My Pop Life #114 : There’s Nothing Better Than Love – Luther Vandross

Featured image

There’s Nothing Better Than Love   –   Luther Vandross

…what in the world could you ever be thinking of ??…

This song makes me melt, because of the music, the words, the rhythm, the notes, and where it takes me – to 1989 and falling in love with Jenny.   We had started dating in the summer of ’88 and following a mad American road trip at the end of that year I had finally almost accepted that she WAS the ONE.  1989 we were together.  We were in Portsmouth where I proposed, in New York City and Washington D.C., but mainly we were in London, in Highgate N6, on the middle section of the Archway Road.

Featured image

Featured image

Jenny had introduced me to Luther Vandross in the shape of two LPs : Give Me The Reason and Any Love.  Probably three actually because I remember Never Too Much from this era too.  Luther was new to me, although I’d unknowingly heard him before singing background vocals on David Bowie’s Young Americans in 1974 and co-writing the song Fascination.  He also sang on the LP Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, one of the greatest soul albums of all time, released in 1972, which includes the first incarnation of Where Is The Love.  He also sang backing for Diana Ross, Chic, Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer and Carly Simon among others.  I found all this out later.

Featured image

One Thursday evening in late January we lay in bed together and I summoned the courage to tell Jenny that it was all over, that I didn’t think it would be a good idea if we carried on seeing each other.  “Why not?” said Jen, who was lying on my shoulder, my right arm around her.  “Well,” I said, “Because I don’t want you to fall in love with me.”  Luther Vandross was on the stereo singing this song !  “I’m already in love with you…” she answered.  The answer that stopped my breathing, and halted the celestial cycle and melted my heart, and softened my very bones.  I pulled her toward me in an embrace.  We have been together since that moment.

My courting of Jenny had reached the point of going to meet the parents, so one Sunday I was formally introduced to Esther & Thomas Jules a handsome and loving St Lucian couple who had produced a houseful of gorgeous girls and one son.  They were very kind and served me a classic West Indian Sunday roast : chicken, plantain, yam, corn, greens, roast potatoes, dashin and gravy.  Delicious.  Mr Jules insisted that I drink a whisky or a rum with him.  I complied happily.  Jenny had two older sisters : Dee and Mollie, and two younger : Natasha and Lucy.  Jon the brother was slightly older than Jenny.  They were all very warm and friendly toward me because they all loved Jenny very much and didn’t want to upset their sister.  But also because they have all been brought up with love, and have it in abundance to spare.  It was just the family I needed and wanted to become a part of.  Solid, secure, easy, supportive and loving.   I’d already proposed to Jenny in February ’89 but hadn’t asked her father yet – but that is for another song and another story.

Featured image

Luther Vandross is the soundtrack to those young lovers though.   At the time he was an unfeasibly smooth, handsome and sultry soul singer with a very modern sound – his music is forever attached to the 1980s.   Those LPs were played a lot in Archway Road.  Beautifully produced – but what a voice.   One of the great singers of my lifetime, so expressive, so pure, gentle, and sensitive.  In a line of greatness back to Teddy Pendergrass, Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke, the record you play after you’ve gone to bed.  Love music.  Of course women also sing this music – Anita Baker, Whitney Houston, Sade, Gladys Knight, Toni Braxton, Roberta Flack and on and on.   Is anyone still doing it you ask ?  Oh yes – Usher, Ciara, D’Angelo, Maxwell, Frank Ocean, Lianne La Havas, and on and on.    It will always be made of course.

Featured image

My soul development went something like this :  60s – Motown on the radio, 70s – Al Green on TOTP, discovery of James Brown, Otis Redding, Stax & Atlantic then through Philly, back to Sam Cooke and Jacky Wilson, Barry White & Teddy Pendergrass, Earth Wind & Fire into DISCO, Donna Summer and all that somehow emerging into the 80s with Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC, Electro LPs and Prince.  So I had completely missed the soul continuum that Luther Vandross represents.   Jenny introduced him to me, and soon I loved him too.

Featured image

March ’89, Wembley

He was playing at Wembley Arena in March 1989 and Jenny’s sister Dee asked if we wanted to go, so together with Mick her boyfriend, we did.  It was a sold-out ten-night run in the Arena, which is massive – and Luther was the first artist to sell that many tickets, he was huge in England in the late 80s.  Rightly so.  We sat to his left, he wore silver and black, we swooned and went home happy and high.  The concert was released on video/DVD sometime later in 1991 but we’ve never seen it.   This song was on the brilliant LP Give Me The Reason in 1986, and is a duet with Gregory Hines.   I think it’s time to have a look at that night in March 1989.  Because – you know – and I know – there is nothing better than love.

