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 :

Advertisements

My Pop Life #154 : Within You Without You – The Beatles

Within You Without You   –   The Beatles

try to realise it’s all within yourself no one else can make you change 

and to see you’re really only very small and life flows on within you and without you

*

when you see beyond yourself then you will find peace of mind is waiting there

and the time will come when you see we’re all one + life flows on within you and without you

‘laughter’

Track 1, side 2 of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  A song written by George Harrison inspired by his love of Ravi Shankar‘s records and his newly-found spiritual awakening to Indian philosophy and religion.   After the pop glories of Lovely Rita and Getting Better and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds have become over-familiar, Within You Without You retains its mystical glowing power after many repeated listens and starts to become the warm central heartbeat of the LP.  Often claimed to be the greatest LP of all time, (though more usually placed way down a list of great Beatles albums), Sgt Pepper was a cultural phenomenon that even I was aware of at the age of 9 on June 1st 1967 when it was released.   It was played on Radio Luxembourg all day, and John Peel played it on his eclectic late night show The Perfumed Garden on Radio London without interruption.  Artists as diverse as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Brian Wilson and Frank Zappa all fell under its strange English spell, and despite years of claim and counter-claim –  ‘holy grail‘ versus ‘not very good really‘ criticism, it still towers over most of pop’s major records as a Legendary Thing, combining the first concept LP (despite the concept not holding up for more than three songs), the pop-art sleeve by Peter Blake, and the music itself, a rather eccentric combination of psychedelic rock, end-of-the-pier Edwardian recital, classical Indian music, and pure pop.  The first two songs recorded for the LP were Penny Lane (see My Pop Life #36) and Strawberry Fields Forever, but they were released as an extraordinary double-A sided single in April by a zealous EMI.  It’s a testament to the depth of the Beatles’ songwriting that this commercial decision didn’t sink the subsequent LP.

George was always third in the Beatles.  John, Paul…..and George.  And Ringo.  It was simple – he was youngest.  Ringo was last because he was last in, and because he was the drummer.  And our family has a similar shape.   Ralph, Paul…..and Andrew.  And Becky.   George traditionally got one song per album if he was lucky, but by the end of the 1960s his songwriting was so strong that Abbey Road had to include Here Comes The Sun AND Something, the finest song on the LP.

Roger McGuinn & David Crosby in the early days of The Byrds

It was The Byrds‘ guitarist and legendary stoner David Crosby who first showed George a sitar in California in 1965 at an LSD-drenched party in the hills, although Roger McGuinn later insisted that he had shown George the instrument.  I can’t imagine any of them actually remember the details, but George then played one on Norwegian Wood in October of that year.  The following April Harrison went full Indian on Love You To, which is on the LP Revolver.  The accompanying musicians were uncredited but came from the Asian Music Circle,  an organisation founded in Finchley in 1946 by Ayana Angadi and his wife Patrica Fell-Clarke, and where Harrison had been taking sitar lessons.

Ravi Shankar was guest of honour at the Finchley house in June 1966 when he first met George, who thereupon humbly asked him if he could become his pupil.  Ravi accepted.  They became firm friends and the most rewarding fruit of their work is Within You Without You, also recorded with uncredited members of the Asian Music Circle on the Indian instruments tamboura, swarmandel, dilruba and tabla.

Unknown musician, George Harrison & Ravi Shankar in 1967

With a string section arranged by producer George Martin and George Harrison, none of the other Beatles are on the track.  George plays the sitar, much improved from his first attempt.  The effect is mesmerising, musically adventurous and unembarrassingly spiritual.    He was determined to master the instrument, but after a conversation with Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix (!) Harrison realised that he had started his lessons fifteen years too late, and that he would never achieve true mastery.   He put the sitar down, and went back to electric guitar, playing some astonishing pieces after the Beatles’ split, including How Do You Sleep? on the Imagine LP, and some beautiful slide guitar on My Sweet Lord and Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) among others.

