My Pop Life #179 : One Drop – Bob Marley & The Wailers

One Drop   –   Bob Marley & The Wailers

“What’s your favourite Bob Marley song?”  asked Chris.

It is a legitimate question I think.  It was the early afternoon of a North London autumn day in 1997.   Paulette & Beverley Randall had accompanied Jenny and myself to visit a new baby in NW6 : Jemima, first daughter of :  Chris Skala and Emma who had met at Paulette’s legendary Club 61 event which convened regularly for vodka, music and slow dancing (see My Pop Life #60) and they had danced together, chatted, kissed, wooed and then <swoon> married in Lauderdale House, Waterlow Park in the summer of 1993.   Chris – who it should be noted is an American (guvner) – had invited me to his stag night earlier in ’93.  Where it was and what we did I simply cannot recall due to the excessive intake of alcoholic beverages and marijuana.

Beverley, Paulette & Jenny 1997

But here we were in his flat where the new baby was being oohed and aahed over but where Chris was diligently aware of his DJ-ing duties.

“C’mon Ralphie.  Favourite Bob Marley song?”

I flicked mentally through my Bob Marley albums.  I think there were three :  Exodus, Live ! (at the Lyceum in 1975: which all white people owned – it was a law) and Legend – aka The Greatest Hits, which Jenny had brought with her when she moved into Archway Road five years earlier.  We may have had another one – Kaya perhaps or Catch A Fire, but there were less than five.  In other words, not really enough to make an informed choice.  It struck me as a moment of weakness – which isn’t really fair, but that’s how it struck me anyway – like someone asking what my favourite Beatles song is and only having twenty songs in my head, all from the Red or Blue albums.   I think I said “Jamming” at the time, which was the truth – probably the best Bob Marley song.  The best meaning, as always, my favourite, at the time, because THE BEST doesn’t actually exist, it can only ever mean MY FAVOURITE.  But when you are young you always say THE BEST.  Because it goes without saying that your favourite is the best.

To be fair, I wasn’t a huge Bob Marley fan at that point in my life, but because I was with Paulette & Bev, whose parents were Jamaican, and who clearly represented, in my mind at least, and possibly my ears, the Jamaican Music Police I couldn’t possibly say that.  I just couldn’t because I sensed that my not being a huge Bob Marley fan was based on ignorance rather than on massive exposure and discerning judgement.  It is a feature of my intellectual and possibly over-educated friends (AND I INCLUDE MYSELF IN THIS GENERALISATION) that we will make strange musical and cultural judgements which are not based on knowledge but on some other odd refraction of the universe which manifests itself as a kind of pyramid of taste which we then climb.  Indeed, many of these cultural discernments are passed around the cognoscenti, whether educated or not, as a kind of badge of knowledge.  If you state, for example, that you prefer Motown to Stax, you will lose points.  If you prefer pop music to New Orleans R’n’B you will lose points.  If you prefer The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss (My Pop Life #157) to Mahler’s 8th Symphony you will lose points.   Lou Reed beats Gilbert O’Sullivan.  Charlie Parker beats Stan Getz.  And Burning Spear beats Bob Marley.

I think it is an invisible race to an invisible point.  A refined narrowing of the portal of acceptance where popularity somehow disqualifies the artist from the ultimate pinnacle of art.  For only the cognoscenti can see, or hear, the genius that is true art.  Not all the masses who buy the song because it’s catchy – what do they know for fuck’s sake?  No, the best kind of music is always a little bit secret, a little bit of an acquired taste, only for the in-crowd, the connoisseur, the adept.   And really only for the young.  As I have aged I have ditched this poverty disguised as philosophy and gone back to Strauss, Stan Getz and Marley, loved Motown all over again, and been proud to acknowledge that yes, I am and have always been, a pop tart.  No such thing as Guilty Pleasures. Just pleasures.

Battersea Park, 1977

I have also realised that it is all right to say “I don’t know” when asked a question of any kind.  When I was 30-something it was simply illegal to say I don’t know at any point, because of course all young people know everything, and to acknowledge that one of you perhaps has a gap somewhere or simply hasn’t acquired that piece of knowledge yet is tantamount to social suicide, from which there is no recovery, or at least, let’s face it, an extremely long road uphill.  It’s too humiliating.  And maybe this is only true of men, those of us who use a specialised area of knowledge as our castle, our control-space where most people will defer to us because they haven’t put the hours in and built the encyclopedic walls.  And to have a Bob Marley-sized hole in the battlements is a weakness, as I originally experienced it.  Of course you can always say “I don’t care” but a) that is a lie, and b) that is even weaker in most cases.  Unless you have no desire to specialise, no desire to have any power or control over anything, in which case you are not being entirely honest with us are you?

Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer early 1970s

My usual journey into an artist is via a song – probably the big hit, then the greatest hits, then dive in deep if you really like them.  If they don’t really have hits (like Spirit or Burning Spear or Little Feat) then your first listen may be in someone’s bedroom passing a joint around, maybe at a Festival somewhere passing a joint around, or maybe you were just curious and you bought an LP in a crate somewhere like a car boot sale or a vinyl junkie shop.  But if the artist is popular – pop tarts beware – then all kinds of other criteria pollute your experience.  Build ’em up, knock ’em down for example (Boy George, Amy Winehouse etc).  People whose identity you don’t share, or don’t feel that you do, suddenly declaring a love for your favourite artist because they saw them on TV (but they’re mine!).  Familiarity breeds contempt.  Your favourite artist becomes so famous that they are interviewed and they say something stupid or controversial.  You defend them.  Or you quietly go off them.  Or you read some piece of chattering-class space-fillage about the phenomenon of David Bowie‘s white soul period or The Ramones being middle-class or – yes – Bob Marley having Catch A Fire produced for the white market and his sound being tailored to break through – which it then did – and you kind of think – well, I prefer the rootsy rasta sounds of Burning Spear and Prince Far-I, Culture and Lee Perry, to the cleaned-up Americanised version of reggae that Chris Blackwell and Island Records sold to us with Catch A Fire in 1973.

But that isn’t fair, is it ?  It’s blown out of all proportion.  Musical snobbery indeed. Because Robert Nesta Marley had been singing and writing and playing music since 1963 with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, playing mento and bluebeat and ska, making records with Lee Perry and Leslie Kong, touring with Johnny Nash and others before evolving the sound in the late 60s – actually around 1970 – with Carlton Barrett on the drums and his brother Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett on the bass forming the bedrock of the roots reggae sound that would go around the world and back and eventually signing with Island Records.  This consequently precipitated a change of line-up since Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh didn’t want to tour ‘freak clubs’ due to their rastafari faith, and didn’t like Blackwell (Chris Whiteworst was his nickname).  They presumably didn’t like that Wayne Perkins, a Muscle Shoals session guitarist, was overdubbed onto Concrete Jungle by Blackwell, to sweeten the flavour for white listeners.   They certainly didn’t like that the band was now known as Bob Marley & The Wailers, rather than The Wailers.  And this backstory, given the success of the LP, was the sub-plot to the take-off of the world’s first genuine 3rd World Superstar.  (Yes, I know, Developing World <sigh>).  In other words, once an act becomes successful, editors demand more copy, the story has been told, now come on give us another fold in the narrative, find another level of knowledge that people will consume, let’s have more fodder, more writing, more product.  And once something becomes hugely successful, the story becomes warped with their success, and the fans simple love of the music is tainted by all this extra information.  Certainly the original cognoscenti move along to the next secret discovery, always having to be there first, and not wanting to be a small part of a large crowd.  This way we miss out on much pleasure.

