23.5.17

SGT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND AT 50



It is, without doubt, the most famous album of all time, though whether it is the best is still being debated. Marking the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s release tomorrow comes a special edition*, like all such artefacts a lavish affair available in different formats and price ranges, from a deluxe multi-disc package at £109.99 to a humble single CD that is £100 cheaper. All promise enhanced sound and most a selection of outtakes and alternate versions of the songs that famously promised to ‘guarantee a splendid time for all’.  
Whatever its musical merits – and they are considerable – the album represented a high water mark in The Beatles’ career, the culmination of their precedent-setting decision to abandon touring and devote all their energies to working in the studio. With more time on their hands to write, record and experiment, The Beatles created an album that somehow encapsulated 1967’s Summer of Love to perfection, and through its production, artwork and timing, not to mention the pre-eminence of its creators, screamed its supremacy from the rooftops.
In 1967 it was simply unthinkable not to like Sgt Pepper. Its absolute dominance prompted Rolling Stone’s Langdon Winner to write, without irony: “The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt Pepper album was released…. For a brief while the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”
Largely the creation of Paul McCartney, who devised the concept and contributed the lion’s share of the songs, Sgt Pepper was conceived as an integrated work with none of its tracks released as singles. Nevertheless, many have become as well loved as any of the group’s chart toppers: the opening title track, reprised later, a delicious hors d’oeuvre in which the songs are framed; Ringo’s agreeably light-hearted ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, later covered imperiously by Joe Cocker (with Jimmy Page on guitar); John’s surreal, acid-drenched ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and playful fairground pastiche ‘For The Benefit Of Mister Kite’; George’s deeply contemplative Indian raga-like ‘Within You Without You’; and Paul’s poignant ‘She’s Leaving Home’, his elegant meditation on the alienating impact of the generation gap, and chirpy ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, a throwback to his love of music hall. Above all, though, Sgt Pepper brought us ‘A Day In The Life’, an elusive fragment of spectral reportage that is now widely recognised as the greatest track The Beatles ever recorded. A genuine collaboration between John and Paul at a time when they were increasingly writing apart, no other song of theirs contrasts their differing styles so boldly yet at the same time combines them so flawlessly. “It remains the most penetrating and innovative artistic reflection of its era,” wrote critic Ian MacDonald in Revolution In The Head, his definitive analysis of the music of The Beatles. “[It is] their finest single achievement.”
In hindsight, however, Sgt Pepper’s greatest strength was not the songs contained within Peter Blake’s famously colourful gate-fold sleeve or even its role in briefly unifying the world’s competing ideologies. Primarily, Sgt Pepper was the first LP to draw a line between ‘rock’ and ‘pop’: from now on there would be a conspicuous distinction between ‘rock bands’, of which The Beatles were the leading role model, and ‘pop groups’, which was all those unwilling or unable to follow them along the road to something more profound, a better world in many ways but one that lacked the joyful innocence of simply wanting to hold your hand.
Either way, after Sgt Pepper, nothing would ever be the same again.


* I am reassured that the new edition does not contain ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Field Forever’, as suggested by earlier reports and denounced by me in a post on Just Backdated on March 3. Evidently these two tracks will be on another CD within the package, along with other ‘extras’.

16.5.17

A 70th BIRTHDAY PLAYLIST





After breakfast this morning I made a quick iPod playlist of 70 tracks, a bit random but all songs I love, almost all of them from the 50s, 60s and 70s which was deliberate. No real surprises I don't suppose, and more recent songs can wait for another day. I could have done 700, of course, but that would have taken too long and I didn’t want to waste time while the sun was out. Either way I’ve probably missed some favourites and I made a rule to limit the number of songs to one per artist. (I broke that rule, but only with Beatles, Who, Bowie and Dylan.) Then I got in my car and headed south, to Lancing, and walked along the beach towards Brighton with these songs playing in my head. The weather was wonderful, warm, all blue skies and fluffy clouds, and the beach was largely deserted. I knew which song on the playlist was number 35, so after that played (and by an odd coincidence it was Dusty singing ‘Goin’ Back’) I walked back to Lancing, had a coffee in the Perch café and then drove home.
            Music has been a constant in my life since I was nine or ten, so it seemed only right to spend the first part of this day with songs I've grown up with. It took just over four hours and here’s what I listened to…
   
Mystery Train – Elvis
Great Balls of Fire – Jerry LL
Tutti Frutti – Little R
Rave On – Buddy H
Summertime Blues – Eddie C
Claudette – Everlys
Only The Lonely – Roy O
You Need Love – Muddy W
Hellhound On My Tail – Robert J
Sweet Little Sixteen – Chuck B
Long Tall Sally – Beatles
Satisfaction – Stones
Rising Sun – Animals
Respect – Aretha F
Sweet Soul Music – A Conley
Slippin’ & Slidin’ – Band (live)
Don’t Worry Baby – Beach Boys
Waterloo Sunset – Kinks
Hello Mary Lou – R Nelson
Here Comes The Night – Van M
Substitute – Who
Who Do You Love – Bo D
Mr Tambourine Man – Dylan
Shakin’ All Over – J Kidd & Pirates
I Fought The Law – Bobby Fuller 4
Move It – Cliff R
Time Is Tight – BT & MGs
Bells of Rhymney – Byrds
Stop In The Name of Love – Supremes
Tracks Of My Tears – Smokey R & Miracles
Walk Away Renee – Four Tops
My Girl – Temptations
Midnight Hour – Wilson P
Ecstasy of Gold – Ennio M
Goin’ Back – Dusty S
I Want You – Dylan
4 + 20 – CSN&Y
Don’t Let Me Down – Beatles
I Can’t Let Maggie Go – Honeybus
I Can Hear The Grass Grow – Move
Save The Last Dance For Me – Drifters
Be My Baby – Ronettes
Gasoline Alley – Rod Stewart
Knock On Wood – Eddie Floyd
When You Walk In The Room – Agnetha F
How Can You Mend A Broken Heart – Al Green
River Man – Nick Drake
See Emily Play – P Floyd
Hold On I’m Coming – Sam & Dave
Who’ll Stop The Rain – CCR
Winner Takes It All – Abba
Everybody’s Talkin’ – Harry N
If Paradise Is Half As Nice – Amen Corner
All Right Now – Free
Starman – Bowie
Chimes Of Freedom (live) – Bruce S
Me & Bobby McGhee – Janis J
Rock’n’Roll – Led Zep
Europa Endlos – Kraftwerk
Heroes – Bowie
I Can See For Miles - Who
Dixie Chicken – Little F
There She Goes – The La’s
Like A Hurricane – Neil Young
Baby Blue – Badfinger
Hello In There – John Prine
Highway Man – Albert Lee & HH
Blitzkrieg Bop – Ramones
Dreaming – Blondie
Elvis Presley Blues – Gillian Welch

11.5.17

JUST BACKDATED GETS 500,000th HIT – Shock, Horror!