George Harrison & Ravi Shankar

When the Brighton Beach Boys decided to tackle Sgt. Pepper, we sat around and threw our names into the hat for lead vocals.  Within You Without You was my first choice.  Clearly the angelic and profoundly moving voice of Glen Richardson would sing most of the McCartney vocals – She’s Leaving Home, Fixing A Hole, When I’m 64 etc.  Tom and Stephen tussled over Paul’s opening screamer.  That left John,  George & Ringo among the remaining five singers.  I got Ringo’s A Little Help From My Friends and the John part of A Day In The Life and this amazing song.  Rehearsing it was odd, because we couldn’t really play it without the strings.  So I sang it at home on my own to the record and tried to hold my nerve.

Very rough Sgt Pepper live event in The Robin Hood pub, 2005.  From the top : Stephen Wrigley, me, Adrian Marshall, Tom Arnold

In May 2005 we had a very rough run-through of Pet Sounds v Sgt Pepper in the Robin Hood pub in Brighton one Sunday afternoon in front of a few customers and friends.  Landlord Neil Hayward had come up with the idea so it was his fault.  We’d already done Pet Sounds at Komedia on May 7th – the first time.  I simply cannot remember how we did WYWY, perhaps we didn’t, or perhaps we had an electric tamboura by then (plug-in, switch on, choose key = instant spangly drone and lots of “mine’s a chicken korma” jokes) and Charlotte played the string part solo.  Or perhaps not.

Soundcheck for Within You Without You in the church.  Steve is playing harmonium (on the vibraphone!)

But history (and Tom Arnold) does record that the first time we played this gig was at the Brighton Festival, May 21st 2006.  We had a tabla player just for this one song which we later considered to be a luxury, and since then Tom Arnold has played a variety of tabla and djembe and other percussion in the song.  Rory Cameron played the sitar part on a Danelectro sparkling blue guitar belonging to Stephen Wrigley.  Later he would learn the part on an actual sitar which of course is visually rather marvellous.  Rory has now left the band.  Glen found a swarmandel sound on his synthesiser – like a zither or metallic harp.   And Steve also scored the string quartet.  For this gig we added a string quartet and an extra flute and sax, and percussion, bringing the total to 16 players, and called the ensemble The Psychedelic Love Orchestra.  Stringers being expensive people who insist (with complete justification) on being paid for rehearsal, I think we may have had just the one rehearsal with them.  (We didn’t have any rehearsals with the stringers this year!)  We then rehearsed during the sound-check, always a nerve-wracking experience.  No pressure.  It kept breaking down in the call-and-answer section between the first violin and the sitar, and the timing was controversial too – was it in 2/5 ??  For my part I had simply listened to the track ENDLESSLY and knew every twitch and sigh, so when I heard my cue, in I droned with the opening line:

 “We were talking . . . about the space between us all…”

St George’s Church, Kemp Town with full Psychedelic Love Orchestra

That night the space between us all was a packed Georgian church – St George’s  in Kemp Town, Brighton.  We were set up on the altar thanks to a groovy priest who no longer runs the place – as a result the altar is now out of bounds, and we can’t fit into the space left.  So those six or seven church gigs were unique and special, in a beautiful wooden structure with wonderful acoustics and an intimate setting.  We lit  incense as the tamboura warmed up, Stephen played the harmonium I think, and it was there, singing live in front of people that I discovered the soul of the piece, how heartfelt and warm it was, how true.  How it was a miracle that somehow we got to the end without breaking down as we had in almost every single run-through.  How I made the pranam prayer Hindu shape with my hands and bowed into the applause, and how we then slid effortlessly (apparently) into the soft shoe shuffle of When I’m 64, such is the clever sequencing of the LP.   How proud I was that we had, collectively, scaled an Everest of a song in English pop culture, inspired by another tradition many miles away.  How I could never count the bars, but always had to rely on instinct, which is much scarier.  We’ve done the show ten times now, and it is always for me the scariest section of the show, and the part I look forward to the most.  A bit like a ghost train.

