My Pop Life #164 : Blitzkrieg Bop – The Ramones

Blitzkrieg Bop   –   The Ramones

Hey ho, let’s go
Shoot’em in the back now
What they want, I don’t know
They’re all revved up and ready to go

December 31st 1977.  My brother Paul and I, punked up on speed, chains, eyeliner and nail varnish are buzzing around outside The Rainbow in Finsbury Park, a large seated venue which is going punk rock for the night.  Our seats are central, about 12 rows from the front.  Ace.  We missed opening act The Rezillos, and caught the end of Generation X whom we didn’t like.  We were there for The Ramones.

I’d gone from hippy long-hair walking around the LSE in a poncho, cowboy boots and stetson to clean-chinned spiky-haired punk overnight, flares were OUT, brothel -creepers were IN, and I’d created a punk garment out of an old dinner jacket I’d found in a flea market, putting paperclips around all the edges, lapels and pockets. It either looked a) brilliant or b) shit.   Can’t remember.  It was a fantastic time to be in London, there was a visceral thrill rippling through the scene and as a dedicated follower of fashion I dived right in.  Let’s see :  I’d already been a wannabe hippie about a decade late, a glam-rocker, skinhead, suedehead, and back to country-rock groover again.  Now I Was A Punk.  A new orthodoxy.  Dyed the hair – purple initially.  Took speed – amphetamine sulphate – in pill form, “blues” which were 4 for a pound.  Read the fanzines such as Mark Perry’s Sniffin’Glue.  Didn’t actually sniff glue – not that stupid.  Went to punk gigs in the correct clothes.   All the time I was a law student.  Having a laugh.  Enjoying myself.   It was a musical and fashion revolution, and like all revolutions there was a pretty regimented code to follow – of music, of clothes, of haircuts.  Some things were OUT and some things were IN.  Us 19-year-olds weren’t about to throw away our record collections because they contained songs that were over 3 minutes long and featured drum solos.  And most of my mates didn’t cut their hair like lil’ old fashion-victim me.  But I’ve always enjoyed dressing up, the more flamboyant and outrageous the better, and I embraced the punk fashion like a born-again Leninist.   Paul and I went gigging, to The Roxy, The Vortex, The Hope, the Nashville Rooms.  Exciting times.  God Save The Queen had been number 1 in the hit parade in June (see My Pop Life #113) then the top singles Pretty Vacant and Holidays In The Sun had graced Top Of The Pops before the mighty LP Never Mind The Bollocks was finally released in late October.   I’d managed to get to see The Sex Pistols at Brunel University in December ’77 on the Never Mind The Bans tour before they left for the States and split up forever.   The publicity and notoriety the band had generated in their short lifetime was quite extraordinary, mainly the result of manager Malcolm McLaren‘s media hijinks and a realisation that controversy sells records.   The Anarchy tour in 1976 had been cancelled apart from a handful of gigs – Manchester, Plymouth, Caerphilly, Leeds, and as such they were a media phenomenon rather than a genuinely popular live band.  But the singles were brilliant.

The reason why I mention all of this is because the Pistols owed a huge debt to The Ramones.  As did The Clash (see My Pop Life #52) who I eventually got to see on Hastings Pier in 1978.  Both young punk bands had gone to see The Ramones play at The Roundhouse on July 5th 1976, while I was hitch-hiking around the USA listening to Pure Prairie League and Wings and buying my cowboy boots. The previous night The Ramones had supported The Flamin’ Groovies there and word had spread.   I think The Stranglers may have been on this gig too.  It ignited the nascent UK punk scene.   And yes I know that the first punk single was New Rose by The Damned (Oct 28th 1976) a band that I never saw live.

The Ramones first single was Blitzkrieg Bop 8 months earlier.  They were from Forest Hills, Queens, New York City and played their first gigs in 1974, then built a gigging following at Manhattan dives Max’s Kansas City and CBGB over the following years.   John Cummings (Johnny Ramone), Douglas Colvin (Dee Dee Ramone), Jeffrey Hyman (Joey Ramone) and Thomas Erdelyi (Tommy Ramone).  They had a PLAN.  A concept. Short, simple songs with a buzzing guitar and a nasal lead vocal from Joey.  All the band changed their surname to Ramone.  This was Dee Dee’s idea, based on the Paul McCartney pseudonym Paul Ramon, used when they toured Scotland as The Silver Beetles.  True dat.  The Ramones all wore white Ts, ripped blue jeans and cut their hair in a bowl cut.   Almost Rubber Soul but more attitude. They all appeared permanently bored and sullen.  The effect was instant gang.

Johnny, Tommy, Joey, Dee Dee on the cover of the 1st LP

Taking bits from The MC5, The New York Dolls and The Stooges, The Ramones were and are the first punk band, and released Blitzkrieg Bop in February 1976, the first single off the first punk LP called simply Ramones in April 1976.  The cover is iconic, a photograph by Roberta Bayley.

The song is fast and short like all their songs, and opens with a chant A-O-Let’s Go.  Like a terrace anthem, apparently inspired by R’n’B singer Rufus Thomas, but see below (!) the song clocks in at 2 minutes 14 seconds.  Like a statement of intent, no guitar solos, no drum solos, just bang and finish, the song describes the feeling of being at a punk gig, the kids are losing their minds…the blitzkrieg bop we sang along as we all jumped up and down like good pogoing punks the pulsating back beat, generating steam heat, and the odd but effective line “shoot ’em in the back now” rewritten by Dee Dee from the original “shouting in the back now“.    There are hints of Nazism in their work, hints of stupid, hints of violence, prostitution, murder. Otherwise it would be pop.  It didn’t sell at all, and neither did the LP.  In fact it’s probably true that The Ramones had more effect in the UK than they did in America.  At least initially.

Their 2nd LP Leave Home – marvellous ! – was released in January 1977 and their third LP Rocket To Russia in November 1977.  Rocket to Russia clocks in at around 33 minutes long, and no song is longer than 2 minutes 49 seconds (Sheena Is A Punk Rocker).  And what fantastic records they are.  Hard to describe perfect music.

But Blitzkrieg Bop does tip a wink to two unlikely 1970s British acts – The Bay City Rollers and The Sweet.  Not the first time The Rollers have appeared in this blog – see My Pop Life #11 – but here they are again under controversial circumstances – the übercool leaders of punk in the same sentence as the flimsy teenypop nonsense of The Bay City Rollers ???  Well, bear with me pop fans :  The bubblegum influence is there in the chords and shapes of the music and the chant which opens the song Blitzkrieg Bop is perhaps an imaginative leap from the Roller’s ‘Saturday Night‘.  Less controversially of course The Sweet had a mighty hit single with Ballroom Blitz.  These things aren’t all in opposition you know.

Paul and I had popped a few blues each, the trick was that every few hours you topped yourself up otherwise the crashing comedown would spoil the party.  Of course you had to comedown sometime, and weed would be the cushion, joint-rolling sessions to puff away and soften the teeth-grindingly edgy  experience of the amphetamines leaving the body.  But the ascent – coming up – was a surge, the veins throbbing with juice, the mouth needing to chew, light cigarettes, inhale constant smoke, the fingers twitching.  All revved up and ready to go COME ON !  As the lights went down and the iconic four Ramones took the stage under their All-American Presidential Seal eagle logo the whole place erupted and we all surged to the front.  Down the aisles at first, then the front fifteen rows of seats simply collapsed, security melted away and punks ruled.

Paul and I ended up on top of a broken seat or two along with hundreds of other punks as the first eye-popping shout “1,2,3,4” from Dee Dee took us into opening song Rockaway Beach.  We bounced we sweated we punched the air.  People spat, threw beer.  Blitzkrieg Bop was the 3rd number.  Our heroes were better and bigger and faster and funnier than we could have dreamed.  WOW.  Tommy Ramone on the drums drove the band, with Johnny Ramone (the Republican!) on motorik rhythm guitar, only playing barre chords, only playing down just like Paul Cook and Steve Jones drove the Sex Pistols.  Dee Dee on bass wrote many of the songs but only played root notes, and Joey was the gimmick : tall, gangling, hidden by hair and shades and affecting a bored stupid glazed persona.  If the album tracks and singles were short, live they were even shorter, they just played FASTER.  It was thrilling.  I just remember bouncing and holding onto Paul to stop us from falling down.  Chewing gum was chewed.  Lager was drunk. Pills were popped.  Definitely one of the top gigs of my life.

