with double vocal dynamics, scrubbed acoustic guitar and a droning keyboard that gently noodles it off and out into the ether.
The previous post (on Elliott Smith, below) was written on the back of the Sgt Pepper anniversary/reissue jamboree. By coincidence, so is this one.
Sgt Pepper turned the world on its axis. The day it was released, the 60s went from the monochromed mundanity of a smog-filled Britain with wee men in bowler hats running the country to a cosmic technicolour planet where anything was possible. And anything was possible. On the 4th June 1967, just two days after Pepper came out, Paul and George found themselves at The Saville Theatre for a Jimi Hendrix Experience show. Hendrix, perfectly aware that half of The Beatles were in attendance had the mother of all aces up his silken batwinged sleeve.
Hendrix had appeared from nowhere, brought to Britain by The Animals’ Chas Chandler, immediately establishing himself as a top fixture in all the right clubs in swinging London. He was a top-heavy hippy in military garb, supported by sparrow-narrow legs with hair as wild and electric as the upside-down Strat he toted. Jaw-dropping in both sound and ability, Jimi could play lead and rhythm concurrently, his big right thumb working the bass notes the way a conventional guitarist might use his first finger. With black-as-coal hamster eyes permanently sparkling he sent multicoloured notes of amplified electric greatness out into the ether. He was untouchable.
To open The Saville Theatre show, Jimi and his Experience worked up a version of Sgt Peppers‘ lead track, slow and sludgy, loose and on the edge of falling apart, unmistakeably Hendrix and super-thrilling. Jimi replicated the whole thing, even playing the brass section as guitar riffs. A guitar-heavy track to begin with, Hendrix made it his own. A thrilled Paul and George watched from the balcony as Jimi caught their eye and smiled his knowing, lopsided, stoned grin.
Jimi opened, the curtains flew back and he came walking forward, playing ‘Sgt. Pepper’, and it had only been released on the Thursday so that was like the ultimate compliment. It’s still obviously a shining memory for me, because I admired him so much anyway, he was so accomplished. To think that that album had meant so much to him as to actually do it by the Sunday night, three days after the release. He must have been so into it, because normally it might take a day for rehearsal and then you might wonder whether you’d put it in, but he just opened with it. It’s a pretty major compliment in anyone’s book. I put that down as one of the great honours of my career. I mean, I’m sure he wouldn’t have thought of it as an honour, I’m sure he thought it was the other way round, but to me that was like a great boost. (Paul McCartney)
Jimi Hendrix Experience – Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (Saville Theatre, London, 4.6.67)
One of the best Beatles’ covers? Quite possibly. You’ll have your own ideas, no doubt. Beatles’ covers are ten-a-penny. We all know that. The Sgt Pepper album was treated to the full monty in 1987 when the NME, back in the days when it was still a barometer of hip opinion, released the whole album in cover form. It’s a fairly stinking album, all truth be told. It did raise money for charity, getting Wet Wet Wet’s version of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends‘ to number one in the process, and it did give Billy Bragg a back-door entry to the top of the charts (the barking bard from Barking’s version of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ was on the b-side) but, 30 years on, it’s best forgotten about.
In contrast to Jimi’s spectacular take on the title track, Three Wize Men (Google won’t help) bravely attempted a none-more-80s hip hop version of the same track. Perhaps at the time it was a radical thrill (I doubt it) but nowadays it sounds about as edgy as something Age Of Chance might’ve left lying unloved on the studio floor.
Three Wize Men – Sgt Pepper
The album closer, by that most NME of bands The Fall, is a bit better, this album’s saving grace, even, even if Mark E Smith sounds totally bored by the whole concept. He probably was.
There’s a wee bit of a media-fixated Beatles renaissance going just now, what with Sgt Pepper turning 50 and fortnightly reissues of their back catalogue racked up in the Spar alongside Tank Commander Monthly and Build Your Own Millenium Falcon Weekly. It’s a great time to be discovering them for the first time. Who cares if someone’s first exposure to Hey Bulldog is via De Agostini publishing?