Aston Barrett, Peter Tosh, Carlton Barrett, Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer 1970

And so there I was, catching up with Bob Marley over the next 20 years with the help and assistance and encouragement of my beautiful wife Jenny Jules, who has always been a Bob Marley fan.  There have been films to help me out – documentaries such as Marley (2012) which was to have been directed by Scorsese, then Demme, eventually MacDonald.  And then the novel by Marlon James A Brief History of Seven Killings which I bought but haven’t read yet is a fictional account of Bob Marley’s life which won the Booker prize in 2016.  Meanwhile back to the LPs and the songs – it’s all about the songs, and Pimper’s Paradise stood out (from Uprising 1980),

every need got an eagle to feed

as did Satisfy My Soul (from Kaya 1978) – the brass is amazing –

every little action, there’s a reaction

and Waiting In Vain (Exodus 1977).

ooh girl ooh girl is it feasible -for I to knock some more?

and Is This Love (also from Kaya – my favourite Marley album)

we’ll share the same room…Jah provide the bread…

But wait – Marley was not the world’s first 3rd-World Superstar.  He wasn’t even the first Jamaican superstar to break America.  No, that honour belongs to the great Harry Belafonte with Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) and Island In The Sun one year later in 1957 (the year of my birth).  Belafonte went on to become a movie star and musical giant of the 20th century, creating a huge anthology of black folk music, inviting musical refugees from apartheid South Africa Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela to the United States to make records and tour, and continued to be an advocate for civil rights while making records and movies.  A giant of a man and a great musician and singer.

For Marley, Catch A Fire was a door opening.  Although Neville Livingstone, aka Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh both stayed in the band for one final album Burnin’ the writing was on the wall.   The album contained two giant hits Get Up Stand Up and I Shot The Sheriff, while the next LP Natty Dread in 1974 included both Lively Up Yourself and No Woman, No Cry, which was Marley’s first real international hit single.   The other profound manifestation on Natty Dread was the new band line-up, with the Barretts plus four new musicians, and the introduction of the I-Threes on backing vocals – Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt, and Bob’s wife Rita Marley.  

Natty Dread is a fantastic LP, with a different sound to Catch A Fire and Burnin’.   Next came the Live ! album from the Lyceum Ballroom in London, capturing the excitement of the band’s show, followed by Rastaman Vibration with its rock guitars and synthesizers which became the first album to enter the US charts.  In contrast the Bunny Wailer LP Blackheart Man and the Peter Tosh album Legalize It, both from the same year of 1976 and offered a far more rootsy sound and rasta philosophy.

But Marley was taking the rasta sound and philosophy out to the world.  The arrangements on his albums from this point on – Exodus, Kaya, Survival and Uprising – while indebted to reggae and the Jamaican rhythms are astoundingly original in what is left out of each phrase, what is played and what is not.   My own favourite track is One Drop which celebrates the reggae rhythm (no drumbeat on the one beat) while chanting down Babylon in a rastafarian prayer.  There is no other reggae music that sounds like Marley.  He was now in 1976 bigger and more influential than any Jamaican politician, so after a thankfully botched assassination attempt when Marley and Rita were shot and wounded in an incident at his house, he decamped to England in 1977 for two years.

Bob Marley & The Wailers in London 1977

Bob lived in Chelsea mainly, played football, fathered more children and made his astoundingly successful albums Exodus & Kaya.  He returned to Jamaica in late 1978 for the final two albums Survival and Uprising.

Bob Marley died in 1980 of cancer in Miami as he flew back to Jamaica from a clinic in Germany.  His legacy was an astonishing run of albums. His final words, to his son Ziggy, were  “Money can’t buy life”.

I have educated myself since that day in 1997 and listened to all of the Marley records going back to the 1960s and forward to Confrontation, the final posthumous LP released in 1983.  He rewards constant re-visiting and I hear new stuff every time.

For the record, Paulette’s favourite song was One Drop as far as I recall, which has now become My Favourite Bob Marley Song.  Bev hovered between Get Up Stand Up and War, but now claims Concrete Jungle as her favourite  Jenny’s favourite is Waiting In Vain.  Chris – in my dim memory – chose Lively Up Yourself, and Emma One Love.

And then we all lived happily ever after

Happy postscript :  Just after posting this on Feb 6th 2017 I was in correspondence again with Emma, now living in Willesden with Christopher and all-grown-up Jemima now at University (and writing a music blog!)   Feb 6th was her second daughter Lottie’s 17th birthday, and also the birthday of Bob Marley.  Coincidence ??   I think not…

My Pop Life #170 : Make You Feel My Love – Adele

Make You Feel My Love   –   Adele

…there is nothing that I wouldn’t do…

It was Jenny who first connected this song to Delilah Rose – you couldn’t escape it in that first year of her life, on the radio, the TV,  all over the place, the beautiful baby child all together in our experience.  What is also extraordinary is that Make You Feel My Love was released on the day that she was born.

2 days old

My god-daughter Delilah-Rose was born on January 28th 2008 at The Royal Sussex County Hospital, just a few yards from our house in Brighton.  What a precious gift.  Her mother Millie was the first of our friends and family to move down to Brighton after we’d taken the plunge and left the metropolis in 1996.   Like Jenny and I, she was childless.  Our situation is complex and multi-layered, Millie’s was simple so she decided to do something about it and found Rupert, who also wanted children, but not a relationship.   I think she was very brave, and very inspired.  The resulting child, a beautiful girl, is a blessing to us all.

2 weeks old

We’d had a busy winter, as usual.  I’d finished my first play since 1990 – the hilarious and biting tale of a punk band reforming to make a credit-card commercial called The Dysfunkshonalz which played at The Bush in West London.  Written by Mike Packer, it re-introduced me to the joy and terror of being onstage, and the joy and terror of learning the guitar, which I had to play in the show, and I’ll write about it at a later date.  Then (pre-cat days!) we went to St Lucia with half the family for Christmas.  Jenny’s parents have a house there in the village of Mon Repos and some of us stayed there, some down the road in the beautiful Foxgrove Hotel.  I will blog that trip later too, it was amazing.

 

family gathering in St Lucia early 2008

Jenny left St Lucia earlier than I since she had to start rehearsals at The Almeida : Harold Pinter‘s The Homecoming,  an exciting production which had Jenny playing the first Ruth who wasn’t white (with Harold’s blessing) with Ken Cranham (mentioned here many times because of our musical connection), Neil Dudgeon, Nigel Lindsay, Tony O’Donnell and Danny Dyer completing the cast.  Michael Attenborough directed.

The last week of January 2008 Jenny was in the middle of Tech Week for The Homecoming,  which means work is from 10a.m. to 11p.m. and she stays in London at her parents, all back from St Lucia by now, and travels to Islington from there.  I am at home, preparing for an audition with Richard Curtis.

Then came Delilah-Rose.

Millie had workmen in her house finishing the loft, so after a night on the ward to make sure everything was fine, she and her new baby girl came to ours and stayed in our bed upstairs in the bedroom of love.  I think I must have been on the sofabed downstairs because of Chaz, Millie’s birth partner, sleeping in The Green Room.   So Delilah-Rose’s first house aged 2 days old was our house.  I was in love with her from day one, and eight years later (nearly nine!!) I still am.  She is my delight.  I am, of course, Uncle Ralph.

2 months old

Six months later Millie christened Delilah-Rose in her local church.  The godparents pledged to nurture the child in the ways of righteousness and so on.

