31.12.21

DEEP PURPLE – Turning To Crime

 


Obliged by Covid-19 to self-isolate and therefore work individually – as opposed to writing new material together in the studio, their customary procedure – Deep Purple early this year opted to record an album of covers, with each member of the group transmitting their contributions to the Anarchy Remote Studio, a digital facility in cyberspace where producer Bob Ezrin assembled the parts like a jigsaw. The result is Turning To Crime, a 12-track CD of songs “that shaped us over the years”, according to a brief note on the accompanying booklet. In reality it’s more than 12, for it concludes with a five-song medley, among which is Led Zeppelin’s ‘Dazed And Confused’, of which more later.

        Unless I’m mistaken, the last cover version recorded by DP was ‘Lalena’, by Donovan, which appeared on their largely ignored third LP, simply titled Deep Purple, in 1969. Prior to that the first DP group had recorded plenty of covers, not least their debut US hit ‘Hush’, by Joe South, and others by Neil Diamond, Lennon & McCartney and whoever claims to have written ‘Hey Joe’. Once they got into their stride, however, original material prevailed, and this coincided with singer Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover joining the core trio of organist Jon Lord, guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and drummer Ian Paice. This quintet, which in my 1983 biography of the group I refer to as DP Mark II, enjoyed enormous success and is still widely regarded as the ‘classic’ line up. 

        Gillan, Glover and Paice remain today, joined on guitar by Steve Morse and on keyboards by Don Airey. With Paice now the only member of the group to have played in its every incarnation since DP formed in 1968, Morse and Airey are by no means newcomers. The former has been with them since 1994, replacing the eternally capricious Blackmore, and the latter came on board in 2002 when Lord, their statesman-like elder, retired from rock to concentrate on serious music. Sadly, he died in 2012. 

        The choice of material on Turning To Crime throws up plenty of surprises and a handful of songs that might be expected. Among the latter is the opener, Love’s ‘7 And 7 Is’, at one second shy of two and half minutes the album’s shortest track but by many mph the fastest. Its inclusion offers strong evidence of where DP were coming from by the time they recorded their breakthrough LP In Rock, the relentless pace (no pun intended) of the drums leading the way over a thumping beat, crunch guitar and indecipherable lyrics, DP’s version differing from the original only in that they chuck in characteristic guitar and organ solos and omit Love’s thunderous explosion and Arthur Lee’s slow blues-based coda.

        Ian Gillan long ago betrayed his influences in the lyrics to ‘Speed King’, which referenced Little Richard who was knocking around New Orleans in 1957 when Huey ‘Piano’ Smith recorded ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu’ there. This paean to chest ailments given the rockn’roll cure offers Don Airey a chance to show off his honky-tonk chops, and to cheekily incorporate the riff from ‘Smoke On the Water’ into one of his solos. Freed from the need to sprint, Ian Paice shows himself to be a fine and steady rock’n’roll stickman. He has some previous on this kind of material, having been a member of Paul McCartney’s ‘Rock and Roll Band’, playing alongside David Gilmour, Mick Green, Pete Wingfield and Chris Hall, not to mention the former Beatle, at the Cavern in Liverpool in 1999.  

        A reverent take on Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’ follows, fairly true to the original, with about a minute of the haunting ‘Part 2’ coda slapped on the end. Next up is ‘Jenny Take A Ride’, by Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, its opening section perhaps better known as ‘CC Rider’, much performed by Elvis, which morphs into ‘Jenny, Jenny’ whom Mitch invites to take a ride, before slipping back to ‘CC’. This is great boozy bar band music, the kind of thing that Springsteen favours for encores, so here we have DP channelling with some distinction hitherto unrealised E Street Band leanings. 

        ‘Watching The River Flow’, an anomaly in Dylan’s catalogue in that it was a one-off blues-based single, seems like an unlikely cover and may have been suggested by Bob Ezrin who joins Gillan on vocals. There’s a hint of gospel in DP’s version which in an oblique way pays tribute to the full-on sound of Leon Russell, who played on Dylan’s original, and his Mad Dogs & Englishmen retinue, not least in the 30-second keyboard sign off. 

        We’re back in New Orleans for ‘Let The Good Times Roll’, which sounds to me like it could have come from the soundtrack to Kid Creole, Elvis’ fourth (and best) movie. Joined by saxophone and trumpet, DP take it at a medium pace, with a bluesy guitar solo and churchy keyboards adding to the southern fried flavour, Airey switching to honky-tonk at one point thought the brass is never down in the mix. 

