29.11.21

HARRY & ME: MEMORIES OF HARRY NILSSON BY THE FANS THAT LOVED HIM THE MOST, compiled by David Roberts & Neil Watson


At first glance Harry Nilsson looks like a one hit wonder, no better – or worse – than Norman Geenbaum, The Archies or Clive Dunn. He had just one number one hit in the UK – the timeless ‘Without You’ – but no other singles recorded by him reached the top twenty, not even his sublime take on ‘Everybody’s Talkin’, the Fred Neil song famously used on the soundtrack to the movie Midnight Cowboy. Both of these songs were covers of course, a peculiar state of affairs when you consider that Nilsson was a genuinely gifted songwriter. Furthermore, he never appeared live, not once. 

        All of which suggests Nilsson was a niche act, and were it not for the patronage of The Beatles it could be argued that he was rock’s best kept secret. Then again, he wasn’t really in the rock trade either. One of his most revered albums is A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night, a collection of standards from what is known as The Great American Songbook, thus anticipating both Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan by almost half a century. 

        So, you can’t blame me for being slightly incredulous when earlier this year I was approached by David Roberts to contribute any memories I had of Harry Nilsson to a book that he and his co-author, Neil Watson, were compiling. Nevertheless, I did as requested – I have just one Nilsson anecdote, which can be found here http://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2014/07/harry-nilsson-brief-encounter.html on this blog –  which I sent to David and thought no more about it. 

        Then, last week, their book, with my small contribution, arrived from the publishers, This Day In Music, who seem to have made it their mission to publish upmarket (and fairly expensive) music titles best described as labours of love. It’s a brave editorial policy, fostered no doubt by director Neil Cossar’s belief that there are sufficient fans around to invest in a book whose authors are demonstrably sincere in their devotion to whoever they are writing about. Harry & Me: Memories of Harry Nilsson by The Fans That Loved Him The Most, is just that, a high end volume illustrated throughout with Nilsson memorabilia, 360 pages printed on art paper with admirable attention to detail, consisting largely of quotes from fans and friends, priced at a penny less than £40. 

        The contributors include Nilsson’s son Zak, Ron Sexsmith, Terry Gilliam, Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb, Micky Dolenz and many more. The edition I was given included a CD of revealing interviews with Nilsson himself, among them one from 1971 when he confesses that when he first heard ‘Without You’ he thought it was a Beatles’ song. 

        Most of the book’s text consists of fans’ memories of Nilsson, including many close encounters, but it was the interviews with Nilsson, all of them transcribed within, that intrigued me the most. One concerned Keith Moon who, of course, died in Nilsson’s London flat in 1978. “He was the only guy who really took care of it, oddly enough,” he says. “I remember he made some messes, but he made sure they were cleaned up before he split.” 

        Later, though, he adds: “In the end he started having parties and I’d had complaints. They wanted to evict him. And I spoke to him, like the day before he died, and one of the only times – it wasn’t a harsh word with Keith, but it was, er… I said, ‘Keith, you’re putting the pressure on me and I’ll lose a lot of bread if they evict you… And he says, ‘Well, they’re going to have to get me out of here with a bulldozer!’. I said, ‘Well, that’s not friendly, you know.’ Then I just got that phone call [about Keith dying in the flat] and I went, ‘Ah shit!’. Keith and I were dear friends, real close, and Keith and Ringo and me were the Three Musketeers – we used to hang out all the time. And the last time we spoke was not a happy talk, and I still think about that once in a while.”

Harry & Me has been put together with a lot of love and includes many heart-warming stories that reflect Nilsson’s benign, friendly character. It’s no secret he was fond of a drink, and his death at the age of 52 can probably be attributed to a lifestyle incompatible with longevity. He wasn’t alone in this, of course, but he was far more than the one hit wonder his chart statistics imply. Now that the cold weather has set in, I can thoroughly recommend an hour or two spent leafing through this book while listening to Personal Best: The Harry Nilsson Anthology, as I did yesterday afternoon. 



23.11.21

RAISE THE ROOF – Robert Plant and Alison Krauss


On their long-awaited new album Raise The Roof, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss cover ‘Go Your Way’, written by Anne Briggs around 1962. In the unlikely event that Briggs, the mythical goddess of British folk music now residing on a remote Scottish island, gets to hear it I hope she’s delighted with the reverence that Plant, who takes the lead and is joined by Krauss only on the chorus, brings to her lovely song.

        Its presence on the new record serves to underline the sincerity of reformed scallywag Plant’s ongoing research into roots music, but this is not the first time that the paths of Briggs and Led Zeppelin have crossed. On the group’s first album the track ‘Black Mountain Side’, credited to Jimmy Page, is in reality a variation on ‘Blackwater Side’, a traditional song much loved by Bert Jansch that Briggs performed in folk clubs where Page evidently heard it for the first time. 

        Anne Briggs is one of those rather mysterious musicians from an earlier age whose influence casts a long shadow. She was idolised by Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson wrote ‘Beeswing’ about her. I own just one Briggs CD, a compilation simply called A Collection, which includes both ‘Go Your Way’ and ‘Black Waterside’, with excellent sleeve notes by Colin Harper, to the best of my knowledge the only music writer to have tracked down Briggs to her Scottish lair and written extensively about her. 

        Many of the 22 songs on this CD are sung unaccompanied, which is how Briggs preferred, though before she turned her back on a modern world she didn’t much like she was persuaded, perhaps against her instincts, to record with accompaniment, doubtless encouraged by those who might benefit from an upturn in her lowly commercial standing. Both ‘Go Your Way’ and ‘Black Waterside’ on my CD are accompanied by a finger-picked guitar, and on YouTube there’s a clip of her and Jansch performing ‘Go Your Way’ that was filmed for a TV show called Acoustic Roots, with both picking acoustic guitars while Briggs sings. Endearingly, she messes up her guitar part towards the conclusion of the first take. “Bollocks,” she says, grinning. “I lost it at the end. What happened?” And then they begin again. I like to think that, like me, Plant and Krauss have watched this clip a few times. In fact, the duo raided Jansch’s songbook for a second track on their new album, ‘It Don’t Bother Me’, Krauss leading a more rhythmic treatment than Jansch’s characteristic traditional reading, their arrangement gaining in intensity as it proceeds, its extended coda a delight. 