Advertisements

My Pop Life #105 : Come Rain Or Come Shine – Ray Charles

Featured image

Come Rain Or Come Shine   –   Ray Charles

…days may be cloudy or sunny….

….we’re in or we’re out of the money…

I first heard this song on my wedding day, 23 years ago July 25th 1992.   Dear Ken Cranham (who has graced these pages before) made Jenny and I a ‘wedding tape’ which we played at home after the church ceremony in Holy Joe’s, Highgate Hill (St Joseph’s) and reception afterwards in Lauderdale House, Waterlow Park (next door).   I actually carried Jenny over the threshhold of 153 Archway Road N6  like you’re supposed to, much to the amusement of the two ladies opposite who ran the sweet shop who waved at us, beaming.   I smiled.   I didn’t have a free hand as I recall.    Jenny waved – she was still in her golden frou-frou wedding dress and we were both drunk on champagne and love and words and Chopin and wedding cake and delirious happiness abounded.  There was a huge reception in the evening at the Diorama, and dear gorgeous departed friend Neil Cooper was sorting that side of things, so we had a few hours to change and feed the cats etc.   Ken’s cassette (of course) had a wonderful selection of wedding songs and love songs which will be forever associated with the day, and I’ve done similar tributes on CD, paying that moment forward to other couples about to get hitched.  Nothing more glorious than a wedding playlist, and no better party than a wedding party.  Please, whoever is reading this, invite Jenny and I to your wedding !

Featured image

Ray Charles was always there somehow.  I must have heard Hit The Road Jack on the radio in 1961 when I was 4 yrs old, living in Portsmouth, & the Hoagy Carmichael evergreen Georgia seems to be made of earth and stone it feels like it has been around forever.   The other big hit from the early 1960s was I Can’t Stop Loving You off the LP Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music, syrupy choir singing backing vocals, smooth like chocolate sauce, it’s almost too sweet.  But not quite.   But it was lounge music to me as I became sentient.   I would have to grow up a bit and grow some ears before I understood the genius of Ray Charles.

Featured image

Like Frank Sinatra or Elvis, he is a giant of music and in particular of interpretation and arranging of other people’s songs.   Not to say he didn’t write music – he did – unlike Elvis or Frank,  Ray Charles wrote plenty of music including some stone-cold red-hot classics :  I Got A Woman, Hallelujah I Love Her So, A Fool For You and the monster What’d I Say, which may or may not have been improvised live (as the film Ray would have it).   It’s difficult to encapsulate the full breadth of his work in one blog, so I won’t even try.  But if a martian were to land in my room today and say “One artist will represent pop music” it would have to be Ray Charles.  He’s played every kind of music from blues and jazz to soul (which he invented some say) gospel and country, big band and ballad to funk and pop.  It’s the phrasing in the end which is so astonishing – the phrasing and the arrangements are impeccable rhythmically, melodically, all delivered with taste, groove and soul.  Plenty of imitators, but only one Ray Charles.

Featured image

When I was going through my soul education period in 1978-9 (see My Pop Life #98 for example) I bought a large box set called Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947-1974.  It remains “the answers” for anyone seeking to understand American music of the 20th century.   I guess it’s a CD box set now – I have five double LPs squished into a box.  It sounds like a lot – but it’s actually a surface skim of a huge period of artists and tunes, from race-music and blues 78s through R&B, soul, Stax/Volt right up to Roberta Flack.

Featured image

Ray turns up on Side Two and Three and Four with classics including I Got A Woman, the mighty Mess Around and the searing genius of Drown In My Own Tears which so many great artists have covered.  I had hit a golden seam of fantastic music and next I bought a triple LP box called The Birth Of Soul  now available on CD :

Featured image

which covered the same period as Sides 2,3 & 4 of the Atlantic collection but also had all the other songs they missed out – so many favourites but I’ll briefly mention What Kind Of Man Are You? which features one of the Rae-Lettes miss Mary-Ann Fisher on lead vocals, and which was a highlight of  the film Ray.  The story about the Rae-lettes is that they all had to Let Ray or they’d be out of the band.  The line-up changed frequently.

