‘Meanwhile, back….’

Been a year of anniversaries, hasn’t it?

As an aside, the first modern centenary, according to a thing I read on the weekend in the TLS, was 400 years ago, 1617 – the 100th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. It marked the occasion when Martin Luther popped down to the local Mitre 10 and got a hammer & some nails, all the better to affix his wee note on the problem with Catholicism to the door of the local kirk.

We just, for New Zild political nerds, had the 30th Anniversary of the fourth Labour government’s December 1987 economic package. It was this which finally split that government, eventaully, with the ripping noise being the main political sound effect for the next 12 months.

More recently there was the 100th anniversaries of the Russian Revolution – the October, Bolshevik one, that is – and the Battle of Paschendale.

January 2017 was 50 years since Rob Muldoon first became finance minister, and didn’t that end well?

Musically, 1967 was a biggie.

I’m going to focus on music now, simply because I’m sitting in a hospital waiting room so screw having a look at anything serious.

Earlier in the year it was 50 years since the Beatles released their Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

Someone coming to the matter, cold, would be left with the impression this was one of the greatest cultural event since the last greatest cultural event which got the baby boomers all excited.

There is, of course, the release of yet another rerelease/reissue/remastering of the album, this one is ‘super deluxe’ one in which you can hear Ringo scratching himself in both mono and stereo.

As someone who was only a month or so off my third birthday, I have to say Sgt Pepper didn’t make a great deal of impact on me at the time.

I can remember Penny Lane on the radio, earlier that year. It was, I now gather, originally intended for the album, as was the other side of that single, Strawberry Fields Forever, but they wanted a single and, as was the custom with British bands, it was released separately.

I think both are better than anything actually on the album, with the possible exception of A Day In The Life. Years later, as a teenager taking an interest in music and being more than a little disgruntled with what was on the radio at the time, I asked for the album for Christmas. It was, after all, supposed to be the greatest album of all time, according to the musical books I’d read.

It was…interesting, certainly. Great swirling depths on some tracks, especially ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’. Some of it was a bit naff. It was ok, and interesting – certainly more so than the disco (and worse) on the radio in the late’70s.

But ‘Penny Lane’ is a song I still associate with childhood summer: to me, those high exuberant trumpets sound like the sun on the skin feels. Dad had made a sandpit for us at the start of the summer and I remember playing with this great little red tractor in it; the sound of the old radiogram coming through the window, the kind of deep, wooden mahogany tones which are unique to the sort of cabinet those old devices came housed in.

I’m sure being mixed in mono had something to do with it, for audiophiles, and probably being played on vinyl also had an effect.

But I’ve never heard music with quite the same warm rich tones since. This is probably partly nostalgia but hey, its Christmas.

It is a bit weird, looking at the video clip the Beatles did at the time, because it is so clearly the dead of northern hemisphere winter and it is a song which to me beams the laid-back heat of a New Zealand summer.

Other music from that year – and it must have been a time I was starting to notice what was on the radio – was Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe.

This was very much to my taste, because it mentioned ‘my brother was out baling hay’. I loved the machinery brought in for making hay on the farm, especially the baler. There should be more songs which mentioned baling hay, I remember thinking at the time. The rest of the song seemed a bit pointless.

Pogues. For St Pat’s Day

Pogues, for St Patrick’s Day.  As I may have written in the past, I don’t have a drop of Irish ancestry, but there’s sometthing which stirs the blood in this tune.

It’s a song shot through with emotion about the Irish diaspora, fleeing both poverty and a theocratic culture.

The mix of grief and rage is something the Irish do well, for good as well as bad reasons.

This is a live version – a bit rough (c’mon, its the Pogues), with Joe Strummer and Kirstie McColl.

Listening to Old Voices with a new year

John Hiatt.  One of his greatest.  A mix of Christian and pagan imagery, and at its core a simple, unspectacular faith in redemption.

