15.9.21

LOOK AWAY - Sky Documentary

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

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

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

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

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

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


3.9.21

THE RETURN OF ABBA



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


30.8.21

CHARLIE WATTS & TED DEXTER: NOT SO FAR APART


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

20.8.21

EVENINGS WITH LED ZEPPELIN – A SLIGHT RETURN

 


Two Robert Plants sit on the coffee table in our front room right now. One of them stands next to Alison Krauss on the cover of this month’s Mojo magazine, inside of which the grizzled old rock veteran and his toothsome singing partner talk about their new album, Raise The Roof, out in November, a long-awaited follow up to their 2007 Grammy-winning collaboration Rising Sand. If the lead single, ‘Can’t Let Go’, is anything to go by, it’ll be another winner. 
The other Plant features on the cover of a new edition of Evenings With Led Zeppelin: The Complete Concert Chronicle by Dave Lewis and Mike Tremaglio. You can’t see his face as it’s obscured by his long, windswept hair, a thatch so plentiful it resembles the coat of a Cocker Spaniel, but in mid-flight with Led Zeppelin in 1969 Robert Plant was a wild, windswept creature on the cusp of a long and for the most part glorious musical career. 
        It’s nowadays quite possible that out there in this 21st Century there are Plant fans who are unaware of his illustrious past. In which case I would draw their attention to this book, the definitive account of Led Zeppelin’s life as a concert attraction, opening on September 7, 1968, and closing on July 7, 1980. As if 576 pages wasn’t enough, my friends Dave and Mike have now added a further 48. It now weighs in at 2.2kg, almost 5lbs, which is about half the weight of a Gibson Les Paul, so the combined weight of both editions gives you some idea of the mass that Jimmy Page, never the most robust specimen, was carrying on his shoulders during most of the 516 shows chronicled in the book. No wonder he’s complained of back problems. 
        Dave and Mike’s book now has over 300,000 words and 3,100 images, some 55 concert entries have been expanded with additional info culled from newly-discovered bootleg recordings, press reviews and adverts, and a 10-page bootleg discography that details almost 1,900 boots from 288 concerts that were clandestinely recorded, mostly by fans, with multiple titles from many shows. This statistic clearly indicates that LZ were among the most bootlegged acts ever, perhaps even the most, and there is a degree of irony here insofar as their manager, the cunning but ruthless Peter Grant, took every step he could to prevent Led Zeppelin from being pirated. That he so manifestly failed in this endeavour is a blessing in disguise for fans as years later the many bootlegs offer a valuable historical record that Page, for one, greatly appreciates. 
        I have an interest in this book. I edited the first edition and noted on this blog some of my own contributions, culled from the pages of Melody Maker. One I didn’t mention was the weekend I spent with Led Zep in Montreux, October 28 and 29, 1972, when I stayed with them and their entourage at the Palace Hotel and saw two shows at the Montreux Pavillon. A couple of weeks later I experienced their wrath by writing something that in their opinion was mildly uncomplimentary. Here’s what it says in the book:
        In the following week’s Melody Maker (November 11, 1972), Chris Charlesworth conducted an interview with Robert Plant in a feature called “Plant Life”. 
        In the interview, Charlesworth discussed the band performing outside of England: “Countries seem to put up no barriers to Zeppelin, who can consider themselves the unheralded ambassadors of British heavy rock. Unheralded because few reports of the group’s foreign activities seem to reach home, and ambassadors because few bands will clock up as many miles in a year as Led Zeppelin. To this end, England has been ignored this year by the group and their popularity has undoubtedly waned.”
        The band took great exception to this comment and used it as a sort of rallying cry. Perhaps feeling stung by the press criticism of the past, and having their wildly successful US tours overlooked back home, they reacted with a dig in the following week’s Melody Maker (November 18, 1972). The issue contained a huge tour ad listing the scheduled 24-date UK tour with the words “SOLD OUT” prominently displayed with the comment: “and their popularity has undoubtedly waned, Chris Charlesworth, Melody Maker, Last Week.” Even Robert Plant had a go at Charlesworth when introducing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ in Glasgow on December 4, 1972: “There was a guy who ah, worked for the Melody Maker, Chris Charlesworth, and he said our popularity has obviously waned... Thank you very much. Here’s a song that we wrote in a period of ah, everybody decided we were doing nothing, ‘Stairway To Heaven’.”
        It’s ironic that just two weeks earlier, Charlesworth had penned one of the most complimentary and enthusiastic concert reviews of the band’s entire career, and yet was being called to task for his comment. Perhaps the band’s press sensitivity had conveniently allowed them to overlook another comment from Charlesworth in the first Montreux report: “Led Zeppelin are alive and well and as good as ever. And if that crown they once wore has tarnished slightly, they will soon re-gain all their glory. They are, without a shadow of a doubt, Britain's greatest heavy rock act.”
I can report that any ill-feeling was soon forgotten, and I was welcomed to subsequent shows in America where I was stationed for the next three years as MM’s US Editor. Oddly, my coverage of the start of their 1975 US tour, in Chicago on January 20-22, isn’t included, and I take issue with the book’s handling of the sequence of concerts that followed, as can be seen from my retrospective recollections of that encounter, here: http://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2014/02/led-zeppelin-1975-part-1.html. Pedantic point that it is – and Dave Lewis and I have exchanged words about this before – it seems I am the only person in the world that believes Zep, minus bedridden Robert Plant, flew from Chicago to LA where they (and I) relaxed for 48 hours while Plant recuperated, then we all flew back across the country to Greensboro for a sub-par show on January 29. Either my memory is playing tricks with me, or the records books have been changed for reasons unexplained. 
Still, this is a minor quibble. As I wrote when I first reviewed this book on my blog in 2018, Evenings With Led Zeppelin: The Complete Concert Chronicle is not only far and away the most ambitious reference book on Led Zeppelin ever published but also one of the most entertaining; now new and improved, like detergents used to be in TV adverts, and like Robert Plant when he collaborates with Alison Krauss. 