        The edition of Raise The Roof that I bought from the iTunes store last week has a generous 14 tracks, mostly intriguing, carefully chosen covers given a soft, sultry, bewitching energy, not all that removed in style from the music on Raising Sand, their 2007 Grammy winner. Plant’s voice had grown huskier over the years, his strident shriek of yore replaced by something far more mature and thoughtful. Krauss sings like an angel, of course. All of which seems to make the new record even more enjoyable than its predecessor, more soulful, more satisfying. 

        A better-known cover than ‘Go Your Way’ is ‘The Price Of Love’, written and recorded by Don and Phil Everly, their last big hit in 1965, also recorded by Bryan Ferry and, rather more boisterously, by Status Quo. Krauss takes the lead here, singing softly over a slightly eerie backdrop, a resonant electric guitar chord ringing in the distance, a deep bass drum holding down the slow tempo, with Plant echoing her vocals on the choruses, and in many ways this exemplifies the muted tone of the record as a whole. The first track ‘Quattro (World Steps In)’ opens with an insistently strummed mandolin, not unlike the kind of accompaniment that John Paul Jones provided for Zep when he put down his bass. They sing together on this song instead of alternating vocal chores, the exception rather than the rule. 

        There’s the now almost obligatory discordant sound of the desert in ‘You Led Me To The Wrong’, with a wailing violin adding a dollop of angst to a tale of sorrow, a song that Plant sings alone. It is followed by the bluesy ‘Last Kind Words Blues’, a deft bit of sequencing, which reminded me of something John Fahey might have resurrected. The production throughout is crisp and clear, the mood dark, the spectre of world music hanging over every track. ‘Searching For My Love’ is warm but broody, ‘High And Lonesome’ a touch western in the High Noon sense of cowboys galloping across the plains, and ‘Going Where The Lonely Go’ a truly delightful showcase for Krauss, melody and emotion in perfect sync.  

        There are two bonus tracks on the edition of the CD I bought, the first a lilting cover of Hank Williams’ ‘My Heart Would Know’, with steel guitar straight out of Nashville via Hawaii, and the second, Lucinda Williams’ ‘You Can’t Rule Me’, features a guitar part not unlike the instrumental ‘Moby Dick’, John Bonham’s drum showcase on Led Zeppelin II. Its octave leap always reminded of Bobby Parker’s ‘Watch Your Step’, first pilfered by John Lennon for ‘I Feel Fine’. 

        For all their swagger there was always a great deal more depth to Led Zeppelin than most of those who followed in their turbocharged wake and Plant’s varied solo career serves to emphasise this with every new record he puts out, whether on his own or with others. It even seems to me that, like Gram Parsons, about whom I wrote last week, with Alison Krauss Robert Plant has finally found his Emmylou.


18.11.21

GRAM PARSONS

Gram Parsons in his Nudie suit, with Mr Nudie the tailor. 

When I was posted to Los Angeles at the end of August in 1973 to become Melody Maker’s man in America I was relieved of my position as the paper’s News Editor. This was something of a relief as filling MM’s news columns every week was just about the most arduous job on the paper. Nevertheless, one of the first assignments to hit my in-tray in LA was a big news story that still echoes down the ages – the death of Gram Parsons and its macabre aftermath. 

Gram died on September 18, just 23 days after I landed in California, and within hours his body was snatched by his friend Phil Kaufman and taken to Joshua Tree National Park where Kaufman cremated it in a car park. This, he explained later, was in accordance with Gram’s wishes, as expressed only weeks before, at the funeral of Clarence White, a fellow alumnus of The Byrds, who was killed when a drunken driver mowed him down outside a gig in Palmdale. 

When I heard about Gram’s death I was living at the Chateau Marmont, where I spent my first month in LA. The Chateau was a faded gothic castle of slightly ill-repute with rooms that for years had housed a transient clientele of renegades from the film and music industries. Though I didn’t know it at the time, Gram Parsons was among them. He’d lived there on and off since 1969, and he was in residence in July, the month before I arrived on August 26, so I missed him by weeks. The rooms there were single bedroom apartments, with kitchens and big living rooms; Gram’s was 4F and mine was 3F, so he’d lived immediately above me. There are many photographs of Gram taken at the Chateau, in his room, in the public area on the ground floor and on the roof. 

But if living at the Chateau was the nearest I got to Gram, the next was interviewing Mr Nudie*, the Hollywood tailor whose speciality was making elaborate suits for country & western stars, those rhinestone encrusted creations festooned with wagon wheels, pistols and cacti. The one he famously custom made for Gram, however, featured marijuana plants and he can be seen wearing it on the front cover of The Gilded Palace Of Sin, the Flying Burritos Brothers’ 1969 LP. On the back of the jacket is a cross which reflects Gram’s southern upbringing and the religious-themed songs he brought to Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, the only Byrds’ album he played on, and which under his influence saw the group take a sidestep towards country music. 

It’s because his death coincided so closely with my arrival in LA, and also because I love his music and the sound of his voice, that I’ve always been fascinated by Gram Parsons. It’s no secret that he came from a privileged background, from a family of wealthy Florida citrus growers, the Snivelys, from whom ample funds trickled down to him throughout his short life, but it wasn’t until I bought the UK rights to Hickory Wind, a biography by former Rolling Stone writer Ben Fong Torres, for Omnibus Press, that I gleaned some details of this. However, on a recent trip to America I picked up a used copy of a far more substantial biography, Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music by David Meyer, and from it I learned much more about his background. 

