CHRIS SQUIRE – Take A Straight And Stronger Course

Reading Adam Sweeting’s obituary of Chris Squire in today’s Guardian reminded me again of the support that Melody Maker gave Yes during the first few years I worked on the paper, and as such no other group brings back those years to mind quite so much as the quintet formed in 1968 by Squire and Jon Anderson when the pair met in La Chasse club, a small drinking den on Wardour Street that catered to music business insiders in those days. This support was largely the result of Chris Welch’s admiration for the group, and this had a drip down effect on most of us and, of course, on our readers who invariably voted strongly for them in the annual MM polls. But Chris Squire was always up against stiff competition – Jack Bruce usually won the Best Bass Player category, followed by Paul McCartney. He might have come third, beating John Entwistle, but this probably embarrassed him a bit as he knew better than anyone that the mighty Ox was his superior; not only that, Chris modelled his style on John and wasn’t too proud to say so in interviews.
          Chris Squire was a tall, sturdy fellow, Yes’ lynchpin, the only constant member of the group throughout their long and ongoing career, the only musician to play on every one of their 21 albums, true to the cause for his entire working life. His bass style was melodic rather than rhythmic, adding flourishes from the top of his fretboard much like Entwistle but unlike John he used a pick to help him get a trebly, twangy tone that became synonymous with Yes' sound, just as Entwistle's signature tone was crucial to the originality of The Who. In another piece on Yes here on Just Backdated I was a bit sniffy about Chris' attitude towards something I once wrote about the group’s income but I didn’t mean to offend. I’m sure he had Yes’ best interests to heart, as he did throughout his life.
          “Chris was a very special part of my life; we were musical brothers,” Jon Anderson has written on his website. “He was an amazingly unique bass player, very poetic, and had a wonderful knowledge of harmony. We met at a certain time when music was very open, and I feel blessed to have created some wonderful, adventurous, music with him. Chris had such a great sense of humor... he always said he was Darth Vader to my Obi-Wan. I always thought of him as Christopher Robin to my Winnie the Pooh.”
          So this morning I listened to a bit of Yes on my iPod, ‘Yours Is No Disgrace’, ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’ and ‘Siberian Khatru’. I have a ‘Best Of’ album on there with about 16 tracks, and two other tracks, ‘The Clap’, Steve Howe’s solo piece from The Yes Album, and ‘Every Little Thing’, from their eponymous debut record. This was the last Yes track I played this morning and I remembered it as a serious favourite of mine from 1969, one I used to include on cassettes I made up to play in my orange Mini back in the days when I drove up and down the M1 a lot to see my dad in Yorkshire, both speakers blaring out this extraordinary arrangement of what was always a great and largely overlooked Beatles song. Yes take ‘Every Little Thing’ to another level than the Fabs, opening with a brash free-form prelude dominated by Peter Banks’ guitar phrases that circle the riff ambiguously and Bill Bruford’s jazzy drumming which is all over the shop, busy and skittish. Just before the vocals pounce Banks takes the mood down and offers up the riff from ‘Day Tripper’, played straight, before Anderson swoops in: ‘When I’m walking beside her…’. At over five minutes, Yes explore every avenue of the song, grandiose maybe, symphonic in parts and embracing wave after wave of vivid crescendos that all lead to stupendous summits until the whole piece ends on a suitable note of high drama. After Joe Cocker’s ‘With A Little Help…’, it’s still my favourite Beatles cover.
          This track made me a Yes fan, at least for two or three years, but there was a lot of competition in those days and after Close To The Edge (1972) I lost touch with them, concluding their ambition had overreached itself with Topographic Oceans a year later, and never listened to them much again.
          Chris Welch wrote the definitive Yes biography for Omnibus Press, Close To The Edge, first published in 1999, that revealed how Chris Squire used to spend a lot of time in the bath back when they were poor and lived in a communal house in Fulham, hence his nickname - Fish. 

RIP Chris.


THE WHO – Hyde Park, London, June 26, 2015

“Bugger me,” said Dougal*, standing alongside me as we awaited The Who’s appearance on the Great Oak stage last night. “Bit of a change from when we went to the Orchid in Purley. We were at IBC studios and Kit** said better get down there as it was £150 and they needed the money, so we piled the gear into the van and off we went.”
The Great Oak looks a bit like a stage set from Game Of Thrones; gigantic, Bible black, towering up into the sky, at each side an imitation tree of colossal proportions with foliage that extends across the top to meet its twin on the other side, and alongside them moving outwards, and to the rear, film screens the size of houses. It’s so big it dwarfs the bands, The Who included, but this is BIG ROCK, not really my cup of tea as a rule these days. Nevertheless, Dougal and I and those we brought along with us are fortunate to be fairly close to the front (in a relative sense), in an area where almost all the rest of those around us have travelled for miles to be in this preferred spot and paid £49 more than the entire group was paid when Dougal drove them down to Purley that night.