It was brought to my attention recently that the whole gig was released as a live album called It’s Alive in 1979.  How I missed this is inexplicable to me, but I did.  It’s the whole gig, almost, that we were at.  There is also a concert DVD in which Paul and I undoubtedly appear, but I haven’t seen us yet, or have I ?

In common with all live albums after a certain date (WHAT IS THAT DATE? – Ed) the guitars, vocals and bass were all dubbed on again in the studio so er….it’s not live is it?

It was then though.  They wished us Happy New Year, showered us with glitter and we spat at them.  At the end of the show, after three encores – the last song was We’re A Happy Family :

Sitting here in Queens
Eating refried beans
We’re in all the magazines
Gulpin’ down thorazines
We ain’t got no friends
Our troubles never end
No Christmas cards to send
Daddy likes men

and off they went whereupon everyone threw their broken seats – the ones they’d been standing on – onto the stage.    It had been, we all agreed, a legendary gig.  They’re all dead now – Joey, Tommy and Johnny from cancer, Dee Dee from a heroin overdose.  They live on in a thousand T-shirts across the world, a logo instantly recognisable and still worn by teenagers and old punks.  They also left behind a permanent legacy.  Whatever anyone says – they started punk.

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My Pop Life #163 : Early (ft BOOTS) – Run the Jewels

Early (ft BOOTS)   –   Run the Jewels

And he still put my hands in cuffs, put me in the truck
When my woman screamed, said “shut up”
Witness with the camera phone on saw the copper pull a gun and
Put it on my gorgeous queen
As I peered out the window I could see my other kinfolk
And hear my little boy as he screamed
As he ran toward the copper begged him not to hurt his momma
Cause he had her face down on the ground
And I’d be much too weak to ever speak what I seen
But my life changed with that sound

*

When we moved to New York City in February 2014 we felt positive, optimistic and excited.  As a mixed-race couple (I am ‘white’, my wife is ‘black’) we were looking forward to living in a multi-racial city of immigrants where the old blocks of black/ white/ jewish/ korean/ italian/ hispanic /chinese had at least been partly broken down.  Brooklyn was mixed and thriving and beautiful.  The last time we’d been here (apart from the Julius Caesar run in late 2013 see My Pop Life #143) had been the late 80s when we’d stayed in Alphabet City and been shocked by the homelessness, the filth everywhere, and felt at street level the racial tension in the city.  The block mentality appeared to be based on racial origin depressingly.   It was 1989 just after the Central Park incident when five black and hispanic teens were arrested and indicted on robbery and sexual assault charges against a white middle-class female jogger.

White fury 1989 believing in the rape narrative of the Central Park 5

The city prickled with palpable suspicion and anger.   In June 2014  the five men – who were between 14 and 16 when they were arrested – settled for $40 million in compensation after many years of jail, followed by negotiations with the city.  They were all innocent.  The perpetrator, Matias Reyes, had acted alone and confessed in 2002, some 12 years earlier.

On July 17th 2014 Eric Garner was selling cigarettes outside a store on Staten Island.  Bystander footage shot on mobile phones showed five policemen forcing him to the floor, one with a chokehold as Garner said on numerous occasions “I can’t breathe“.  He died on the street, on camera.  The Black Lives Matter Movement had been born in the wake of the murder acquittal of George Zimmerman who shot 17-yr old Trayvon Martin in Florida the previous year.   A protest group coined the phrase and it stuck.  It doesn’t have an “Only” in front of it, but it might have a “Too” after it.  It’s not offensive, or divisive, in the context of the regular dehumanisation of black life in America.

Ferguson, Missouri 2014

Between these two murders was the shooting of 18-yr old Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri which had ignited the nation – a black man shot multiple times by a white policeman and left dead on the street for over five hours – a white officer also later to be acquitted by a white Grand Jury, in a secret hearing.

Since then we have had a rising tide of unacceptable black death at the hands of the police, often captured on camera : Tamir Rice, 12 years old from Cleveland (no indictment of the officer), Eric Harris from Tulsa was shot in the back while lying on the ground (this case resulted in a manslaughter conviction), Walter Scott from North Carolina, shot in the back while running away (a murder charge has resulted from the camera phone footage) Sandra Bland in Texas who apparently committed suicide in her prison cell after being arrested for ‘not signalling when she pulled over’.  And Freddie Gray in Baltimore whose spine was broken while he was handcuffed in the back of a van driven at deliberately high speeds around corners after his arrest.  He died.  All the Freddie Gray cases have resulted in acquittals for the group of officers involved, dripping through the news bulletins one a week in 2016.

Then two weeks ago Baton Rouge had another cop shooting a black man – Alton Sterling – outside a store, and on the same day in Minnesota we had a live Facebook feed from the girlfriend of Philando Castile, shot in his car by an officer as he was handing the cop his legal gun licence.

moments after the shooting of Philando Castile

All this exploded further 14 days ago when – at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas against these last two shootings – a sniper shot and killed five police officers and was himself killed by a police robot bomb.  Then 4 days ago another (black) sniper who was also ex-military shot and killed three police officers in Baton Rouge, which has been extremely tense ever since the killing of Alton Sterling.

I am aware of my white privilege, especially in newly-gentrified Fort Greene, Brooklyn.  I’m not going to discuss the ins and outs of gentrification here because it is quite complex and more to do with money than race – and there are good points, and bad points – but walking down the streets and avenues of Brooklyn, I never feel threatened by the police.  That’s just my reality.   I’m not in the matrix that says – young black men commit most of the crime, so target them, shake them down, stop and frisk.  We know the NYPD profile young black men.  We know they have quotas and monthly targets.  And whatever irrational fear I may have of groups of young black men with hoodies on the street – the reality is that they have a far more rational fear of me as a white man.  Historically and actually.  White people run things.  It’s not a black problem all this.  It’s a white problem.

My white privilege allowed me to attend a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles in 2015 while I was shooting Agent Carter at Disney, a rally then a walk along Hollywood Boulevard with a few hundred protestors past the 101 Freeway entrance blocked by LAPD thence to Hollywood & Vine where we were invited to sit down on the intersection and block the road, to actually lie down as if we were dead on the street.  It felt vulnerable and brave, there were LAPD all around us, but I never felt in danger.  I was a white middle-class English protestor after all.

How ironic, how tragic indeed that all of this is kicking off at the end of the second term of the USA’s first black President.   Barack Obama did speak up about the Trayvon Martin murder saying “he could have been my son” – and NRA membership shot up, as did gun purchases and registrations.  Obama backed off after that, thinking clearly not to stir the hornet’s nest, but it stirred itself anyway.  One of the things I didn’t realise before moving here was how little command & control the President has over the police.  Police Departments are run on a state-by-state basis and controlled by the State Governments.  The Federal Justice Department can however intervene in high-profile cases and seek an indictment, they have done so in the Alton Sterling case.   But Obama often feels side-lined by this issue.  Some, like Cornel West, and I would fall into this category too, feel that Obama has not done enough as a black President to reform a racist police culture.

El-P and Killer Mike : Run The Jewels

Run The Jewels was formed by black rapper Killer Mike and white rapper/producer El-P in 2012 after they had toured together.  Killer Mike debuted on Outkast‘s Stankonia LP in 2000 before releasing 5 full-length independent political trap/hip hop albums out of Atlanta.  El-P is outta Brooklyn, original member of Company Flow and owner of Def Jux records where he produced Cannibal Ox‘ The Cold Vein among other independent hip hop albums.  A well-respected hip-hop producer he has also released 5 LPs, two as Company Flow and three as El-P.

