Thursday, July 12, 2007

"I'm Alive"

I've just read the always-excellent Barney Hoskyns' "Hotel California", which is no more and no less than a complete history of west coast American music in the early and mid-1970s: think of The Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and you get the picture.

The early part of the period -- the first flush of creative serendipity -- is wonderful to behold. The gradual ebb and flow of musicians living up in Laurel Canyon, sharing songs, trying new combinations until they hit upon the right creative blend, be it Glenn Frey and Don Henley or David Crosby and Stephen Stills, is smooth, seductive, so happy. Inadvertently idealistic, you might call it.

And then cocaine happened.

And while it didn't always hurt the quality of musicianship, while, for the most part, the hits kept on coming, something really did go sour. Partnerships made in Heaven broke apart, truly talented individuals like Gram Parsons or David Crosby fell apart, the well simply ran dry.

A host of "coulda been huge" bands were formed, made one album, broke up and their members moved on. Lesser-known names like Bernie Leadon, Richey Furay, John David Souther, Doug Dillard, David Blue were all noticed, applauded, recruited, hyped and then made, were persuaded to make, the wrong decisions or were just cast aside. Nowadays they're remembered, if at all, as a co-writer's credit on an album sleeve.

Does anyone remember that Bernie Leadon wrote the song, performed by the Eagles while he was a member, that became the theme from "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy"?

Today we have the unedifying sight of a generation of talented musicians, the survivors, touring on their past glories. In many cases the original partnerships were ruined by drugs to the extent that there are two or even three versions of the same band playing the nostalgia circuit.

Neil Young -- one of the few straighter individuals of the period -- wrote "It's better to burn out, than to fade away", but even he can't take his own advice, and maybe it's his monumental exception that proves the rule.

Read the book. Marvel at the names that flit past, find yourself thinking "I never knew he/she/they were involved in this album." Marvel at Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell's steely resolve to survive in a business that still treated women like chattels.

Throughout Hoskyns' book, a few key figures stride through the period, surviving everything that wealth, taste and indulgence could throw at them. Neil Young, for his ornery, cussed stubbornness that kept pulling him to the left of centre; David Geffen, for his sheer ambition to create an environment for artists to thrive and for him to make vast sums of money; and Jackson Browne, for his reckless honesty.

Yeah now I'm rolling down this canyon drive
With your laughter in my head
I'm gonna have to block it out somehow to survive
'cause those dreams are dead
And I'm alive

I want to go where I will never hear your name
I want to lose my sorrow and be free again
And I know I've been insane
When I think of places I could have been

Monday, June 25, 2007

"Soul Sacrifice"

If you've been watching the news or reading a paper this last week, you'll know that this is festival season. Glastonbury, Download, Wireless, Isle of Wight, V, Reading, the list goes on and on.
I haven't attended a festival for many years, and watching The Who show the kids a thing or two late Sunday night made me keen to strap on the backpack and get out there again.
Wait a minute. The Who? At Glasto 2007?
Let's put some perspective on that. The Who played Woodstock, thirty eight years ago. THIRTY-EIGHT years ago! And while Sunday's show wasn't the same four guys who tore up the stage in 1969, while time has laid its hand on the grizzled heads of Roger and Pete, they still had "it".
It's an education to look back at the Woodstock line-up from 38 years ago and see who's still carrying the flag: Richie Havens, Country Joe MacDonald, John Sebastian, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Santana, The Who, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young...
History shall recall that The Who played a 24-song set to close the second day of the festival. And while there were four songs they played at Woodstock that they ALSO played at Glastonbury there was one that, to me, stood out head and shoulders, both times:

There may have been better performances, but they're not on film. This is charisma, this is skill, this is passion, this is excitement, this is everything that was ever good about live performance.