Christening :   Me, Jen, Delilah Rose & Millie, Lawrence, Betty, Chaz

6 months old, St Luke’s Church

*

January 28th 2008 was also when Adele’s first album ‘19‘ was released.  Adele had been at the Brit School in Croydon, (same as my sister Lucy, and Amy Winehouse), graduating in 2006 and releasing a self-penned song on MySpace (remember those days?) which earned her a record deal with XL.    I bought the LP on the strength of the single Chasing Pavements but soon found this incredible song, written by Bob Dylan, which towers over the other songs in its simplicity and depth.  I’m not saying that Adele isn’t a strong songwriter – she is, and her 2nd LP ‘21‘ would bear that out even more than her great debut, but Make You Feel My Love is simply an outstanding piece of songwriting.  Covered by many artists, from Billy Joel to Bryan Ferry, Garth Brooks to Rebecca Ferguson, this version stands out as the best, revealing the young woman who was soon to be the most successful singer in the world, and one of the most successful of all time.  Pretty astonishing.

I love Bryan Ferry‘s version too, but my relationship with Bryan is eternal and faintly obsessive.   No one can sing the word “avenue” quite like Bryan.   Bob Dylan’s original, on the 1997 LP Time Out Of Mind is raw and instinctively unsentimental for reasons only Bob (and his millions of fans) will understand.  The greatest living songwriter perhaps, with a throwaway song that is held up and revered by so many, and spawns a thousand karaoke, Britain’s Got Talent, X-Factor covers.  Which has been enough to put many people off the song.  There is such a thing as over-exposure, but the best songs can deal with that.  This is one of those.

In the years that followed Adele’s success became simply extraordinary with Grammys, Oscars, Golden Globes and massive sales figures which have put her in the Guinness Book Of Records.  Over the same period Delilah-Rose has grown to be a simply delightful child, thoughtful, bright, helpful and affectionate, with all credit due to Millie.  Delilah does have a relationship with her Dad Rupert, and his extended family, but Millie is there every day.  When we lived in Brighton (and sometimes when I’m back) the phone will ring at 4pm or so and it will be Millie stuck in traffic and Uncle Ralph can you collect Delilah-Rose from school?  Some mornings I’m round there at 8 to take her to school because Mills has to drive to Norfolk or Chichester or Essex for a meeting.

10 & a half months old with Mimi

The first time I spent a long time with my god-daughter was Christmas Eve 2009.   I went over at 8a.m.   Millie gave me house keys and rushed out, not before pointing out critical areas such as nappies, food and favourite toys.  As the door closed Delilah and I looked at each other.  I remember thinking :  OK.  I have twelve hours with this child who isn’t quite two years old.  Now what ?   I decided to sit on the floor with her.  She immediately went to her toy box and one by one, pulled out a toy and showed it to me, naming it.  This took almost two hours!  After that we were firm friends.  We went into town to see Father Christmas in Churchill Square but she was a little young for that.  Mills eventually got home at about 9pm.  I’d changed nappies, made food, comforted, played and hugged – a perfectly normal day for any parent but a pretty special one for me.   I’ve had many more since then.

4 + 3/4 years old playing Snow White

you eyeballing me boy ?  (last week : 8 + 1/2 yrs old)

Moving to New York in 2014 was particularly hard for Delilah and I.  We saw each other every week.  Suddenly I wasn’t there.  I am still in her life though, and she is in my heart.  Only last week I was sitting on her bed reading her a story before she went to sleep.  Precious moments.  But it is exactly these moments that I have sacrificed in the move to Brooklyn, chasing the pension pot, the adventure and the fantasy of never growing old.  I miss my friends, my football team, my band, my family.  But mainly I miss the little ones, in particular Skye, and my god-daughters Delilah-Rose and Chloe.

Skye is 2, Delilah Rose is 8 

Millie bought the album “19” too, and one afternoon Jenny was round there, holding the baby girl in her arms as Milly was upstairs.  She must have been three months old.  This song Make You Feel My Love came on the stereo, and Jenny made a silent promise to herself and to the child, that she would keep for all of her life.

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 :

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

 

My Pop Life #157 : By The Beautiful Blue Danube – Johann Strauss II

An der schönen blauen Donau   –   Johann Strauss II

I immediately smile when I hear the first few phrases of this and I don’t stop smiling until it’s finished.  What a truly tremendous piece of music.  Dance music, pop music, classical music, whatever.  Music.  It is a waltz, which means it is in 3/4 time.  When you play or dance a waltz you count 1,2,3 – 1,2,3.   Actually that’s the easy part.  As a self-taught pianist I’ve always struggled with beats in a bar.  Where’s the four ?? Anyway, you count 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3.  And don’t step on her toes.  Very important.

Der Donau near Vienna

The Danube is Europe’s 2nd-longest longest river (after the Volga in Russia) and runs from the Black Forest in Germany (where is is called der Donau) all the way through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary (called the Duna as it runs through Budapest rather beautifully), Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine where it deltas into the Black Sea.   It is (tragically today in late June 2016) the longest river in the EU.

Johann Strauss II

Johann Strauss II was Austrian and grew up by der schönen blauen Donau in Vienna. Photos of him suggest he was a biker, but this is a modern interposition because the motorbike had yet to be invented properly.   He also resemble a rocker, greased back hair and mutton chops.  He was clearly a dude.  He was as near as you got to a pop star for the 1850s/60s.   If you were a musician in the 19th Century you tended to gravitate to Vienna, much as New Orleans was a musical magnet in the first half of the 20th Century.

All of his family were musicians, and his father, Johann Strauss I,  was a popular composer and the leader of an orchestra.  Dad didn’t want number one son to become a musician and whipped him when he discovered the secret violin lessons he was taking (with a member of his own orchestra).  Undeterred, number one son eventually held his first concert for music he had written at Dommayer Casino in Vienna in 1844 after many other venues, fearful of Dad’s influence, shied away from hosting young Johann.  So enraged was Dad that he never played the Dommayer again.

                                                                                                       Johann Strauss I

In 1848 revolution swept through Europe and father and son found themselves on opposite sides of the struggle, father siding with the Habsburg Royal Family and writing his most famous piece the Radetsky March the same year  and son being arrested for playing the revolutionary anthem La Marseillaise in public.   The following year Strauss senior died and Johann the younger merged their two orchestras.  The waltz was then the most popular dance in Europe thanks to Johann Strauss I and his contemporary Joseph Lanner, and Johann Jr extended the form and took it into the stratosphere becoming probably the most successful composer of dance music in the 19th Century, touring Europe with his orchestra to great acclaim.  An Der Schönen Blauen Danube was written in 1866, and premiered in Vienna, Paris and New York in 1867.  It was a sensation.  It still is.  One of the world’s most popular pieces of music, but that’s never frightened me.  When I was younger I preferred the cool of undiscovered, unpopular music.  My ears led me here though.  Bless my ears.

I feel like this piece of music has been in my head forever.  I cannot remember when I purchased the vinyl LP, early 20s in London no doubt, but it was already familiar to me.  It is, it must be confessed, a tune.  The night I danced to it in ?1991? lingers lovingly in the memory since we had all been partying at the Archway Road flat since Saturday evening, and it was now Sunday morning.  The party was over but many people were still present, still drunk, still happy.  It was late summer I believe, Jenny and I had invited the gang round – why or who or what I cannot recall but  – among those present were : Jo Martin, Michael Rose, Roger Griffith, Jo Melville, Michael Buffong, Paulette, Beverley, Paul my brother, Colin, Michael too? Pedro ? Richard (Lady G?), Saffron Myers, Julian Danquah and….hmmm here it gets hazy.  If you were there please let me know !  In any event it was around five or six in the morning when we’d played all the Michael Jackson, Earth Wind & Fire, Marley, house music, Sly Stone and ska records in the collection and we needed a party closer.  I rustled around in the box and found the LP.

