My Pop Life #118 : Glass Onion – The Beatles

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Being For The Benefit of the 3rd in an Occasional Series of Intellectual, Geographical and Lyrical Journeys Through the Cruciate and Baroque Interior of A Selective Selection of Several of The Splendid Songs of My Life.

See The Art Teacher 

and Where Are We Now?

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Glass Onion   –   The Beatles

I told you ’bout strawberry fields You know the place where nothing is real

Well, here’s another place you can go Where everything flows

Looking through the bent backed tulips To see how the other half live

Looking through a glass onion

I told you ’bout the walrus and me, man You know that we’re as close as can be, man

Well, here’s another clue for you all The walrus was Paul

Standing on the cast iron shore, yeah Lady Madonna trying to make ends meet, yeah

Looking through a glass onion

Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah

Looking through a glass onion

I told you ’bout the fool on the hill I tell you man he living there still

Well, here’s another place you can be Listen to me

Fixing a hole in the ocean Trying to make a dovetail joint, yeah

Looking through a glass onion

Which four places in Liverpool are mentioned in Beatles’ lyrics ?  Penny Lane yeah, Strawberry Field (no S) yeah.  Yeah.  And  ??  Clue  :  It’s on the last LP Let It Be.  Playing the songs they played as kids in 251 Menlove Avenue – Aunt Mimi’s house where John lived for 20 years, old rock’nroll covers and R’n’B songs, or more commonly at Paul’s parents’ house in 20 Forthlin Road.   “oh Dirty Maggie May they have taken her away and she never walks down Lime Street anymore…”   That’s three.   And number four is – and only locals and Beatle nuts know this – The Cast Iron Shore.   A real but mythical place in Liverpool.    Apparently south of Albert Dock, near Dingle, the whole area used to be dockyards but the heyday of the Liverpool Docks at that end of town – South Liverpool – was 100 years ago.   So-called because the rusting metals in the dock cranes and buildings and man-made waterways turned the river water metallic orange.  I went to look for it today, to stand there, as John Lennon talks about in the song Glass Onion, which appears on side one of The White Album.

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Strawberry Field, 2015

It’s a song that appears to tilt at the windmills of their own mythology as Beatles.  The opening line “I told you bout Strawberry Fields,  you know the place where nothing is real” sets the self-referential tone, but Strawberry Field, as I’m sure you know, is very real, and John could see it from a tree in Aunt Mimi’s garden…  “no one I think is in my tree…

It was an orphanage, and the locals kids used to break into the grounds sometimes to play football on the green.  But John Lennon and his pals Paul, George and Ringo now know “how the other half live” because they made it as Beatles.  When they were kids would they be “standing on the bent-back tulips to see how the other half live” in someone’s garden peering through Georgian windows at their future in “the other half”  ??

Looking through a glass onion.  Like a crystal ball, but looking back, and forward at the same time.

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inside the White Album ‘The Beatles’ 1968 were four pictures

John teases the fans who were reading cryptic messages into all Beatles lyrics by 1968, referencing the death of Paul in a famous example, a rumour that refused to be stifled but that was clearly bonkers.  DOA on his Sgt Pepper jacket. And so on.  Lennon skewers it all.  On the Anthology off-cut version he even shouts “Help!

Well here’s another clue for you all : the Walrus was Paul”

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Still from I Am The Walrus film 1967

Maybe, in this picture, he was.  In the next verse John’s told us about “the fool on the hill”, the 3rd song from Magical Mystery Tour that’s he’s referenced.   Each of these moments also has a musical echo of the song – here are the flutes from Fool On The Hill.  You can have fun finding them for yourself.  The other two of the five Beatles songs inside the skin of Glass Onion are even more recent, a 1968 single : Lady Madonnatrying to make ends meet, yeah” and from 1967 and Sgt Pepper :  “Fixing A Hole in the ocean…

