27.11.20

GILLIAN WELCH – Boots No 2: The Lost Songs Volumes 1-3

Earnest Gillian Welch fans like me nowadays bear a striking resemblance to that frustrated bloke at the bus stop. You wait for ages, only for the unexpected arrival of an avalanche of riches. It is now nine years since her and partner Dave Rawlings released The Harrow & The Harvest, their last album of newly recorded songs, the only respite during this lengthy drought being 2016’s Boots No 1, The Official Revival Bootleg, a 2-CD set of outtakes from the mid-nineties sessions that produced her debut set Revival and which was reviewed here on Just Backdated - http://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2016/11/gillian-welch-boots-no-1-official.html. 

        October saw the download-only release of an album of cover versions called All The Good Times that, annoyingly, I can’t seem to download, especially as it contains their take on John Prine’s lovely ‘Hello In There’. Now, suddenly, we have Boots No 2: The Lost Songs Volumes 1-3, available for some time as a download with a 3-CD disc set scheduled for mid-December. It contains 48 songs, all recorded as demos in 2002 to fulfil obligations to a publisher who was presumably charged with distributing them to artists that might record them. 

        Only three of these songs are familiar to Welch/Rawlings fans, so I’ll deal with them first. Two appeared on Soul Journey (2003) which suggests they are outtakes from these sessions. ‘One Little Song’ is taken at a slightly faster tempo than the album version but is otherwise identical, while the blues standard ‘Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor’ benefits from a sweeter guitar part, courtesy of Rawlings. The third, Hank Williams’ ‘How’s About You’, appeared on Rawlings’ A Friend Of A Friend solo LP in 2009. Here Welch takes the vocal on a sparser arrangement. 

        

        Which leaves us with 45 further songs to digest, a veritable feast that might not have been laid on our table but for a tornado that ravaged East Nashville in March of this year, tearing the roof off Welch and Rawlings’ private studio where their archive was stored. The effort to salvage the archive inspired an atypical decision on their part to release this motherlode of tracks, hitherto intended only for business use. 

        The snail-like pace at which Welch and Rawlings release albums of new songs can doubtless be attributed to their endless search for perfection, the level of which surpasses the most exacting standards. It comes as no surprise, then, that their demos – if that’s what the tracks on Boots No 2 really are – do not sound like demos to me. They sound like finished recordings by an act that simply prefers to accompany itself on guitars without further adornment, unless one of them switches to banjo and/or adds a harmonica. 

        By and large the songs follow the pattern you would expect, songs of hardship, hymns to the downtrodden, a few nods to old time religion, bluesy and melancholy for the most part with a hint of anger here and there. In amongst the sadness, however, there are occasional bursts of joy, usually toe-tappers like ‘Back Turn And Swing’ that might suit the repertoire of a banjo-led quartet in check shirts and cowboy hats booked for the Saturday night hoe-down in the Lucky Horseshoe saloon. Equally joyous but on a more personal level is ‘Happy Mother’s Day’, an affecting dispatch to the birth mother that Welch, who was adopted, never knew. 

        As you would expect, some of these songs – among them ‘Hundred Miles’, ‘Beautiful Boy’ and ‘Lonesome Just Like You’ – boast gorgeous melodies, simple and seemingly effortless, on some cases so fleeting as appear merely as sketches. Variation comes with ‘Honey Baby’, a close-mike recording with muted guitar picking that sounds as if Gillian is in the room alongside you, crooning in your ear; ‘Turn It Up’, pure fifties rock’n’roll; ‘Wella Hella’, a slinky, slide-guitar 12-bar; ‘What Can I do’, a short shuffle in jazzy tempo; and ‘There’s A First Time For Everything’ which would fit neatly into a set by Tony Bennett. 

        Every now and then I can hear traces of songs that have appeared elsewhere in the Welch catalogue. There’s a suggestion of ’Caleb Meyer’ in ‘Shotgun; of ‘Scarlett Town’ in ‘Little Lui’; and ‘Red Clay Halo’ in ‘Back Turn And Swing’. The simple country blues of ‘Picasso’ echoes much of their work, enhanced here by whichever of the pair blows the harp. It's quite beautiful. 

        Forty-eight songs are a lot to digest but I’ve listened to them all at least three times now and while it may be that new delights dawn on me after repeated listening, I can state without a shadow of a doubt that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are composers and musicians of the highest rank who produce music as lovely as anything you’ll hear right now. 


