Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On my way to sunny californ-i-a

37 The Beach Boys, 'California Saga: California'; 38 Brian Wilson, 'Orange Crate Art'

I know I've mentioned this before, but for a while there, (1973 - 1983), I was in love with the idea of America. Much of this love came from an idealised view of California, fuelled by The Beach Boys. During that ten year period I collected Beach Boys albums like crazy, read/listened to the beat poets of San Francisco, and fantasised about Route 66, Steinbeck, and riding the freight trains to the orange groves. At one point during this period I got a heap of travel agent brochures and planned to go to San Francisco and the California coastline. I didn't follow through and in some ways I'm glad because the IDEA of America was what I was in love with. In my heart, I knew if I actually went I would be disappointed. Since then I have only made it to Anaheim and I adored it, while knowing, what I knew before.

My eldest daughter is about to head off (next week) to spend a year in San Francisco with her American boyfriend. I'll be living vicariously through her for the next year. And listening to Orange Crate Art and old Beach Boys' albums.

California Saga: California was one of my first Beach Boys memories and the Holland album is one of my favourite albums (along with that era's Beach Boys In Concert double album). Like everyone who has ears I admire Pet Sounds but Sunflower and Holland have a firmer place in my heart. The images within Al Jardine's song are very evocative - all bright golden sun, clean air, sycamores, monarch butterflies and cool clear water - as he takes us on a journey south of Monterey, down the south coast - Salinas way. The crowning glory is the Big Sur congregation where everyone loves everyone in a Beach Boy way, magic in the air.

The allusion to Steinbeck's Salinas binds the song to Van Dyke Park's Orange Crate Art lyric. While Al name checks Steinbeck's travelin's with Charley, Van Dyke aims at the awesome Grapes Of Wrath.

The other aspect that links both these great songs is how appropriate the music is to the mood and clarity of vision. Al Jardine is presumably responsible but he must have been getting nods all around the room. I wonder why he didn't sing it? I've heard versions of him doing the song and they sound great, but maybe that's my Mike Love bias at play. The song just lopes along, just like those barrancas that carve the coast line. Brian must have been very proud.

Speaking of Brian - Orange Crate Art, the song and album, were a major return to form. For me the marriage of Van Dyke Parks' lyrics and Brians' music never quite worked before this. I can't get worked up about Surf's Up, for instance. It makes no sense to me. A bit like James Joyce (wow - I just compared Parks to Joyce!). Critics rave and rave about him and he's this giant literary figure but have any of them read all of Ulysses? Did anyone understand it? Like hell they did!

But OCR speaks out plainly about memories. I can visualise the orange crate table, the rocking chair and the barnyard gate. I can smell the aroma, and hear the lonesome locomotion roar. I can see that hobo hopping on the train rolling where grapes of wrath are stored. Again the music is entirely appropriate, as it instantly transports us back to a simpler time.

[Couldn't find a clip for Orange Crate Art]

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Dearly beloved...

36 Prince and the Revolution, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’

Singers have been singing about sex since Adam wandered through Eden humming to himself while eating an apple. Old blues songs didn’t mince any words or hold back any details. Elvis frightened white America because he moved in a licentious way while making white girls go weak. Robert Plant wanted his lemon squeezed until the juice ran down his leg, for God’s sake.

My first dawning that music and sex were inextricably linked was in 1971. I ordered a copy of The Mothers Live at The Fillmore from the RCA record club – it was on sale and worth a punt. I knew nothing about Frank Zappa or the Mothers Of Invention or that ‘The Mothers’ was polite shorthand. Boy was I in for a surprise.

What greeted me was an album I could never play without headphones on – my parents would have killed me. My mother refused to let me buy a copy of Joe Cocker’s Cocker Happy because she considered the title vaguely rude. She never actually said that, I just picked that up from her roundabout explanation over time. What would she say if she heard The Mothers rapping overtly about sex with groupies, prostitutes and mudsharks??? This was all a scarey proposition for a teenage boy growing up in sheltered New Zealand suburbia. Things would never be the same again.

In retrospect this was all great training for my time as an academic, studying English at university. Shakespeare and Chaucer were no great revelation because Frank Zappa had laid the groundwork (so to speak). I was able to understand double entendre and sexual symbolism at the drop of a hat (watching Benny Hill on television may have also helped).

By the 1980’s and 1990’s the world had moved on in many ways but singers were still singing about sex. My life had certainly moved on and changed dramatically – my beloved mother had died and I was married with children of my own. The standards my parents had set remained with me though, and I still don’t own a copy of Cocker Happy. Although I was no longer listening to The Mothers Live at the Fillmore I was listening to Prince.

Depending on who you listen to, Prince is either a genius, a chancer, a sex maniac, a freak, or all of the above. Those who think him a chancer/freak should listen to Sometimes It Snows In April. For a while there (1982’s 1999 until 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls) I was a rabid fan. Then he wrote ‘slave’ on his face, started releasing 10 CD sets of everything he twiddled with while insisting the world call him an unpronounceable symbol.

Let’s Go Crazy though is Prince in his purple prime. It kicks off the Purple Rain album with gusto! All attitude, sexual strutting and Hendrix guitar – it’s a massive statement of purpose after the lengthy wig outs that mostly make up 1999.

We’ve come a long way since Elvis haven’t we, but in many ways Prince is a direct descendant of those old blues records that sing of strutting red roosters bossing the barnyard. Everything is very explicit in the song. He’s Prince and when he says ‘let’s go nuts’, he’s not talking about getting a bag of cashews. You want further evidence? How about, ‘She picked up the phone, Dropped it on the floor, (Sex, sex) is all I heard’ . This is pretty tricky stuff to sing about without lapsing into corny self-parody. To sing it you need to be convincing. Prince somehow manages it while dressed in purple and mugging the camera, to say nothing of his antics with his guitar.

My Prince listening days are pretty much over. My sons and extended family tell me about his latest album from time to time (pretty good according to them) but I can’t believe he’s ever going to better Purple Rain as an album and Let’s Go Crazy as a song. And let's hear it for The Revolution!

Monday, July 27, 2009

The flowers of deep feeling seem to serve me

35 Joni Mitchell, 'Song For Sharon'

Stories are important to me, having developed a love of reading from an early age. I don't know exactly where it comes from - that love. Three of my children have found it to varying degrees but my eldest daughter has not yet (she's 20). They have all had roughly the same stimulus to read but it hasn't stuck with her. Who knows why.

I think it's that love of reading and love of stories that leads me to songs like Song For Sharon on Joni Mitchell's great great Hejira album. It's a strange twisting, turning story that rewards every time.

This song/story is in the form of an open letter to her old friend Sharon.

Joni is on her way to Staten Island to buy herself a mandolin when she sees a wedding dress on a storefront mannequin. She watches the big ferry boat chuggin' back with a belly full of cars. She thinks about some girl who'll see that dress and crave that wedding day like crazy.

She thinks about little Indian kids on a bridge up in Canada. They can balance and they can climb like their fathers before them. They'll walk the girders of the Manhattan skyline in the future. Joni passes the Statue of Liberty. She's intending to head to the church to play bingo as soon as the ferry arrives at Staten Island. She's forgotten about the mandolin seemingly.

She tells us she can keep cool while playing at poker, but she's a fool when love's at stake because she can't conceal emotion. She remembers seeing a gypsy down on Bleecker Street.She went in to see her as a kind of joke. The gypsy lit a candle for my love luck and 18 bucks goes up in smoke.

She tells Sharon directly that she left her man at a North Dakota junction and came out to the "Big Apple" here to face the dream's malfunction. She calls love 'a repetitious danger'.

She also tells us about a woman she knew who just drowned herself in a well. Joni speculates as to why - maybe her friend was just shaking off futility or punishing somebody. The act has provoked all of Joni's other friends to get in touch with her and give her advice: Dora says, "Have children!"; Mama and Betsy say-"Find yourself a charity, help the needy and the crippled or put some time into Ecology."

But all Joni really wants right now is to find another lover.