        While this 560-page book suffers from some repetition and the author’s insufferable habit of including unnecessary potted biographies of every musician that Gram may or may not have admired, or met, or played with, it excels on Gram’s early life and dysfunctional family. Loaded they may have been but his dad, who married into the Snivelys, shot himself, his mother died aged 42 from alcohol poisoning, and his stepfather, from whom Gram took the name Parsons, ran off with the family nanny. The whole awful saga, from the domineering patriarch to the doomed but beautiful daughter, reads like something from a Tennessee Williams play, complete with those sports traditionally associated with the wealthy, like hunting, fishing and wife-swopping.

        So, it’s easy to conclude that Gram was a poor little rich boy. Buoyed up by Snively family funds, he had no fear of failure and was able to glide through life like the successful rock star he never became. Among others, his money enabled him to befriend The Rolling Stones, always leery of leeches, which Gram wasn't, of course, and Keith Richards in particular, and he spent time at Nellcôte on the French Riviera during the recording of their masterpiece, Exile Of Main Street, which he probably influenced, albeit subliminally. He could also afford to pay Elvis’ band, among them the great guitarist James Burton, to back him on the two wonderful solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel, that he recorded towards the end of his life, on which his stellar musical legacy largely relies. 

        The impression given in Twenty Thousand Roads is that Gram didn’t really try hard enough and much preferred to get blitzed to working, especially on the road. He wasn't much of a guitar player but when he put his mind to it he could write songs of immense depth and sing them like an angel. On the other hand, he was a very bad boy indeed, as reckless as any rock star you care to name; addicted to heroin, pills and alcohol, serially promiscuous and he neglected his daughter Polly, who has also written a book, even though she barely knew her father. He was often disloyal to friends but had a disarmingly courteous manner, as befitting a Southern Gentleman of wealth and taste, that he could turn on like a tap, an especially useful skill when it came to charming the ladies. Also, he had a loose relationship with the truth and tended to compartmentalise various aspects of his complicated life, so those close to him knew only one piece of the puzzle.

        That said, Gram had an encyclopaedic knowledge of country music, and a vision to update it so it would appeal to rock fans of his own generation, a mission in which he largely succeeded. His soulful voice expressed emotion like few others, especially when he sang alongside Emmylou Harris on those two late career solo LPs. For the record, there is no evidence beyond the depth of those recordings that he and Emmylou were romantically connected. 

        And the annoying thing is that Gram Parsons died 23 days after I arrived in LA so I was never able to interview him.

_________

* See Melody Maker, 27 October, 1973

7.11.21

ABBA VOYAGE


Long waits invariably heighten expectations, whether it’s the traditional late arrival on stage by The Rolling Stones or the delay between albums one and two from The Stone Roses. The Stones usually make up for their tardiness, at least by the end of the show, but the Roses’ second album was a bit of a disappointment, give or take a couple of tracks. Which brings me to Abba and the far longer wait, 39 years to be precise, between the release of ‘The Day Before You Came’, their last recording in 1982, and ‘I Still Have Faith In You’, the taster from Voyage, the new, much-heralded album that was released on November 5, accompanied by all the fireworks you would expect on Bonfire Night.

Early reviews were mixed and a bit sketchy, which leads me to believe they were written in haste, the fevered anticipation having triggered a rush to make up for lost time. Nevertheless, the sense of expectation surrounding Abba’s Voyage prompted a marketing campaign orchestrated with extreme finesse by Universal Music who no doubt instructed all their production plants to manufacture Abba CDs by the skip load. Only six weeks to Christmas too.

As well as manufacturing Voyage they probably knocked out another million or two of Gold, which has already sold umpteen million copies and stands as the jewel in Abba’s crown, one of the greatest of greatest hits albums, showcasing all Abba’s strengths, from the beloved ‘Dancing Queen’ to that Pacific Ocean of heartbreak, ‘The Winner Takes It All’. I’d hazard a bet that Gold’s universal charms have raised the bar so high that many fans, especially newer ones, will expect Voyage to boast similar virtues. Some probably saw no reason to reach deeper into Abba’s catalogue and, in this respect, those umpteen million sales might therefore be a poisoned chalice: is Voyage as good as Gold?

Well, it’s not, nor would any sane person expect it to be. Voyage is not an unqualified triumph yet at the same time it holds up well against any of the eight LPs Abba recorded between 1972 and 1981. Like all those albums, it’s a mixed bag, 10 tracks in all, not that generous in the CD age that Abba just preceded, a few superb songs, a few on the mediocre side and one stinker. It’s produced with all the care you would expect from experienced studio craftsmen like Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus, and the heavenly choir of Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad has lost none of its charm in the intervening years. Agnetha sounds the same, Frida a tad lower. Björn’s lyrics are sometimes slightly odd, as they always were, and there are hooks galore alongside three cheeky quotes from their past, though you have to listen carefully to catch them. Perhaps more importantly, Abba as a unit has done absolutely nothing in the way of updating their sound or style, with the result that Voyage could have been recorded at any time during their heyday. So, the Voyage might have lasted a long time but it didn't go very far.

The album opens with ‘I Still Have Faith In You’, the lovely ballad that was released in early September as a taster. Frida leads a song that is gloriously melodic, chiming and poignant insofar as the lyrics seem to relate to the group itself, the ‘memories we share’, and when Agnetha joins in, there’s that unmistakable Abba sound, the lush choral wash that only they can produce. Lasting just over five minutes, it gathers momentum, soaring into a blend of overdubbed verse and chorus that ultimately drops away to leave Frida alone to bring it back to where it began. It’s up there with the best of Abba. 

There’s an abrupt change of mood for ‘When You Danced With Me’, its Gaelic flavour contrasting sharply with Abba’s regular arsenal of snappy pop, disco workouts and woeful, melancholic balladry. Still, its lively and fun, with a trace of synthesised bagpipes, even if the girls are lamenting the loss of a childhood sweetheart. 

So far so good but track three, ‘Little Things’, is the kind of thing for which the fast forward facility was invented, at least on my device. It’s a Christmas song, twee in the extreme, and for the final verse Frida is joined by a children’s choir, as in ‘I Have A Dream’, except even more excruciatingly saccharine. Furthermore, in among the doses of syrup, there’s a mild suggestion that on Christmas morning mum and dad indulge in a bit of festive rumpy-pumpy before the kids open their presents. I just hope they dont release it as a single on the feint chance it'll become this year’s Christmas number one.  