Practise makes fantactiss

When we moved to New York City in 2014, my great sacrifice was seeing the godchildren growing up – Delilah Rose, who is eight years old, and Skye who is almost two. Uncle Ralph flies back as often as he can to see these precious little people.  The other sacrifice was the band.  It was touch-and-go for a few years whether it would continue at all – not just my absence, but Rory moved to Bury St Edmunds, Charlotte had a baby boy Cosmo, and Tom joined the endless tour of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.   A chance visit in December 2015 found me in Brighton on the same night as a gig at The Brunswick with the rock’n’roll version of the Brighton Beach Boys complete with legend Chris Spedding on the guitar.  I played on that gig (from memory, almost forgetting a key chord in Good Vibrations) and then said that if they booked the Pet Sounds/Pepper gig, I would fly back for it from Brooklyn.

May 28th 2016, Pet Sounds v Sgt Pepper live

Thus it was that almost exactly three years to the day since we last tackled these two pop landmarks The Brighton Beach Boys were reunited at The Haunt, in Pool Valley Brighton on Saturday May 28th 2016.  No Spedding this time, but a lovely guitarist and singer called Jono Harrison.  The band had had two rehearsals, but the woodwinds and strings hadn’t been there.  The same four key players : Nicky and Brian on violins, Sarah on cello and Rob on viola joined us for the soundcheck on Saturday afternoon and we had a quick run-through of Within You Without You.  As usual it was rubbish, well, not rubbish, but covered in errors and hesitations and poor timings, mainly from me.  As usual when we performed it live it was fine.  Some enthusiastic audience members even insisted that it was great.

Pandit Ravi Shankar passed away on 11 December 2012.  George Harrison left us on 29 November 2001.  They remained great friends.

Now and again I tiptoe towards the wisdom embraced by the song – seeing both within myself to change the sadness, and seeing beyond myself to find – sometimes – that peace of mind is waiting there.  I hope I can grow old gracefully.  At the moment the tempest shows no signs of abating.  But life.   Life flows on within you, and without you.

 

My Pop Life #132 : Imagine – John Lennon

Imagine   –    John Lennon

..I wonder if you can..

In the summer of 1971, after nine achingly long months apart, my family was finally offered a new-build Council House on the edge of Hailsham, an East Sussex market town between Eastbourne and Uckfield.    I was 14.  Paul 12.  Andrew was 8.  Mum was mid-30s.  Paul and I shared a bedroom which overlooked fields and faraway trees, and in the distance, Herstmonceux Observatory. Andrew had the smaller single bedroom.  Ralph, Paul…..and Andrew.  That’s just how it was.

Mum’s ‘new’ husband, John Daignault, had not moved back in with us.  We were secretly glad, because he was just an extra person in the house.  He took our Mum’s attention and they usually ended up arguing, shouting and screaming or actually fighting.  It was a drag.  So we were pretty relieved when we found out that they’d fought again, and Mum had no intention of inviting him to stay in the new house.  But then she changed her mind and one day, there he was.  Short, dark-haired, slightly nervous.  He was always nice to us, but he was only about ten years older than me and I was decidedly cool with him.  I was a twatty teenage boy who was primarily concerned with increasingly important decisions about grooviness, my own burgeoning sex life and the expanding musical landscape, not whether my mum’s 2nd husband was worthy of consideration.  He was just there.  He tried though.  Back in the village his record collection had included The White Album, The Beatles double-LP from 1968 which was a compendium of musical styles and grooves, from country to heavy rock, weird experimentia to 1930s pop.  JD, as we called him, had a few cool points logged.

Lennon, Ono & Grapefruit at Cannes, May 1971

Christmas 1971.  Beneath the tree an LP-shaped present for me.  Intrigued, I had to wait for the entire ritual to unfold, starting with the stockings filled with brazil nuts, small plastic toys, a satsuma and other ephemera.  Early morning thrills with mini-pinball tables and so on.  Then breakfast.  Then church – or had we abandoned church by then?  I think we had not.  Dragged there and back through the weather in our best.  Then home.  Then presents ?  No – change your clothes.  THEN Then??   NO A NICE CUP OF TEA FIRST.  Christ in swaddling clothes can we now open our flipping presents ???  AFTER THE QUEEN’S SPEECH.

Summer ’71

This may be a singular and important reason which explains why I am a republican.  The speech was always fluff and was intoned in a flat aristocratic drone.  I had no respect for The Royal Family in 1971 and even less today in 2015.