But let’s not dwell on such matters. Here I am for maybe the last time. There’s 65,000 of us here in London’s largest city park tonight and of all the many times I’ve seen The Who, this is only the fourth time in the open air, following on from Plumpton (1969), The Oval (’71) and Jacksonville (’76), each of these occasions significant in one way or another. Plumpton was my first ever Who show, The Oval the first time I watched them from the side of the stage (and with my sister beside me) and Jacksonville the last time I saw them with Keith on drums. It is therefore fitting that here in Hyde Park, in the open air tonight, my son Sam is with me watching The Who perform their great songs. It’s his first Who show, my 37th.
As at Birmingham six months ago, first up is the six-piece band followed a moment or two later by the two surviving members of the rock group that between 1969 and 1976 was by common consent, mine included, the greatest live act in the world. The length of his hair aside, the singer doesn’t look that different from the boy I saw at Plumpton, a bit stockier maybe, fuller in the face and now in prescription shades, his suede tasselled cloak long ago exchanged for less showy black jeans and a dark blue shirt, but he’s still eager, still aggressive, still treading his stage like a caged lion, still as up for it as he was when he was a teenager looking for a better life than beating sheet metal. And then there’s the guitarist, his friend and occasional adversary, who looks markedly different now, the pristine white overalls he used to wear in 1969 long discarded in favour of black jeans and a dark grey t-shirt, looking much older now, bald, slightly stooped, not quite so eager perhaps but still aggressive, still treating his instrument like a disposable tool of the trade on yet another stage to pound like a clown, living out his past, but – tonight – seemingly with a good heart and a genuinely affable nature. A count in from the drummer, bashing his sticks together, and we’re off: “Got a feeling inside…”
T’was ever thus. I’m hard pressed to think of any other top flight act of The Who’s (or any others’) vintage that would even consider opening their set with their first hit. ‘I Can’t Explain’ still sounds like it could have been written yesterday and recorded by, say, Arctic Monkeys or Kings of Leon, or some band from 2020 we haven’t heard of yet. Having already seen bits of sets by Johnny Marr, Kaiser Chiefs and Paul Weller this afternoon, it’s clear The Who have turned up the PA a notch or three, as is their right, and from the get go it seems the crowd – at least those around me – are well up for it. All of them bellow ‘Can’t Explain’, suitably tunelessly, and do likewise for most of what follows which, as a qualified reporter, it is my duty to itemise: ‘The Seeker’, ‘Who Are You’, ‘The Kids Are Alright’, ‘Pictures of Lily’, ‘I Can See For Miles’, ‘My Generation’, ‘Behind Blue Eyes’, ‘Bargain’, ‘Join Together’, ‘You Better You Bet’, ‘I’m One’, ‘Love Reign O’er Me’, ‘Eminence Front’, ‘Amazing Journey’, ‘Sparks’, ‘Pinball Wizard’, ‘See Me Feel Me’, ‘Baba O’Riley’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’.
And now for the details. To be honest I preferred the show I reported on from Birmingham last December, which was louder, more intimate (in a relative sense: 12,000 as opposed to 65,000) and quite a bit longer. Tonight in Hyde Park I watch a professional Who performance tailored for a massive crowd in the open air that ticked all the boxes but eliminated the possibility of error that, as is so often the case, inspires greatness in them. It also eliminated the songs that serious Who fans might best appreciate, like ‘So Sad About Us’, ‘A Quick One’ and the Quadrophenia songs that feature virtual performances by John Entwistle and Keith Moon, but these seem to have been jettisoned during the current spate of touring anyway. I cannot fault The Who’s performance in any way tonight but, as if nature was specifically commissioned to play its part, the show didn’t really catch fire until the sun set which, happily, coincided with the Tommy segment. Pete windmilled a lot but it never looked like his guitar was really attached to him, and Roger threw his mike around but always in a manner that made it easy to catch. There was a chance that things might go awry during ‘Pictures of Lily’, requested by Paul Weller, to whom Roger paid generous tribute, which was unrehearsed and not part of the planned set (God, how I hate the idea of a planned set by The Who!), and all that was screened behind throughout the entire song, performed briskly and with panache, was Keith in his black basque. Aaawww, as they say to newly born puppies.

The Mr Townshend I saw at Birmingham that I described as Mr Grumpy was a changed man, friendly even, all sweetness and light, dedicating ‘My Gen’ to ‘people of any age’. This was a song they didn’t play at B’ham and it was nicely synchronised with the footage of that old b&w movie that Kit Lambert shot at the Railway in 1964. ‘Join Together’, another song they’ve added since that show, found the cameras focused on the crowd, seen now on the screens behind and at the side of the band, in this way realising Pete’s concept of including the audience, all the many thousands of us, as part of the show. Other songs came and went, all much appreciated, especially ‘Kids’ with its Mod backdrop of scenes from the Quadrophenia film, ‘I Can See For Miles’ with Zak a blur on the toms, ‘Blue Eyes’, a mighty sing-along, and ‘Bargain’, given a bit of stick from Pete towards the end.