Run The Jewels first LP was a free download in 2013, self-titled with the strange logo that has got me into a few odd situations – severed, bandanged hands holding onto a gold chain – what ?  But it has been hugely effective in establishing them as a force – political uncompromising, old skool, with a political angry content to match a punchy noisy style -they remind me of Public Enemy, committed hip hop from the underground, sent to upset the apple cart.  Run The Jewels 2 was released in October 2014, was again free, and included this track Early, featuring a new face BOOTS aka Jordan Asher who had risen to glory from nowhere in 2013, writing three and producing no less than NINE of the tracks on Beyoncé‘s self-titled 5th LP ‘BEYONCÉ‘ along with a roster of up-to-the-minute talent.  His contribution to this song ‘Early’ is quite stunning.

Killer Mike rapping live in 2015

The first verse, partly quoted above is delivered by Killer Mike, reminiscent in rhythm to Young M.C.’s ‘Know How‘ and in rhyme pattern to Run DMC’s ‘Walk This Way’ : a black male under arrest for weed “could it be that my medicine’s the evidence”   while his partner and child protest and are held by the police

‘cos I respect the badge and the gun,

and I pray today ain’t the day when you drag me away, right in front of my beautiful son

His queen gets shot at the end of that verse “and my life changed with that sound“.

The chorus is devastating, eerie, other-worldly from BOOTS –

Get out get out get out feelin this feelin this too early…”

and appears to be in a different song altogether.  A startling moment where everything you know suddenly floats untethered and the sky is falling in.

Then El-P’s verse – the white verse – starts with the same couplet

It be feelin’ like the life that I’m livin’ I don’t control
Like every day I’m in a fight for my soul

– he agrees with Killer Mike that his life ain’t his own, but he talks about the system – there’s a they – and how things are rigged but it ain’t a game if it don’t pause with the sound of Pacman dying in the mix behind him.   He sees the street cameras watch the birdie but it doesn’t record the cop shooting the woman… he finishes with hearing the sound of gunshots maybe two blocks away but he’s going to bed he’s going to sleep, getting up early, unfazed.  White privilege.

This song is both the darkness and the light.  As it should be.

I had tickets to see Run The Jewels in late 2014 and couldn’t go – I had to be in Los Angeles for work on Agent Carter.   I gave to tickets to my Brooklyn friend and gig buddy Tony Gerber, also a white man, also married to a black woman Lynn Nottage, and he went to the gig with Aaron Nottage, his wife’s brother.  I was glad the tickets were used, and glad they were a gift.  I spent that Christmas alone (sob) in Brooklyn with the cats, as Jenny flew back to London to be with her family.  Tony and Lynne invited me round to their house for Christmas Day which was extremely kind of them, and I had a wonderful day.  Presents were exchanged, and Tony had bought me the Run The Jewels T-shirt complete with bandaged severed hand holding the gold chain.

Suzan-Lori Parks wasn’t sure about this T.  I couldn’t explain it

One of my friends here in NYC is a police officer.  We drink.  We argue.  We laugh a lot.   But she tells me things about things.  The gang mentality.  The win mentality.  The shoot-to-kill training.   Social media has heightened the issue a great deal and given us all access to Sandra Bland’s aggressive arresting officer, the shooting of Walter Scott or the shocking view of Philando Castile dying in front of our eyes.  We are not inured to these incidents, rather we are woken by them, they are brought into our homes, our phones, our lives.  What can we do ?  We can join Black Lives Matter, go out onto the streets and show our anger.  We do.  What else ?

Well I think one critically important step we can take is to acknowledge that we all live in a world built on white supremacy, and still operating through it.  White lives matter more, count more, than black lives.  Cops see a black face and see a) guilt and b) danger.  The fear count goes UP.  Each terrorist atrocity in Europe is lamented, people paste the flag of France or Belgium onto their Facebook profile and express sorrow and defiance.  But terrorist atrocities in Mali, Ivory Coast, Turkey or Iraq scarcely get a mention, let alone a flag of sympathy.  Not our tribe.  “A plane came down in Kenya yesterday. Two Britons were on board. ”  Oh.   So what kind of message does that send ??  Our kids are running off to Syria in their hundreds to join ISIL.  Why might that be ?  We live in an increasingly polarised world at the moment. Capitalism is wobbling seriously once again, the 2008 crash did not adjust our system in any meaningful way, and there is less money going round.  We all feel it.  But the banks were bailed out, over and over again.  Was Greece ?

Divide and rule, the old tactic is still taking our eyes off the ball.  These are dangerous times.  Reminiscent of the 1930s.  It feels like we need to pick sides, and people are very ready to do that.  I chose my side many years ago when I married my beautiful black wife.   My family is black.  Although I think I had been on this side for at least fifteen years before that.  And I’ve always felt like an internationalist.

If I had a child and I lived here in Brooklyn they would be mixed-race, or black – and I would feel the fear more keenly, the fear this nation always feels built on.  Across the USA, parents of black children raise them to simply get home alive.  If a police officer stops you, be polite, be respectful, do not move your hands, obey, don’t argue, don’t raise your voice, get home alive.  Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote his book Between The World and Me as a letter to his son about coming home alive and it was a best-seller in 2015.  The ABCtv show Blackish felt compelled to address the Black Lives Matter issues in one episode of their sitcom, now in its third series, and the Oscars were dominated by the issue of racism, and brilliantly helmed by Chris Rock on the night.  We are undoubtedly going through another major civil rights movement – but what will change ?   The root is deep, as deep and dark as slavery, and that went on for hundreds of years and made black skin into a commodity, dehumanised, valuable but like the pelt of an animal.  Even after the civil war – fought over the South’s refusal to free their slaves – Reconstruction meant that there was no price to be paid for losing the war.  Robert E. Lee kept his rifle and his Dixie flag and was sent home by Ullysses Grant and no black family got 40 acres and a mule.  The slave-hunters who had profited from bounty turned into the  Sheriffs, Deputies and then Police Officers of the Jim Crow South.  Lynchings, Strange Fruit.

Racism – the great white problem – has never gone away because the root has not been dug out.  The skin grows over it, and it lies there festering until the next breakout.

Charleston, South Carolina  July 2015 – a young white racist shoots 9 black people dead in a church as they pray, and when the police find him hours later they give him a bullet-proof vest and get him a burger.  South Carolina in the weeks that followed finally took the Confederate Flag off the State buildings – to much hostility from white supremacists, for it is their flag.  Quite why it ever became the flag of rock’n’rollers like Lemmy or Mick Jones from the Clash is beyond my comprehension.

And on we go.   In the end compassion is the only way.  Kindness.  We’re in a bit of a finger-pointing era though right now, picking sides, othering.  This song for me shows another way – a white man and a black man working together and seeing the world through each others eyes.  This is the way forward.  I realise too, that this has all been very male, and another great step for me, and for us all, is for MAN to see the world through WOMAN eyes.

Stay safe.

My Pop Life #162 : The Way You Look Tonight – Teddy Wilson & Billie Holiday

The Way You Look Tonight   –   Teddy Wilson & Billie Holiday

Someday, when I’m awfully low, when the world is cold

I will feel a glow just thinking of you

and the way you look tonight

While I was studying law in London in the late 1970s I was also improving my musical education.   The record shops of Soho in particular were a ten-minute walk from Fitzroy Street where I lived, and bulged with unknown treasure that I saved up for, dipped into and splurged on.  Like a child in a sweet shop I wanted to sample everything.  I felt ignorant about music, like I had huge holes in my knowledge – particularly classical, anything not in English or jazz.

One of the first ever jazz records I bought was a white double LP from Columbia Records called Masters of Jazz  –  Billie Holiday Volume 1 : 1933 – 1936.   It felt like an LP that may have some answers.  I also bought a Duke Ellington LP in a similar package – one of a series.  I imagined, no doubt that the other volumes would follow.   I thought jazz might be ‘a bit difficult’ – but that couldn’t have been further from the truth and I couldn’t stop playing both records.   Totally by luck I had hit bullseye first shot – the Billie Holiday / Teddy Wilson songs are both eternal and perfect, simple and complex, they reveal more and more layers of joy with each listen – and still do some 40 years later.   Over the years of loving these songs – now collected on another “complete” Columbia series which are for me the pinnacle of 20th century pop – I’ve come to really adore the piano playing of Teddy Wilson.