Featured image

 left to right : Gwen Berry, Merry Clayton, Clydie King, Alex Brown

Next I purchased Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music from 1964 – the smooth silky sound which includes the heartbreaker You Don’t Know Me, one of my all-time favourite songs,  Ken then turned me onto Ray Charles & Betty Carter (1961) which is a completely fantastic LP –

Featured image

Betty Carter is a wonderful jazz vocalist with sensational phrasing too and together they did the ultimate versions of quite a few songs including Baby It’s Cold Outside and Alone Together.    Then there was What’d I Say (1959) – pure R&B grooves, and Genius + Soul = Jazz (1961 again!) an instrumental big band jazz LP.  And then I probably sat down and patted myself on the back for buying loads of Ray Charles albums whom by now I completely adored.  But you see the thing with Ray is, he keeps on coming.  He was clearly prolific, just looking at what came out of 1961 for example it’s almost impolite how much music was produced.

Featured imageSo then came the wedding tape in 1992 and there was Come Rain Or Come Shine.   What a beautiful song.  The muted trumpets at the beginning are so romantic and late-night New York nightclub.   Lyrically it reminds me loosely of the wedding vows themselves which I guess is why it works as a wedding song.  And then there’s that middle eight :

I guess, when you met me
It was just one of those things
But don’t ever bet me
‘Cause I’m gonna be true, girl if you let me…

Pictured : composer Harold Arlen

Featured image

Johnny Mercer, lyricist extraordinaire

Written by the wonderful Johnny Mercer with music by ‘Over The Rainbow‘ composer Harold Arlen in 1946, it became a jazz standard almost immediately and has been covered by many artists both vocal and instrumental including Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, James Brown, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.   I can’t imagine any of them being better than this version though.   Although I can be wrong tha’ knows.Featured image

Come Rain or Come Shine appeared on an LP from 1959 called The Genius Of Ray Charles where he takes a stroll through the Great American Songbook and sings Sammy Kahn, Irving Berlin, Hank Snow (!) and others, stretching out from his R&B and gospel roots.  He would continue to stretch until he passed away.  There is still so much to discover – I recently heard his take on The Beach Boys’ Sail On Sailor and it was – like his Eleanor Rigby – a revelation.  Yes he was a musical genius.   Once you’ve heard him sing a song, his phrasing feels like The Way to Sing It.   Elvis and Frank also have this gift, yes it’s true.   As do others.  Ray Charles always felt to me like one of those bedrock people in music, you know when people talk about standing on the shoulders of giants, he is one of those giants. He may be the giantest giant.

Featured image

One of the Brighton Beach Boys felt the same way as me about Ray – notably Rory Cameron, now moved away from Brighton (as have I) – he would enthuse regularly on his timing and impeccable choices.

*

I chose this song today because last night I was sitting alone in the local pub here in Prague, The James Joyce, nursing my third vodka and tonic, and thinking about my wedding anniversary, which was yesterday, and all the lovely Facebook family and others who took time to send Jenny and I love on our day of love.  And then this song came on.

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

Featured image

When Something Is Wrong With My Baby   –   Sam & Dave

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

Featured image

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.

Featured image

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!).

Featured image

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.

Featured image

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“.

Featured image

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.

Featured image

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.

Featured image

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 :

My Pop Life #45 : If You Love Me – Brownstone

Featured image

 If You Love Me   –   Brownstone

…but if you want my heart then it’s time that you start
To act like you’re mine in the light and the dark…

We finally moved into our new house in Brighton in March 1996, after Eamonn Walker (brother from another mother) and I had sanded and varnished the floors of three rooms, and Tony Roose (expert!) had helped me lag beneath the floorboards.   Lovely wooden floors in place, Jenny was welcomed down, previously restricted from visits due to her asthma.   The dust now settled, we brought the cats down and moved into the top room with views of the Palace Pier and across to Worthing and Chanctonbury Ring on the Downs.   It was a great move.   A new life.

Featured image

Brighton was local newspapers, slower pace, less happening, and trains to London.   After a few months we wondered if we’d made a Terrible Mistake.    Then people started to come down – the first visitors were Paulette and Beverley Randall, and we moved the kitchen table out into the garden and ate alfresco whilst drinking quantities of wine.   Summer arrived and we started to really fall in love with being in Sussex, taking trips out to my childhood haunts, finding lovely country pubs and walks and butterfly sanctuaries, lying on the beach with the tourists, becoming deeply involved in the Brighton & Hove Albion story as chairman Bill Archer announced that my beloved Goldstone Ground was to be sold “to pay debts” – and there were no plans in place for an alternative home ground.   1996-7 was a dreadful season to follow the Seagulls, but the fans were amazing, letting the board know their feelings about having our home sold from under our feet.   We were rooted to the bottom of the entire league for weeks that autumn, manager Jimmy Case was sacked and it felt like the people running the club would be happy for it to fold.   The fans and players eventually saved Albion in dramatic fashion – but this is not the place for that reminiscence.

