My Pop Life #106 : A Wedding In Cherokee County – Randy Newman

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A Wedding In Cherokee County   –   Randy Newman

…maybe she’s crazy I don’t know

maybe that’s why I love her so…

The Old Market, Hove, Sussex August 13th 2005.   Not quite Cherokee County but it’s a universal tale isn’t it ?   Hmm maybe not.   Anyway.   Cherokee County could refer to Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, South or North Carolina or Texas.   The song is written by Randy Newman and is off his 5th LP entitled “Good Old Boys” and the LP has a theme – the South of the USA.   All of the songs are concerned with life, history or the mentality of living in the South.    When he plays live he compares it to Quadrophenia.   He’s joking.   In case you missed the debate, The South or The Confederacy, finally lost the Civil War in 1865 when Reconstruction began and the abolition of slavery was final.   However, the effects of that war have never disappeared as is only too obvious.    President Abraham Lincoln was shot dead on April 14th 1865 just as hostilities had ceased, a victim of his support for the abolition of slavery,  The South was poor (relatively speaking) for at least 100 years afterwards, voting rights weren’t granted finally until 1964 (Selma) and the Confederate Flag – the flag of the six breakaway states (the ones with the most slaves) – was finally taken down from the Town Hall in Columbia South Carolina this month in July 2015.  But this song isn’t about slavery.  Or Civil War.  It’s about marriage.

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Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles to musical parents.  His first self-titled LP came out in 1968 and it was immediately clear that he was a distinctive and original songwriter.  Mordant, satirical, ironic, witty, irreverent and clever, there is no other writer like Randy Newman.  Instead of attacking he goes underneath and makes you smile.  I bought his 4th LP Sail Away in the 1970s after hearing it at Simon Korner’s house (or so I thought, Simon has since denied this) – it contained one of my then favourite songs Simon Smith and The Amazing Dancing Bear which I knew from the pop charts and Alan Price.   Randy wrote it.   The entire LP is a masterpiece and I’ll blog it another day – we’re inside the next one – from 1974.   ‘Good Old Boys’ is what men from the south call each other.  “Them good ole boys was drinkin’ whisky and rye singin’ this will be the day that I die..”   That line is a perfect example of the stereotypical sentimental self-pity of the southern man in art and song, a strange mixture of pride and defiance, racism and whisky.  “I sang Dixie as he died“.   I think this LP is also a masterpiece and I will definitely be blogging five of the songs on it so I won’t go on and on.   But just to note in passing that the opening track Rednecks goes where few songs dare and calls out both the southern racism and the northern hypocrisy faced by black people in America.

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Meanwhile, Keith & Yarra were getting married.  They had a beautiful boy called George who had been born the previous January.  But they decided to tie the knot,  get hitched,  get wed, do matrimony, nuptials, get spliced and legalise publicly and forever their cohabitation and love, and they wanted me to do a reading at the ceremony.  Did I have any suggestions?  And could I suggest any music?

They both worked in the music business so I was sure they had everything they needed, but I made a few suggestions : Aaron Neville’s Ten Commandments Of Love,  Elvis Presley’s Hawaiian Wedding Song,  A Wedding In Cherokee County by Randy Newman.  The last song wasn’t a great choice to be honest because is it incredibly disrespectful, intentionally hilarious and pretty likely to get the relations kicking off especially if they’ve had a few.   Check the lyrics :

There she is : sittin’ there
Out behind the smoke house in her rockin’ chair
She don’t say nothin’, she don’t do nothin’
She don’t feel nothin’, she don’t know nothin’
Maybe she’s crazy, I don’t know
Maybe that’s why I love her so

But of course Keith and Yarra loved it, and not only did they love it they decided that they wanted me to read it out as a poem at the wedding.  Jeepers Creepers !   Not for that first verse, which is funny, but for verse two particularly.  I’d never met either set of parents, and now I was expected to stand up in my nice sky blue suit and read :

Her papa was a midget, her mama was a whore
Her granddad was a newsboy ’til he was eighty-four
What a slimy old bastard he was
Man don’t you think I know she hates me
Man don’t you think I know that she’s no good
If she knew how she’d unfaithful to me
I think she’d kill me if she could

They both assured me that it would be fine, that the parents would find it amusing, and that even if they didn’t that was what they wanted me to read.   I was honoured to be asked of course so I agreed.   I was also a little thrilled.   How daring !

..I’m not afraid of the grey wolf
Who stalks through our forest at dawn
As long as I have her beside me
I have the strength to carry on…

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Extensions from Nighty Night – me and Lyndsey

Keith and Yarra I’d met via Mark Williams when Jenny and I moved down to Brighton in 1996, they were part of the great loose endless party by the sea that seemed never-ending and full of cider and cocaine.  Keith unusually was a Manchester lad who supported Chelsea.  He has a streak of decency that is immediately recognisable and very welcome in a seaside town, and Yarra is similarly precious to me.    I think he used to work in rock and roll promotion in the biz, but he graduated to design later – for example designing the whole package of Paul Steel’s first LP April and I (see My Pop Life #1) which was like a Mr Men book.  I bought four of them to hoard.  It’s a brilliant record and a brilliant package.  But Keith has done tons and tons of stuff.  Not least been a  great Dad to George and Milla (who was born a few years later).

