20.9.20

TEA FOR THE TILLERMAN² - Cat Stevens/Yusuf

The intriguing saga of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam has taken another twist with the release of this impeccable re-recording of Tea For The Tillerman, Stevens’ breakthrough album, long considered his peak achievement and a classic of the singer-songwriter genre. Though only marginally superior to Mona Bone Jakon, which preceded it, and Teaser & The Firecat, which followed, Tillerman includes such memorable titles as ‘Where Do The Children Play?’, more relevant than ever in the light of Extinction Rebellion; ‘Hard Headed Woman’, the first hint of Stevens’ discomfort with his calling; ‘Wild World’, which alerts the unwary to unseen perils; ‘On The Road To Find Out’, the first in a series of introspective songs that communicated Stevens’ endless search for something deeper in his life; and the peerless ‘Father And Son’, among the greatest musical reflections on the familial generation gap, and his most enduring song. 
So what’s different? Well, he’s found his hard headed woman and Mary’s dalliance with the parson is no longer a topic for discussion but these are minor modifications in the reimagined, 50th Anniversary edition of Tillerman, released last week and now credited on its spine jointly to Yusuf/Cat Stevens. Of far greater import is the improved 21st Century production, the deeper timbre of Stevens’ voice and some nifty rearrangements of its 11 songs, some more radical than others. 
The songs are sequenced in the same order as before and were re-recorded earlier this year at a studio near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the South of France. Paul Samwell-Smith reprised his production duties and it is pleasing to note that Yusuf was joined by acoustic guitarist Alun Davies, his long serving accompanist and musical partner. Alun’s friend Jim Cregan was brought in to add some electric guitar, various other musicians beef up the instrumentals to levels unheard on the original recording and many of those present add their voices to a choral landscape that occasionally reinforces the delicate ambience of songs hitherto sung by Stevens alone. 
Much of the charm of the original Tillerman – and Stevens’ albums from this period of his career generally – was Samwell Smith’s light touch, but to a certain extent this has been set aside in favour of a fuller production, which is no bad thing in the light of Stevens’ age – he turned 72 in July – and its natural impact on his vocal cords. That said, the enhancements come intermittently, as if those involved decided, perhaps wisely, not to overdo the innovation for fear of alienating traditionalists. Happily, the compromise at which they arrived meets all expectations. 
Above all, though, the album retains its sadness. No matter how briskly Stevens and Davies strummed their guitars, nothing could mask the melancholy in Stevens’ voice nor the despondency in lyrics that laid bare a man who was uncomfortable in his own skin. This would not be resolved until Stevens, once Steven Demetri Georgiou now simply Yusuf, discovered the Islamic faith in late 1977. Thereafter he connected only intermittently with the secular world, though in recent years he seems to have mellowed in this regard, finding a middle ground amidst the demands of his religion and the material world in which the commercial music industry subsists. 
