New Year, Old Me

Sometime around the beginning of January, Plain Or Pan celebrates its birthday. This year I celebrate completing 11 years of writing. No mean feat, as anyone who blogs will tell you. Were it not for this small corner of the internet I doubt I’d have been able to muster up the necessary clout to meet and interview some of my heroes and favourite artists.

A blog that began as an outlet for me to share all manner of what I thought was great music/alternate takes/demos and general trainspottery flim flam now has a powerful reach. On any given day there will be visitors from around the world; Buenos Airies, Brisbane, Bolton…. I used to be obsessed by stats and internet traffic figures. If I wrote a new article, how many people would read it? Would anybody read it? Nowadays it’s less of an issue. As I go boldly into year 12 I’ve realised that my best articles endure. There are things I wrote in 2007 that turn up via a Google search and still prove popular today. There are articles that I thought were fantastic when published that proved to be slow burners but have now been read, reTweeted and shared on social media thousands of times. It’s very humbling. And satisfying.

Up until a couple of years ago I always shared an annual compilation for download, a ragbag collection of the most popular tracks from the previous year. Problem was, Plain Or Pan started to become a bit too popular and the internet police metaphorically popped round a couple of times and asked me (politely at first) if I wouldn’t mind removing the download link. In order to keep the wolf from the door, I no longer do this. Instead, this year I’m going to share a few links. For anyone who’s a recent visitor to the blog you might find something of interest. To any long-time readers, there might be something here that you missed first-time round. As always, feel free to link/share anything that piques your interest. Thanks for popping round, leaving comments and generally giving me the green light to keep writing. And that thing I mentioned about stats and internet traffic? Bollocks! I want as many hits on here as possible.

  • Ian Rankin picks six of his favourite songs. From 4 and a half years ago, this is the most-read article ever on Plain Or Pan.
  • Here‘s an article on the enduring appeal of The Beatles It’s All Too Much. This article was Plain Or Pan’s biggest hitter in 2014.
  • It occured to me that I haven’t featured The Fall nearly as much as I should’ve. Here‘s one I wrote earlier. 2011, to be precise.
  • I once rather proudly wrote an entire piece on Kraftwerk in German. It never got the kudos it deserved, sadly. Either that or my pidgin German was really bad. There’s a similar one on Sly Stone that’s written in French. Et pourquois-pas?
  • The flawed genuius of Chuck Berry. This article appeared again, pratically word-for-word when Chuck passed away.
  • It’s not all music round here, y’know. Here‘s my piece on Alex Higgins, written in my head as I drove home from holiday.
  • Here‘s one of my Andy Murray articles. This fairly fired around Twitter, getting picked up by the sports networks and syndicates, garnering all manner of nice comments and dozens of new followers.
  • And here‘s one on the London Olympics. Remember them?
  • Mainly though, it’s about the music. Johnny Marr has long been my hero, so it was something of a thrill to secure a 20 minute phone interview with him (it ended up being almost an hour and a half) where, amongst other things, he chatted about the records he was most-proud of having played on.
  • Likewise, just short of a year ago Mike Joyce was good enough to play the same game. As someone who generally doesn’t get involved in Smiths articles, what followed was a brilliant interview and, dare I say it, article.
  • While we’re on The Smiths, the article I wrote about Morrissey nicking huge chunks of lyrics from Victoria Wood went yer actual viral on that there Twitter. I came home from work to find my phone lit up like a Christmas tree with social media notifications. More of that, please.

Lastly, unlike your favourite bands, much of my earlier work is far from my best, although this line from the end of an article on the imminent release of Radiohead’s game-changing name your price In Rainbows made me laugh…..


If you’re a guitar geek, here’s how Thom set up his gear in 1997…….


Of course, these days he plays a bit of piano, some Apple Mac and a smattering of Fair Trade wooden spoon.

(And I wouldn’t want it any different)

Get This!


Not everything goes better with (a) coke. “I swiched from coke to pep and I’m a connoisseur,” drawls Sly Stone on In Time, the opening track on Fresh.