13.8.21

STEPHEN FOSTER - America's First Great Songwriter


For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed the songs of Stephen Foster and yesterday, because I hadn’t heard it in ages, I played this CD in my car as I drove through the Hurtwood to Cranleigh for the weekly farmers’ market. There’s 18 tracks in all and I particularly like John Prine’s folksy reading of ‘My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight’ and Roger McGuinn’s jangly Byrds-style arrangement of ‘Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair’. Other Foster songs on the CD with which most people are probably familiar include ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, ‘Old Folks At Home (Swanee River)’ and ‘Oh! Susannah’, given a ragtime treatment by Michelle Shocked. Foster is reckoned to have written over 200 songs before he died, penniless, in 1864. 

        I have long believed that Foster is the source of American popular music, the first great American songwriter to draw together musical traditions brought to America by those who arrived from Europe, Africa and elsewhere. In his sleeve notes to this CD, the US musicologist Ken Emerson calls Foster the trunk of the tree of American music.  “You can hear Foster in nearly all its branches, from country, bluegrass and gospel through the American Songbook, jazz, rock’n’roll and the classical music of Gottschalk and Ives,” he writes, adding, correctly, “There’s even a trace of ‘Camptown Races’ in ‘Jingle Bells’.” Randy Newman, for one, would surely agree; doubtless also Paul McCartney who takes the lead vocal on a rocked up version of ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ by The Beatles that is featured on the second of their Beatles at the BBC compilations. 

        Emerson is the author of Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and The Rise of American Popular Culture, which I can recommend to anyone with an interest in where it all began. It catalogues the unhappy life of the first man to ever try to make a living as a professional songwriter, a hopeless objective in the days before copyright was invented. He sold his songs for a few dollars and spent the proceeds on booze. 


        It all began for me, and here I must make a confession, with the first album by the George Mitchell Minstrels, aka The Black And White Minstrels who, until the arrival of The Beatles, were by far the most successful recording act in the UK. In November 1960 their first LP began an unprecedented 142-week residency on the UK LP charts, peaking at number one five times. The only LPs to better this chart longevity up to this point were American, the soundtracks to three musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Oklahoma!, The King And I and South Pacific. Elvis, Cliff and the rest barely got a look in as far as chart statistics go. 