Back in the present, on the new version of Tillerman the lengthy intro to ‘Where Do The Children Play?’, the opening song, is retained, updated with an attractive, breathy electronic boost to the backing vocal, and Yusuf’s richer voice adds gravity to a song that was prescient 50 years ago. (Who was to know that this re-recording of Stevens’ lament for the natural world would be released a few days after Sir David Attenborough’s most recent televised wildlife documentary Extinction: The Facts, a chilling reminder of how certain species and, indeed, our very planet are threatened by overdevelopment?) At the 2.50 mark – ‘You’ve cracked the sky’ – the song breaks out from its familiar mellow setting and Yusuf’s anger resonates above drums that pound, at least by his standards, and a choral backdrop that adds dramatic counterpoint before the arrangement slips back into the same gentle fade from which it began. 
Aside from the subtle change in the lyric, ‘Hard Headed Woman’ lacks the edgy abruptness of the original and the orchestral interlude is replaced by a smoother texture and a soft electric guitar, but the modification here pales into insignificance compared to ‘Wild World’ which follows. Once a slightly reggae-tuned hit for Jimmy Cliff, ‘Wild World’ is given a Latin American makeover with a Gallic touch, an accordion deep in the mix. A lovely clarinet solo rides above the swing tempo, taking the song home in a lengthy, dreamy closing outro.
Lisa is still as sad as ever, and even a Spanish guitar, beautifully played by Eric Appapoulay, cannot ease her misery. As in the original, the song’s foundation is the tinkly piano figure, and although plucked nylon strings dominate a solo hitherto reliant on bowed strings, the arrangement is not that much different from the 1970 ‘Sad Lisa’. Even more so than ‘Wild World’, ‘Miles From Nowhere’ explodes after its quiet start, rocking out with electric guitars leading the charge as Yusuf celebrates his freedom, thereafter undulating between merriment and reflection. 
Aside from an orchestral opening reminiscent of the Beatles Mystery Tour period, ‘But I Might Die Tonight’ is not that far removed from the original recording, but ‘Longer Boats’ is more full-throated, the second verse – ‘I don’t want no God on my lawn’ – replaced with lines about asteroid dwellers looking down on us, while the contentious verse about Mary and the parson is traded for a prayer for unity and peace delivered by a rapper identified in the accompanying booklet as Brother Eli. 
‘Into White’ always sounded to me like something Edward Lear might have written to entertain children. Its gentility is retained in the least transformed song on the album. In another sharp contrast, however, ‘On The Road To Find Out’ has morphed into a dirty blues, not something I ever imagined writing in relation to Yusuf. Blue notes, courtesy of Appapoulay on electric guitar, abound in Stevens’ most overt quest song, the plodding beat and insistent riff hinting at the sub-Sahara and nothing like the original.
Which brings us to ‘Father And Son’ in which Yusuf duets with himself, by which I mean that while the voice of the father is newly recorded, the voice of the son is taken from a historical live recording at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles, thus neatly realising the song’s original script. Based around the familiar theme of leaving home to discover life for oneself; sympathy balancing equally between parental caution and youthful impatience. Thankfully, the arrangement is unchanged, the instrumental interlude serene though towards the end the old and young voices no longer blend into lyrical counterpoint. Nevertheless, the son’s lines retain the desperate frustration of the original, a song of unusual passion and originality. 
Finally, the slight hesitancy evident in ‘Tea For Tillerman’ itself, the minute-long coda, has vanished in favour of a more confident piano part, played and sung by Yusuf in his more sonorous intonation. 
In closing I should mention that charming stop-frame animated videos have been produced to illustrate ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ and ‘Father And Son’, and a third film accompanies the bluesy ‘On The Road To Find Out’. All can be found on catstevens.com.