‘It’s a new place, but you’ve always been here- you’re just listening to old voices with a new ear’

Listening To Old Voices

They have come to haunt the children
They have come to walk the wind
I can hear them as they rustle through the trees
Looking for the love that killed them
So that they might live again
It’s a simple prayer that brings me to my knees

With drums and bells and rattles
They have caught us in our time
To watch the eagle rise up from the fire
Now is it true we are possessed
By all the ones we leave behind
Or is it by their lives we are inspired?

[Chorus:]
It’s a new light, new day
Listening for new meaning, learning how to say
It’s a new place, but you’ve always been here
You’re just listening to old voices with a new ear

It’s the livin’ and the dyin’
Well it scares the young ones so
They can hardly catch their breath before too long
They see the tears we’re crying
And they watch the river flow
And they follow on the banks until it’s gone

I surrender to the mountains
I surrender to the sea
I surrender to the one who calls my name
I surrender to my lover and to my enemy
I surrender to the face that holds no shame
There’s a spider at my window
And she spins a web of truth
More beautiful than all those memories
And she surely is God’s artist
As she’s caught the morning dew
It’s a simple prayer that brings me to my knees

‘Shouting out across an empty station…’ Don Walker, Jimmy Barnes, and Cold Chisel

Shots by Don Walker (Penguin) 2010
 Well some of us are driven to ambition
Some of us are trapped behind the wheel
Some of us will break away,
Build a marble yesterday
And live for every moment we can steal
Conversations, 
Conversations
Shouting out across an empty station...

‘Conversations’,   the opening track of Cold Chisel’s second album, Breakfast at Sweethearts, is the sort of song which critics call ‘full tilt’, but it isn’t so much full-tilt as almost overbalancing itself with its own speed. Fast and frantic, it captures the band’s own desperate ambition.

Not so long back, interviewing the man who wrote it and most of Cold Chisel’s songs, keyboard player Don Walker, Kim Hill suggested that people had a lot of fun to his songs, but they’re mostly quite sad songs.

Walker sounded somewhat nonplussed.

“I might have to go and have a look at meself”, was his response.

Difficult to tell if he was being serious. He sounded serious, certainly, but Walker has that dry Aussie humour which can be taking the piss when it is sounding most serious.

It is a brand of humour which often serves as a guard, especially when confronted with that kind of sharp personal insight Hill delivered during the exchange.

I found myself recalling that interview as Hill interviewed Jimmy Barnes, the lead singer of that band, Cold Chisel, last weekend.

Barnes’ memoir has just come out and it’s a lot about surviving what was basically an abusive childhood and adult alcoholism.

Barnes writes in that autobiography that despite their very different backgrounds, that it was as if Walker had read his mail.

Walker wrote most of Chisel’s songs, and I’ve thought for a long time that those songs – certainly his most famous ones, the ones he did with Cold Chisel, are about having a good time while you’re having a lousy time.

Back when they were in their heyday, I can remember having one of those intense conversations about music which you often have at that age, and distinguishing between the two big Aussie bands of the day, Australian Crawl and Cold Chisel.

Aussie Crawl were about pure hedonism, having a good time: Cold Chisel was about having a good time even though you’re having a lousy time, I vaguely remember proclaiming, probably while waving my arms around and just before falling off my chair.

This is kind of a definition of soul music (the having a good time while having a bad time thing, I mean: not so much the waving arms around/falling off chair thing), I think: if you listen to classic soul, by which I mostly mean the Stax-Volt Memphis brand but also the best Motown stuff, it is about dancing while feeling lousy about your life.

There’s a whole lot of socio-economic and political reasons for that aspect of soul music, most of which should be fairly obvious to anyone with who knows a bit about history and retains a bit of empathy.

It applies, perhaps less politically than in the music made by American blacks,  to other rock music: the Who’s Pete Townshend, when his band was trying to pretend to be Mods, suggested the Mod ethos not so much about solving young people’s problems as allowing them to dance all over those problems. (although dancing to the Who’s music, is, I think, a bit problematic).

Walker’s memoir, ‘Shots’ only seldom alludes to influences such as this. His own early influences were jazz and country, while Cold Chisel has been more associated with pub/hard rock.

That said, there are enough jazz and country, as well as blues, influences, on Chisel, especially their earlier work.