This is pre-CD by the way !   The response to those opening phrases was magical.  We each took a partner and waltzed gently around the front room, pretending we knew what we were doing, pretty sure I partnered with Saffron letting the alcohol lead our steps, slowly at first then with increasing vigour and abandon as the music swelled, swirling merrily around the carpet and onto the furniture, swapping partners, spinning, smiling, spinning.  We laughed we fell over we span and span around and around.  Exhilaration and satisfied exhaustion followed and we collapsed in a pile smiling.  Time for a coffee.   Happy days.  Happy happy music.

The piece is performed every New Year’s Day in Vienna by the Vienna Philharmonic  and beamed live around the world.   Here is the result from 2010.

and here is the wonderful Daniel Bahrenboim in 2014 :

My Pop Life #155 : 3rd Symphony (Eroica) – Beethoven

3rd Symphony (Eroica)   –   Beethoven

Live and direct.  Past midnight in England, I have officially entered my 60th year which means that tomorrow in New York I will be 59.  Jenny tells me Not To Think About It Like That.   After unwrapping perhaps the finest birthday present since the war a whole day early I am happy beyond measure.

A portable ION turntable, small cute and gorgeous is ceremonially placed on the corner table, plugged in and fired up.  First LP (we only have two) : Duke Ellington‘s 1929-1935 film soundtracks “Band Shorts” including on side two the marvellous A Bundle Of Blues with “our conception of that haunting melody Stormy Weather” (sung by Ivie Anderson) coupled with the stunning Symphony In Black (A Rhapsody of Negro Life) featuring a young Billie Holiday on her first recording session (see My Pop Life #34).   I sit on the sofa and just listen to the sound of vinyl playing Duke Ellington in my brownstone.  A perfect moment.  Jenny (for it is she!) smiles at me from the other end of our space.  Her gift.  Her love.  Lucky me.  The Luckiest.  Then as boiled eggs and toast are produced with salt, pepper, tea and orange juice,  on goes Second LP The Four Tops “Live” from 1966 – the very first time I have ever heard this record in any format.  A revelation.  Of course Levi Stubbs is one of the greatest singers of my own 59 years, but what a crooner is revealed as he tackles ‘Climb Every Mountain’ (!) and Girl From Ipanema (whilst stealing It’s Not Unusual from Tom Jones) alongside classics Reach Out, Same Old Song and Can’t Help Myself.  It’s like a direct link to the 1960s through our ears – they even cover You Can’t Hurry Love and If I Had A Hammer.  All backed by the Funk Brothers.  Delighted, Jenny reminds me that we have one more record to play –

a James Brown single on the King label I bought in Richmond last year (just because) entitled I Guess I’ll Have To Cry Cry Cry.  It’s also the first time I’ve heard this one, and it is semi orchestral and soulful a bit like Man’s World.

Scanning the New Yorker for an exhibition we can see before Jenny goes to work at 6pm I see that we have missed my man Jean Dubuffet.  Then the workmen start arriving to fix our apartment – light fittings, back door, yadda yadda.  It’s a beautiful day but we decide to stay in and watch Spain beat Turkey 3-0.  Then Jen goes to work and I grab my hoodie and cycle down to Fulton, walk up Vanderbilt past Grand Army Plaza to Prospect Park.   I’d sent a faintly hopeful email out earlier to the Brooklyn crew (Lynn, Harrison & Christopher, Segun and Lucy, Johanna, Sean, Shekhar) but it was more of a shout-out really.  Once in the park I sparked up a wee spliff and inhaled deeply, walking across the grass feeling echoes of medieval pilgrimage to a designated spot, I could have been in Germany in 1196, travelling with purpose across grassland with others to a venue which would reveal itself musically first with Beethoven’s Fidelio tickling my ears.  As I walk through the gentle crowd and find a spot of grass the New York Philharmonic start playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto.  This is one of four or five pieces of classical music that I know by heart almost.  Not the subject of this Pop Life, but could easily have been.  A sweeter piece of music would be hard to find. Very melodic, some might say pop in its sensibilities but all the way from 1791.  The soloist is impeccable but not as good as Glenn Miller (he tackled it in 1944) and simply too quiet.  The conductor hushes down the orchestra so that we can hear him.  He plays it really well, really well, but I want him to blow it harder !   Mate – we’re in a park !!

During the interval I find a wee path by the lake and in the gloaming light a quick spliff for two puffs then complement the taste with a Benson & Hedges – a few other dimly-lit shapes are puffing too.  No Smoking in the Park, and there are cops in abundance, but not here.  Back in the grassy meadow kids are playing with neon glowsticks and wine has been consumed.  A level of chatter I’m suddenly hyper-aware of in my newly-stoned state.  I find a spot and stand for a bit as a speech or two is delivered, mainly expressing solidarity with Orlando after this week’s mass shooting.  Gay Pride starts here on Sunday for a week.  It will be massive this year.  Meanwhile in England Jo Cox, young MP for Batley and Spen with a record of helping refugees and celebrating immigrants is murdered by a white supremacist outside her constituency surgery in broad daylight.  The shock is still reverberating through England, currently in the poisonous peak of the EU referendum which we are well out-of over here.  A platform legitimising fascist Farage and giving all the racists in Britain an entitlement to their foul imaginings has polluted the body of the nation, and bitterness and repulsion are all around.   But we are not going backwards now.  Let’s get the poison out, let’s beat it and move on.  And we will fight this fight in every generation for hate will not disappear.  But we will smother it, restrict its oxygen and put it back in the cupboard of shame and keep talking the talk and walking the walk after this utterly pointless ruling-class exercise in divide and rule.

I submitted and bought this box-set about 20 years ago

I lie down propped up by my cycle helmet.  The evil and division of the world disappears and is replaced by lines, shapes, phrases and numbers as Beethoven’s Third Symphony starts,   magnificent, swirling,  the main theme revealed almost immediately then repeated, swollen, then again with flutes, horns, cellos.  I don’t know this music intimately, but I know it.  It is incredible.  The way the themes are intimated, delivered, modulated, a change of key, of tempo, of bar length, of instrument, the underlying countermelody becomes the theme and back and forth and folding and rising and falling.  Delicate lyricism, fluid phrasing, ralles and crescendos, impassioned and evocative.  I am lying on my back on the grass with my eyes closed.  I am stoned.  I am very happy.

Beethoven in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte

The 3rd Symphony was written as an heroic musical tribute to Napoleon, whom Beethoven admired greatly, and probably idealised.  As he was about to publish the work in 1804, Bonaparte declared himself (like Caesar centuries earlier) Emporer of all of Europe.  Just another tyrant, feet of clay, no hero.   Ludwig Van was so enraged that he scratched Bonaparte’s name off of the score with such fury that he tore the paper and re-titled it Eroica (the heroic symphony).

It was, at the time, the longest symphony ever written at around an hour, and early reviews were poor.  Never trust those early reviews ! Beethoven himself said about it that if it is an hour long, then people will find it short enough.  He has been proved right over the years and it stands as one of his, and music’s great achievements.

I scan my life in 45 seconds as the music soars and sweeps around me.  It’s all good. A quick flash of me aged 16 in Clockwork Orange garb with false eyelashes worshipping Ludwig Van almost as much as Malcolm McDowell.  Travel.  Work.  Pain.  Love.  It’s been a long swim to get to this park, this moment of surrender.  Sometimes you need to just stop struggling. Just before she left for work Jenny hugged and kissed me then looked into my eyes smiling  “we’re doing all right” she said, “we’ll be fine“.   So far so good.

My Pop Life #131 : Santa Claus Is Coming To Town – The Crystals

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town   –   The Crystals

Jimmy, I just came back from a lovely trip along the milky way
I stopped off at the North Pole to spend the holiday
I called on old, dear Santa Claus to see what I could see
He took me to his workshop and told his plans to me
Now Santa is a busy man, he has no time for play
He’s got millions of stockings to fill come Christmas day
You better write your letter now and mail it right away
Because he’s getting ready, his reindeers and his sleigh…

I expect most of us raised as christians can remember the day when we discovered that Santa Claus would Not in fact Be Coming To Town.  For the simple reason that he didn’t actually exist.  A moment of private devastation.  But we carried on telling each other the story, spinning the yarn.