        Taking on Little Feat is a fearsomely bold move but Don Airey has Bill Payne’s tinkly keyboard part off pat, and the whole band swing their way through ‘Dixie Chicken’ respectably enough. Morse is great on the slide solo, and my only gripe is that Ian Gillan’s Brit voice sounds a bit strained next to Lowell’s sly, loose-limbed, shuffle delivery. Still, it’s refreshing to learn that DP were influenced by one of my favourite American bands, and I tip my hat to Morse for the solo at the close.

In the never-ending discussion as to the origins of heavy metal, or hard rock as it was before Black Sabbath became Paranoid, The Yardbirds’ ‘Shapes Of Things’ merits a sub-section of its own, and although Jeff Beck was in the group when it was originally recorded, its composition is actually credited to Keith Relf, Jim McCarty and Paul Samwell-Smith. Still, it’s a minor psychedelic masterpiece, with Beck’s guitar hovering between distortion and the mysterious East, and lyrics that pre-empt the present-day climate crisis. DP take it at a slightly slower pace than The Yardbirds, but are dutifully reverent in their approach, though Morse, ever anxious to inject something distinctive, gets a long solo before the whole thing grinds to a suitably rave-up style halt.

Hearing Lonnie Donegan’s version of ‘Rock Island Line’ on the radio when he was about 10 led to Roger Glover becoming who he is now, so it’s no surprise that he shares the vocals, leading on the first verse, with his old Episode Six partner Ian Gillan on ‘The Battle Of New Orleans’, a hit for Lonnie in 1959, and probably the least likely cover on Turning To Crime. Joined by violin and accordion, no one in a million years would guess this hoe-down romp was Deep Purple.

‘Lucifer’, a Bob Seger song from 1970 when he led a group called The System, is the only track here with which I was unfamiliar, a mid-tempo rocker typical of the Silver Bullet work that brought him no little success as the seventies progressed. DP give it their all, but of greater merit is their take on Cream’s ‘White Room’, a far more interesting song. Another dose of psychedelia with a hint of discord on the vocals and slabs of twisty guitar, DP match Eric, Jack and Ginger bar for bar, no mean feat. 

Finally, we reach what DP call ‘Caught In The Act’, their medley of five songs, the first four instrumentals, with Gillan joining in only on ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’, Steve Winwood’s tour de force when he was the star attraction in The Spencer Davis Group. Airey opens the show, a ragtime figure leading into Freddie King’s bluesy ‘Going Down’, which leaps into ‘Green Onions’, funky and straight like the MGs until Morse adds some twists, then ‘Hot ‘Lanta’, on which DP somehow manage to sound awfully like The Allman Brothers jamming away on stage. Next up is an instrumental of Zep’s ‘Dazed And Confused’, opening not with the familiar descending bass line but a passage from later, then the descent before  instruments take over the call and response. This leads neatly into the enormous ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ riff, played well, and after two and a half minutes the whole business grinds to a halt, a few drum beats the last thing we hear. What fun they must have had. 

Also available is a 40-minute DVD The Making Of Turning To Crime, which is precisely what the title says, those responsible having concluded it was a crime for a group of DP’s stature to record an album of covers. This perhaps explains why on the sleeve they are photographed as if in a police line-up, every one of their mug shots resembling the sort of threatening ne’er do wells you’d cross the road to avoid.

When Covid is over, will they play these songs on stage? 




28.12.21

LIGHTNING STRIKES: Ten Transformative Moments in Rock’n’Roll by Lenny Kaye


“The screams may be predominantly female, but the boys look under the hood, at the way the engine is sparking. At least that was how it was for me, and I’m the guy who collects vintage spark plugs.” That’s how Lenny Kaye reacted to seeing The Beatles for the first time, on February 9, 1964, on the Ed Sullivan Show in a USA that was soon at their mercy.

        I know exactly what he means but I’ve never seen it scripted in terms of garage mechanics before, a lovely choice of metaphor. The girls wanted to marry them and the boys wanted to be them, but first we had to learn how to play the guitar, which is precisely what Lenny did. 

        The arrival of The Beatles is the fourth transformative moment in Lightning Strikes, after 1954 (Elvis and Memphis), 1957 (Little Richard and New Orleans) and 1959 (Alan Freed and Bandstand, Philadelphia), though ‘moments’ might better translate as ‘periods’ in this warm, lovingly composed book about those special sets of circumstances that collided to move rock’n’roll forward in shuddering, epoch-defining jolts. 