I turned 40 in the summer of ’97 and held a legendary party in our new house to celebrate and mark the passage of time.   It was attended by neighbours from across the street, new friends from Brighton, and many old mates and new who had travelled down.   It was billed as running from midday June 21st to midday June 22nd – a proper midsummer night’s dream.    I finally crashed out at lunchtime on the Sunday.  It was a big old-fashioned dirty young people’s party and I kissed goodbye to my 30s in defiance.  Dancing went on literally all night, guests such as Chiwetel Ejiofor (with whom I’d just shot “Amistad”) slept on the bouncy castle erected in the garage, people went down for a swim in the sea at dawn, I became 40 high on ecstasy, drink, marijuana and dancing.

Featured image

Brownstone’s “If You Love Me” was a key song for Jenny and I.   I can’t remember where we first heard it (Trevor Nelson? or maybe before we left Los Angeles…) but the tune, the lyrics, the voices, the swing of it became our sound in the party years 1996-2000.   Jenny enjoyed DJ-ing too, and she always targets her DJ set at the women on the dancefloor.  Once the women are dancing, the guys will tend to follow…  So there’s a bit of Whitney, some Bee Gees, Abba, TLC, Prince, Ghetto Heaven, Aretha…and Brownstone.  Turn the lights down low, turn up the bass, and grab the nearest honey…

Featured image

Brownstone formed in the early 90s.    Nichole “Nicci” Gilbert, who co-wrote If You Love Me, Monica “Mimi” Doby, and Charmayne Maxena “Maxee” Maxwell (who sadly passed away after an accidental fall in February 2015) met at various auditions around Los Angeles, were signed with Michael Jackson‘s label MJJ and recorded the LP From The Bottom Up in 1994.   They had a number of line-up changes in the years since.   This song transcends all the hype and music-biz PR by simply using great singing – three excellent voices in harmony.  Song was nominated for a Grammy in 1996 (but lost out to TLC’s “Creep”).

and here is an acapella version :

My Pop Life #29 : Take Me In Your Arms and Love Me – Gladys Knight & The Pips

Featured image

Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me   –   Gladys Knight & The Pips

…the moon above is shining bright, c’mon boy the time is right, here I am, take me in your arms and love me….

 The tinkling harpsichord, the sighing voice, the lazy seductive sound, the shimmering strings the soft pillow of backing vocals – why wouldn’t you put this on a mixtape for your new girlfriend?   This was an early offering from me swooning as I was to Jenny just after I’d met her.   I can’t remember what I called the tape – was it TDK? – but it contained only pure soul music.   They were my favourite songs at the time, but there must have been a part of me that was going – “I know I’m a white guy from deepest Sussex, and you’re a black chick from Wembley but I like soul music yeah?!”   It would have had a title because that’s what you did.   It might have been called – wait for it – “Soul Music”.   Hahaha.   Anyway the reason why this tape has become legendary is because we lost it in Italy.   At some point in 1990 I received a postcard with a photograph of Positano on it from David Steinberg, the Israeli director who’d helped me at the NYT in 1989 (see My Pop Life #7) and who was now on holiday on the Amalfi Coast.

Featured image

It was breathtaking.   I remember Jenny and I staring at this unlikely vista thinking WOW where is that??   We hadn’t been to Italy either of us.  It has since become our destination of choice for holidays.   But :   Whatever happened to postcards?   It used to be the age-old duty of anyone who travelled : you had to send a pile of postcards out to mum and dad, all and sundry.    Those at home would receive them with joy, a little slice of sun and culture, a smidgeon of envy.   It was basically a look at me moment, but people would get offended if you didn’t do it.  If they later found out that you’d “gone abroad”.  Doesn’t feel like that any more, but maybe it is if you’re young.   Anyway as soon as I’d wrapped on the endless unglamourous winter that was Alien3 at Pinewood Studios (twinned with Gulf War 1) , we booked a holiday in Positano, flew to Naples and drove our hired car round the dramatic winding mountain roads to our hotel.  It was a beautiful if expensive place and we explored the region – Ravello, Capri, Vesuvio – all totally stunning – in our little car, which had, of course, a cassette player.  I remember the constant curves of the road, and perhaps the giddying drops to the sparkling blue sea beneath us, made Jenny feel a little nauseous from time to time.   We brought a little selection of tapes, one of which was The Soul Tape.   We left it in the car when we returned it.   Sorry – I left it in the car when I took it back.   I Left It In The Car.