Billie Holiday was 18 when she recorded her first sides, with Benny Goodman – the 2 songs from 1933 are the first on this LP.  Then she did a recording with Duke Ellington in 1935 called Symphony In Black which I wrote about in My Pop Life #34.  I don’t know what she did from 18-20, aside from live dates, I guess the pop vocal world was pretty competitive back then and Billie was already seen particularly by producer and early champion  John Hammond as a jazz stylist rather than a pop singer.  Nevertheless in 1935 she cut her first sides with swing maestro Teddy Wilson for the Brunswick label and had a hit with What A Little Moonlight Can Do.   The resulting five years produced the incredible music which I stumbled onto in Soho back when I was a callow youth.  Extraordinary music.  Each song a glittering diamond of the art.

Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, Allen Reuss, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson kneeling NYC 1936

Jazz standards they’re called now, some of them have become part of The Great American Songbook, others are pop songs of the day played by an ace swing band under the twinkle of Teddy Wilson.  The players were legendary themselves : Lester Young on the tenor sax, whom Billie Holiday called Prez.  He in turn anointed her Lady Day. On this song – Ben Webster on the tenor, another top player. The mighty Gene Krupa on drums from the Benny Goodman Trio, where Teddy Wilson had been one of the first black players in a prominent integrated band back in the early 1930s.

All of the numbers follow the same architectural pattern, which nowadays would be considered musical suicide.  The vocal doesn’t come in for at least 2 minutes usually.  (Hmm perhaps resembling House Music from the 1980s).   First, a shuffle is established and the melody is played by clarinet, tenor saxophone, trumpet or piano.  A full verse is played, followed by an improvised verse, followed by more of the same.  All the lead instruments get a turn, then finally, around halfway through the song, Billie sings.  The result is simply breathtaking.  You hear the greatest players of the day riffing over the sweetest songs, reigned in by the rhythm section and the melody and producing some of the most sublime music known to man – then Billie Holiday takes it home.  Always behind the beat, sometimes thrillingly in-between the beats, singing a song of her own inside the song.  She is another jazz instrumentalist, using her voice and the words as her tune.  Very few singers can pull this off – this level of structural awareness, to stretch the song beyond it’s confines to another level of syncopation and genius.

Many listeners like the God Bless The Child side of Billie, the later material on Verve from the 40s when she probably had a cigarette dangling from her mouth and was singing weary blues and jazz with great heart-wrenching and pitiful emotion and of course – it’s better than great.  She wrote the extraordinary Strange Fruit in 1939, her initial unwillingness to sing it apparently coming from memories of her father’s death.  Her talent was huge, her life was tragic.  She poured it all into the music until she simply couldn’t be bothered, wrecked  with heroin, drink and everything else and died in destitution from liver failure in July 1959.

I prefer these early sides from the late thirties to the bluesy broken Billie.   Musical people at the height of their game, playing exquisite pop music on disc.  Carefree beautiful music, written by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Sammy Cahn.

But check out the piano of Teddy Wilson.  Syncopation and a loose tightness, rolling phrases, moments of strange determination and bloody-mindedness, lyrical beauty.  It reminds me of Artur Rubinstein playing Chopin (see My Pop Life #9) and there can be no higher praise from me.  I’d love to hear Teddy Wilson playing Chopin.  Purists may scoff (oh go on, please) but examples abound of the jazz/classical crossover, from Aretha Franklin singing Nessun Dorma when Pavarotti fell ill in 1988, and Benny Goodman playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in 1949.  Different disciplines, sure, but same instrument.  Anyway, Teddy does it for me as a pianist.  Something very quality going on.  He became known as the ‘Marxist Mozart’ in New York thanks to his leftist sympathies, people don’t like to distinguish between shades of red do they, if you’re vaguely left you’re a commie.  For example Teddy chaired the Artist’s Committe to Elect Benjamin J. Davis, black Communist leader who was elected to the NY City Council in 1943.

This song was written by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Dorothy Fields, originally sung by Fred Astaire in the film Swing Time, and winning the Oscar for best original song in 1936.  It’s a corker of a tune.  Similar in theme to Don’t Ever Change from the 1960s.  A wonky piano backflip takes us into the clarinet melody over a brisk shuffle, played straight just once, followed by eight bars of improvisation before the trumpet takes us through the second verse and we slide gloriously back to the piano genius of Wilson before Billie finally, reluctantly, joins them, singing her song inside theirs.   All these sides from these sessions – mainly cut in New York, but also recorded in Chicago and Los Angeles – are for me the very stuff of joy itself.

These days it is possible to listen to Billie Holiday in rehearsal, phrasing, trying stuff out, ordering drinks, flexing her vocal instrument, arguing.  Too much information?  For some people yes.  They prefer to receive the art in finished condition, these overheard bootlegs of conversations feel intrusive, reductive.  Others, including me, want everything.  When I started collecting Beatles bootlegs, I relished every overheard word, every joke and quip, every false start and breakdown.  It was like gold dust.

Billie Holiday : A female jazz artist in a male world : 1939

This song was recorded on October 21st 1936.  Astaire had already recorded it, and many others would follow – Parker, Sinatra, Art Blakey, Ferry, Coltrane, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee….

No particular memory, just a lifetime’s pleasure.

My Pop Life 161 : Shine – Take That

Shine   –   Take That

You, you’re such a big star to me
You’re everything I wanna be
But you’re stuck in a hole and I want you to get out
I don’t know what there is to see
But I know it’s time for you to leave
We’re all just pushing along
Trying to figure it out, out, out, oh your anticipation pulls you down, when you can have it all

*

My favourite memory of Becky was of her practising majorettes in our front room to Abba’s Dancing Queen, when she must have been around 7 years old.  The image of her practicing her steps became the opening scene of my first play Drive Away The Darkness, a play named without irony from a Rolf Harris song Sun Arise.  I had reached 29 years old and panicked – I hadn’t written a play yet !  So sat down and vomited up the family history based around an Easter weekend from hell.  It was, to all intents and purposes, my family’s version of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  The finished play got a rehearsed reading at the National Theatre Studio in London under the wing of Peter Gill in 1986 and… that was pretty much that.   Gill and Nicholas Wright summoned me into a room after the reading was done and asked me “what I wanted to do with it?”  “Get it produced?” I answered.  They smiled condescendingly “no, we meant what do you want to do with the material?”   I didn’t know what they were talking about.    “Go away and have a think about it”.   No clues, no notes, no help was offered.  I wondered what the point of it all was.  Encouragement ?

Legendary photo from late 1972 

My sister Rebecca was born on April 29th 1972 when I was a teenage boy of 15.   Mum was in and out of Amberstone Hospital at this point, as usual, and Becky’s dad, John Daignault (see My Pop Life #132) had been ejected from our council house in Newton Park by the police for domestic violence when Mum was 9 months pregnant.  So Becky was born into a recently peaceful, if shaky household.  And although the hospital visits continued (about 2 weeks at a time when Mum couldn’t cope) somehow the social workers managed to keep Becky – and us three boys – out of care.  Various people helped out, notably a girlfriend of Paul’s called Sharon, who must’ve been around 13 herself.  A few years later I was gone, to Lewes, thence to London, University and the rest of my life.  But I’ve always had a close relationship with Bex despite the age difference.

Becky and Sparky, 1979 ?