I was eight years old at the little flint-walled village school in Selmeston in East Sussex, in the shadow of the South Downs.  My holy ground now, filled with echoes and ghosts, glimpses of innocence lost, like this one.  Then, it was filled with wonder and nature.   Seasons changing.   Discovery.  One December day a small group of us were discussing Santa Claus before the teacher arrived.  One child, which one I simply cannot recall, could it be Midge Millward  ventured the terrible truth to a sceptical audience of believers that Santa Claus didn’t actually exist.  Like an anvil dropping through the floor this news broke each and every one of us.  Something which perhaps we’d suspected but secretly hoped wasn’t true.  Now it seemed confirmed, announced, solid news to sulk over.  Would Christmas still happen ?  Of course it would.  The stocking was filled by Mum and Dad when we were asleep.  I decided to stay awake all night on Christmas Eve and catch them doing it.  Like probably millions of other small children around the world.  Did I then proceed to break the news to my brother Paul who was two innocent years younger than I ?  Memory does not supply the answer but perhaps I needed company in my newly-found Christmas loneliness.  Or perhaps I locked the secret away…

The Crystals in 1963

I never did see my parents or my Mum when she was single fill my stocking, or indeed deliver it unto my bed.  I never did feel it either.  It remains the greatest single thrill available to my memory of Christmas, to wake up on Christmas morning and feel a bulging mysterious generously-filled football sock stuffed with surprises, fruit, nuts, PRESENTS !  God it was exciting, whether Santa did it or not.  At some point (12-13-14?) the sock was over, and I felt suddenly grown-up.

My wife Jenny was raised Catholic in North London and has a much more scarring tale of Santa Claus Not Coming To Town.  Her brother Jon, older, and Jenny herself at five, had been bothering their mother, Esther, about writing to Santa Claus, when would he be coming, what would he bring, would they meet him, could they see him, how was he going to get in, there wasn’t a chimney.  “Be quiet both of you !!” Esther suddenly screamed : “Father Christmas is dead !!!”  There was a shocked silence.  Esther decided to explain, I imagine their little faces were as shocked as it is possible to witness.  “He died over 300 years ago his real name is Saint Nicholas, so stop asking me about him it is just a story !!!”  What Esther perhaps hadn’t calculated was that Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St Nick and their avatars are a useful tool for keeping young children in line in December, perhaps earlier.  As the lyrics of the song go :

He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…

There were two younger sisters in the Christmasses following, Mandy and Lucy, and to protect them against a similar fate, Jon and Jenny kept up the Santa Claus myth, colluded in the cover story and even helped to fill the stockings on Christmas Eve.  But Jenny told me, today, that she never did have a stocking on Christmas morning, ever.  You see, everyone has a cross to bear at the end of the day.  I have to confess that I felt sorry for her, and vowed that I would create that experience for her at some future date.  Next Christmas !

Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town was written by Tin Pan Alley partners John Frederick Coots (who also wrote Love Letters In The Sand) and Haven Gillespie (who also wrote You Go To My Head)  and it was performed live on the radio in November 1934.  The morning after the Eddie Cantor show there were over 10,000 requests for the sheet music, and it remains one of the biggest hits in popular music.  Covers include Perry Como in 1951, Four Seasons in 1963, The Jackson Five in 1970 and Bruce Springsteen in 1975 (1985 release), as well as Frank Sinatra, Lou Rawls, The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, Dolly Parton, Miley Cyrus, Bing Crosby, The Pointer Sisters, Justin Beiber and Mariah Carey among many many others.

I’ve chosen The Crystals version which appears on the famous LP  Phil Spector : A Christmas Gift For You simply because, like so many tracks on that glorious album, it is the best version to my ears, both in arrangement, feeling and enjoyability.  The LP was put together in Los Angeles with Spector’s own artists Darlene Love, The Ronettes, The Crystals and Bobb B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans backed by the world-famous “Wrecking Crew” in a production arrangement that mirrored the Detroit scene at Tamla Motown.

Jack Nitzsche, Darlene Love, Phil Spector recording The Christmas album in 1963

The Wrecking Crew (the moniker is disputed by bassist Carol Kaye who claims it was invented in the 1990s by drummer Hal Blaine) were young session musicians at the beginning of an illustrious career which would see them backing Nancy Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Glen Campbell, The Mamas & The Papas, The 5th Dimension, The Carpenters and Simon & Garfunkel among others.   Here under the direction of Spector and Jack Nitzsche they were creating what would become known as “The Wall Of Sound” where everything including the kitchen sink was thrown into the mix.  The resulting songs changed pop history:  Be My Baby by The Ronettes (July 1963) which epitomises the effect, and on this LP,   the magnificent Sleigh Ride – an auditory and musical marvel of a piece of work, alongside The Crystals wonderful re-working of the standard Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.

The Crystals

The Crystals were signed as teenage talent in 1961 from Central Commercial High School at E33rd St in New York City, and famously, Myrna Giraud, Barbara Alston and Mary Thomas recorded their first single There’s No Other (Like My Baby) in their prom dresses having been driven to the studio directly from their High School Prom in 1961.

They went on to cut three of the best singles of all time : Da Do Ron Ron, He’s A Rebel and Then He Kissed Me, all on Phil Spector’s Philles label, but their line-up changed constantly and Spector would sometimes put out records with The Crystals name on it but with other singers such as Darlene Love or The Ronettes singing the song.  This tended to strain the relationship, if you can call svengali/teenage girl  “a relationship”.

Same Crystals line-up in their civvies

Eventually the group left for United Artists in 1964, but ironically all their best work was with the manipulative and oppressive pop genius Spector and his partner Jack Nitzsche.  The one constant in the constantly-changing group line-up was Dolores Dee Dee Kenniebrew who was also present at that famous first recording in Manhattan and she still sings with The Crystals today.

Dee Dee Kenniebrew

Their version of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, recorded in 1963, was the first to change the chorus to take the first note off the one-beat, onto the off-beat giving it the drum break and the excitement we hear in the Motown versions, Springsteen‘s live take, The Beach Boys and all others since that date – more or less making earlier versions seem plodding and square.   Do we have to credit Spector with that ?  Or Nitzche ?

After The Brighton Beach Boys had been together for a few years the idea of performing a Christmas gig became irresistible, and after we’d worked out Brian Wilson’s  Little Saint Nick (itself a homage to Phil Spector like much of The Beach Boys early work) we looked at other songs from The Beach Boys Christmas Album, and this one leaped out and demanded an outing.   We’d been booked to play The Pavilion Theatre (poster above by Rory Cameron) which was as close as we ever got to cultural establishment respectability and we wanted to make an effort.  For that particular show I found an amazing triptych mural which my friend Jan Gage had painted for our  wedding reception – a three-part giant homage to Hokusai’s The Wave on which we had printed our invitations.  It felt appropriate to Catch A Wave and so it hung behind the drum kit.  Rather amazingly Jan Gage and her boyfriend Vince came down to Brighton for this show and it remained the only time a) that she saw the band and b) that we used that triptych because Jenny, rightly, said she wanted it preserved for all eternity rather than have it driven around to gigs in the back of a van.