        Lenny, of course, was the compiler of Nuggets, the double LP of under-the-counter garage/punk classics, released by Elektra in 1972, an absolutely fabulous collection of tracks by American groups of the mid-sixties, many inspired by The Beatles, Stones and Yardbirds, who struck lightning at least once in careers that invariably imploded soon afterwards. An early contributor to Rolling Stone and fringe music mags, Lenny first entered my consciousness through his superbly informative sleeve notes on a 1972 Eddie Cochran Legendary Masters compilation, another double LP I treasure. We first met when I went to live in New York in 1973, when he was working behind the counter in Village Oldies, a collectors’ dream of a record shop on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. More famously, in 1971 he was asked by Patti Smith to play guitar as she read her poetry, initially for one gig only. Hes done it ever since.

        It follows, then, that Lenny became a mastermind on all things rock and pop, so it comes as no surprise that his new book rocks along like a vintage record of the highest quality. It’s the way he writes, a sort of Kerouac meets Hunter ST meets every great rock writer you care to name, mixing personal experiences with what was happening at rock’s all-important moments, his role where applicable and how they affected him and informed his life. It’s very juicy and great fun, and after Liverpool we move to San Francisco for the Summer of Love, then on to Detroit for MC5 and Iggy, with a sideways swerve to fellow travellers the Velvets in NY, then New York proper where Lenny finds himself drawn towards CBGB, and becomes Patti’s accompanist, which in many ways is the heart of the matter. Lenny’s real time, no bullshit account of Patti’s emergence and acceptance, along with his on-the-spot coverage of the rise of the Ramones and Television, and to a lesser extent Blondie and Talking Heads, is worth the price of the book in itself. 

        London’s punk upheaval a couple of years later, metal in LA (1984) and Norway (1993), not really my bag, follow and the book closes in Seattle in 1991 with Nirvana and all things grunge. 

        The moments that Lenny writes about are prefaced by the events that led up to whatever happened and their aftermaths, and in this respect, he demonstrates not just his vast knowledge of the art form in which he has lived his life but excellent taste as well. His love for his medium simply bounces off the page, which means he’s largely unaffected by commercial trends and studiously avoids what might be considered uncool. You won’t find any boy bands or much prog in Lightning Strikes, but you will find four pages on Joe Meek, the English Phil Spector, an old obsession of mine and evidently Lenny’s too. 

        “In the early 1990s I visited the site of [Meek’s] Holloway Road studio to pay my respects, standing it the doorway of 304, stepping in his vanished footprint,” he writes. “Behind me, in a red London call box, the phone began to ring. I picked it up. There was no dial tone, only a silence that seemed enclosed, like a reverb chamber waiting for its sound to enter.” 

        It was probably Joe calling from a Telstar orbiting the earth. 



26.12.21

THE WAR ON DRUGS – I DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE


Most review of albums by Adam Granduciel’s War On Drugs project focus on lyrics that invariably describe some kind of struggle, whether it’s the vicissitudes of romance, the trials of living in the modern world or a life burdened with more than its fair share of despair. But it wasn’t the lyrics that drew me to WOD, it was the music, the aural landscape in which Granduciel frames his tales of woe. 

  Indeed, there are so many things to like about the music on I Don’t Live Here Anymore, the most recent WOD album, that it’s hard to know where to start, but how about the moment on its second track ‘Harmonia’s Dream’, about three minutes in, when the already busy backdrop is joined by a piercing keyboard that on first hearing reminded me of a fairground, the soundtrack to a carousel, or maybe even that wistful electronic sound on Del Shannon’s original recording of his signature song ‘Runaway’. Back then that seductively original organ part was created by Max Crook, who takes credit for having invented the Musitron on which he played it, but if WOD master craftsman Granduciel has somehow found a Musitron of his own he’s keeping mum, and from the credits I don’t know whether Dave Hartley or Robbie Bennett, both of whom are acknowledged as keyboard players on track two, are contributing this passage.

        Either way, this shrill but irresistible sound lifts an already impressive track up into the stratosphere, and I can even forgive Granduciel for the U2-like fall away a minute later when the whole galloping big music affair disappears, only to rise up again, this time joined by an electric guitar that traces a descending figure and resolves on a bent note country and western lick worthy of James Burton. The organ/guitar duet is the icing on the cake as the whole wondrous episode is repeated in a minute-long coda that fades out ever so gradually.

        It occurs to me that what Granduciel is doing here is taking something old – the organ sound and the country lick – and turning them into something very new and relevant to the modern era, and in doing so he unites old time rock lovers like me, with 60 years of listening behind us, with newer souls who maybe first heard WOD in the 21st Century. To bridge such a generation gap is a fine achievement.

        All this new album is great, really, just like the rest of the War On Drugs small but perfectly formed catalogue, but this little bit of music had me smiling for the last few weeks every time the track played in my car and living room, and my guess is it’ll continue to do so well into the New Year. 