Today we will be married
And all the freaks that she knows will be there
And all the people from the village will be there
To congratulate us
I will carry her across the threshold
And I will make dim the light
And I will attempt to spend my love within…

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Yarra, Keith and George

So the day of the wedding came and all was well.   They’d planned it down to the inch.  I knew many of the guests but by no means all – but our Brighton and Hove gang were well represented by Andy Baybutt, Jo Thornhill (then married and together), Lyndsey, Louise Yellowlees,  Erika Martinez, Alex Campbell & Natasha, Lorraine and John and Mark, Emma, Josh, Patrick surely and Adam Mellor must have been there and when I just looked at my crap pictures I could swear that the bass player of Elbow is there, and he might well be because they are mates of Keith’s from Manc-land and I met them all one night in Pool Valley in Brighton after a gig.  It was a good wedding needless to say.  A good mixture of rock ‘n’ roll and class, flowers, nice clothes and drink and drugs.  The congregation were very welcoming when I arose to read out the Randy Newman poem, but the following third verse got a laugh and in the end we were all rather moved :

…though I try with all my might
She will laugh at my mighty sword
She will laugh at my mighty sword
Why must everybody laugh at my mighty sword?
Lord, help me if you will
Maybe we’re both crazy, I don’t know
Maybe that’s why I love her so

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Randy Newman ‘sometime in the 1970s’

Randy Newman’s songs sound like they were written 100 years ago.  They have an incredible weathered quality, the key changes, the simple choices, some of them sound like hymns, some like campfire songs, some like Tin Pan Alley or early vaudeville.   I’m not sure how he achieves this stardust 78rpm quality, I’ve watched him very carefully playing piano both live and on the TV and he scarcely moves his fingers up and down the keyboard – everything is bunched together and one new note and a shift of bass line and he achieves miracles.   Very little guitar – all strings and brass and piano.  Now and again a lick of slide.   Only the lyrics give away the non-historical nature of these songs – they are all massively contemporary even when he is pastiching older musical tropes.   And just listen to the drum on the first verse of Cherokee County.  It’s so late it almost misses the bus.

With a song that somehow expresses the opposite of its subject, which talks about hate, stupidity and mistrust and yet makes you feel sentimental and weepy-eyed about getting married I think Randy Newman had hit the motherlode of genius – but all of his songs are like this.  Short People.  Sail Away.  Political Science. On and on.

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Yarra, Keith, Milla & George

Happy Anniversary Keith and Yarra – ten years in a couple of weeks.  And I wouldn’t have dared have this song played or read at my wedding.  Are you kidding ?  Have you met Jenny’s Mum ?  So respect…

This never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

a taste of the man himself playing live in 1978 :

My Pop Life #105 : Come Rain Or Come Shine – Ray Charles

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Come Rain Or Come Shine   –   Ray Charles

…days may be cloudy or sunny….

….we’re in or we’re out of the money…

I first heard this song on my wedding day, 23 years ago July 25th 1992.   Dear Ken Cranham (who has graced these pages before) made Jenny and I a ‘wedding tape’ which we played at home after the church ceremony in Holy Joe’s, Highgate Hill (St Joseph’s) and reception afterwards in Lauderdale House, Waterlow Park (next door).   I actually carried Jenny over the threshhold of 153 Archway Road N6  like you’re supposed to, much to the amusement of the two ladies opposite who ran the sweet shop who waved at us, beaming.   I smiled.   I didn’t have a free hand as I recall.    Jenny waved – she was still in her golden frou-frou wedding dress and we were both drunk on champagne and love and words and Chopin and wedding cake and delirious happiness abounded.  There was a huge reception in the evening at the Diorama, and dear gorgeous departed friend Neil Cooper was sorting that side of things, so we had a few hours to change and feed the cats etc.   Ken’s cassette (of course) had a wonderful selection of wedding songs and love songs which will be forever associated with the day, and I’ve done similar tributes on CD, paying that moment forward to other couples about to get hitched.  Nothing more glorious than a wedding playlist, and no better party than a wedding party.  Please, whoever is reading this, invite Jenny and I to your wedding !

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Ray Charles was always there somehow.  I must have heard Hit The Road Jack on the radio in 1961 when I was 4 yrs old, living in Portsmouth, & the Hoagy Carmichael evergreen Georgia seems to be made of earth and stone it feels like it has been around forever.   The other big hit from the early 1960s was I Can’t Stop Loving You off the LP Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music, syrupy choir singing backing vocals, smooth like chocolate sauce, it’s almost too sweet.  But not quite.   But it was lounge music to me as I became sentient.   I would have to grow up a bit and grow some ears before I understood the genius of Ray Charles.

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Like Frank Sinatra or Elvis, he is a giant of music and in particular of interpretation and arranging of other people’s songs.   Not to say he didn’t write music – he did – unlike Elvis or Frank,  Ray Charles wrote plenty of music including some stone-cold red-hot classics :  I Got A Woman, Hallelujah I Love Her So, A Fool For You and the monster What’d I Say, which may or may not have been improvised live (as the film Ray would have it).   It’s difficult to encapsulate the full breadth of his work in one blog, so I won’t even try.  But if a martian were to land in my room today and say “One artist will represent pop music” it would have to be Ray Charles.  He’s played every kind of music from blues and jazz to soul (which he invented some say) gospel and country, big band and ballad to funk and pop.  It’s the phrasing in the end which is so astonishing – the phrasing and the arrangements are impeccable rhythmically, melodically, all delivered with taste, groove and soul.  Plenty of imitators, but only one Ray Charles.

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When I was going through my soul education period in 1978-9 (see My Pop Life #98 for example) I bought a large box set called Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947-1974.  It remains “the answers” for anyone seeking to understand American music of the 20th century.   I guess it’s a CD box set now – I have five double LPs squished into a box.  It sounds like a lot – but it’s actually a surface skim of a huge period of artists and tunes, from race-music and blues 78s through R&B, soul, Stax/Volt right up to Roberta Flack.

