My Pop Life #167 : Thinkin Bout You – Frank Ocean

Thinkin Bout You   –   Frank Ocean

or do you not think so far ahead ?  Cos I been thinkin’ bout forever…

Moments of bliss.  The moments we think we live for, the ones we’ve earned.  Are they holidays ?  Sometimes.  Are they music ?  Sometimes.  Happiness is fleeting of course, it’s there for a second crest the green horizon and see the feminine green curves of the hills before you  >freedom<  >bliss<   then next second it’s gone as you look down to avoid flints and cowpats.   The brain isn’t wired for bliss really.  That’s why getting stoned is so great – so you can hold onto those moments for just a little longer.  I’m sitting here thinking about the glorious summer of 2012 in England when suddenly everything was right – in my world.

What was it about summer 2012 ?  Well the London Olympics for a start.  Marvellous.  And my dear friend Paulette Randall was helping Danny Boyle direct the Opening Ceremony.  I’ll write about that another time, but it was cool, and Jenny and I drove to The Mermaid Inn in Rye to watch it and celebrate our wedding anniversary.  2012 was the year I realised that the Paralympics were better than the Olympics, and got tickets for two separate days in the Stadium to watch it.  I saw my dad singing in the Proms for the Desert Island Discs Prom with Huddersfield Choral, and attended with Paulette, Simon and brother Andrew.  Again for another blog, but happiness.  But what else was it ?

We had bought Roxy in the previous winter and she was now a full member of the household, much to Mimi’s evident displeasure.  Both Cornish Rex females. Not ideal, but no missing fur.  And then there were the bike rides….

I’d bought the bike in Kentish Town in the mid 90s, had drop handlebars put (upside-down!)  onto a mountain bike so we could walk past it in the Archway Road hallway.  When we moved to Brighton I replaced the handlebars with BMX ones and took it out the back door up onto the Downs at the back of our house, up Walpole Road past the primary school up past the allotments to the old iron-age fort and down to the racecourse, round the inside rail of the racetrack on open ground, across the road, and then take the back way across the top of Woodingdean to Falmer Road.

Cross that road and you’re on your way to Kingston Ridge, or the secret valley, or the South Downs Way which crosses the A27 to your left down a steep chalk path alongside carpets of poppies, barley and wild flowers full of butterflies.  Or sometimes I cycled from the house straight up to the railway station, up Dyke Road to Devil’s Dyke, then went along the South Downs Way to the River Adur, down to Shoreham Harbour and back along the seafront.  Or the other way around.  With a right turn when I felt like it.  There are endless variations on all of these routes across the South Downs National Park as it now thankfully is.  I took one of my OS maps andmarked all the routes I’d done in yellow highlighter.  Can’t help it.  Essential packing – water bottle, map, camera/phone, cigarettes.  Most journeys : about two hours.  Seek your bliss.

It is stunning : a beautiful acreage of man-managed yet natural beauty, occasionally farmed and grazed. Per square metre this is the most diverse and fecund ecosystem in the UK.  You just need to get really close to see all the variation in those ground-hugging plants :  horseshoe vetch, cowslips, primula, birds-foot trefoil, salad burnet, mouse-ear hawkweed, stemless thistles, wild marjoram, worts, rampions and many orchids, all supporting a healthy population of moths and butterflies and dragonflies and other life.  There are lost glades of Silver-Washed Fritillaries and White Admirals if you know where to find them.    Yes you see, this is holy ground.  This is bliss, for me.

Frank Ocean released Channel ORANGE in July 2012 and it hooked me from first listen.  Proper soul music, lovely chords, influences from the 1970s Elton, Stevie, Sly and others but new music, wonderful new music.  What a beautiful record.  This song, the opener is a stunning piece of work, so simple, so heartfelt.  What a lift I get from really loving  brand new piece of music, the kids are all right, it’s all still good.

Yes, of course
I remember, how could I forget 
How you feel ?
You know you were my first time 
A new feel
It won’t ever get old, not in my soul,
Not in my spirit, keep it alive 
We’ll go down this road
‘Til it turns from colour to black and white

The talk around the album – talk offered by Frank Ocean himself – was that some of the songs, including Thinkin Bout You were about an (unrequited?) gay affair Frank had when he was 19.   He was now 25, and although this was his first studio-produced album, the previous year he’d released a mixtape called Nostalgia, Ultra which again was a fantastic new look at soul music for the 21st Century, and before that there were a whole bunch of songs to hunt down, later released as The Lonny Breaux Collection for completists.  Originally from New Orleans, Ocean moved to LA in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina drowned his recording space, and he stayed on the West Coast.  

