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. 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 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 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 left arm. Sometime this November.

LP track

Live from Jools in 1996

Reformed band in 2010

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My Pop Life #92 : Cities – Talking Heads

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Cities   –   Talking Heads

…there’s good points !  and bad points ! 

it all works out…..sometimes I’m a little freaked out…

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August 1979 I was a Batchelor of Law with a 2:2.   It was ‘only’ a 2:2 because I didn’t do any work.   I didn’t do any work because I wasn’t motivated.   I wasn’t motivated because I wasn’t going to be a lawyer.   I wasn’t going to be a lawyer  because I was going to be an actor – but not yet.   Not yet because I was saving up to go to Latin America with brother Paul for a whole year.   I was going out with Mumtaz, but I was going, I was leaving, I was going to Mexico!  To Bogota !  To Lima !  Rio ! Ten dollars a day.  That’s $3650 I needed to make, on top of the plane fare to Mexico City.  I had a plan, and I’d already started to carry it out.  At the end of my last year at LSE I’d seen a notice on the ubiquitous noticeboard – it’s what we did before the internet – saying “Student wanted to paint exterior of house for cash” – and I’d answered it.   It was a guy in Pinner – I can’t remember his connection to the LSE – and I met him and he agreed that I was the chap for the job.  He provided all the paint, brushes and scaffolding and all I had to do was turn up every day and paint those damn windows and doors.

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West Hampstead Jubilee Line to Wembley, then Metropolitan line to Pinner.   If you’ve never been there, well it’s very English in a certain suburban kind of way.  Did Elton John come from there?  It’s a suburb of North West London, part of Harrow in fact.    It was actually a really pleasant summer holiday’s work, his wife was sweet, she made me tea at intervals and I had a radio like all British workmen.

This is the sort of wanker I was in those days : one day at lunch I was chatting about this and that with his wife – they were in their 50s I guess, I was 22, and I asked her what he did for a living?  She said he was in business and left it at that.  I demurred.  I didn’t like business I said.  I didn’t believe in business.  She was quite shocked but too polite to be annoyed.  She simply said that business was necessary.   I remember that conversation quite clearly.  funny the things you remember and the things you don’t.  But I was clearly a wanker who thought he was Elvis Costello “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me“.   Anyway.   I also had blues – amphetamine sulphate in tablet form, otherwise known as speed, powder blue in colour, which I was then dealing from behind the bar at the Scala All-Nighter on Saturdays (see My Pop Life #23) and eating the proceeds.   Literally.   Come lunchtime on the scaffold outside the Pinner house I was starting to flag, so I’d pop a couple of blues and hi-dippetty-dee, whistle while you work.  Sing-alonga radio one.   Of course then the comedown would come crashing in around 6pm or so, because I couldn’t take two more or I’d be up all night so I would start to slump and frazzle just after I’d got back to Tower Mansions in West End Lane where I lived with Pete, Sali and Nick (see My Pop Life #59) and to soften the deadening empty slump of a blues comedown what do you do?  Yes.  You roll a joint.  And then another.  And listen to music with your mates.

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Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison, David Byrne 1979

Reggae mainly, but also everything else : soul, jazz, Emmylou Harris, Frank Zappa,   and some classic post-punk singles in picture sleeves : Spizz Energi, The Slits, Buzzcocks, Shoes For Industry, Gang Of Four, PiL and so on.   Albums on the turntable that summer were Neil Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps“, Robert Fripp’s “Exposure“, The Gang Of Four’s “Entertainment!“, Ry Cooder’s “Bop ‘Til You Drop“, and Ian Dury & The Blockheads’ “Do It Yourself“.  Punk had been pronounced dead by the critics – Sid Vicious had died in January, but The Clash released London Calling and Stiff Little Fingers produced a couple of classic singles – and pop was alive and kicking in the UK in the shape of Squeeze, Elvis Costello and the two-tone explosion – Madness, The Special and The Selector all broke through.  Disco was king though, Jackson’s Off The Wall and Chic’s Good Times and Donna Summer’s Bad Girls were ubiquitous records.

 But for me personally the LP that was head and shoulders above all the rest in 1979 was Talking Heads’ 3rd album “Fear Of Music“.

Featured imageFeatured imageI’d already seen them twice by then when they toured England with the first LP “77” and the amazing second LP “More Songs About Building And Food” which I still love to death.  How could their third LP be better than THAT?  Well it was, and is.  “Fear Of Music” is a giant concept album, a jittering funk-rock classic with jagged edges, bouncing bass lines and hooks and riffs and clever lyrics galore.  Most of the songs have single-word titles :  Air, Paper, Drugs, Mind and my favourite : Cities.

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The first line of the single was completely awesome: as the music fades up :

Think of London : small city…

Is he kidding ?  London is huge.  I’d been living there three years and got to know it a bit – the West End, Honor Oak SE23 for my final year at LSE, West Hampstead, Hammersmith, Pinner ! – and Camden Town where I’d seen Talking Heads play in the Roundhouse, supported by Slaughter & The Dogs.