Someone somewhere who read my Blondie review last week became the music fan who clicked on Just Backdated for the 500,000th time. Thank you very much whoever you are.
It has been my custom to mark significant milestones with a post about the blog, citing various statistics; things like the most popular posts, the countries from where Just Backdated attracts most hits and any odd anomalies that occur, like all those hits from Russia that arrived suddenly last year and disappeared equally suddenly, a bit sinister that. Us bloggers have access to pages that give us this kind of data, and through them I know precisely how many hits every single one of all my posts, now numbering 638, has received.
Here then is the top 10, with the date of the post in brackets, followed by the number of hits:

1) JOHN, PAUL & KEITH In Santa Monica (June 3, 2014) – 13,874
2) PALAZZO DARIO – The Palace That Tommy Bought (Feb 10, 2016) – 5,400
3) WHO UK TOUR 2014 (June 30, 2014) – 5,165
4) JIMMY PAGE – The Day Jimmy Met Robert (July 28, 2016) – 4,638
5) LAUNCHING DEAR BOY (Feb 13, 2015) – 4,149
6) THE WHO – My Hidden Gems Album (Aug 21, 2014) – 3,697
7) THE WHO – Hyde Park, London (June 27, 2015) – 3,589
8) PRETEND YOU’RE IN A WAR – Who Book Review (Sep 9, 2014) – 2,831
9) UNDERTURE – Keith’s Great Triumph (Oct 7, 2014) – 2,806
10) PETE TOWNSHEND INTERVIEW – June 1974 (May 25, 2014) – 2,747

While it’s not surprising that nine out of the top 10 are Who-related posts, it is perhaps surprising that three out of the nine relate directly to Keith Moon, including the number one which has had more than twice as many hits as the runner-up, thus retaining the unassailable lead it has enjoyed since it was first posted. Obviously a combination of Moonie and John & Paul Beatle is unbeatable.
        I’m still slightly puzzled by how many (presumably) Who fans hit on the second-placed post about Kit Lambert’s palace in Venice, which I would have thought was of marginal interest compared to more primary Who posts like show reviews and interviews from their golden era or reports on the group’s history and personnel. My only explanation is that it was posted last year, after Just Backdated had become reasonably well established, of which more later.
Bubbling under, ie over 2,000 hits, are loads more Who-related posts but looking back over all 638 I noticed that Blogspot’s mathematics is not infallible, and that according to the overall listing (as opposed to most hits) my post about Rory Gallagher’s battered old Fender Stratocaster (Oct 14, 2014) has actually received 3,113 hits which would put it in eighth place in the table above. The only other non-Who post above 2,000 is the one about Deep Purple’s misadventures in Jakarta, an extract from my book about the group, which is on 2,527.
Hovering just below the 2,000 mark are my obituary of Slade’s tour manager Graham ‘Swin’ Swinnerton (1,914) and one or two others (Jim Lea, Adrian Boot, Wilko Johnson, Jimmy Page, Bowie and Beatles). It’s gratifying to see that a few of my book reviews are read by around 1,500 viewers and that the hits are gathering steam the longer Just Backdated continues, the daily rate now rarely below 600. Last week’s Blondie review is just shy of 500 already and as far as I am aware it hasn’t been shared on any fan or Blondie-related sites, unlike many of my Who posts and a few on Abba, Led Zep and The Beatles.
With regard to JB becoming more established, it’s clear to me that regardless of their subject matter more recent posts seem to get more hits than those from a year ago, let alone when JB was launched at the end of 2013. One of my earliest ever posts was the heartfelt and well-received appreciation of John Entwistle that I wrote for Bass Guitar magazine (which has now had 2,543 hits) and I tend to think that if it was posted for the first time tomorrow I’d get double that. It’s right at the bottom of the Who listings now, but it gets a spike whenever the anniversary of John’s death comes around, even if it is a bit hard to find. This steady increase, of course, is reflected in the shorter time spans between landmarks like 400,000 hits to 500,000 etc.
As for geographical data, the US tops the league with 223,765 followed by the UK (103,523), Russia (37,186), Canada (15,595) and Germany (13,127). The bottom half of the top 10 is occupied by France, Japan, Australia, Ukraine and The Netherlands.
If I add up the hits from the top ten countries I get 417,639 which means over 80,000 hits are from the rest of the world, and I’ve noticed that in the past few months I’ve had hits from South Korea and, more recently, China, so Just Backdated is slowly but surely creeping across the Far East. I’d like to welcome my Chinese followers and, in case they missed the post from April 23, 2015, offer you absolute proof that The Beatles were compatriots of yours.


Anyway, thanks again to all who visit Just Backdated and I’ll try to keep up the good work, which more or less means you’re unlikely to find a report on this Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest or, for that matter, any televised music show of a competitive nature that’s a descendant of Carol Levis Discoveries or, for younger readers, Opportunity Knocks. 

4.5.17

BLONDIE, The Roundhouse, May 3, 2017



Anyone labouring under the misapprehension that Blondie is an oldies act sustaining their career into the 21st Century by relying on a catalogue of juicy hits from yesteryear would have been rudely awakened at London’s Roundhouse last night. The group’s tight and assured 15-song set included no fewer than five new songs from the album Pollinator, due for release tomorrow, and it must have been heartening for them to observe how the packed crowd responded, evidently enjoying the new material almost as much as they did tried and tested favourites like ‘Rapture’, ‘Heart Of Glass’ and ‘Atomic’. This probably had something to do with the fact that they sounded a bit like Blondie of old, of which more later.
Indeed, it is a tribute to the confidence of the present-day Blondie that three of their biggest hits – ‘Sunday Girl’, ‘The Tide Is High’ (both UK number ones) and ‘Denis (Denee)’ (their UK chart debut at number two) – went unplayed. This is a supercharged, thoroughly modern Blondie, match fit through extensive touring; together now since 2010, when guitarist Tommy Kessler replaced Paul Carbonara, joining the core trio of original members – singer Debbie Harry, guitarist Chris Stein and drummer Clem Burke – alongside relative newcomers Leigh Fox (who arrived in 1999) on bass, and multi-keyboard player Matt Katz-Bohan (2008).
Arriving on stage promptly at ten minutes to nine the group tore into ‘One Way Or Another’, the same opening song as when I last saw them about two and a half years ago at this same venue. On that occasion it was a double bill with Chrissie Hynde, who opened the show, but this time Blondie were on their own, poised and in command of the stage from the outset, and after a slight adjustment to the sound levels – up in the balcony I couldn’t hear the vocals at first – we had lift off.
Throughout the group played before a backdrop that alternated between futuristic films of the sci-fi variety and footage from their first flush of success, and for the first four songs Debbie chose to wear a black smock with the legend ‘Stop Fucking The Planet’ over her red dress, leaving little doubt about her attitude towards the current incumbent of the White House. Almost 40 years to the day from Blondie’s UK debut (Bournemouth, May 17, 1977), their singer is a legend now and rightly so, but she’s no Greta Garbo, shrinking into a closeted hinterland of introspection to grudgingly observe the many who have jumped on the bandwagon she herself launched. Using the whole of a large stage to greet her fans, she has an affable, warm personality that comes across rather like a favourite aunt, the one in whom you could confide when you were a teenager. As I noted at that earlier show, however, she is still as pretty as a picture, an ageless miracle in fact, her peroxide blonde hair falling over her shoulders and shimmering beneath the spotlights as she sings. Her voice is in good shape too, with solid vocal back up from Stein, Kessler and, most especially, Katz-Bohan. Immediately behind her Clem Burke is fronted by a transparent Perspex screen and from where I was sat it was possible to make out Debbie’s rather ghostly reflection when she was stage centre and the lighting just so. I suspect she wasn’t even aware of the effect.
‘One Way…’ was followed by ‘Hanging On The Telephone’, preceded by a brief explanation from Debbie about the nature of phones in the era it was recorded (1978) in case any in the mobile-fixated audience found the lyrics bewildering. Next up was ‘Fun’, the first of the five new songs and, like the others (‘My Monster’, ‘Fragments’, ‘Long Time’ and ‘Gravity’), it was clear that the group is seeking to replicate the power pop sound with which they triumphed in their heyday. Less experimental in tone and with more emphasis on uplifting choruses, they sound like the Blondie of the late seventies, though ‘Fragments’ goes through varying tempos, and a keyboard solo in ‘Long Time’ sounded like the theme from one of those old westerns when a male voice choir serenaded a coffin up Dead Man’s Hill.