‘Love Reign O’er Me’ has become Roger’s showpiece and he was outstanding, closing, oddly, in a deep bass timbre that seemed to take Pete by surprise. While they were playing ‘Eminence Front’ I was reminded by another Who pal close to me that this was the newest song of the set, albeit 33 years old now. What a contrast to Paul Weller who offered several songs, perhaps too many, from his most recent album, released earlier this year, a brave but possibly unappreciated gesture since his set only really came alive when he sang Jam songs. But I digress…
By now the eight-man Who were into Tommy which, as noted, was when the whole concert suddenly took off. ‘Amazing Journey’ seemed to galvanise things and ‘Sparks/Underture’ – its churning opening rumble suspended, brilliantly, while Roger riffed on the ‘Captain Walker didn’t come home’ lines – was spectacular, as it always was and still is. The audience around me seemed to feel it too, all of us lifted to a higher level as those well-known crescendos and octave drops filled the night. Townshend was feeling it too, improvising on the chords, feeling his way along the fretboard to harmonics that fed Zak who held back unexpectedly and then tumbled back into the rhythmic cascades, challenging Pete, eye to eye, just like when Keith was up there. This was The Who as they used to be, that spontaneous touch of greatness, back to the time when they really were the best in the business. The sun had just come down. Perfect. Twilight arrived as Pete played the descending chords of ‘Pinball’s intro, triggering another crowd eruption. Although an old stager like me missed John’s dramatic bass tones, all 65,000 of us were behind Roger as the young boy who played the silver ball and the night, finally, was as alive as it was ever going to get. It was dark now but Roger could see us, feel us, touch us and heal us as the Tommy hymn, the ‘See Me Feel Me climax, finally turned a good show into a great one, and we were careering into the home straight. ‘Baba O’Riley’ was terrific and ‘Fooled Again’ took us home, Roger exploding on that final scream – and God, how I wish Pete was still able to make that leap like he used to.
As ‘Fooled’ finally drew to a close I looked at my phone and realised they had 12 minutes to go. Earlier in the day I’d chatted with Bill Curbishly who’d told me that the strict curfew in Hyde Park was 10.20, but they’d stopped at 10.08. Twelve minutes, I thought, was ample time for ‘Substitute’ but it wasn’t to be. Pete introduced the band, starting with his brother Simon, then moving down the line of keyboard players at the back. He acclaimed Pino Paladino as the best bass player in the world, implying that only the best bass player in the world could fill the lead boots once worn by John Entwistle, and then he introduced Zak Starkey, quite possibly the best drummer in the world too, saying he’d learned at the feet of the… well, he couldn't bring himself to call Keith the master, though he did say, unconvincingly, that he missed him and called him… the wanker! I looked at Dougal and laughed. I’m pretty sure Keith, of all people, never had much cause to engage in wanking, I said. Dougal agreed, smirking. We also agreed that Zak was as much a star of this show as anyone else on that stage, just like Keith used to be, and the only man in the world who could replace him.

It was almost over. No more songs. Then Roger said something about how none of us would be here but for the bloke on his left. The crowd exploded for a final time. Be lucky, he said, as they all disappeared.
Wonder what it would have been like in Purley.

* Dougal, aka Peter Butler, worked as a Who crew member from 1967, graduating to become Keith Moon’s personal assistant in 1971, author of two books and a long time friend.
** Lambert, of course.


THE JAM - About The Young Idea

To Somerset House for About The Young Idea, an exhibition of Jam memorabilia put together largely by Nikki Weller, Paul’s sister, who earlier this year approached me with a view to Omnibus Press putting a book together based on the exhibits, with particular emphasis on Paul’s school exercise books. Unfortunately there wasn’t sufficient time to complete the project in time for the exhibition so it’s on hold. I loved seeing the exercise books that Nikki showed me for they contained Paul’s doodlings – drawings of guitars, snatches of lyrics, the usual schoolboy stuff you’d expect from someone who, to slightly misquote Bruce Springsteen, learned more from a two-minute record (baby) that he ever learned in school.
The exhibition is all that you would expect it to be, the highlight for me all those lovely Rickenbacker guitars. There’s one complete stage set up, with Paul’s guitar, Rick’s drum kit, Bruce’s bass and a wall of black and gold Vox AC30s on the back line left, always a heavenly sight for someone raised on The Beatles stage set. Other rooms have posters, front pages of the music press (always nice to see those MM logos again), some of the exercise books, singles and albums galore, videos, sharp clothes – The Jam always were first class coat hangers – and glass cases containing guitars.
Here’s a few pictures:

In the bookshop in the entrance hall there’s a fine selection of books, some published by Omnibus, including Rick Buckler's recently published autobiography and what was for a while our best seller, Paolo Hewitt’s Jam biography A Beat Concerto, now out of print but selling second hand for around £50, depending on its condition.

Although Paul Weller would probably disagree and might even be profoundly offended, I always considered The Jam to be the Sons of The Who, and because I hold The Who in high esteem, this is actually a compliment as far as I am concerned. Separate singer aside, they looked the same, even if John stood still while Bruce jigged about, they sounded the same, some of the time anyway, and seemed to arise from the same well of imagination that drove the early Who into their Mod era which The Jam picked up on in spades. It is a glorious legacy, which I’ll be celebrating later today as I watch Weller, followed by The Who of course, in Hyde Park. 
       One thing The Who never did, though, was appear on the same bill as drag artists. I couldn’t help but chuckle at this poster.


THE WHO – Won’t Get Fooled Again

Because Universal probably won’t appreciate me posting the notes to too many of The Who’s Track singles in their forthcoming box set, here’s the last one for now, another song they’ll no doubt be playing in Hyde Park and at Glastonbury.

