As is the way at this time of year, lists, polls and Best Of countdowns prevail. Happily stuck in the past, the truth of it is I’m not a listener of much in the way of new music. Idles seem to dominate many of the lists I’ve seen, and I want to like them, but I can’t get past the singer’s ‘angry ranting man in a bus shelter’ voice. I’ve liked much of the new stuff I’ve heard via 6 Music and some of the more switched-on blogs I visit, but not so much that I’ve gone out to buy the album on the back of it.
If you held a knife to my throat though, I might admit to a liking for albums by Parquet Courts and Arctic Monkeys, both acts who are neither new nor up and coming. I listened a lot to the Gwenno album when it was released and I should’ve taken a chance on the Gulp album when I saw it at half price last week, but as far as new music goes, I think that’s about it. Under his Radiophonic Tuckshop moniker, Glasgow’s Joe Kane made a brilliant psyche-infused album from the spare room in his Dennistoun flat – released on the excellent Last Night From Glasgow label – so if I were to suggest anything you might like, it’d be Joe’s lo-fi McCartney by way of Asda-priced synth pop that I’d direct you to. Contentiously, it’s currently a tenner on Amazon which, should you buy it via them, is surely another nail in the HMV coffin.
2018 saw the readership of Plain Or Pan continue to grow slowly but steadily in a niche market kinda style, so if I may, I’d like to point you and any new readers to the most-read posts of the year. You may have read these at the time or you may have missed them. Either way, here they are again;
An article on the wonder of The Specials‘ b-sides.
A dozen or so years ago, a concert celebrating the life and work of Robert Burns took place at Culzean Castle on the South West coast of Scotland, not far from where I’m typing. I’m quite into Burns, in an enthusiastic amateur kinda way. I get involved when it’s that time of year in the schools and organise the school Burns Supper. I’ll put together wee groups of kids who’ll eagerly sing Green Grow The Rashes (the Michael Marra arrangement) while I get to rock out gently with some well-rehearsed finger picking on my guitar. At home, we’ve done Burns Suppers celebrating the bawdier side o’ Rabbie that they don’t teach at school, helped along by the sort of food and drink you’d be hard-pushed to find in a school dinner hall. There are tons of Burns scholars out there who take it far more seriously and who could bore the breeks off most of us with their ability to recite his most obscure work which is why, when the concert was announced at Culzean – with headliners Lou Reed and Patti Smith – I thought I’d give it a miss. “I don’t really fancy hearing Lou ‘n Patti pretend they know the inner workings of Burns’ songbook when they could be doing their own stuff instead,” I reasoned. Big mistake as it turned out, as Lou and Patti by and large did their own stuff, regardless or not of what the promoters had signed them up for. Patti even made the Scottish news on TV the next night for gobbing on the side of the stage, offending those stuffy, ancient scholars I’ve just mentioned. Old punks, eh. What’re they like?
Oor ain Eddi Reader, herself a mad Burns fanatic, was on the bill and in the encore she sang the famous ‘doot-di-doo’ backing vocals for Walk On The Wild Side alongside Patti Smith. I know people who’ll be reading this that have wide-eyed stage-side footage of the moment. Why did I not go? Why?
I’ve grown into Patti Smith in a big way. She was always there, a trailblazer for the strong, bloody-minded women from Chrissie Hynde to PJ Harvey who have a place in my record collection, but in recent years I’ve really come to acknowledge her as one of the greats. Morrissey, Michael Stipe and any Maconie-voiced BBC4 documentary will all tell you this of course, but unless you were lucky enough to be there at the time, I’m not sure her importance shines through for generations of mine and since.
Horses is her biggie, of course. A raucous brew of poetry set to music, it’s the sound of flared nostrils and itchy, twitchy jangling nerves riffing on French existentialists, Jesus and the futility of existence – the big stuff, in other words. Wrapped in monochrome with bird’s nest hair, it’s a challenging listen, certainly more difficult to get into than, say, Patti’s contemporaries The Ramones and Blondie who were street suss enough to add some pop to their schlock. The centrepiece of the album is, wonkily, mid way through side 2.
Patti Smith – Land
Land is a free-flowing example of all that Patti does best, over 9 carefully metered minutes of what musicologists might call a triptyche, with 3 parts of music played under the one theme. Every word is enunciated precisely and clearly, given equal gravitas. She howls, she whispers, she duets with herself. She’ll rap on something deeply esoteric one moment and then she’ll be singing about the watusi and Bonie Moronie the next. The words come in floods; pretentious, populist and pure. I can’t pretend to know exactly what she’s on about and I’m not certain that the young Patti in 1975 could’ve told you either. It sounds fantastic though.
Patti has a crack band behind her, rising and falling, ebbing and flowing in time to her carefully-written prose, yet for the entire track they keep it simple. At any moment, Richard Sohl on keys could break into the most heart-stopping piano run, but he doesn’t. Lenny Kaye could easily let fly with an electric burst of pop/punk bloooze, but he doesn’t. There’s ample opportunity over 9 minutes for an Animal-esque freak out on the drums, yet Jay Dee Doherty reigns himself in. With Patti Smith, it’s all about the vocal. The words are everything.