Judiciously blended with the new material were old favourites like ‘Call Me’, which featured Katz-Bohan soloing on one of those portable keyboards around his neck; ‘In The Flesh’, their first hit, given a slow, dramatic but slightly ponderous reading; and ‘Rapture’, which as before segued into ‘Fight For The Right To Party’, a rap extravaganza reflecting Blondie’s early pioneering of this style. It gave Chris Stein a chance to solo, playing with harmonics and feedback, his most upfront contribution to the evening, while Clem turbo powered consistently from the back.
These days Stein seems content to play a supportive role in the stage group, the wise old lion looking on while the younger cubs prance around. ‘Rapture’ aside, he confines himself to chords and riffs, usually on the lower strings on his guitar, cool as ice, permanently shaded, his hair white now, the soul of the group. His fellow stalwart Burke, on the other hand, is still the band’s engine room, unrelenting, staunch and sturdy. I probably wasn’t alone in noticing that Clem wore a New York City t-shirt in the design favoured by John Lennon that for the encore he had changed to one emblazoned with the logo of CBGBs. Always the Blondie man most respectful of rock’s past, he is a showman drummer in the tradition of Keith Moon, chucking his sticks into the air, tumbling around the kit and at one point adopting one of those Moon poses with one arm high in the air and the other at right angles. He is largely responsible for bringing many of Blondie’s songs to a thumping close, soloing briefly before the final crashing chord, and tireless throughout. 
A glorious ‘Atomic’ proved a crowd favourite, greatly extended as Tommy Kessler, as skinny as a whippet, played the guitar hero in an expanded coda, ending up on top of a speaker cabinet and playing behind his neck while Debbie watched from the side, content to let the spotlight fall elsewhere. ‘Heart Of Glass’, more muscular than the discofied hit single, brought the set proper to a close before a three-song encore that opened with ‘Maria’, another sing-along, and closed on a full-tilt ‘Dreaming’, Clem as busy and irreplaceable as ever.
Ninety minutes had passed remarkably quickly, and on my way out I found myself in step behind Keren Woodward, Sarah Dallin and Siobhan Fahey, the reunited Bananarama, unchaperoned and no doubt deep in thought after watching Debbie Harry and her men demonstrate how it should be done. If Bananarama can muster up half the panache of Blondie they’ll do ok.