17.9.20

KNOCK ON WOOD WITH THE BLACK SHEEP

 

I have just started to read Knock On Wood, Eddie Floyd’s autobiography which is co-authored by my friend Tony Fletcher. I’ll probably review it properly here next week but its title brings back a memory I feel like sharing. 
It is August of 1968 and I am living at home in Skipton in Yorkshire. Because their bass player is indisposed I have been asked to take his place in The Black Sheep, thus fulfilling a private ambition of some significance to me. By common consent The Black Sheep are Skipton’s best band, a six-piece that specialises in soul and R&B with a few Stones songs like ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ thrown in for good measure. Their speciality is a note-for-note reproduction of Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band’s Hand Clappin’ Foot Stompin’ Funky-Butt Live! LP, Piccadilly NPL 38026, a record I still own, and a slew of Stax and Atlantic hits like ‘Knock On Wood’ and ‘In The Midnight Hour’. 


The occasion makes it all the more momentous. The gig is the joint 21st birthday party of two acquaintances of mine, John Spencer, who became a noted rugby union player, and John Mewies, who, like his father before him, has been our family solicitor for as long as I can remember. A marquee has been hired which sits in the garden of the Mewies home in the lane opposite the pitches of Upper Wharfedale RUFC on the outskirts of Grassington, just up the road from Skipton. Furthermore, many of my friends will be there, among them several girls I would like to impress.
First of all, though, I need to learn The Black Sheep’s repertoire and to this end I spend the afternoon of the gig in the company of Richard Preston, esteemed not only as the best guitarist in Skipton but the owner of the best guitar in town, an orange Gretsch Tennessean, which he brings over to our house on the afternoon of the gig. 
Perhaps I should point out at this stage that none of this would have come about had I not recently been ousted from Sandra & The Montanas from Cross Hills, a five piece including our girl singer whose leanings are more on the pop side. My role as second guitarist is deemed redundant after they engage a bloke who owns not just an electric keyboard but a Vox PA system, with two impressively tall speaker columns. Far be it for me to suggest that he is hired on the strength of his gear but in a fit of indignation I exchange my red Futurama III guitar (and Watkins Copicat echo box – a bad mistake) for a Hofner Violin bass as played by Paul McCartney, albeit right-handed. I simply fancy a bass for a change and it only costs £35. The news that I now own this bass communicates itself to the members of The Black Sheep, all of whom I know anyway because they drink in the same Skipton pub as me, The New Ship, below. 


For two hours Richard and I make our way through The Black Sheep’s set list, me trying to pick up simple bass parts from him, he suggesting lines and telling me which key to play them in. I make a few notes on a bit of paper I’ll stick to the edge of the bass, just like Paul used to do. When we get to ‘Knock On Wood’ I love that ascending intro and the bass line that reaches up an octave, a bit like a slowed down version of the riff from Bobby Parker’s ‘Watch Your Step’ which The Beatles nicked for ‘I Feel Fine’. The bass line to ‘You Don’t Know Like I Know’ is a bit like the first bit of the riff to ‘Twist And Shout’, which they also play (in C) and a few others we try out aren’t too difficult to pick up. The key thing, Richard tells me, is to keep the tempo. Watch the drummer, he says. Watch what chord I’m playing. If you’ve forgotten the riff, just play a note that corresponds with my chord in time to the bass drum. 
The Black Sheep is a six-piece but I can’t remember all their names. John Willie, whose dad was a haulier, is the singer; Kevin is on trumpet, Richard on guitar, me on bass (that night), with a keyboard player and drummer whose names escape me. They are massively popular in the Dales and travel around in an old hearse. It is an honour to be asked to play with them. 

(CC, left, with my violin bass, albeit not with the Black Sheep)

Well, I don’t disgrace myself. The Black Sheep’s old bass player has left behind his 50 watt Selmer bass amp and separate speaker which is not much smaller than a coffin, and when I plug in my Macca bass and tune up it sounds fine. Most of the partygoers already know The Black Sheep as they play regularly at the rugby club opposite tonight’s gig, and everyone is in the mood for a good time and unlikely to notice if their bass player drops the odd note. Then again, they might be surprised to see it is me toting that violin bass in the first place. Many of them know me and if they don’t know I can play guitar they do now. 
The Black Sheep have recently added ‘Baby Come Back’ to their list and the riff to that is dead easy – only three notes – as is another favourite, ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’ which goes on for ages with me thumping on the three notes across the fifth fret, so easy I manage to look up at the dancers, move around a bit and look like I’ve been playing bass for years. ‘Knock On Wood’ is slightly harder but when I get into the groove, leaping up to that octave and edging down again repeatedly, my eyes on the drummer, I am thoroughly enjoying myself.
We do two sets, closing the second on an encore of ‘Twist And Shout’ which I can play with one arm behind my back. Afterwards, drinking a beer and basking in the glow of my achievement – I’ve played in the bloody Black Sheep – my satisfaction is as if I’d snogged the prettiest girl at the party. I did, too, but not that night.  
And now I’ll get back to reading Eddie Floyd’s book. 


10.9.20

READY STEADY GO! – THE WEEKEND STARTS HERE by Andy Neill




In March I previewed my friend Andy Neill’s upcoming book about Ready Steady Go!, the UK TV show broadcast between August 1963 and December 1966, that remains the benchmark by which TV rock and pop is judged. This was based on the manuscript, which Andy had asked me to read, but it no way prepared me for the real thing, the actual book, which arrived in the mail yesterday.