She reminisces about when she and Sharon were kids in Maidstone. Joni remembers, amongst other things, going to every wedding in that little town to see the tears and the kisses and the pretty lady in the white lace wedding gown. Joni remembers going skating after Golden Reggie and chasing white lace and dreams of love. Instead, he showed her that first you get the kisses and then you get the tears. Joni is still chasing the dream of being a bride.

Having returned from Staten Island (did she buy the mandolin?) Joni watches 29 skaters on central park's Wollman rink circling in singles and in pairs.

This concludes Joni's story but before she takes her leave, she addresses Sharon directly to end the song. She says, 'Sharon - you've got a husband and a family and a farm. I've got the apple of temptation and a diamond snake around my arm. But you still have your music and I've still got my eyes on the land and the sky. You sing for your friends and your family, I'll walk green pastures by and by.'

It's an extraordinary story, almost dream like in its development and shifts. I wasn't able to find a live performance of Joni doing the song so I've attached the studio recording. It might be fun to read through the story as you listen, in singles or in pairs. Good luck with your own repetitious danger.

And it stoned me to my soul

34 Van Morrison, 'Haunts Of Ancient Peace'

I think it takes some distance to appreciate what you've got, and it takes being a stranger in a strange land to truly appreciate your surroundings and your life. Sometimes I feel like I'm drowning while I'm knee deep in the river, sometimes I need to get out and watch the river flow.

I was born in Auckland, New Zealand and moved to England in 2004. When I lived, worked and travelled in England I felt far more distinctive than when I lived in New Zealand. I felt my kiwiness, heard my accent, took greater pride in being a kiwi - far far more than when I lived in NZ. I also loved England, Scotland and Wales (never made it to Ireland unfortunately). At the time, I made a list of things I loved about the place. Here's some - The Guardian, the BBC, Radio 2, the Tate Modern, football culture, Edinburgh Castle, the B&Bs, the semi-detached in Victoria Road, Wimpy bars, Fopp, the tube, the Thames estuary around Leigh-on-sea, Tintern Abbey and other haunts of ancient peace.

Van Morrison was another alien invader who fell in love with Avalon. It stoned him to his soul, as it did me, as it does so many others.

Van and I go way back to my teenage years. My great friend Greg Knowles introduced us. Greg and I were about 15 and the Moondance album was the initial hook and the clincher to our lifelong friendship. I have always gravitated to people who love music and have an off kilter sense of humour. My friends' recommendations of music have been crucial throughout the years, especially when I was young. Without Greg, Noel, Roger and others I would probably still be listening exclusively to Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Rory Gallagher, Uriah Heap and Deep Purple - my steady diet from 1971 to 1974.

When I met Greg in 1974, he was much more advanced and eclectic in his listening than me. Van was one example - Greg had 100% more knowledge of Van Morrison and even had a copy of Hard Nose The Highway which was brand new at the time. This amazed me. Music was much more inaccessible for me in those days. Not having a part time job, I had to save for ages by doing odd jobs. I'd pore over music papers endlessly - read reviews, look at artwork, and agonise about each potential selection. It's no idle boast that I can remember where I bought every single piece of vinyl. Nothing I got was ever bought at the time of its release though - it needed to have stood the test of time to some greater or lesser extent for me to shell out my hard earned pennies.

So I was over the moon when Greg made me a cassette tape (I actually still have it) with his selection of Moondance, St Dominic's Preview and Hard Nose tracks. There's nothing like the first time you discover these things. Your ears and mind open, new vistas present themselves, a skin sheds itself, the world changes. I miss those times when a new tape from my cousin Christine, or Greg, or Roger would introduce me to new sounds (in the late 1970s Christine sent me a brilliant tape from Rochdale, that I still have, of the new punk bands - it was like music from a distant planet). These days I earn enough to take a punt on The Doves new album. Some special things have been lost about that lead up to a purchase.

Haunts Of Ancient Peace leads off the Common One album. A theme through the album is Van's love of Avalon, Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, T S Eliott, the English countryside - hillside, mountains, valleys of Kendall and elsewhere. Van's lyric suggests that we go back to those haunts of ancient peace whenever we need some relief. This echoes Wordsworth's lines in the Tintern Abbey poem - when he thinks "in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din of towns and cities"of scenes such as the Abbey to gain 'tranquil restoration'. My spirit has also often turned to thee.

Let Van have (nearly) the last word - 'You know I want to go there one more time again. Be still in haunts of ancient peace. (Be still).'

Amen to that.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

D'you know what I mean?

33 Oasis, 'Sunday Morning Call'

The Britpop media hype of a few years ago is looking pretty creaky as the years go by, as most media constructs do. The much hyped 'new thing' is a long standing tradition in music papers. Bruce Springsteen actually survived being called the future of rock 'n' roll in the press, but for every Springsteen there is a Steve Forbet. Steve, like about a billion others over the years, was hailed as the next Dylan (we haven't got done with the old one yet so it's a farce right from the get go).

The other thing the press love to hype is perceived animosity amongst bands. If that doesn't fly they'll work at actually creating a rivalry where it doesn't exist. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were mates and each was living it large and drug fuelled, but for some reason (commerce actually - selling papers) they hyped the Beatles as cuddly, safe and cute. Lennon, in even his fat Elvis cuddly period, was NEVER safe and cute. The Rolling Stones were hyped as the antithesis - guys that were not cuddly or cute, and presented real and present danger to your daughters. Therefore they were ubercool to rebellious teenagers all over the world.

During the similarly hyped Britpop era the press got to it with two lippy English bands - Oasis and Blur. There wasn't any love lost but they were all musicians trying to establish an image, a career, something.

It was never a fair contest - Blur was always going to trounce Oasis with one brain tied behind their back. Because they were better musicians? Nope. Because they had better songs? Hell no! Because they were more intelligent? Piss off! No - they were always going to win, despite it all, because the press decided they would. So they painted the Gallaghers as dolts, sibling rivalry gone mad, talentless imbeciles who...shock/horror/probe...ripped off The Beatles. Arch copyists, fakes!! Not original you see. Just copied the Lennon blueprint and sat back grinning.

Too simplistic. Everybody piggybacks, pays homage, rips off. It's what you do with it. The Beatles took bits from Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Elvis and Roy Orbison among others. Please Please Me was initially in the style of the Big O but came out completely The Beatles. If you're gonna be inspired (best case) or steal (worst case) then do it from the best and make it your own.

Even Nick Hornby was taken in! In 31 Songs he compares Noel Gallagher's influences (The Beatles) to John Lennon's ('Goons, Chuck Berry, music hall, surrealism, loads of things'). Sorry Nick but - I can't go for that, no can do. Just because Noel LOVES Lennon and the Beatles doesn't mean that he's not interested in or affected by 'loads of things'. Interviewers focus on his Beatles inspiration, they don't bother to dig out his soul and nor should they want to. It doesn't make good copy. And Noel's too smart to upset the apple cart. And nor should he. It's all show biz, after all.

I love the music made by Noel Gallagher/Oasis and I have a hard time picking a favourite from all of their classics. I'll plump for Sunday Morning Call because it's relatively unknown. It was released as a single and is on the not very popular Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants album. It soars and spins and swoons. There's a brilliant vocal from Noel and it's just great and it doesn't sound anything like the Beatles and it'll do me, so there.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Rubber soul man, rubber soul.

31 The Chi-lites, ‘Have You Seen Her?’; 32 Boyz II Men, ‘The End of the Road’

You’ve probably worked out by now that I’m not black; I didn’t grow up in Chicago or Philly or Detroit; I didn’t have parents who mistreated me or denied me love or who deserted me via divorce; I found my true love 25 years ago and we treat each other well. I have, therefore, very little background in which to identify with blues or soul music. I love the blues, though, and I love the expression of the human drama that makes up soul music, even though both forms talk about stuff I have no direct experience of.