28.4.17

THURSDAY MORNING SHUFFLE



When I commutated to work regularly on the train from Guildford to Waterloo I used to listen to music on my iPod and every so often write about whatever came up on the shuffle setting. Well, I was on that same train yesterday and switched to shuffle again, a choice of 17,376 songs on the iPod as of this week, so I jotted down the names of tracks and random thoughts with the intention of writing another iPodding post. Here goes:
First up is The Faces’ ‘You Can Make Me Dance, Sing Or Anything’, a title that went on for much longer on the single that was a minor hit in 1974. There’s more than a hint of Motown in this song, and not just the lyric ‘this old heart of mine’, the title of an Isley Brothers’ hit that Rod covered on one of his own albums. I always had a soft spot for The Faces, more live than on a record, and this is one of their best songs. A good start to the morning’s listening.
Next up was Simon & Garfunkel, though from its choppy guitar chord intro I thought for a second it was The Everly Brothers. ‘You Can Tell The World’ was track one side one of their debut album Wednesday Morning 3AM, the song that introduced them to the world, but is very unlike the type of music that we now associate with S&G. “A joyous gospel track sung with plenty of naïve enthusiasm but lacking real depth or subtlety,” I wrote in my little guide to their music, and my opinion remains unchanged. “The rather academic approach that S&G brought to their music was unlikely to befit a gospel song that was generally delivered with unfettered enthusiasm by black choirs immersed in the glory of the Lord,” I continued. “The most impressive feature is Simon's rhythmic guitar work, an early example of his strength as an accompanist, not just with precise, claw-hammer finger picking but with confident chord work as well.”
S&G are followed by Gillian Welch, for whom I also have a very soft spot as anyone who visits Just Backdated on a regular basis will surely know. ‘Everything Is Free’, a track from her third album Time (The Revelator) was instantly recognisable from her partner Dave Rawlings’ springy guitar introduction, a sound I’d recognise anywhere these days. This is one of Gillian’s more mournful songs, bemoaning the loss of innocence or maybe the impermanence of things that once mattered to her, and like everything she does it’s a joy on the ear.
Making his second appearance this morning, Rod Stewart belts out ‘You’re My Girl (I Don’t Want To Discuss It)’, a track from Gasoline Alley, an album that sat next to my first decent stereo system for the second half of 1970 and all of 1971, and one that brings back sharp memories of time and place, in my case a shared flat in Bayswater, and a girlfriend who loved Gasoline Alley as much as I did. This is a slab of pure funk, with great bass playing (Wood? Lane? I have no idea) and guitar (probably Wood). Nowadays my version comes from Reason To Believe: The Complete Mercury Studio Recordings, a 3-CD set that demonstrates how wonderful Rod really was before success skewered his focus and led him to prance about in the wrong trousers. Things were going a bit pear shaped by Smiler (1974) but the four albums that preceded it remain magnificent examples of the best of early 70s UK rock.
I wasn’t that keen on the orchestral Quadrophenia, though ‘Helpless Dancer’ by Alfie Boe and Phil Daniels is probably the one Quad track that lends itself to this treatment as well as anything. “A dramatic but lean operatic-style aria featuring a double tracked Roger over staccato piano chords, acoustic guitar and little else,” I wrote in my little guide to The Who’s music, thus foreseeing the symphonic Quad about 20 years before it happened. Still don’t like it much, sounds a bit like Townshend meets Gilbert & Sullivan.
Far more conducive to my morning mood is Clannad’s chill-out version of ‘Coinleach Glas An Fhómhair (Cantoma Mix)’ which sounds like it should be on one of those Café Del Mar compilations; soft, dreamy, laid-back and, in typical Clannad style, rather haunting too. I think I picked up this Clannad compilation for £1 in a charity shop a year or two ago. I became attuned to Café Del Mar music on a beach in the South of France back when our kids were little and we took them to Eurocamps down there.
Up next is Kirsty MacColl and ‘Rhythm Of The Real Thing’ from a great anthology called From Croydon To Cuba, though I’m not convinced this funk style is suited to her voice. Bass led with stabbing brass, Kirty’s warm personality doesn’t come across anywhere near as well as on the pure pop and Cuban material that makes up most of this collection. Tragic loss, and those responsible for her death have never been brought to justice.
I reviewed the Beatles Live At The Hollywood Bowl album at some length here last November and the next track up on shuffle is John singing ‘Help’ in which he mangles the lyrics slightly but makes a great effort against formidable odds thrown up by thousands of screaming girls. As I said then, this album presents a decent argument that JPG&R were much better live than they thought they were, especially in the circumstances.
‘One Step’ by Ronnie Lane takes the adrenalin quotient way down as my train pulls into Surbiton, a folksy song in the rural style that Ronnie moved towards after leaving The Faces, so much more satisfying that the direction the singer took. Lovely acoustic guitar picking on a gently rolling tune; from a fine compilation called How Come that all sane music lovers of a certain age ought to own.
‘Hello Little Girl’ by The Beatles from Anthology 1 doesn’t sound like The Beatles at all, lacking in confidence and more like a third rate Merseybeat band. John and Paul share the vocals but you’d never guess, and George’s solo is very lacklustre. There’s evidence, too, of why Pete Best had to go. This is taken from the January 1, 1962, Decca audition session and, to be honest, it’s no wonder they were rejected, at least on the evidence of this.
Oscar Petersen takes me into Wimbledon with ‘Band Call’, piano jazz, followed by Fairground Attraction and ‘The Wind Knows My Name’. Their 1988 album First Of A Million Kisses was a favourite of mine for a while, its highlight the wonderful voice of Eddi Reader whom I later discovered was singing anonymously (or enhancing the vocals) on hits by lots of bands that featured girl singers. ‘Perfect’ was their big hit, of course (which had a fabulous C&W feel guitar solo) and the album as a whole was chock full of grace and romance, with a nice London feel about it too.  
Eddi was in the wrong place at the wrong time ever to have enhanced The Ronettes whose ‘Woman In Love (With You)’ comes up next, one of their lesser known songs but unmistakably A Wall Of Sound production by the inmate of the State Prison at Stockton, California. From the Back To Mono Spector set.
From its title alone ‘Origin Of The Species’ by U2 sounds like a pretentious slab of grandiosity worthy of Bono’s loftiest aspirations, but it turns out to be an inoffensive power ballad, from their album How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. I quite liked U2 around the time of Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree but indifference seems to have set in now.
We’re just pulling into Vauxhall as U2 give way to Diana Ross & The Supremes, a song called ‘No Matter What Sign You Are’, a bit Motown-by-numbers really but no matter. The subject matter reminds me of concerts in America by all those funk bands like Brass Construction, Ohio Players and EW&F, who at once point in their shows would invariably introduce each band member – and there were a lot of them – and state which star sign they were, thus inspiring big cheers from those in the crowd born around the same date. It always took ages – the funk equivalent of the prog rock drum solo – and was just as dreary.
Into Waterloo and R.E.M. are beginning ‘Belong’ from their Unplugged album, another record I’ve reviewed on this blog. Mike Mill’s bass is joined by Stipe’s mumbles, giving way to a gorgeous choral wash. Shame I have to switch it off and head for my lunch date.