Fast track back to the mid 90s and arguably the first flourish of serious Beatles reappraisal since the demise of the band. With their self-proclaimed monobrowed monopoly on all things Fab you could be forgiven for thinking that Oasis had cornered the market in Beatles-influenced music. Just because they shouted louder and played louder and just were louder in every sense didn’t mean they were the only ones with a fevered fascination for the Fab Four. The louder the gob, the bigger the knob ‘n all that. If you listen closely to their music these days, is it even possible to spot The Beatles’ references? Is it? Well, aye, it is. A wee bit. Some of their less-ballsy records have the ‘feel’ of late-era Beatles – All Around The World‘s universal message sounds like the sort of song a lazy advertiser might come up with if tasked with creating a Beatley tune in an afternoon, and Liam is awfully fond of doing his best Lennon sneer atop a grandly played piano. Many of their harmonies are quite clearly direct second cousins of the real deal, but after that, I’m stumped. There are far better bands who’ve dipped deep into the best back catalogue in popular music and pulled out their own skewed version of Fabness. You’ll have your own favourites.
And so to Elliott Smith. If you’ve been visiting Plain Or Pan since the glory days of 2007, you’ll know he’s a big favourite round here. He still is. Indeed, his 4th album, 1998’s XO is currently spinning for ther umpteenth time this week. After years of being out of print on vinyl, it finally made it back onto wax a couple of weeks ago. My eye was off the ball when initial copies went on sale and I missed out on the very limited (500 copies, I think) marbled vinyl version, so I had to settle for the standard black 180 gram edition instead. No big deal really. Really. No, really! I’ve lived with the CD since the day of release, discovered when I was working on the counter of Our Price where it was a ‘Recommended Release‘ that week. I played it three times straight through that afternoon in a fairly empty shop, each subsequent play making my jaw drop a notch closer to the sticky carpet. His voice! Gossamer-light and as fragile as fuck. His playing! Beautifully picked arpeggios one moment, brightly ringing fancy chords the next, no solos but lead breaks that aped the vocal melody – just like Paul McCartney. His arrangements! Double-tracked and beautifully harmonised vocal effects, weird ‘n wonkily off-key pianos, little melodic runs up and down the fretboards and keys….. total Beatles! While the Mancunian magpies were belching loudly about their love for The Beatles, here was Elliott Smith very quietly and unassumingly wearing his obvious love for them, not only on his sleeve, but in the grooves inside the sleeve.
XO is a fantastic album. It was Elliott’s major label debut and followed hot on the heels of Either/Or, the undisputed ace in his back catalogue up until then. Either/Or is also packed full of introspective, whispered songs. Alameda. The Ballad Of Big Nothing. Say Yes. Between The Bars. Angeles. All are what you might loosely call ‘Greatest Hits’, had Elliott been fortunate enough to have had such things. All feature the signature double-tracked vocal (like Lennon), the melody-chasing guitar (like McCartney) and the unassuming resignation of George Harrison; always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Even at the Oscars, when a crumpled and bemused Elliott performed after the Good Will Hunting soundtrack received a nomination, he was the outsider. Celine Dion might’ve beat him to the gong, but who in their right mind would want to play that Titanic song 20 years later? Conversely, Elliott’s music endures.
What Either/Or lacks is clarity and sheen. It’s very lo-fi and indie. Coffee house music for misfits who’ve fallen on hard times and hard drugs. XO has a bright and shiny polish to it, reflected (gettit?) in the fact that much of it was recorded in California and LA.
Opener Sweet Adeline was the clincher for me. Just Elliott and his guitar, with descending riff and wonky chord included, the clouds part at the first chorus and sunlight bursts in in the form of glorious harmonies and barrelhouse piano, the drum sound not a million miles away from something Ringo might’ve strived for around 1967.
Elliott Smith – Sweet Adeline
I knew there and then that this was an album I was going to love. By the breakdown at the end, the whole thing sounds a wee bit like the breakdown from Sgt Pepper’s Lovely Rita. This is immediately followed by Tomorrow Tomorrow, Elliott singing counter melodies to himself while he plays the most amazing ringing guitar – a 12 string with 4 strings missing, closely miked and double-tracked (again) to sound like a whole orchestra of guitars. The songs that follow on are stellar. Waltz #2 was the album’s near hit; a piano and acoustic guitar fighting for top billing, lilting and waltzing (aye) to a cinematic end with sweeping, swooping strings. And did he really sing about ‘Cathy’s Clown‘ in the first verse? Yes! This was confirmed on the 2nd listen.