Nick Hornby is right when he calls soul 'grown up' music. Soul troubles itself with the real things that happen to real people. Unlike my twin brother from another mother, I have never stratified my listening. I didn’t get to 1976 and move away from prog and heavy rock to embrace punk. Once that had run its course (three years at best) I didn’t then move onto soul and 'grown up' music. All of my eclectic listening has overlapped for the last 40 years. At the moment, while I type this, I am listening to Isis – a prog metal band from California. Also in the 5 CD disc changer is a soul collection, The Doves Kingdom Of Rust, a NZ sixties music compilation and Prince’s 1999. Pretty varied stuff. The soul compilation has a favourite track of mine by The Chi’lites that includes spoken word sections.

I’m a sucker for the spoken word section in a song. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the literary part of my brain or the fact that the singer suddenly breaks off from the reality of a song, steps forward, and actually speaks to me directly. The very first time I experienced this thrill was in the song Dance All Around The World by New Zealand’s Blerta.

They are not a group I know much about even now. Here is the sum total of my Blerta knowledge – Bruno Lawrence was their drummer at some stage, Beaver sung for them at some stage, they were a commune of some kind I think, and they put out at least one other single – Joy Joy (I know this because I own it). I also seem to have a vague recollection that they toured around in a bus, a la the Merry Pranksters.

When Dance All Around The World came out in the early seventies I responded to the hippy trippy message and that spoken section which culminates in the spine tingling (still) message that the guards and teachers threw open the castle gates and ‘danced out into the field’. The plummy voice, phased drums and guitar are the key triggers of my enjoyment.

The Chi-lites are a band that I know even less about. I don’t even know any of their other songs but I know I love Have You Seen Her? Somehow they tap into a universal soulful moment. The song has two spoken word sections and even STARTS with one. That's ballsy. These bits set the mood – all dark. She’s left him and, pathetically, he thinks he sees her around town but…nope – she’s gone, and he thought he had her in the palm of his hand. The organ backdrop and the interlocking voices make this a song I can hear innumerable times. Like the blues – it’s not a depressing song, even though the substance of the song is not a rosie picture. Miraculously the song never strays into self-parody.

It’s those voices, singing in harmony and trying to outdo each other that set it apart from all the other soul bands for me. There is something magical that happens when certain talented people who can sing, get together and harmonise. Take Crosby Stills and Nash, The Beach Boys, The Four Tops, The Beatles, The Hollies, The Byrds, The Temptations, The Jacksons, The Grateful Dead, and Boys II Men, for instance. Each has a distinctive sound from the sum of their parts.

Boys II Men are part of this rich musical history and, unlike me, were born in Philly (I think). I’m not sure but they must also have been well versed in gospel or street corner doo-wop or something. They must have been. When they sing End Of The Road they sell the song completely. I believe it. Not once, but every single time I hear it, and I hear it a lot. Again the song includes a really natural spoken word section. The last section where the band falls back and we get hand claps and voices has me singing along every time, at the top of my lungs. Something magical must be happening inside this music for me to identify so strongly. I don't really want to analyse it too much though. It's the spirit inside the music and it moves me. That's enough.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Headband grooving our special today

29 Headband, ‘The Laws Must Change’; 30 Evermore, 'Light Surrounding me'

New Zealand music of the early seventies was a peculiar beast. In the 1960’s the aftermath of the English invasion meant New Zealand homegrown talent modelled themselves on English equivalents to compete and satisfy the local needs. As we are so far away from the rest of the universe this was vital when English bands weren’t touring. No Tommy Steele? Hello Ray Woolf. Quincy Conserve was our Blood Sweat and Tears, Mr Lee Grant was our P.J. Proby and Dinah Lee was our Sandy Shaw (one of my very first musical memories is her single Do The Blue Beat) and so on.

As the 1960s became the 70s, New Zealand bands became rockier, hairer, grungier and more and while they started to develop a local New Zealand flavour they were still in thrall to overseas influence. Space Waltz play their dues to Bowie and glam, John Hanlon was our Cat Stevens and so on.

One of the first albums that I fell in love with was Headband’s first album. I must confess though, that without the recommendation from the touring Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in 1971, I would not have found Headband so quickly. So as well as Led Zeppelin III, I bought Headband’s Happen Out album from a record shop in Onehunga.

I had no idea, at the time, that Tommy Adderley had already had a career as a singer or that Jimmy Hill (the drummer) and Billy Kristian (guitars) had been in Ray Columbus and The Invaders in the 1960s. The music is unbelievable as each of the musicians is playing at the top of their game, especially on The Laws Must Change - a John Mayall song (Headband were originally called The Bluesbreakers!). My father used this track to test his hi-fi equipment. He'd crank up the volume to 11 and the distorted guitars by Kristian really rocked.

It's one of those rare tracks that still sounds fresh in 2009. Most of the stuff I love from this period lives in the memory more than the now.

Speaking of 2009 - for me, Evermore carry the torch for New Zealand music at the moment. Zed looked like a bright prospect but then they fell apart after their second album. The early promise of the Datsuns has diminished over their last three albums but Evermore continue to innovate. Now into their third album they will go a long way before they better Light Surrounding Me from album number 2. When I heard it during the Olympics (TV One used it as part of a station promo) I was immediately hooked. I'm looking forward to what they do next.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I don't want to change the world, I'm not looking for new England

27 Billy Bragg, 'Levi Stubbs' Tears'; 28 The Four Tops, 'I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey bunch)'

Barking is an interesting place...I think. I passed through Barking a lot when I lived in Essex (I never lingered for too long). The train from Leigh-on-sea (where we lived) to Fenchurch St (when we went to London) had a stop at Barking and when I taught at Walthamstow Academy I had to change trains at Barking twice a day. So really, all I know is the station and its environs. It's not pretty - a lot of terraced housing, train tracks, litter. A kind of no-man's land, between the Essex countryside and the thrill of London proper, is my dominant impression.

I'm being unfair...probably. If you grew up and went to school in Barking, I'm thinking you probably needed to be pretty tough to survive. This is the area that fostered the emerging talent of one Billy Bragg, the so-called Bard of Barking (but not by me, I usually hate that kind of lazy shorthand tag, I make an exception for the fabs).

My first meeting with Billy was on a South Bank Show. Billy was shown cruising around record shops with a guitar and an amp on his back. He played 'A New England' and I loved the rawness of the sound but I was especially taken with his voice. There was no attempt to disguise the Thames estuary accent. I don't recall ever hearing an accent like it. That distinctive voice is a large part of his charm, as is the social realism (at times verging on soap opera) in his lyrics - 'all the girls at school are already pushing prams'. I loved the opening - 'I was 21 years when I wrote this song, I'm 22 now, but I won't be for long'. Genius!

I much prefer Billy's kitchen sink dramas and love songs to the political edgy stuff he does (or did). His early albums were typified by the split between angry-young-labour-man songs and young-poet-with-tender-sensibilities songs.

Levi Stubbs' Tears is definitely a song in the latter category. In this brilliant pop song, Billy takes on a third person narrative of a woman who has been abused and shot by her husband. You may like to read that last sentence again. Amazing, but true, and you can sing along with Billy!

The story in a nutshell - as a teenager, the woman has married a wrong un after running away from home. He leaves her (he’s that type), but later returns from sea and shoots her. No reason is given for this so the casual violence is even more of a shock. As she recovers from her 'accident' she tries to recover her life. Listening to the Four Tops helps her to recover. Oh baby, it sure does. Why tears though? I have no recollection of Levi crying in any song, or even a Four Tops’ song about crying. Maybe it’s Billy’s artistic licence at work in sympathy with the woman. Never mind – it makes for a great title.

Along the way Billy name checks the immortal songwriters for the Tops and others on the Tamla Motown roster - Norman Whitfield, Barratt Strong and Holland/Dozier/Holland. Wow. How can such a sad song be so joyous? Easy - you name check those guys and say that their feel good songs will make it all okay. And they do (and they will).

Take I Can’t Help Myself frinstance. Any song that is sub-titled Sugar Pie Honey Bunch has an awful lot going for it, has it not. Levi Stubbs' smile is all over this song – it’s a joyous explosion of a tune. Levi’s a fool in love (is there any other kind in the pop song?) and he can’t help himself. That’s it! Less is more. The magic happens with the infectious beat and the singing.