        This is not something much talked about today. In Electric Shock, his comprehensive study of the history of popular music, Peter Doggett gives them only a cursory mention and ignores these massive-selling records completely. They don’t make the Concise Edition of the Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Colin Larkin, but they’re in the exhaustive 12-volume edition, not as the B&W Minstrels but under George Mitchell, their musical director. Larkin bravely awards their first two, best-selling, albums, both acquired by my dad, with four stars out of five, and Stephen Foster rightly merits an entry in that edition too. “There was a remarkable quality of durability about Foster’s livelier pieces which rose above their questionable quality minstrel show origins,” writes Larkin. “They remain a significant milestone in the development of popular song in nineteenth century America.

        I say bravely because the B&W Minstrels were and are an embarrassment today, and rightly so; men darkening their faces to look like coloured folk, prancing around on TV and the stage in imitation of the minstrelsy shows that were popular in America during the first half of the 19th Century. The BBC somehow failed to realise the offence this would have caused to people of colour. Neither, for that matter, did the 16 million who watched their weekly TV programmes and broke box office records at their stage shows. 

        Nevertheless, it’s still possible to listen to these records and momentarily forget the way they looked and the clothes they wore. They feature a series of medleys of largely American popular music from Foster’s era up to around 1950, song after song arranged by Mitchel to segue together seamlessly. They are arranged and produced to the highest level of professionalism, the soloists and chorus in perfect harmony over no fewer than 56 songs on the first LP and 51 on the second. This is why Larkin gives them four stars. 

        I can’t find any documentation of how many LPs the B&W Minstrels sold but it must be in the millions – their second LP spent over year on the charts too – but the first two languish in my record collection, heirlooms handed down along with a few other LPs my parents owned, among them two by genuine black performers, Ella Fitzgerald and Winifred Atwell. Both the B&W Minstrels albums are packed with Foster’s songs and it was listening to them on these records, back in 1960 and 1961, that introduced me to ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, ‘My Old Kentucky Home’, ‘Oh! Susannah’ and all the rest 

        I have't listened to these two LPs for years now. For all their professionalism, they sound a bit cheesy, a bit light entertainment, a bit end of pier. I much prefer the CD I listened to yesterday, and, to a lesser extent, one other I’ve had for a while, pictured below, which features performers from an earlier era, like Bing Crosby, Al Jolson and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. One Amazon review of that says, “Bought this for my 89-year-old grandfather. He loved it.”


    
    Whatever else, all this proves something I've always believed in, that the very best popular music lives forever. 


23.7.21

JAMES JAMERSON OR CAROL KAYE: WHO PLAYED WHAT?


I have twice contributed to bassplayer magazine, on both occasions eulogising the unique skills of John Entwistle, and this irregular involvement entitles me to free copies, courtesy of its editor Joel McIver, from whom I commissioned many books for Omnibus Press. His best-selling book was a biography of Metallica that was translated into several languages but the first, in 2000, was a handbook for fans of Extreme Metal. You can find a picture of Joel in every issue of bassplayer, top left on page 4, above a brief resume of what that month’s issue contains. He’s bearded and brandishing a sturdy looking 4-string bass guitar with a religious cross and stag’s head etched on its body, which could imply that he’s still au fait with the rituals of the bands he wrote about in that book, though in reality they're the logo of Jagermeister, a herbal liqueur favoured by heavy metal fans. 

        Not having played bass since I was a teenager, I only occasionally find anything to interest me in the magazine, usually features on bassists I’ve known over the years, among them Roger Glover of Deep Purple, which enabled me to reconnect with him and become involved in a project that might see the light of day in a year or two. 

        This month, however, bassplayer includes something quite different that interests me, a fascinating article on two of the greatest bass players of all time, James Jamerson and Carol Kaye, specifically a sort of “who played what” investigation. There’s a controversy here too. 