A: Won’t Get Fooled Again
Written by Pete Townshend. © 1971 Fabulous Music Ltd.
Produced by The Who, associate producer Glyn Johns.

B: Don’t Know Myself
Written by Pete Townshend. © 1971 Fabulous Music Ltd.
Produced by The Who, associate producer Glyn Johns.

Originally released as Track 2094 009 on 25 June 1971, it reached Number 9 in the British charts.

Now a cornerstone of The Who’s repertoire, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ was the key song on Who’s Next, a lengthy call to arms that became the traditional show closer at Who concerts in 1975/76. This single version is a fairly drastic edit of the eight-and-a-half-minute album track, losing the lengthy synthesiser break and drum barrage which set up Roger’s blood-curdling scream before the apocalyptic final verse about the new boss being the same as the old one. Recorded in April on the Rolling Stones’ 16-track mobile studio at Stargroves, Mick Jagger’s Victorian country mansion near Newbury in Berkshire, the song is based around a clattering synthesizer riff that locks the group into a tight, rhythmic performance, classic mid-period Who at their towering best; Roger singing his heart out, Pete’s block chords firmly in place, John swooping up and down his bass and Keith an almighty presence on drums, albeit slightly more disciplined than usual in view of the song’s inflexible structure.
With lyrics that address the futility of revolution when the conqueror is likely to become as corrupt as the conquered, the song inspired many a clenched fist, especially when Roger came careering in at the end of that lengthy instrumental passage, declaiming the ‘bosses’ and inciting the kind of scenes that left the Bastille in ruins. That scream before the final verse is one of the most volatile vocal eruptions ever recorded and, on stage, triggered an Olympian leap from Pete that saw him slide across the stage on his knees to end up in front of John.
              Many of the songs on Who’s Next, notably its opening flourish ‘Baba O’Riley’, featured prominent synthesisers but unlike many of his less imaginative peers Pete didn’t use this en vogue contraption simply as a solo keyboard that could make funny noises. In his hands it conjured up a rotating musical loop that underpinned melodies and, in the case of ‘Fooled Again’, added a sharp bite to the rhythm track. It is true to say that Pete and Stevie Wonder, on his trilogy of ground breaking albums that commenced in 1972 with Music Of My Mind, were the first musicians of their generation to make proper creative use of this new and subsequently much abused electronic toy. In fact, the synthesizer style on Who’s Next is the first appearance on a rock record of the repetitive electronic sequencing so beloved of Kraftwerk and which would dominate modern dance music in the nineties.
              Pete: “It’s really a bit of a weird song. The first verse sounds like a revolution song and the second like somebody getting tired of it. It’s an angry anti-establishment song. It’s anti people who are negative. A song against the revolution because the revolution is only a revolution and a revolution is not going to change anything at all in the long run, and a lot of people are going to get hurt.”
              ‘Don’t Know Myself’ was recorded during the spring of 1970 at Pete’s home studio close to Eel Pie Island on the Thames at the south western tip of London. It was part of a planned EP project but appeared instead as the flip of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. A Lifehouse reject which wasn’t quite up to the standard of the other songs Pete was writing in 1970, the song blends a fierce verse and chorus with a strange, country and western style middle eight that features Keith tapping a wooden block. Often played live in 1970/71, it was dropped when Who’s Next provided the band with better stage material. 


THE WHO - I Can See For Miles

As I mentioned in a previous post, in April I was commissioned by Universal to write the notes that will appear in the booklet accompanying a forthcoming box set of 15 7-inch singles by The Who, all of them on Track Records. This follows on from a Brunswick Box containing eight singles (including ‘I’m The Face’ on Fontana), released at the beginning of April, and a soon to be released Reaction box with five discs.
              Being as how we’re coming up to a big Who weekend, when all being well I’ll be posting from Hyde Park late Friday or Saturday morning, here’s what I wrote about a song they’ll probably be playing in Hyde Park and at Glastonbury, with another one to follow tomorrow:

A: I Can See For Miles
Written by Pete Townshend. © 1967 Fabulous Music Ltd.
Produced by Kit Lambert.

B: Someone’s Coming
Written by John Entwistle. © 1967 Essex Music.
Produced by Kit Lambert.

Originally released as Track 604 011 on 13 October, 1967, it reached number 10 in the British charts.