And finally.  Someone was nominated as Santa – but not before we’d been further delayed by sausage rolls, slices of ham and bread and mustard, things that mum had been ‘slaving over a hot stove for months’ with, anything really to keep us from the fucking presents.  There was a real tree with decorations, tinsel and a fairy on the top, the presents bulged beneath it.  It would end up in the back garden and slowly die as winter progressed toward a long-promised distant spring.

And my LP-shaped present from Mum and John Daignault – a French-Canadian name by the way – was the new John Lennon LP “Imagine”.   I knew it was from him really.  And I was actually bowled over.  I think it’s the most I ever liked him, and it remains one of the best Christmas presents I ever received.  When I was 14, brand-new LPs were a rarity.  They had to be saved for.  Our LP collection – almost all Mum’s – was small, and included Wagner’s Tannhauser (see My Pop Life #94), Oliver! and The Seekers ‘Morningtown Ride”.  The Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats.  Simon and Garfunkel.  Dusty Springfield.  Van Der Graaf Generator.  Jimi Hendrix.  ‘Imagine’ may well have been my 3rd-ever LP.

The Plastic Ono Band in 1969 :

Klaus Voorman,  Alan White,  Yoko Ono,  John Lennon,  Eric Clapton 

*

We were a singles family mainly.  Loads of those.  Big pop hits and obscure lower-chart singles.  We had many Beatles singles.  From She Loves You through We Can Work It Out to Let It Be.  And the Beatles had finally split up officially on April 10th 1970 when Paul announced he was leaving the group.  John Lennon had already told the rest of the band that he was finished during the previous September when The Plastic Ono Band played Toronto to an extremely warm reception but the decision was kept under wraps until the spring of 1970.  We’d all been learning to live without the Beatles for over 18 months, and it was hard.  Each and every former Beatle’s release was devoured hungrily, and although almost always not as satisfying a meal as a Beatles song, it was at least like one of the ingredients.  A snack.  They were the four most famous people in the world still.  With Muhammed Ali.  If you made an LP out of the first two years of solo releases it was an AMAZING Beatles LP, with Maybe I’m Amazed, My Sweet Lord, What Is Life, Imagine and Working Class Hero.

1964

We would learn to nourish ourselves with these offerings,  scoured for clues, hints, rifts, chords, harmonies, these musical conversations between former members now not on speaking terms.  The family divorce was played out by my favourite band separating and going their own ways.  Or rather, by Lennon and McCartney being actually divorced.  The great song-writing team was over.

McCartney’s first solo offering, an acoustic collection which gets better with the passing years was entitled “McCartney”and released in 1970. Lennon had already explored a great deal of strange musical territory with Yoko Ono on the LPs Unfinished Music : Two Virgins and Life With The Lions (1968) and The Wedding Album (1969) all released while The Beatles were still together.

Unfinished Music : Two Virgins (1968)

Unfinished Music : Life With The Lions (1968)

The Wedding Album (1969)

All three albums dabbled unselfconsciously in avant-garde experimental sounds, tape-loops, heartbeats and their own voices.  Not many people listened more than once or twice.  It was the late 60s, everything to be abandoned, everything to play for.  Then in 1970 they released 2 Plastic Ono Band LPs – one each.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)

 The JohnLennon/Plastic Ono Band LP is a masterpiece pure and simple. It  emanated from the primal scream therapy Lennon and Ono were doing in Los Angeles with Arthur Janov.  Songs about the death of The Beatles and howls of pain on subjects such as his mother and loneliness gave the album a huge depth and impact.  I listened to it at Simon’s house, but not then I don’t think.   A year or two later.  It wasn’t played on the radio or TV at all, apart from on a few late-night shows.

October 1969

But then music just wasn’t available in the same way as it is today.  Most music wasn’t played on the radio.  There was no internet, tapes, CDs, mp3s.  You’d have to be round someone’s house to hear it.  Vinyl.  So the gaps were filled – as always – by the singles.  Lennon’s first was an anguished snarl of pain about heroin addiction, Cold Turkey, which was rejected as a Beatles song and became his first solo single on the Beatles own record label Apple in October 1969.  It was followed by Power To The People and Instant Karma, big thumping sounds, exciting anthems with casts of thousands.

