VINYL - It's Only Rock'n'Roll

It’s always comical to see characters you’ve known in real life portrayed on film, famous or otherwise. When they get it wrong, it’s discomforting too, slightly cringeworthy. So it was with Ian Hart, the actor who played Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant in the first two-hour opener of Vinyl, the Martin Scorcese/Mick Jagger dramatisation of sleazy goings on in the seventies rock business, that appeared on our TV screen this week.
          Unlike Robert De Niro, who ate a mountain of pasta to put on several stone for his role as boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, Hart wasn’t quite so dedicated, so he actually appears quite a bit shorter and not much heavier than those who recoil at his furious effing and blinding. In a brief scene copied almost word for word from Grant’s famous cameo in The Song Remains The Same – the one where he berates a promoter for permitting the sale of unauthorised merchandise inside a venue – Grant comes over not so much menacing as irritating, like one of those annoying short fat people who shout and scream a lot because that’s the only way they can be heard. Anyone confronted with the real angry Peter Grant knows how much more menacing he truly could be when he wanted.
          Unlikely as it may seem, the premise is that in 1973 Grant might sign Led Zeppelin to the fictitious label American Century instead of staying with Atlantic. Negotiations having evidently reached stalemate, a bit later he’s seen in their New York offices throwing a gigantic wobbly because the owners of the label might sell out to a German company. “My fucking nan has a piece of shrapnel in her fucking arse thanks to those Nazi bastards,” is the gist of his complaint, but in this scene, which climaxes with ‘Grant’ sending a plate of bagels across the room, he’s wearing a dark suit, not an item of clothing I ever saw Peter wearing in my day. Maybe the real Peter once wore a suit like this as a mark of respect to Jagger – but that’s about as likely as Peter ever accepting anything less than 100% of what Zeppelin was owed.
           It’s things like this – and an actor who plays Robert Plant, backstage, sounding more Australian than West Midlands – that make me recoil from productions like Vinyl. No matter how hard they try – and this one does try hard – they can’t quite get it right. Better, I think, not to have bothered with the ‘Zep might have signed with Century’ storyline, especially as it’s a subplot to the main story.
          That story hinges on whether or not the label chief, Richie Fenestra (Bobby Cannavale), can sell his once successful label to a German conglomerate for $millions when it’s on the skids, propped up by crooked book-keeping and artists long past their sell by date. Flashbacks reveal Fenestra’s beginnings in the industry, sleazy suits from the fifties having indoctrinated him into the industry’s dubious royalty accounting methods very early on. In this way we are led to believe that the music business has been riddled with corruption since the fifties, which is probably true, at least as far as the black R&B performers from that era are concerned.
          The only hope for Fenestra’s American Century seems to lie with a sparky drug-dealing assistant in the A&R department (Jamie, played by Juno Temple) who discovers a punk rock band called Nasty Bits led by nihilistic singer Kip Stevens, played in appropriately surly fashion by Jagger’s son James. “What do you care about?” she asks him after a vigorous shag. “Fucking,” he replies. “I don’t give a fuck about anything else.” A light goes on in our A&R girl’s head, the same one that illuminated Malcolm McLaren methinks.
          The production has been compared with Mad Men, but although the soundtrack, clothes and other props are authentic the dialogue is often clich├ęd and nowhere near as cool. The mid-morning stiff whiskey enjoyed by Don Draper and his advertising agency pals is exchanged for snorts of cocaine, of course, and the warning about strong language and adult themes is more than justified. There’s sex, drugs and cussing galore, and even a grisly murder. Most of the characters in the music business look like the notorious manager Dee Anthony; short, fat, bearded, stroppy and a bit shady, a cross between Mafiosi and the kind of slick-suited promotion men who handed over packets of white powder, $100 bills and introductions to hookers along with the records they wanted DJs to play.
           This opening episode was bookended by a New York Dolls concert attended by Fenestra at the Mercer Arts Centre, and the group that portrayed the Dolls certainly made a decent fist of ‘Personality Crisis’. At the end the Mercer comes crashing down, as it did in real life, with Fenestra scrambling from the wreckage, surely a metaphor for the way his life and the series are headed.
           I’ll keep watching, if only to see which characters I knew in real life appear next week. Maybe it’ll be an Melody Maker writer.