         Well, it’s “smashing” as Cathy McGowan would have told Mick or Brian as the Stones geared up to play their latest single on the RSG! set, or John and Paul as they larked around and made funny faces to camera, or Pete and Keith as she admired their mod gear. Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here – The Definitive Story Of the Show That Changed Pop TV – to give it its full title – belongs in that category of Rolls Royce rock books reserved for those Mark Lewisohn writes about The Beatles or other labours of love by music writers who’ve spent years on a project, in Andy’s case a mere 17, on and off.

         Which is to say that it’s big (about 12.5 inches square) and weighty (6 lbs), with about 70,000 words and hundreds of pictures spread over 268 high-end art paper pages. There are forewords by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and Vicki Wickham, the production pair who more than anyone else brought RSG! to your screens, and contributions from Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies and many more. (The only notable absentee among those newly interviewed is McGowan herself, now a grandmother, who “resolutely refuses any attempt to drag her back into her past”.) The price on the cover is £39.99 but Amazon charge £28.67.

         Although it’s a chronological account, beginning in pre-RSG! days and closing with a review of what happened next to its staff and presenters, the chapters are cunningly arranged backwards – 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – and included within them are spreads dealing with appearances by RSG!’s most favoured acts and other aspects of the show like Mod fashion, art and excursions onto the Continent. At the back you’ll find an episode guide with details of who appeared on all 178 programmes, the RSG! spin-off Ready Steady Win and even audience ratings. The text lovingly chronicles its tentative beginnings, its seat-of-the-pants production style, its impeccable musical values and, most of all, its absolute refusal ever to abide by the traditional rules of shows televised before live audiences.

         The production style is best summed up by Jagger. “RSG! wasn’t safe,” he says. “It took risks, and waded right into the wonderful chaos of the times.” Watching it, you often got the feeling the producers were cramming as much as they could into their miserly half hour slot, and that’s the same feeling I get from the book. Andy Neill and his designer Phil Smee have crammed as much as they can into it, from the RSG! memorabilia on the front and back end papers to a wealth of previously unseen (or seldom seen) shots from the set inside, Beatles and Stones galore, Dusty waiting for her cue and Cathy interviewing the stars in her customarily effusive style. 

         It’s in the detail where much of the magic lies. To cite just two examples, in the Episode Guide for show number 122 we are informed that Keith Moon was banned from compering RSG! because of something he ‘unintentionally’ said to Cathy  oh my! – while in the guide to show 89, which featured amongst others The Everly Brothers, we learn from Manfred Mann’s Tom McGuinness that Don and Phil stayed behind after rehearsals, playing their acoustic guitars to no one in particular. “They started singing old country and folk songs, staring into each other’s faces to get those harmonies spot on. They seemed unaware that the studio was slowly filling up with the other artists, cameramen and technicians. When the song ended there was silence from the growing crowd. Eventually, when it was evident they had finished, the place erupted with cheering. Don and Phil looked around as if they’d only just noticed us, and smiled. It was spine tingling to hear them singing just for themselves.”

         That’s just two tiny, almost microscopic details in this spectacular book about the show with the unforgettable catchphrase ‘The Weekend Starts Here’. That was the cue for every pop fan in the land to switch on the family TV early Friday evening and shoo their mums and dads out of the room for half an hour while this most exciting and trend-setting of pop shows was broadcast. This book does it justice in spades.

         Finally, nice but not quite as impressive, there’s a limited edition box set of 10 7” singles released as a companion to the book, featuring songs by Manfred Mann, The Kinks, Dusty Springfield, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, The Walker Brothers, The Supremes, Donovan, Cilla Black and The Searchers. Naturally it kicks off with the Manfred’s ‘5-4-3-2-1’ and the set include a 24-page booklet written by Andy.


The RSG! Singles Box