Elliott Smith – Waltz #2
The only Everly’s reference I’d ever heard in song was McCartney’s ‘Let ‘Em In‘ and here was another. It was a sign. Three songs in and I had discovered an album that remains to this day an essential album, one of my very own Recommended Releases. To paraphrase Brian Clough, I wouldn’t say XO is the best album ever written, but it’s in the top one.
There’s plenty more Beatleisms throughout; Bottle Up And Explode has an ending that George Martin would’ve loved putting together, layer upon layer of vocals and guitars and strings and weird effects and kitchen sinks. It’s very Fab.
Elliott Smith – Bottle Up And Explode
As is Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands, a song that sounds as if it’s going nowhere until Elliott drops a clanger of a swear word and the whole thing ramps up a gear on the back of it. The ending has a great clash of sighing cellos, sighing backing vocals and a crescendo half-way between The Smiths’ Death Of A Disco Dancer and a DIY Day In The Life.
Elliott Smith – Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands
Bled White is another. Ringing guitars, electric organ and a fantastic (fabstastic?) call and response vocal. This is music made in the studio, deliberately written to sound as good as possible in recorded form.
Elliott Smith – Bled White
Many acts go for the feel of the music, the spontaneity that a live performance brings. Elliott live was by all accounts a very hit and miss live act, and going by the numerous bootlegs I’ve listened to over the years, this would seem true. No stranger to stopping songs midway through if he wasn’t feeling it, he’d half-heartedly and quite possibly deliberately lead his band through a lumpen car crash of a song one night then play a spellbinding acoustic version the next. Tracks like Bled White could never sound great live. But recorded for posterity on XO, they sparkle immortally.
Elsewhere, you’ll find the bedsit Beach Boys harmonies on Oh Well, Okay have the potential to induce real tears. The wee cello swell after a minute or so is your starter for ten.
Elliott Smith – Oh Well, Okay
Album closer I Didn’t Understand wafts in on a raft of a-cappella vocals, just like Because on Abbey Road – a track Elliott would go on to cover on the aforementioned Good Will Hunting soundtrack, funnily enough. I could go on and on. Suffice to say, XO is well worth investing in if you’ve never had the pleasure.
To finish, here‘s Elliott doing The Beatles. Reverential and respectful.
George Harrison, the youngest Beatle, bullied by John and Paul into 2nd tier status in the band, was essentially the runt of the litter yet wrote some of their most enduring songs. When writing sessions were underway ahead of a new Beatles’ recording, poor George had to bide his time while the other two writers hogged the limelight with their latest offerings. Only after they had been given careful consideration would George be allowed to show off what he’d been working on. In any other band, he’d have been the principal writer and held in higher esteem, but in The Beatles he was lucky to get more than one of his tracks onto each album.
By 1968’s ‘White Album’, George had a handful of future classics under his belt. Writing sessions in Rishikesh in northern India proved particularly fruitful. The Beatles plus associated wives/girlfriends along with a raggle-taggle mismatch of musicians and actors (Donovan, Mike Love, Mia Farrow and her sister ‘Dear’ Prudence) gathered at the feet of the Maharishi to find out the ways of tanscendental mediatation.
The trip was not without incident; Ringo visited a doctor due to a reaction to the inoculation he’d taken before going, John complained that the food was lousy (Paul and Jane Asher loved it) and the Maharishi, as peace-loving and spiritual as he may have been, turned out to be a randy old man, intent on bedding as many of the female guests as he could.
George was particularly taken with meditation, leading John to quip, “The way George is going, he’ll be flying a magic carpet by the time he’s forty!”
Against this backdrop, John, Paul and George wrote many songs that would appear on the new Beatles’ album at the end of the year. Donovan turned John onto a new style of fingerpicking that he’d picked up from the folk clubs and Lennon put it to good use on Dear Prudence. George might’ve been equally inspired, as the descending bass run that characterises Dear Prudence makes it into a couple of his own songs on the White Album.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps began life as a downbeat campfire singalong; folk in a minor key, with the ubiquitous descending bass line offest by an uplifting bridge. It’s understated and simple, nothing like the album version.
George Harrison – While My Guitar Gently Weeps (demo)
George had to wait an agonising 8 weeks from the start of the album sessions before being given the chance to showcase it. Quite how he kept his mouth shut as John ran through days and days of tape loops creating the arty (but tuneless, let’s be clear) Revolution 9 while Paul completed dozens of takes of the reggae-lite Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da and even Ringo had his moment in the spotlight with his honky tonkin’ Don’t Pass Me By is very impressive, but when given his moment (“I always had to do about ten of Paul and John’s before they’d give me the break,”) he rose to the occassion.