25.4.17

SNOOKER – GENTLEMEN OF THE GREEN CLOTH




My dad played snooker well. The name J. H. Charlesworth appears on the honours board at the Craven Club in Skipton for winning the annual snooker and/or billiards championships several times during the fifties and sixties, but he was never able to pass his skills on to his son. Oh, he taught me the correct stance and how to hold a cue properly and I could pot a ball here and there, but when it came to controlling the cue ball to line up the next shot, the essential skill in high-level snooker, I was pretty hopeless. Dad could put side and back spin on the white, and knew precisely how hard to hit it, though one thing he did teach me that sank in was to avoid hitting it too hard. A ball played softly, he would tell me, was far more likely to find the pocket.
Dad loved to watch Pot Black, the first ever televised snooker competition, and would have been astonished at the way the game and those who play it professionally have progressed since then. This week he’d have been glued to the TV set watching Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Selby and the rest work their magic with a cue on the green baize at the World Championships in Sheffield.
Snooker is one of those sports that you need to have played, or tried to play, in order to appreciate. Those with no acquaintance with the game, or who have never even picked up a cue, will find it desperately boring; each game appearing identical to the last as two players hit a white ball at a coloured ball that they hope will disappear into a pocket, over and over again until one misses, or try to place the white ball in a position from which their opponent is unable to score, safety play as it is called, which is arguably even more boring for greenhorns since the white ball is merely hit up and down the table with no coloured balls pocketed for several shots on end.
As it happens, I often prefer watching a bout of skilled safety play to seeing a player pot red after red with blacks, pinks and blues in between, especially when the balls are close together around the area where the reds start out. Break building in these circumstances can be a bit monotonous in a seen-it-all-before kind of way, but getting that white ball back into baulk and tucked underneath the top cushion is incredibly skilful, a real art, especially if the path of the white to the object ball is interrupted, meaning the player is snookered. Those who’ve tried it know that playing snooker well is infinitely more difficult than it looks. These guys on the telly make it look easy, just like Prince on the guitar or Entwistle on bass.
And no matter what its detractors may say, every game of snooker really is different to the last. The balls never fall in the exact same place twice, so each and every shot must be weighed up, options, odds and angles calculated, before the player gets down, chin tucked in right above the cue, and makes the shot, all the while holding his head as steady as a rock and following through smoothly. A twitch will send it off target, as will taking your eye off the object ball. Good eyesight is essential; very few players wear glasses and those that do have them specially made, with lenses halfway up their foreheads, as if they’re wearing them upside down.
Snooker is a cool and calculated game, played at a stately pace, and the players dress and behave like gentlemen; well, most of them anyway. The occasional bad apple will cause a ruck of some sort, like the late Irish firebrand Alex Higgins whose speed around the table was as mesmerising as his facial tics. The more sedate players surely knew he would burn himself out one day. Jimmy White was another hothead, helped by his fondness for hanging around with rock stars like Ronnie Wood. Today’s firebrand, if you can call him that, is Ronnie O’Sullivan, another fine player whose speed around the table captivates and who isn’t ashamed to show his emotions. What these three had or have in common is the pace at which they could or can wrap up a game, and this makes them thrilling to watch, popular too, and good at keeping the sport in the news.
However, the vast majority of professional players keep their emotions in check, especially the more recent arrivals from the Far East; inwardly seething when they miss one or if the balls fall badly of course, but propriety is the name of this game, steely resolve essential. So is sportsmanship. If a player’s foul on a ball somehow escapes the notice of the referee he will declare it every time, and when a player flukes a shot he will invariably acknowledge it, just as he will acknowledge an excellent safety shot from his opponent by tapping the table with a wry smile.
Snooker appears to a man’s game. Although there is a women’s world championship, I am not aware of any woman who has competed in the world championships at Sheffield’s Crucible, not the televised rounds anyway. There are female referees nowadays, and mighty stern they look too, and there’s plenty of female fans in the audience. It isn’t hard to imagine how the cool, elegant, James Bond-like demeanor of certain players might appeal to women. Years ago in America I had a girlfriend who was an absolute ace at pool – her dad ran a pool hall in Florida – and I loved watching her hustle some arrogant bloke and take his money. Having played a bit of snooker in the UK, I was pretty confident on pool tables in America with their small size and big pockets, except against her of course.
        Some sports, among them football, cricket and those that require a racquet, pitch the players directly against one another insofar as the actions of one player require a direct response from another, and the quality of those actions and responses determines the outcome. Others, such as track & field, rowing or golf, are different in that the players are competing against the clock or the course, and the performance of their opponents has no direct influence beyond setting a target to beat. Snooker, I believe, is unique in that it mixes both these elements: the direct contest of player verses player during safety play and the indirect consequence of a player’s individual skill as he builds a break while his opponent has no choice but to sit and watch.
        Perhaps that’s why snooker is such an unlikely success as a spectator sport, perennially popular as TV viewing figures indicate, or maybe it’s because it seems made for television: all those brightly coloured balls rolling around on a green cloth, all that deep concentration, and all those players, dapper as dandies in their suits and ties, putting on a show, their skills as precise as rocket science, the immaculate gentlemen of the green cloth. My dad, a conservative with a small c, would definitely have approved and, as it does every April, watching this week's World Championship brings back wonderful memories of watching J. H. Charlesworth play on the table at the Craven Club, sinking a red and lining up the white right behind the black, a skill that was always beyond me.

14.4.17

RIVERBOAT SONG by Gillian Welch




In November of last year I wrote approvingly about Boots No 1 – The Official Revival Bootleg, a double CD set of outtakes and alternative versions from Gillian Welch’s 1996 album Revival, her much acclaimed debut recording. In particular I have come to love a song therein called ‘Riverboat Song’, a gently swaying ragtime tune with a hint of blue, about the river that flows past the singer’s door, a lament for a time when this river, referred to always as ‘she’, carried far more traffic than it does today and seemed to have a greater purpose beyond ‘[tumbling] to the sea to find some company’; in truth it’s a rather melancholy song of sympathy for the barren times on which her treasured river seems now to have fallen.
Set to a gorgeous melody that, like many of Welch and her partner Dave Rawlings’ compositions, sounds as if it could have been written at any time in the last 100 years, we hear about the river’s more prosperous era, when a huge cotton crop came floating past, and when the paddle-steamers – ‘the Mississippi Queen and the Alabama Pearl’ – were floating dancehalls that rang with the sound of gamblers and Dixieland jazz as they made their way down to the Gulf of Mexico. After a lovely chorded ragtime guitar solo, reminiscent of John Fahey at his best, we learn about how the river flooded ‘in the spring of ’65’, becoming ‘ten miles wide’ and how those on the banks should have seen it coming because, after all, ‘a woman’s gonna make a fuss if no one pays her any mind’. 
The songs ends where it began, with Welch serenading her river in spite of everything, ‘the blue old girl travelling past’, urging this neighbour of hers that she loves so much on its watery way. A delightful sense of affection towards her river just about prevents the whole piece from descending into a well of sadness.
Rivers have inspired countless songwriters over the ages, and in some respects Welch and Rawlings’ ‘Riverboat Song’ is a grandchild of ‘Ol’ Man River’, from the 1927 musical Showboat, sung most famously and with unfathomable warmth by the great bass singer and political activist Paul Robeson. While some songs use a river as a metaphor for overcoming hardship (‘Many Rivers To Cross’ by Jimmy Cliff or ‘The River’ by Bruce Springsteen) and others dwell on things that happen alongside them (‘Take Me To The River’ by Talking Heads and ‘Down By The River’ by Neil Young) or even celebrate their power (‘Grand Coulee Dam’ by Woody Guthrie and ‘Proud Mary’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival), ‘Ol’ Man River’ and ‘Riverboat Song’ are simply celebrations of the wonders of a river as nothing more, and nothing less, than a creation of nature.
Talking of unchained power, my favourite Led Zeppelin track is river related: ‘When The Levee Breaks’, from their fourth album, originally recorded in 1927 by Memphis Minnie and Kansas John McCoy, and written about the Great Mississippi Flood that destroyed homes and crops that year. There’s a hint of this song in Welch and Rawlings’ verse about when their river flooded, and also in the ragtime bluesy feel of the original. Of course, Page & Co take the song by the scruff of the neck and shake it like a chorus girl, but there’s genuine old-time authenticity in Plant’s shrill harmonica when it arrives over Bonham’s relentless drum pattern, and Page’s slide guitar is unfussy, strident and similarly relentless, suggesting a warning call and the very real feeling of impending doom felt by those who live by a river during a particularly bad rainstorm.
The insistent feel of this Zep track is in some ways shared by Creedence’s surging ‘Proud Mary’, bringing to mind the reality that a river never stops moving, not even a tidal one like the Thames which, when the flow changes from upstream to down, seems to swirl around like a whirlpool, re-arranging itself for the next phase but still stirring, still in motion. So it’s no wonder that rivers, in themselves or as a metaphor, inspire songwriters; be it the contrast between Paul Simon’s troubled water and the stately progress of Art Garfunkel’s complementary vocal, or Dylan brooding on his luck as he watches the river flow, or Springsteen drawing a parallel between a river that has dried up and died and the broken dreams of Mary and her man.
You can hear Gillian Welch singing ‘Riverboat Song’ on YouTube, both the version on Boots No 1, and a different take that features a bluesier acoustic guitar and an accordion in the solo. Here’s the links:
Boots version:
Alt version:


9.4.17

DEFYING GRAVITY by Emmylou Harris





For many years now one of my favourite songs has been ‘Defying Gravity’, written by Jesse Winchester and sung with wraithlike beauty by Emmylou Harris on her Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town album, released in 1978. (I’m not talking about the show song of the same name that features in the musical Wicked.) In trying to put my finger on why I like this song so much – and Emmylou’s interpretation of it in particular – I realise how the title perfectly captures the melody and, unusually, is not a part of a lyric that is slightly surreal in a hazy sort of way, about flying or falling or being dizzy, or, like some of the best lyrics ever written, whatever you want it to mean really.
But it’s the melody that really captures my imagination. It rises and falls across octaves, lilting like a child’s swing, up and down like a smoothly bouncing beach ball, yet at the same time is unhurried and in perfect sync with the words. Emmylou takes the song at a stately pace, the clarity of her lovely voice at odds with its impressionistic words, humming the melody after the second verse to announce a chiming, echo-laden guitar solo that reaffirms the humility of the basic tune, followed by a repeated verse and more bars of humming to the fade; no middle-eight or variance from the central melody throughout. If it was possible to ride a roller coaster in slow motion, this is what it would sound like.
Of course this got me to thinking about other songs that feature the same device, an octave leap or an octave drop, a sort of gravitational plunge or, conversely, a leap that defies gravity. I’ve written at some length about ‘Sparks’ and ‘Underture’, both essentially the same instrumental tune from The Who’s Tommy, the former a preface to a recurrent theme, the latter a far lengthier, 10-minute exploration, and how on stage it took on another dimension; that thrilling exercise in layered dynamics generated by the propulsive cascade of Pete Townshend’s guitar, the harmonic counterpoint of John Entwistle’s bass and, most conspicuously, the orchestral sweep of Keith Moon at the top of his game.
I suspect the first time I encountered an octave skip was on ‘Dance On’, the 1962 UK number one hit by The Shadows, an instrumental I played with my old group The Rockin’ Pandas back in Skipton in Yorkshire. The song opens with a twangy low open E followed by the sharper E an octave higher at the second fret on the fourth string, a rousing sequence repeated half way through and again at the close; dead easy to play and sounds great.
For some reason our family never really did cotton on to the movie The Wizard Of Oz, otherwise I’d have been familiar with the same device in Harold Arlen’s ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’, sung by Judy Garland in the 1939 film. This was probably where David Bowie first saw the possibilities of an octave climb and chose to incorporate one into the luscious chorus of ‘Starman’, a great song’s greatest moment.
Bruce Springsteen, never a man to resist the appeal of a good idea, used the same device on ‘Born To Run’, which I heard for the first time ever when he played the song on stage at the Bottom Line Club in August of 1975. The album had just come out, or was about to, and I remember thinking what a cracking and memorable little riff it was. I think I went home humming it that night, which says a lot considering I’d only just heard it for the first time.
Then again, it wasn’t really the first time I’d heard it. It was just lingering in the back of my mind from other songs that incorporated a similar device. There’s a suggestion of it in John’s Beatles song ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, a favourite of mine that I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog. In his definitive analysis of Beatles music Revolution In The Head, far and away the best book on its kind, Ian Macdonald identifies this song as being a distant cousin of Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’, but that song doesn’t seem to me to incorporate any octave leaps or drops. Macdonald refers to the ‘rise-and-fall feeling’ of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and believes it vies with ‘Come Together’ for ‘consideration as the best of Lennon’s late-style Beatles records’, an opinion I share. He’s bit sniffy about ‘Across The Universe’, however, which I rather like, and this too uses an octave leap in its acoustic guitar introduction, as does Paul’s finger-picked guitar on ‘Blackbird’ on the White Album.
So I’m trying to think of some more. The bass riff in ‘Shakin’ All Over’ perhaps; ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story; ‘Moon River’ from Breakfast At Tiffany’s (introduced to Andy Williams in a Los Angeles restaurant in 1973, he courteously stood to shake my hand but was so short I thought he was still sitting down); Acker Bilk’s easy-on-the-ear ‘Stranger On The Shore’; Ah Ha’s ‘Take On Me’; maybe even Jimmy Page’s staccato electric guitar introduction to ‘Immigrant Song’ on Led Zeppelin III. What they have in common, apart from juggling those undulating octaves, is that I pretty much like them all.
To end where I began, there are other versions of ‘Defying Gravity’ around, by Waylon Jennings and its writer Jesse Winchester, and it was used as the theme tune to the movie The Executioner’s Song, about the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore. For my money, however, none compare with the ethereal beauty of Emmylou Harris’ version. You can hear it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQl_nD9RCEg

8.4.17

PRINCE (1958-2016)


PRINCE

(1958-2016)


An extraordinarily talented songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist, showman and record producer, Prince was a musical phenomenon in the tradition of Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix and Michael Jackson – perhaps even a combination of all three. He was also a prodigious workaholic, releasing no fewer than 39 studio albums during a recording career that lasted from 1978 to 2015, in addition to numerous collaborations with other artists, extensive work as a producer and even appearing as an actor in three feature films for which he naturally provided the soundtrack.
Equally importantly, he was very much his own man, with a proud and forthright personality and an occasionally perverse, almost picaresque, turn of mind, refusing to be intimidated by anyone, told how to present his music or, indeed, live his life. He was bold, sexy, stylish and unafraid to court controversy, his diminutive size contributing to a package that, like David Bowie, often seemed to have arrived from another planet.
He was born Prince Rogers Nelson in 1958, in Minneapolis, where he would base himself throughout his life and construct his own Paisley Park home, studio and rehearsal space. His parents soon broke up and he ran away to live with his musician father who bought him his first guitar. By his teens he was proficient on it and the piano, playing in a high school band and writing his own songs. Demos recorded in 1976 led to a contract with Warners Brothers, an uncomfortable relationship that often seemed perilously close to collapsing and which, perhaps inevitably, eventually would.
         Nevertheless it is the series of albums that Prince recorded for Warners during the eighties that secured his reputation, among them such landmark records as 1999 (1982), Purple Rain (1984) and Sign ‘O’ The Times (1987), the latter a superb double album that mixed all his many influences, funk, R&B, soul and pure pop, and is widely regarded as his masterpiece.
Simultaneously Prince developed his stagecraft, a guitar style that was as fluid as it was flash, as accomplished as it was effortless. Colourful custom built guitars in the shape a mysterious hieroglyph added to the spectacle, as did bands he led that invariably included girls who were dressed to kill but whose skills as musicians were never in doubt. Erotica and romantic intrigue were key themes in his work, often overlapping in lyrics that left very little to the imagination, yet at the same time he avoided any accusations of sleaze simply through being as gifted as he was.
Although his output never slowed down, Prince’s behaviour became increasingly erratic in the late nineties. During his protracted battle with Warners he took to scrawling the word ‘slave’ on his cheek, then adopted the hieroglyph as his name and, finally, announced that henceforth he wished to be known as ‘The Artist Formerly Known As Prince’. This kept him in the news, as did wildly successful tours, triumphant ‘secret’ club gigs and a personal life that included rumoured dalliances with, among many others, Kim Bassinger, Madonna, Sheena Easton, Sinead O’Connor, Sheila E, Carmen Elektra and Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles.
Eternally restless, never for one moment resting on his laurels and creative to the very end, Prince, evidently in poor health, died suddenly and unexpectedly from an accidental overdose of pharmaceutical drugs on April 21, 2016.