We lived on the edge of a large council estate, our garden backed onto a vast Sussex field which led to Marshfoot Lane and Herstmonceux Observatory eventually, although none of us ever went that far.    I’d come back for Easter, for Christmas and birthdays etc, usually for a punch-up  (not literally!) with Mum, and a chat with Becky about how things were going.  By now Mum had met Alan, perhaps through Gingerbread, an organisation for single parents, and they had married.   Alan was a decent bloke and treated Rebecca as if she was his own daughter, bless him, and still does to this day.   She went to the same school as Andrew and Paul in Hailsham, before Mum decided to move in with Alan in Polegate.  By now Rebecca had met Peter and they were married with much fanfare and dancing on July 4th 1992, some three weeks before my wedding to Jenny.  It meant Becky couldn’t be a bridesmaid because the fittings were during her honeymoon…it also meant that I wasn’t there.  Becky remembers this as filming Alien 3 which was a year earlier – but I did have to fly to Los Angeles to shoot some extra bits so perhaps that was it – anyway – Paul and Andrew were there in spades…

Paul, Rebecca, Andrew July 4th 1992, Eastbourne

*

Rebecca marries Peter July 4th 1992

Bex, Darren, Peter, me, Mum, Debs (behind Mum), Paul, Alan

Us kids had, for many many years, only one topic of conversation  when we hooked up – Mother.  It drove our various partners mad knowing that we would huddle together in a coping quartet – Ralph, Paul, Andrew Becky – and relate the latest installment of the soap opera of our family. Thankfully those days and that feeling of perma-crisis have gone.   We’ve grown.  But I think Mum’s personality and issues were so powerful that it bound us together.  Becky has always been my sister, never my step-sister.  Becky and Peter got divorced, and she married John Coleman from Dagenham in 1997.  I offered my blue Jaguar as her wedding car and left Brighton too late, bombing up the M23 at 120mph.  Got a ticket too and appeared at Haywards Heath magistrates a few months later and got a £200 fine and was banned for six months.  “But it was my sister’s wedding” I said.  Becky and John had three lovely kids – Mollie, Ellie and William (see My Pop Life #120).

Renewal of vowels 2005- Ellie, sleeping Will, John, Bex and Mollie

In 2005, eight years after the marriage and now in Strood on the Medway, they renewed their vows.  It was a lovely day.  I was doing Nighty Night at the time in Bude in Cornwall.  We joked that they’d renewed their vowels – an E and an O.

2007

Soon after that they moved down to Sussex and an old house in Horsebridge near Hailsham.  Closer to Mum and to us, we saw more of each other.  But the marriage was broken and John moved back to East London.

Becky marries Steve, 2013

In 2013 Becky married Steve in Eastbourne, Paul came back from China to be there, it lasted about a year and a bit.  Becky is now single and living in Hailsham, near Mum, with Ellie and William still at school.

So that’s the bare bones of a life that tell you nothing about the woman. She is, as the song suggests, resilient and optimistic, tough and glamourous, funny and generous.  Becky is the best mimic of our mother of all of us, and when she relates the latest installment of our mum, we are weeping with laughter.  She has re-trained herself so many times as a businesswoman, nail technician, health consultant while ferrying the kids to schools in Ringmer, Hamden Park, Hailsham and Eastbourne and William to football practice while swimming three times a week and doing the family shopping looking after a dog and popping in to clean Mum’s house and do some shopping for her that really she ought to look like a wet dishrag of exhausted martyrdom.  But Becky has it seems, unlimited powers and juice – like the duracell bunny – powers of determination and a centred strength of being that brooks no fools, and suffers no half-stepping.  I’m very proud of her, and I was very proud to play at her 40th birthday (previously discussed in My Pop Life #120 from a different angle) and more especially to play this particular song.

A young Take That in 1990

Tune.  First things first.  It’s a tune.  A major key piano bounce with vocal harmonies will almost always find favour with me, an echo of English pop, particularly Penny Lane (see My Pop Life #36) & Mr Blue Sky.   This though from 2007 and the most successful boy-band of all time, and one who actually wrote their own material.  Built around songwriter Gary Barlow in 1990, the original members were a bank clerk (Mark Owen) a hopeful breakdancer (Jason Orange) a carshop paintsprayer (Howard Donald) and a 16-year-old teenager (Robbie Williams) all of whom auditioned a number of times for Nigel Martin-Smith in Manchester before securing the gig.  One of the most successful and loved bands in British Pop History, they swept all before them during the 1990s with some beautiful songs – A Million Love Songs, Back For Good, How Deep Is Your Love – until William’s drug issues forced him out in 1995 and Take That disbanded the following year to the sound of a million broken teenage hearts.  In fact the UK government set up suicide hotlines because so many teenage girls were distraught.

The 4-piece without Williams eventually got back together in 2005, toured in 2006, then dropped this great single Shine with a lead vocal by Mark Owen, a love letter to the missing Williams, in early 2007.  It won the Ivor Novello in 2008 for best song, and sure enough Robbie Williams rejoined Take That in 2010 for a reunion tour and album, but the band currently exist as a 3-piece in the wake of Jason and Robbie’s subsequent departures.

Bex has been obsessed with Take That since their inception in 1990, and has seen them at least six times live, in all their various incarnations.  On the occasion of her 40th birthday, her step-dad Alan hired my band The Brighton Beach Boys to play the birthday party, and we learned Shine especially for the event.  Or did we ?  Actually I think I decided on the morning of the gig that I would play it for her, alone if necessary, and when I told the band in the soundcheck they joined in.  I had printed a few copies of the charts in case we had time, and we did.  I’ve just found the setlist from that show :

We may be a Beach Boys tribute band but we have a few party tunes up our collective sleeve too, thanks to the excellence of Mr Stephen Wrigley, Mr Glen Richardson, Mr Theseus Gerrard, Mr Adrian Marshall, Ms Charlotte Glasson and – in those days – Mr Rory Cameron.  The ska section had just been played at our 1969 Show, and Dancing Queen & Night Fever had been played at Caroline Lucas’50th Birthday bash.  The ever-expanding playlist strikes again.   But Shine was a one-off, just for Becky.

I don’t think we got the Stop! bit right, although a few people attempted it.  The thing is with a Stop! bit is that unless everyone does it, it isn’t a Stop! bit at all.  At all at all.   But it went down well, and is a thrillingly good song to play live.  Uplifting.   The link to Mr Blue Sky became apparent when Take That played it live and started the song with the end of Jeff Lynne’s great pop song.  Unfortunately I wasn’t aware of that in 2012.

Ellie, William, Rebecca, Mollie

I’ve always loved my sister unconditionally.   She is the strongest of us all, the closest to Mum and the most volatile of all four kids – her relationship with Heather, my mother, is tempestuous to say the least.  I listen to them both bitching in extremis about the other and just nod, like Alan, like my Dad, like Johnny Coleman – yes dear.

I’m not stupid enough to take sides with the women in my family, they’re too fierce.

Don’t you let your demons pull you down

Cos you can have it all, you can have it all, all, ALL

So c’mon oh c’mon get it on I dunno what you’re waiting for your time is coming don’t be late

hey hey

So c’mon, see the light on your face, let it shine, let it shine

the full live version from the Circus tour 2009.  Rebecca was there !