Bed Peace, Room 902, Amsterdam Hilton, March 25th – 31st 1969

Since meeting Yoko Ono John had become an extremely active public person, from the mass-media wedding onwards, unafraid of making grandstanding statements and leading the pop culture into new political areas.  It was thrilling.  He was aware of his status and used it change the public discourse. The hippie dream was over, but Vietnam wasn’t.   John Lennon positioned himself clearly on the battlements as a counter-cultural leader.   As a result he was lampooned, vilified and undermined by political and cultural commentators, while becoming a hero to progressives and others.  This high-profile campaign culminated in the Green Card harrassment of Lennon by President Nixon in 1972 who felt that Lennon’s high-profile activism could undermine his re-election campaign, and who issued deportation proceedings against Lennon that were only halted when Nixon himself was snared in the Watergate scandal.  But all that was to come.

In the early part of December 1971 the Christmas single Merry Xmas (War Is Over) was played on the radio – political but less punchy as a production, still anthemic, but totally anti-Vietnam.  Lennon was in his post-pop political pomp. Then came Imagine.

Tittenhurst Park 

The title track was written in John’s house Tittenhurst Park in Ascot, Surrey one morning in early 1971 on a white Steinway piano.  Inspiration was provided by a Yoko Ono poem from the collection called Grapefruit published in 1964.  The poem was called Cloud Piece :

“Imagine the clouds dripping, dig a hole in your garden to put them in.”

Words that were later placed on the LP’s back cover.   That summer at a jam in New York, John asked George Harrison if he wanted to play on the next record and George agreed.

Voorman, Harrison, Lennon, Ono 1971

 Klaus Voorman, John’s old friend from Hamburg who’d designed the Revolver LP cover was drafted in on bass guitar (Paul’s instrument) and Nicky Hopkins from Apple label band Badfinger played piano.  Alan White played drums.  The first few tracks were recorded at Tittenhurst in June 1971 then the whole kit, caboodle and shebang was moved to the Record Plant in New York City in July and other session players joined such as King Curtis on saxophone (see my Pop Life #128).

Lennon & Spector at The Record Plant 1971

Phil Spector co-produced with John and Yoko, adding sugar in the shape of violins, cellos and violas as he had with The Long And Winding Road a year earlier on the Let It Be album, much to McCartney’s irritation.  Lennon had no such problems with Spector’s strings and described the song Imagine on one occasion as a political statement sugar-coated “so that conservatives like Paul would swallow it“.

The McCartneys had issued the LP “Ram” in May 1971, billed as Paul and Linda McCartney.  It is as good a record as Paul ever made.  On the cover he wrestles with a bighorn sheep of some kind.  A postcard inside the Imagine LP had picture of Lennon with a pig.

 There was a song too, called “How Do You Sleep?” with lacerating lyrics :

“the only thing you did was Yesterday,  now you’re gone you’re just Another Day”

referencing Paul’s brilliant single which didn’t appear on the Ram LP.

1971

 This McCartney/Lennon/Ram/Imagine dialectic dominated 1971 and the bad feeling set the stereotype of the two in the public mind forever : Paul the doe-eyed soppy balladeer and John the working class hero rocker.  People took sides, as people do in divorces.  Loyalty is expected from friends and balanced love for both is punished.   The tragedy of separation. The archetypes are of course nonsense – Paul wrote and played Helter Skelter, the rockiest birth-of-metal-moment in the Beatles’catalogue, while Lennon soft side was never far away as evidenced by Love on the Plastic Ono Band LP or Jealous Guy on Imagine.  But England in particular loved Lennon and spurned McCartney.  I loved them both, always did, always will.  I despise the anti-McCartney camp because musically they are simply wrong.  But the anti-Lennon camp would have its day with this very song.