18.11.20

ICON – Music Through The Lens


Last night I learned that the most valuable rock photograph in the world was taken in North London by the late Iain Macmillan on August 8, 1969, during a ten-minute session, for which he was paid £75. It was, of course, The Beatles striding across the zebra crossing that is almost opposite Abbey Road Studios in St John’s Wood, famously chosen by Paul McCartney as the cover of the LP that was named after the studio in which the group recorded almost all of their work.

        To be precise, what we are talking about here is a limited edition set of the seven photographs that Macmillan shot that day, six of the fabs walking one way or the other over the crossing, now one of the most visited tourist destinations in London, and one of the street sign that, tantalisingly, features the blurred legs of a girl in a light blue mini dress, which was used on the reverse. 

        The shots in question were a topic for discussion among gallery curators during the fifth episode of Icon – Music Through The Lens, a six part documentary on rock photography that is being shown on the Sky Atlantic Arts channel. One gallery curator told viewers a limited edition set of the seven Abbey Road photographs, signed by Macmillan, was sold for £40,000, another said the price quickly rose to £60,000 while a third said the price was now £900,000. It was left to a fourth curator to announce that a set was now being offered for £1.25 million. “Ouch,” said the first curator. 

        I was slightly confused as to how many such sets exist but it isn’t many. Macmillan, from Carnoustie in Scotland, died in 2006 so no more genuine signed sets will ever be produced. The key to the riches is that each photograph in a set must have the same number, which precludes the inclusion of photographs that may have been numbered but sold individually – unless, of course, a rabid collector takes the time to seek out every one to complete an identically numbered set, a task of Herculean, not to mention mouth-wateringly expensive, proportions.

        I am told by my friend Dave Brolan that once upon a time Macmillan was selling 8x10" prints of his Abbey Road shots for pennies in the kiosk at St John’s Wood tube station where all manner of Beatles artefacts were available before rock merchandising became the big business it is today. Dave, who once worked for me as the photo researcher at Omnibus Press, now acts as an agent for many top rock photographers, or their estates, from around the world, and he acted as a consultant on Icons. It was his involvement that brought me into the project. 

        I have now watched all six episodes of Icon and must declare my interest. I am one of only two music writers to have been interviewed for the series – the other is former Mojo editor Phil Alexander – but as is so often the case when I am offered the opportunity to address the nation, blink and you’ll miss me. I appear briefly  eulogising, quelle surprise, The Who  in episode two, devoted to shots taken on the road or at concerts; in episode four, about photography in rock magazines, my natural habitat; and episode five, which is about how rock photography has become an art form in itself and is now very collectable, hence the references to Iain Macmillan’s Abbey Road shots. In this I am a bit of a grumpy old man, declaring: “I wish I could sell my old articles that I wrote for Melody Maker for the same kind of money but unfortunately you can get them on line for bugger all.”

        The other episodes in this excellent series deal with the culture of rock photography generally, LP cover work and how digital cameras have changed the profession but, inevitably, the topics blur into one another because each episode deals essentially with the same subject. Many of the world’s best-known rock photographers are interviewed, among them old friends of mine like Bob Gruen (with whom I worked during my stint as MM’s man in New York), Mick Rock (who, as ever, swears like a trooper), Neal Preston (who flew with me on the Starship with Led Zeppelin), Adrian Boot and Jill Furmanovsky who, very early in her career, brought an on-stage photo of Roger Daltrey into MM’s offices. When we told her we’d use it on the front page she’d have done a cartwheel if only there was room between the desks. Gruen, famous for his shots of John Lennon, gets more screen time than most and is genuinely entertaining, as is Ross Halfin, the occasionally combative HM specialist. Gered Mankowitz, famous for his photographs of The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, acts as executive producer and is also interviewed at length.

        Another who is featured prominently is Baron Wolman, Rolling Stone’s first staff photographer, who sadly died earlier this month. I got to know Baron when I published and edited his book The Rolling Stone Years, and wrote about him here: http://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2015/04/baron-wollman-rolling-stone-years.html. Elsewhere on Just Backdated I’ve written about Gruen, Rock and Boot. I was disappointed that Barrie Wentzell, MM's chief photographer from the mid-sixties to mid-seventies, wasn't included, doubtless because he lives in Toronto now and was unavailable to be interviewed. Barrie was a pioneer, of course, arguably the very first independent rock photographer, but the series concentrated primarily on more contemporary photographers, many of them unknown to me.   