14.12.21

CAT STEVENS – TEASER AND THE FIRECAT, 2CD Deluxe edition


Beyond Buckden on the B6160 road to Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales there sits the tiny hamlet of Cray, two or three farmhouses and a pub called The White Lion Inn, outside of which, on the evening of Boxing Day, 1971, I parked my new car, an orange Mini, and went inside to have a beer or two with my sister and a few of her friends. 

        Anne’s pals asked me lots of questions about working for Melody Maker and one of them wanted to know whether I’d met Cat Stevens. Yes, I replied, and what’s more I have his new LP, Teaser And The Firecat, on cassette in my car. “Can we have a listen?” they asked. 

        I was pretty proud of the sound system in the car so I took a couple of girls outside, sat them in the back seat next to the speakers, started the motor, punched play and on came Steve, as I knew him in those days. 

        The girls loved it, adored it in fact, so much so that they spent the rest of the evening in my car while we ferried drinks out to them, even though it was a bit nippy. They were particularly taken with ‘Rubylove’, track two on side one, on which Steve’s Greek family background shines through; a verse sung in the language of his father and two of dad’s friends playing bouzoukia. They asked me to play this lively song again and again, cranked up pretty loud, and I came to realise that the reason they liked it so much was not because they were in love with Steve, which they probably were, but because of how sharp and clear it sounded. The finely-tuned Grecian strings rang out at the top end, little flamenco fills, trills and flourishes expertly played, while a soaring chorus held down the middle, double-tracked with Linda Lewis joining in so that it seemed like a whole choir had joined us in the Mini, and a percussive bass line deep in the mix, held back until verse two, that prevented the production from becoming too toppy, too shrill. 

        I wasn’t so wrapped up in The Who in those days that I couldn’t recognise a great production when I heard one. ‘Rubylove’, I reckoned, was as seamless an example of the art of hi-fi I’d ever heard, two minutes and 36 seconds of aural perfection, and as I sat there in the car beneath the stars that cold December night I thought ‘Rubylove’ simply could not be improved upon. And this, dont forget, was on a cassette. 

        Well, I was wrong. Remarkably, ‘Rubylove’ sounds even better on this newly remastered edition of Teaser..., released last month, as does everything else really. Paul Samwell-Smith’s work on the four records he made with Cat Stevens between 1970 and 1972 – Mona Bone Jakon, Tea For The Tillerman, this one and Catch Bull At Four – were notable for his simplicity of production, austere almost, that, regrettably, gave way to a fuller sound as the 1970s progressed. Either way, it’s the remastering of such minimalism that makes this record ring out so cleanly now, which makes the restraint all the more delightful and at the same time makes my 2021 hi-fi sound like the state-of-the-art system I know it isn’t. 

        Setting aside for a moment this astonishing upgrade in the aural department, as I wrote in my biography of Cat Stevens, published in 1984, six of the nine songs on Teaser... belong with the cream of his catalogue while the remaining three, notably ‘Peace Train’, suggest the excesses that would mar each of the albums that ultimately followed. Despite its strong arrangement, ‘Peace Train’ was awash in noble sentiments naively expressed – a fault that would multiply with irritating regularity in the years to come. ‘Changes IV’ and ‘Tuesday’s Dead’ suffered similar limitations, albeit to a lesser degree.

        Elsewhere, however, Teaser... contains many of Cat Stevens’ most memorable songs. ‘How Can I Tell You’, which closed the first side on the original LP, is unquestionably his finest love song; immensely fragile, yet moving to a degree that few writers have ever been able to capture. Like so many of the songs he recorded at this time, its beauty lies in its simplicity; simplicity as sincere as anything Stevens wrote before or since. ‘If I Laugh’, under arranged with equal taste, merely underlines the point that this kind of material is where Steve excelled and where he would have been wise to concentrate his efforts until he opted for a different life. 

        ‘Moonshadow’, a perennial favourite, written while on holiday, in Spain, is among Steve’s happiest, catchiest songs; a nursery tale with a beguiling melody, toe-tapping chorus and charmingly nonsense lyrics. ‘Morning Has Broken’, the second choice for a single (which reached number nine in the charts during January 1972), was an altogether more sombre affair, a hymn tune re-arranged by Stevens with words by Eleanor Farjeon, unashamedly middle of the road yet reassuring for the strength of its dramatic melody which mercifully overshadows any religious overtones. The new record finally credits Rick Wakeman for his outstanding piano part, a credit left off at the time for contractual reasons. 