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Ray turns up on Side Two and Three and Four with classics including I Got A Woman, the mighty Mess Around and the searing genius of Drown In My Own Tears which so many great artists have covered.  I had hit a golden seam of fantastic music and next I bought a triple LP box called The Birth Of Soul  now available on CD :

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which covered the same period as Sides 2,3 & 4 of the Atlantic collection but also had all the other songs they missed out – so many favourites but I’ll briefly mention What Kind Of Man Are You? which features one of the Rae-Lettes miss Mary-Ann Fisher on lead vocals, and which was a highlight of  the film Ray.  The story about the Rae-lettes is that they all had to Let Ray or they’d be out of the band.  The line-up changed frequently.

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 left to right : Gwen Berry, Merry Clayton, Clydie King, Alex Brown

Next I purchased Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music from 1964 – the smooth silky sound which includes the heartbreaker You Don’t Know Me, one of my all-time favourite songs,  Ken then turned me onto Ray Charles & Betty Carter (1961) which is a completely fantastic LP –

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Betty Carter is a wonderful jazz vocalist with sensational phrasing too and together they did the ultimate versions of quite a few songs including Baby It’s Cold Outside and Alone Together.    Then there was What’d I Say (1959) – pure R&B grooves, and Genius + Soul = Jazz (1961 again!) an instrumental big band jazz LP.  And then I probably sat down and patted myself on the back for buying loads of Ray Charles albums whom by now I completely adored.  But you see the thing with Ray is, he keeps on coming.  He was clearly prolific, just looking at what came out of 1961 for example it’s almost impolite how much music was produced.

Featured imageSo then came the wedding tape in 1992 and there was Come Rain Or Come Shine.   What a beautiful song.  The muted trumpets at the beginning are so romantic and late-night New York nightclub.   Lyrically it reminds me loosely of the wedding vows themselves which I guess is why it works as a wedding song.  And then there’s that middle eight :

I guess, when you met me
It was just one of those things
But don’t ever bet me
‘Cause I’m gonna be true, girl if you let me…

Pictured : composer Harold Arlen

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Johnny Mercer, lyricist extraordinaire

Written by the wonderful Johnny Mercer with music by ‘Over The Rainbow‘ composer Harold Arlen in 1946, it became a jazz standard almost immediately and has been covered by many artists both vocal and instrumental including Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, James Brown, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.   I can’t imagine any of them being better than this version though.   Although I can be wrong tha’ knows.Featured image

Come Rain or Come Shine appeared on an LP from 1959 called The Genius Of Ray Charles where he takes a stroll through the Great American Songbook and sings Sammy Kahn, Irving Berlin, Hank Snow (!) and others, stretching out from his R&B and gospel roots.  He would continue to stretch until he passed away.  There is still so much to discover – I recently heard his take on The Beach Boys’ Sail On Sailor and it was – like his Eleanor Rigby – a revelation.  Yes he was a musical genius.   Once you’ve heard him sing a song, his phrasing feels like The Way to Sing It.   Elvis and Frank also have this gift, yes it’s true.   As do others.  Ray Charles always felt to me like one of those bedrock people in music, you know when people talk about standing on the shoulders of giants, he is one of those giants. He may be the giantest giant.

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One of the Brighton Beach Boys felt the same way as me about Ray – notably Rory Cameron, now moved away from Brighton (as have I) – he would enthuse regularly on his timing and impeccable choices.

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I chose this song today because last night I was sitting alone in the local pub here in Prague, The James Joyce, nursing my third vodka and tonic, and thinking about my wedding anniversary, which was yesterday, and all the lovely Facebook family and others who took time to send Jenny and I love on our day of love.  And then this song came on.

My Pop Life #104 : Smokestack Lightning – Howlin’ Wolf

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Smokestack Lightning   –   Howlin’ Wolf

tell me, baby,
Where did ya, stay last night?

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My dear friend Dona Croll posted a video of Howlin’ Wolf onto my Facebook page this morning and there was no turning back.  I have known Dona since the 1980s, I’m sure she won’t mind me telling you, but from where and when we met I cannot say.  Perhaps she was in the cast for the London’s Burning pilot when I met actor Gary MacDonald.  I was playing a policeman.  Most of the cast were black, but not all.  We decided to have a kickabout one lunchtime.  Of course, being in uniform meant I got kicked about all over the park.  Fair enough.

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But in the small bubble of British acting Dona and I would cross paths regularly at Tricycle Theatre first nights, anything that Paulette Randall was doing, maybe at auditions.   When I wrote The House That Crack Built for the BBC in 1989 (see My Pop Life #61), Dona was my first choice for the rapping crack-addicted Mom and she was brilliant.    I know she reads this blog so this one is partly for you dear Dona, and partly for my brer Eamonn Walker, Eamonn Roderique, E.   When I saw the clip of Wolf I immediately thought of Eamonn, because a) they favour and b) Eamonn played Howlin Wolf in a film called Cadillac Records in 2008.

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Cadillac Records was the story of Chess Records lightly disguised.   It’s a good film but while being not entirely satisfying like most biopics and most music films, it nevertheless has a clutch of wonderful performances both of the thespian and musical variety, and Eamonn is quite sensational.   He inhabited that role like he does all his roles.   Wolf was a big growler who played a mean blues harp, so E had to learn the instrument before the shoot.   Adrien Brody played Polish immigrant Leonard Chess who started Chess Records by selling blues and ‘race’ records out of the back of his Cadillac with his brother Phil in 1950 on the South Side of Chicago.  It grew to become the most important record label in the history of the blues, releasing crucial work from Chuck Berry, played by Mos Def in the film, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Colombus Short), Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer), Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles) and Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) among many others.