Here’s Piss Factory, her early b-side documenting her time working a crappy job for crappier money.
Patti Smith – Piss Factory
Just Kids, Patti’s autobiography about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe continues this theme. It’s a literary ride on the A Train, taking the reader right into the centre of a mid 70s New York that most of us can only imagine. Their story is played out against a backdrop of the Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City and Coney Island and features walk-on parts from Andy Warhol, Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Art, music and fashion explode and fuse together and everything and anything is possible, doable and done. Mapplethorpe struggles with a sexual identity that would eventually tear the couple apart but (or perhaps because of this) it’s a beautiful read; a love letter to and for Mapplethorpe and the city that brought them together. There they are up there, an androgynous Keef ‘n Mick for the Blank Generation. Even without the music, Patti’s words are powerful. Read it.
It was a conversation with Johnny Marr a few years ago that made me go home and re-evaluate Patti Smith until her genius really sank in. I was charged with taking photos of Johnny and his fans after a gig. The waiting line snaked around long enough that half the folk in it ended up missing their last connection home. At the front of the line was a girl who might’ve been 13 and might’ve been 33. Small, disheveled and unkempt, she’d been first to queue outside the venue at lunchtime on the day of the show and as soon as the doors had opened she’d ran for the front of the stage where she stood holding onto the barrier and never letting go until it was time to meet Johnny at the end. Johnny recognised her straight away. “Hello again darlin’!” he greeted with a hug. “How are we today? Listen – hey, listen! – make sure you get a bed tonight, eh? No more sleeping in doorways, eh?”
“Once, I bunked off the school,” he told me afterwards, “and skipped the train to Liverpool to catch Patti Smith. Sneaked in the stage door! That night I slept in Liverpool Bus Station and it was the most terrifying night of my life. That girl at the front comes to all the shows. She comes alone, leaves alone and always turns up the next day. I kinda worry for her, y’know?”
If artists have such a hold on folk that they’re prepared to forfeit a roof over their head for the night so that they can see them in concert, they’re worth listening to.
Van Morrison has the dubious honour of being the most boring, souless, bum-numbing act I’ve ever had the misfortune to endure live in concert. Sometime in the mid 90s (94? 95? I can’t quite remember) we went to see him at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow. It’s a terrific venue, unlike the vastness of the SECC it’s built for purpose, and everytime I’ve been there I’ve left wishing all my favourite arena-sized acts would play there. Van’s show that night was memorable for two reasons.
Firstly, Van was playing two nights in Glasgow on this tour. Our tickets, bought and paid for months in advance had gone missing in transit. By the time admin had caught up with this fact, the night we’d planned to attend was sold out. We were offered tickets for the next night instead, in prime middle of the house seats. Problem was, this night clashed with the football, and as a season ticket holder at Kilmarnock FC, I was torn between the big match with Rangers at home or the Van Morrison concert, an act I’d never yet seen live. I chose Van.
Secondly, and more crucially, Van had a bloody cheek to bill his show as a ‘Van Morrison‘ concert. His co-vocalist (I’d say backing vocalist, but as it transpired as the night unravelled, backing vocalist would have been a label more suited to Van himself) was Brian Kennedy, a Butlins’ Red Coat version of Marti Pellow, a Mr Darcy of a plank with flowing locks ‘n red suede coat ‘n cheshire cat grin ‘n all. To say Brian loved/loves himself would be a massive understatement. He posed and he preened and whenever Van gave him the nod, which was often, he’d let his Irish tenor’s warble loose on the best bits of Van’s back catalogue. It was criminal. Van seemed content to scowl and scat and hang onto his saxophone for comfort. Housewives’ favourite Brian performed his expensive take on karaoke for nigh on two hours and we all went home thoroughly underwhelmed. To put the tin lid on it, I think Killie secured a rare victory over the lavishly bonused tax dodgers from the Southside. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated, as someone once quipped.
Anyway, long before Van was singing about brown eyed-girls or reminding us how much he loved us, he was Ivan Morrison, vocalist in Belfast’s Them.
A Northern Irish equivalent to The Animals or The Troggs, Them played thumping caveman rhythm and blues with a snap and a snarl. On their second LP you’ll find I Can Only Give You Everything.
Them I Can Only Give You Everything;
A feral Van welds his vocal to a nagging fuzzed-up garage punk stomper. It‘s crazed, demented and absolutely magic; a glorious Cuban-heeled clattering racket, the sort of record that makes me want to throw Jaggeresque handclapping poses, grow my hair into a bowlcut and squeeze my fat feet into snooker cue-thin Chelsea boots.
Talking of haircuts, Beck sampled the riff for his own Devil’s Haircut tune, but you probably knew that already. Actually, he may have played the riff live, rather than merely sample it. Either way, Beck built his record around the riff.
I Can Only Give You Everything is everything you need in a record – it’s just over two and a half minutes long but you know how it goes after two and a half seconds. The fuzz guitar riff NEVER changes at all. A Farfisa (?) organ appears during the second verse before leading the inevitable instrumental break and key change halfway through. Throughout, Van sings with a soul and passion much missing in action that mid 90s Glasgow night. The whole thing kicks like a mule.