It‘s a terrfic track from a terrific album. A one-chord groove, darkly claustrophobic with pitter-pattering proto drum machines fighting for space with highly-regarded sessioneer Andy Newark’s loose-limbed paradiddles and shuffle, it features the Family Stone in full-on funk effect; horns blasting between the lines, brother Freddie riffing out a nagging counter melody amongst the electric keys and triple-part harmony backing vocals, while Rusty Allen’s bass is a-poppin’ throughout. Miles Davis loved the discipline and groove of the track so much he’d make his band listen to it over and over again to get them in the zone before performing. “Sslaaa iz whey iz at,” he’d tell anyone listening at the time.

Sly & The Family StoneIn Time

Carrying on where he left off with the previous year’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Fresh gets its slightly murky sound from Sly’s over-recorded master tapes. Sly by name and sly by nature, he would regularly invite young ladies back to his studio and promise them a slot on the up-coming album in exchange for some good ol’-fashioned lovin’. Once gone, their vocals would be erased from the tape to make space for the next eager hopeful. A shameful practice, you’ll agree, but one that adds to the legend of Sly.

Fresh features no high octane danceable r’n’b. Although one or two of the tracks fared well on 7″, there are no instant hits on it. It’s best listened to in a darkened room, late at night, with your choice of libation close at hand. It’s a creeping, crawling, fevered itch of a record and without a doubt my favourite in Sly’s ouvre.

Here’s If You Want Me To Stay, the 2nd track in on Fresh, ruined spectacularly 20 years later by those soul-free fornicators of funk, Red Hot Chili Peppers. Don’t ruin it by seeking their version out. The original is whey iz at. But you knew that already.

Sly & The Family StoneIf You Want Me To Stay


Tapes ‘n Tapes

This post comes on the back of a pal’s Facebook status update at the weekend. He had been in his loft and brought down a box of tapes. Not just any tapes, but a collection of live bootleg tapes. Bought at record fairs and market stalls, under the counter in independent record shops and from the back of the music press, they were all the rage in the mid-late 80s. I had tons of them. Some of my own might also be in the loft, but I suspect I gave the better ones away and skipped the rest when I moved home a decade or so ago. Sacrilege, I know. And a wee bit stupid too.

Not Iain. He’s kept his, and there they were, proudly on display, neatly filed and cared for (out of sight in the loft, but clearly cared for), preserved in all their glory for 30+ years.

The spines, all faded primary colours and badly photocopied typeset were like a post-punk hall of fame; Wire. Josef K. The Fall. Pete Shelly (sic). The gigs, long-since faded memories, lived on in the ferrous oxide therein.

Bootleg tapes tended to come in two forms – ‘audience quality‘ or ‘excellent quality‘. ‘Audience quality‘ was exactly that. Taped on a portable dictaphone from under the lapels of a donkey jacket, they had a sound akin to the band playing underwater 60 miles away. On playback, sometimes the only clue you’d have as to the song being played would be the fevered shouts from the audience as the band played one of their biggies. Unless you’d been there though, 9 times out of 10 you couldn’t be certain that you were listening to the track in question.

My one brief foray into bootlegging began and ended with The Stone Roses. I taped their now legendary Glasgow Rooftops show, just as the band were on the cusp of going massive. Stuffed down the front of my jeans until the lights went out, my dad’s clunky old dictaphone was called into action. The wee blinking red light meant it was recording. Looking furtively to the side I noticed a guy about the same age as me looking at the machine in my hand. He nodded conspiratorially and gave me a wee thumbs up. At the end of the gig he found me and gave me his address, with a promise to send me some bootlegs in return. The Stone Roses were absolutely on fire that night, a terrific gig. I couldn’t wait to get home to play the tape.

“Pffffffffff….Sccczzzzzzzz………Adored……..vmmmmmm……..Adoooo–ooored….’Over here Steven!’……sell my soul……’Here!’……’Steven! Here!’…..skkkkkkshhhhhh…..IwannarIwannarIwannar I Wanna Be Adored……”

It sounded shite.

Sorry if it was you who gave me your address. Your memory of a great gig would’ve been ruined forever. I truly did you a favour. Home Taping Is Killing Music indeed.

A tape marked as ‘Excellent Quality‘ was nearly always misleading. This usually meant the taper had found a quiet spot away from the whirling masses, away from flying elbows and shouts for ‘Hand In Glove‘ or ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull‘ every other song. The tape still sounded like the concert was playing underwater and 60 miles away though. And get this! It was actually a considered theory that the best way to listen to a bootleg such as this was to play it in one room while sitting in another! Imagine that! I did it, too! Listening to Dylan mangle ‘Visions Of Johanna‘ in the living room while I cooked the tea in the kitchen. Sounded great as well!