(If you don't believe me check this out - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SFNW5F8K9Y - and any clips on YouTube of Prince playing 'Purple Rain'.)

22.3.17

CHUCK BERRY (1926-2017)

This is the Foreword I was asked to write for a Chuck Berry songbook to be published by Music Sales.


Chuck Berry
(1926-2017)

“He could play the guitar just like ringing a bell.”


Thanks to his duck walk, the way he swung the neck of his guitar around and those nifty little bent-note licks that opened his songs, Chuck Berry was the first great guitar hero of the rock’n’roll era – but you didn’t have to be a virtuoso to play like him. With a little practice and a bit of determination just about anyone can play Chuck Berry’s music. That’s the beauty of it – and without it there would have been no Beatles and no Rolling Stones, no Led Zeppelin and no U2, no Bruce Springsteen and certainly no Status Quo. Even David Bowie recorded one of his songs.
Chuck Berry did not invent the 12-bar blues but the way he played it is the nearest thing there is to the foundation stone of rock’n’roll. It is the primer for rock guitar players everywhere, the first lesson in the first class on the first morning in the first school, and while those who took it further than him wound up playing a more supercharged version of it in arenas, Berry stayed true to the first principles he laid down, even if it did become a chore towards the end and, for his audiences, less and less engaging as the years rolled by.
As if this wasn’t enough, however, Chuck Berry was also rock’n’roll’s first poet laureate. More than Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard or even Buddy Holly, he painted in his songs a lyrical portrait of young America for those of us with the misfortune to live elsewhere. Berry’s America was the promised land, a country of glitzy cars and endless highways, of girls in tight dresses and lipstick, of driving along with no particular place to go, and where they never stopped rocking till the moon went down. The combination of his eloquent, witty lyrics and the incessant drive of his signature guitar style was irresistible to British and American teenagers as the black and white fifties morphed into the colourful, swinging sixties, and it will remain so for an eternity.
The timing of his arrival meant that Chuck Berry’s influence on the next generation of rock performers was incalculable. Most of them were cadging the money to buy their first guitars when ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ rose to number 16 in the British charts in 1958. In the UK that generational charge was led by The Beatles and the Stones, and in America by Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys. All four are immensely indebted to Berry, and aren’t afraid to say so.
“If you tried to give rock’n’roll another name you might call it Chuck Berry,” said John Lennon, while Keith Richards went even further, telling the audience at Berry’s induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1986: “I stole every lick of mine from Chuck Berry.” Told of Berry’s death at the age of 90, Keith’s band mate Mick Jagger, not known for his benevolence towards others in the same trade as himself, said: “I want to thank him for the inspirational music he gave us. He lit up our teenage dreams of being musicians and performers. His lyrics shone above others and threw a strange light on the American dream. Chuck you were amazing and your music is engraved on us forever.”

* * *

The son of church-going, upwardly-mobile parents, Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born – according to him – in St Louis, Missouri, on October 18, 1926, the fourth child in a family of six. Failing to distinguish himself at school, at 18 he was imprisoned for three years for armed robbery, the first of four jail sentences he would serve for assorted crimes, and before opting for a career in music worked on a car assembly plant, as a janitor and in a beauty salon. He got his first guitar as a teenager and sought inspiration not just from blues musicians like Tampa Red, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Carl Hogan of Louis Jordan’s Timpani Five but from the smooth phrasing of Nat ‘King’ Cole and the swing jazz of guitarist Charlie Christian. More important was his introduction to boogie-woogie piano player Johnny Johnson whose trio he joined in 1952, bringing to the group a cool, detached vocal style and an approach to the guitar that mixed country licks with the increasingly popular hillbilly and blues styles. He was also starting to write his own songs.
        In Chicago in 1955 Berry met Muddy Waters who suggested he contact Leonard and Philip Chess whose independent label Chess Records specialised in urban blues. Leonard proposed that Berry record a revision of ‘Ida Red’, a traditional country fiddle tune, that was re-titled ‘Maybelline’ with lyrics about an auto race between a Cadillac – a Coupe de Ville, the details were crucial to the package – and a V8 Ford, all set to a toe-tapping rock’n’roll beat captured in the studio by Berry on guitar, Johnson on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, Jasper Thomas on drums and Jerome Green from Bo Diddley’s band on maracas. It sold a million copies and the Chuck Berry Combo was on its way.
        After a couple of minor hits the following year with ‘Thirty Days’ and ‘No Money Down’, Berry hit a rich seam of inventiveness during his third Chess session when ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ were recorded. Subsequent Berry releases on Chess are a roll call of rock’n’roll classics: ‘School Days’ and ‘Rock And Roll Music’ (1957); ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, ‘Reelin’ And Rockin’’, ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Around And Around’, ‘Carol’ and ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ (1958); ‘Little Queenie’, ‘Back In The USA’ and ‘Let It Rock’ (1959); ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ (1960); ‘I’m Talking About You’ (1961); and ‘Nadine’, ‘You Never Can Tell’, ‘No Particular Place To Go’ and ‘The Promised Land’ (1964), the gap between ’61 and ’64 explained by his second penal detention, this time for ‘transporting an underage girl across state lines for immoral purposes’.
Those fans who left the dance floor for a moment could consider the lyrics to these songs, how cleverly they rhymed and how perfectly they dove-tailed with the music, each metre a lesson in precision synchronicity. Berry was adept at using place names, girls’ names, makes of cars and even household appliances. He told little stories in vignettes and brought fine observational detail to verses that invariably climaxed with the song’s title or a repeated phrase that lifted the spirit. “In Berry’s cities, real people struggled and fretted and gave vent to ironic perceptions,” wrote Michael Gray in an obituary published in the Guardian newspaper. “His songs release the power of romance, flying with relish through a part of the American dream.”
It was all the more remarkable, then, that Berry was the wrong side of 30 when he was writing and singing songs about teenage romance, and that he was an African American whose music transcended racial boundaries without relying on the outrageous and rather camp style of performance characterised by Little Richard. With his trademark red Gibson ES335, his slicked back hair and carefully trimmed moustache, Berry was ultra cool; like trumpeter Miles Davis, actor Sydney Poitier and boxer Muhammad Ali the personification of insouciant black power long before the term was coined.
        In tandem with the hits that rolled off the production line like new cars at an assembly plant, Berry developed his stagecraft, the duck walking, the wide-legged stance and the wise cracking, and a personality summed up in the lyrics to ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’, for whom ‘a whole lotta good women [are] sheddin’ tears’. He was sharp suited, elegant and flash, all qualities unlikely to endear him to the white establishment in an era when racism was rife below the Mason-Dixon line, and the jail terms (another, evidently, resulted from trying to date a white woman) were not the only reason why Berry cultivated a side to his personality best described as disagreeable. Music industry practice in the fifties dictated the sharing of writing credits – and thus the publishing revenues – with DJs who played records on the air, and while Berry accepted this at the time, albeit under duress, he came to realise that as his songs became covered by the big selling British groups of the sixties he was losing a fortune in royalties. Then there was the fact that his biggest hit ‘My Ding-A-Ling’, his only number one (in 1972) on either side of the Atlantic, was by common consent the worst record he ever made. A novelty song with smutty overtones that melodically resembled ‘Little Brown Jug’, in the UK it displeased morals campaigner Mary Whitehouse who tried unsuccessfully to get it banned, an action that doubtless assisted its passage to the top. A travesty of his best work, it sold bucket-loads so why should he worry? In truth, Berry’s chart statistics always belied the influence and quality of his records. He didn’t even compose ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ anyway, so the issue of royalties never arose, though it is a strange and slightly troubling paradox that this superbly gifted songwriter did not write his biggest hit.
        Thus was conferred upon Chuck Berry a reputation as ‘difficult’ that in the fullness of time and through his own transgressions would morph into ‘unsavoury’. It was no secret that he dealt exclusively in cash, and that if the cash was not forthcoming neither was the show. Many stories are told of promoters dashing to his hotel with wads of notes to secure his services, and only after the money was handed over would Berry leave his hotel and drive to the concert hall, usually in a Mercedes Benz hired at the long suffering promoter’s expense. Similarly, if he was engaged for one hour, then on the sixty minute mark precisely Berry would leave the stage, not to return for an encore unless further funds were proffered which they invariably were if the promoter wanted to avoid a crowd disturbance that might result in costly damage to fixtures and fittings. Berry rarely spoke to the bands hired to back him up, let alone provide them with a set list or thank them for their services. Such ruthless inflexibility all added to the Berry legend, as did his truculence in interviews. He preferred to be addressed as Charles. “I will excuse you,” was his standard reply to a question that he felt was in any way disrespectful. When he came to London in 1987 to promote his autobiography it was reported that he wouldn’t leave his hotel bed to be interviewed unless the PR girl from his book publishing company joined him there.