        Musicians, among them Nick Mason, Alice Cooper, Nicky Wire, Craig David and Julian Lennon, are also interviewed. And, of course, hundreds of pictures, perhaps even thousands, flash across the screen over the six-hour series, many of them instantly recognisable and genuinely iconic. All of which made me wish yet again that I’d carried a camera around with me during the seventies. 



5.11.20

SLADE IN AMERICA, 1973.


Eighteen years ago last week I saw Slade on stage in America for the first time, in Los Angeles at the Long Beach Arena, supporting The J. Geils Band. It was the same night I found myself in a delicate situation with Faye Dunaway, an incident I recall elsewhere on Just Backdated, but that’s another story.*
  Noddy, Jim, Dave and Don visited me in my West Hollywood apartment on Rangely Avenue, the only musicians of any stature to do so during my stay in LA, and the following day I went to their hotel – the Los Angeles Hilton no less – to chat with them. My interview included what may well have been the first ever reference to a “special Slade Christmas single”, though its title wasn’t revealed. Also, intriguingly, Dave mentions “the film of our Earls Court concert”.
        This story that I wrote for Melody Maker (3 November, 1973 issue) focuses on their status in the USA; an attempt to put their situation into perspective without erring in either direction. As we now know, they would face an uphill struggle in America but optimism was high in 1973, as it was the following year when I saw them play again, this time in St Louis.**
        

No compromise, says Noddy. No compromise at all. America will just have to go crazee, feel the noize and get their boots off just like everywhere else.
        It may be the biggest most important and most lucrative record market in the world, but that doesn’t make one iota of difference. Slade do it just the same as they do anywhere else.
        At the weekend, Slade were second on the bill to the J. Geils Band, now a major attraction in the US, at the giant Long Beach Arena in Southern Los Angeles.
        It was a big gig for Wolverhampton’s rock and roll ambassadors, a concert hall that stops just short of London’s Earls Court, full to the brim of Americans who’d turned up to see J. Geils at their best – which they were.
        Slade weren’t at their best. Sound problems bit hard into their music – the harsh treble which they use to such good effect never came over, and Noddy received a series of shocks through the microphone as the set progressed.
        It was their last show of a five-week US tour, and one they’ll probably want to forget. But despite it all they won a lot of friends in Long Beach.
        They came back for an encore which the applause justified and they managed to achieve something like the audience participation that has become a matter of course back home.
Some reports have suggested Slade were rocking across the States, picking up multitudes of disciples in much the same way as they did in Europe. Others have written them off completely with reports of bad shows, audience lethargy and a tag of being “far too English” to succeed.
        Neither are true. What happened in Long Beach has given me a reasonably clear insight as to Slade’s current standing in the USA.
        They are neither huge nor tiny: they are simply another British band working all out to succeed in this vast country, a task which they are approaching in the time-honoured fashion of playing as well and as often as they can until that magic bill-topping arena-playing stage is finally reached.
        They’re on the way up, but they’re not there yet. Whether they will or not is difficult to guess, but there’s always been a fierce will to succeed within Slade.
        All I’m certain of is that Slade will break their backs in their attempts to achieve the same kind of success here.
        The record situation may well change now that they have switched to the mighty Warner Brothers label, whose promotion campaigns for British acts are legendary.
        The Long Beach show was encouraging in many respects. There was a huge cheer when they arrived, dressed as they do in England with Noddy in red tail jacket, check trousers and vest, Dave Hill in his Egyptian ensemble, and “superyob” guitar, Jim Lea in a pale blue suit with-knee-length shorts that just reached his high boots, and Don Powell – who’s still not completely recovered from the effects of the car crash – in bold stripes from head to toe.