So why is this entry named "Soul Sacrifice"? Because wanting to pay tribute to The Who after their performance Sunday sort of sidetracked this blog, but mainly because, hidden away among the great performances that weekend in upstate New York was one that, when I first saw the film of the event, knocked me sideways and still does.
Santana only played seven songs at Woodstock but the one that made it on film was "Soul Sacrifice," in which drummer Michael Shrieve, who was 19 at the time, played what I imagine most drummers would call "a blinder."
For over nine minutes he's at the center of this song, driving it on, trading the lead with Carlos Santana's guitar, filling, rolling, and delivering a solo that I have yet to hear the equal of. And he's loving it. Who wouldn't love, at nineteen years of age, to be playing alongside one of the legends of music?
At around 2:26 into the clip, Shrieve looks skywards with a smile of sheer delight on his face, and ten seconds later the camera pan over the percussionists, hunkered down tight over their congas, and you see the same smile on their faces. This is music played for the sheer pleasure of it, and extended workout that's been so well-learned that the musicians can relax and enjoy it.
And while the entire band's performance is irresistible, it's obvious that the one who enjoyed it most was Michael Shrieve.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"Darling Nikki"

George Bernard Shaw once said “Dancing: The vertical expression of a horizontal desire legalized by music." He might as well have gone the whole hog and added " Prince."

What is it with Prince and sex, anyway? His music has explored pretty much every single kink or proclivity known to man; Mary Whitehouse would definitely not have approved. Though I wonder if she could have resisted dancing.

Here's a song that takes you into the bedroom, ties you down and has its wicked way with you for, oh, a weekend or so. The guitars make a sound like cotton panties being ripped, the chorus is the musical equivalent of the vinegar strokes, and the whole thing winds itself up in an orgiastic cataclysm.

And Prince? After the girl kicks him out, he gulps, he sighs, he pants, he mewls like an underfed kitten, and when it's clear Nikki isn't coming back, he lets loose with a shattering, piercing scream that strips the paint off walls, while his trusty Revolution...well, they might as well not have even been there.

This is Prince's (bedroom) show and he's not taking any prisoners.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Monday, April 23, 2007

"Dixie Chicken"

This is just great. A slow-burning groove, honky-tonk, soul and blues all wrapped up into one seriously hip-shaking piece of lazy good-time music. Lowell George's voice is just fantastic, a hint of Boz Scaggs' half-swallowed gargle and plenty of raw southern emotion.
It's one of those stories of misadventure that manages to inject humour as well as a little pathos. Instead of pain, we get hungover regret and a sense that he got what he deserved: "Many years since she ran away/Yes that guitar player sure could play/She always liked to sing along/She always handy with a song/But then one night at the lobby of the Commodore Hotel/I chanced to meet a bartender who said he knew her well/And as he handed me a drink he began to hum a song/And all the boys there, at the bar, began to sing along."
Listen to this: these guys are seriously talented. The whole song, the feeling, the rhythm, all are utterly, utterly effortless. I can't shake the image of a bunch of bearded, heavyset guys, sitting round someone's front room and laying down this blistering groove.
"We made all the hotspots, my money flowed like wine/Then the low-down southern whiskey, yea, began to fog my mind/And i dont remember church bells, or the money i put down/On the white picket fence and boardwalk/On the house at the end of town."

Monday, April 16, 2007

"You Belong to Me"

One of the things about growing up that I don't think I'll ever forget was how goddam important everything was.
From being selected for the first team in sports, to being invited to the coolest party on the weekend, to having my girlfriend tell me how much she loved me, to telling her how much I loved her.
If anything didn't work out, it was as if the earth had turned itself inside out and all the madness and badness had been let loose.
Remember all that?
A while ago I blogged "Here Comes My Girl" by Tom Petty, and it reminded me of how I looked at the world and felt about things when I was a spotty teen with too much of some things and not enough of others.
Now that a lot of water's gone under the bridge, I've come to think of this song as an older companion to the Petty song. Both songs are about how important a particular woman is, how she makes them feel, how they feel about her and what they plan to do about it.
So far, so vanilla.
But where Petty's song is all youthful agression and determination -- "When I got that little girl standing right by my side/I can tell the whole wide world to shove it" -- Steve Earle is older, wiser, sadder and a lot more bruised.
"Now your mama said you could do better than me/Baby I know that's true/But you believed me instead, and every word I said, and I did too/Now every day's a little bit harder out there no matter what I do/I could carry the world on my shoulders girl, 'long as I got you."
And while Petty's protagonist comes across as wild, unfocused, determined and a bit like Marlon Brando in "The Wild One", Earle's got too much experience for blind optimism. He's got the bumps and scrapes to prove it, though there's still a spark deep inside: "Well my shining armour is rusted and worn/There's a heart inside here entrusted and sworn to you/Just tell me baby what I need to do/I can win you over again if you want me to."