THE WHO – Last Three Track Singles

Here’s my text the final three Who singles that were included in the Track Records box set.

A: Let’s See Action
Written by Pete Townshend. © 1971 Fabulous Music Ltd.
Produced by The Who, associate producer Glyn Johns.

B: When I Was A Boy
Written by John Entwistle. © 1971 Whistle Rhymes
Produced by The Who, associate producer Glyn Johns.

Originally released as Track 2094 012 on 15 October 1971, it reached Number 16 in the British charts

Like ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again, ‘Let’s See Action’ is a call to arms, albeit less clamorous in tone with an almost folksy feel, its slight but appealing melody carried along by a trilling piano played by Nicky Hopkins. It was the first in a series of three Who A-sides to utilise songs left over from the Lifehouse sessions, the cream of which appeared on Who’s Next. So great was the surplus, in fact, that Who’s Next could easily have become a double album but wise heads at Track felt another double was a bit much so soon after Tommy, and other leftovers would appear in 1974 on Odds And Sods, an album that rounded up several interesting unreleased Who songs.
Another of Pete’s Meher Baba tributes, ‘Let’s See Action’ features a poignant middle-eight that contrasts Roger’s determined vocal with more introspective lines from Pete that are both assured and re-assuring. Its lowly chart position was largely immaterial since success on the singles charts was no longer of primary importance now that The Who were billing themselves, with no little justification, as the world’s most exciting live rock band. Indeed, it was rather unedifying to see them competing on the charts with the new wave of young glam rock acts like T. Rex, Slade, and Sweet.
The tastefully arranged brass introduction to John’s ‘When I Was A Boy’ sounds like it could have been recorded by a colliery band from South Yorkshire. This sets the mood for a nostalgic song about age and disillusionment, more sincere than is usual for The Ox but not one of his best Who B-sides.

A: Join Together
Written by Pete Townshend. © 1972 Fabulous Music Ltd.
Produced by The Who, associate producer Glyn Johns.

B: Baby Don’t You Do It.
Written by Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland. © 1964 Jobete/Carlin.
Produced by The Who, associate producer Glyn Johns.

Originally released as Track 2094 102 on 16 June 1972 it reached Number 9 on the British charts.

Opening with Roger on Jew’s harp and harmonica, or possibly Pete on synthesizer reproducing the sound of a Jew’s harp, ‘Join Together’ was a key song in Lifehouse, outlining Pete’s ultimate aim for band and audience to become one. Although – like its companion piece ‘Let’s See Action’ – its rhythms bear little relation to the power chord style normally projected by The Who, the band play it quite superbly, jostling along together with effortless syncopation.
         To promote the song, The Who made a memorable promotional film inside a studio that ended with the group walking through their audience who follow them across the set.
         Recorded live at the San Francisco Civic on December 13, 1971, ‘Baby Don’t You Do It’ is The Who’s take on a song first released by Marvin Gaye in 1964 and a fine example of what they termed ‘Maximum R&B’. It is a fierce work out, highlighted by Keith’s energetic drumming, Roger’s strident vocals and The Who’s unique ability to turn soul into furious rock at the drop of a hat. With the band on the same form as they were the night they recorded Live At Leeds, this is The Who at their live best, playing off one another as no other band could, outstanding both individually and as an ensemble. There’s some lovely bass work, and Pete’s buzz-saw guitar solo towards the end is terrific. During a furious ‘head for home’ climax Pete, John and Keith play their hearts out with Roger hollering to be heard above the din.
         The Who often played this song live during 1971 but abandoned it because the songs from Who’s Next offered them a wider choice of quality material. A studio version was recorded at the Record Plant in New York in March 1971 during the unproductive Kit Lambert-produced sessions for Lifehouse, in which they were joined by Leslie West, guitarist with Mountain, whom they had encountered while on tour and who was invited to play lead over the top of Pete’s rhythm.
A: The Relay
Written by Pete Townshend. © 1972 Fabulous Music Ltd.
Produced by The Who, associate producer Glyn Johns.

B: Waspman
Written by Keith Moon. © 1972
Produced by The Who.

Originally released as Track 2094 106 on 22 December 1972 it reached Number 21 on the British charts.