Here’s Patti Smith doing Them‘s Gloria, no doubt at the insistence of Lenny Kaye, guitarist in the Patti Smith Group and also the compiler of the terrific Nuggets LP, the Bible of garage rock.
I like to think that Lenny discovered Them as a wide-eyed teenager and it was this that prompted him to learn guitar. Who knows?
I haven’t ever quite gotBruce Springsteen. I can appreciate the appeal, and I can rattle off a list of his tunes I quite like, but that’s just it – tunes I quite like. There’s nothing there I love. Not even Tenth Avenue Freeze Out. Or Hungry Heart. Or Cadillac Ranch. Or Born To Run. I like ’em. But I don’t love ’em. I don’t feel the need to re-spin them as soon as they’ve faded out in the same way I do with many other musical sacred cows. What’s the difference between Born To Run and most of Meat Loaf’s outpourings over the last 30 years? Very little, if y’ask me. And Meat Loaf is a pantomime figure to be laughed at and poked with a big shitty stick. So why not Bruce?
Bruce’s schtick is all just a wee bit forced, I think. Everything’s done through gritted teeth and clenched fist, his furrowed brow and earnest intentions dressed up in last year’s Levis for maximum ‘man of the people’ effect. Four hour live shows? Come on! Even if Paul McCartney turned up in my back garden and ask me to accompany him on fat-fingered guitar to play a four hour greatest hits show, that would still be about two hours too long. Possibly. And all that huffing and puffing and biker-booted blue collar bluster – pffft! – even his ballads sound as if they’re wrapped in layers of testosterone, desperate to escape their confines, but bundled up as tightly as his upper arms underneath the sweat-stained cut-off denim shirt. Look at him! He can’t even play that famous Tele of his properly due to the constrictions. That, in part, explains the gritted teeth I suppose.
Here’s the crux though – Bruce writes a good song. I know he does. But his versions just don’t hit the spot the way the cover versions do.
Because The Night – Bruce version
Written during the Darkness On The Edge Of Town album sessions, he dashed off Because The Night, discarded it almost immediately and gave it to Patti Smith, who was in the studio next door recording what would become the Easter LP. She got herself a writing credit as she changed some of the words and added her own. But you knew that already. Her version is better. In fact, hers is the definitive of the 18 covers (and counting) to date. PJ Harvey certainly thinks so……..she based much of her mid-career on it. But you knew that already too.
Because The Night – Patti version
Along with Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street, Patti’s Because The Night reminds me of French toast. I have a vivid memory of listening to the ‘Hit Parade’ countdown one sunny Summer night on a wee portable radio in the back garden and hearing both records while my dad made French toast in the kitchen, the sizzle and smell making its way back to me sitting with my back against the roughcast on the garage wall. Patti’s record eventually got to number 5, though I’m too scared to Google the rest of this fact as it’s very likely both records didn’t ever appear in the same chart. Don’t check. Or if you do, don’t tell me if I’m wrong. It’ll ruin what has been a 35+ years memory.
Inspired by a lyric in Elvis’ Let’s Play House (“You may have a pink Cadillac but don’t you be nobody’s fool”), Bruce wrote Pink Cadillac as a car-as-sexual-metaphor bluesy gruntalong. Written at the turn of the 80s but kept it in his vaults until 1984, Bruce stuck it on the b-side of Dancing In The Dark.
Pink Cadillac – Bruce version
The year previously, Bette Midler had asked to record it, presumably to add her own high camp gloss to an already suggestive lyric.
“I love you for your Pink Cadillac….crushed velvet seats….riding in the back…oozing down the street.”
‘Pink Cadillac is not a girls’ song‘, vetoed Bruce.
And that was that, until Natalie Cole somehow got the go ahead to record her version and take it all the way to number 5 (just like Patti) in March 1988. Bruce calling it Pink Cadillac was a bit more glamorous and rock ‘n roll sounding than, say, Pink Camel Toe, that’s for sure. But we all know what he was getting at, eh? Nudge, nudge, wink wink and all that. It’s quite spectacular that someone so straight-laced as Natalie ‘daughter of Nat King’ Cole should be allowed to record it. Maybe she thought she was singing about a car.
Pink Cadillac – Natalie version.
Barring the none-more-80s glossy feel (or, to be more accurate, because of the none-more-80s glossy feel) it could almost be Aretha Franklin as recorded by Prince, couldn’t it?
Ever one for spotting a trend and putting an arty spin on it, here’s David Bowie doing It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City. Recorded in 1974 in the middle of his white-powdered Young Americans phase, it’s a tune that divides Bowie fans. For what it’s worth, I think it’s a brilliant version. I bet those check-shirted good ol’ boys over the Atlantic hate it though.
Nothing at all like the Brooce original. Poor man’s Dylan, no?
By now, of course, there’ll be people I know, friends even, who are rattling off tut-tut-tut emails to me, pointing out the errors of my ways. Waaaaaghh! Here….have a Bruce face in reply….