My Pop Life #160 : River Deep, Mountain High – Ike & Tina Turner

River Deep, Mountain High   –   Ike & Tina Turner

Well I’m gonna be as faithful as that puppy, no I’ll never let you down

June 18th 1966 I was 9 years old.  Mum had walked out of Hellingly Hospital but on the advice of Dr Maggs had volunteered to go back for a short while.  When she finally returned home, she’d been away for nine months.  I was happy when she came home.  Her mum, my nan, had been helping Dad to run the house, and us.  Andrew had been in Portsmouth, still a baby, but by now he was walking and talking.  A little boy.  Paul and I shared a bedroom and we talked after the lights went out.  The staircase went up and then forked right and left, we were on the left and Mum and Dad were on the right.  The cat used to have its kittens on top of the wardrobe in Mum’s bedroom.   At the halfway point of the staircase I could sit and listen to my parents arguing.  Sometimes I was already downstairs when they started fighting, and Mum had a technique.  She went for Dad’s glasses.  That was that – pretty much – he’s blind without them.    Bt if I was upstairs when the fight started, Paul and I might walk down the four steps to the mini-landing.  Down the stairs we could see a french window onto the back garden. To the right was the door to the living room with the record player and the table where we ate.  The TV was in the front room. Rationed.  A dog, and a cat would be somewhere around.  Bookcases.  And, right now, my mum and my dad were having a high-decibel screaming match.  Or rather my mum was.  Dad’s parries were usually low-key, murmured dissents, accusing my mum of stupidity.  Since he had gone to Cambridge and she’d left school at 15, this was something of a blue-touchpaper-lighting moment on his part :  fireworks guaranteed : If she was stupid, what did that make him ?  An utter imbecile for using the taboo words, for climbing onto an intellectual ledge of education he had climbed alone and casting rocks and stones down into the newly-despised slough of ignorance from whence he had climbed !   His mother was proper working class, and his dad too.  John was the only one of his family (he had four older sisters) to go to Grammar School, and then the only one to stay on, then take Cambridge Entrance Exam and go up to Downing College in 1955.  Totally intrepid, there were two other working class boys in his year, one from Yorkshire, one from the midlands.  A fish out of water.  People talked down to him, for the first time in his life he wasn’t the best.  He was the lowest of the low amongst the Etonians, Winchester boys, Harrow snobs, privately-schooled little empire-builders.  At the end of that first year, he’d gone back to Portsmouth and married Heather, and together they’d embarked on his 2nd year at Downing.  I was born some 9 months later, in Cambridge.

But intellectual intelligence is probably less than 20% of the story.  Maybe a little more, but not much.  Emotional intelligence, which boys have less of, is a little more precious, certainly to me.  Then – no.  I had no idea.  Maybe younger lads have more emotional intelligence, but evidence points to the opposite.  They’re into riding bikes, collecting bird’s eggs, fishing for frogspawn and fighting with David Bristow.  Collecting comics and not washing properly.  Doing stupid things.  Anyway – I’m wandering.  This particular half-formed 9-year old was sitting listening to an offstage fight between mum and dad from the T-bone of the staircase.  Paul had joined me.  I don’t think we were that interested in what they were actually saying, but I think we needed to go downstairs.  So we stopped, slightly guiltily because it meant we were now eavesdropping.  I can’t remember a word of it, I never was much cop at lyrics, but the music I can recall, because both of them have spoken to me in a similar key, before and since.

But just then a jar of marmalade flew horizontally through the barely-visible doorway downstairs and smashed violently against the wall below me.  Orange jelly, glass and peel started to slide down the wall.  It was a stunning moment.  The pitch of the argument went up, then became teary and finally included moments of some silence.

Did Paul and I then walk down the stairs and out into the garden leaving them far far behind ?  Out to the village with it’s curious green paths that ran everywhere, along the roadside, into the fields, down to the sand-pit and far away.

Or did we tiptoe back upstairs and read comics ?

It was so intense that the rest is blank.  Either, both.  Perhaps we went downstairs and saw that Mum had Dad’s glasses in her hand, and he was demanding their return.  But now I feel that they were actually arguing about getting divorced, because Dad, as Paul once said many years later, “had a roving eye” and he’d been taking the piss for years, later confided to me in far too much detail by Mum.  They were divorced later that year and he moved out.  I used to remember it as the other way round.  That they had a fight, then divorced, then Mum went into hospital.  Linear.  Blame.  Made sense as a memory.  But maybe when I was in my thirties I suddenly realised that Dad looked after us with Nan for 9 months, and was still there when she came out.  But maybe that was when the eye roved.  Can’t say I even knew what that meant then.  But somewhere over that murky summer, I pedalled furiously along country lanes with Stephen Criddle even beyond the railway line, to Chalvington and Ripe.   And swung on a black bent tractor tire over a pond with Martin Coleman and his dog Boffin.  And on the radio, there it was, amongst the Paperback Writer, Sunny Afternoon, Sloop John B, Strangers In The Night and Sweet Talking Guy, this monster single which appeared to be made of something else entirely.

I think it was.  Truly.  In early 1966 when River Deep, Mountain High was recorded, it cost over $20,000 to make, unheard of at that time.  But let’s re-wind a little.  The second married couple in this story, Ike & Tina Turner were married in in Tijuana in 1962, but are now almost impossible to think about without Angela Bassett‘s glorious performance in What’s Love Got To Do With It?  immediately filling the frame as Lawrence Fishburne glowers behind her.  Domestic violence poster children all grown up.  But there’s more to Ike Turner than wife-beater.  Rocket 88, recorded in 1951 with  Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, is considered by many to be the first rock’n’roll single ever recorded.    Who cares right ?   Their tempestuous marriage lasted until 1976 when Ike cocaine habit was so out-of-control that he had burned a hole in his nose and would get regular nosebleeds.  She escaped and never looked back.  But amongst the violence and drugs, they had made some great music together.   Tina’s original name was Anna Mae Bullock, and she dated the saxophone player of Ike’s band The Kings of Rhythm in St Louis, Missouri before singing one song at one show.  The rest is herstory.  Tina Turner has one of the most soulful soul voices of any era.   The first single for Ike & Tina Turner was A Fool For You was on Sue Records, but by 1964 Ike Turner had sacked them and was prowling around the record business looking for a pop hit.  Ike & Tina Turner had been touring the southern soul circuit for hundreds of days per year, and had produced a series of great LPs, and great singles, all of which would be dwarfed by this cavernous, gothic piece of work.  Ike signed up with Warner Brothers where he met Bob Krasnow who would start to manage the husband and wife team and introduced them to Phil Spector.

Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry in 1964

Our third married couple, Ellie Greenwich and her husband Jeff Barry were New York songwriters who married in late 1962 and then decided to exclusively write together from that moment, upsetting previous songwriting partnerships.  But three years later they’d composed Be My Baby & I Can Hear Music for The Ronettes, Da Doo Ron Ron for The Crystals (see My Pop Life #),  The Dixie Cups’ huge hit Chapel Of Love and The Shangri-Las’ mighty single Leader Of The Pack.   

Quite a cv.  All of the above (bar Leader Of The Pack produced in New York by George Morton) were produced by Phil Spector in Los Angeles, and he always had a cut on the publishing too.  Greenwich, Barry, Spector became a badge of a hit record.  But in late 1965 control-freak Spector hadn’t had a hit record for a whole year.  He paid Ike Turner $20,000 to stay away from the sessions, and recorded with the Wrecking Crew whose members Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Glen Campbell, Tommy Tedesco and many many others had already sat in on many of the big songs of the decade, often on Spector’s signature wall-of-sound productions.  You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling. Mr Tambourine Man.  I Got You Babe.  As well as all those with The Ronettes and The Crystals.  This though was to be Spector’s biggest production to date.

Tina, Phil, Ike, Goldstar, 1965

Late ’65 they were all in Gold Star Studios at Santa Monica & Vine, running through the chord changes and orchestrations.  Days and days later they were still recording.  Tina was down to her bra, scorching hot and howling into the microphone one of the great vocal performances in all music.    The final peak at 3 minutes is unmatched in pop I would suggest.   A genuine tingle every time I hear it.  It certainly isn’t matched by the combined force of The Four Tops & The Supremes in a 1971 cover which only takes off on the bridge section.  Diana is game, Levi Stubbs is is too polite on his puppy verse, but that was Motown right there.  Aimed at the white audience, so more polite, less gutsy and raw, more pop, less black.    A bigger hit than Spector’s I’m guessing, in America, although Tina’s is now considered one of the pinnacles of pop history.  Les black ?  Weird to think of it like that, perhaps that’s a racist construction but in any event, the gospel element is often subsumed in Motown records, less so at Stax, Specialty, Sue, Atlantic or other soul labels.  But whatever is pop and whatever is soul, greatness is greatness, and all of the acts mentioned above are truly great.   Tina Turner didn’t sing Remember Me after all.   But Spector reckoned River Deep, Mountain High was his greatest moment.  So did George Harrison among others.