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But Wait – Eamonn worked with Beyoncé !!!   She was very good as Etta James I thought, but I am unashamedly biased.  I love Beyoncé.  A lot.   Anyway, moving back to Howlin’ Wolf.

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Chester Burnett was a giant of a man from Mississippi who physically dominated any room he was in at 6’3”, and who adopted his name Howlin Wolf from his grandfather.   He learned guitar from Charley Patton during the 1930s, harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson II in the 1940s, and songs from the likes of Robert Johnson, Leroy Carr and Son House.   He moved steadily north, first to Arkansas, then later to Memphis where he recorded some sides for Sam Phillips and finally, unusually, driving his own car and with $4000 in his pocket, he went to Chicago.  Somehow avoiding all the classic blues temptations that he was singing about – liquor, gambling, loose women of a variety of types, he hired a regular band to accompany him, including Hubert Sumlin who moved up from Memphis.  Unusually for a bandleader, Burnett paid his musicians on time, and also offered benefits such as health insurance, he therefore had the pick of the best in Chicago for years.  Featured imageSmokestack Lightning was released in March 1956 and made the Billboard R&B charts, it is now considered a classic.  Howlin Wolf had learned it back in the 30s as a variation on a train blues played by Charlie Patton and others, sitting at dawn watching the trains sparking through their chimneys at night “Shinin’, just like gold”.   It is a massively evocative three minutes of the blues with growls, yodels, harmonica wails and a wonderful circular bluesy guitar riff from Mr Sumlin which stays on E (appropriately enough) – just one chord for the whole song.  “Girl don’t you hear me cryin?”    Eamonn plays and sings it on the Soundtrack to Cadillac Records.  I couldn’t be more proud.

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Eamonn Walker is my brother from another mother.  It was gradual, and yet somehow immediate like all the best friendships.   We met when he played opposite my soon-to-be wife Jenny Jules in Pecong at the Trike in 1991, Paulette’s Randall‘s production of Steve Carter‘s Caribbean update of Medea, which Jenny won an award for because she was extraordinary.  The battling men – Victor Romero-Evans and Eamonn Walker do so in rhyme.   American actress Pat Bowie played Granny Root, massively talented Jo Martin and Cecilia Noble the other women, Beejaye Joseph and Jax Williams the eye-candy dancers.   It was a great great production.   Eamonn used to come and see Jenny and I on Sundays after seeing his twins Deke & Jahdine who were in Enfield with their mum Chris.  We were in Archway Road and thus on the way home to Sandra Kane his partner, and young boy Kane Walker (now in his 20s).    We became close family and have remained so ever since.   We played football together for the Hoxton Pirates for a few seasons on Hackney Marshes and all over South London on Sunday mornings until I broke my nose during a game – a loud crack, a violent searing pain and suddenly I was lying in a large pool of blood.    E was one of the first people in England to have a mobile phone – he’s a techno geek – and he had it behind him in a pouch at the back of the goal – he was the Pirates goalie, and he called the ambulance.    Eamonn was plucked from the ranks by Lynda LaPlante and seeded in New York were he sprouted the leaves and branches of prison drama Oz followed by much much more besides, films, TV series, he has had a really strong profile in America for years, a profile that he simply, oddly does not have in the UK.   So many black British actors have made the same journey over the last 20 years and had success, some of them becoming English stars too like Idris Elba.   Others, like Eamonn, (ranked number 11 in a US poll of “favourite British actors”)  are never even mentioned in UK media articles about black actor’s success in Hollywood.   Like a massive blind spot in the media, and partly in the UK business.   We carry on.

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In 2011 through 2012 we lived together in Hollywood,  just off Mulholland Drive in the hills above Universal with a balcony view that stretched from the Woodland Hills to the Hollywood sign and beyond.  It was good to spend time.   I would walk Runyon Canyon every day, from the top down and back up.   From that base camp E scored another Dick Wolf project: NBC’s Chicago Fire which is now in its fifth series and has him living in Chicago 10 months of every year but scoring his pension.  He deserves every cent.    Eamonn, Dona : this is for you, I love you both.

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Jeffrey Wright, Eamonn Walker, Adrien Brody

This could be the longest thread ever because of links that go in every direction – into the movie The Boat That Rocked, the band Birds Of Tin, my friendship with Simon Korner, Andy Oliver, all of Eamonn’s family, Jenny’s Mum and Dad and on and on.

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But perhaps I will mention that when we adopted the beautiful Devon Rex boycat from Jason & Tash in February 2008 (just after my god-daughter Delilah Rose was born) we decided to call him Chester, after Howlin Wolf.   This beautiful animal was very special, very wise, very funny, very cuddly.  We later bought Chester a companion, a Cornish Rex and named her Mimi.  Chester had a heart condition which we discovered when he was two, an a-rhythmical heartbeat.   He would live only another two years and passed away aged four while I was working in Tennessee on a film in the fall of 2011.  RIP Chester.  The greatest cat.