Wah-wah guitar, or ‘treated synthesizer guitar’, opens ‘The Relay’, the third and final single plucked from the residue of Lifehouse, a full-tilt rocker about the need to exchange ideas and information or at least pass them on to the next generation. With a ringing acoustic guitar in one channel and the wah-wah in the other, not to mention John’s exemplary bass playing high up the fretboard, there’s a wealth of good ideas, both musical and lyrical, here; also, a nice allegory about passing on the baton in a relay race. It was far too weighty as a single, though.
         The Who’s profile was unusually low throughout most of 1972, success having bought them the opportunity to relax, but they did make an effort to promote ‘The Relay’, appearing on Russell Harty’s TV chat show in January of the New Year, during which Keith ripped off Pete’s shirt and threatened to undress while the host struggled to maintain order.
It would be generous to describe ‘Waspman’ as undistinguished: three minutes of pure lunacy allegedly originated by Keith during a long and boring flight across America when he adopted the guise of a wasp and ran around the plane making buzzing noises with a groupie’s bra wrapped around his face. Relocated to the recording studio and inspired by a wasp costume someone had given him, Keith continues make buzz noises and shout ‘sting’ while the band play a truly monotonous three-chord riff with Roger on harmonica buried somewhere in the mix. On past instrumentals credited to Keith he’d made a point of doing something special on the drums but, alas, not this time.


THE WHO – More Track Singles

Last year I posted – in dribs and drabs – the text that I had written about nine of the 15 Who singles included in the Track Singles Box Set that Universal released in September, leaving five unaccounted for. (The sixth was the withdrawn ‘See Me Feel Me’/’Overture’ which was subsequently included on the Tommy EP.)
Being as how the box set has probably sold out its limited run by now, it seems only sensible for me to post the remaining entries, the Tommy ones today and the others, all Lifehouse songs that didn’t make it on to Who’s Next, in a day or two.

A: Pinball Wizard
Written by Pete Townshend. © 1969 Fabulous Music Ltd.
Produced by Kit Lambert.

B: Dogs Part Two
Written by Keith Moon, Towser and Jason © 1969 New Action Music Ltd.
Produced by Kit Lambert.

Originally released as Track 604 027 on 7 March, 1969, it reached Number 4 in the British charts.

With some justification Pete Townshend has often been cited as the greatest rhythm guitarist in rock, and no better evidence survives than the furious acoustic strumming that underpins ‘Pinball Wizard’, the best known song from Tommy and another serious contender for the finest Who song of all time. Recorded towards the end of the Tommy sessions, at Morgan Studios in Willesden, London, on February 7, 1969, ‘Pinball’ is a rock tour de force, brimful of energy, power chords, great lyrics and tight ensemble playing from the opening chord descent to the upward key change near the end. The concept of a deaf, dumb and blind pinball champion might stretch the imagination but anything can be forgiven in the context of this song.
         It is difficult now to imagine Tommy without ‘Pinball’ and we have the last minute intervention of Nik Cohn, one of the UK’s most perceptive rock critics in the sixties and a personal friend of Pete and Kit Lambert, to thank for its inclusion. Evidently Pete sought Cohn’s opinion of Tommy as a work in progress and the writer suggested livening it up somehow: because Cohn’s girlfriend at the time really was a pinball wizard(ess), Pete took the hint. By 1969, Cohn was writing rock reviews for the New York Times and there seems little doubt that he was strong-armed into giving Tommy a rave review on the strength of the pinball connection.
         Be that as it may, nothing takes away the sheer delight of this number, one of only two (the other was ‘See Me, Feel Me’) from Tommy to outlast the rest of the opera and remain as a highlight in The Who’s live sets.
         Rod Stewart sang a heavily orchestrated version in Lou Reizner’s all-star adaptation of Tommy in 1972, while Elton John sang it during a memorable set piece in Ken Russell’s 1975 Tommy movie (his version reached Number 7 in the UK). Curiously, in the UK, it was also covered by The New Seekers in a medley with ‘See Me Feel Me’, whose version reached Number 16 in 1973. None of these covers come close to matching The Who’s version however: Pete strumming that inimitable intro, playing the guitar like he was ringing a bell, punctuated by the thunderous sound of his powerful guitar stabs (that John reproduced live by hammering down on his bottom bass string).
         Keith leads ‘Dogs Pt 2’, a powerful instrumental jam recorded five days after ‘Pinball’ at IBC, in the same vein as he leads ‘The Ox’ from their debut album, though this was probably unrehearsed. Featuring solos from Pete, John and Keith (in that order), it’s a frenzied, garage band style rave-up and, along with ‘Cobwebs And Strange’ from A Quick One, the nearest thing to a Keith Moon drum solo in the entire Who catalogue. Moon was never one for drum solos – “They’re boring,” he’d say with his usual pinpoint accuracy – but in many respects his work with The Who, at least on stage, was one long drum solo.
         As the B-side of ‘Pinball Wizard’, a Top 10 single in both the UK and the US, ‘Dogs Pt 2’ would have earned its composers a tidy sum in royalties: no doubt Keith squandered his on wine and women but it was probably sufficient to keep Towser and Jason, Pete and John’s respective pet dogs, in Chow for the rest of their days.