It’s something a relief to reach ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’, which may have been sequenced here for its opening line, ‘A while ago I heard the sound of children’s laughter’. The second of the two songs previewed prior to the album’s release, and the first track here to feature Agnetha singing lead, it’s catchy, cheery and danceable, even though the poor girl’s fragile heart has been broken yet again. Nowadays, though, she can cope – ‘I’m not the one you knew’ – for which we can all be thankful. This is pop Abba in the manner of ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Take A Chance On Me’, complete with Benny’s tinkly piano and a ‘Dancing Queen’-style sliding glissando across the keys, a snappy snare and Björn, quirky as ever, rhyming ‘frustration’ with ‘transformation’. It makes up for ‘Little Things’, faint praise I know but the more I hear it the more I warm to it. 

        ‘Just A Notion’, which follows, opens with a slice of boogie piano a la Mac Rebennack, but soon settles into a shuffle with hints of German shlager, one of Abba’s early default positions but, to be fair, this song would have won Eurovision hands down at any time in the last 30 years. It’s as catchy as they come, with Benny tinkling away like Steve Naïve on ‘Oliver’s Army’, and in the background, especially towards the end, the girls murmur ‘A-ha-ha’, a bit further down in the mix to the similar vocal trick on ‘Angeleyes’, the first of the three nostalgic quotes I refer to above. It’s no surprise that this has become the third track to have been released as a single. (Since writing this I have learned that ‘Just A Notion’ was recorded in 1978 but held back. This would suggest that the girls ‘A-ha-ha’ was a vocal idea hatched before ‘Angeleyes’ was recorded and not after.)

        No Abba album would be complete without a dramatic ballad sung by Agnetha and on Voyage we have ‘I Can Be That Woman’, another meditation on a failing relationship, more in the style of the show tunes that were Frida’s forte in the past. Oddly, the surprise here is that her husband seems to prefer the company of the family dog to herself, a dilemma that only a quirky lyricist like Björn could have devised. In a similar vein is ‘Keep An Eye On Dan’, again sung by Agnetha who this time appears to regret separating from her man, more rhythmic that the preceding track with a sparkling chorus, and as the song fades Benny injects the keyboard figure that opens ‘S.O.S.’, a nice touch.

        ‘Bumblebee’, a richly melodic but rather vague comment on climate change, opens with a few bars on recorder that bring to mind the opening bars of ‘Fernando’, no doubt deliberately. Frida intones about the glories of her garden, mentioning a few flowers by name and mourning the day when the bees will no longer visit. It’s quite charming if slightly clumsy in the lyric department.

        The penultimate track, ‘No Doubt About It’, opens with a sprightly banjo and is an absolute cracker in Abba’s pop style, fast and catchy, up there with the best from their past. Although there are neat variations, the recurrent melody and tempo reminded me slightly of ‘Scorpio Rising’, the 10,000 Maniacs song from The Wishing Chair, but is no worse for that. I like the way the backing drops away for Frida to take a melodic line or two before both girls jump in on the breezy, full-tilt chorus. Another dose of Abba at their best. 

        Finally, we have the grand, stately closer, ‘Ode To Freedom’, which I read somewhere is based on a waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The only bit of Swan Lake that I know is the memorable ascending phrase I played years ago in a band myself, an instrumental that The Cougars had mutated into ‘Saturday Night At The Duck Pond’, but Abba’s take on the eminent Russian composers work is far more reverent, and accompanies a beautifully sung hymn, slightly let down by unconvincing lyrics. Still, the choral panorama is pure and, I’m sure, heartfelt, and it brings the album to a suitably memorable close. 

        As good as Gold? Not quite but at least four tracks would have made it on to that CD, and most of the rest on to More Gold


4.11.21

LED ZEPPELIN: THE BIOGRAPHY by Bob Spitz


It’s a tug-of-war as mighty as Led Zeppelin itself. On one side we have Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones all steadfastly maintaining a discreet reticence about Led Zeppelin’s extra-curricular activities and on the other we have authors continually writing books that do the precise opposite, sparing no one’s blushes in reiterating “infamous stories from the road, tales of excess, dominance and ego” in the words of uber-fan Ann Wilson, of Heart, on this latest Led Zep book’s back cover. “This is a story of poetry and power, rape and pillage, of rock’n’roll incarnate,” she adds, failing immeasurably in the discreet reticence department.

        The levee broke with the 1985 publication of Hammer Of The Gods by Stephen Davis, which to a great extent relied on the testimony of Richard Cole, the group’s buccaneering tour manager. Cole himself followed seven years later with the ghost-written Stairway To Heaven, which put him in the doghouse with the surviving members of the group, albeit temporarily. Betwixt and between came several more benign books, but the cat was set among the pigeons again in 2012 by Barney Hoskyns’ fascinating oral history Trampled Underfoot in which contributors, including this writer, didn’t hold back in the ‘infamy’ department. Since then we’ve had Chris Salewicz’s candid Jimmy Page biography and Mark Blake’s revealing but sincere Bring It On Home, a book about manager Peter Grant, neither of which held back on the juicy bits. Now, topping them all, we have this 674-page monster by the American writer Bob Spitz who lists over 50 interviewees, burrows down like a mole on small details and incidents, and leaves no stone unturned when it comes to those episodes in the Led Zeppelin story that Ann Wilson relishes so much. 

        Meanwhile, the surviving members of the group, especially Page and Jones, brush it all aside in much the same way as Randy Andy describes the activities of Jeffrey Epstein, implying without stating specifically that such talk is ‘unseemly’ when applied to gentlemen of their age and esteem. Plant, however, occasionally lets his guard down with a twinkle in his eye that suggests some unspecified misbehaviour may have occurred all those years ago. Nevertheless, the tug of war continues.

