It’s the first of May which always reminds of a 1974 visit to O’Henrys, a bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, when my female companion returned from a visit to the loo grinning like a monkey. “What’s so funny?” I asked. “There’s some graffiti on the wall, and it says, ‘Hooray hooray, the first of May. Outdoor fucking starts today.” Shame it was February.
Recent additions to my iPod like some rare David Bowie courtesy of David Buckley (see below) and an album of blues instrumentals by John Fahey has pushed the number of songs on my iPod up to 15,995 now, and this morning I settled into a shuffle session as the train sped towards London, all the while reading about a fire that has gutted the lovely Clandon Park House, an 18th Century National Trust-owned stately home, which just happens to be close to where we live. Indeed, I pass its gates as I drive to Guildford each morning.
First up was David Bowie, though I didn’t recognise him from the intro of ‘She Shook Me Cold’ from The Man Who Sold The World, a song I haven’t heard in years. At first I thought it was Hendrix on guitar, then eventually realised who the singer was. This is Bowie doing heavy metal, or more like Mike Ronson channelling his inner Led Zeppelin. Even the title sounds a bit Zeppish. Not the best start.
In complete and quite surprising contrast I found myself being serenaded by Mary Ford singing ‘I’m Confessing (That I Love You)’, from an album of Les Paul and Mary’s best known work that I bought many years ago after having heard Jimmy Page raving about ‘How High The Moon’, now one of my all-time favourite tunes. ‘I’m Confessing…’ is a bit on the schmaltzy side and doesn’t feature Les much but on ‘HHTM’ the double-tracked guitar playing is fantastic, and there’s a happy purity to Mary’s singing, a charming, almost childlike, inflection to her voice, and it sounds very black and white, before the age of colour.
‘Love Is A Stranger’ by Eurythmics cropped up next, probably my favourite song of theirs in that it displays them at their melodic best, skittering drums setting up a lovely tune with a little guitar riff that sounds like the one from ‘Needles And Pins’ inverted. When Annie Lennox sings about her obsession the pressure builds up beautifully, and I could listen to this again and again and not get tired. Back in the days of cassettes I remember adding this to many a car tape I made up.
There are 303 David Bowie tracks on the iPod so for two to come up within three songs is a bit of a coincidence. ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’, from The Next Day, is a dramatic ballad and just to ring the changes I’ll hand over the reins to my friend and fellow Bowiephile David Buckley who, in his forthcoming guide to DB’s music that Omnibus will publish later this year, reviews the song as follows: “Here, Bowie mixes Young Americans-style with, again, pre-Beatles American rock’n’roll, in this song of rejection (does the song, perhaps reference Hank Williams’ ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ or Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’?). Like several songs on The Next Day, Bowie appears visited by unwelcome shades of the past, singing, ‘I can see you as a ghost, hanging from a beam’, while the line ‘And people don’t like you’ appears so personal, so direct, the listener, hit with just five words, is twisted into a spiral of self-examination about their own lives. Both ‘Rock And Roll Suicide’ and ‘Five Years’ are quoted musically in the ending section, reinforcing the ‘Spectre-Sound’.” Thank you both Davids.
‘Long Black Veil’ from Music From Big Pink, The Band’s first album follows, sung by their bassist Rick Danko. This is a mournful but moving country ballad dating from the fifties and covered by many, about a man hung for a murder he didn’t commit, his alibi undisclosed because at the time of the crime he was in the arms of his best friend’s wife. Rather than expose her he submits to the gallows, leaving the lady to visit his grave in her long black veil. It’s a beautiful song but I always felt The Band didn’t do it justice somehow, their version a bit lumbering and lacking the depth of others I’ve heard. I have it by Johnny Cash too, and his version is better.
I’ve always had the time of day for Andy Fairweather Low whose happy, choogalooging ‘La Booga Rooga’ crops up next, nice wah-wah guitar and wailing Hammond behind his always nicely pitched vocals, very danceable but not an option on South West trains.
I didn’t recognise the slow guitar intro to ‘Summertime’ but once the vocals kicked in there was no mistaking Janis Joplin who really hasn’t been bettered as a female blues shouter. Her scorching vocals here are terrific as she throws herself headlong into the song. Note to self: must listen to the whole of this hits album one morning next week.
Lasting just over a minute and half, ‘Think’ by James Brown from his wonderful Live At The Apollo set was over too soon, serious kicking soul of the sixties variety, quite until the mellower, modern soul of John Legend whose pleasant ‘Used To Love U’ followed. Much of this kind of music sounds too samey to me but I did like the line: ‘Maybe we should rob somebody so we could live like Whitney and Bobby’. Maybe not such a good idea after all.
The final track this morning was from a Peter Gabriel best-of, ‘A Different Drum’, one of his many world music forays which reminded me of the Afro Celts, all heavy percussion and wailing vocals from somewhere in the Dark Continent south of the Sahara. I have enormous respect for Peter Gabriel for the about turn he made after Genesis that eventually drew attention to this kind music. It’s not always to my liking but this track built up to a handsome and dramatic conclusion as the 8.54 glided into Waterloo two minutes ahead of time.