Featured imageLater in 1979 they would tour again with this album, this time playing Hammersmith Palais where everyone played that year : The B52s supported them this time I think.  They were so exciting, so poppy, so funky, so urgent, David Byrne would sing a line then skitter across the stage and they were as tight as any band I’ve seen.  Married couple Chris Frantz on the kit and Tina Weymouth on the bass, Jerry Harrison completing the line-up on keyboards.  They would go on to even greater success with “This is not my beautiful house” and “Road to Nowhere”, album producer Brian Eno would do a weird sampled-collage LP with David Byrne called My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, but this LP was just them at their pop peak, or maybe just before it.

dark… dark in the daytime…

people sleep… sleep in the daytime

if they want to – if they want to !

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It had a black sleeve with raised dashes on it like a weird manhole cover and neon green lettering : Fear Of Music.  Jerry Harrison designed the sleeve and came up with the title.   It was art-pop, it was post-punk, it was music for head, hands and feet.  We loved that band.

..did I forget to mention, forget to mention Memphis ? 

home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks…

My Pop Life #59 : Looks Is Deceiving – The Gladiators

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Looks Is Deceiving   –   The Gladiators

…old time people dem used to say when short mouth tell you, you can’t hear

so when long mouth tell you, you must feel it feel it…

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What we used to call a cracking tune.  1979 and Virgin Records released a sampler LP of Jamaican roots reggae called The Front Line, with a fist holding barbed wire, blood trickling down the wrist.  It cost 69p.   This was one of the tracks – there were two from The Gladiators, the other being the mighty Pocket Money which I also tag below because youtube has the great 12 inch version complete with Dub Version.   Weird to think now how influential reggae was in the late 70s, how much was played on the radio – John Peel in particular was religious about it, and people bought the records too, in 12″ format and albums – not just Marley who was huge, but Culture, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, The Mighty Diamonds, Augustus Pablo, Lee Perry, U-Roy.  Much weed was smoked to accompany this music, indeed Dub in particular turned out to be the perfect music to get stoned to, perhaps because the people making it were themselves stoned.  A kind of perfect circle.  Heady righteous days.  Home-grown reggae was having its moment too from Black Slate to Aswad to Misty in Roots and Steel Pulse.  Linton Kwesi Johnson would appear in 79.

At the end of my 3rd year at LSE I had scored a pretty average 2:2 degree in Law, due to not studying particularly hard, which meant I was an LLB or Bachelor of Law.  And so I would remain for all eternity because this marks the precise moment when I turned my back on the law and became an actor.  I had promised that I would.  Except that :  I didn’t.   You see, I had this rather harsh image of acting being rather like a pedigree horse-race where I was the horse, wearing blinkers, running, running, racing.   I thought to myself, probably while stoned : I’d better have a look round before I put those blinkers on.  And so it was that I moved into the flat at Tower Mansions, 134 West End Lane where Pete Thomas and Sali Beresford had two rooms to let.  I’d met them through LSE Ents, gigs, drugs, college events, but mainly musical sympathies.  The other flatmate was Nick Partridge (now Sir Nick!) who’d been at Keele, an amiable knowledgeable and sweet man. We were all out of college and on the rampage in North London.   We were in a bit of a gang too : Colin Jones, red hair, glasses & fuzzy beard who taught me how to drive, Tony Roose an old mate of Pete’s with whom I went to Belfast in 1981, John Vincent, shy and sweet but deadly with a frisbee, Andy Cornwell, alpha groover, edging towards the Legalise Cannabis Campaign and permanent tickets for all gigs in London.  All from the LSE except for Nick, who fitted in without a hint of catching up or “fitting in”.  And of course Mumtaz, my girlfriend, who’d left LSE 3 years earlier and was now almost an actual solicitor.

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I became a painter and decorator over that summer, working in Pinner for a businessman and his wife.  I think that’s when I became addicted to amphetamine sulphate in the form of blues.  But I rather suspect that’s for another story,  we’re on the weed and the reggae here.  The evening sessions rolling joints on record sleeves like More Songs About Buildings And Food by Talking Heads or One World by John Martyn, inhaling, passing to the left, listening to reggae, loving it a lot, playing backgammon, talking politics and music.  Out of the window, West End Lane -and three railways lines.  I had a plan – to save up enough money to take another year off, travelling – this time with brother Paul through South America…

The song Looks Is Deceiving is a series of Jamaican sayings that are received wisdom from the elders, older than the Bible (and rastafarians are really fond of the bible).  Don’t under-rate no man.  Don’t watch the tool what him can do – watch the man that behind it.  The man laugh first – him no laugh, the man laugh last – catch it full.  The cow don’t know what him tail for til the butcher cut it off.  

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The Gladiators, being rastafarians, are making their records in Babylon, so they give it to us in a parable.  On Pocket Money – another outstanding slice of roots reggae – they take the Old Testament and preach – from Genesis to Exodus…my sheep heard my voice… hypocrites evil doers, beware of those unseen eyes…then you feel like running away from yourself…Jah will cut you down !  A good friend is better than pocket money…

At this moment in time The Gladiators – Albert Griffiths on lead guitar, Clinton Fearon on bass, Gallimore Sutherland on rhythm, (all three singing) were backed by a stunning Studio One session band with Sly Dunbar on drums, Lloyd Parks on bass, Sticky Thompson on percussion, Ansel Collins on keys and Earl Lindo on synthesizer.  The great Joe Gibbs mixed, Tony Robinson produced for Virgin.   Pure greatness.