He has a very refreshing take on everything – for example “his” track American Wedding on Nostalgia, Ultra which is essentially the whole of the title track of The Eagles’ Hotel California with Frank singing different lyrics over the top.  Don Henley hates him.  It’s brilliant.  I was already used to Hotel California being a black man’s favourite track since my brother from another mother Eamonn Walker confessed to me earlier the same year (2012) when I was living in his Los Angeles pad high in the hills.  Moments of bliss there too.  Channel ORANGE was bliss from start to finish, from Sweet Life written with Pharrell : “Who needs the world when you got the beach?” to Super Rich Kids channelling Bennie & The Jets with an Earl Sweatshirt rap (Frank’s buddy from the LA Odd Future Collective) to the monster 9-minute syth-sweaty funk of Pyramids – an Egyptian myth re-told in a Las Vegas strip club – all produced by Frank aka Christopher Breaux and his old spar Malay aka James Ryan Ho – it is a soul record of the very highest quality.   Now for the next one…

the only version on the internet with the glorious string intro :

Advertisements

My Pop Life #166 : Pacific 202 – 808 State

Pacific 202   –   808 State

The last few days of 1989 :  a Ford Granada with me driving, Jenny in the jump seat and my brother Paul and his boyfriend Colin in the back is driving the long endless East German autobahn towards West Berlin.  It’s cold outside and the road goes on forever.  We’ve been driving from England since morning.  For the last six months news reports coming out of the Eastern Bloc of change :  East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in particular seethe with popular unrest, and since November 17 the famous Wall dividing East and West Berlin has been tested and breached by demonstrators.  Refugees from East Germany have been granted asylum in Hungary.   Berlin is in flux.  Gorbachev is in power in the USSR talking about Perestroika (re-structuring : also the name of his book, which I read in 1989) and glasnost (open-ness), a new way forward, relaxing the tight rules on state power and movement of peoples and now in front of us, the Iron Curtain is creaking.


Mikhail Gorbachev stated in 1989 that German re-unification was a German matter

Historic times indeed.  Then on Christmas Day, hated dictator President Ceaușescu of Romania and his wife are executed by firing squad after a trial lasting one hour.  We decide to see in the new year in Berlin, in the centre of it all.  Armed with an address provided by Jonathan & Roberta, Paul and Colin’s friends from college, we finally arrive at around 10pm, climb the three flights of stairs to find a lovely two-room apartment, empty save for two Italians who had also been told that they could use the space for the New Year.  Mutual surprise all round, but these were pre-internet days.  The four English end up on two single mattresses in the main room.

Checkpoint Charlie : he didn’t crack a smile

The following morning we wake too late for hot water, our Italian friends having got to the bathroom first.  After breakfast Jenny and I drive through Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin, receiving a small passport made of cardboard which is stamped, and we are told that we have to return before midnight.  East Berlin is eerie and strangely gentle.  At the first large square – almost deserted, very few shops open, there are rabbits hopping around.  We visit a large department store and buy AyeAye, a 1970s Donny Hathaway hat which we still have – a beautiful, madly out-of-date-in-a-good-way fashion piece, so out-of-date that it was back in fashion in the west.  We ate some unimpressive food in a quiet restaurant and made our way back to the western side.

 West Berlin was heaving with people, simply full up. Jenny and I had decided to get a hotel room, but there weren’t any.  She was something of a distraction for everyone, being black and sporting her eighteen-hole DMs.  That night, New Year’s Eve, we queued for an Italian restaurant (against my religion to Q for food : unless I’m in prison), only to be told it was a private party.  At another Italian the waiters took exception to Paul & Colin being gay, so Jenny gave them a piece of her mind and was escorted physically from the building.  We did finally eat somewhere, but seven million other people had had the same idea as us and West Berlin was rammed.  Still, if you can’t be original, join in, that’s my motto.  Sounds better in Latin.  si non potest esse prima iungas..  Imagine it on a little crest.  A badge.  Oh, never mind.