        But back to the book. Those 50-odd interviewees Bob Spitz acknowledges don’t include myself but I should make it clear at this point that he recorded my thoughts on LZ during a most enjoyable lunch we had in Soho three years ago, and with my permission included some of the observations and stories that can be found under Led Zep on this blog. Furthermore, Bob showed me his manuscript earlier this year and as well as pointing out certain factual errors I suggested some clarification pertaining to UK rock history. I was not privy to the two 16-page photo sections where, to my distress, I found a few more errors in the pre-publication edition that arrived on my doormat earlier this week, most of them pertaining to dates, which I hope will be corrected in future printings. Similarly, he hasn’t adopted all my recommendations to improve the book, nor would I expect him to. 

        But this is small beer compared to the vast scope of his enterprise. Grandly subtitled The Biography, it more than lives up to its name, and not just because it’s longer, more detailed and more revealing than any of the other Zeppelin books on my shelves. Bob Spitz is a fine researcher, a knowledgeable, experienced music critic and an astute storyteller, which makes the book appear shorter than it is because you keep wanting to turn the page to find out what happens next, even though the story he’s retelling is hardly new. The story in question, of course, is a classic rise and fall, a novelist’s dream that just happens to be true, and no rock band – not even The Beatles, who took far longer – rose to such heights so quickly as Zep nor fell from grace so tragically, suddenly or in such discomfiting circumstances, and the fact that they have since been redeemed, musically at any rate, does not alter this. 

        The tale is told well. It lasts 11 years and 11 months, from August 12, 1968, the date posited for their first rehearsal in London, to July 7, 1980, when they played their last show in Berlin; 4,347 days of music and mayhem, reckless ambition, seat-of-the-pants evolution and Icarus-like collapse, an epic saga of highs and lows scarcely credible in today’s anaesthetised rock climate. 

        As you would expect, five of the 22 chapters up to this point detail the lives of Page, Plant, Jones, John Bonham and Grant prior to Led Zep, with more on Page than the others combined, though it’s pleasing to note that throughout the book Jones, their secret weapon, is afforded a bigger slice of the pie than in any other Zep book I’ve read. The 20-page final chapter offers a fairly brief resume of Zeppelin-related matters, including Bonham’s death, that follow that final gig, all the way up to the 2007 O2 Arena show honouring Atlantic Records’ boss Ahmet Ertegun. No space is given over to their solo careers, the assumption being that Spitz regards them as nickel and dime compared to what went before. 

        Furthermore, unless I’m mistaken, this is the first Led Zeppelin biography to include copious notes, 62 pages in all, detailing the sources of all the quotes in the book, be they from the author's own interviews or lifted from magazines and other LZ titles. In this regard, unlike the vast majority of books in the rock canon, the book vies for scholastic recognition. 

        It goes without saying that Messrs Page, Plant and Jones have not contributed. Still, many of those around them, roadies, employees of Grant, Atlantic and Swan Song, music industry pundits, friends old and new (male and female), photographers, journalists and assorted observers including the odd rock star, have offered their stories and opinions. As a result, Bob Spitz has produced a doorstopper. Finally, I should add that it contains many anecdotes with which I was unfamiliar, at least until I saw the manuscript earlier this year, but, taking a leaf out of their book, like Page, Plant and Jones, I shall maintain a discreet reticence, so you’ll need to buy it to discover them for yourself.


1.11.21

A FURIOUS DEVOTION: THE AUTHORISED STORY OF SHANE MACGOWAN by Richard Balls


With his uncombed hair, rotten teeth and charity shop clothes, not to mention the obligatory bottle, Shane MacGowan presented himself to the world as a drunken lout – but behind this fortuitously crafted image lurks a man of keen intelligence, deep artistic sensibility and shy vulnerability. Also, like many of our best rock stars, much of what he says can be taken with a pinch of salt. 

        That’s the picture drawn by Richard Balls in A Furious Devotion, a biography evidently sanctioned by MacGowan despite its constant allusions to a lifestyle unlikely to promote longevity. Still, against the odds, MacGown is still with us, for which we can be thankful for his songs, especially those on the early Pogues records, retain the timeless sparkle of so much Irish music, old and new. Indeed, I was so enamoured of Rum, Sodomy And The Lash that at Omnibus Press I commissioned the first ever biography of the group, The Lost Decade by Ann Scanlon, published in 1988. Thirty-three years later there is no shortage of fine writing about The Pogues and their frontman, and this latest book, 334-pages long, is a worthy addition to an ever-expanding library. 

        Irish to a tee, it comes as something of a surprise to read that Shane spent many of his formative years in Tunbridge Wells, that quintessentially middle-class English town in Kent from where ‘Disgusted’ writes to The Daily Telegraph about insufficient deference being shown to royalty. Holidays, however, are spent in Tipperary, the home of his ancestors who crowded into a small stone house known as The Commons where his great-grandparents reared 11 children. This Irish heritage, we learn, was key to MacGowan’s personality, along with the literature he hoovered up like the cocaine and other class-A drugs that came later. 

        MacGowan’s love of books ensured he had a decent education, and he might have become a serious writer had music not taken him in another direction. A move to a flat in the Barbican and a tolerant father left him free to roam the streets of London where he became an early convert to punk, seeking out the Sex Pistols and becoming a face at gigs, famously finding himself in NME, photographed at the 100 Club during a Clash gig with blood spurting from his ear. “It gave him a kickstart didn’t it?” says Jane Crockford, later of The Modettes, who may or have not have drank Shane’s blood that night. It also set in stone the image of Shane O’Hooligan, she could have added. 

        From there it’s a short step to The Nipple Erectors, MacGowan’s first band who worked hard for little reward, and then The Pogues whose trajectory is exhaustively logged, from Camden pubs to the world’s arenas. Shane, however, seems not to enjoy the spotlight but his reaction to fame and success is not always predictable: consuming a Herculean amount of drink and drugs is one thing but eating a Beach Boys hits album to prove some point about American culture is quite another.