If the protagonist is at home listening to that song, she will be mumbling to herself – ‘it’s you and me against the world kid’.

Disneyland is about to close

26 Aimee Mann, 'Red Vines'

Shakespeare time everyone. Of course, Aimee is not Shakespeare. She's better than that - she's Aimee, and she's of our time.

The comparison to the great dramatist is a stoopid, fatuous one I know. Will people in 2409 (4 hundred years time) be listening to Aimee Mann? Der - no (sorry Aimee, but really, truthfully, you'll be lucky if you last until 2359). I don't mean that she should be compared to William. What I mean is, compared to 98% of rock lyrics - her work is vastly superior and of a depth that, without reaching too far, I can compare her to something that has lasted four hundred years.

Red Vine is a great song because it can be interpreted in a variety of ways. At first glance/hearing the poetry appears impenetrable (so far so Shakespeare, right?). Here is the whole lyric:

They're all still on their honeymoon
just read the dialogue balloon
everyone loves you--why should they not?
And I'm the only one who knows
that Disneyland's about to close
I don't suppose you'd give it a shot
knowing all that you've got

are cigarettes and Red Vines
just close your eyes, cause, baby--
you never do know
and I'll be on the sidelines,
with my hands tied,
watching the show

Well, it's always fun and games until
it's clear you haven't got the skill
in keeping the gag from going too far
So you're running 'round the parking lot
til every lightning bug is caught
punching some pinholes in the lid of a jar
while we wait in the car

With cigarettes and Red Vines
just close your eyes, cause, baby--
you never do know
and I'll be on the sidelines,
with my hands tied,
watching the show

And tell me, would it kill you
would it really spoil everything
if you didn't blame yourself
do you know what I mean?

Cigarettes and Red Vines
just close your eyes, cause, baby--
you never do know
and I'll be on the sidelines,
with my hands tied,
watching the show
watching the show

Just as analysing Shakespeare leads us up/down some interesting garden paths, so
analysing Aimee repays with some fragmenting discoveries. Where do we start? Characters.

Literally there are three people in this marriage (where have I heard that before?). If we take 'honeymoon' figuratively things aren't so clear, so we'll proceed literally.

The three people are: 'I', that is - the narrator (let's call her Aimee), 'you' and the spouse form the married couple.There is of course a fourth participant to all this - the listeners (one of whom, let's call him Wozza, is puzzled but enjoys trying to imagine the scene).

The natural assumption to make (for me) is that 'you' is male which provokes one stream of thought. If it's female it's a whole different ball game (if you'll pardon the clumsy sexual allusion).

Aimee is the narrator, therefore the whole story is skewed towards her point of view. The dialogue balloon ('everyone loves you, how could they not' in my reading) is chosen by Aimee. It makes the couple sound narcissistic at worst or obsequious (fawning) at best.

So what's going on?

Aimee is observing - she's on the sidelines, watching the show, unable to do anything about the
situation. Is she a jilted lover? A relation? A dispassionate observer? Only Aimee really knows but my speculation is that Aimee has had a sexual relationship with the husband before the marriage and knows the guy enough to know he can't paper over the cracks for long ('you haven't got the skill...'). He's hoping for the best ('you never do know'). Aimee is friends still with the couple (the three are together in the car) but she knows the marriage is doomed.
There is a sense of foreboding in the lyric - 'Disneyland is about to close'. Okay it's not Lear railing against the storm and stripping himself to his core being, but it's not looking rosie.

I like the way each part of the song reveals more and more about what's possibly going on. The last bit, 'would it kill you...if you didn't blame yourself' provides a few more clues. Is Aimee
actually happy with the situation or is she agitating for him to be proactive? I'm not sure but I like the way that thought is left hanging at this point.

It's a neat trick - a threeish minute pop song that has a slice of autobiography with a mood that is believable. Not too many can pull that off. Maybe two percent. Aimee and William.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The more things seem to change, the more they stay the same

24 Badfinger, ‘Without You’; 25 The Raspberries, ‘I Can Remember’

Although powerpop is a commercial construct, it does evoke a certain kind of song. As a sub-genre, it’s often linked to its parent - the Beatles. In reality powerpop’s only one facet of the Beatles and that’s the Paul McCartney Back In The USSR pop song facet. Macca, and The Beatles, were/are always much more than that. Nevertheless, I love the bands and songs that are often market under the ‘powerpop’ tag, even though there are often some weird groups shoehorned onto powerpop compilations – The Kinks? The Proclaimers? Buzzcocks? Joe Jackson? That would be – no, no, no, and no. But The Motors? The Cars? Electric Light Orchestra? The Records? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. What makes the difference – songs with beefy guitars, McCartney hooks, fuzzed up guitars, harmony vocals, scuzzed up multi-tracked guitars, a Ringo like drummer, riffy chords, they last about 3 minutes, no longer, and, oh, there are lots of guitars. Think Wings circa Band On The Run as the template.

All kidding aside, it is probably true that without McCartney a lot of these bands would have gone in very different directions and I wouldn’t be writing about Badfinger and The Raspberries right now. The Beatle comparisons don’t end there though.

The Beatles, Badfinger and The Raspberries were four piece bands whose resident genius was their rhythm guitarist (John Lennon, Pete Ham and Eric Carmen respectively). Both Badfinger/Raspberries recorded for Beatle related labels (The Raspberries for Capitol, but Badfinger win this battle as they were on Apple Records).

Even aside from Apple, Badfinger continue the Beatles comparison through McCartney’s (and later – Harrison’s) direct involvement. Badfinger started life as The Iveys (chosen to echo The Hollies). They were signed to Apple by Beatle roadie, Mal Evans, and were allowed to grow slowly. This was handy coz their Maybe Tomorrow album doesn’t give many hints of the greatness to come. Nor is it powerpop.

But then, along came Macca. He donated Come And Get It as a sure-fire single and Badfinger copied his lead note for note . Unfortunately, the rest of Magic Christian Music is only slightly better than The Iveys album, mainly because they rework many of the Ivey’s songs.

No Dice, however, is another thing altogether, and the first real Badfinger album on which Pete Ham shines. It contains his classics, No Matter What, Midnight Caller, We’re For The Dark and the great Without You.

In contrast, The Raspberries were one of those bands like Coldplay, Led Zeppelin and The Doors who arrived, album 1, fully formed. Who or what were they before they put out their first album? I’ve no idea. But their respective first albums –The Raspberries, Parachute, Led Zeppelin, The Doors – hit the ground running with a trademark sound. There are no awkward first albums to get the sound right as many have done, such as David Gray, Deep Purple, and Jefferson Airplane. Amazingly, The Raspberries even included an eight minutes long opus on their debut – I Can Remember.

I’ve linked these classic powerpop songs, Without You and I Can Remember, for this post because both songs deal with love withdrawn, denied or goneburger; a common theme within the powerpop world. They are great for when you want to wallow in self-pity. I even made a self-pity mix tape many moons ago and these were automatic choices. Eric Carmen has seldom done better. All By Myself is a great weepie but I Can Remember is CINERAMA in comparison.

Without You begins with I’m- resigned-to-this news that she’s left him and now he can’t live if he has to live without her. We know nothing else – apart from he let her go and she’s sad to go. It’s a little less fleshed out than Romeo and Juliet then. But this lack of information isn’t an issue in the song, because the music is so damned good. I just listen for those guitar bits that go ‘jerhuumm’ and who cares if the lyric is basically meaningless. I know, I know – I told you earlier that I’m a lyric man but Without You is a great example of the ‘less is more’ principle in the lyric department.