Imagine is ballad of protest.  It is anti-religion, anti-nationalism, anti-war, anti-ownership and anti-greed.  It sees everything that there is to see, and imagines how life could be without them.  Simple, effective, powerful.  It stands head and shoulders above most of John Lennon’s songwriting and remains his best-selling song.  It seems incredible that serious writers could turn on a song like this – but popularity can be a critical curse, and Imagine is a huge song which went around the world and back again.  It could have been written by Paul and people would have found it sappy.  Eventually they did – after a wave of love for the song, the strange taste of the British groover found that, incredibly, Imagine was actually a stupid song, groaning under the weight of its own pretension.  Elvis Costello wrote, in the lyrics to The Other Side Of Summer :

“Was it a millionaire who wrote ‘imagine no possessions’ ?”

Well, actually Declan, yes, it was.  What do you want a millionaire to write?  Imagine more possessions ?  It’s a cheap shot, but one which was encouraged by the pop media in the years following its release and thus the sheer success and popularity of Lennon’s worldwide anthem was curdled, serially disrespected and sneered at by people who should have known better.   The song became sacred, and sacred cows must be transgressed if you are a permanent teenager.  People accuse Lennon of writing teenage lyrics – “5th form dirge” is a common-enough drop of disdain.  But the misunderstanding is deep.  What the song describes will never happen.  The song knows this.  It is a funeral march for a dream.

The rest of the album has its moments too – How is a beautiful delicate melody, It’s So Hard is classic rocker Lennon with echo vocals that would soon become ubiquitous, Oh Yoko a beautiful bouncing pop song, the classic Jealous Guy which dated from the Rishikesh era and nearly ended up on The White Album, the angry diatribes of Give Me Some Truth and How Do You Sleep, the simple beauty of McCartney-esque Oh My Love…  John sounds relaxed and comfortable, playing his music with his friends, in love with Yoko, always present.  It’s not my favourite Lennon LP, but that’s neither here nor there.  It’s among his best moments for sure.   And – It was a landmark moment in my young life, a piece of treasure which I treasured and played incessantly.  We listened to it together downstairs late that Christmas afternoon in 1971, all present approved, then I took it up to the bedroom Dansette record player and heard it a couple more times – this was also the first Christmas when I spent some private time away from the family in my room and it was acceptable.  It felt like John was speaking to me personally as I lay on my bed listening to his voice.

Dick Cavett Show 1971

Paul and John never did sing or write together again.  Although apparently they jammed together in 1974 before further estrangement the tapes from that session have never been released, if indeed there are any.  They had brought out the best in each other for an entire decade and changed the world together.  The inspiration of those years carried them through the even longer time spent apart.   Time heals, and brings closure to even the bitterest divorce camps, but tragically Lennon was gunned down outside his New York apartment on December 8th 1980 before any further healing could occur between the two of them.  His unreleased guide vocals for ‘Real Love‘ and ‘Free As A Bird‘ were backed by Paul, George and Ringo and produced by Jeff Lynne as the last two Beatles’singles in 1995 when ‘Anthology’, the official Beatles bootleg collection finally came out.

The dream is over, what can I say ?  The dream is over, yesterday

John Lennon ‘God’ 1970

My Pop Life #67 : Yun Na Thi – Asha Bhosle

Featured image

Yun Na Thi   –   Asha Bhosle

..Yuun na thi mujhse berukhi pehle
Tum toh aise na the kabhi pehle.. 

you were not so indifferent towards me earlier….

you have completely changed from how you were…

Featured image

Asha Bhosle sang her first Hindi film song at 10 years old, and had eloped with a man 15 years older than herself aged 16.   Three babies later she left her husband with his name and returned to the maternal home in Mumbai, still singing for a living.  Her older sister Lata Mangeshkar was also singing Bollywood film songs, but Asha was determined not to just be Lata’s younger sister and looked for ways to follow her own path.  This meant often singing the ‘fallen woman’ role in B-grade movies, but as the 1950s drew to a close she and her sister dominated the Hindi film industry having sung more ‘playback songs’ than anyone else.  Her speciality was often seen as western-style and more sensual songs.  Her success and popularity grew from there.  Ashaji is now the official most-recorded singer in world history, having sung over 13,000 songs.  Most of these were for Bollywood, but she has also sung ghazals (such as this song Yun Na Thi), Indian classical pieces, pop, folk songs and qawwalis among others.   She was the subject of Cornershop‘s single Brimful of Asha (on the 45) in 1997.  She continues to sing and tour today, at the age of 82.    Some of her greatest work has been the most recent, a duet LP with young Pakistani singer Adnan Sami in 1997, an LP of Indian classical music with sarod player Ustad Ali Akbar Kahn getting a Grammy nomination.  But she will always be loved for her Bolllywood songs, the mainstay of her career and the Indian music industry.