Monday, April 09, 2007

"Into Dust"

This is a blog about a feeling. About learning how the feeling is caused, about how much it hurts and about the song that brings it back, every damn time I hit "repeat" on the stereo.

How do we hurt people? In a hundred million ways, small and large, very day of our lives. Anyone who's managed to get through a life without hurting or being hurt by other people is either lying or living in a sealed bubble somewhere out beyond Betelgeuse. To get through even one day without doing so is a stretch.

From the father who cuffs his child because the child knocked over a bottle in a restaurant, to the child who betrays his or her parents' trust for the hundredth time, to the commuter who stalks guiltily past the old man huddled over a steam grating for warmth, to the lover who dredges up any unpleasant, insulting, hurtful remark he can to make a clean break from his devoted partner; we've all hurt and we've all been hurt.

We all know how it feels to be hurt. And, with luck and some awareness, we know what it feels like to hurt someone in just the same way: the churning, acid tumbling empty space in the pit of our stomach.

It doesn't, however, stop the cycle from turning, slowly, inevitably, around to the next dose.

There's something just as inevitable about the vibe on this song; the ethereal, helpless voice, the interminable, constant guitar picking, and the caress of the cello as it lays you down on the floor in preparation for your next experience, your next let-down.

This song is the sound the soul makes as it looks up from the pit of despair.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

"Crimson and Clover"

One of the things I struggle with on SWW is those favourite songs that I can't explain away. For the most part, I can bore at Olympic standard about the lyric, the riff, the chorus, or something that you might recognise and agree with.
Then there are those songs that you play just to listen to the particular dry "pow" sound that the drum makes, or the wonderful harmonies half-way through, or the animalistic beat that takes over executive control of your hips for about twenty seconds during the intro... otherwise, you can take them or leave them.
And here's one such song. I enjoy the Tommy James original, drenched as it is in phased guitars and just a hint of flower power. But for some unaccountable reason, I prefer Joan Jett's version.
Well, I say "unaccountable," but I've worked out that the reason I like the meathead cover version is firstly, that Joan does this breathy vocal that completely strips out any of the brash punk that you get listening to "I Love Rock & Roll" or whatever else Joan Jett you might indulge in.
But mostly, I seriously like the thirty seconds from 1:20 through 1:50 when her band -- Wayne's World extras to a man -- provide the falsetto harmony background to the verse. It's a trip to picture what must be hirsute, leather-clad "proper" rock musicians all raising their voices together in an approximation of schoolboy innocence and purity.
Enjoy the somewhat cliched video, but as I said, keep your ears on for those harmonies. I reckon the video director missed a trick there.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"They Called It Rock"

"Well, they went and cut the record/The record hit the charts/And someone in the newspaper said that it was hot." Ain't that always the way?

Form is temporary, they say; class is permanent. In that case, this is the case for Nick Lowe.

For a start, he was a member of one of the greatest missed opportunities of the 70s -- Brinsley Schwarz -- and wrote the wonderful "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" which I hope you've heard by now.

When the Schwarz broke up, Lowe moved on to join one of the greatest live bands from the "pub rock" era -- Rockpile. Dave Edmunds may have been the leader, but Lowe was the soul and when Edmunds couldn't move on from rock 'n roll, Lowe strapped on his boots and went to work as the house producer for one of the top punk record labels - Stiff Records.

His list of producing credits is a veritable who's who of punk and new wave: Wreckless Eric, Dr Feelgood, the Damned, the Pretenders, Graham Parker, even Elvis Costello passed beneath his studio benevolence.

And he found the time to record what may be the first punk 45 -- "So It Goes" -- and to put together one of the truly great new wave albums, "Jesus of Cool," also known as "Pure Pop for Now People," a record so perfect that even today it sounds fresh, clear and relevant.

It's stubbornly anti-punk. Instead of fuzzbox powerchords, you get twang, shuffle and proper tunes. How punk was that? "Tonight" is one of the truly great love songs, "Marie Provost" is just epic, and epicly strange as well, while "They Called It Rock" is the music business in a nutshell.

Imagine a straight-ahead country-billy workout and you're half-way to this song. It's tight, driving and complete in a way that so few songs are.

"Well, they cut another record/It never was a hit/And someone in the newspaper said it was shit."

Not Nick Lowe, then.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

"Whipping Post"

Edgar Varese said "Everyone is born with genius, but most people only keep it a few minutes."