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a magnificent live version from 1964 :

My Pop Life #103 : Focus II – Focus

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Focus II   –   Focus

Summer 1972, end of the the 4th form, Lewes Priory, three O levels finished.   I’d taken Maths, French and Art a year ‘early’.  I only remember the Art exam, which I did with Simon Korner.  We had to paint “Decline”in two hours.  There were girls from the actual 5th form in the room doing their O Levels.   I was a virgin still and pretty inexperienced in the ways.  I painted a soldier being shot and falling down, seven or eight different figures all overlapping, the colours getting paler and paler with each figure on the same piece of ground.  By the time he hit the earth he was a skeleton.  I think I got a “3”.  So that left History, Geography, English Literature, English Language, Latin and Biology/Chemistry….hmmm any more for any more…for the following year ?   I got ten all together including one I took in the Lower Sixth, Geology.   And I failed Latin.   So that makes nine.   HA !  I’ve forgotten a whole O’level !!   I didn’t take German that far, or Religion, or Music (for reasons I’ll discuss with you later), or Physics (yuk!) or Woodwork, Metalwork or PE.   So what is the lesson that has disparu??  Humanities ?  Was that an O Level ?

Oh well.

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A small gang of us – all 15 years old – decided we were going to go to Reading Festival in August – or The Twelfth National Jazz Blues And Rock Festival August 11th -13th to give it its full name.   And yes.  The poster got it wrong !   Not the 11th.  No one cared.   Wish I hadn’t mentioned it now.   It had been advertised in Melody Maker and the New Musical Express.   Tickets were available on the gate priced £3.50, first come first served, so did we hitch hike up to Reading on the Thursday to make sure we got in?   To be honest I can’t even remember who I was with.   I’ve asked a few likely culprits but everyone is as vague as me pretty much.   So candidates are :  Martin Elkins, Adrian Birch and Martin Cooper.   Possibly all three.   We’d have probably smoked dope and drunk cider all weekend.  Dope being hasish, Paki black or Red Leb, possibly Moroccan gold, whatever we could have scored.  The Thames Valley police were all over the event, especially going in, searching people, busting hippies who’d come for some peaceful music vibes.  Pigs.

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Friday is a blur – I think Mungo Jerry played and Curved Air,  the highlight was Genesis but I don’t remember it much at all I’m afraid.  We probably slept in a large marquee where people without tents slept.  Did I have a sleeping bag?  Probably!

Saturday was better.   The Welsh band Man played in the afternoon, loved them, as did Edgar Broughton – wasn’t too bothered about them, Solid Gold Cadillac – cannot remember at all, The Johnny Otis Rhythm and Blues Show – very enjoyable, and, blowing us all away :  a band called Focus from Holland.   A kind of prog-jazz-classical fusion, they had the crowd of unwashed stoners on their feet cheering for more.  Headliners The Faces were preceded by the Electric Light Orchestra who were simply splendid.  It was a great day.

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The following day John Peel was DJ-ing between sets, mumbling away in gentle Scouse, and he not only played the Focus tune Hocus Pocus which we’d all raved at the day before and which was unlike anything any of us had ever heard before, full of Thjis Van Leer‘s yodelling, flute, accordion and nonsense, in-between Jan Akkerman‘s hard rock riffing guitar, it was a mighty sound and would be released as a single in the UK the following spring (!)   I distinctly DO remember Peel also playing my first hearing of Roxy Music’s ridiculous re-imagining of pop music Virginia Plain with the see-sawing Eno synthesiser finish, and it was a sensation.  Don’t forget we were all stoned of out tits, but we didn’t like Everything even so.  Other Sunday highlights were Status QuoVinegar Joe with the wonderful Elkie Brooks up front, Stackridge, Matching Mole and Wizzard fronted by the mighty genius of Roy Wood.   Blimey.

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Status Quo, Reading ’72

I had just turned fifteen years old.  Many of the other festival-goers were the same age as us, some were older, some younger.  I didn’t wash for three days obviously.  Latrines, holes in the ground for toilets.  Burgers and hot dogs, beer and sandwiches.  Can’t remember anyone throwing anything at the stage, or any fights or bad feeling.   Once the last band had finished people lit fires and sat around them smoking joints and drinking beer.  It was pretty damn good to be honest.

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At some point that autumn as I entered the Fifth Form and O-levels proper I bought the LP Moving Waves, with Hocus Pocus as the leading track.   But stealing the glory for me eventually is this beautiful piece Focus II which doesn’t flaunt its wares but quietly and beautifully makes me melt.   Fantastic subtle tempo changes.   I don’t think it was ever a single.   I had records by very few of the artists at Reading – and mainly singles :  See My Baby Jive, 10538 Overture, Stay With Me, Maggie May, Back Street Luv, In The Summertime and Baby Jump.  I would go on to buy Focus, The Faces and Man of the bands I saw that year.  And ELO later.   Even at that young age a group of people strumming away on guitars wasn’t really floating my boat (Faces and Man excepted – there’s always exceptions !!)  Well that’ll teach me to try and generalise.

Side two of Moving Waves was all one piece called “Eruption”.   This was fairly typical of the era.  Emerson, Lake & Palmer and King Crimson were doing similar things, it was the age of the LP.   And despite my memory of Reading 1972 being so fuggy, I clearly enjoyed myself because I went back the following summer…to almost the same line-up strangely enough.  Of which, more later.