Hokusai : The Wave

As for the song in question, we ended up doing a slightly star-spangled version arranged by Stephen Wrigley  which started like The Beach Boys with close vocal acapella, styled like The Jackson 5 with their underpinned harmony and finished with Springsteen – a Clemons-style raging baritone saxophone solo courtesy of Charlotte Glasson, in-between sounding absolutely nothing like The Crystals, but owing them a debt of arrangement.  I sing the bass on this song, from deep F to even deeper Bb.  We stole Clarence Clemons‘ baritone aside “You better be good for goodness sake” from the Springsteen version because we are frankly shameless musically, especially at Christmas.

Clarence Clemons & Bruce Springsteen

So Santa Claus Is Coming To Town this week (it is December the 21st 2015) and …he also isn’t.  We like to tell each other these stories.  We prefer stories to The Truth.  Obvious reasons.  Stories are better, good guys win, we live happily ever, we learn life lessons etc etc, all that.  Santa Claus is pretty harmless though isn’t he?  She ? Is he black ?  Malaysian ?  We are all Santa Claus aren’t we ?  Coming to Town.  Driving Home For Christmas.  Are you hanging up your stocking on the wall ?

Barbara, Dee Dee, La La and Fran

Enjoy your holiday, wherever you may be.

just for fun we nicked the harmonies from The Jackson 5:  

My Pop Life #129 : Get Close To Me – Thomas Jules

Get Close To Me   –   Thomas Jules

I hope you don’t mind I’m gonna speak my mind

Not good at sensitivity but I’m the sensitive kind

A bit A.D.D. don’t interrupt me and thank you so much

Don’t get me wrong I know you ain’t blind

Ain’t gonna patronise

but it’s my duty as a mate to make you draw the line

Now would you hear me like Oprah Winfrey or Jeremy Kyle ?

Just wanna make you smile…

 I’ve been watching over my nephew Thomas Jules since he was 7 years old or thereabouts.  I had just started going out with his Aunty Jenny and when I visited the family home in Wembley there was this cheeky bright-eyed sweetheart to greet me alongside Jen’s sisters Dee (his mother), Mollie, Natasha and Lucy and her brother Jon as well as her amazing parents Esther and Thomas.  A very close-knit loving family group – in great contrast to my dysfunctional scattered clan, they were welcoming and kind and polite and gentle.

confident Thomas aged 7  with friend Danny

And they still are.  Except that now we all love each other.  Jenny and I used to look after Thomas particularly on summer holidays when we lived in Archway Road in the late 1980s/90s and he would visit Jackson’s Lane Summer School which was all singing, dancing, acting, performing – right up his street, and literally right up ours, about 400 yards in fact.   As the performing side of the family I’d like to think we gave him a little confidence and a few tricks to go with his natural talent and gifts, which are many and legion.  Of course Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules (who has sung with  Bryan Ferry, George Michael, Kylie, Sam Smith and David Gilmour) represents the musical side of the family and has obviously had a huge influence on the young man both in terms of techniques, voice protection and business advice, along with Uncle Jon who has been a DJ since he was a teenager, was also in a band Undercover and who has advised Tom consistently.

Tom in 3rd Edge around 2002

Thomas was signed when he was 14 years old, had a hit single in 1997 with That Kinda Guy which was on the Bean film soundtrack, formed garage-rap-pop-boy-band 3rd Edge on Parlaphone around the millenium and had several hit singles and TOTP appearances from 2002-3 before breaking out to write and sing with a huge variety of singers and rappers in the noughties such as Wiley, Mystro, Shandra D, 2Play (another hit single with a cover of Careless Whisper) Mark Radford, Crookers and Scorcher;  singing back-up with diverse acts like Lulu and Professor Green before settling in as lead vocalist with UK Dance act Rudimental where he was for over two years.

 I’m also happy to report that he co-wrote a song on the 2nd Rudimental LP We The Generation called Love Ain’t Just A Word (see My Pop Life #149), and had his another co-write released : Do It Right by Anne-Marie – his co-singer in Rudimental.  Thomas has always worked hard at his craft both as a singer and top-line writer, and in a shark-infested industry has remained a decent guy who knows a lot of people, has good representation and has a lot of respect from his peers, who include Ed Sheeran, Disclosure, Jessie J, Wiley, Dizzee Rascal and many many others.

When Jenny and I moved down to Brighton in 1996/7 we knew no one in the town.  Shortly thereafter Jenny’s schoolfriend Millie moved down from London, then when Thomas outgrew his family home in Harlow we offered him a bedroom in our house.  He lived there for two years or so, met his girlfriend and babymother Scarlett on August 9th 2005 whereupon within a year she had moved in too.

 

Thomas and Scarlett

We were a happy house but eventually they wanted their own space and lived first in St George’s Road (down the hill), then Waterloo Street on the Hove border and now reside in Portslade with their gorgeous funny beautiful daughter Skye.

Skye Phoenix Jules-Pugh

I wrote about Thomas and I in My Pop Life #57 and explained that I am a 57 mystic or UNX.  In Loco Paternis.  We are close.   Whenever I see Tom the first thing he does is pull out a device and play me the new demo he’s just cut that day with so-and-so.  I love this part of the relationship.  In 2009 Tom decided to take a pass at a Robert Smith song called Close To Me which was a hit single for The Cure in 1985.  The resulting song, called Get Close To Me was a re-imagining – an r&b-flavoured pop/garage tune.  I was never a huge fan of the Cure but I like Tom’s playful intimacy in the verses, and hook-line for the chorus.  Tom’s then-manager Jake wanted a video to accompany it.  I volunteered to shoot it on my handy 3-chip DV Camera which was loaned out to almost every theatre company, band and political group in Brighton over the 18 years that I lived there.  We were on the beach, the pier, drove round the Downs, took the fabulous Staffordshire Terrier Cassie into a laundrette on St George’s Road, mucked about in the twittens in The Lanes and with the graff kids at Black Rock and the end result is the video you can see below.  Some local friends and fam sneak in towards the end – I’ll mention Kerry, Louie Cresswell, Maddy McNicholas, Tanisha Flynn-Pugh, Scarlett and probably her sister Simone but the others will have to shout out below because a) I can’t see them, b) I can’t remember, and c) the video is a wee bit downgraded.  It’s the best one I’ve got I’m afraid.   It’s very much Brighton 2009.  Good times.

Thomas ripping it up live with Rudimental

Not having children ourselves means that all of our nephews nieces and god-children (quite a few) and of course our cats(!) are all very special to us.  I have always felt that the very worst part of parenting a child must be that moment when she leaves home to make a new home.  And you are left waiting for phone calls, text messages and emails.  After 20 years or so of sharing space, opinions, jokes, food, and small talk suddenly there is silence.  I think it must be unbearable.  But everyone bears it.  It’s natural, apparently.  I’m not so sure.  I do know that moving to New York has had serious implications for my relationships with my little ones (most of whom are now grown up big people in their twenties).  They feel further away from me.  This means I am still in touch with reality because they actually are further away from me.  Geography, the most real of all.  This morning at 6am Jenny’s phone rang downstairs and to my inchoate sleeping anger she got up and went down the spiral stairs to answer it.  It was Thomas, on tour with Rudimental in Australia, wanting to talk to someone because Nanny Bet had her funeral yesterday in Great Yarmouth (see My Pop Life #122) and Tom thought he’d had a ‘bad show’ in Melbourne and felt isolated and far away.  He is far away !!  Aunty Jenny managed to make him laugh and eventually she came back to bed.  My anger was mainly protective of her sleep because she has two shows today and two more tomorrow (Henry IV, all-women) and she gets very tired on the weekends.  But her selfless good fairy quality made her rise and twinkle, for she knew deep in her genius bones that someone needed her love.  She is a good Aunty.  Aunx perhaps.   I didn’t get up and answer the phone, but I did write a blog later.   Miss you Tom, and love you very much.