        The central part of the book, which offers grim details about Shane’s disintegration as The Pogues become massively popular, is particularly strong, eye-opening too. Their manager Frank Murray’s insistence on working the group into the ground is partly responsible, but the rest of the band, while by no means abstemious, don’t match Shane’s intake and ultimately face a difficult choice: sack their talismanic frontman or watch him collapse into an early grave. They’re a loyal bunch but enough is enough, and when Shane does make the leap everyone – not least Shane himself – is in a better place, temporarily at any rate. 

        Along the way we learn that Shane does not value material possessions, preferring to live in rented pigsties than a comfortable home he could afford to buy, in keeping with his casual disregard for money; that his preferred suitcase is a black bin liner; that he watches TV a lot, often the same films over and over again; that he gets into fights, frequently on the losing side; doesn’t relish the company of other celebrities; is loyal to old friends; scribbles lyrics on whatever surface is to hand, including walls; and is terminally unfaithful to a stream of girlfriends who invariably forgive him his trespasses, even Victoria Clarke who eventually marries him. 

        Contradictions abound, with Shane making assertions about all manner of things that others in his circle dispute, the inference being that he makes things up, sometimes for the benefit of journalists, many of whom, by and large, he loathes. It is to Richard Balls’ credit that while noting many of Shane’s less plausible claims, he finds a soberer friend to refute them, and we are left to make up our own minds. I sided with the sober. 

        Free of The Pogues, Shane forms The Popes, and seems happier, largely because he alone calls the shots, but although they match The Pogues as a live force, their record sales plummet, perhaps because Shane’s best songwriting years are behind him. This, says Victoria, was ‘very frustrating’ for him, commenting on how some writers work laboriously on their craft while for others it’s a more organic process. “He just gets it all,” she says. “It comes through, he’s hearing the tune, the words are coming. So, for him to have that sense that it wasn’t coming through meant he was cut off from his channel.”

        In the Nineties The Pogues reform for selected dates, Shane amongst them, which shores up everyone’s bank accounts but before long they tire of one other and it doesn’t last. Shane looks elsewhere to nourish his creative thirst, with some success, but there’s a feeling his present is contingent on his past, those wonderful songs like ‘A Rainy Night In Soho’, ‘A Pair Of Brown Eyes’ and, most especially, ‘Fairytale Of New York’. By the end of the book, Shane has reformed his ways, to a certain extent anyway, and even acquired a new set of teeth. Now confined to a wheelchair due to a damaged hip, he’s content to do very little, his drinking reduced to a trickle compared with days gone by, revered by fellow musicians, especially those with a hint of green in their psyche, an Irish national treasure. 

Shane with the author, Richard Balls. (Pic by Paul Ronan)

        The book is well illustrated, with three eight-page photo sections, many in colour, as well as black and white pictures throughout. There’s a comprehensive MacGowan discography, copious notes and credits – Richard Balls lists over 60 interviewees – and a 10-page index. A Furious Devotion is a thorough, occasionally moving, often hilarious, warts and all biography of a man you don’t meet every day.


15.10.21

THE BEST OF JAMMING: Selections and Stories from the Fanzine That Grew Up, 1977-86. Edited by Tony Fletcher



Initiative is a key weapon in the armoury of the aspiring rock writer who wants to go places, especially if they’re starting from zero and only 13. This was the age at which Tony Fletcher began what would become his mission in life, kick-started by his love of The Jam and a 1977 Sounds article in which Jon Savage eulogised about fanzines. 
        Sounds like fun, thought Tony who days later began assembling his first fanzine, In The City, which by issue two had become Jamming. Published sporadically for the next nine years, it ran to 36 issues, closing in 1986 and laying the groundwork for a career that now encompasses around a dozen books, all of them commendable, some of them big sellers, writing for music mags, hosting TV music shows, DJ-ing at clubs and on radio, and acting as a director for a rock academy in Woodstock in upstate New York, close to where he has lived for the last 30 years.
        I’m proud to have been a stepping stone along the way to all this. As editor at Omnibus Press between 1983 and 2016, I was largely responsible for the publication of five books by Tony (on Echo & The Bunnymen, R.E.M., Keith Moon, The Clash and Hedonism, a novel) and bought the UK rights to a sixth about the musical history of New York. In the course of all this I developed a professional relationship and close friendship with Tony so it follows that I am sympathetic towards his work; then again, in the unlikely event that he’d dropped the baton I’d have said so. 
        The Best Of Jamming is precisely what it says it is, a compilation of what Tony considers to be the best of the articles, interviews and reviews from the fanzine that he published, and although the writing wasn’t all his own work, many of the interviews with the biggest stars, among them McCartney, Townshend (twice), Weller, Buck, U2, Strummer, Morrissey, McCulloch and Costello, were done by him. 
        Look at that list again. And again. This was not NME, or MM, or Q, or any of the established musical papers in the UK or elsewhere. This was a fanzine published by a kid who had the bottle to request interviews with the biggest stars of the day, and some from the previous decade, who somehow managed to get them to agree to talk to him or others, all through his own initiative and ambition, for his own little magazine.
        All these and many, many more are included in this compilation, 386 pages of extracts, all of them facsimiles from the pages of Jamming from issue one to the final one, each prefaced by an introduction from Tony that explains how each issue was put together that often emphasises the seat-of-the-pants nature of fanzine publishing. Take this from Jamming Issue 24: “Behind the scenes, Jamming had fallen apart. Financing a monthly magazine from an overdraft at my mother’s bank was insane… Barclays finally realised they’d backed the wrong horse and shut down the pipeline. I couldn’t pay the printing bills and issue 24 stalled on the presses. Frantic phone calls finally found our saviour in a pair of Jewish South African émigrées… Jamming 24 finally rolled off the presses around Christmas Day… the so-called holidays remain a personal blur.”