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Focus split up then reformed a few times.  They are currently back together and touring the world.   Proper musicians making great music.   And they’re fun too.   It’s the only time I ever saw them live.   But whenever I hear this song, the sound and groove of it can only be 1972.   Don’t you think ?  Oh and incidentally – been searching youtube for some live clips of this track – they’ve either got Thjis Van Leer on gorgeous organ grooves but some fill-in guitarist who isn’t up to the precision and pure expressiveness of the original on guitar, OR Jan Akkerman smashing the searing guitar stuff and some horrible drummer rocking up what is a jazz break by genius Pierre van der Linden, and a perfectly good piano player.    For the record Cyril Havermans was on bass guitar – such a lovely way it comes in here on bar 16 after two rounds of Hammond…   So anyone who knows of good quality live versions of this marvellous tune with the chaps all doing their thing, then please leave a comment and I’ll add it later, easily done…

Peace,

Jud

My Pop Life #102 : Israelites – Desmond Dekker

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Israelites   –   Desmond Dekker & The Aces

Get up in the morning slaving for bread sir

so that every mouth can be fed

poor me Israelites

We didn’t really know what he was on about ’til we were older, but Israelites reached Number One in the hit parade in Britain in May 1969, the first Jamaican ska song to reach that lofty pinnacle.  (Milly Small’s cover of My Boy Lollipop reached Number Two in 1964).    Desmond Dekker had irresistible syncopated rhythms and cool rude boy threads – and an extremely visceral way of shaping his words (whatever they were!) – I was eleven years old and transfixed.   So was my mum.   We were living in a house in the deep Sussex countryside between Lewes & Eastbourne just north of Bo-Peep Hill in Selmeston.

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view from Bo-Peep Hill towards Selmeston

Dad had left some 3 years previously and was living in Eastbourne, we saw him once a week – I think – maybe once a fortnight – on Saturdays, walking up to Beachy Head, coming back in time for the football results.    Paul and I did anyway, Andrew was only 3 years old then.   The whole country went Desmond Dekker crazy though.  It was a phenomenon.

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Ska had been around in Jamaica since at least 1961, some say earlier.  Prince Buster, Ernest Ranglin, Laurel Aitken, Jimmy Ciff, Duke Reid, Derrick Morgan, Toots & The Maytals, The Skatalites were all there at the beginnings.   Laurel Aitken had the UK’s first single release on Blue Beat Records, a song called Boogie Beat which was a kind of loose R&B shuffle with the guitar on the off-beat, embryonic ska.  The more choppy sound we associate with classic Jamaican ska came later with singles like Guns Of Navarone by The Skatalites and Al Capone by Prince Buster.

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Desmond Dekker signed with Leslie Kong‘s Beverley label in Kingston Jamaica in 1961 but didn’t release his first single until two years later: “Honour Your Father and Mother”, and a string of hits followed – all morally and culturally decent christian songs – until he recorded a song with Derrick Morgan.    Tougher Than Tough was part of the rude boy trend – the court was in session, judgement was being passed, but Rudies Don’t Fear.   This was ghetto life in Kingston writ large – and Dekker’s next song 007 (Shanty Town) made him an icon in Jamaica, was a hit in England in 1967 amongst the mod crowd as well as the West Indian population, and is rightly considered a classic.  Despite it reaching #14 on the charts (the first Jamaican-produced song to reach the top 15) it wasn’t until 1969 that the mighty Israelites took the country by storm.

We had a cousin, Wendy, who was older than us and who would come and stay now and again.  She must have been seventeen or eighteen when Mum invited her up from Portsmouth for a week, and they decided to go into Eastbourne one night to see Desmond Dekker & The Aces live on the Pier.   Mum only told me about this quite recently.   Amazing what you find out if you actually ask !

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Mum had also decided that it was high time that Wendy made out with a man – she claims now that Wendy had never been kissed.   I think they took the bus into Eastbourne along the A27, had a few drinks, then got onto the pier and saw the electric Desmond Dekker & The Aces in the flesh (I never did manage to see him!) then danced the night away to all the latest hits.  I think they both found some willing snogging partners and stayed out so late that they had to take the milk train back to Berwick – about 3 miles from Selmeston.   It was dawn when they started walking back, hitching a lift from the hugely embarrassed milkman, and getting a discreet worldly wink from Cedric the postman as they finally reached home.   We were all asleep upstairs, none the wiser.   I think Mum remembers that night now as one of the great nights of the 1960s for her, and I’m rather hoping that Wendy does too.

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It was many years later when I finally truly established what the actual lyrics to the song really were :

Wife and a kids they buck up an a leave me

Darlin’ she said I was yours to receive

Look – me shirt dem a tear up, trousers a go

I don’t want to end up like Bonnie & Clyde

After a storm there must be a calm

if they catch me in the farm you sound your alarm….

Poor Me Israelites

It became like a magical spell cast across the radio, across the dance floor, bouncing out of car radios, in shops, a mantra of phrases that ring around your head.  The rest of 1969 found us listening to The Liquidator by Harry J & The All-Stars, Return Of Django by The Upsetters (Lee Perry) and apparently (I never heard it at the time but older kids did ) Wet Dream by Max Romeo.   Songs like Israelites reaching Number One in Britain is one of the reasons why I love the UK.  It’s not all bad, however it may seem.

My Pop Life #101 : Tired Of Being Alone – Al Green

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This painting is called ‘Lichtenstein in the Sky With Diamonds’

and it is by Andrew McAttee

with kind permission

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Tired Of Being Alone   –   Al Green

…tired of on my own…

1971.  The year of sentience.  The year of awakening.  When every sweet note, every bass line, every guitar lick, every vocal harmony, every crunchy cymbal and every sweeping organ chord-change melted into my ear for all eternity.   Burned, forged onto my very soul.  Every time I would hear these songs as I grew older, they would leap out of the speakers and caress my heart.   Sometimes I would remember the moment, the feeling, the teenage yearning, but often I would just be inside the music.   I know every small hesitation of these songs because I was fully available to them as they appeared in 1971.  They are magic incarnate and will always be so.  They are inside me.

