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.