I Can Remember is much more expressive in comparison and things are more strung out time wise. Eric remembers the fun they had in summer, going into autumn (when she said goodbye and took off with another guy) and he’s looking forward to spring and a possible rebirth with the reappearance of the sun. But in the meantime the protagonist hurts so much he thinks he’ll die. Things get worse – he hurts more and more each day. It's still not Shakespeare though is it. No, stupid, it’s powerpop. Classic powerpop. If I wanted Shakespeare I’d listen to Aimee Mann.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

From the spiritual sky, such sweet memories have I

23 George Harrison, ‘Be Here Now’
The fabs’ solo years are problematic I know, but I am more familiar with them than I am the actual Beatle years. Throughout the seventies, when I was setting out on my record buying path, few years are as special as 1973. In that year all four fabs put out solo albums and Lennon’s comment was spot on – if you want a new Beatle album, just collect the best songs off the four solo albums and hey presto. The four albums in question were Ringo, Mind Games, Living In The Material World, and Red Rose Speedway. All great solo albums in their own write.

Here’s my selection for 1973’s 12 song single album by The Beatles called ‘Be Here Now’ (I thought about doing a double but that would have been stretching the quality control a tad too much):
Side 1
Mind Games – (John - vocals)
I’m The Greatest – (Ringo - vocals/drums; George – guitars; John – piano)
Little Lamb Dragonfly – (Paul - vocals)
Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) – (George – vocals/guitars; Ringo - drums)
My Love – (Paul - vocals)
Be Here Now – (George – vocals/guitars; Ringo - drums)

Side 2
Big Barn Red – (Paul - vocals)
You Are Here – (John - vocals)
Photograph – (Ringo vocals/drums; George – guitars)
One More Kiss – (Paul - vocals)
Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long – (George – vocals/guitars; Ringo - drums)
Meat City – (John - vocals)

That’s a pretty damn good 1973, Beatles’ record. It’s got all four represented on merit. Ringo has a novelty song on side one, written by John – that’s appropriate, and a great Ringo song on side 2 (Photograph) written by George – also appropriate. It’s got a Paul rocker (Big Barn Red) and a John rocker (Meat City). It’s got cutsey Paul (One More Kiss) and romantic Paul (My Love). It has cosmic John (Mind Games) and romantic John (You Are Here). It has rocky George (Give Me Love), and it’s got a Long Long Long style Harrison ballad to close out side 1 that I adore. That song also lends itself to the album title as well – what, you thought Oasis had gone all Buddhist for their third album released in 1997? No such luck – they were merely quoting George, as they had done for Wonderwall.

Be Here Now (the George song) is an amazing piece of work and, for me, the standout track on this album, as Long Long Long was for The Beatles. Musically I find a lot similarities between the two – the same other-worldly space is there between the notes and the pace is similar.

The lyric to Be Here Now is very different though. This isn’t a direct love song to Patti (Long Long Long’s ‘I love you’ is pretty direct). Instead it’s a contemplation on life in general (‘Why try to live a life, that isn't real’), and George’s life in particular. He uses the song to give himself advice, ‘Be here now as it’s not what it was before’. This may be seen as an assessment of his love for Patti in a marriage that was falling apart. Next year’s Dark Horse album would address the failure in less oblique fashion.

It’s this kind of honesty that endears me to John Lennon and George Harrison. They certainly didn’t live blameless lives and did their share of stuffing up relationships. I mean if you were married to Patti Boyd would you fall out of love with her?

In her book ‘Wonderful Tonight’ she has some perceptive comments on George’s psyche, ‘I think owning that huge house and garden created confusion in him. It was a constant reminder of how rich and famous he was, and that gave him a sense of power, but in his heart knew was just a boy from Liverpool who was talented and had got lucky’.

Be Here Now is a musical artefact that provides further evidence. George wants to be alive in the moment; he exhorts himself in the lyric to ‘Remember. Now’. But in his heart he knows he’s trying to live a life that isn’t real. It’s interesting that he never got rid of the huge house and garden. Lennon’s plea to ‘imagine no possessions – I wonder if you can’ was something he also couldn’t actually do. They both lived their lives in the material world. George's album was called 'Living In The Material World'. It has songs about his trying to life a more spiritual life but it's on an album that exists in the material world of commerce. He, and John, made a lot of money from their albums and they are aware of this tension, confusion, and, I guess, guilt. In the end, it gave us some great songs.

It’s this searching and the honest examination that I love about them both. I’ll even buy Electronic Sound and Two Virgins for them!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Ill let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours

21 Bob Dylan, ‘I Shall Be Free'; 22 Jimi Hendrix, ‘All Along The Watchtower’

Bob Dylan is a mountain that must be climbed for anyone wanting to have a serious record collection. Blood On The Tracks was my introduction. Thank the lord for that. It could have been Knocked Out Loaded and I would have stopped right there. Or it could just as easily have been Self Portrait, or Dylan, or New Morning, or Street Legal, or Shot Of Love, or Down In The Groove, or Nashville Skyline, or…there are some clunkers in the oeuvre aren’t there. Luckily though, it was one of the great peaks that launched me off on a trip through his back pages.

The voice, of course, is what delays a lot of young people from getting started on Dylan’s work. After a while (okay – years) eventually the realisation creeps on you that the voice is right for the songs and the delivery becomes a charm unto itself. Again, luckily, I heard songs like Talking World War III Blues and I Shall Be Free soon after Blood On The Tracks and the playful humour, wit, word play and intelligence won me over.

Like Nick Hornby though, I’m a long way from being a devotee. Dylan, you may have noticed, is missing from that completist list a few posts ago. I think because, on the way to getting hooked, luckily number 3, I bought Self Portrait and quickly realised I needed to cherry pick to avoid considerable future heartache.

I do have the biggies though – Bob Dylan, Blonde On Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Another Side of Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Highway 61 Revisited, and Bringing It All Back Home are all present and correct. My favourite Dylan period, 1973 to 1976, is well represented by Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, Planet Waves, Blood On The Tracks, Desire, and Hard Rain. I’m interested enough to have also bought The Bootleg Series Vol 4 (the ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert) and Vol 5 (the Rolling Thunder Revue from 1975). I’m also partial to the Dylan & The Dead live album too, even though it’s constantly reviled by Dylan-ogists. Those same Dylan devotees will be horrified to learn that I also own nothing after Infidels in 1983. His latest stuff just doesn’t move me.

Dylan songs often sound best when covered by others. I almost don’t care who – Nancy Sinatra or The Hollies or The Byrds or Jimi Hendrix or even Hugh Cornwell (yes the Stranglers man does a passable version of Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again).

Jimi clearly loved Dylan and enthusiastically launched himself at Like A Rolling Stone as soon as he could. He obviously took more time to work out his response to All Along The Watchtower because it becomes a whirling cyclone of a song in Jimi’s hands and is so much better than Dylan’s much more tame original. In many ways it points to Dylan’s problem – dashing off versions of his songs without fully exploring their possibilities. No, that’s unfair – he could have spent twenty years experimenting with Watchtower and NEVER come up with Hendrix’s electric carnival. The combination of Dylan’s words and Hendrix’s musical maelstrom bring real menace to the lines. “Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl, Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl”. It’s one of those rare moments of genius when two rock gods stand on each other’s shoulders and reach another plane altogether.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Bow down to the San Francisco ladies

20 Jefferson Airplane, ‘Crown Of Creation’

Fiercely intelligent, extremely perceptive, powerfully talented, politically astute, brazenly anti-establishment, gorgeous women scare the hell out of me. I’m like George Costanza (Seinfeld) who forgets his own name when confronted by one of these Amazonian super women.

Grace Slick has always been one of those women for me. Someone to worship from afar but I know I’d be swatted away like a fly if I ever had a chance to meet her and tell her how great she is. Plus she was with Paul Kantner. The male version of all those things above. Except she wasn’t really with Kantner – they were sexually liberated superbeings who could have it all, without any bourgeoisie hang-ups about possessions and pesky human relationships. Wooo – what a woman!! And what a voice.

Grace’s voice and delivery matches what I’ve built up in my mind about Grace the woman. It’s lusty, fully committed and beautiful. It’s no easy choices for Grace either – she’ll have a go at it all. She can sing solo rock stuff like Silver Spoon from Sunfighter with no problem. She can do the heavy metal/hard rock guitar moll stuff (the Wreaking Ball album) and she takes on the sensitive singer/songwriter schtick, on the album Dreams, like a west coast natural. Whether prog noodling on Manhole or eighties computer vamp on Software; you hum it she can sing it. Apart from all that, she sings divine soaring harmony time and again for Jefferson Airplane/Starship, with any combination of Marty Balin, Kantner, or David Freiberg.