Pete: “To me that was the ultimate Who record yet it didn’t sell. I spat on the British record buyer.”
              ‘I Can See For Miles’ is the link in the chain between The Who as a pop group and The Who as a rock band. Although their earlier singles had shown that the quartet was feistier than just about all the other acts that visited the UK charts before 1967, this was the year when everything changed and, happily for them, The Who found themselves perfectly equipped to join the New World Order. This much was certainly evident on ‘I Can See For Miles’, the highlight of their 1967 album The Who Sell Out, and a record now widely regarded as one of their genuine masterpieces.
              The Who never sounded more alive than on this superbly crafted song, recorded between touring commitments; started in May at London’s CBS Studios, continued at Talent Masters in New York and completed in September at Gold Star in Los Angeles. With lyrics that suggest a connection to higher enlightenment, it is psychedelic without being trippy, straining at the leash but held together by Pete’s taut, ascending guitar riff, Keith’s seat-of-the-pants drumming and a red hot electric quality. The solo is like a live wire crackling in a gale: buzzing feedback, choppy chords and sustained tremolo-picking on a distorted single note that moves across the stereo spectrum, with John and, especially, Keith – on lead drums – riding the storm at their very best. Pete’s overdubbed guitar parts and the vocal harmonies were difficult to replicate in concert, which is why The Who rarely performed this all-time favourite on stage until 1989 and beyond, and only then when a second guitarist was added to their touring line-up. To the delight of fans, when the 2015/6 edition of The Who returned ‘Miles’ to the fold it sounded better than ever.
              The failure of ‘I Can See For Miles’ to become a significant hit single (even in the US it reached no higher than Number 9) was a profound disappointment for Pete – and the fact that ‘The Last Waltz’, a saccharine waltz of appalling sentimentality by the pitiful Engelbert Humperdinck, held the top spot top at the time can’t have helped. In his autobiography Who I Am, Pete says the lyrics were inspired by jealous emotions brought on by suspicions that his girlfriend Karen Astley was cheating on him – she wasn’t – but when the dust had settled he was no doubt mollified by a note he received from the distinguished classical composer Sir William Walton, Kit Lambert’s godfather, congratulating him on its ‘ambitious harmonies’.
              ‘Someone’s Coming’ was produced by Kit Lambert in London during May 1967 with brass arrangements recorded at Bradley’s Barn, Nashville, on August 17, 1967. Mariachi trumpets herald Roger’s first stab at singing a song written by John, this one a mildly diverting but rather lightweight pop effort with lyrics in the ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ mode. John wrote this about secretly seeing his then girlfriend, Alison Wise, who would become his first wife and also the object of John’s wit in ‘My Wife’ (from Who’s Next).



I’m in the midst of editing a book on the New York avant garde duo Suicide and this morning on the train I was minded to listen again to Bruce Springsteen’s cover of their song ‘Dream Baby Dream’, which I assume boosted their bank accounts by a fistful of dollars when his album High Hopes was released last year. Bruce’s version is a sight more melodic than the more challenging original, but Marty Rev and Alan Vega were still delighted with the outcome, just as Don McLean was when Madonna recorded ‘American Pie’. How do you feel about this, he was asked. “It means I’ll never have to work again,” replied McLean.
          In order to locate ‘Dream Baby Dream’ on my iPod, I scanned the alphabetical song list and, when it was over, left it playing, so that every song I listened to this morning began with the word ‘dream’. After Bruce came Newton Faulkner (‘Dream Catch Me’), Neil Finn (‘Dream Date’), Procol Harum (‘A Dream In Every Home’), Clannad (‘A Dream In The Night’), Bobby Darin (‘Dream Lover’, an old favourite), Jeff Buckley (‘Dream Mother’), Aerosmith (‘Dream On’, a half-hearted bash at emulating ‘Stairway To Heaven’ I always thought), Depeche Mode (‘Dream On’ – a different song, which I thought was U2 until I checked the screen), The Who (‘Dream One’, an un-Who-like experimental guitars and drums only demo from Tommy that I really don’t recall listening to before and probably won’t again), Talking Heads (‘Dream Operator’) and, just as the train was pulling into Waterloo, Abba* (‘Dream World’, a track they left on the shelf until their box set was released in 1994).
          Nor was this the entire list of songs beginning with ‘Dream’ as had I started at the beginning, ie before ‘Dream Baby Dream’, I’d have listened to ‘Dream, All I Have To Do’ by R.E.M. (the Everly Brothers’ song, retitled), ‘Dream A Lie’ by UB40, ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’ by Mama Cass and ‘Dream Baby’ by Roy Orbison, this latter two both songs of exquisite loveliness.
          Next up – and I took a glance to check – will be a song called ‘Dreamer’ (Denis Wilson), then ‘Dreaming…’ (Blondie, Kate Bush, Manic Street Preachers, The Who [several versions of ‘ … From The Waist’] and Cowboy Junkies), then ‘Dreams’ (Allman Brothers, Corrs, Cranberries, Fleetwood Mac [several versions including Corrs]), then ‘Dreams…’ followed by something else (John Martyn, Blondie and The Jam) until we finally move on to songs beginning with ‘Dress…’.
          Of course these songs are only those that begin with the word ‘Dream’ or a variation of it. If I was to count the number with the word ‘Dream’ elsewhere in the title, I’m pretty sure it would be second only to ‘Love’ or the pronouns ‘I’, ‘He’, ‘She’ or ‘You’. One day maybe I’ll start at the first song (‘Abandoned Love’ by The Everly Brothers) and move all the way to the last (‘Zweet Zursday’ by Duke Ellington), which is actually followed by a bunch beginning with digits, a total of 16,261 songs now so it won’t happen tomorrow.

*Waterloo, Abba… unintentional!