I went looking for the Cast Iron Shore today, driving around the east side of the River Mersey where it’s all been re-built, cleaned up, nice waterfront developments, marinas, business parks.  Asked a few locals where it was.  They’d all heard of it: “The Cazzie, yeah” but no one was quite sure exactly which bit it was.   The first place I found had holes in the ocean as you can see

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Holes in the ocean at the Cast Iron Shore, yeah

because it was low tide.   But many believe that both Fixing a Hole, which is a McCartney song,  and this song reference heroin which John Lennon was sampling in the year 1968.  Two years later he would be screaming Cold Turkey into a microphone as he came off the drug.   The softer drug marijuana is also alluded to.   I tried “to make a dovetail joint” in woodwork class once at Lewes Priory school and it wasn’t great, but I suspect that I will be forever remembered for the Camberwell Carrot, a Dovetail Joint that I smoked in the film Withnail and I.  My character, Danny the drug dealer explains that the Camberwell Carrot “can utilise at least twelve skins…”

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Annie McGann, me, Paul McGann, Hope St Hotel, September 2015

It felt appropriate to have a puff on the cast iron shore today and contemplate The Beatles and Liverpool and my love of them and the city.  Last night (and the night before) I’d been out with Paul McGann and his wife Annie, up in town for a Comedy Festival screening of Withnail, and happily staying in the same hotel as I.   We ate, we drank, we met Austin and Yvonne, we met Tim Roth and Sandra Butterworth with whom I am currently working on Jimmy McGovern and Bob Pugh‘s screenplay “REG” for the BBC and LA Productions.  We watched England lose to Wales at Twickenham in a disco pumping out house tunes and hosting the totteridge and whetstone of Liverpool L1.  We’d signed autographs with fans and taken pictures after the screening.  We’d drank more drink.  Lovely weekend, making a circle of reference.  I’ve known Paul since we made Withnail and I in 1985, when we were babies.  Such a charming, gentle, gracious, intelligent, well-read man who is hugely relaxed about life and who appears to have no grey hair.

Featured imageThis is an outrage as I am both bald and grey at this point.  Tim Roth at least has the decency to be grey.  I’ve known Tim since the days of going out with Rita Wolf – mid 80s too, and Tim and Paul were both on the ‘Brit Pack” cover of The Face in 1985 – with some other creatures great and small.  But Tim and I have deeper roots since he went to Dick Shepherd School in Brixton with my friends Paulette and Beverley Randall, Eugene McCaffrey and David Lawrence.  So the circles carry on.  I’m now staying on Hope Street again, just along the road from The Everyman Theatre where I performed Macbeth and which put me off theatre for life in 1987 (see My Pop Life #108)

Tomorrow I’ll try and find Ringo’s house at #9 Madryn Road, and George’s at 12 Arnold Grove in Wavertree because Jenny and I visited John’s and Paul’s family homes – mentioned above – in 2008 when we had a holiday in Liverpool.  I know !  But we did, and we loved it.  Year of Culture, all that.  For another post.  But both Lennon and MCcartney’s properties are now run, brilliantly, by The National Trust, which is also rather spookily mentioned in a song from the White Album “Happiness Is A Warm Gun“, to continue the circle of myth.   I totally recommend that tour, probably the single best thing to do as a tourist in Liverpool.

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251 Menlove Avenue where John was brought up by his Aunt Mimi

REG” is about Reg Keys whose son Tom died in Iraq in 2003 along with five other military policemen.  When the no WMD declaration was made, Reg Keys decided to stand for Parliament in Tony Blair’s Sedgefield constituency in 2005 as an independent candidate fully against Blair’s Iraq war policy.  Tim Roth is playing Reg, Anna Maxwell-Martin his wife and I’m playing his election agent, ex-MP Bob Clay.  It is an honour to represent this true story to the nation.  The 90-minute film will be released at the same time as The Chilcott Report apparently – the official Enquiry into the debacle and falsehoods behind the decision to go to war.  Jeremy Corbyn, new Labour Party leader as I speak, (elected by a greater majority than Tony Blair had when he was elected leader), will this week apologise on behalf of the party for the Iraq War.  This is a big deal.   It’s one of the those jobs that I’ve been lucky enough to get where I feel like I’m inside current history.  An earlier experience – for another post naturally – was the Joint Stock workshop for the play Deadlines, when Tricia Kelly and I found ourselves at the Tory Party Conference in Brighton the day after the IRA blew up the Grand Hotel, watching Thatcher, who’d so very nearly died in the explosion, speak to the Hall.  Powerful stuff.

