Thursday, September 06, 2012


Have you noticed how many old films are being remade these days? Over on NextMovie there's a list of 50 (FIFTY) films that are being "re-booted", which sounds like a digital way of saying "we've run out of ideas, so we're going to add up-to-date effects to the original".
The same thing has been happening for a while in music. My collection has lately added a fair number of songs from what are now called "tribute" albums, where bands contribute cover versions of songs from a particular band that they've all been influenced by, or whose music they just enjoy. I've got tracks from "Sharp-Dressed Men - a tribute to ZZTop" to "Dad, Get Me Out of This - The String Quartet Tribute to Warren Zevon" and to "Sensory Lullabies - the Ultimate Tribute to Jellyfish."
So are we going to work from the premise that original ideas are at a premium, and that it's easier to just warm up an older, better piece of work? Well, yes and no.
For a start, the artists who actually create these tributes and "re-boots" have their own bodies of work, so it's not as if they're making an entire career out of tributing and re-booting. So when a country musician like Tracy Byrd records a version of "La Grange" for the ZZTop tribute, he's not doing it (completely) for the money. Yes, he'll get a share of the proceeds, but so will the guys that wrote the song. Byrd has his own albums to write and record, so this is a momentary pleasure.
It's also worth bearing in mind that musicians have been performing and recording other peoples' music for ever. Cover versions aren't new.
And in a sense, nor are movies. I mean, how many theatre companies have performed Shakespeare? Or Arthur Miller? How many troupes have taken Oscar Wilde on tour? The fact that the acting performances are now filmed is almost semantics. The release of a film is more or less the same as taking a performance on tour, isn't it?
So a "re-boot" of Total Recall, or Highlander, or My Fair Lady may not be so much a confession of imaginative bankruptcy, but simply a way of refreshing an old classic (I use the word loosely). Like re-staging Richard III in a West African dictatorship, or Hamlet in Haiti.
But I'm not writing about tributes or re-boots here. What's far more satisfying to oldsters like me is not simply a "version" of an old song, but the far more imaginative "compilation" of styles or musical signatures in a totally new song.
Which, naturally brings me to Jellyfish. Yes, I've written at length about bubblegum pop and how Jellyfish perfected a 90s take on the 60s and 70s. And over the years, they've assumed an importance that far outweighs their meagre output - just 2 albums, but boy, what albums!
I find myself listening to their songs and spotting sounds, "tics" if you like, that are clearly lifted from other artists. Stevie Wonder's harmonica, Brian May's guitar sound, Supertramp's keyboard from the "Breakfast in America" era, Beach Boys harmonies, they all pop up from time to time. It's like a trivia quiz for music bores.
This is, ironically, a cover of a Jellyfish song that never made it onto the albums, but which they used to open their gigs. The Sonic Executive Sessions play it perfectly: concentrating on the fantastic harmonies and the busy power-pop rather than on the chaotic joy of a live performance. That allows the slightly cynical undertone of the lyric comes to the fore:
Hello, hello, how do you like the show so far/ Well, it's all right but you sound too much like a band I saw last night
Which, when you think about Jellyfish, is pretty funny, and *knowing*. Yes, they do sound like bands you might have heard before, but just as soon as you remember which one, there's another "tic" to set you to thinking. But once you've have your trivia fun, step back and just enjoy *this* song.
The point is that, even if there are "tributes" to other musicians and bands scattered liberally throughout this song, there's still a song to listen to. It's really, really good.

Monday, July 02, 2012


One of the things that I have struggled with for years, as someone who purports to make his living from writing, is how there always seems to be someone who has already said the particular thing you want to say, and what's more, said it better than you ever could.
To be honest, I shouldn't be so presumptuous as to suggest that I'm a writer who has the potential to Express Important Things In Interesting Ways. I've never gone in for creative writing, and so when it comes to a song lyric that is generally accepted to be excellent, incisive, witty or downright true, I've never even thought of myself in competition.
And that, I think, is the point. We're not all poets, nor should we be. Maybe we can all aspire to it, but at some point those of us who aren't destined for great things in that line should step aside and let the pros take over.
Which is, of course, just fine. We can't all write a love song that tells it just so. Some people might see that as a convenient demonstration that "actions speak louder than words." I've never understood this. Are they suggesting that we should all just back off the speech thing and grab the object of our affections in a passionate, dumb clinch? How would that work?
Sorry, it wouldn't. Words have their own distinct role in daily human commerce: they're the way-station between thoughts and deeds.
Even if it were true that actions speak louder than words, there are times when we need the security, the confidence that there is a lexicon, a form of expression, a particular order of words to describe what we think or feel. If actions were louder than words then, for example, we'd have to lean over and kiss our partner every time we thought about the depth of our love. And while that's all very well, it can be a bit challenging when she's in Bucharest and you're on the train to Birmingham.
All of which brings me to this song. One of the things I love about it is how it doesn't strive to be clever, with intricately-constructed metaphors or wry, amusing turns. It just says it as simply as it can.
I wrote some time ago about Nick Lowe's "Tonight" was perhaps the simplest and most heartfelt love song I've ever heard. Well, Mike Scott runs him a close second here. "Your love feels/Like trumpets sound./I said your love feels/Like trumpets sound./Your life is like a mountain;/Yes, your life is like a mountain/And your heart is like a church/With wide open doors,/And to be with you/Is to find myself in the best of dreams." I remember reading a William Boyd short story where the protagonist walks home after meeting a girl and feels so good that "he felt he could jump and bite the moon." I think that's exactly the same emotion that is expressed in this song.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"Dancing The Night Away"