NICK DRAKE - Five Leaves Left

A few years ago I acted as the guinea pig for a feature idea called ‘Every Home Should Have One’ that a friend of mine, Eddie Blower, was pitching to Record Collector magazine. The idea was that someone with a background in music would be interviewed about a favourite album, but not necessarily an obvious choice or even a record that had become a hit. I opted for Five Leaves Left by Nick Drake, which I didn’t discover until long after Nick died, and as it happened I played it in my kitchen last night as I was making a meal for my son Sam and myself. Sam and I share a high opinion of Nick Drake, as we do on a quite a few musicians nowadays.
         That has prompted me to post the entire interview that Eddie did, some of which I incorporated into another Drake piece on Just Backdated. Eddie’s feature idea didn’t take off by the way.

So Chris, when / how did you first hear about Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left?

I knew of its existence because of the Island sampler Nice Enough To Eat, but that was as far as it went until… sometime in the mid-eighties, ie about 15 years too late, I was having a conversation with Dave Lewis, whom I know because of his Led Zep fanzine and who at that time was the manager of the Our Price record shop in Bedford. I asked Dave if there were any relatively unknown artists whose albums he kept having to restock because they kept selling out. The reason I asked was because I was always thinking about which artists (beyond the obvious) to feature in Omnibus books, “Nick Drake,” he replied. “I’m always re-ordering Nick Drake albums. They just keep selling. All sorts buy them, young, old, girls, boys, all word of mouth I think.”
         “The folkie on Island?” I asked.
         “Yes, but he’s not really a folkie. He’s much more than that. He’s great.”
         So I went out and bought Way To Blue, a compilation of Nick Drake songs from the three albums he recorded for Island during his lifetime and Time Of No Reply which came out later, and I just loved it. Dave was right. Nick Drake wasn’t a folkie. The more I played Way To Blue the more I liked it and it was only a matter of time before I went out and bought all of Nick’s albums, and my favourite is the first, Five Leaves Left.

How long after that introduction did you own a copy?

About two months. What is unusual is that when I was on MM during the early 70s Island’s PR David Sandison and I became good friends, and he used to give me all the Island albums as promo copies… Traffic, Free, Fairports, Cat Stevens, Marley, you name it… but he never ever gave me a Nick Drake album. Maybe because I really liked Free and Traffic he thought I wouldn’t like Nick Drake much. Most PRs in those days and probably today just recommend stuff because they are paid to do so whether they like it or not themselves or whether it’s rubbish, but David was a good PR in that he didn’t try to oversell things and when he said something was good it probably was. He didn’t bullshit, he was sincere, so if he’d said Nick Drake was worth a listen I’d definitely have listened. But he didn’t. He never even mentioned him to me. I don’t know why or whether I would have liked Drake or not in those days because I was young and a big rock fan in the serious sense of the word, like I loved the Who as everyone knows, so I might have dismissed Drake as a ‘folkie’ who wasn’t my cup of tea. Maybe I wouldn’t have been mature enough to appreciate him then. I don’t know but I’d like to have tried. I liked Cat Stevens but I think I got into him because every single attractive girl I ever met in those days seemed to adore Cat Stevens so it was prudent to agree with them, but Nick Drake’s music was far more subtle than Cat Stevens or even Paul Simon. It demands greater attentiveness, harder work if you like, but I think it would have been worth the effort even then. I owned a Drake track on Nice Enough To Eat, but I overlooked it somehow. Great shame.

So, was your initial interest because of the artist or the music?

The music, absolutely 100%. I didn’t know the first thing about him, but like almost everyone else who’s become a late(ish) Drake fan I became fascinated by his story. It’s an extraordinary thing, like a great painter who was ignored until after his death… like Van Gogh.

What is it about the music on Five Leaves Left that has held you over the years?

Nick Drake was a singer, songwriter and guitarist of unusual skill and depth, thoughtful, poetic, enigmatic, dreamy and mysterious, complex yet potentially commercial (as has now been proved) to a perceptive market, certainly addictive, certainly sophisticated, an absolute natural talent, and quite unlike anyone else I’ve ever heard. Just a massive overlooked talent who was criminally, almost freakishly, overlooked during his lifetime.

Can you describe your emotional attachment to Five Leaves Left?

It’s one of those records I can listen to again and again now and never get bored. Indeed I can probably listen to the song ‘River Man’ over and over again and never get bored. It’s the illusive quality I think, forever interesting. With most artists you know what you’re getting but it’s not like that with Nick. You can listen over and over again and still not quite get it, so you listen again and it’s still magical. The same actually applies to the other two albums that were released in his lifetime to a certain extent (and also, most especially, to the later song ‘Black Eyed Dog’). It’s that dreamy, laid back quality to the music and the gentle sound of his voice, and the guitar playing which is so delicate and intricate, enormously skilful and complex, and the different tunings. The recordings are very ‘alive’. If you close your eyes while you are listening he could be in the room with you. He sounds incredibly romantic, a bit sad most of the time, weary, and very English, very middle-class, cricket on the village green, slightly posh (which he was) and almost from another world, absolutely timeless too.

Why do you think it failed to sell?

He wasn’t promoted which isn’t entirely Island’s fault as he was chronically shy and didn’t like performing. Everyone who sold records played live in those days and Nick didn’t.  It seems he couldn’t bring himself to promote his music in the means available to artists in those days, and yet at the same time he was crushed by its failure to sell.

How many people do you think you have recommended it too?