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I was at middle school, Lewes Priory.   Mountfield Road.   I distinctly remember the Chapel  – it was actually a church in between Middle and Upper School.  With an organ, pews, altar, the works.   It was used for music and worship.   I didn’t like “music” at school because Mr Richards had metaphorically pissed all over the record I brought into his lesson one day – and that’s for another post I think.   It was also 1971 though.   I liked pop radio and Top Of The Pops.   It’s difficult to overstate the huge impression TOTP made on all of our lives, accompanied by the possibly more important Pick Of The Pops chart rundown from 5 to 7pm every Sunday evening, a non-religious gathering of the family around the radio to hear Alan Freeman tell us whether our favourites had gone up or down the charts.   Critical, basic, essential moments.

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The first time I saw Al Green on Top Of The Pops he was singing Tired Of Being Alone.  Just him, no band.  It was completely astonishing.  He was wearing some stretch top and had a small afro haircut.   And he sang this song as if his entire life depended upon it.   I didn’t know it at the time, but I would now mark this moment as my introduction to soul music.   Yes I’d seen The Temptations,  Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, Diana Ross & The Supremes on the TV, but I can’t remember Otis Redding at all, or Jackie Wilson, or Sam Cooke, or James Brown.   I remember them on the radio – but not TV.  Having seen them since then I’m pretty sure I would have remembered them ?

Why did it have this effect on me ?  Well, I think the vast percentage of the reason must reside inside Al Green himself.   As a performer he really is second to none, and always has been.  This cannot and will not be the only Al Green post I write because I simply have too many stories spread over almost all of my life in relation to Al Green – The Reverend Al Green as he became known.  I have seen him live at least ten times, visited his church in Memphis and own all of his LPs.   I followed him through the gospel phase and then back to pop again.  He is technically a supreme singer. But the technique is the least of it.   His voice is powerful and delicate, male and female, hugely expressive, a thing of rare beauty and subtlety.   A gift.   All of which is present on this first single.  Watching him sing it – (live ?) – on TOTP was like a revelation, like a vision of something.

After one minute 44 seconds we’ve had the song, two choruses with their syncopated horn stabs, and then he starts to break it down, the music starts to vamp, Al starts to improvise, to express himself, to wonder…   I don’t think I’d ever seen that in a pop performance before, that whole section where he folds his arms and goes mmmmmm, it was simply remarkable.    It was an education.   It was soul music.

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The other thing that struck me from that seminal TOTP moment was how delicate he looked – small, wiry, dynamic, he reminded me of Desmond Dekker both physically and how he moved his mouth around the words as if they were alive.   Which they were.

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And maybe the song just expresses a huge simple human truth.  Aren’t we all tired of being alone ?  Maybe parents surrounded by children dream of being alone, but what for ?  Peace and quiet is over-rated.  I’ve been sitting here in Prague now for two months working on Legends, and it is simply the most unsocial group of people I have ever worked with, all for different reasons, some have their families here, Sean Bean stays in mainly, the others have their own runnings.   It’s just how it goes sometimes in the wacky world of showbiz.   I cherish time alone, and read a lot, write this, and so on and so forth, but underneath all that, yes, I am tired of being alone.   Luckily Jenny is coming out in two weeks.   And Paul after that sometime.    I’m quite a social animal au fin du jour.   Which is why I have ended up hanging out with The Musketeers – here for seven months on series three for the BBC – and we all meet in the James Joyce pub, two blocks away from the InterContinental, if we want some social time.  Guinness on tap.   Food.   Convivial.   Bit of Al Green on the jukebox.

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When this song was released in August 1971 I already knew what loneliness was all about.  As I wrote in My Pop Life 84 All Along The Watchtower and My Pop Life #56Morning Has Broken, we had been split up, separated as a family for nine long months while we waited for someone, somewhere to house us.   Eventually a council house on a new-build estate in Hailsham was offered and we moved in together in the late spring of 1971.   Our lives together in Hailsham were, in my memory, almost utter turmoil, with frequent visits from doctors, a cupboard full of pills for depression and Paul and I becoming more ungovernable as we hit puberty and grew physically larger, causing the weapons used to beat us with to get larger in response.  But of course there were moments of repose, of laughter, of peace, of conviviality too.  I’ve blotted most of this section of my life out.  My memories are very very selective.  But I clearly remember seeing Al Green on Top Of The Pops one Thursday evening.  And that is a good thing.

Check out his microphone technique on this wonderful archive footage from 1972:

the original single, with backing vocals :

My Pop Life #100 : Stardust – Nat King Cole

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Stardust   –   Nat King Cole

…And now the purple dusk of twilight time

…steals across the meadows of my heart…

High up in the sky the little stars climb

always reminding me that we’re apart

*

Such a melancholy yet beautiful lyric on such an unusual, strange and compelling melody.

Featured imageHoagy Carmichael wrote the melody to Stardust when he was 28 years old in Bloomington Indiana, imagining as he composed it that one day his hero – cornet player Bix Beiderbecke – would play the tune.  The way the song winds and swerves through different keys is a challenge for any singer – but originally Stardust was an instrumental.    A jazz instrumental.    The saxophone player Bud Freeman once said ‘Carmichael’s songs are the only songs on which you don’t have to improvise much, because the improvisation is already in them‘.  So Hoagy recorded the instrumental and it was played by Ellington, Calloway and others until in 1929 Irving Mills decided the tune needed lyrics and asked young Mitchell Parish to write some.