These tapes are a whole subculture, a forgotten relic from the days of yore. Young folk nowadays, with their video phones and social media and whathaveyou just wouldn’t understand the lengths you had to go to obtain a crappy memento from the best gig of your gigging life. But I bet if you’re of a certain age, they’re still great to get out and look at, and dare I say it, play them, now and again.

One of Iain’s tapes was of Magazine. Before I knew the band, before I had heard ‘Shot By Both Sides‘ and was bitten by their music, I had heard of Howard Devoto only through reading NME. He was distinctive to look at, a bit weird I thought, and not really someone whose music I presumed I’d like. I wish I hadn’t been so stubborn and narrow-minded as a teenager.

The saddest thing I have ever seen was in the Virgin Megastore on Glasgow’s Union Street. It must’ve been 1987/88. There, sat at a table in the front of the bay window and facing inwards to a crowd of no-one was Howard Devoto. He was surrounded by a sea of books and/or LPs (I can’t quite remember) that no-one wanted to buy or get signed with a personal message. He noticed me noticing him and he gave me the saddest expression – his mouth may have been upturned into a smile, but his eyes were pleading. ‘Help!’ “Me!’ ‘Now!’ Of course, I ignored him and went back to looking for the New Order section. I’ve felt bad about this to this day. I wish I’d gone up and at least said ‘Hello‘.

I’d love to think that if I ever met Howard and told him this story, he’d reply the same way he does when he makes his cameo in ‘24 Hour Party People‘ – “I have absolutely no recollection of this ever having taken place.” You never know.

Anyway, here‘s Howard and the rest of Magazine giving Sly Stone‘s ‘Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again‘ a good post-punk going over. S’all about the bass, ’bout the bass….

MagazineThank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again

And here‘s Sly’s original, all finger poppin’, booty shakin’, dripping, brooding funk. If you don’t like Sly there’s just no hope for you. None at all.

Sly & the Family StoneThank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again

Cover Versions, demo, Get This!, Hard-to-find

Vive le phonq

Imagine the pop landscape in 1967. It wasn’t just the trousers that were starting to get expansive. Everything’s got that slightly psychedelicised and trippy, frazzled edge to it. Itchycoo Park. Heroes and Villains. Penny Lane. Purple Haze. See Emily Play. Even The Temptations and other wide-lapel wearers on the Motown roster were abandoning their sure-fire recipes for success. Psychedelic Shack anyone? A future post for sure. Records became longer, more free-form and stretched out. Less structured, with not so much emphasis on the tried ‘n tested verse/chorus formula. But still pop. That bit’s important. The time was ripe for Sly and the Family Stone.

In 1967, Sly Stone didn’t like his record company. In fact, he didn’t trust them one iota. Sly had a bit of leeway though. He’d just had a top ten smash hit both sides of the Atlantic with Dance To the Music, a tune that did exactly what it says on the tin. So when Clive Davis at CBS asked Sly to follow it up with more of the same, the ever-willful and awkward Sly did just that.

sly keyboard

Sly decided to follow up Dance To The Music with a garage punk/funk version of the exact same track, stripped of all vocals save a tiny spoken word part and the chorus…..which this time was to be be sung entirely in French.

Naturally, he chose to call it Danse à La Musique. Released under the nom de plume of French Fries, it was terrific. The same du-du-du-dumb four-to-the-floor caveman stomping beat and growling fuzz bass drives it along. Street corner jazz scat vocals ping-pong back and forth, trying to be heard above the din of a joyfully fuzzed up, wasp-stuck-inside-your-car guitar track, clearly being played by a guitarist who’s just wired up a fuzzbox for the very first time. There’s precious little brass, replaced instead by a primitive keyboard that plays random Eastern-tinged phrases like a snake charmer on acid. The champion of a tambourine player never once stops throughout. His/her arm must’ve ached like a teenage boy’s with a Meaty, Beaty, Big ‘n Bouncy bargain Box Set for company. The whole thing is over and done with in three freaked-out flare-flapping minutes. I think you’ll like it.


sly kathyBONUS TRACK!