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Paul, Tim, Ralph

And fitting that I would feel those prickly feelings again in Liverpool, a city which I have great affection for, and which is probably the most political city in the UK.  Hmm Ok well there may be other contenders – I’m thinking of Belfast (see My Pop Life #13) but Liverpool has a deeply and profoundly anti-establishment tradition.  They don’t buy The Sun here, thanks to that rag’s coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy.   Maybe I’m romanticising.   But c’mon !  There’s a Slavery Museum here!   And, And… It is a city of music, like New Orleans, a great port city which connected it to the outside world.  The whole world.  The very reason why The Beatles came out of Liverpool rather than Manchester or Leeds or Birmingham is the docks.  Those great ships would come in from New York in the 1950s, and on board along with passengers, imports like cotton and sugar and manufactured goods would be secret stashes of cool shirts, loafers, slacks and RECORDS.  45rpm singles.  They heard Elvis Presley here in Liverpool before anywhere else in the UK.  And no, I don’t know what a glass onion is.  Maybe if I’d taken heroin I would.  But if you peel away the layers, expecting to find the answers inside (like people were doing with Beatles lyrics, and what I am clearly doing now) you’ll see that in the end, it was transparent all along.

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My Pop Life #69 : Love Me Always – Dennis Brown AND Angolian Chant – Joe Gibbs

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Love Me Always   –   Dennis Brown

Angolian Chant   –   Joe Gibbs

I wanna dub you, dub you always….

there ain’t nobody else….

Time for a version excursion on my pop life.    Two songs for number 69 –  they are the same song, but they’re not, really.    Lovers rock becomes dub plate tune.   I cycled up to Williamsburg today on a citibike, nice Sunday afternoon, looking for graffitti spots in Bushwick, enjoying the weather.  Called in at an address on N10th St and rang a random bell, and Annie McGann opened the door.   Hooray!  Inside, her son Joseph McGann, Sam Barrett, Chris Ebdon and Imogene Tavares.   Introductions all round, and food is being prepared.  Reggae and dub is playing.   I’d met Joe before, when he was very young (in Los Angeles Annie reminded me!) and then throughout the years, most recently with his dad Paul at a Withnail & I event in Bristol.   I introduced myself to the cat that Annie is catsitting and – suddenly – one of those proustian moments rushed in as this song came on.   I left Annie and the cat Schmo and ran to the ipad.   There was this picture.   Treasure from beyond.

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I’ve been looking for this song for years.  Using the wrong search terms “I wanna dub you” and so on.  The song is called Love Me Always by the great Dennis Brown, and the dub version, which has been stuck in my ear for over 30 years is called  Angolian Chant.  Now that’s not even a word as far as I know!    So, so sweet to hear it again.  What did it remind me of ?  Well : Club 61 for starters – Paulette‘s legendary parties in Clapham (see My Pop Life #60).  And certainly also West End Lane, Pete, Sali, Nick, Colin, Tony (see My Pop Life #59).  This kind of music was for a) slowdancing – at Club 61…  and b) getting stoned to – in West End Lane.   Dub is perfect for smoking marijuana.  And vice versa of course.  And both are great for slowdancin’.   Just how the world is meant to be sometimes.