        Disc 2 on the remastered Teaser… offers demos, including two songs with which I was unfamiliar (‘The Day They Make Me Tsar’ and ‘Fisherman Song’), alternative versions, a couple of live BBC recordings, and ‘I Want To Live In A Wigwam’, the B-side of ‘Morning Has Broken’, to the best of my knowledge hitherto unavailable on CD. I was fascinated to hear ‘Rubylove’ in its infancy, without the Greek verse or personnel, and ‘How Can I Tell You’ with incomplete lyrics. Only Bitterblue went through a fairly radical transformation, speeding up dramatically. Oddly, Stevens’ voice sounds slightly hoarse on some of the demos, as if they were recorded soon after he rose in the morning, before his vocalising got into its stride. 

        Finally, I should point out a minor editorial flaw in the accompanying booklet, in that the same quotes from Paul Samwell-Smith and guitarist Alun Davies, Stevens’ regular accompanist, about ‘If I Laugh’ are replicated four pages later for ‘How Can I Tell You?’ A proof reader is needed for the Cat-O-Log Collection, as the Stevens reissue programme is amusingly called. 


9.12.21

RICHARD COLE

Richard is seen here between Jimmy Page and Peter Grant, in a picture taken by Bob Gruen on February 3, 1975, at a post-concert party held by Atlantic Records at the Penn Plaza Club in 
New York’s Madison Square Garden. 
Your man from Just Backdated, wearing shades, can be seen in the background 
above Richard’s left shoulder.

Richard Cole, who has died aged 75, was the fearsome and once much feared tour manager for Led Zeppelin for almost all of their career. As second in command under the group’s equally formidable manager Peter Grant, Richard – known to his many friends as Ricardo – was not only responsible for the day-to-day business of ensuring their many tours ran smoothly but also for keeping the quartet amused during the long periods of boredom that occur while travelling. In this latter capacity he was celebrated as a weapons-grade hell raiser, the instigator of much of the hedonistic excess for which the group became notorious. 

        Such indulgences led to Richard becoming an alcoholic and heroin addict but, in a remarkable turnaround, he rehabilitated himself completely in the 1990s, and for the remainder of his life became a model of sobriety, the most affable of men, taking afternoon tea with old comrades, swimming regularly and attending AA meetings. Among his passions was buying flowers and his regular companion was a fluffy grey and white cat he named Puss Puss. 

        Richard was an old friend and in recent years we communicated regularly via Facebook. While in years gone by he was an occasional foe, we long ago buried any hatchets that may have been raised over his antipathy towards the music press. I first met him while covering Led Zeppelin concerts for Melody Maker in the early 1970s but he was a bit suspicious of journalists in those days, as were the group, all bar Robert Plant, after Rolling Stone in America was stubbornly critical of their music. I, in turn, was a bit wary of Richard. 

        Once, in 1976, he tried to put the make on my female dining companion at Ashley’s bar and restaurant in New York, and when I remonstrated he swung a punch at me that missed, and in the melee that followed he was ejected from the premises. Robert, hovering nearby, apologised profusely on behalf of his employee, explaining that Ricardo had taken rather too much refreshment on a flight from London earlier that day. Evidently the actor Telly Savalas, a fellow passenger in first class, had also endured a bit of ill-treatment from Richard over the Atlantic. All this was long forgotten in later years when Richard approached me to publish a memoir of his time working for The Who and others but I declined because I felt it was insufficient to fill an entire book. He didn’t seem to mind. 

        Born in 1946 in Kensal Rise in north London, Richard left school at 15. His first job was welding handles to milk churns at a dairy, for which he was paid £3 12s a week. He later worked at a motor scooter repair shop, delivered crates around London for a food wholesaler and became a scaffolder on building sites which toughened him up no end. His entry into the music business came one night in 1965 when he offered to help the group Ronnie Jones & The Nightimers with moving their equipment, and this led to similar employment with Unit 4+2, The New Vaudeville Band, who were managed by Grant, and The Who, in the latter case as driver for Keith Moon and John Entwistle until his driving licence was revoked for speeding.

        When Jimmy Page assembled Led Zeppelin in 1968, Grant became their manager and recruited Richard for the arduous job of running their tours, marshalling the road crew and acting as a sort of concierge-cum-security-guard for the musicians. “When I went for the job interview I was not asked to sit so I stood in front of Peter to wait for his questions,” Richard wrote in that unpublished memoir. “He looked me up and down and came straight to the point. ‘How much do you want?’ ‘Thirty pounds, take it or leave it.’ Peter was taken aback by my answer. He later told me that anyone who spoke to him like that was not going to have a problem getting a band’s money from dodgy promoters.”