Pub rock.
C'mon, you know. Dr Feelgood. Eddie & the Hot Rods. Brinsley Schwartz. Ducks Deluxe. Kursaal Flyers.
No? You don't? Then you can't be just the wrong side of 50 years of age, then. And from north London.
If ever a musical genre belonged to a particular place and time, it was pub rock. A scruffy rebellion against the (somewhat) cheesy low-rent camp of glam rock, and not quite marginal enough for those who became punks. We're probably talking about a two-year phenomenon from 1973 to 1975, before Malcolm MacLaren found a way to splice the whole New Yorks Dolls/Suicide/Television strand with simplified pub rock, and a lead singer to sell it to the masses.
Punk historians (and there are a few of them) claim that punk was all about tearing down the self-important bloated carcasses of prog rock and disco, but really, that process was begun with bands like Dr Feelgood, who hooked themselves all the way back to the R&B era, and gave it a wax-job of 1970s depression. Lee Brilleaux, Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds probably did more to puncture the egos of the likes of Emerson, Lake and Palmer than John Lydon ever did.
Listen to the track, possibly the finest piece of airbrushed pub rock there was. A gorgeous riff, a positively glam-rock chantalong chorus, and yete, and yet, you can't shake the impression that this was born in the back rooms at the Hope & Anchor one fuggy night in October.
While the Feelgoods and even Ian Dury were busy being forensically authentic (and I use that term with reverence) pub rockers, the Motors were all about being chart-friendly, casting one envious eye at the sort of teen adulation their forebears had enjoyed, rather than the cynical, faux-grudging acceptance that was about to become the hallmark of punk. And they clearly absorbed all the right lessons. This is a power pop classic, with just enough grit to keep it honest.
Such a good song, in fact, that Cheap Trick were driven to cover it. And if that's not a seal of approval I don't know what is.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

"Fooled Around And Fell In Love"

One of the pitfalls of being a Rock Snob is that you really think you know it all. And when you combine that with a gadfly mind in which every field of your knowledge is an inch deep and a mile wide, there is so much scope for error.
For example, if someone were to bring up the topic of the mid sixties flourish of progressive music, I'd jump right in and start yammering on about obscure releases on the Harvest label, not having done the requisite research to know that Harvest was only launched in 1969, or that prog rock really only took off around the same time. More than once I've wished I could crawl into a hole and die as my utter amateurism was ruthlessly exposed. There may actually be some bands or genres where I know my stuff, but as time and experience have passed, I've learned to be circumspect about claiming any expertise. Still doesn't stop me from making a total fool of myself from time to time.
This song has always been familiar to me: it's a staple on radio in the States, it's got a fantastic white soul vocal, a fantastic guitar solo, and it just swings oerfectly. I love the fact that it starts as if it's going to be something vaguely middle of the road, something easy, until the voice joins in and we're taken to another plane. The harmonies, the Hammond organ, it's all perfect.
So for the last 35 years I've always thought that Elvin Bishop was one of the great lost vocal talents of our times. On this record he sounds like Paul Rodgers' long-lost twin brother; just like Rodgers, he pushes his voice just to the point where it's about to fall apart, but no further, in exactly the way Rod Stewart didn't. Not that I dislike Stewart's voice - but they're different instruments.
Back to the Rock Snobbism. Imagine my surprise when in preparing to blog this song, I discover that Elvin Bishop's the guitarist, and that Mickey Thomas is the singer. You getting some heat from the screen as you're reading this? That's nothing to the heat coming off my cheeks, let me tell you.
Anyway, I put two and two together and went off in search of my copy of Jefferson Starship's "Freedom At Point Zero" album, where Mickey Thomas sings on "Jane" and Lord, his voice is just as good there. Maybe he's been to the requisite hard rock singer school where they teach you to reach those really high notes (think Ian Gillan on "Child in Time" from the "Made in Japan" album - dogs will come running), and maybe he's lost a little of the soul that he has on "Fooled Around", but it is so clearly the same voice. And you can also see how Mickey Thomas made such a good replacement for Grace Slick.
Sorry. I'm meant to be blogging a song, but it seems now that I'm doing a Mickey Thomas appreciation. Take a look at his page on and look at the artists he's performed with. Perversely, I sort of wish he'd tarted himself around a bit more; there are so many songs I can imagine he'd have sung so well.