Featured image

Dil Cheez Kya Hai from Umrao Jaan

It is impossible to overstate the importance of film songs in the overall picture of Indian music, rather like pop music in the UK, millions listen to it, go to the films and buy it.   Among her ‘greatest hits’ which are too many to include on one LP would be Dil Cheez Kya Hai from Umrao Jaan (1981), Dum Maro Dum from Hare Krishna (1971), title track Chura Liye Hai Tumne (2003) and Aaiye Meharbaan from Howrah Bridge (1958).

Featured image

She sang in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, English –  in fact 20 languages in all.   Perhaps the most remarkable facet of her long life and singing career has been her relationship with her sister Lata Mangeshkar, who is the 2nd-most recorded singer in history, and is herself still singing aged 85.

I didn’t hear any Indian music when I was growing up – apart from Within You Without You, Love You To (Revolver) or Peter Sellers taking the piss.   Ravi Shankar came to educate us all in the ways of Indian classical music, having made friends with George Harrison, and received a standing ovation for tuning up his sitar at his first English concert.  He smiled and thanked the audience for appreciating his craft and hoped they would enjoy the actual music.   Then we saw what he could do at the Concert For Bangla Desh.  But Ravi was the classical end of things – a sitar player.  Asha Bhosle was the filmi end of things – a singer.

Part of the problem for western ears are the instruments used : sitar, tabla, sarod, dilrubi, saranga, bansuri, tambura, shehnai, swarmandel, harmonium.  We used some of these instruments when we played The Sgt Pepper show, eg the swarmandel as played by George in Strawberry Fields Forever.

Featured image Featured image Featured image

Sarod                     Swarmandel  player                                Sarangi

The other part of the problem is the pitch – shruti – in hindi which translates as the smallest possible difference in pitch the human ear can distinguish between two tones.  Thus our 12-tone scale,  in Indian music becomes 23 tones – quarter tones to us westerners, often heard as “blue notes” ie notes sung in a blues between two other notes, either sliding up or down.  Pianists are unable to play blue notes – they can’t bend the note like a singer or guitarist or saxophone player, but they overcome this by playing the two notes alongside each other together, creating a dissonance which is rather pleasing.  Indian music to my cloth ears relies heavily on these subtleties of pitch which seem to appeal directly to the heart and the emotions.  When Lloyd-Webber employed AR Rahman he called it “cheating” but really, what does he know ?

*

Within weeks of starting my law degree at LSE I had a steady girlfriend – Mumtaz, who was born in Aden (Yemen) to Pakistani parents, the family had then moved to Karachi in the 1960s.  Mumtaz was schooled in Murree, in the foothills of the Himalayas, near Kashmir.   She had come to London to study law, and having graduated the summer before was now studying for part 2 of the Law Exam.  Over the next nine years we would be, off and on, a couple.  Most of that time was spent in an attic flat in Finsbury Park as we both established footholds in our chosen careers.  Mumtaz’ parents never accepted me as a potential son-in-law because I am not a muslim, and although Taj’s older sister Naz had married an Englishman, it hadn’t lessened that pressure, and maybe made it worse.