        The 11 years that Richard spent working for Led Zeppelin brought him considerable notoriety in the world of rock music. Peter Grant had learned his trade when the rock’n’roll business was run by spivs and strong-arm merchants who grabbed the cash and ran. Grant, however, saw a more profitable future in treating his management clients honestly while strong-arming everyone else. Taking his cue from his mentor, Richard was never shy about physically confronting anyone who sought to profit at Led Zeppelin’s expense or otherwise break their stride. A former Mod, he took pride in his appearance and was among the first in his line of work to adopt a trim hairstyle at a time when everyone else wore it past their shoulders. The suit and tie he occasionally wore, along with a ring in his ear, only added to his air of menace. 

        As Led Zeppelin rose to become the highest earning rock band in the world, Richard brought to the party a cornucopia of earthly delights, teenage groupies, class A drugs and an attitude of invincibility that, eventually, became their Achilles heel. The most infamous incident under his watch occurred at the Edgewater Inn in Seattle in July 1969, when an American groupie stripped and allowed herself to be pleasured with a fish, a now legendary episode in rock folklore. As the 1970s progressed, everyone in the group’s inner circle apart from Richard became immensely wealthy, a factor that no doubt led him to become involved with, and benefit from, two salacious books published after the group broke up.  

        Included among the stories would have been the time he rode a motorcycle along the corridors of the Continental Hyatt House hotel – the “Riot House” – in Hollywood. In 1969 he commissioned a lady of the night, armed with whips and a pair of handcuffs, to pay a surprise visit to the New York hotel room of an MM colleague, informing her that the more he resisted the more he would enjoy her services. It took a great deal of effort on his part to finally eject her. Some of his escapades, however, got out of hand. 

        On July 23, 1977, Richard, along with Grant, drummer John Bonham and renowned London tough guy John Bindon, unwisely recruited as extra security, were involved in a violent altercation backstage at the Oakland Coliseum in California. A member of promoter Bill Graham’s crew was seriously injured in an unprovoked attack and for a while it looked like all four might end up in jail. The upshot was that Led Zeppelin never toured America again. Richard was still working for the group when they performed before 200,000 or more at Knebworth two years later but by their final tour of Europe in 1980 he’d been relieved of his duties over his unreliability, this in part due to his various addictions. At the time he was languishing in an Italian prison on charges of terrorism, later dismissed. 

        After Led Zeppelin’s demise he worked for Lita Ford, Ozzy Osbourne, Black Uhuru, Fem 2 Fem, Three Dog Night, The Gypsy Kings, Fu Machu and The Quireboys, splitting his time between London and Los Angeles where he lived in Little Venice. He retired in 2003 and thereafter lived quietly in a small flat in London’s Notting Hill Gate, having weaned himself off drugs and alcohol through Alcoholics Anonymous. Now completely reformed, his hair turned white and his preferred dress was a blue blazer with brass buttons over collar and tie. Occasionally he visited the French Riviera, tanning himself beside the Mediterranean and looking extremely toned for his age. He reminded me of a retired army colonel, the sort of genial old buffer who might be found propping up the bar at a provincial golf club sipping gin and tonic. He was a revered figure in Led Zeppelin fan circles, happy to reminisce when friends came calling.  

        In the meantime, however, Richard had co-operated with Stephen Davis on the controversial 1985 Led Zeppelin biography Hammer Of The Gods, the first book that made public the hedonistic lifestyle they enjoyed in their pomp. Relations between Richard and his former employers suffered as a result, and weren’t helped when he cowrote (with US journalist Richard Trubo) his own tell-all memoir, Stairway To Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored, published in 1992. Page later said he felt “completely ill” when he was shown extracts. Nevertheless, while no one from the Zeppelin camp has ever sued publishers over any scurrilous books about the group, the thought remains that had they been a bit more generous to Richard over the years such books might never have been published in the first place. It’s not as if they’re short of a few bob. 

        Time healed the wounds, however, and both Page and Plant resumed cordial relations with Richard over the last two decades, welcoming him as a guest at the group’s 2007 Reunion Concert at the O2 in London. Both musicians are reported to have visited Richard at his home during the illness that eventually claimed him, and after his passing both paid tribute and expressed their condolences through social media. 

        Richard died from cancer and is survived by his daughter Claire.

        Richard Cole, tour manager; born 2 January 1946; died 2 December 2021.