        Jamerson, of course, was the Motown Funk Brothers bassist who played on countless records that spun out of Hitsville USA at 2648 W. Grand Boulevard, Detroit, Michigan, and died in 1983 aged 47, an indirect result of his alcoholism. Many regard him as the man who made the sixties swing and America dance. 

James Jamerson

        Kaye, now 86, worked out of Los Angeles and played on thousands of recordings during a 50+ year career, including some Motown sessions which have been disregarded by scholars inclined to favour Jamerson. She now alleges, probably correctly, that some of her work has been wrongly attributed to Jamerson. 

Carol Kaye

        All this might be pretty small time compared to the problems – sorry challenges – the world faces these days, but without knowing it I was a huge fan of Jamerson in my days as a DJ in Andertons Bar in Skipton back in 1968, and probably before. In the discos they played their Motown loud, and the bass lines stood out. Motown, however, never credited the musicians who played behind The Supremes, Vandellas, Four Tops, Temptations, Miracles, Stevie W, Marvin and all the rest, so how was I to know I was tapping my feet to James Jamerson? 

        I didn’t really realise this until 1985, when, on behalf of Omnibus Press, I bought the rights to Where Did Our Love Go? – The Rise And Fall Of The Motown Sound by Nelson George, an unauthorised but extraordinarily revealing book on the label that for the first time told the behind-the-scenes story and gave due credit to the musicians who were as responsible for the Motown Sound as the stars themselves. Jamerson figured prominently, and the book led me to Standing In The Shadows Of Motown (1989), a book about Jamerson that included two cassettes of his bass lines isolated from the rest of the tracks. A bit nerdy I know, but those bass lines were so lyrical, so full of invention, or so goddam funky, that it was worth the effort to listen. Man, could he play. 

        “The Motown producers rarely wrote detailed arrangements for Jamerson,” wrote George. “Instead they’d hand him a chord sheet or have him listen as the melody and lyrics were run down on piano by Brian Holland or Norman Whitfield, and he would build the bass line around what he heard.” Bassist Louis Johnson, who played on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall and Thriller, told George: “Jamerson brought the triplet feel on bass to pop. Before him it was unusual for the bass to deviate from that single note, dum-dum-dum style Jamerson broke the mould and made the bass more creative.”

        Carol Kaye, equally well regarded, doubtless outplayed Jamerson in terms of total work accomplished, and in her book Studio Musician (2016) and on her own website, has attempted to correct any misconceptions about who played what. Her first session, in 1954, was with Sam Cooke, so her CV is as illustrious any in the game. 

        And while it’s not unreasonable to assume that, since Jamerson spent most of his working life in Detroit and Kaye in Los Angles, Kaye took over when Motown moved its headquarters to California in 1972, it’s not that simple. Which is why bassplayer has interviewed Brian F. Wright, Assistant professor of Popular Music at the University of North Texas in Dallas, who has dug deeply into the who played what controversy. I won’t divulge the contents of the interview, or the link to the website where Wright’s dissertation, Reconstructing The History of Motown Sessions Musicians: The Carol Kaye/James Jamerson Controversy, all 11,292 words of it, complete with annotated lists of sessions and those who worked on them, can be found, but it makes great reading for anyone interested in a story that didn’t quite keep me on the edge of my seat but was well worth an afternoon’s reading. 

        Thanks Joel.


19.7.21

BEESWING: FAIRPORT, FOLK ROCK AND FINDING MY VOICE, 1967-75 by Richard Thompson


“The music world is full of arseholes – absolute arrogant, self-serving dickheads who imagine it all revolves around them,” writes Richard Thompson in his otherwise fairly benevolent, yet highly readable, new memoir Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock And Finding My Voice, 1967-75. “I’ve met plenty and there’s plenty I avoid. To work for these people can be painful, and usually an unmusical, unrewarding experience.”