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The music comes out of Joe Gibbs & Errol Thompson‘s stable in Kingston Jamaica where they were known as “The Mighty Two”. The house band were called The Professionals and had Sly Dunbar on drums, Robbie Shakespeare on bass (also known as Fatman Riddim Section and later to become international hit machine Sly & Robbie & Earl “Chinna” Smith on guitar as the rhythm section par excellence.  This team produced over 100 number one hit records, for Dennis Brown, Black Uhuru, Culture, Mighty Diamonds, Althia & Donna, Prince Far-I, Junior Byles, Jacob Miller, Big Youth, Dillinger, John Holt, on and on.                                                                                 Joe Gibbs

And yet beyond all the hit records, Joe and Errol also produced a stream of incredible dub plates many of which are gathered together on the seminal LPs African Dub All-Mighty.  Angolian Chant is from Chapter 3.

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I used to have this on vinyl – and it is one of the LPs that I failed to replace when I lost my whole collection in 1985.  Just a missing piece of my brain.   The thing is – if you’re listening to dub, you’re quite likely to be stoned.  Things get lost in the haze.  But seriously, dub reggae is a huge part of the musical universe, and technologically way ahead of its time.  Lee Perry, King Tubby, Augustus Pablo, Prince Far-I, Errol Thompson, Mad Professor – and all of those other guys – they might have been stoned when they produced this music, but they were on the money, sharp, and knew exactly what they were doing.  The dub plates of 12″ reggae singles go much further than just being an instrumental, a track which can be used, versioned, recycled.  A different melody is put on top, a new singer, a new band, another hit!   As reggae had been doing since the 1960s.   The dub plate went way beyond that into a version which sampled itself and using faders and echoes like musical instruments themselves, created a new song from bits of the old one.   This of course has totally influenced every genre of popular music since then – rock, pop, hip hop, house, as well as grime, Drum&Bass, dubstep, ambient and electronica more generally.

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Dennis Thompson, Errol Thompson, Clive Chin & Augustus Pablo

Errol Thompson engineered at Studio One, and is credited with producing the first instrumental reggae LP in 1970,  before becoming one of dub’s pioneers.   Joe Gibbs learned his trade with Lee Perry, producing the Heptones and others before branching out on his own in the early 1970s.  His first international hit was Nicky Thomas’ “Love Of The Common People“.  Errol and Joe Gibbs joined forces in 1975.

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Dennis Brown

Dennis Brown was born like me in 1957 and started singing aged nine.  He was Bob Marley’s favourite singer – he dubbed him “The Crown Prince of Reggae”.   Dennis cut his first single aged 12 for Coxsone Dodd at Studio One.  He recorded over 75 albums, and had many hit singles of which the most famous internationally is “Money In My Pocket” produced by his close friend Winston “Niney” Holness on behalf of Joe Gibbs.  He recorded with all of the great Jamaican producers in his long career, one notable track with Lee Perry is called “Wolf and Leopard” and is also worth seeking out.  In 1977 he made the LP Visions Of Dennis Brown with Joe Gibbs which was a huge success and contains the vocal track Love Me Always.

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Joe Gibbs HQ

What is great about all this is that I only ever remembered the dub version “I wanna dub you” – try googling that !   Serendipity is a great thing.  So thanks to Annie for inviting me over and to Joe and his gang. (Joe goes out as a grime DJ under the moniker Kahn, his partner is Neek, he also works as Gorgon Sound).  Thanks for playing that damn tune !  Or was it actually Annie ??   Probably.    Annie likes a lot of the same era reggae as me.   I’ve known Annie since 1985 when I shot Withnail & I with Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant and Richard Griffiths, all being conducted under the passionate inspiration of Bruce Robinson, who also wrote it.  Wow, we were all kids really.  I’ll write about that another time, but Paul and Annie have stayed in my life ever since, as have Richard E. and Bruce.  Sadly Richard Griffiths passed away a couple of years ago.  I drove up to Stratford for his funeral.  Life passes so quickly.   Dennis Brown died in 1999.  The Prime Minister of Jamaica, and previous PM Edward Seaga both attended his funeral.  He was an inspiration to a whole generation of Jamaican singers.  This is my favourite song of his, returned to me like the prodigal son.  I have just listened to it eight times in a row.

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Dennis Brown – the Crown Prince Of Reggae