Mumtaz introduced me to north Indian cuisine, and I can still cook basmati rice, perfect every time, rogan jhosh and prawns courgette, partly thanks to Madhur Jaffrey it must be said.  Taj taught me how to cook pitta bread – lightly brush water over each side then lightly grill it until it starts to puff up then whip it out, cut in half, careful not to burn your fingers.   We ate regularly at the Diwan-e-Khas in Whitfield St, and the Diwan-e-Am in Drummond St.  I learned all the spices, some Urdu, some basic tenets of islam.  And we saw a few Indian movies, with singing.  Not so many, but enough to introduce me to the whole world of Bollywood:  Awaara, Pyaasa,  as well as the more serious Indian cinema of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Mehboob Khan’s epic 1957 film Mother India.   I found some Bollywood cassettes somewhere, bought them and played them, their incredible arrangements, timings and melodies started to work their way into my ears.  Indeed one of these tunes I CANNOT REMEMBER WHAT IT’S CALLED OR WHO SANG IT, (but it wasn’t Asha or Lata or Mohamed Rafi) became the basis for a song I wrote for Birds Of Tin, the band I was playing in at the time with Joe Korner – a song called Dangerous Garden.  More about Birds Of Tin on another day.  Mumtaz also introduced me to the Beach Boys LP Holland, the band Earth Wind & Fire (My Pop Life #21), Fulfillingness’ First Finale and The Isley Brothers.

It was hard leaving Mumtaz.  But it had to be done.  Taj didn’t agree, but we had no future together.   It just wasn’t right.   I ended up in Bob Carlton’s flat in Bow in a tower block, with all my books and none of my records.   I never saw my records again.  Taj’s revenge.  Well, records : they’re just things, right ?  as this blog will testify…..

In 1985 I was a disciple of WOMAD.  World Of Music Arts & Dance.   I bought their first LP Music and Rhythm (see My Pop Life #4) in 1982 and had spent the next three years listening to anything that wasn’t some skinny white kid playing guitar – Irish music, south african township music, calypso, greek songs, jazz, classical, gypsy music, arabic, burundi drumming, algerian rai, flamenco, salsa, samba, showtunes, mexican pop music, and hindi film music, what a beautiful world of music there was out there and I wanted to eat it all up, to explore, to mine those golden seams of rhythm and melody, to hear strange languages, strange beats, unusual instruments, see then how things joined up, how distant relations were joined, the cuba-congo axis, the irish/scottish/quadrille/african birth of jazz in New Orleans, the music of Brahms and Jobim, Eric Satie and Oum Kalthoum, the Bhundu Boys and Sergio Leone.

Featured image

So when WOMAD brought out a Talking Book LP called Asia 1 I immediately bought it full price and consumed it with joy.  Asha Bhosle sang Yun Na Thi as the last track on side B.  Well, you can’t follow that really.  Of course, how foolish it is to create an LP of ‘Music From Asia” – which included the desert musicians of Rajahstan, Kurdish music from Siwan Perwer (brilliant), Ofra Haza, tabla solos, Iranian goblet drummers and Temple musicians of Sri Lanka ??  Absurd to group them all together – but – it was a sampler made especially for people like me who were trawling the world for their music, who’d got fed up with the radio, whichever station it was, who wanted to explore with their ears.  It was, I have to say, a completely brilliant album, but the outstanding songs on it were from Şivan Perwer and Asha Bhosle.

Featured image

Ashaji had made Abshar-e-Ghazal – the source album for this track – as a break from Hindi film music.  She was a hugely respected and wealthy star in India, had restaurants in the Gulf and could do what she wanted.  She wanted to do some more classical and traditional music.  All the music on the LP was written by Hariharan and the lyrics are ghazals – an ancient pre-islamic form of poetry.  As near as I can get to an understanding of this form is the Sonnet – all of the rhymes must be a certain way.  A ghazal is a love poem, always about unrequited love, and often takes the Sufi form – a poem about love of God, the ultimate unrequited love.  A famous Persian ghazal poet Rumi, who died in 1273, is known a little in the west, although scarcely enough – but the ghazal goes back at least 500 years before him.

I’ve asked for translations of the words to this ghazal, when they come I’ll add them to this blog.   Perhaps the unrequited love is Mumtaz’ for me.

Yun na thi mujh se berukhi pehle

tum toh aise na the kabhi pehle

jismeain shaamil tunhaari marzi thi

humne chaahi wahi kushi pehle

jab talak woh na tha toh ai raahi

kitni aasaan thi zindagi pehle