I half expected the next sentence to follow the famous example of Richard’s namesake, Hunter S., commenting on the music business, as in “There’s also a negative side”, but it didn’t. It went on to imply that Thompson is equally happy to play to an audience of 30 in a folk club as he is to appear on a big stage anywhere. And what’s more, after reading Beeswing, I believe him. 

        I was late discovering Richard Thompson. Island labelmates Free, Traffic and Cat Stevens diverted me from Fairport Convention, and what with everything else going on during those years – mainly The Who and Bowie – the kind of music that Richard Thompson was making passed me by. Indeed, it wasn’t until a road journey to the Frankfurt Book Fair undertaken in the early nineties with Omnibus Press sales manager, Cajun music expert and Thompson fan Frank Warren at the wheel, that I got to hear ‘Mother Knows Best’ from his LP Rumour And Sigh. Like the Porsches overtaking us at 120mph plus on the autobahn, the song is taken at a breakneck speed, and includes many extraordinary between-verses electric guitar solos, all worthy of James Burton or his UK counterpart Albert Lee, with the one at the close coming to an abrupt, unexpected end, almost as if Thompson decided he simply couldn’t go any faster or he’d crash. “Play it again Frank,” I said. 

        This stirring introduction to Richard Thompson prompted me to set out on a crash course. Two box sets, half a dozen CDs, two live shows and a reappraisal of Fairport Convention later I figured I knew my Thompson and I made myself a playlist, and kept his Live In Austin, Texas, CD in the car for months. When I played ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ to a biker pal who was unfamiliar with the song he burst into tears.

        But back to Beeswing, the memoir. Thompson has great recall for details, people and places, including a time when “every music shop in the West End had a sign that said ‘No credit for The Who’”, which made me chuckle, coming as it did during the same week that Pete Townshend put his Richmond house on sale for £15 million. I also liked his story about the Fairports appearing on Top Of The Pops in 1969 to promote ‘So Tu Dois Partir’: “The Bee Gees were also on the show and were acting like prima donnas, so I thought we should do the same. When the producer complained we had too many members on stage… I explained with a straight face that we were a tribe that lived communally, and the others would be devastated not to be included. The poor man, who must have dealt with acres of bullshit every week, just rolled his eyes and adjusted the cameras.”

        Beeswing, though not overlong at 262 pages including an index, is full of funny little tales like this, as well as interesting anecdotes about fellow travellers like Nick Drake and Sandy Denny. Thompson’s father was a senior policeman, which makes for more interesting asides, especially in situations involving the looser cannons among the Fairports, who did, indeed, live communally at times. 

        Anyone familiar with Richard Thompson’s songs will know that he rarely wastes words, and so it is with this memoir, at times droll, at times poignant, always literate, and above all truthful in a modest, occasionally self-deprecatory way. As you would expect, his disdain for fashion, fame and capitalist values feature strongly, as does his constant search for sensory fulfilment, found in his discovery of Sufism, and for new genres of music and inspiration. 

        The pity is that it ends in 1975, although the brief afterword and epilogue allude to the future, the breakdown of his marriage to Linda Peters and his regret at not being the best of fathers to his children. “The attic is empty now,” he concludes, which suggests there won’t be a second volume. “It was time to throw out some old junk, but in doing so, it brought up a lot of memories, fond, tragic, regretful, loving. The arrow is arcing back towards earth now, and catching a glint of gold from the setting sun.”

        The book includes two eight-page photo sections. One appendix features lyrics from songs mentioned in the book and the second, intriguingly, offers straightforward narratives from the author’s dreams, which are left to the reader to interpret. 


9.7.21

MY FIRST WEEK ON MELODY MAKER – A REVISED ACCOUNT

 


Any Just Backdated readers who subscribe to Rock’s Back Pages, the online music press library, will find among this week’s new features my interview with jazz guitarist George Benson, published in Melody Maker dated 5 February, 1977. Normally this would not be cause for comment, as RBP often adds pieces by me to its website and now has no fewer than 324 in total, the vast majority from the seven years I spent in the service of MM. However, this particular interview might well be the very last piece I wrote for the paper as I had just handed in my notice, and still have in my possession the letter of acknowledgment I received from editor Ray Coleman, which is dated 27 January, 1977.