Musicians, more than most, have to make the fullest use of those minutes, to grab the tiger by the tail and refuse utterly to let go until they absolutely can't hold on any more. Look at the collective genius of Lennon and McCartney: together they rewrote the book on songwriting, but there won't be many who will argue that their post-Beatles output was the equal of their work together.

Similarly, what exactly happened to Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook? One moment they were lauded to the skies as brilliant, funny, clever writers of sharply-observed vignettes of everyday life; the next, forgotten.

There must be some kind of struggle, some kind of desperate fight, to hold onto whatever ethereal spell exists that makes songwriting such a simple affair for those lucky few. it must be hard to acknowledge the sense of helplessness in the face of an uncaring fate that exists just to give, and then to take away.

Now where did that come from? One minute I was all ready, prepped for a blog on the barbecue of greatness that is Southern rock, and then it's gone. Head empty.

I think maybe what started this off was the devil's brew that is "Whipping Post." There's the five-minute version from the Allman Brothers' first album, a frothy stew of blues rock from 1969 that sounds so far out of time and out of place that it could have been current a decade later.

And then there's the mighty, mighty 22-minute live version. It's not just a song; it's a jam, a spiritual revival, a heart-pumping chase scene from the movies and most of all, it's the very beginning of Edgar Varese's few minutes of genius. Here's a band just getting under way, confident, full of stamina and ready to stretch boundaries.

What sets this song apart from its time is the fierce grip that it keeps on its roots; the lyric is traditional blues, my-woman-done-me-wrong, combined with a hint of the cotton fields and a dash of old-time religion. There's a touch of jazz virtuosity too.

And all this at the height of the hippy era. While Country Joe MacDonald was fixin' to die, while Alvin Lee was tearing up his fretboard at 150 mph and while Jimi Hendrix was inventing feedback from outer space (and I mean that reverentially), Duane and Gregg Allman and Dickie Betts were going back to basics and doing more with less.

And one more thing.

Songs like this are why the Hammond organ was invented.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"Saturday in the Park"

Last time I wrote how sometimes it's difficult to just let music wash over you and just act as aural wallpaper. Today, I'm going to suggest that a particular song can be like stepping into a hot shower on a cold morning. No matter what the particular song is - it can be post-punk industrial for some, and the most saccharine gloop for others.
The point is to underline, to emphasise how the right music taps into our individual psyches and just....does something. Not that I'm suggesting a particular song may necessarily confer superpowers or X-ray vision, but there are moments.....
This song does all of that for me, and normally I wouldn't even have the time of day for Chicago (the unhinged "25 or 6 to 4" excepted).
Maybe it's the slightly funky piano intro, with that chocolate layer of horns on top, drifting slowly downwards, maybe it's the backbeat chorus with the blasts of brass, but whenever I hear this, I can open the convertible top in my head and just sit back and drink in the sunshine. I may be wearing a suit in the middle of winter in London, but in my head I'm in shorts, cruising south on Route 1 with the windows wide open.
I won't answer for the video - it's from 1973 - but it does set a mood. The song lasts only 3 minutes, but you get a bonus of "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is," which only serves to demonstrate how talented this band really was.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

"The Man With a Harmonica"

I find it difficult to not listen to music, if you see what I mean. Too often, what is meant to be nothing more than aural wallpaper, a pleasant backdrop to something else, forces its way to the front of my consciousness and I start thinking about the music rather than just letting it wash over me.
Even when I'm on a gratuitious holiday of a lifetime, drinking in sights and sounds that I'd never expect to see in a year of Sundays, music manages to elbow its way to the front of the experience. Hence this track.
I guess when you're putting together a fancy getaway resort for cynical meeja folk and the like, you have to be pretty damn sharp when it comes to music. You want to create an ambience, sure, but it mustn't be an ambience these well-heeled jetsetters have experienced before.
And so Apollo 440 taking the iconic Ennio Morricone harmonica soundtrack from "Once Upon a Time in the West" and slipping it into a dub mood must be something even the most hardened music business lawyer would not expect when it came to mood music for his after-dinner drinks by the infinity pool.
All the cavernous space of the western frontier is still there in the tune, the lonely harmonica still beckons damned men to their doom, but the dub beat adds a note of urgency and a touch of urban thriller. It also brings The Clash to mind, which is frankly weird.
And it does create a mood, an ambience. Just not one that washes over me too easily.