Here‘s a demo of Sly and co turning The KinksYou Really Got Me into a piece of proto Acid Jazz. Not sure if I like this or not, but it’s a curio right up Plain Or Pan’s street. And yours…

Cover Versions, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find, Yesterday's Papers

Revolution 9

When I first picked up the plank of wood I had the cheek to call a guitar, I hadn’t yet mastered changing from a D to an A and back again before I realised something was missing. I needed something, anything, to disguise the bum notes from the badly-played chords I was trying to strangle out of my instrument at parent-bothering volume through my wee practice amp. That something was the fuzzbox. What a revelation! I could play along to most of The BuzzcocksWhat Do I Get and mangle a passable version of Everybody’s Happy Nowadays, fire off Janie Jones from the first Clash LP and play almost all of The RamonesIt’s Alive LP, riff for riff and legs akimbo, just like Johnny. Look at me, I can play guitar! 1! 2! 3! 4! Gggzzzzzssss! Hey ho and indeed, let’s go. The intricacies of Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others and Blackbird were a long, painful way off, but that fuzzbox was the thing that spurred me on to those greater things.


Nasty Punks, Funk Off

Eventually tired of the fuzz and with ears open to a wider variety of music, that wee pedal was retired from duty, to be ressurected a couple of years later by better musicians. If you listen very carefully to One At A Time on the Trash Can SinatrasI’ve Seen Everything album, that same £20 fuzzbox gets a good workout from Davy Hughes’ bass guitar. Or so they tell me.

But that’s another story for another day. After mastering the complete works of Johnny Ramone and the odd Beatles tune and sickening myself by tying my fat fingers in knots whilst trying to unsuccessfully learn Johnny Marr’s best riffs, I spent a great many hours poring over the guitar parts on James Brown records.

brown nolen

The guys who played the best of them (Catfish (brother of Bootsy) Collins and Jimmy Nolen) were as yet unknown to me, but they were just as vital and exciting and talented as the three Johns. I could sit for hours and listen to I’ll Go Crazy but I’ve never yet quite mastered the fluidity of the riff. Sex Machine was the big one. The one chord groove was a bee aye tee see aitch to learn in those pre-internet days. Starting with the top string and working backwards to the bass, I held down all sorts of permutations of strings and frets until one day the funk planets aligned and my fingers fell on the strings and frets in the correct position. For any technically-minded musicians amongst you, the chord I was playing was an Eb9 (with a hammer-on on the 8th fret), although I was yet to know that. To me, it was the chord that unlocked the funk.


Using the 9th chord, Jimmy Nolen laid the foundation of funk. Stop/start slides from the 4th to 5th fret, pinky hammer-ons 2 frets above, muting the strings with his right hand to get the distinctive chicken-scratch sound, he’s the guitarist who anyone who’s ever played a note of funk guitar owes a debt to. James Brown changed his guitar players as regularly as you or I change our underwear, but from listening to the records you’d never know. All guitarists after Jimmy Nolen followed his distinctive chordings and ryhthm. Got a guitar to hand? Try it! Slide the same chord shape (above/below) up and down the frets and you’ll find all sorts of James Brown songs –  Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag. I Feel Good. Super Bad. Talkin’ Loud & Sayin’ Nothing. Soul Power. Persevere, you’ll find them all.

Get Up (Feel Like Being A Sex Machine)

e|--(start with an upstrum)----6-6----6---8--6----------6-6----6---8--6-----------------|
G|-----------------------------6-6----6-----------------6-6----6------(and repeat!)-----|

Stick on the wah-wah pedal and you can riff your way to funky oblivion like an extra in a 1975 episode of Starsky & Hutch. Sly Stone, no stranger himself to a 3-in-a-bed romp with a wah-wah and a 9th chord, got in on the act. His Sing A Simple Song is an absolute monster of E9 riffing (see tab below. S’easy!). Booker T and The MGs did their own Hammond ‘n 9th-heavy version. And Ike Turner quite blatantly/beautifully ripped it off for his ‘own’ Bold Soul Sister, a young Tina coming across like the less-vulgar wee sister of Betty Davis. I think even Led Zeppelin used it on Houses of the Holy‘s The Crunge, such is the chicken-scratching Jimmy Nolen-ness of it all. The 9th. It’s a well travelled chord. Kick out the jams and play it, brothers and sisters. Now that’s an order.

Sing A Simple Song (Play a simple riff…..)