5.12.21

THE BEATLES: GET BACK

Let’s begin by shooting down a few stereotypes. Paul isn’t as bossy as he was cracked up to be, John isn’t as cynical and George isn’t the quiet one. Only Ringo is true to form, matter-of-fact and consistently reliable. No one is rude to or about Yoko. More importantly, JPG&R love one another; whatever differences exist do not in any way fragment the unshakeable attachment they have for one another. They, and only they, know what it is like to be a Beatle, and this isn’t something they can easily forget, or take lightly, even if they wanted to. There’s an uncanny bond between the four that goes deeper than the music they create, which at times seems like magicians producing rabbits from a hat. 

        This is the overriding lesson from Get Back, the three-part Beatles documentary just released, assembled from the 60 hours of film originally edited down to make Let It Be, the group’s final, deeply unsatisfying, film from 1970. Now re-imagined as a seven-and-a-half-hour epic by director/producer Peter Jackson, it’s often spellbinding, occasionally amusing and rarely dull unless, of course, you’re not remotely interested in The Beatles.

        Most of the footage, now enhanced in staggeringly wonderful colour and focus, sees JPG&R rehearsing songs that would appear on their Let It Be LP, firstly at Twickenham Sound Studios and later at their own Apple Studios beneath their HQ in Savile Row, where the action brightens up. In between routining these and other songs, some of which appear on Abbey Road, others on future solo records, they discuss the new album, the state of the group and whether or not to perform a concert at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool, at an ancient amphitheatre in Libya, or on Primrose Hill in London. The decision to locate it on the roof of Apple is as sudden as it unexpected, and the final hour or so of the footage features this concert filmed in its entirety from many angles, the reaction of those who heard it on the street below and the arrival of the police who shut it down. 

        Aside from the principals, the films features Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the original director, who talks a lot, rather too much in my opinion; record producers George Martin and Glyn Johns; Beatles roadies Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall; Yoko, Maureen Starkey, and Linda Eastman, accompanied by her daughter Heather; and various cameramen and Beatle aides. Billy Preston arrives late in the day to help out on keyboards and music publisher Dick James, who looks like he’s from another planet, breezes in to announce that Vera Lynn has recorded ‘Yesterday’ and ‘The Fool On The Hill’, which pleases Paul. Peter Sellars, filming elsewhere on the Twickenham lot, makes a brief appearance but is confused by The Beatles in-jokes.

        Paul gets the most camera time. Bushily bearded, he is smart, well-spoken and appears to be the man in charge, enthusing the others yet sympathetic to their own agendas. His best scene is about an hour into Part 1 when, watched by George and Ringo, he strums his violin bass as if it’s a regular guitar, forming chords with his fingers and setting a fast pace. He sings along to his chords, nonsense words at first, quite high pitched, as the other two watch intently. All three are seated and we’ve already established that John is late. Within a couple of minutes, we can recognise the framework of ‘Get Back’, albeit vaguely. Paul is evidently writing it on the spot and it takes shape remarkably quickly. He shakes his head as he plays, and some words come to him: “Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged.” George plays a bar chord on his Gibson Les Paul, A at the fifth fret, in time with Paul’s playing. He yawns. Paul stops “Musically it’s great,” says George as he picks out a note or two. Paul starts again. The tune is more focused now. Ringo begins to clap his hands in rhythm with Paul’s playing. 

        The only clue that Paul is not writing this song spontaneously comes when he sings about a man who thought he was a woman, and when he finishes this first verse John arrives, picks up his blonde Epiphone guitar from a chair, sits down and joins in, playing the barred A and adding a seventh. George switches to lead, a touch of funky wah-wah. Later, John will sing: “Sweet Loretta fart, she thought was a cleaner but she was a frying pan.” Paul doesn’t mind a bit.

        John is witty and wise throughout, with Yoko an almost constant, though largely mute, presence by his side. John’s hair is long, parted in the centre and he often peers over his granny glasses like some learned professor addressing a student. He enjoys playing old rock’n’roll and random songs from The Beatles’ back catalogue, mostly self-depreciatingly, turning them inside out. The others occasionally join him in a spirit of unity, laughing along. He’s a better guitarist than most people might imagine, not just on rhythm at which he always excelled, but interjecting lead lines and clever fills. Hes less confident on a Fender six-string bass. At one point he extols the virtues of Allen Klein but is never angry, never scornful, never critical. His song ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, once a favourite of mine, is repeated rather too often. His humour always shines through. He’s a good soul, the spiritual heart of the group. 