Approaching midnight and Paul and Col had gone clubbing somewhere, Jenny and I made our way to the Wall at Potsdammer Platz near Brandenburg Gate where crowds of revellers were partying on top of the Wall in full view of soldiers from both sides, dancing, smoking weed and chipping pieces of the Wall away with chisels and hammers.  An extraordinary atmosphere.  We stood in one of the holes in the Wall and could see No Man’s Land and the towers and barbed wire of the East.  I had a mini boombox and played a previously-recorded Martin Luther King “I Had A Dream” speech when a soldier told me to turn it off, despite clearly not speaking English and not understanding what it was.  I didn’t turn it off and there were too many people around to make a fuss.  In amidst the party atmosphere was a strange tension as many of the West Berliners felt decidedly ambiguous about everything opening up.  A kind of tense excitable hysteria, who are all these people?  The future was uncertain, and there were already some East Germans crossing the border, changing the nature of the enclave forever.

New Year’s Eve at The Wall 1989

We listened to cassettes on the drive over, handmade by each of us, or purchased at Our Price or Woolworths.  Certainly one of these was a best of 1989 compilation – and it was a great year for dance music in particular.

Hip hop had already come, seen and conquered.  Now we were into the Daisy Age thanks to De La Soul, while Heavy D & The Boyz had serenaded Jenny and I in D.C. with their own New Jack Swing thang  (see My Pop Life #33).  Janet Jackson was in the Rhythm Nation, Shabba Ranks was being Wicked Inna Bed, and in the summer I’d  choreographed a dance to Redhead Kingpin & The FBI‘s monster song Do The Right Thing (see My Pop Life #7) in a theatre workshop with a young David Walliams and 25 other teenagers for the National Youth Theatre.  Not to be confused with the Spike Lee film of the same name which had a terrific soundtrack featuring Public Enemy, Perri, Teddy Riley, Guy and Take 6.

The British had a great year – a new confidence in the air manifest by Soul II Soul and that Keep On Movin’ LP which dominated the summer.  Other acts which popped through were Rebel M.C. with Street Tuff, Neneh Cherry with Buffalo Stance and Stone Roses with Fool’s Gold.  But none caught my ear quite like this record.  Radio One played it every day – Gary Davies I think – until it was eventually released in November 1989 and became an immediate hit. An immediately intoxicating sound whether you had dropped ecstasy or not, we hadn’t heard much like it before on the radio.

I depended on Paul and Colin for bringing me club tunes since I didn’t really go clubbing.   I did go to legendary gay club Heaven with them a couple of times under the Charing Cross Arches but they were out listening to Frankie Knuckles, Mr Fingers, Phuture and the other stars of House Music regularly, and this year’s big song was French Kiss by Lil Louis.  Earlier in the year Paul had introduced me to seminal techno house track Voodoo Ray by A Guy Called Gerald, out of the Manchester underground, later a big hit, and this track Pacific by 808 State has his fingerprints all over it.

Graham Massey, Gerald Simpson, Martin Price – 808 State

808 State were formed in Manchester by Gerald Simpson (A Guy Called Gerald), Graham Massey and Martin Price in 1987 and named after Gerald’s Roland TR-808 drum machine.  Pacific aka Pacific State, Pacific 717 Pacific 202 etc etc was and remains a delicious electronic chilled dance tune featuring a wonky alto sax line and a collection of strange bird noises and it heralded Acid House and the Manchester rave scene, about which I know next to nothing.  My Manc friends Andy Baybutt, Jo Thornhill, Keith Davey and Josh Raikes all came of age through those Madchester years and I’ll leave it to them to explain it all to you (they all moved to Brighton though – make of that what you will…).   As for me, I never did like Happy Mondays, The Charlatans or Stone Roses THAT much and I certainly never bought the 2nd Summer Of Love designation, but I would never pour cold water over it either, I’m sure it was an intoxicatingly hypnotically fantastic and exciting time to be up in the north west of England.  Especially when Pacific State came out !   I bought the 12″ single on ZTT (Paul Morley, Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair’s label) which had Pacific 707 (the 7 inch version) and Pacific 212 and one other mix ?  There are about 20 versions out there.  The one below is Pacific 202.  I think.  It was released in America on TommyBoy Records in 1990.

We found a hotel and a bathroom on Jan 1st 1990 in West Berlin while Paul & Col made friends with their new Italian flatmates and stayed for three more weeks.  Jenny and I explored the groovy anarchist squat scene in Kreuzberg and went back to The Wall and picked up some orange spray-painted sections for keepsakes and drove back home shortly afterward one morning.  I went back to Berlin last year and invented the David Bowie : Where Are We Now ? tour (see My Pop Life #97) and some 25 years later the city is almost unrecognisable.  Only a few parts of the wall remain, tourist attractions, protected.  I stayed in the old East Berlin, now simply Berlin.  It is thrumming with activity and endeavour, much of it artistic, simply full of energy.