Featured image

We have spent the last 20 years trying to remember what was on that tape of love.   Certainly Bobby Bland – Too Far Gone (mypoplife #27), definitely Jackie Wilson “Sweetest Feeling” and Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”.   Carla Thomas : “I Like What You’re Doing To Me” and Eddie Floyd “I’ve Never Found A Girl”.  And this beauty from Gladys Knight, from her early days at Motown when she was first to record ‘Grapevine’ and had a hit with this Norman Whitfield-produced classic slice of pop/soul in 1967.   We wouldn’t see Gladys live until 2008 – it was worth the wait – and yes, she sang this one bless her.

My Pop Life #25 : There There My Dear – Dexys Midnight Runners

Featured image

There There My Dear   –   Dexys Midnight Runners

…you know the only way to change things is to shoot men who arrange things…

In the summer of 1980 I had what remained of my tail firmly between my legs and I was licking my wounds.  The trip to Latin America with brother Paul had foundered in Mexico where I’d contracted hepatitus B and been rushed back to Coppett’s Wood tropical diseases hospital for a couple of weeks.  I was weak as a kitten, couldn’t drink for a year, and had to start thinking about getting a job (over and above my Saturday all-nighter at the Scala coffeebar).  Mumtaz, whom I had left to go on a hitch-hiking year off with Paul, had gracefully welcomed me back into her attic flat in Finsbury Park. I was 23 years old.

Featured image

“Seen quite a bit in my 23 years” sings Kevin Rowland on track 2 of Dexys first LP “Searching For The Young Soul Rebels”, a record which blasted into my ears that summer and blew (almost) everything else out of the water.   It had bags of attitude and swagger, it had a manifesto, but most of all it had soul.   English white kids from Birmingham playing soul.   Legend has it that Kevin Rowland walked into the first rehearsal of Dexys with a box of Stax singles and announced “We’re doing music like this”.   But listening to that 1st LP there’s loads more than Stax influences – there’s Jackie Wilson, Motown, the Bar-Kays, Northern Soul.   Since I’d spent the previous three years cramming a PhD in soul music (to make up for my teenage pop youth) I was ready to play my part as a disciple of Dexys and spread the word – not that they needed me – the NME and the nation were already enamoured.   I’d bought the first single Dance Stance the year before, and helped Geno to get to number one in the spring (B-side: Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache a cover of Johnny Johnson & The Bandwagon !!).   I think my first Dexys gig was in the National Ballroom in Kilburn, appropriate for their Irish/Celtic roots.   But did I see them support The Specials?  Is that where I discovered them in fact??  Sometimes I simply cannot remember critical details of these formative years.

Featured image

They were absolutely brilliant live, real power and passion.   Of course I loved the horn section and spent hours playing along with the album on my ancient alto sax.   I’d always wanted to be in a horn section – playing chords, harmonies with other brass players.   I was particularly fond of “Keep It”.   They actually did manage to do that Stax sound – Booker T & the MGs with the Memphis Horns.    I’m less convinced that Kevin had the vocal chops of the soul greats, but he certainly committed to it heart and soul, and more importantly he sounded like he meant it.

Featured image

It’s hard to remember now, how much that mattered in those days, as punk morphed into Two-Tone and battles with the NF, Rock against Racism, and “whose side you were on” felt like your daily bread – those early Thatcher years were full of aggro and passion, maybe it was just me but the times were intense.   Live and onstage Kevin demanded attention and respect.   Watching him sing “Respect” live was an exercise in faith, he would end up writhing on the floor whooping and squealing and I would feel equal amounts of embarrassment and admiration.    He would continue to make a career out of this strange dialectic, even today he stretches what is acceptable in a musical context beyond what is simply cool, out to the edge of reason.    But these were early days when he wanted to be a soul singer.   And he was a white boy, my age.   Christ I wanted to be in that band.   Lyrical interlude : “Holed up in white Harlem, your conscience and you…”   Those early gigs were a riot.   Wilfully antagonistic toward the audience, we were used to it old punks that we were, there was an atmosphere of danger, aggression, risk in the air.  But most gigs in those days felt like that.   The band were tight as anyone I’ve ever seen.    Pete Williams, Al Archer, Big Jimmy Patterson on the trombone.  The Teams That Meet In Caffs.   They were formed with gang membership in mind, a ready-made pop subculture.    That’s just how it used to be.    They would go on to have different line-ups, different instruments and their biggest hit as a bunch of raggle-taggle pseudo- Irish punks with ‘Come On Eileen’ and weddings thereafter would never be the same, but for me the first LP is still an astonishing listen.    Maybe you should welcome the new soul vision.