This number – which closed their first album – shows singer Jimmy Barnes wasn’t just a shrieker: it is a song of summer regret and has a torch-like, almost jazzy flavour:

Lovers see the world through an old red wine

All the sounds of the blues, well

They just disappear

With a light like yours beside me

It’s been an old, old, red wine year.’

Soul, definitely: Chisel’s second vocalist, guitar player Ian Moss, consciously modelled his singing style on Sam Cooke and although Moss isn’t as good as that (unless your name is Al Green or Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles you’re not even gonna come in the same league) you can hear the influence. (Moss used to sing Charles’ ‘Georgia’ at Chisel concerts and he carries it off respectably).

Walker’s ‘Shots’ is, as he has said himself, not so much a memoir as a highly impressionistic travelogue of his time before and after, as well as during, Cold Chisel’s heyday from 1978-93.

It reaches a climax, and a crisis, at the time Chisel release their breakthrough album, East. The opening track from that, like ‘Conversations’ has a desperate headlong rush to it, especially when played live.

Lyrically,  ‘Standing on the Outside’  is more linear than ‘Conversations’ – it has a similar mood to the earlier track and both were used to open concerts, but it tells a story as well. This live clip is from their final concert, and it shows them going out at their peak.

They’re playing their hearts, and guts, out here:

 

‘I wonder if other lives have a fulcrum, a few days or weeks that gather everything from decades before and fire it though into a trajectory pre-drawn for decades after…’

 

Walker ponders in ‘Shots’, referring to this period.

Just after East was recorded, and just before it was released, two friends of the band were killed in a road accident: one knocked out when it went into a tree and the other, conscious but struggling and insisting they get his mate out first when the vehicle caught fire and they both died.

‘Why that should have been the end of anything I do not know, maybe it just coincided with other things, but the end it was’, Walker wrote, years later, in the notes to the ‘Teenage Love” album. The final couple of years – including that farewell concert, the opening of which is that above clip, was, he wrote, a ‘long slow ugly vicious death… like clubbing a dearly beloved while they cling to your leg.’

It is a strange, jaundiced and in some ways odd read. Walker has a rare gift for a phrase: ‘someone whose dreams have strangled their common sense…’ he describes the funder of a concert in some bush backwater; ‘like trying to fuck through a tennis racquet’ sums up a particularly bad gig; young female concertgoers from the posh Victorian squattocracy, ‘rich girls who want to play out their hatred of any plans at all from anywhere up the ancestral chain’; or, visiting old haunts, ‘It’s like visiting your baby playground after you’ve sold your soul’.

There’s a cynicism, perhaps – a lyrical cynicism, certainly, but cynicism it is. Is Walker trying too hard here, perhaps? There’s what seems to be a deliberate, emotional guardedness, something which comes through in that response to Kim Hill’s question.

There’s a bizarre traveling the Aussie outback fantasy involving escaped Laundromat washing machines going rogue, roaming the badlands,  breeding and ‘sometimes ending a decoy out on the highway in ambush, if you stop they kidnap you off  and just wash the fuck out of you…’

The book is a neat, if offbeat, read. He comes at his subject – that subject being his own life, mostly – obliquely and from a skew-whiff angle. There’s a longer interview with him on ABC Radio here…

 

 

 

 

Bigger than Rod

 

Rod Stewart has been knighted. His autobiography was one of the musical memoirs I read in late 2014 as a detox from the general election campaign and meant to review for this site but, mostly, never got around to.

It was probably the most good-humoured and unpretentious of the lot. Stewart knows his faults and points them out before anyone else can get around to it – for example, his mid-’80s hit ‘Passion’ was a travesty:  he reveals his mother expressed her dislike and he concludes ruefully it was clearly a song not even a mother could like.

From the same era, he also reveals that, touring the US with his backing band, the only band which could outdo them for partying stamina and drug taking was the all-women Go-Gos.

And there is the aftermath of his split with Our Rachel, and how she wanted someone younger. In sharp contrast to his freewheeling and footloose image, he reveals he ended up seriously depressed and in therapy in California. More characteristically, he says the three therapists he saw were all varying degrees of useless. One breezily told him ‘you’ve seen one **** you’ve seen them all’; a second came on to him; the third suggested he get a cat.