As we drove home through Germany, then Belgium, we were stopped on the French border for our passport.  Most cars were getting waved through and we were blocking the road.  The passport was in my suitcase in the boot, so I offered to pull over while I got out and unpacked.  No said the French border police.  Stay in the road.  I got annoyed with him and so they decided to search the car.  Jenny and I were processed through the system, stripped,  and searched.  And then made to wait in the little central booth as the border police tooth-combed the car.  While we waited, and waited, I noticed cars queuing to get into Belgium from France looking at me with quizzical eyes.  They were asking for permission to cross the border.  There was no one else there, so I started to nod at the drivers, and they would drive through.  It was ridiculous but fun.  Eventually we were interviewed by the boss.   He explained that busloads of tourists came this way from Amsterdam every day.  I told him that we’d come from Berlin.  Earlier in 1989 I had been filming in France (see My Pop Life #9) playing Eugene Delacroix the painter who appeared on the 200 Franc note (sadly now replaced by the Euro).  As I explained this to the police chief, he asked me if I smoked weed – “and is it used for inspiration, like Baudelaire?”  I agreed that I imagined it was.  “Ah you artistic types” he sighed.

We crossed the Channel at Ostende and landed in England in the brave new world of 1990.   Capitalism won, after extra time.

My Pop Life #165 : My Love – Paul McCartney & Wings

My Love   –   Paul McCartney & Wings

my love holds the other key to me…

 I bought the Wings LP Red Rose Speedway in the spring of 1973 because of the single My Love which had got to number one.  I thought it was McCartney’s best effort since the Beatle’s split – or to be fair at least as good as Another Day from 1971.  The album Red Rose Speedway was vilified and booed from the rafters.  Critics scorned it.  Schoolkids in the 5th year weren’t having it.  Pink Floyd & Led Zeppelin had taken over.  Roxy Music had arrived. David Bowie was blowing our minds.  Elton John was on the Yellow Brick Road and Genesis were Selling England by the Pound.  Everyone was still growing their hair.  Wearing loons, stack heels, denim, embroidered shirts, tear-drop collars.  Were we hippies, greasers, bikers, rude boys or what.  Marvin was Getting It On and Stevie was having Innervisions – I wouldn’t hear that until the following year.  The Isleys had a summer breeze on.  And Hawkwind were delivering Sonic Attack (see My Pop Life #159).  Confusing.  Which tribe to join ?  All, and none.  This photo is from early ’73 :

Ralph, Andrew, Paul, Rebecca 1973

and henceforth I will use any excuse to place it into the blog.  You can see the clash of fashions already.  Hippie with a fringe ?  Macca influenced.  Hippie with a teardrop collar ??  Be your own judge.  I love this picture.  Happiness, innocence, time frozen in an instant.  1973 was a big year for me.  I turned 16 in June.  Took my first LSD trip (see My Pop Life #133), lost my virginity, joined a band (see My Pop Life #80).   But I didn’t join the army, get married or go to prison.  My uneventful pop life.  

Paul McCartney has always made me feel comfort, happiness, sweet feelings, those fleeting safe feelings that major chords and harmonies can bring.  This LP has no edges of any kind.  I think the harshest moment is on the song Single Pigeon when Paul sings

“did she throw you out?  Sunday morning fight about Saturday night”

Which is entirely not harsh in any way.  Otherwise my loves, it’s My Love, Lazy Dynamite, One More Kiss, Hold Me Tight, Hands Of Love and probably my favourite Wings song Little Lamb Dragonfly.  I should have chosen it as the song, but it’s not as good as My Love.  It’s a little indulgent, a little long, and little soft and gentle.  That’s why I love it.  This LP is like a big barn bed covered in a warm blanket with a log fire, a view of the valley and warm slippers with a cat or three lying around.  And what’s wrong with that ?  I’d like to know.  Cos here I go again…

Denny Seiwell, Linda McCartney, Paul, Denny Laine, Henry McCulloch

McCartney was always derided by groovers for being too pop.  Too soppy.  Too lovey dovey.  “Lennon gave him the edge” is the concept.  Together they were great, they lifted each other to higher standards, pushed each other and then when they split and wrote as solo artists, apart, well we all moved on didn’t we ?  Nothing to see here.   It’s like a permanent talent show with judges stroking their chins, thumbs down for that, naaah mate.