Skye, Thomas, Jackson, Cassie

In the clip beneath the “official video” Tom and Ed Sheeran  (his long time friend and brer) play an acoustic version of Get Close To Me.  Some people prefer it, but :  it doesn’t have Cassie…

Acoustic version with Ed Sheeran accompanying :

My Pop Life #123 : Philosophy – Ben Folds Five

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Philosophy   –   Ben Folds Five

..I see that there is evil and I know that there is good

But the in-between I’ve never understood…

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Ben Folds Five

It was on the radio in August 1995 that I first heard Ben Folds Five.  They were amazing.  The music sounded hand-crafted specially for me – pure major-chord bright-eyed sophisticated pop music fronted by a piano; witty songs, arrangements and lyrics and brilliant music with no guitars.  I’ve never been a huge fan of the guitar to be honest – so of course here follows a list of exceptions <sigh>  :  Jimi Hendrix, Joe Walsh, Blue Oyster Cult, QOTSA, Sex Pistols, George Harrison, Elmore James, Django Reinhardt, Paco de Lucia, Guy Clark, Franco & TPOK Jazz, The Ramones etc etc

But the piano.  Come on.  The finest musical instrument.  An orchestra in two hands.  Bach.  Mozart.  Chopin.  Erik Satie.  Debussy.  Scott Joplin.   James P. Johnson.   Rachmaninov.  Ellington.  Fats Waller.  Teddy Wilson.  Art Tatum.  Count Basie.  Fats Domino.  Ray Charles.  Randy Newman.  Alan Price.  Ian McLagan.  Gilbert O’Sullivan.  Kate Bush.  Ben Folds.

Hey – whose Pop Life is it anyway ?

Ben Folds was the pianist.  Darren Jessee was the drummer.  Robert Sledge played bass.

Just three of them, and they called the band Ben Folds Five.  Sounded better I suppose.

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The first single was called Underground and it sounded amazing on the radio.  Amazing enough for me to go out and find the CD somewhere.  Called Ben Folds Five, it had a picture of a piano on the front cover.   It was excellent.   Packed chock-full of ideas, the songs were about college, leaving college, being a young adult, looking back, growing up.   Many styles.   Some were like Elton John, some were rock music, some were like music hall/ragtime, others like prog.   And they could play.   Folds himself is clearly classically trained, returned to pop.  The fuzz bass is a huge part of the sound.  And the backing vocals.  My favourite track on that first LP is called Philosophy and it is a little impenetrable lyrically – theories abound that it is about an architect, the Statue of Liberty, Ben’s cock.  Seriously.  (He made a joke about it once and everyone remembered it).   But I think it’s about having your own self-image, your own take on life and your path through it.  Your own philosophy that “keeps your feet on the ground, keeps you walking when you fall down”.    Without that you’re a cypher.

I immediately set about learning it on the piano.  It is a beautiful thing.   But very soon I was off to Australia on a gig, and by the time I came back we were completing on a house purchase in Brighton.

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Mollie Jules-Crompton

Cut to November 1996, one year later and Jenny and I are babysitting for Mollie’s girls Dominique, Kimberley and Courtnie (who was only one year old!) in Ruislip for a week.   Mollie – Jenny’s older (but not oldest) sister, married to Pete a year before us – was in hospital under observation because she was pregnant again, and she’d already lost two previous pregnancies desperately trying for a boy.   Mollie & Pete had three very beautiful and fabulous girls – still do – but they both wanted a boy, even at some risk to Mollie’s health.  It was a worrying time for us all.  Mollie was also showing signs of auto-immune disease Lupus once again to complicate things.   At this point at the end of November she was six months pregnant and there had been some alarm so Jen and I stepped in and said we could stay overnight there for a few nights.   Pete was working nights at that point.

Anyway, come November 26th we got Jenny’s two younger sisters Mandy and Lucy to stand in for us as babysitters because we had two tickets to see Ben Folds Five at the Astoria in London’s Charing Cross Road.  Over a year after the album was released this was their first tour of the UK.

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The Astoria, Charing Cross Road, London

The Astoria was one of those great London venues which has now been destroyed to make way for Crossrail, the project that allows bankers to whizz into the City from Heathrow in half an hour.   It is responsible for the current destruction of Soho as a unique bohemian corner of London.   I didn’t see that many shows there, but David Bowie in 2001, and this from Ben Folds Five are up there with the best moments.

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Ben Folds Five live

They played the whole album and some interesting covers – Ray Charles You Don’t Know Me and Elton John’s Tiny Dancer – and absolutely smashed Philosophy and Underground with Ben jumping onto the piano and playing it with his fists and feet at one point.  Good show.  We came out and Jenny immediately called her sisters to find out if all was well.  We’d driven in from Ruislip – I think I had a Jag at that point – some gas guzzling blue monster that I loved driving – and Jenny suddenly burst into tears on the street as we walked round to Soho Square.  “Mollie’s had a baby boy” she said through sobs…”he’s in an incubator”.

We drove to the hospital and found Mollie, exhausted but happy, wth Pete, and Jenny’s Mum & Dad, and there was a tiny little precious baby boy in a transparent incubator, tubes going into his nostrils as his tiny hands tried to pull them out – it was a good sign.  He was three months premature.  He weighed less than a bag of sugar – 2lbs.  In those early days there was much worry about brain damage and stunted growth and all kinds of things, but those early struggles to remove his nose tubes were a sign of strength through adversity and slowly but surely he was removed from the incubator and grew into the healthy young nephew that Jenny and her sisters called ‘Boy’ after the youngest, Cookie had named him.

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Robert, Jordan and Cookie in 2006

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Robert – June 17th 2007 when he was 11

Robert is now 18 years old and a more throughly great young man I couldn’t wish to know.  Thoughtful, funny, gentle but nobody’s fool.

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Robert Jules-Crompton and I in 2013

 I’m not sure he even knows this story about his nativity – from our side anyway.  I doubt he’s heard this song.   But I know he has his own philosophy which keeps his feet on the ground.  Jenny and I took him to see Tottenham v Chelsea one day for a birthday present a few years ago.  All Jenny’s family are Tottenham Hotspur fans.  Oh well.

It’s now November 2015, some 20 years after that first Ben Folds Five LP was released, and two days ago Robert’s nan Bet, Pete’s Mum, passed away in Yarmouth.  Cycles of birth and death.  She will live on inside us all, inside all who knew her.  But death is a loss, and it has been a sad week. Rest in Peace Nanny Bet.

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Pete, Kimberley, Bet, Dominique in 2013

*

Ben Folds Five did two more magnificent LPs : Whatever & Ever Amen and The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner – both outstanding;  an LP of B-sides, and then split.  Ben Folds did some cracking solo LPs himself – notably Rockin’ The Suburbs and Songs For Silverman, and Ben Folds Five reformed for one last LP The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind in 2012.

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Robert with his nephew Kian, Dominique’s son in 2012

Philosophy, the song, has a moment towards the end when everything goes mental and Ben’s pounded piano solo turns into a quotation from George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, that mighty work from 1924 which has come to symbolise New York, via Woody Allen’s Manhattan and various other cultural markers.  Soon I will get the famous cadence – the theme from Rhapsody in Blue – tattooed onto my right arm.

LP track

Live from Jools in 1996

Reformed band in 2010

My Pop Life #98 : When Something Is Wrong With My Baby – Sam & Dave

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When Something Is Wrong With My Baby   –   Sam & Dave

…we stand as one…and that’s what makes it better….