Stewart’s best work was the first four albums he did in the early 1970s.’You Wear It Well’ is still my favourite of his big numbers – it’s a great, rough-hewn song about an old flame.

His later solo stuff, when he was a stratospherically feted pop and sex symbol, was almost all awful: ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’ has I suppose a certain kitsch ironic charm, if you’re into kitsch ironic charm, but personaly I find a little of this sort of thing goes a very long way. 

The first four albums were much more downhome, and much better. 

And, with The Faces, there was this great version of Paul McCartney’s ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’. To my ears, it knocks the original into a cocked hat. McCartney might be one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th Century, and the song is, no doubt, a stupendous declaration of the sudden, astonished emotion of a bloke unexpectedly finding love  – that line ‘maybe I’m a man in the middle of something/that he doesn’t really understand’ gets me every time. It’s perfect.

McCartney, though, isn’t always the best interpreter of his own work. And Rod and his rough, boozy sidekicks extract the emotion and soul from the song which McCartney himself never quite managed.

Clever Basterds: another reason to be cheerful

Ian Dury’s birthday.
Early 80s, there were two albums of Ian Dury and the Blockheads  which got thrashed to death and beyond, at least in the circles in which I was, somewhat unstealdy, inclined to move. 

One was New Boots and Panties, the debut album which came out – from memory – sometime in 1978. 

The other was Juke Box Dury, a compilation album of singles, both A and B sides. This was one of those B-sides.  

Dury and the Blockheads were one of the last bands to regularly produce singles which did not appear on albums. This was something done by British bands, going back to the sixties, but most dropped the practice in the ’70s, especially if they had ambitions to conquer the US market. This did not mean singles were not taken from albums, it is just that a number of singles woudl be released in between albums. 

By the early ’80s only a few bands were doing this on any regular basis- the Jam, Dury, and….um. The Beat, I think, did a couple of non-album singles (the fantastic ‘Too Nice To Talk To’ was one). The Pretenders intially did ‘Talk of the Town’ as an inter-album single but it later appeared on their second album. DExys Midnight Runners initially did ‘Plan B’ as an inter-album, one off single, though they did re-record it (with a very different lineup) for their second album ‘Too Rye Aye’.

NOTE: These are all fantastic numbers.

I think Madness also did some inter-album singles but I can’t recall what they were right now.

Anyway, Dury. Brilliant lyricist, by all accounts a pain in the arse to deal with. The Blockheads were an amazing band – their rhygthm section was one of the bestand tightest   around and when they were first heard in the US people could not beleive they were (mostly) white. 

Dury had a hard life – handcapped from youth due to polio, he used to lean on the mic stand for support (Johnny Rotton/Lydon, of the Sex Pistols, saw him doing this and copied the stance even though Lydon’s sole handicap, appart from his attitude, was his teeth).

He was put in a home at one point, and abused ( he sang about it in ‘Dance of the Crackpots’, which starts as a joke and then turns into something much more painful and harrowing).

And he couldn’t keep his trousers on. He seems to have been sexual catnip, to the point of self destruction: there’s a tale in a biogrpahy of him where the bnad was taken to dinner by the head of their record company’s entire European division. They were poised to make it big on the conttinent, but Dury copped off witht he wife of the head of the record company during the dinner. And that was the end of their chances in Europe.

Dury also wrote plays, appeared in films, and was an all-round brilliant bloke. His lyrics are often hilarious and rarely not clever. But he tended, like a lot of birtlalin bods, to self-sabotage. 

Music for Anzac Day 

I think I have posted a link to this music before, but anyway. I will always associate this with Anzac Day: Vaughan Williams was an English composer who served as a stretcher bearer/medic on the Western Front and in Salonika during World War One.

He composed this after the war. It is shot through with grief, with an awful, haunting sense not just of loss and of waste but of something irretrievably broken.

 

 

There is a very good write-up about this here, even if some of the more technical musical stuff goes over my head.
http://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2014/aug/11/symphony-guide-vaughan-williams-pastoral-symphony