* * *

Despite the enormous influence he exerted upon it, the beat boom of the sixties was as unkind to Chuck Berry as it was to his contemporaries from the first wave of rock’n’roll. While many fell by the wayside, Elvis to insubstantial films and then Las Vegas, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran to fatal accidents, Jerry Lee Lewis to infamy and Little Richard to religion, Berry battled on. Re-recordings of old material on labels other than Chess failed to match the sparkle of the originals, however, and attempts to update his image in tandem with the new order, like the Live At The Fillmore album recorded with the Steve Miller Band, proved less than satisfactory. Back at Chess in 1969, ‘Tulane’, a terrific rocker in his trademark style, and a brace of respectable albums ought to have re-established his reputation, but the reality was that like those same contemporaries he was a ‘singles’ artist unable to prosper in the ‘albums’ world of contemporary ‘adult’ rock, and his future would forever rely on his past. With his friend Bo Diddley, he became a fixture on the revival circuit, always welcome in the UK where Teddy Boys from the fifties, their quiffs and sideburns greying now but still sporting Edwardian coats, bootlace ties and crepe-soled shoes, could be relied upon to jive with their wives in the aisles and cheer him to the rafters as he duck-walked across the stage, reliving memories of how Johnny B. Goode sat beneath the tree by the railroad track and played guitar just like ringing a bell.
Never work-shy, for much of the rest of his life Berry maintained a concert schedule of up to 100 shows a year, travelling solo, his red Gibson guitar his only companion, a white naval officer’s peaked cap hiding his receding hairline. In 1979, the same year he was jailed yet again, this time for tax evasion, he played at the White House for President Jimmy Carter, and for his 60th birthday in 1987 he was the subject of a documentary movie entitled Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll for which he was backed by a band put through their paces by Keith Richards and featuring guest appearances by Eric Clapton, Julian Lennon and Linda Ronstadt among others. He settled in Ladue, Missouri, a few miles west of St Louis, and one Wednesday each month performed at a restaurant in the city. He bought a restaurant of his own in nearby Wentzville that became known as Berry Park, but brought ignominy on himself again when it emerged that a video camera had been installed in the ladies’ bathroom. A search of the premises uncovered illegal drugs as well as footage from the camera. Subsequent legal proceedings reportedly cost him over $1 million in lawyers’ fees, a suspended jail sentence and what was left of his tattered reputation. Another lawsuit in 2000, brought by his old piano player Johnny Johnson, claimed joint authorship of over 50 songs but was dismissed when the judge decided too much time had elapsed since they were written. Many thought Johnson’s claim was valid.
Berry certainly knew how to make enemies and Keith Richards, for one, had good reason to loathe the man as much as he loved his music. Berry drove Richards to distraction by switching keys without warning during the filming of Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll but, since the Stones recorded six of his songs and modelled plenty of their own on his style, maybe Berry felt he was entitled to play fast and loose with a Rolling Stone. If you include tracks on their BBC sessions recordings, The Beatles recorded eight Berry songs and unlike the Stones managed to better a Berry original with a version of ‘Rock And Roll Music’ on their 1964 album Beatles For Sale. John Lennon, a great admirer, sang that particular track brilliantly, powering his group through its verses in one of greatest interpretations of Chuck Berry music ever recorded, as fine a tribute as you’ll find anywhere. Lennon shared a stage with his hero at the Toronto Rock And Roll Revival festival in 1969. What, if anything, passed between them is not recorded.
But covers by The Beatles and Stones are the tip of the iceberg of course. Put simply, everybody covered Chuck Berry. Right now some band somewhere in the world is plugging in, tuning up and opening a night’s set with Chuck Berry music: ‘I’m gonna write a little letter…’, ‘Deep down Louisiana…’, ‘Long distance information…’, ‘Riding along in my automobile…’ or any of a dozen more. And someone somewhere is listening to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, rocking again ‘in Boston, in Pittsburgh PA, deep in the heart of Texas, ’round the Frisco Bay, all over St Louis and down in New Orleans’, names on a map in a dull geography class until Chuck Berry transformed them into that mythical American paradise for us all those years ago.
Many years before he was born to run Bruce Springsteen found himself in one of those bands hired to back up Chuck Berry and had the temerity to ask the great man what music they were going to play. “Chuck Berry music,” he replied scornfully. What he really meant was that if you don’t know how to play Chuck Berry music you have no business hanging an electric guitar around your shoulders.