        These newly-written previews to each issue are almost as entertaining as the interviews themselves. What seemed clear to me as I read some of them this week was that Tony and the other young writers who contributed to Jamming were young and fearless, less inclined to show the deference that older, more established writers might show towards the eminence grise of rock. 
        Perhaps inevitably I was drawn towards Jamming's relationship with The Who. “I found the last few [Who] albums embarrassing,” Tony remarks to Townshend in 1985, referring to Face Dances and It’s Hard. Pete doesn’t seem offended by this upstart’s impudence and, after batting away the question with practised aplomb, he goes on to agree with Tony that The Who’s 1984 live album Who’s Last was, indeed, embarrassing, “because it’s competent,” he says, implying that competence was not what The Who was ever about. It's a point well made. “The last years of The Who were so desperate,” he adds. Townshend is noted for his candour but he’s rarely been as candid as he is the two interviews presented here.
        Finally, I should add that Billy Bragg has written a fine Foreword to this collection. In truth, Jamming in its entirety offers as good as review of the state of rock music during the eighties as you’ll find anywhere. My only slight criticism is that some of the text is difficult to read insofar as the type is tiny and coloured backgrounds occasionally obscure the words on the page.

15.9.21

LOOK AWAY - Sky Documentary

Look Away, the much-touted Sky documentary about the exploitation of girls/women in the music industry, offered chilling testimony to condemn Kim Fowley, Steven Tyler and Axl Rose but failed in its greater mission to expose a more widespread culture of sexual abuse in the rock world. By concentrating on three specific instances of abuse by these men, it rather lost the overall plot, and many others who may have been equally guilty of similar behaviour no doubt sighed with relief when the credits rolled after one hour and 39 minutes. 

        I have a dim recollection of attending a party in South Kensington in the early seventies at which Fowley, already notorious for his sybaritic tendencies, engaged in intercourse with a willing girl on a couch in front of guests. I was with a Melody Maker colleague whose girlfriend, appalled, dragged us both away from a scene that Prince Andrew would no doubt have considered ‘unseemly’. So, when Jackie Fuchs of The Runaways spoke during the documentary of the occasion when Fowley drugged and raped her in a crowded room, I believed her 100%. 

        Equally castigating, and slightly more sinister in a rather creepy way, was the evidence of Julia Holcombe who at the age of 16 became Tyler’s lover, ward – unbelievably, he got her mum to sign over custody so he could take her over state lines without being detained – fiancée and mother of a child he demanded she abort. Her evidence suggested that those who benefited from Aerosmith’s record and ticket sales were complicit in keeping all this under wraps. 

        Sheila Kennedy, ill-treated by Rose, was once a Penthouse pin-up, which implies she was hardly an innocent virgin, but her testimony merely added to a welter of evidence that Rose considers himself above the law as far as treatment of women is concerned. Needless to say, both he and Tyler declined to comment when asked to do so by the producers of the film. Fowley died in 2015. 

        These three women occupied most of the screen time. Among a handful of others interviewed was a ‘manager’ of Guns’N’Roses, a tour manager of Aerosmith, and Kari Krome, who instigated (but did not become a member of) The Runaways, all of whom backed up what the women had to say. Missing was Rodney Bingenheimer, whose English Disco was a magnet for girls in their early teens hoping to bump into rock stars in the seventies. The notorious picture of Led Zeppelin ‘relaxing’ in their midst flashed up briefly on the screen, as did many other suggestive stills taken inside or outside the club, most of which can be easily found on the internet by keying in Bingenheimer’s name. Lori Mattix, the teen model who stepped out with Bowie, Jimmy Page and others, was rather coy about it all and declined to mention names, while Bingenheimer issued a statement to the effect that he wasn’t aware of any impropriety inside his club. Of course not. 

        What Look Away gave us, then, was three specific examples of appalling behaviour towards young women, all of which occurred many years ago, not that this excuses it in any way. If it was the first episode in a series, I could sympathise with it more but, in reality, this was the tip of the iceberg. Most interviewees suggested it was still happening today but of evidence there was none. If the music industry is to be held to account in its own #MeToo movement, then we need a much bolder approach and, of course, a way around the 21st Century protection offered by expensive libel lawyers whose warnings no doubt prompted the producers of Look Away to blank out many faces in the photographs we saw. 


3.9.21

THE RETURN OF ABBA



The miracle is that they don’t sound any different. Frida will be 76 in November and Agnetha turned 71 in April but their voices, especially when they sing together, sound exactly the same as they did during the seventies, as does, bar a bit of 21st Century upgrade, the musical backdrop of keyboards, synthesised strings, tuned drums and occasional electric guitar. More importantly, they still don’t sound like anyone else; nor, for that matter, has anyone else been able to sound like them since Abba disbanded 40 years ago. 

        The YouTube video for Abba’s new and characteristically epic ballad ‘I Still Have Faith In You’ has, as of an hour ago, had over four and a half million views since it appeared on the internet last night. The video for their other new song, ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’, while slightly less impressive, has had over one and a half million. That’s all occurred in the first 24 hours since they were made available. 

        Packed with the sweeping surges of emotion and traces of autobiography that was the hallmark of all their best work, ‘I Still Have Faith In You’ opens with a few grand notes that put me in mind of Elgar’s patriotic works before one of the girls, in this case Frida, sings solo. There’s an unmistakable delicacy, even hesitancy, to her voice, as if the words conjure up a well of sentiment she finds difficult to express or, even now, it’s still a challenge for her to sing in the English language. On the third line – ‘There was a union’ – Agnetha unsurprisingly joins in, before Frida closes the verse: ‘Of heart and mind, the likes of which are, oh so hard to find.’ Thereafter, although Frida leads, they are regularly reunited in that familiar choral landscape only Abba could produce. 

        We’re less than a minute into the song and it is unmistakably Abba, gloriously melodic, chiming and poignant. Are they singing about themselves? Is the ‘bittersweet song’ they mention one of their melancholy old hits? Are the ‘memories we share’ a commemoration of their marriages, or of the group, or the long history of the relationships that Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Frida have shared? Of course, lyricist Björn will never confirm this – the best songs are always enigmatic – but in this way ‘I Still Have Faith In You’ perfectly recreates the magic of Abba, that none too subtle blend of reality and fantasy, all folded neatly into a bravura performance that was, is and remains an inimitable Abba trait.  

