Hard-to-find

Too School For Cool

Elvis Costello played Glasgow through the week there. One of the few greats I’ve still to catch in concert, the extreme burst of half-arsed lethargy with which I greeted the sale of the tickets ensured this was a fact that remains so today. There have been some great reports of the show and of course, I now wish I’d made more of an effort and gone. Maybe next time…

Like many folk of a certain age, my first encounter with Elvis came via him playing Oliver’s Army on Top of the Pops. A Buddy Holly for the Sniffin’ Glue generation, this knock-kneed, open-mouthed twitching nerd in turned-up drainpipes and his Dad’s old suit jacket (a ‘look’ I would make something of my own a decade later), replete with a Fender guitar that was too big for him and a massive pair of defining National Health skelpers (were they actually NHS-issued?) confirmed Elvis as geek chic before such a thing existed.

elvis c bubble gum

Oliver’s Army is literal and wordy and at the age of 9, something I couldn’t care less about. It was catchy, he had a funny voice and it mentioned Oliver, not a name I’d ever heard sung in a pop song before. He sang about the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne and white niggers, whatever they were. As it turns out, the song is partly about the skilled workforce that was needed during the war effort. If you had a particular skill, Oliver Lyttleton, Churchill’s Trade Secretary, made sure you did your bit for him, not with a gun but with your hammer or screwdriver or whatever.

Elvis wrote the song quickly after visiting Belfast at the height of The Troubles and seeing first-hand how young the soldiers in the firing line were. “They always get a working class boy to do the killing,” he remarked wryly. Those working class boys were the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne.

Elvis CostelloOliver’s Army

The inspiration for the tune’s grown-up and none-less-punk arrangement? Elvis and the Attractions were on tour in the US and driving through the American mid-west, radio playing, when Elvis was struck by the lightning rod of creativity. Abba’s Dancing Queen was currently drifting across the airwaves and its descending piano motifs between the lines proved to be the catalyst that turned a good song into a great record. They’d make the perfect opener for his new song when they came to record it, Elvis considered. And, as it turns out, they did. So arguably, without Dancing Queen there’d have been no Oliver’s Army. (Incidentally, without George McCrae’s Rock Your Baby, there’d be no Dancing Queen, but that’s another story).

elvis c armed forces

Oliver’s Army‘s parent album, Armed Forces was my first introduction to Elvis the artist, as opposed to Elvis the pop star. Again, it was wordy and literal, but offset by twitchy, synthy, noo-wavey, skewed guitar pop. You’ll know that already though.

I had no idea what any of it was about but it sounded terrific. It starts with ‘Accidents Will Happen‘, another brilliant piece of Elvis pop that just bursts in, as if you’re listening to the song half way through. Wherever that idea came from, or whoever he half-inched the notion from, it’s a masterstroke.

Elvis CostelloAccidents Will Happen

Armed Forces came in a great fold-out Barney Bubbles-designed sleeve too, all pop-art graphics and technicolour. It’s an album I come back to now and again – indeed, it was spinning just last night- and in the days before iTunes counts or any of that nonsense that gets in the road of a good listen nowadays, I must’ve played it from start to finish at least, oooh, I dunno, 37 times.

elvis c armed forces inner

Alternative Version, Cover Versions, demo, Double Nugget, Dylanish, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find, Kraut-y, Most downloaded tracks, Sampled, Six Of The Best

We Are 9

Somehow, some way, Plain Or Pan has turned 9. Or, to be more accurate, is just about to turn 9. But at this time of year, when you can never be entirely sure if it’s Sunday morning or Thursday night and inspiration goes out the window along with routine and work ethic, it’s tradition that I fill the gap between Christmas and Hogmany with a potted ‘Best Of‘ the year compilation, so I’ve always made this period in time the unofficial birthday for the blog.

i am nine

Not that anyone but myself should care really; blogs come and go with alarming regularity and I’ve steadfastly refused to move with the times (no new acts here, no cutting edge hep cats who’ll be tomorrow’s chip paper, just tried ‘n tested old stuff that you may or may not have heard before – Outdated Music For Outdated People, as the tagline goes.) But it’s something of a personal achievement that I continue to fire my wee articles of trivia and metaphorical mirth out into the ether, and even more remarkable that people from all corners of the globe take the time out to visit the blog and read them. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, one and all.

Since starting Plain Or Pan in January 2007, the articles have become less frequent but more wordy – I may have fired out a million alliterative paragraphs in the first year, whereas nowadays I have less time to write stuff and when I do, it takes me three times as long to write it. To use an analogy, I used to be The Ramones, (1! 2! 3! 4! Go!) but I’ve gradually turned into Radiohead; (Hmmm, ehmm, scratch my arse…) Without intending it, there are longer gaps between ‘albums’ and I’ve become more serious about my ‘art’. Maybe it’s time to get back to writing the short, sharp stuff again. Maybe I’ll find the time. Probably I won’t.

The past 9 years have allowed me the chance to interview people who I never would’ve got close to without the flimsy excuse that I was writing a blog that attracted in excess of 1000 visitors a day (at one time it was, but I suspect Google’s analytics may well have been a bit iffy.) Nowadays, it’s nowhere near that, but I still enthusiastically trot out the same old line when trying to land a big name to feature. Through Plain Or Pan I’ve met (physically, electronically or both) all manner of interesting musical and literary favourites; Sandie Shaw, Johnny Marr, Ian Rankin, Gerry Love, the odd Super Furry Animal. Quite amazing when I stop to think about it. You should see the list of those who’ve said they’ll contribute then haven’t. I won’t name them, but there are one or two who would’ve made great Six Of the Best articles. I’m not Mojo, though, so what can I expect?

pop9

A quick trawl through my own analytics spat out the Top 24 downloaded/played tracks on the blog this year, two for each month:

  1. Michael MarraGreen Grow the Rashes
  2. Wallace CollectionDaydream
  3. Jacqueline TaiebSept Heures du Matin
  4. The TemptationsMessage From A Black Man
  5. New OrderTrue Faith
  6. Bobby ParkerWatch Your Step
  7. Jim FordI’m Gonna Make Her Love Me
  8. DorisYou Never Come Closer
  9. Ela OrleansDead Floor
  10. Mac De MarcoOde To Viceroy
  11. Teenage FanclubGod Knows It’s True
  12. Iggy PopNightclubbing
  13. George HarrisonWah Wah
  14. MagazineThank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again
  15. Future Sound Of LondonPapua New Guinea
  16. Bob DylanSad Eyed Lady Of the Lowlands (mono version)
  17. Richard BerryLouie Louie
  18. REMRadio Free Europe (HibTone version)
  19. The CribsWe Share The Same Skies
  20. Johnny MarrThe Messenger
  21. McAlmont & ButlerSpeed
  22. Talking HeadsI Zimbra (12″ version)
  23. Style CouncilSpeak Like A Child
  24. Darlene LoveJohnny (Please Come Home)

And there you have it – the regular mix of covers, curios and forgotten influential classics, the perfect potted version of what Plain Or Pan is all about. A good producer would’ve made the tracklist flow a bit better. I just took it as I came to them; two from January followed by two from February followed by two from etc etc blah blah blah. You can download it from here.

See you in the new year. First up, Rufus Wainwright. Cheers!