Dozens but it’s a no brainer these days as he’s become very popular, well popular to a cultish audience who probably think like I do. He seems to command real devotion which is partly to do with his music and partly the tragedy of it all. What is interesting is that you occasionally come across people who love him whom you might not expect to. Last summer I was asked to bring my iPod and dock speaker to a garden party in our village, an annual event for the people who live in our road, so that neighbours young and old can all get to chat to each other and drink wine. I’d made a playlist of what I thought was acceptable stuff (including Chopin, Spanish guitar and Glen Miller!) and put on a song or two from Five Leaves Left and the wife of a friend of mine, a well-to-do young mum who lives nearby, came over and told me how much she loved Nick Drake. I’d no idea she had the slightest interest in popular music, let alone anything as deep as Nick.

Have you ever got into an argument over this record?

Never. I can honestly say that I have never met anyone who doesn’t like Nick Drake. I’ve met people who are unfamiliar with him, sure, but no one has said he sucks!

Can you name any other (known) true supporters of this LP?

Too many to mention now. I think any great guitarist, from Richard Thompson on downwards, will appreciate his guitar skills.

How does the music stand up today?

Absolutely timeless, as I say. This is surely proved by the fact that Nick sold his millionth album a year or two ago, or so I read. In his lifetime it’s doubtful he sold more than 5,000 of any of his albums, probably less. Tragic really. In this respect I can’t help but think that back in the early seventies I was possibly in a position to have changed this, to have written about him in MM and maybe turned people on to him. But none of us did, barring Gerry Gilbert on Sounds who certainly tried but no one on MM picked up on him, or NME whose reviewer of Five Leaves Left compared him unfavourably to Peter Sarstedt of all people. That can’t have helped Nick’s frame of mind. Almost all contemporary reviews of his albums were fairly cursory to say the least. Nick Kent was just that bit too late in his appraisal really but he deserves a pat on the back for trying to expose Nick to a wider audience before anyone else. The late great Ian McDonald subsequently wrote a brilliant 16,000 word appraisal of his work, a large portion devoted to ‘River Man’, which in my opinion elevated Nick to his rightful place among the greats. This is the critical yardstick nowadays. It’s all hindsight but for me, it’s one of those classic ‘if onlys’ that everyone has… well, with me, it’s if only I’d heard Nick Drake in 1970 and asked David Sandison if he’d set up an interview, but then again it would probably have been like Gerry Gilbert’s interview, ie Nick wouldn’t have said a thing. But I’d like to have tried.

So Chris, in your opinion, why should every home have one?

Because if you really love the best popular music of the second half of the 20th century and take pleasure in seeking out the very best, getting into Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left and also all his other work, is simply as rewarding as our kind of music gets. 


FLORENCE + THE MACHINE - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

A few years I ago I read a deliciously catty remark in a Guardian obituary of a pompous grandee that went along the lines of, ‘He was difficult to ignore but it was worth the effort’. It would be harsh to apply the same sentiment to Florence Welch, but the first half of the sentence is certainly apt. This strikingly tall red-haired woman, channelled on drowning Ophelia via an expansive wardrobe and crossed with a long limbed ballerina, is indeed difficult to ignore, as was ‘You Got The Love’ which heralded her arrival in 2010, but there the similarity stops. I enjoyed that first album with her Machine, dark as it was in parts, felt the second one was a bit strained, and was drawn to the recently released third by its phenomenal out-of-the-box success, which also can’t be ignored, even if the reviews I read were on the mediocre side. 
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful has been produced by Markus Dravs whose magic touch has graced albums by, amongst others, Arcade Fire, Coldplay and Mumford & Sons, and who was doubtless charged with the task of pushing Florence into the same tier of success. It has been preceded by a period of extreme calm by Florence’s standards during which she appears to have stepped back a bit – which must have been a challenge – and, if the interviews are to be believed, tempered her intemperance. The last I saw of her until last week’s press blitz was singing ‘Gimme Shelter’ with The Rolling Stones at the O2 in December 2012, and a pretty decent job she made of upstaging Jagger too, and now comes the news that she’ll be headlining Glastonbury on the Friday, Dave Grohl having broken his leg during a concert in Sweden on June 12 and been forced to step down as the night’s star turn.
So, into the breech steps Florence armed with a brand new album that, to these ears, seems a good deal more commercially targeted than its predecessors, with the opener ‘Ship To Wreck’ exploding out of my speakers like mid-Seventies Fleetwood Mac, full on pop rock, metronomic drums, jangling guitars and a double-tracked chorus that Stevie Nicks would die for. The comparison doesn’t end there, of course, for Florence and Stevie seem to share an ideological bent in common too, not to mention the twirly dancing and antique dresses. Things don’t let up with track two, ‘What Kind Of Man’, all distorted guitars, high-pitched trumpets and Florence leaving no doubt that the man in question has displeased her a great deal.
The pressure doesn’t ease off on the title track either, its intro deceptively melodic until the pounding drums take up the slack and lead us into another full tilt rocker, by which time comes the realisation that the ‘how big’ of the title is precisely the intention. This is a big album, chock full of powerful hooks, radio-friendly melodies, extravagant orchestration, big arrangements, with everything bar the kitchen sink, including what sounds like a full-on Mariachi band on ‘Queen Of Peace’, thrown in to ramp up the extravaganza.
         Some respite comes with ‘Long And Lost’, which has a touch of Clannad-like mystery about it, and ‘Caught’ which follows, a meditation on private dilemma, the demons that occupy her thoughts and inspire many of these songs, but by the home straight we’re back on track, ‘Third Eye’ and ‘Mother’ offering Florence plenty of opportunity to express herself mightily, this pair spliced by the more contemplative, organ-based ‘St Jude’, a song about the patron saint of lost causes.
But Florence is certainly no lost cause. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful amply succeeds in its aim to elevate her to mainstream acceptance on a level that no other British girl is attaining right now, at least until Adele steps back into the ring (and assuming Kate Bush's exertions last year render her inert for another decade). Then again – and this is the problem I have with albums like this, that is albums whose appeal is immediate – it’s charms may be short lived. It’s the albums that grow on you over a long period whose allures last a lifetime.