        They played for an hour and with the exception of the football chant section, the act was identical to their British one.
        Two days before the Long Beach concert, I talked with the band at the Beverly Hills Hilton, sat out by a pool in the annexe where they were staying.
        It seemed a trifle grandiose for the band that’s been christened working class heroes, but the surroundings hadn’t altered their blunt responses.
        They are not exaggerating the success of their American operation themselves. “What we’re finding,” said Noddy, “is that it’s happened here in the same way it did in England. The provinces are happening more for us than the big cities.”
        The shows with J. Geils – at St Louis, San Francisco and the one at Long Beach – were the only ones on which Slade didn’t top the bill. “The fans seem to know the material more now than they did before, especially in the provincial areas where we’ve had airplay.”
        I mentioned that much criticism in America centred around their repeated urging for the audience to join in, whereas US audiences often don’t need – or want – encouragement.
        “We don’t take any notice of any critics whatsoever,” replied Noddy, more than a little emphatically. “We’ve done some shows here and gone down a storm with three encores, and we’ve picked up the paper the next day to read the reviewer saying the group received no enthusiasm from the audience.”
        While in America, Slade have mixed their next album, as yet untitled, which will be out next month.
        With one exception – their version of ‘Just A Little Bit’ – it’s all new material written by the group, and it includes their first ballad and a pub sing-along number which Max Bygraves may be covering.
        There are also tentative plans for a special Slade Christmas single, with a Christmas theme.
        This week Slade left the States, stopping in England for just one day before setting off on a European tour. In December they’ll be back here again.
        The more popular they become, the harder they work – a ratio which is often reversed in the rock and roll game. They won’t be playing in the UK again until next year.
        “With Don’s accident,” said Noddy, “we had to cancel an American tour and everything has been put back three months, I don’t think we’re ignoring Britain. We’ve done two major concert tours, and the Earls Court and Empire Pool. We haven’t neglected England.”
        “After Earls Court, it’s difficult to go back to doing an odd show at the Rainbow,” chipped in Dave Hill whose attempts to get a suntan were repeatedly thwarted by the ever-increasing shadow of the tall hotel.
        “We shall probably do one big tour of England next year, and we promise it will be a big one.
        “What we’re hoping to do here is to have the film of our Earls Court concert shown on the In Concert TV show. That will really show the States what we’re like, and that’s very important to us because the ratings on that show are phenomenal.”
        “What is beginning to happen,” said Noddy, “is that the fans are beginning to emulate us a little like they do in England. We’ve seen a few top hats, and a few bras and pants have been chucked on to the stage.
        “I know people are saying that Slade haven’t cracked America and enjoy saying it, but this is only our third tour. People expect it to happen overnight because they think it happened in England overnight, but it didn’t.
        “There was three years of hard graft on the road before we had a hit record in England and this country seems a million times bigger. Things just don’t happen like that here.
        “Every city has to see us as a live band before we can hope to sell records. It’s all building slowly, and we never expected it to happen quickly. It’s happening exactly the same for us here as it did in Europe. It’s the same pattern everywhere.”
        “We like the challenge,” said Dave. “America is something we can get our teeth into. There’s only America left. The rest of it we just go back to.”
        Don Powell, it seems, is still having difficulty remembering his drum parts. He can’t remember things that happened a week ago, and is still not allowed to drink alcohol.
        “He’s only just getting back into the stage show as it was before the accident, so we really couldn’t try to introduce any new numbers until he was better,” said Noddy.
        “We shall introduce some new stuff into the act when the album is out. There’s plenty of material on it for playing on stage.”