The demo of While My Guitar Gently Weeps was used as the blueprint and added to with layer upon layer of guitar and vocals through the use of an 8-track recording machine (the first Beatles’ track to do so) until it was the super-heavy version that appears on the album. An uncredited Eric Clapton was asked by George to play guitar on it. George had been bemoaning the fact that he’d spent hours aimlessly trying to recreate a weeping sound for the track and asked his pal instead to play the solo, which he did with majestic, understated aplomb.
The Beatles – While My Guitar Gently Weeps
It’s a perenial favourite, never bettered than when Prince put the other ‘stars’ – heavyweights Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood – firmly in their place with his outrageously brilliant cameo at the 2004 Rock ‘N Roll Hall Of Fame. Two questions, the first rhetorical. How overjoyed does Dhani Harrison look when the wee man steps up and takes the song to a whole new level?
Secondly, what happens to Prince’s guitar at the end? Watch….
I’ve lived with The Beatles‘ Abbey Road for nigh on 30 years. I first heard it as a boggle-eyed (or should that be eared?) teenager via Irvine Library’s record lending service during my ‘sponge years’ when I soaked up everything and anything I thought I might like. Deep Purple? Nah. Cat Stevens? Nah. Pink Floyd? Some of it, not all of it. Status Quo? Aye! Too right! (The early ‘Quo, mind.)
Abbey Road was a whole different level of great though. It wasn’t the first Beatles album I’d heard. Or maybe it was. My dad had a compilation on cassette that played on regular rotation on the kitchen’s cassette player – it might’ve been the ‘Red’ one or the ‘Blue’ one, although I suspect it was probably a made up selection of songs someone had taped for him. Abbey Road, with it’s lack of ‘yeah yeah yeahs’ and guitar solos as long as the Fab Four’s hair seemed almost anti-pop, a grown-up album by grown-up musicians. I loved it.
The whole album didn’t quite fit onto the one side of a D90, but I taped it as far as it would go before the tape ran out. The other side of the tape probably had ‘No Parlez‘ by Paul Young or something equally horrible on it, so frustratingly, sacrilegiously, my version of the album always ran out just as Ringo’s drum solo in ‘The End‘ was reaching fever pitch.
It was only a few years later when I got the CD that I realised there was a hidden track of sorts at the very end. No doubt I’d have heard Her Majesty on the first listen of the knackered library copy I borrowed, but its misplaced positioning evaded my ears until I began buying CDs a few years later.
My CD copy of Abbey Road is as well-worn as a shiny plastic thing can get. These days you can count your plays on iTunes. Had this been the case years ago, I’d be well into triple figures with Abbey Road. I know it inside out and back to front. Or, at least, I thought I did.
Over Christmas I got my old turntable working again. I’ve always had a turntable, but in the year 1997 BC (Before Children, when I was relatively flush with cash) I upgraded to a decent separates system and I stupidly neglected to upgrade the turntable. It was all about CDs by then, y’see. When the well-worn Pioneer finally gave up the ghost, I was turntable-less for the next 15 and a half years.
I liberated the Dual deck from the stock room of the Our Price I worked in on the day I left. Long-since retired, it was an unloved relic of a bygone era, an era when Our Price sold only records, and gimmicky fashion statements such as Tamagochis and mobile phones had yet to be thought of. It was built like a tank though, designed to play records non-stop from 9-5.30, 6 days a week, with 4 extra hours every Sunday. A visit to the loft to retrieve it, followed by a couple of visits to YouTube (for instructions) and eBay (for a belt and stylus) and then followed by a bit of ham-fisted tinkering around with a can of electrical contact cleaner had it working like it was 1991 again. And music has never sounded better.
I recently got around to getting Abbey Road on vinyl. Not an original, it’s one of the remastered stereo versions from a few years ago. It sounds amazing! Bass and drums especially. They’re warm, dynamic and in-the-room there. I’m no audiophile, but from what I can tell, this version of the LP is brilliant. I’m all for listening to music on whatever format is available, be that hissy FM radio or hassle-free mp3, but for all its snap, crackle and pop, I love vinyl. There are few frills with Abbey Road. There’s no gatefold sleeve or fold-out lyric sheet. But the music is all you need. That second side, the medley, sounds incredible. It’s let me hear an album I thought I knew really well in a brand new, beautiful light. I must investiagte this new-fangled vinyl thing further…
Here’s Chuck Berry with YouCan’t Catch Me. Lennon borrowed half a line for Come Together and found himself on the wrong end of a law suit a year or so later. But you knew that already.