Back in 1972 I was given a copy of the Lou Reizner production of Tommy to review, and being as how I was big on Tommy at the time, and even bigger on The Who, I gave it a rave notice in Melody Maker, a bit over the top in fact, which I would come to regret later. The truth is I don’t think I ever played it again and it sits upstairs amongst my Who collection in pristine condition, a bit like plenty of other albums and CDs that include ‘interesting’ rarities or ‘alternative’ versions of songs that tend to be listened to just the once out of curiosity’s sake, then left unplayed because you can’t get away from the fact that the original is the best, and that’s the one you turn to when you want to hear a song or an album again. So I’ve listened to The Who playing Tommy, both the original studio album and various live versions, countless times but that symphonic Tommy by the London Symphony Orchestra and guest singers sits upstairs abandoned like an old t-shirt you won’t ever wear again but don’t have the heart to throw away. I never even bothered to get a CD version.
So now we have Quadrophenia recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and London Oriana Choir, conducted by Robert Zeigler and orchestrated by Pete’s partner Rachel Fuller, which goes one step further than Reizner’s Tommy in that instead of rock singers taking the vocal parts, we have opera star Alfie Boe singing most of the songs along with guest stars Phil Daniels and Billy Idol, and Pete edging in on guitar and the odd vocal line too.
And it sounds pretty good too, very dramatic, very classical, especially when the choir comes in to boost the choral landscape and the orchestra gives it full welly, probably not a term used by reviewers of classical music, which is probably why my favourite tracks are the opener ‘I Am The Sea’, ‘Quadrophenia’ itself and the penultimate ‘The Rock’ which, regrettably, lacks those pesky seagulls in flight. What these three have in common, of course, is that they are instrumentals, with no vocals at all, for try as I might I can’t seem to appreciate opera singing whether it’s Carmen or Placido Domingo or Quadrophenia, and tenor Alfie Boe, for all his operatic credentials, just doesn’t sound right singing lines originally sung by Roger Daltrey, while Daniels and Idol seem to me to be trying too hard to inject a bit of East End ‘ardman into the lines they are given. Even Pete, singing that wonderful refrain in ‘The Punk And The Godfather’ (“I have to be careful not to preach…”) adopts a rasping tone that for me is far less effective than the more melodic way he sang it on the original.
In the review of Quadrophenia in my book The Complete Guide To The Music Of The Who (1995, revised ed. 2004 with Ed Hanel), I wrote of the song ‘Helpless Dancer’: “A dramatic but lean operatic-style aria featuring a double tracked Roger over staccato piano chords, acoustic guitar and little else. Underarranged, short, and decidedly experimental in tone, this is the least Who-like piece on the album…”, thus identifying that this song would benefit from an operatic style arrangement, which it does. Others that do likewise include ‘Drowned’, ‘Cut My Hair’ and, of course, ‘Love’ Reign o’er Me’. The slower ‘Sea And Sand’ sounds fine until the sudden central section (“My jacket’s gonna be cut slim…”) and, after its lovely intro, ‘5.15’ appears strained, with the line about “girls of 15 sexually knowing” sounding uncomfortable in Boe’s interpretation in a way that it never did when Roger sang it. ‘Bell Boy’ worked far better with Keith carrying the baggage out, and ‘Doctor Jimmy’ doesn’t come into its own until the “What is it? I’ll take it” chorus. As noted, the slow, ΓΌber-dramatic ‘Love ‘Reign o’er Me’ makes for a powerful climax, its chorus perfect for Boe’s range.
In a nutshell then, the slower songs lend themselves to this treatment better than the faster ones, which probably boils down to the fact that for my money opera singers aren’t suited to rock any more than rock singers are suited to opera.
Nevertheless, I applaud Pete’s decision to give his music broader appeal by attracting a new and different audience, and I’m all for rock music being recognised as the cultural phenomena that it undoubtedly is, even if this means it has to be framed in a different and not necessarily appropriate setting. The decision of whoever it is that compiles the UK’s classical charts not to recognise this version of Quadrophenia as being eligible smacks of elitism, and was roundly condemned by Pete who in his usual robust fashion has been quoted as saying: So musical snobbery in the classical elite is still alive and kicking then?Fuck em. It's sales would evidently have pushed it to the top by the way.