(I found the photo on the internet, photographer unknown.)

* http://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2013/12/faye-i.html
** http://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2014/08/slade-ambassador-theater-st-louis-mo.html

1.11.20

LETTER TO YOU – Bruce Springsteen


How galling it must be for Bruce Springsteen not to be on the road with the E Street Band right now, playing the songs from this new album which, unlike his last three, is crammed with the emotional ebb and rip-roaring flow he unleashes on stage. High Hopes (2014) was a collection of unreleased material he’d been sitting on; Springsteen On Broadway (2018) was a faithful record of his solo performances, much of it recitations from his Born To Run book, at a New York Theatre that year; and Western Stars (2019) was another of his style switches, this time into the smooth western pop area favoured by singers like by Glen Campbell and Charlie Rich. 
Letter To You is nothing like any of those. It’s a return to home territory, the glory days of his mid-seventies to mid-eighties style of music, with the E Street Band back in harness, delighted to be on board, churning out those major chords to songs with big words and big choruses that invite singalongs as only this man can. It was recorded at Springsteen’s home studio in New Jersey in less than a week, or so I’ve read, and that alone makes it crackle. 
As other reviewers have noted, there’s a big black train, an edge of town and a river looming before we’ve even reached the end of the first track. ‘One Minute You’re Gone’ actually opens a bit like those gentle, minimalist songs on Nebraska, a softly strummed acoustic guitar the only backdrop until a bass drum and synthesized wash fill out the sound before the song gently fades. A chiming Telecaster riff brings in the title track, wherein – perhaps predictably – ‘Letter To You’ is rhymed with ‘true’ and ‘morning sky of blue’. After a fine, twangy solo the band step back for Bruce sings the final verse over a hi-hat, emphasising the struggle that went into the letter. Opposite the lyrics in the accompanying booklet is a picture of The Castiles, Bruce’s first band, on stage at the Ferndock Surf Shop, with surfboards piled up behind them. Its significance is revealed later. 
‘Burnin’ Train’ is a downhill ride, a rocker in the same vein as ‘Land Of Hope And Dreams’, all crashing chords with Max Weinberg’s snare like a metronome until, as usual, it accelerates into double time as the verse launches into the chorus. It’s a perfect stage number, as is ‘Janey Needs A Shooter’ which is slower but no less powerful. Urged in 1985 not to lose heart, Janey is now advised to hitch her wagon to a man ‘who knows her style’, and the man in question has had this powerful song, its tempo not unlike ‘Racing In The Street’, kicking around for a while. 
‘Last Man Standing’ seems to have been the inspiration for this album. It refers in large part to George Theiss who with Bruce was the sole surviving member of The Castiles until his death in 2016 left their leader as the last of the gang. Like ‘No Surrender’, it’s a song about being in a band and the friendships that endure as a result. Structurally the song would not sound out on place on 1987’s Tunnel Of Love, at least until Roy Bittan’s piano enters the fray at the end of each verse. Meanwhile, Bruce recalls the gigs they played before, ‘You pack your guitar and have one last beer, with just the ringing in your ears.’ It’s a lovely tribute to an old friend at whose bedside Bruce held a vigil until the end. 
‘The Power Of Prayer’ is less majestic, a slightly cheesy love song that references ‘This Magic Moment’ and Ben E. King, and ‘House Of A Thousand Guitars’, somewhat similar, evokes memories of – you’ve guessed – playing in bands. In other hands this characteristic subject matter might seem hackneyed but somehow Bruce’s vocals and the E Street men punch out the music with sufficient conviction to erase these thoughts. After half a dozen plays I was singing along in my car to both these tracks, even the line in the latter that went ‘from the stadiums to small town bars’. Only later did I consider that it should have been the other way around but nothing much rhymes with ‘stadium’ while ‘small time bars’ and ‘a thousand guitars’ rhyme well-nigh perfectly.
It was to be expected that Springsteen would have little time for America’s current president though in the past voices have been raised about Bruce letting down his blue-collar fans by siding with the white liberal elite. Nevertheless, without naming him, ‘Rainmaker’ takes a fair aim at the man who, if the polls are to be believed, will fall from grace this coming week. As fierce as anything on the album, no one can be in any doubt about the Rainmaker’s identity. Who else says ‘white’s black and black’s white’ and ‘night’s day and day’s night’? And while we’re at it, there’s two lines in ‘House Of A Thousand Guitars’ – ‘The criminal clown has stolen the throne. He steals what he can never own’ – that seems like a tilt in the same direction. 
‘If I Was A Priest’ dates back to Springsteen’s earliest efforts, and was among the songs performed for Columbia A&R chief John Hammond in his New York office during that audition on May 2, 1972. Like much of the material from this era it features religious imagery and is on the wordy side but the E Streeters take the song by the scruff of the neck and, with whistling Hammond to the fore, turn it into a beast. At 6.51 it’s the longest song on the album, and at the four-minute mark Bruce kills the band to deliver the killer lines before the band crash back in.
‘Ghosts’, another song about the joys of playing in a band, rocks along like the best tracks from The River, even tipping the hat to ‘Your old Fender Twin from Johnny’s Music Downtown’ and ‘your Les Paul’. The ghost of the title is clearly his late Castile pal, but any feeling of naff nostalgia is tempered by the sheer enjoyment, that ‘one, two, three, four’ rush of being up there playing, and maybe even ‘your sister’ is the one who called him home with his drums and guitars in ‘No Surender’.
The penultimate ‘Song For Orphans’ sees the tempo shift back to grind in a song as wordy as those early songs referred to earlier, while the closer, ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’, rolls along to a folksy, simple melody, atypical of Springsteen. To avoid confusion I’ll mention that it’s not the song first heard in 1924 that Joe Brown sang at the end of the Albert Hall George Harrison tribute concert in 2002, but it offers the same sentiments and a suggestion of hope in this time of turmoil for America.
Indeed, if Letter To You carries a message at all, it’s that hope and dreams are around the corner and, meanwhile, there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia so long as it’s wrapped up in a Spector-like wall of sound with ringing guitars, tinkling piano, that trademark glockenspiel, a wailing sax and thumping bass and drums. Most importantly, it’s OK so long as there’s a heart-felt vocalist singing emotion-packed words like he really means it. I would expect no less from Bruce Springsteen.