        The song lasts just over five minutes and gradually gathers momentum, ebbing and flowing in much the same way as ‘Our Last Summer’, ‘Slipping Though My Fingers’ and ‘Winner Takes It All’, all of which share a similarity in tempo and sentiment. As it progresses, footage from Abba – The Movie, the Abba In Concert DVD and individual song videos are shown, cleverly edited at various points to suggest they are actually performing the new song. It follows a chronological sequence, from pre-Abba to The Visitors, and there’s a nod to their massive popularity in Australia with shots of the huge crowds that gathered to greet them in Melbourne. 

        At the 3.45 mark, theatrically accompanied by background audience cheers, we leave the familiar footage and are introduced to the much-heralded four digital Abba avatars, on stage as they soar into the uplifting final chorus of ‘I Still Have Faith In You’, this time with a underlying vocal counterpoint that blends chorus and verse, a crescendo that closes – again like other Abba epics – with the backing track dropping away for one of the girls, again Frida here, to bring it all back to where it began by soloing on a final line or two. 

        Less dramatic, but still unmistakably Abba, ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ features Agnetha singing an extended prologue before the song kicks in, lively, danceable and cheery even though Agnetha has clearly had her fragile heart broken yet again. Nowadays, though, she can cope – ‘I’m not the one you knew’ – for which we can all be thankful. This is pop Abba in the manner of ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, ‘Mama Mia’ and ‘Take A Chance On Me’, complete with Benny’s tinkly piano and a ‘Dancing Queen’-style sliding glissando across the keys, a snappy snare and Björn, quirky as ever, rhyming ‘frustration’ with ‘transformation’. Unfortunately, the video features the lyrics only. 

        These two tracks are a taster for a new Abba album called ABBA: The Voyage which will be released in November. In May 2022 a series of Abba concerts featuring the avatars – or ‘Abbatars’ as Björn calls them – are scheduled for London’s Olympic Park which will be renamed the Abba Arena. The virtual Abba, which will be accompanied by a live band, will ‘perform’ songs old and new.


30.8.21

CHARLIE WATTS & TED DEXTER: NOT SO FAR APART


On the surface, Charlie Watts and Ted Dexter, who died last week within 24 hours of each other, might seem to have little in common. The former, the son of a Wembley prefab-dwelling lorry driver, was the drummer with The Rolling Stones, while the latter, born in Milan to a prosperous insurance broker, captained England at cricket. Charlie went to a secondary modern and Ted went to Radley, a public school; Charlie studied at Harrow Art School, Ted entered Cambridge, probably on the strength of his sporting skills. 

        So far so different but here’s a few similarities. They were both spectacularly good at what they did. Both always dressed smartly and carried themselves with an air that bordered on the aristocratic. Neither suffered fools and were, in fact, quite shy, which sometimes came across as arrogance or, at the very least, impatience. Both were married for over 60 years to the same women whom they met when they were in their early twenties. They both loved fast cars and bred horses. They both reached 80, Ted a bit more. Their obituaries in the Guardian occupied the same amount of space – one page plus one column – and both were mourned deeply within the fields in which they excelled, with glowing tributes from their peers and contemporaries. Finally, I saw the Stones perform five times between 1971 and 1981, and probably saw Ted Dexter bat and bowl about five times at the Scarborough Cricket Festival between 1958 and 1962. And I enjoyed watching them both immensely. 

        But there’s something deeper that I’ve fathomed, not just through reading copious obituaries of both but from observing their graceful, elegant journeys through life. Both showed an identical lack of concern about what others thought of them. They simply hadn’t a care in the world if how they behaved was contrary to what was expected of rock stars or first-class cricketers. Both lived their lives precisely as they wanted to live their lives, casually and utterly insouciant, and would not be dictated to by those around him nor, heaven forbid, public opinion. 

        Charlie Watts was the odd one out in the Stones. Not for him the dedication to decadence espoused by Brian and Keith, nor Mick’s vanity or Bill’s promiscuity. All this was beneath him. Aside from a bit of a wobble in the 1980s, he behaved at all times with dignity, slightly aloof from the rest of the gang and always smartly dressed, in the certain knowledge that they needed him more than he needed them. The Stones were his day job, his bread and butter, nothing more, nothing less. He could have been a graphic designer and would no doubt have been a damn good one. It always seemed to me as if he viewed his position in the group as slightly absurd, as if he was the beneficiary of a lucky break that occurred through being in the right place at the right time, but once installed he knew precisely what was required of him and how to become indispensable. He was no doubt bored when required to drum for take after take after hed nailed it first time. He followed his own path and if that meant financing a 38-piece jazz band just so he could play drums alongside them, then so be it. 

        In a similar way, Ted Dexter refused to be intimidated by the cricket establishment. He batted with enormous style the way he wanted to bat, taking on fearsome fast bowlers without today’s helmets, and if the cricketing gods were with him he smacked boundaries all around the field. If they weren’t and he was dismissed, well there was always tomorrow. He looked bored when he was fielding. His cricketing career was curtailed by a freak motoring accident but he didn’t complain, just turned his skills to something else. He was dignified, and dressed smartly. He could have been a professional golfer and would no doubt have been a damn good one. He followed his own path and if that meant piloting his own plane to Australia, a journey that took five weeks and involved 24 stops for fuel, taking his wife and infant son along for the ride, then so be it. His spell as a chairman of England’s selectors did go as well as it might, but as a cricket administrator he was a pioneer of white ball cricket, fixed contracts for players and professional coaching methods for young cricketers. 

        And, of course, the Stones had a private box at Lords for the use of Charlie and Mick. Pity they could haven’t afforded it when Ted was playing, or that he and Charlie never met, not that I know of anyway. If they had they’d have had plenty to talk about.


The photograph of Charlie appeared on the BBC's web page, photographer unknown. The photograph of Ted was downloaded from his own website.