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Sam and Dave in 1967

When I landed at LSE in 1976 to study Law I was a country boy from Sussex who’d grown up in a town where the 1960s were still being celebrated.   Lewes wouldn’t go punk until around 1979-1980.   My musical taste was – I thought – pretty wide.    It wasn’t.    I’d discovered soul and reggae in 1971 in the magical forms of Al Green, Smokey Robinson, Dave & Ansel Collins and Bob & Marcia – all chart acts though.  All the non-chart music I liked was stuff like:  prog (VDGG & Gentle Giant), US country rock (Commander Cody, Joe Walsh) and groovy english rock (Man & Roxy Music).  Random additions in the shape of Osibisa, Joan Armatrading and Blue Öyster Cult completed the patchy picture.   My new friend at LSE was Glaswegian Rangers fan Lewis MacLeod, also studying Law, with absurdly long wavy hair and an almost unintelligible accent, especially when drunk.   We bonded while writing a Beatles ‘A’ Level Paper together one stoned afternoon (I’ll blog it one day).   We were hungry for more music.   Together we would go on a voyage of discovery into the deepest realms of soul music.  Classic soul music.

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I suspect the first major purchase of this period was James Brown’s 30 Golden Hits, all the singles from Please Please Please through to the most recent Sex Machine.   This was a record to savour.   But it wasn’t enough, oh no.    Next up was the Stax Gold LP which was the creme de la creme from Memphis, but only scratched the surface of that great record label (William Bell and Judy Clay – Private Number, Mel & Tim –  Starting All Over Again, The Staple Singers – Respect Yourself, Jean Knight – Mr Big Stuff – all will have their day!).

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I don’t think Sam & Dave were represented on this LP because for arcane reasons their records were all owned and distributed (?) by Atlantic, the parent company who completely stiffed Stax in the late 1960s.  Although I have some of their 45s on the Stax blue label. Curious.  We dug deeper – Sam & Dave recorded all their hits at Stax Records under the supervision of soul gurus David Porter and Isaac Hayes,Featured image with the house band Booker T & The MGs playing the instruments – two white fellas Steve Cropper and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on guitar and bass, and two black fellas Booker T Washington on keys and Al Parker on drums (pictured right).   This is a major band of brothers.   Together with the Memphis Horns – white trumpeter Wayne Jackson and black saxophonist Andrew Love they created an unparalleled run of songs that define southern soul music.   All of the singers were black: Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, The Staples Singers, Wilson Pickett (also released by Atlantic), William Bell, Johnnie Taylor, blues guitarist Albert King.  The owners were white : Jim Stewart, who formed Stax Records in 1959 with his sister Estelle Axton (St-Ax) and who personally engineered many of these records up almost until the takeover of the company by Al Bell in 1970.   I mention the race of the participants because it both was and was not important – it wasn’t important to the musicians at all, nor to Jim and Estelle, but Memphis, Tennessee was a racially segregated city when they were all growing up, and yet they worked together making classic soul music for all those years.   However once Dr Martin Luther King was shot just up the road from Stax in the Lorraine Motel in 1968, the atmosphere and racial politics of America and the record label changed.   The story of Stax Records is for me the most compelling portrait of America in the 1960s and I have long nurtured projects about Booker T & The MGs, Otis Redding and the label itself.  There are many documentaries, and books (Rob Bowman wrote the best one) and a museum now stands where the studio was, overseen by previous Stax secretary Deannie Parker, whom I have spoken to on the telephone while trying to get a Stax stage play off the ground.  She was very sweet and helpful.

Sam & Dave came up through the gospel circuit in the South and met at an amateur night in Miami.  They became a duo that night and were later signed to a local record label by Henry Stone.  Stone it was who suggested them to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records (based in New York) and Wexler decided to ‘loan them out’ to Stax because he thought their style suited the label.   He was right.   While Steve Cropper and Jim Stewart worked on the first few songs, they were soon passed to relative label newcomers Isaac Hayes and David Porter who proceeded to shape their act into a more passionate call-and-response Southern roots gospel sound, and who then wrote and produced a run of hit singles that was only bettered in the R&B charts by Aretha Franklin in the 1960s, including huge pop hits Soul Man and Hold On I’m Coming.

Sam Moore has the higher sweeter voice, a Sam Cooke template if you will, while Dave Prater is the gruffer urgent baritone reminiscent of Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops.   Together they were Double Dynamite or The Sultans Of Sweat, the most compelling live act of the 1960s (and that includes Otis and Aretha).   They wore lime green suits with red handkerchiefs to mop up the sweat, the righteous sweat that they produced onstage as they whipped the crowd into a frenzy.   The music was infectious, the double act irresistible.

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Featured imageThey went on tour to Europe in 1967 – The Stax/Volt Revue  – with Otis Redding, Arthur Conley (Sweet Soul Music), Eddie Floyd and The Mar-Keys.  Booker T & The MGs backed every singer and Otis was naturally top of the bill.  The story goes that he would watch Sam & Dave from the wings every night as they ripped through their hits, kicking up a storm with their gritty gospel soul and leaving the audience high – then he’d have to go on and top it – solo – every night.   He’d never worked so hard in his life.   At the end of that tour he told his manager Phil Walden never to book him with Sam & Dave again.   But tragically Otis would be dead before the year was out,  killed in a plane crash on December 10th 1967 near Madison, Wisconsin just three days after recording Dock Of The Bay.   There are now recordings of this amazing Stax/Volt tour available out there.   I’d just love to have been at one of those shows.

When Something Is Wrong With My Baby was Sam & Dave’s only ballad (there I go again!) released in January 1967.   It didn’t dent the UK charts, and I certainly didn’t hear it as a 9-year old.   I first heard it in my crate-digging soul years when I amassed over a period of some years a rather splendid collection of rhythm and blues 45s and LPs which I subsequently lost in the split with Mumtaz in 1985 (see My Pop Life #93), and then slowly rebuilt from (spiral) scratch.   I’m certain that this essential song is on the Soul Tape that I made for Jenny when we were courting (see My Pop Life #29 & My Pop Life #28).    It became one of “our songs”.   Well, it would wouldn’t it?    What an amazing record.   Wayne Jackson himself said it was the best record he played on, or heard in the 1960s.   Rob Bowman’s book calls it “one of the most sublime records in soul music’s history“.

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So that when I was invited to be interviewed by Peter Curran for Greater London Radio to promote either a film or a TV show (cannot remember!)  that was about to be released, I travelled down to the cosy GLR Studios in Marylebone clutching my Stax 45rpm 7″ copy of this single, hoping that the young Northern Irish DJ would indulge the youngish Sussex actor.   I think it was 1990, but I wouldn’t put money on it.   And bless Mr Curran’s cotton socks because when he saw a 7-inch single in my hand he immediately said “Great – you’ve brought in some music – what is it?” instead of wittering on about the playlist like some radio stations I could mention.  And he played it.

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Eddie Floyd, Sam Moore, Steve Cropper, Otis Redding, Wayne Jackson and Arthur Conley on tour with Stax/Volt in Europe 1967

A few days later I was at Jenny’s parents’ house in Wembley and Dee was there – Jenny’s eldest sister (Tom’s Mum) and her partner Mick Stock.   They ran a pub together in Alperton, just down the road.   Mick was in the kitchen when he saw me, and said, “I heard you on the radio the other day Ralph.  GLR?”  “Oh yes. Did you?”  I answered, always embarrassed by these kinds of conversations, especially then, before I’d learned the human art of grace-under-pressure.   Mick was happy though.  “I love that Sam and Dave song – brilliant choice!” he said  – and shook my hand.   “Great stuff“.   What a lovely endorsement.

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Jamie with Mick in 1992

Sadly for us all, Mick Stock – Jamie and Jordan’s father – passed away in 2013 of a heart attack and is deeply missed.    I dedicate this song to him, and to Dee.

vinyl single :

outstanding live version where Dave sings the 1st verse solo, Sam the 2nd :

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