It’s probably in the latter guise that I love her most. The live versions of Have You Seen The Saucers and Crown Of Creation on the Thirty Seconds Over Winterland album are some of the best examples. The three singers of the Airplane at this time – Kantner/Freiberg and Slick intertwine their voices with crystal clear precision. Grace soars and swoons around the melody lines and the music from Papa John Creach (violin), Jack Cassidy (bass), Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar) and John Barbata (drums) is fittingly superb. But it’s Grace that steals the show, every time.

Two versions to choose from - 1989 or 1968

Sky is womb and she's the moon

19 Bon Iver, ‘Flume’

I mentioned in my last posting on Jethro Tull that I love acoustic guitar and so I do. I won’t try to trace where this love came from. Oh, okay, I will. It may have been Lennon’s You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away which I heard way before I heard Dylan.

It may be the first Crosby Stills Nash album and Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. Steve Stills is a guitar god. I watched Déjà vu (the DVD) in great sadness recently. Steve looks bad and sounds bad, in contrast to Neil who looked and acted spry, and even, God forbid, in contrast to David Crosby. The Cros consumed industrial sized quantities of bad shit for decades and now…he looks better than Stills, and still sings harmony with Nash like an angel. But poor Stills is massively overweight and is slurry of speech. Sad. What happened to him?

It may be James Taylor that got me started, but I doubt it because I didn’t get into him until after I found his first album on Apple Records. Or it could be the Paul Kantner solo (haha) album Blows Against The Empire with it’s undercurrent of acoustic guitars on songs like Have You Seen The Stars Tonite played by every freaky guitarist in San Francisco?

Actually, now that I come to think of it, I think it was Paul McCartney of all people who got me started. Specifically some songs on The Beatles (aka The White Album) – Blackbird and Mother Nature’s Son and the ballad of Rocky Raccoon. Thanks Macca!

Ever since - I’ve stopped off at all of those destinations listed above and much more. It’s amazing how differently guitars sound in expert hands. Jorma Kaukonen, for instance, has a tone and style that is vastly different to Earl klugh, to Neil Young, to Bruce Cockburn, to Kurt Cobain, to…Bon Iver.

Bon Iver’s album For Emma, Forever Ago is a real treat. On one level, because all of the hype I read about it in Mojo is actually spot on. On another, it’s the kind of album that reminds me of why I love music in the first place – acoustic guitar, meaningful lyrics, great vocals, and inspiration to go with the craft.

The first track, Flume, is the most beautiful song I’ve heard in ages. It also makes my heart ache, and it sounds so effortless and simple but I bet it was a bastard to write and get right. Or maybe it was as natural as it sounds.

The elliptical style he writes in means the lyrics are open to a lot of interpretation but they sound absolutely right for the song. That's got to be a kind of genius. The music and lyrics match perfectly and this must have taken an age. The gaps in meaning within the lyric also point to careful thought and revision.

The opening line, ‘I am my mother’s only one, it’s enough’ is wide open to interpretation and that wide open space, once set up in this line, pervades the rest of the song and album. There is a depth here that is unusual in a pop song. As he says in the final song re:stacks, ‘it’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away’. The unlocking began with Flume but it doesn’t end there. Via this unlocking, in the end he provides a depth that allows me to listen to the song, and album, multiple times and will still allow new thoughts, new revelations, new feelings for years to come. It’s a great song.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

So, where the hell was Biggles?

18 Jethro Tull, ‘Thick As A Brick’

The English sensibility is something I think I share. I certainly like the whimsical and eccentric elements that hive away in the British cultural landscape. My reading matter prior to University years was clearly dominated by British writers. Swallows and Amazons was a huge early favourite but I loved all of those adventure style books where children my age messed around in boats or found old houses that had lots of secret passageways. I was a tad unusual in that I didn’t read the Famous Five, Narnia or Just William style books. Instead it was Billy Bunter and Biggles that held my attention before I discovered Tolkein’s whimsical and eccentric Middle Earth. An early obsession was Billy Bunter. I collected every Billy Bunter book I could and devoured them like Billy would a cream bun.

This early grounding in English culture crossed over into my love of Wordsworth and the Lake District. When I lived in England I chose not to visit this area because I was partly scared that it wouldn’t live up to my imagination. I should have though, because visiting the Welsh area around Tintern Abbey was a clear highlight from my travels.

The English countryside has pressed itself into my psyche from my readings and from Turner and Constable paintings. English music has been a dominant force as well, although when I was growing up and listening to music I didn’t differentiate between American or British styles. It was all music and I loved The Doors and Led Zeppelin equally. Although New Zealand culture, in the mid 70’s onwards, became increasingly Americanised. Television was still a mixture, but film was Hollywood, and the war in Vietnam dominated our consciousness and conscience. I remember seeing US troops on R and R in Sydney in the mid 60s and it had an effect.

Suddenly I wanted an NFL jersey and my Arsenal obsession came second for a bit. Luckily this coincided with a series of dire Arsenal teams in the late 70’s and 80’s. During my University years I was definitely heavily influenced by American culture. Luckily I went to live in England for a while and the world is now back on its axis in terms of my influences - BBC, The Guardian, Hard-Fi. For a while there, though, I was playing exclusively American music and largely ignoring Van Morrison and that quintessential English band – Jethro Tull. One album that did manage to remain a constant though was the much maligned Thick As A Brick, which, of course, is also the only song on the album. Curious, isn’t it, how TAAB works – well it does for me – and A Passion Play, which followed it, stinks all over the place.

I think the trick is simplicity actually. Yes I know it was a lavish newspaper package full of whimsy and eccentricities, and yes I know there is a tendency to become pretentious when you make one song last for nearly 44 minutes, and YES, it’s got a lyric that defies understanding, to whit - ‘your sperm’s in the gutter, your love’s in the sink’…you what?? I often wonder about how Ian Anderson pitched this to the rest of the guys: “Yes Jeffrey, it’s a rather long song – nearly three quarters of an hour – and it starts off by (snigger snigger) us telling the listener they can sit it out if they want to. It’ll be huge!” And, of course, it was!!

At its heart TAAB is a basic folk song and an autobiographical slice about Gerald “Little Milton” Bostock (I’ve covered whimsy and pretentiousness haven’t I?). It’s certainly not a ‘difficult’ prog rock opus in terms of its music.

I love the way it unfolds and I love the evocation of an English childhood and the pastoral days of yore pose it adopts. What other lyric name checks Biggles for goodness sake? I love the acoustic guitar and here Ian Anderson is at his idiosyncratic best. I also love the bravery. Rather than being in ‘naive taste’, as the self deprecating sleeve notes would have you believe; by allowing this song to breathe and stretch out they hit a creative peak. Just a pity they had to then thoroughly overreach themselves with A Passion Play. But as Dylan says, ‘there’s no success like failure, and failures no success at all’.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

F---- you, I won’t do what you tell me

15 Rage Against The Machine, ‘Killing In The Name’; 16 Rammstein, ‘Asche Zu Asche’; 17 Avenged Sevenfold, ‘Almost Easy’.

I’m not insane, I’m not insane, I’m not insane! So says M Shadows, vocalist for Avenged Sevenfold. I’m not – and I love these three songs. Energy? Dialled up to 11! Attitude? Of yeah – see the post’s title. Repetition? Sure – repeat with me -now you do what they taught ya!! Loud? Eh? Each of these uses all these tried and true rockist features in new ways. In short, they rock like motorfingers!

Every once and a while I need to blow out the cobwebs with something obnoxious and there we go. The fact that I (either as teacher or authority figure or whatever) am often the target of the rage makes it all the more deliciously ironic. Isn’t it amazing, too, how quickly, what you thought was a threat to common good and decency is soon supplanted by something else.