A See Me, Feel Me
B Overture
Track single 2094 004 – (Released October 1970 then withdrawn).  
This single was withdrawn but the two tracks appeared on the Tommy EP below.


A: Overture
Written by Pete Townshend. © 1969 Fabulous Music Ltd.
Produced by Kit Lambert.

A: Christmas
Written by Pete Townshend. © 1969 Fabulous Music Ltd.
Produced by Kit Lambert.

B: I’m Free
Written by Pete Townshend. © 1969 Fabulous Music Ltd.
Produced by Kit Lambert.

B: See Me, Feel Me
Written by Pete Townshend. © 1969 Fabulous Music Ltd.
Produced by Kit Lambert.

Originally released as Track 2252 001 on 6 November 1970, it failed to register in any British chart.

The Track Records marketing department was never slow to extract maximum mileage from the gems in their catalogue. As well as this 33 rpm EP of four songs from Tommy, they released a series of earlier Who (and Hendrix) albums in their budget Backtrack series and the double Tommy album as two individual LPs without the fancy packaging, ostensibly to make it more affordable.
         Even rock operas need overtures and like the overtures that preface operas by Mozart, Verdi and Rossini this one contains a well arranged mix of instrumental readings of the songs that will follow, most of them linked together by the rumbling, bass-heavy ‘Go To The Mirror’ riff. The guitar parts are mostly played on Pete’s acoustic Gibson J200, which sets the mood for the entire work, but John’s French horn adds interesting melodic touches and, as ever, the choral work and drums are quite superb. Indeed, in many respects Keith Moon’s work on Tommy represents his greatest contribution to The Who’s catalogue, the opportunity that enabled him to become an entire orchestra within himself, most notably on the lengthy and breath-taking instrumental track ‘Underture’. Nevertheless, the best moment in ‘Overture’ comes towards the end when an organ arrives to pound out the block chords of ‘Listening To You’ from the ‘See Me, Feel Me’ excerpt. At the close, after a ‘Pinball’ fanfare, Pete is left strumming alone for the segue into ‘It’s A Boy’.
         ‘Christmas’, with its nagging, slightly off-key background vocal, is upbeat and slightly unnerving, and seems designed to establish Tommy Walker’s isolation from other children. The recurrent ‘See Me Fee Me’ motif is introduced during a central refrain before the song resumes.
          A memorable six-chord riff introduces ‘I’m Free’, one of the album’s more straightforward rock songs in which Tommy throws off the shackles of his handicaps, and urges his followers – those attracted by his prowess at pinball – to follow him. Tinkly piano, a great acoustic solo and a nice re-use of the by now familiar ‘Pinball’ intro riff all reinforce a song that, set apart from Tommy, became a US single in its own right.
         Strictly speaking, ‘See Me, Feel Me’ is the coda to ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, the closing song on Tommy and finale to the entire piece. A circular, looping prayer for unification with churning major chords, it is perhaps the simplest yet most effective pieces of music that Pete has ever written. ‘See Me, Feel Me’ is the most obvious hymn to Meher Baba – the Indian spiritual master to whom Pete became devoted – in The Who’s catalogue, although there are other less obvious examples in the Lifehouse cycle of songs that became Who’s Next and also in Quadrophenia. ‘Listening to you...’ is crystal clear homage and when played live it appeared for all the world as if The Who were paying a remarkable tribute to the audience to whom they were singing. In this respect, it couldn’t fail to lift the spirits – just as all hymns are designed to do.