But you miss so much music that way.  Let it be.  Let him be.  After the Ram LP, which critics hated, Paul and Linda made two edgy singles that were both banned : Give Ireland Back To The Irish which was a political response to Bloody Sunday and which was referred to on the chart countdown (#16) as “a song by Wings“, and in December ’72 the raunchy sex’n’drugs boogie Hi Hi Hi  which contained the line

gonna make you lie on the bed get you ready for my body gun

except that Paul always insisted, and still does, that the lyrics actually say  “polygon” but such was the BBC in 1972.  The song also certainly claims that he is

“going to do you, do it to you sweet banana, like you’ve never been done…. ” 

Whatever that means.  The B-side C Moon got the radio airplay.

I love this early period Wings/McCartney stuff.  They were having fun.  I love that the band were named after the difficult birth of Stella, Linda and Paul’s 2nd child, which was touch and go at the time and a worried Paul had visions of angels protecting his child, and Wings came from that moment of panic, faith and trust.  I love that they toured England in the spring of 1972 without a tour being booked, they drove up the motorway in a van and phoned Nottingham Students Union and said “can we play there tonight?”  This was repeated up and down the country.  Great scenes.  Didn’t play any Beatles songs.  At all.  But the music of this period is joyous and lovely.  For example – the harmonies of Linda McCartney on Red Rose Speedway are a wonder on almost every song – not the expected thirds and fifths but way more adventurous and unexpected.  Lovely.  Lennon and McCartney did have this much in common as they left the greatest group of all time to strike out on their own – they didn’t want to do it on their own.  Yoko and John worked together musically right up to his untimely death in 1980.  She was his confidante, his editor, his collaborator.  And famously, Linda joined Wings along with Denny Laine from The Moody Blues and was given a keyboard and shown middle C.  And despite ridicule (from males mainly), her contributions are really excellent.  Linda sings the high harmony on Let It Be by the way pop fans…

Ram is a fantastic album, credited to Paul & Linda McCartney

…while Red Rose Speedway is credited to Paul McCartney & Wings.  Gentle, undemanding cosy beautiful songs from people in love.  I don’t need all my music to thrust and challenge and have edge.  I don’t need my life to feel like that either.  I play it all the time.

My Love starts with a long sustained A natural, then ‘falls’ into a Bb major seventh chord for the opening line

“and when I go away I know my heart will stay with my love”

which musicians will know is actually a semitone UP from A, which means that it rises, but it sounds as if it falls.  How does this work ?  The A is the major seventh of Bb – a favourite chord of Bacharach – but that’s the magic of music.   Beautiful chords on this song.  When they recorded My Love McCartney had planned to play the guitar solo after the bridge, but Henry McCulloch who’d joined Wings after playing with Joe Cocker, (and who wouldn’t turn up for the Band On The Run sessions in Lagos, Nigeria which followed this LP), insisted (as far as one can insist with a Beatle I’m imagining) that Paul allowed him to play the guitar solo.  And the result is rather marvellous.  In fact the production on this song is outstanding, understated horns and strings, a lovely clipped guitar, harmonies from Linda, prominent fat bass as ever on a Paul song, subtle tasteful drums.  It’s a beauty.  He may never have surpassed this song since 1973.

with James, Stella and Mary later in 73

I’ll find out for myself on Sunday since we have two tickets to see McCartney at Meadowlands in New Jersey.  Been a long time since I saw him playing live.   1979 at Wembley.  Live and Let Die was the standout that night, recorded during the Red Rose Speedway sessions but produced by George Martin – all lasers and smoke – while at the other end of the scale a solo acoustic I’ve Just Seen A Face followed by Blackbird was breathtaking.  He didn’t do much Beatles in those days, still looking over his shoulder, running from his legacy,  and trying to create a new one.  These days he plays for three hours and crams them all in, Beatles, John songs, George songs, the lot.  Can’t wait.

This is Jenny’s favourite Paul McCartney song.   She thinks it matches God Only Knows and Just The Way You Are (Paul’s favourite songs that he wishes he’d written).  High praise indeed !   I share a birthday with Paul McCartney.  And I Love Him.