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The resulting ballad (first performed by Isham Jones in the form we know it today)  is simply the most exceptional combination of words and music that I know of, my favourite song of all time, and the song which was covered more than any other (over 1500 covers to date) up ’til McCartney dreamed up Yesterday (covered over 3000 times).

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Stardust is a song about a song about love.  Lost love – all that’s left is the song.  The star has gone, all that’s left is stardust.  The image of Star Dust (original title) is a powerful one and has been used many times – Bowie called himself Ziggy Stardust during 1972, and Joni Mitchell sang  “we are stardust we are golden” about the Woodstock generation.   The idea that music can contain in it the dust of a feeling, of a relationship, of a love is a very beautiful one, and of course it is also the idea behind this very blog.  So it seems fitting to me that as I reach the satisfying figure of 100 pieces of music written about, 100 feelings converted into stardust, that this song marks the auspicious occasion.

Featured imageI first became obsessed with Stardust around February 2008 – yes, quite specific…   And once again I am indebted to Kenneth Cranham for his musical guidance.    In a small-world twist of fate, he was now playing patriarch Max in Pinter’s The Homecoming at The Almeida Theatre – and my wife Jenny Jules had become the first black woman to ever play the role of Ruth in the same production.    Harold Pinter clearly fancied her in fact and would insist on sitting next to her at dinner and so on.   His wife Lady Antonia Fraser was terribly patient.    I walked home with Uncle Ken one day, probably after rehearsal, because he lives not far from the theatre round the back of Caledonian Road.   I had been cast in Richard Curtis‘ film The Boat That Rocked, playing late-night DJ Bob Silver, a kind of John Peel template, but with the difference that I was an old geezer in 2008 compared with Peel’s early 20s in 1966 on the pirate radio station Radio Caroline.   Uncle Ken being my musical guru I asked him, if I’d been 50 in 1966 then who would I have grown up listening to?   Apart from a reference to Muddy Waters there were no clues in the script.   A week later I was at rehearsal again, or maybe first night, and Ken thrust 3 whole C90 cassettes into my grubby paw.    I know.   It was 2008 and he was still making C90s.   They were completely brilliant.   “They’re all writer-based“,  Ken explained, “the first one is Ellington, with plenty of covers too, the second is Harold Arlen who wrote Somewhere Over The Rainbow and Stormy Weather, and the third is Hoagy Carmichael, and there’s even a track of Hoagy singing on that one”…

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The track of Hoagy singing was Stardust.  There were three other versions on the cassette – one I already had at home by Nat King Cole, probably purchased in the mid-eighties after a John Godber-directed show, (perhaps A Clockwork Orange at The Man In The Moon theatre on King’s Road in 1982).  John’s parents were addicted to Nat King Cole and some of John’s writing acknowledges his greatness as an artist, mainly as a crooner.   The other two versions were by Willie Nelson and The Mills Brothers.   Four of the best versions.   I could not stop listening to the damn song.   I started collecting covers of it.   There are a lot.   At the last count I had 57 cover versions of it – all different, most of them terrific.  They range from wild jazz instrumentals from the likes of Charlie Christian, Ben Webster and Oscar Aleman to staggering vocal journeys by Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald or Bing Crosby.   Some odd ones – by The Shadows (it’s ace), The Mills Brothers – an instrumental version AND a sung version, but all done by their voices (amazing), and Frank Sinatra – only sings the introduction (!!).   He had a history of picking the bits he liked though, did Frank (see eg: Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park).   Then there’s Louis Armstrong‘s simply astounding cover which bounces along on the one & the three like a song possessed while the trumpet riffs above it – until Louis starts to sing and makes up the words, scats along, it is simply brilliant and probably the “best” version.  Unique, certainly.

Featured imageBut my favourite is Nat King Cole.  He had a long career as a jazz pianist playing some classic trio cuts before his vocal ability took prominence and he started to sing more – his version of The Christmas Song (“chestnuts roasting…”) in 1946 made him a superstar, (although the famous version still played today was the 4th time he recorded the song in 1961).  By 1956 he had his own syndicated TV show in America, the first black performer to do so.  In 1957 – the year I was born – he released his version of Stardust, his vocal melisma and jazz sophistication perfectly suiting the song’s temperament.  The string arrangement – can’t find out who it was – is beyond perfect – the opening violin swell is like someone breathing in and out it is so organic.    As Nat reaches the word at the end of the introduction “the music of the years gone by” the strings are clearly on the “wrong” note, but resolve with exquisite delay.

When our love was new, and each kiss an inspiration…

What a line – and don’t we all know that feeling ?  Now sadly gone but he has the song….

My stardust melody – the memory of love’s refrain

The lyrics are full of stars – in the sky reminding him that “we’re apart” and at the end again as he sits beside a garden wall

when stars are bright and you are in my arms…”

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To be honest there’s only so much you can write about a piece of music like this. Without getting overly muso – the use of semitone intervals – going up and down is extremely effective.  “Sometimes I wonder…” the first four notes are a semitone climb up that line of the first verse which leads you into the reverie.  Then later “Though I dream in vain…”  the last three words are semitone falls, perfectly in sympathy musically with the lyric.    I don’t want to go overboard at the deep end so I’ll just leave this here.   I will doubtless come back to other versions and covers in future posts.  And of course Hoagy wrote other songs too – Georgia On My Mind and many others.  But Nat King Cole sings Stardust and he wears the crown for My Pop Life #100.

Nat Cole :  LIVE !

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