        George, his thick Scouse accent undiluted through long exposure to the Home Counties, seems content with his lot, unfazed when ‘All Things Must Pass’ is rejected by the others, and when he briefly quits the group, famously telling the others he’ll “see you around the clubs”, it doesn’t seem like he’s too serious, especially as it’s Friday lunchtime, the day before the weekend when no rehearsals are scheduled anyway. Either way, he’s soon back on board, playing his Gibson Les Paul and Fender guitars, the brown Telecaster and brightly painted Strat. Amusingly, after George walks out Paul tells Maureen: “A7, D7 and G7. Get them off over the weekend and you’re in.” 

        Ringo, too, seems content with his lot, and doesn’t seem at all distressed when Paul tells him what to play, or how to play it. He’s simply great at picking up the beat on whatever song is being rehearsed, a workmanlike presence who simply does his job superbly without making a fuss. Though he’s featured less than the other three, he’s a calming influence, a beacon of common sense. 

        There are plenty of lovely moments, too many to list but here’s a sample: Paul at the piano singing ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ while John adds bluesy guitar fills, and even singing ‘Gimme Some Truth; John singing Hank Williams’ ‘You Win Again’; George introducing the group to ‘Something’ but explaining that he has yet to complete the opening line, “Something in the way she moves, attracts me like a… pomegranate”; Ringo singing ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’; Paul, deftly mimicking a radio announcer, hilariously reading out a cheesy article from The Daily Sketch that speculates on The Beatles’ increasing ‘weirdness’; and six-year-old Heather’s screaming into a mike being compared to Yoko, much to everyone’s amusement. 

        There’s footage from India, and from various other episodes in The Beatles’ career, including a ten-minute opening sequence that rushes like an express train from John first meeting Paul at that fete in Liverpool to 1969 and where we are today. Finally, we arrive at the rooftop concert, presented here in glorious colour, with clever split-screen montages, a far better representation of what happened at lunchtime on January 30 that year than we've ever seen before. It’s a fitting climax to a wonderful seven-and-a-half-hours that raises the bar for all rock documentaries, just as The Beatles did with their music all those years ago.


1.12.21

MY DAD’S ROBERTS RADIO


This red Roberts radio, bought some time in the 1950s, spent most of its working life on the back seat of my dad’s Triumph Herald car. Connected to an outside aerial via a cable that plugged into its back, the thick grey wire ran through the top of the back window which had to be opened slightly to accommodate it. The aerial itself was clamped on to the guttering that ran along the side of the car’s roof, originally designed to funnel off rainwater.

        This sounds very Heath Robinson today but back then radios – let alone cassette and CD players or their most modern equivalent, a USB socket – weren’t standard in cars. Nevertheless, dad liked to listen to the Light Programme, the precursor of Radio 1, and one Sunday in February, 1963, as we were driving along the A59 towards Harrogate, Alan Freeman played a record on his Pick Of The Pops show that caught my ear. 

        I didn’t know who it was but it sounded fantastic; great tune, great singing, a truly original sound. It was, of course, The Beatles, not that I knew it at the time, and the song was ‘Please Please Me’, their second single. No word of a lie, that descending line made me prick up my ears and before the song was finished I was hooked. ‘Bugger me,’ I thought to myself. ‘That sounded good. Whoever can it have been?’ So, this radio therefore has a deep symbolic attachment for me because through its tiny speaker behind that brass grill, The Beatles and everything they brought with them first entered my consciousness. And, of course, it belonged to my dad. 


    
    I inherited the radio in 1997 after dad died and brought it down from Yorkshire to London. It didn’t work and I figured it needed a new battery, one of those great big 9-volt PP9 cubes that weren’t that easy to find. When I finally bought one and fitted it the radio made a terrible din, just scratchy static noises as I twiddled the knobs, and I soon abandoned all attempts to make it work. For the next two and a half decades it sat unused and unworkable, but not unloved, by my bedside until last week when I needed to get my CD player fixed because it had stopped reading CDs. 

        On the internet I found a CD repair shop in Guildford, BS Budd in Onslow Village off the Farnham Road, one of those old-fashioned places with used hi-fi equipment and TVs for sale, not quite in sync with the modern world but all the better for it, and in its window I spotted a red Roberts radio just like my dad’s. So, when I went back to collect my now fully functioning CD player I brought in the radio and, sure enough, two days later this was fixed too. Once it received stations on the long and medium waves, but now it picks up only on the latter, about a dozen stations, some with a better signal than others.

        Having the radio finally working again brings to mind The Repair Shop, the BBC TV programme I wrote about on Just Backdated a couple of years ago, wherein people bring treasured old items to be restored by experts*. But what I’m really longing to happen is to have my dad’s old radio switched on when some DJ plays ‘Please Please Me’, by that new band from Liverpool with funny haircuts. 

* http://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2019/09/the-repair-shop.html


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 leaves 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.