As a footnote I have to mention that Kevin Rowland moved to Brighton around the same time as us in the late 90s and we spoke on a number of occasions at parties and so on.  He was a gentleman and a scholar, softly-spoken and funny.  He moved to Shoreditch around 2005 “because Brighton was getting too cool”.

My Pop Life #21 : That’s The Way Of The World – Earth Wind & Fire

Featured image

That’s The Way Of The World   –   Earth Wind & Fire

..Don’t hesitate – ’cause the world seems cold
Stay young at heart ’cause you’re never never never old at heart…

September 1976, I’m back from my gap-year trip round the United States with Simon, and I’m in my first week at LSE – The London School of Economics – where I’d signed up for a degree in Law.   There was a student bar downstairs in Carr-Saunders Hall on Fitzroy Street W1, and we gathered there to meet the other first years. One chap – Derek Sherwin – had been at Priory with me, and he introduced me to Norman Wilson from Barnsley and Lewis McLeod from Glasgow.    Football was the first point of contact with lads.   Derek and I were Brighton & Hove Albion fans, Norman was Sheffield Wednesday til he died, and Lewis was Rangers.   “Oh” I said, “Does that mean you’re a Protestant then?”   Lewis paused for effect, then in the thickest accent I’d ever heard intoned :  “I think that’s a very naive question actually”.   So everything was fine after that.  As we played darts I noticed a dark-eyed woman across the bar.   Like a vision of something.   She noticed me staring at her, but instead of looking away in embarrassment I maintained my stare right into her big brown eyes.  Electricity !   At some point in the ensuing days we introduced ourselves and became an item.   Mumtaz was from Pakistan and had just finished her degree, I was just starting mine, but she was working at the halls of residence for spare cash.   She became my second ever proper girlfriend.   We would be together from that time, on and off, for nine years.   At that point Mumtaz lived in William Goodenough House on Mecklenburgh Square WC1, which is enough syllables to keep anyone entertained.   Deepest Bloomsbury, just behind Russell Square, and kind of on the way from where I lived (right underneath the Post Office Tower) to the LSE which is on The Aldwych, just beneath Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Featured image

Mumtaz had a number of LPs which I’d never heard before.  I’d like to pay tribute to three of them here : Fulfillingness First Finale by Stevie Wonder (amazing), Holland by The Beach Boys (fantastic) and That’s The Way Of The World by Earth Wind and Fire, which is stunning.  It was their first LP,  has quite incredible vocals, an amazing feel, and embodies the word “soul”.   I’d never even heard of the band.   The LP came out in 1975 while I was in the 6th form in Sussex but it hadn’t dented my periphery, now it was part of the soundtrack to my second great love affair.   The opening song “Shining Star” is irresistible uptempo affirmation : “you’re a shining star, no matter who you are” and then comes track two, the title track, slow burn, laid-back groove, incredible vocals : “Hearts afire create loves desire takes you high and higher to the world you belong…” and an almost spoken word section, gospel-flecked, soft, reaching up and out to a pleading harmonic shape which is one of the peak moments in soul music for me.   Wonderful music.

At some point that winter I told Simon – now in his first year at Cambridge – about Earth Wind & Fire, because Simon had been my bullshit detector and music guru at school.  Not 100% – there were bands I loved that he really didn’t (Gentle Giant!) – but on the whole I respected his taste – he had an older sister Deborah, who was going out with a guy who played the drums properly – Andrew Rankin – and so Simon’s musical filter was more shall we say ‘refined’ than mine.  “Nah” he said “they’re not anything much”.  I disagreed.  I was right.  Sometimes I am!

Or in this case, Mumtaz was right.   She had great music.   She was born in Aden, schooled in Murree in the Himalayan foothills and her parents lived in Karachi.   They didn’t know about me for years.   She’d come to England to get a degree, and was now doing the Legal Exams and studying to be a solicitor.  We were a secret for quite a long time, snuck away in William Goodenough House in Mecklenburgh Square WC1.

Previous Older Entries