The Sex Pistols and The Clash were evil incarnate to many in the late 1970s. Pretty tame now huh. The first Rage Against The Machine album was Mr Angry – not for nothing did The Matrix use the Rage’s Wake Up over their title credits, but Zach and his mates couldn’t sustain that for long and by album three they were raging against radio! Rammstein’s first few albums were dark and potentially alienating to my generation. But the fact they sang in their native German became less shocking with time. Compare their genuinely scarey Live in Berlin DVD with Volkerball and it’s obvious they’ve become more obviously cartoon-like with time. Now we have a new breed, as is the way.

I like listening to bands like Rammstein and The Lost Prophets for all of the usual reasons – they write catchy songs with power, youthful enthusiasm and total commitment, pounding rhythms and REALLY LOUD GUITARS. Isn’t that why we’ve always liked rebel music/ rock ‘n’ roll/ rock/ heavy metal – call it what you will?

Bring on the noise!

I said hello to "Mary Lou", she belongs to me.

14 Ricky Nelson, ‘Garden Party’

I’m not sure why I have such a deep fascination and affinity for Ricky (aka Rick) Nelson. I was too young to see the TV sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet that he acted in with his parents and brother, not that TVNZ would have run it, even if they had been on the air at the time. And you thought ‘The Osbournes’ was a new idea?

I was born in 1957, the year he started having hits. I don’t remember hearing any of his hits between then and when I started collecting records. It wasn’t until his mention of ‘Yoko and her Walrus’ in the seventies song, Garden Party, that my interest was piqued and I was finally aware of his existence. Incidentally, I loved that song at first hearing – I’m a real sucker for this kind of ballad.

Since then, though, I’ve come back to him again and again. I think it’s the smooth, warm, almost conversational tone he sings in. A lot, maybe 98%, of old rock ‘n’ roll songs have dated badly, including all of the Elvis catalogue. Sorry, but the bloat and bombast of Elvis did/does nothing for me. But Ricky (he was Ricky until he turned 21) has a body of work that still sounds incredibly fresh. And he didn’t seem to age even in the 1980s, until he died in a plane crash in 1985 (the same year of this version of Garden Party). Now he'll remain, forever young.

Outside of society, that's where I wanna be.

13 Patti Smith, ‘Babelogue/Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger’

One of my best friends at University, Linley Wood, introduced me to Patti Smith’s Horses album. I remember her telling me about the album and raving about it. When I got a chance I listened to the first track, Gloria, and wow. The opening statement – Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine – rocked my world. The songs on the album bare testimony to her Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, but clearly she was rebelling against that. I loved the songs and her delivery and bought Radio Ethiopia as well. And that, I thought, was that.

That was, until an American Poetry lecture in the bowels of the old Arts building, Auckland University, led by Wystan Curnow and Roger Horrocks. Wystan led off this particular session with a tape by, he said, an American poet – Patti Smith.

Babelogue started and the cosmos reached down and ripped my head off!! I had never felt such a rush of adrenalin as I felt at that moment, listening to Babelogue segue into Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger. WHAT WAS THAT??????? I have no idea what the rest of the lecture was on. I was gone, daddy, gone. I became a zealot for Patti Smith at that moment, but, more than that, this moment of epiphany made me a zealot for poetry. My own writing was vindicated in that moment and I was now set to gorge myself on poetry. Wordsworth, Rimbaud, Coleridge, Shelley, Bly, Ginsberg, Dylan and on and on. When Babelogue snagged me I realised it was the lyrics that drew me in to experiencing the songs. Not the music. I’m still the same. That’s why nearly all of my posts are titled from lyrics.

Thanks Linley, wherever you are, for kicking me off!

Two versions of this for you to choose from. First is the original version on Easter and then a morphed 2006 version. She's still got it!

My name is Warren and I'm a completist.

9 George Harrison, ‘Under The Mersey Wall’; 10 John Lennon/Yoko Ono, ‘Cambridge 1969’; 11 Paul McCartney, ‘Ode to a Koala Bear’; 12 Ringo Starr, ‘Love is a Many Splendoured Thing’.

After the calm, smooth grooving of Grover the above fab four ‘songs’ are a perfect contrast. Why? Because, put bluntly, they are unlistenable. I am not, repeat, NOT, kidding. Let me prove it and before we go any further know this – there is no film, nor are they downloadable so you’ll have to take my word for all this.

Know this also – I’ll adore and worship the fabs while I am alive on planet earth.

The best thing about the Harrison piece (it’s not anything remotely like a song as we know it) is the title. It’s a whole side from his album Electronic Sound. It is made up of electronic sounds – beeps and bips and squalls. I’ve listened to it once and I’d have preferred to chew on tinfoil. Surely he’s taking the piss?

John Lennon and Yoko Ono went to Cambridge in 1969 and recorded a whole side of Unfinished Music Number 2; Life With The Lions there. It’s Yoko screeching (even screaming would have been preferable) while John’s guitar, leaning on an amp, howls constant feedback. Harrison’s bleeps sound way more appealing don’t they? I comfort myself with the thought that a whole audience sat through this ‘performance’. Poor sods.

McCartney is not immune. His saccharine, cutesy tendencies are legendary but how could he stoop to Ode to a Koala Bear? It’s obscure, I grant you, but it’s there alright – on the 12 inch of Say Say Say. Yes that same dreek he produced with Michael Jackson. Give me Mary Had A Little Lamb any day. I’ve now listened to the ode twice and it’s as bad as I remember it. At least it’s short compared to the Lennon/Harrison extravaganzas.

The nightmare continues – Ringo, bless him, can’t sing. I’m not telling you anything new. Somehow he thought it best to start his solo career in 1970 by singing a collection of standards. The album Sentimental Journey is impossible to listen to, let alone like. The Love…track is on side two. Even if you have the constitution to make it thus far – this will stop you dead in your tracks (pun intentional).

What were they thinking? Who knows. They were gods and knew they could put this stuff out and sad saps like me would buy it. That’s not the point though.

What the hell was I thinking when I bought them? That’s much easier to answer. I had no choice – I had to. You see I’m a completist. This means I collect everything put out by my chosen target, all the grotesque and despicable among the genius. This is what completists do – out of love and loyalty, we will buy anything connected to our focused artist, regardless of quality.

It all started with the song Imagine really, on Solid Hits Vol 2 (I think). I loved it and it rekindled my love of the Beatles Hey Jude album. I needed more so I bought Imagine, the album and... I needed more…My love of Lennon’s solo albums in the early 70’s led me back to Lennon’s Beatle songs. Already I’m too far in to turn back now – all Beatles material, all the fabs solo material morphed to all Apple product. For a while I even collected non Apple material by Apple bands. Jackie Lomax 3 anyone? Holy hell!

Label completists are a desperate lot. We have that haunted look because we can’t find that missing album/single or we had it, but traded it for something else we wanted more (in my case John Tavener’s Celtic Requiem for a Japanese box set pressing of Lennon’s Wedding Album). Even though I hated the music on the Tavener album it’s now the only Apple Album I don’t have and I want it. Sigh.

We put ourselves through this torture because of the payoff. When I eventually come across a vinyl copy of Celtic Requiem I will be in tingling, heart pumping, orgasmic ecstasy. I still remember the thrill I got when I finally got that Lennon album with Cambridge 1969 on it. That makes the trial of listening to it all worthwhile and some.

My completist streak since 1971 has extended to Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starhip/Starship/Hot Tuna/ Grunt Records (apart from Grunt – it’s an ongoing obsession); Crosby Stills Nash and Young (the 1980s Young output cured me of being a Young completist); Beach Boys (including Dennis and Carl Wilson but not Brian or Mike Love projects); Patti Smith; all the Woodstock festival (all three on-going). That's it. Plenty of others have fallen by the wayside but those obsessions linger on.

The latest recipient of my undivided attention has been David Gray. I just had to have those early albums! Don't be sad for me, help me find Celtic Requiem.

Jamming, I jamming, jamming in the name of the lord

8 Grover Washington Jnr. ‘Jamming’

I may have heard a lot of Jazz growing up but none of it was mine and of my time. When I worked at Marbecks Records during my University holidays, during the late 70's/early 80's, I had access to the finest collection of records and sounds in New Zealand.