Tina Turner & Phil Spector at Goldstar, late 1965

Extraordinarily, River Deep, Mountain High was not a hit in the USA at all, either on the pop charts or the R’n’B charts, and opinions ranged from “too white for the black chart” to “too black for the pop chart“, and Spector retired in disgust, remarking later that he understood famous American traitor Benedict Arnold which told us a) how very hard he took the record’s failure, and b) how bonkers he was.   He didn’t work until 1970 when John Lennon and George Harrison gave him the Twickenham Sessions and he went away and made Let It Be, later producing many of the pair’s solo records in the 1970s.

However, River Deep, Mountain High was a chart hit in England in July 1966.  At some point that summer England won the World Cup.  I know because I was in the village shop and the shopkeeper smiled at me.  “England won The World Cup” he said.  I was so happy.  Even though we hadn’t watched it.  I didn’t really know what it meant to be honest.  Perhaps that means that my dad wasn’t at home then and had already left.   Funny things memories.  Intense though.

full song –

the original promo with Ike singing along, which he doesn’t :

My Pop Life #159 : Sonic Attack – Hawkwind

Sonic Attack   –   Hawkwind

In case of sonic attack on your district, follow these rules
If you are making love it is imperative
To bring all bodies to orgasm simultaneously

Do not waste time blocking your ears
Do not waste time seeking a sound proofed shelter
Try to get as far away from the sonic source as possible

Not all music is the food of love.  Some music is challenging, ugly, vicious, cruel and cold.  Many of my friends like certain bands who perpetrate these kinds of musics.  There is almost a family tree which runs from The Velvet Underground throughout guitar music which is bleak and discordant.  Deliberately so.  It’s not for me.  Not much anyway, which is why the vast majority of this blog has been melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, beautiful in one way or another.  But of course that’s not the whole story, of my life or any other.  Music has been used for war and torture ever since the trumpets sounded out against the walls of Jericho.  Eminem was used extensively in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay, as was Christina Aguilera.  There are theories that early hunters used music to lure animals into the open.  Guitars are strung with catgut – the word for sheep or goat intestines.  Horn instruments originally were the actual horns of beasts.

I first heard Hawkwind’s Space Ritual when I was tripping in the early summer of 1973.  Andrew Taylor – Tat – had bought it – and invited a group round to listen, handing out the microdots first.  Tiny little black dots which I knew from experience (see My Pop Life #133 ) were powerful.  I’d already done acid – once.  I was just sixteen years old, it was 1973, I was in Lewes, East Sussex, with Tat, Martin Elkins, Jon Foreman and Pete Smurthwaite.   Adrian Birch declined to trip and thus became the steady hand on the tiller of the next 12 hours.  Always a good idea we found.  We ‘came up’ sitting around and smoking joints in Tat’s bedroom and Hawkwind were playing live.  When Sonic Attack blistered through the speakers into my warping brainwaves I was fully tripping and I almost freaked the fuck out.  Perhaps privately I did because I can still remember the flickering light and vibrating forms of my friends who seemed unfeasibly OK.

 The hollowed-out voice of Robert Calvert, entirely lacking in compassion but brimming with arch, vitriolic & dripping disdain shattered my illusions of hippy bliss, sharing, getting stoned with mates…

Think Only Of Yourself (yourself)

A horrible little elfin voice echoed the first one – is it Nik Powell the sax player or Dave Brock the leader of the gang ?  Chilling, evil, wrong.  Ice trickled down my spine.  Some of the lads found it funny, especially Jon Foreman who’d also laughed hysterically at The Exorcist which we all went to see that summer (for another post)…  Tat chuckled knowingly to himself and poked a biro down a circular rizla tube, evening-out the tobacco and hashish mixture.  We only smoked hash in 1973 – it was all we could get.  Afghani black, Red Leb or Moroccan Gold mainly.  With tobacco.  Old Holborn, Golden Virginia or occasionally a Number Six.

Every man for himself…..
Statistically more people survive if they think
Only of themselves….

Was this some kind of test ?  Does taking LSD always have to invoke some kind of demonistic energy ?  Calvert’s english voice haunts this LP, and it does not comfort the listener at all.  It stares out at the void of Space and finds it to be NOTHING.

We walked out of the house after a while, perhaps a cup of tea had levelled things off (always calming) and climbed the steep downland path above Tat’s house.  He lived on Southover Street, at the end of Cliffe High Street and below the great chalk cliff which looms above the River Ouse at the east end of Lewes.  Up we went towards the golf course, and found a grassy outlook point overlooking the river, the whole town, what felt like half of East Sussex.

Perfect.  I remember little of what happened after that, except that we wandered through Lewes, hallucinating gently.  But I never forgot the chills of Sonic Attack, and they were to reappear the next time I took acid too, on Kingston Ridge with Andy Shand, in the middle of the night.

The great mythology around LSD was that everything that happened to you came from inside you, that if you can’t handle acid, you can’t handle yourself.  Your own fears, your own demons.  You wanna see them ?  Actually see them ?  I realised too late, sitting high on the hillside with Andy at 2.00 a.m. that yes, he relished this aspect of the drug.  As the few cars on the A27 echoed into splinters of sound pierced by starlight, he announced without protocol or reason two words :

Elephant’s Vagina

He didn’t laugh, and neither did I.  I suddenly found him to be rather weird.  He said it again.  I think I might have asked him why he’d said it.  His answer was equivocal.  We walked down the hill and he sang a few lines of Black Sabbath :

what is this that stands before me ?  A figure in black who watches me…

Again, I wasn’t full of joy at this image either.   My vulnerability increased.  I was panicking really.  We were in Waterlilies that night, home of The Ryles (see My Pop Life #47 ) and for some reason Tat was sleeping in Conrad’s room with Elvira his girlfriend.  At one point I couldn’t stand Andy’s incessant embrace of the darkness any longer so I woke Tat up.  Must’ve been about 4.00am  He glowed a pale lilac in the moonlight.  Even as I tripped I was aware that he was tired.  He counselled me words of wisdom :

It’s just the acid.  It will wear off.  

At which point Andy came in with the cat in his hands, put it down and said :

Urgh… I can feel all it’s bones and innards…

I felt vindicated by this public display of uncool dark glee and drifted back to the kitchen for the apparent organic downer of orange juice as Tat went back to sleep.  I was convinced that I had unearthed a vital precious stone, a clue to my so-called friendship with Andy Shand.  We had absolutely nothing in common.  Christ !

Do not attempt to rescue friends, relatives, loved ones
You have only a few seconds to escape
Use those seconds sensibly or you will inevitably die

Do not panic…

Hawkwind were based around the figure of Dave Brock, a spaced guitarist from Notting Hill in West London, and neighbour of the writer Michael Moorcock.  Full-on greatcoat-wearing acid-casualty hippies, the band were pioneers of the Stonehenge Free Festival, (which happened to be the next time I took acid the following summer) and they also pioneered a smoky but eerie space rock sound.  The only bands that sounded remotely like Hawkwind in 1973 were Can, Neu! and Amon Duul II, German garage rock now seen as seminal.  We didn’t listen to them.  We didn’t know them.  Masters Of The Universe was our big Hawkwind record, and of course Silver Machine, the single from 1972 which allowed them to mount the huge Live experience which was The Space Ritual Tour, with synths & electronics courtesy of Del Dettmar and DikMik, dancers like the legendary Stacey, lights and smoke, weed and the words of Michael Moorcock, the walking bass guitar of Lemmy Kilmister and the thundering drums of Simon King.