Half a century ago this week, The Beatles were in the studio recording the tracks that would make up their Revolver LP. Amazingly, the first track worked on was Tomorow Never Knows, the cut ‘n paste, experimental, looped track that still sounds futurtistic, frightening and like nothing else in the entire Beatles’ canon. It was only three short and manic years since She Loves You, but it may as well have been three million light years, such is the leap in their vision and outlook. You could be forgiven for assuming that for the session the band reconvened in Abbey Road’s Studio 3 with a handful of solo acoustic tracks just waiting to be Beatlefied. Nothing could be further from the truth.
For Tomorrow Never Knows, the band set up in the studio to jam the main backing track, with Ringo’s compressed and relentless thunk driving the track in tandem with McCartney’s droning bass. Listen with eyes closed and you’ll hear a little organ, a wonky tonk piano in the fade out, a perisitent rattling tambourine and a couple of guitar tracks; the fuzzed out one manipulated to play backwards and the other fed through a Leslie speaker to give it that widescreen swirl that would in time become synonymous with the era.
On top of it all there are sound effects that could well be the calling sound of the Great God Pan himself; Fanfaring trumpet noises. Scraping, sweeping, jarring strings and what sounds like the divebombing seagulls that bother the fish and chip eaters at Largs shorefront. It’s fairly astonishing for 2016. Imagine hearing it for the first time in 1966. Wow!
The Beatles – Tomorrow Never Knows (released mono version)
Making the track involved more than just the four Beatles – George Martin orchestrated the whole affair, ably assisted by Beatles’ engineer Geoff Emerick who’s job involved deadening Ringo’s drum sound by stuffing an old jumper inside the bass drum and shuffling it about until the right sound was achieved. The backing track took just three takes over 2 days to perfect, before Lennon’s vocals were given the requisite attention.
Famously, Lennon’s lyrics came from Timothy Leary’s LSD manifesto, ‘The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based On The Tibetan Book Of The Dead‘ and flowed in a stream of epoch-defining consciousness…
“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream,
It is not dying, it is not dying.
Lay down all thought, surrender to the void, It is shining, it is shining.
That you may see the meaning of within, It is being, it is being.
That love is all and love is everyone, It is knowing, it is knowing.
That ignorance and hate may mourn the dead, It is believing, it is believing.
But listen to the colour of your dream, It is not living, it is not living.
Or play the game ‘Existence’ to the end,
Of the beginning, of the beginning.”
At the mixing desk, after hearing how the guitar track sounded through the Leslie speaker, Lennon insisted his vocals were given the same treatment. “I want to sound as though I’m the Dalai Lama singing from the highest mountain top. And yet I still want to hear the words I’m singing.”
It’s also been said that John wanted the sound of 4000 monks chanting ad infinitum in the background. I’m not certain he achieved either goal, but what was eventually committed to vinyl was brave, bold and big of beat.
Here’s the druggy, fuggy first take:
The Beatles – Tomorrow Never Knows (Take 1)
Keen-eared Beatles spotters will be aware that the first copies of Revolver were sold with the wrong mix of Tomorrow Never Knows included. These records were quickly withdrawn and recalled, although not before a good many had disappeared into the hands of unsuspecting record buyers. Discovering this a few years ago, with shaky hand I checked the matrix number on the run-out groove of my ‘first’ pressing Revolver, bought for £4 in Irvine Indoor Market in the mid 80s when the Beatles were anything but cool. Pah. One digit out. Meaning it wasn’t technically a first issue, and nor was it worth the £20,000 it might have been. I wouldn’t have sold it anyway*.
Back in Abbey Road’s Studio 3, just after half seven that evening when Tomorrow Never Knows had been expertly finished, the band veered back towards the middle of the road to tackle Got To Get You Into My Life, another drug-inspired song and another story for another day.
Just out of shot, a young Paul Weller, keen to rip off George’s Taxman and apparently, his entire wardrobe.