I probably need to declare a bias at some stage in these 49 posts – I love the Marbecks family (Roger, Hayden, Murray and the rest of the whanau). That bias aside – at this time, the Marbeck Record shops did have the best stock in New Zealand, and, I may add, the most knowledgeable shop assistants. I worked in the popular side with Roger and Vanessa. Serena, Murray and Hayden were in the classical shop. It was good times and, as I’ve often said, I was in heaven!

Friday nights were my favourite because it allowed us a bit of freedom, time wise, to try out stuff that wasn’t necessarily commercial. Obviously Roger wanted to sell albums so I forgave him the endless plays of the Cure’s Three Imaginary Boys song where the tap drips drips drips…and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I must have heard the first bits of side 1 (no CD’s on the scene yet) a billion trillion times. Friday nights though - we’d often dig out some cruisey jazz albums. I liked Bob James (another nerdy looking bespectacled white keyboardist), Chuck Mangione, Earl Klugh and Grover Washington Jnr. Especially Grover. I love the sax sound and the image of the cool saxophonist – nailed by Jim Henson’s Zoot in The Muppets Show. Winelight and Come Morning make great relaxing listening on a sunny morning with the day ahead of you.

I have Grover to thank for introducing me to Bob Marley via his version of Jamming. It is a brilliant, lopping version with the distinctive sax playing all around the tune, mostly taking the vocal lines but not exclusively. It is better, for me, than Marley’s original and the live Babylon By Bus version. This is not usually the norm for me. I much prefer to get the original and very rarely does a remake better the original. I know of no Beatle covers, for instance, that better the original and I own about a dozen compilations of covers. Why do I collect them? I have no idea beyond the completist impulse that I’ll explain in the next post.

It was a short lived infatuation with Grover and what is called, I guess, modern jazz. I’ve not bought any other albums since that inspired period of exploration in the early 1980s. But I still dig them out from time to time and they still have a magic to them. And I still love the Marbecks.

[No film of Grover Jamming that I could find].

Take this sinking boat and point it home, we still have time

7 Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, ‘ Falling Slowly’

Music and film is a tough act to pull off; almost as tough as football and film (name one movie about football that stars football greats, has a great storyline, and acting to match! You can’t can you, because - there aren’t any).

Here are the ingredients for a great film about music – musicians who play themselves in the movie (or at least play creditable musicians), great songs played throughout the movie, a creditable storyline. Not much to ask for? I can only think of three movies that meet that criteria: A Hard Day’s Night, Head (by The Monkees) and Once.

I haven’t seen Slade in Flame but I’ve heard good things about it over the years so it may deserve a place. 200 Motels may also qualify but again, I haven’t seen it. And that’s it! Lame musicals can’t qualify. Neither rock documentaries nor music concerts qualify because they’re not fictional. Prince’s films (even Purple Rain) miss out on the storyline front. Elvis? You’ve got to be kidding.

That leaves my stand alone three, and Head is a distant third (debateable musicianship and the plot doesn’t bare scrutiny). What makes Once so great is partly that section when Glen (the guy) is teaching Marketa (the girl) Falling Slowly in the music shop. Clearly a set up (no one learns a song that fast do they?) but believable all the same. The song, of course, is awesome and I fall in love with Marketa every time I see her. Her ‘acting’ is unbelievably great. The first time I watched it in a state of ignorance. Naturally, I loved the film and watched the credits as is my wont. I did a check of the film’s music and realised the actors had written and sung the songs. Of course, it’s the other way ‘round, musicians were acting, but that’s how good the acting is.

The song itself, Falling Slowly, builds to those stretched out vocal sections (on 'time', 'now' and 'along') and has a neat series of changes as Glen points out. The lyrics are about a love that is fragile but there is hope in the song. I prefer love songs like this one to lead me away from despair. The sinking boat in the song can make it home because, ‘We still have time’. Hurrah! The boat is half...erm...empty.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sha da do wop, da shaman do way, We like birdland.

6 Dave Brubeck, ‘Take Five’; 7 Charlie Parker ‘Romance without finance’

I dabble in jazz. I have all the biggies – Coltrane, Rollins, Davis, Parker, Hancock, Getz, Byrd, MacLean, and Monk – and I genuinely enjoy listening to them, but I know I don’t get jazz like jazz lovers do. Otherwise I’d have a lot more in my collection. The Brubeck and Parker songs are two that I can hum for you and they are significant for very different reasons.

There was no avoiding jazz in my house. My father, God bless him, played it a lot and LOUD! He especially liked Dave Brubeck. I can remember thumbing through his albums and the Brubeck covers always stood out. I wasn’t sure about Dave though. He didn’t look much like a hip musician with those heavy black horn-rimmed glasses, short hair and suit. He looked like my dad!! Jazz guys were supposed to look hip, cool, and …well…black. Dave wasn’t. He reeked of whiteness. And geekhood - he played piano! I studied that Time Out cover a lot. It was sharp lines, edges and semi-circular shapes. No squares, but there should have been. The back cover talked about time signatures and other esoteric stuff like the emancipation of jazz that bored me rigid. Music is about feeling, right? Nevertheless I found myself playing the album from time to time and falling for the charms of Take Five. It began to take on a cool all of its own – even though played by the Bill Haley of the jazz world, and has now become a kind of shorthand for those fabulous fifties. Go figure.

Charlie Parker, on the other hand, was, to me, the epitome of cool when I started out on my own jazz collection, and the real deal. It helped he was black and played sax. On the Encores album that started me off, he was multi-hued with eyes closed, feeling his music. Recorded in 1944, Romance Without Finance, with vocals, was the first jazz song I could hang my hat on. Accessible, funny and with a side order of rude! When the lyric goes, “mama mama please give up that gold”, you know he ain’t about money!! In short, living in Birdland was nothing like Dave Brubeckville! But I love them both.

[No film of Parker doing this song as far as I can see.]

Would you…let me rock, let me rock?

5 Rory Gallagher, ‘Cradle Rock’

I love guitars. I love LOUD ROCK guitars. I love playing my air guitar to LOUD ROCK guitars.

My crisis in the eighties/nineties was about the dirth of guitars and the prevalence of synthesizers in music. Even Nirvana, while I love both Nevermind and Bleach albums, weren’t about guitars. Pearl Jam eventually restored my faith in rock guitars but Rory Gallagher was and always will be MY mainman! Rory was mine!

There is something great that happens when you think you and maybe ten other people in the world know and love YOUR band. When I saw Rory on a grainy black and white film playing Cradle Rock on my TV in 1974, it was love at first sight. And better yet, none of my friends knew of him. I immediately had to have the Irish Tour ’74 album and cut out all the articles on him in the music magazines that I read. The audience on the record didn’t count as people who knew about Rory. They were in Cork, in Ireland! Might as well have been on a moon orbiting Jupiter as far as I was concerned. I was on the other side of the planet.

The best concert I’ve ever seen was in 1980, the Top Priority tour, Auckland Town Hall. Rory Gallagher. Imagine my surprise that the Town Hall was FULL. This audience I could relate to. They were like me – middle class, white, male, Aucklanders. Maybe it was more than 10 then. I was similarly shocked when I went to a Streettalk gig at the old (and now torn down) His Majesty’s Theatre, with Mike and Greg and Hammond Gamble played a ripping version of Rory’s A Million Miles Away. Nick Hornby also confesses a love affair with the long haired Irish god in his 31 Songs. Could it be Nick, Hammond and I weren’t alone?

Something happens after you find out that others share your passion for an artist. Actually a few things happen. Your creative instinct is partly vindicated – I wasn’t alone in my good taste; a warm glow of community is felt - those solitary guitar sessions in your bedroom were shared by thousands of other pimply boys; you, paradoxically, sense a need to share your good fortune with your friends; but also, like the Cavern’s Beatle fans – there is a sense of loss as well. That, maybe, shock horror, they weren’t really yours after all. But that’s okay – you move onto the next group/singer/guitarist that no one else knows much about and you spread the gospel. Have you heard Silent Alliance?