Michael Moorcock I did know,  for Tat and I were immersed in the world of Jerry Cornelius, hero of a quartet of Moorcock novels :

The Final Programme

                    A Cure For Cancer

                 The English Assassin

              The Condition of Muzak

which I thought (aged 16) were flipping marvellous, but I didn’t make the connection to Hawkwind – or at least I certainly didn’t realise that Moorcock had written the words to Sonic Attack.  Would I have forgiven him if I’d known that ?  He was my hero.   I know now it was a chilling spoof of the public information films which polluted our screens in the 1960s, the feeling that an official death was awaiting us all in some soulless nuclear bunker.  Peter Watkins‘ The War Game had covered similar ground, made in 1965 but had never been shown on television.  BBC bosses felt it was too realistic.  We all grew up in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which my parents actually witnessed on the cinema newsreels.  My father was in CND (Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament) in the early 1960s and carried me on his shoulders on the first Aldermaston March.  Unsafe, safe.  Now I was left, alone and abandoned, with my mum & brothers and sister, but fine enough to listen to Hawkwind on LSD without disintegrating into the nearest mental hospital.  Unsafe, safe.

On the album Space Ritual, Sonic Attack is on side 3, immediately after 7 By 7 which is a marvellously evocative Space Odyssey-type journey through a meteor shower and a swirling galaxy with “my astral soul” by my side, and includes another spoken word interlude by Bob Calvert as your friends and companions slowly melt beside you, quivering, vibrating softly, juddering into infinite glistening spiderwebs and droplets of mirror, chuckling gently into infinity as their smiles remain like the Cheshire Cat.  “A doorway, to which I must go”

My Pop Life #158 : Tipitina – Professor Longhair

Tipitina   –   Professor Longhair

Tipitina, oola malla walla dalla 
Tra ma tra la la

Tipitina’s nightclub in New Orleans

It’s the sound of New Orleans.  That cuban rhumba habañera boogie-woogie plinky plonky syncopated piano rhythm that lurches from his fingers into your bones.  His voice is twisted, looping, gutteral, lyrical nonsense emanating therefrom.   It is unique, too unique to be popular, although others found a way to play his style commercially.  It is a lonely twisted tree growing out of the mangrove swamp, steamy and heavy, gnarled and semi-tropical, earthy and wet.

I can’t remember my way into the music of New Orleans, but it was late 80s sometime, either a Dr John concert or a book I found, possibly a compilation album, a documentary on the TV ?  Simon Korner had Dr John – The Night Tripper’s – 1st LP Gris Gris when I met him aged 14, but it didn’t really hook me.  The salty funk of the delta took another 15 years to seep into my pores.  Once it does, it takes hold, like voodoo smoke, never to be fully exhaled.  I think the first New Orleans album I bought was Smiley LewisGreatest Hits – another piano player from that city of pianos, which included the songs I Hear You Knocking and Blue Monday, both more successfully covered by Fats Domino (see My Pop Life #126).   But I’m starting to suspect that the LP pictured above was next – Professor Longhair : New Orleans Piano.  The New Orleans R’n’B sound was forged by Dave Bartholomew and others, (including Longhair) and has a Cuban influence you can hear in the rhythm mainly – that “rock’n’roll” riff from Country Boy, Bartholomew’s 1949 single, would be repeated endlessly throughout the 1950s on Shake Rattle & Roll, Rock Around The Clock and hundreds of other songs.  Musical historians reckon that Cuban/Mexican bandleader Perez Prado was influential, he who popularized the mambo.  Without going into the mathematics and bar-lines of all the different shuffles, the geographical alignment of New Orleans and Havana, and the twice-daily steamboat that traversed the Caribbean from the 1850s onwards, meant that musical cross-fertilization was inevitable, and fecund.  Ragtime, jazz and boogie-woogie all originated in the Crescent City, and it was called Music City until someone decided that Nashville could steal that title, if not the soul of the place.  Not even Hurricane Katrina could do that.

In early 1992 Jenny and I were in Los Angeles for the premiere of Alien 3, directed by David Fincher.  The following day I had a meeting with director Herb Ross for his next feature Undercover Blues.  Perhaps the fluff & fizz around Alien convinced him, but I was offered the role of Leamington, number 2 bad guy to Fiona Shaw‘s evil villain.  It was a comedy, and it was to shoot mainly in New Orleans.    I had a date that I wasn’t available on – my wedding day, July 25th.   Rather incredibly (in hindsight) the band we got together to play the wedding party in the evening, consisting of people I’d gone to school with, played pretty much an hour of New Orleans R’n’B.  This wasn’t my choice (I’d asked for Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Tamla) but Andrew Ranken‘s, who was our singer.  Fair enough,  we enjoyed the gig and the rehearsals (see My Pop Life #126) and then a few days later we’d flown out to New Orleans itself for our honeymoon, and a few days work on an MGM movie.  Serendipity chance and luck.

New Orleans is made of music and food and drink.  Our hotel room at Wyndham’s (or Westin?) had a lovely bowl of fruit, a bottle of champagne in an ice-bucket and a card from production congratulating us on our marriage and welcoming us to Louisiana.   We were yards from Bourbon St and the French Quarter, but not quite in it.  It stays up late.  The next few weeks were a rather wonderful blur of eating, drinking and live music, mixed in with a little work now and again.  Herb Ross turned out to be a bit of an arse, (shouting at high volume to me and the whole crew : “Ralph !  Ralph, you’re doing exactly what I asked you NOT TO DO!!!”) as did Dennis Quaid, but Kathleen Turner was great, and so was Fifi Shaw and they would come out dancing with the crew in the evenings, and take the piss out of the director in the daytime.

Professor Longhair

It’s a fantastic city.  Famous restaurants have lines outside to eat the food – no thanks, we’re not in prison.  We ate with Fiona Shaw, but mainly with each other.  We visited the Preservation Hall which presents a musical history of New Orleans jazz, we walked through the muggy streets, perspiring gently, we rode the St Charles Streetcar named Desire up to the Garden District and saw the mansions and spanish moss of the light-skinned creoles and white bourgeousie.   We saw the legendary marching bands, a funeral parade, we saw live jazz most nights, soul music, honky tonk and country on other nights.   And, eventually, we visited the legendary nightclub Tipitina’s on Napoleon St, out near Metairie Cemetery where the dead are buried above ground to protect them from the high water table.   That Tipitina’s, referenced by Professor Longhair in this song. Hot, vibrant, steamy, pulsing with tourists and locals alike eating beignets, jambalaya, crawfish pie, filet gumbo… 

Professor Longhair was born Roy Byrd in 1918 in Bogalusa, Louisiana.  He learned to play on a piano missing quite a few keys, possibly contributing to his unique style, and formed a band called The Shuffling Hungarians in 1949.  You love him already don’t you?   He wrote and recorded his two major signature tunes in this period – Tipitina and Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  He would re-record them both in 1974 after spending ten years as a janitor during the 1960s and gambling himself into poverty.  He also recorded the standards Mess Around, Jambalaya and Rockin’ Pneumonia, and the songs Cry To Me and Junco Partner which we’d played at our wedding.   He had a huge influence on the N’Awlins boogie-woogie piano style, happily admitted to by Dr John, Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino and others.   He passed away in 1980.

Professor Longhair’s image dominates the stage at Tipitina’s

I guess it’s the crossroads thing – between north america and the caribbean, between France and America, between black and white, between Africa and Europe, but New Orleans has an atmosphere that you can’t find anywhere else in North America, or indeed anywhere else that we’ve been.   One of my favourite moments was paying for some vinyl in a record shop on Canal Street, being asked where we were from and asking the same question of the shopkeeper.  He was from New Jersey, but said he chose to live in New Orleans because it was the capital of music in North America, perhaps the world.  He added for context that had he lived a century earlier he might have chosen to live in Vienna (see My Pop Life #157).  The mix, the gumbo, the racial blurring – the character of the place is live and let live.  And the music which has come out of the place – from Huey ‘Piano’ Smith to the Neville Brothers, Little Richard to Lloyd Price, Allen Toussaint to Lee Dorsey and all the cajun twisters Queen Ida, Clifton Chenier, Buckwheat Zydeco and Rockin’Dopsie, back to jazz greats Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, has been the funky nutrient-rich sound has that fed american popular music for over 100 years.  If you haven’t been there yet, make a date.

Original from 1953 :

from 1974 :

Fess explains his lineage and plays Tipitina for us:

sadly this film was taken down by someone who wants to own things rather than share them