        “Thank you for your good work for the paper and best wishes for your future,” writes Ray, who interviewed me for the job on MM seven years earlier, in the spring of 1970. 


        By a strange coincidence, I very recently came across what might well be the first issue of Melody Maker that carried anything written by me. It is dated 27 June 1970, a bit later than I thought when I wrote in May of 2020 that I joined MM ‘on the first Monday in May, 1970, 50 years ago today’. Through a process of deduction, I now realise I was about six weeks out.  

        It’s nowadays possible to find scanned copies of MM on the internet and through this means I’ve discovered one dated 6 June, 1970, in which my name does not appear on the staff list, and another dated 27 June when it does. I cannot find the copies for June 13 and 20 on the internet but from all this I can glean that I joined between these dates, and one of those missing copies, albeit one for which I contributed next to nothing, must therefore represent the week I first landed on MM.

        Elsewhere on Just Backdated you can read an account of my first few days on MM in which I mention the first LP I was given to review. The 27 June MM contains this review, of Soft Machine’s Third, for which I solicited some help from a friend who knew their music better than I. “It is their most ambitious yet,” I – or should I say my mate Steve – wrote, demonstrating a knowledge I did not possess. After a bit of flannel gleaned from the credits “I” conclude: “A good set for the Soft’s fans and jazz enthusiasts too.” 

        Wisely, Richard Williams, the assistant editor, whose job it was to distribute LPs to MM staff to review, never gave me another Soft Machine album to write about. 

        Since the dates on the cover of MM were for the Saturday of the week of its publication, I can infer from all this that I must have turned up at MM’s Fleet Street offices for the first time on Monday, 15 June, 1970. My reasoning is that because it went to press the following day I wouldn’t have had time to write anything of substance for that week’s issue (20 June), but in the days that followed Ray Coleman set me to work with a vengeance, as the saying goes. 

        And I’m not kidding. On page 5 on the 27 June issue there’s my interview with Paul Rodgers, the first of many pieces I would write about Free; on page 7 there’s my (uncredited) interview with Don and Phil Everly, conducted in their suite at the Inn On The Park Hotel near Hyde Park Corner, where I recall sharing the elevator with Dustin Hoffman on leaving; and in a ‘Chartbuster Spotlight’ feature on page 13 you can find my phone interview with Cliff Richard to mark the arrival in the charts of the excruciating ’Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha’, not an opinion I expressed to him or in my piece; and also my brief interview with ‘Mike’ Rossi – Francis must have come later – whose group Status Quo was switching styles from the psychedelia of ‘Pictures Of Matchstick Men’ to the down home and ultimately far more successful boogie of ‘Down The Dustpipe’, which was at number 18 in the charts that week.

        And talking of Status Quo, there’s also my review of their show at St Mary’s College, Twickenham, where they performed at the annual rag ball, one of two ‘Caught In The Acts’ I wrote that week. The other was on Pete Brown’s Piblokto at the Marquee, but Status Quo sticks in the mind because I was invited to review it by none other than the notorious PR Max Clifford who had fixed up the Rossi interview and promised to ‘bring a bird’ for me if I came to the show in Twickenham. No doubt the late publicist, who subsequently became the master of ‘kiss and tell’ and suffered an ignominious downfall, had clocked a new name on the MM staff list and decided he was ripe for placing in a compromising situation. (The full story can be found here: http://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2017/12/max-clifford-rip.html)

        All the work that landed in my in-tray that first week is perhaps explained by the fact that only three ‘staffmen’ appear in the staff list on that 27 June issue of MM: jazz expert Max Jones, old timer Chris Hayes, whose sole contribution in those days was the Any Questions column, and newcomer Charlesworth. (The 6 June issue lists only Max and Laurie.) Chris Welch, next to whom I sat, was the Features Editor and Laurie Henshaw, another old timer who, bless him, probably thought Free was something you didn't have to pay for, was News Editor. Within a month all that would change, and I would be joined by Michael Watts, Roy Hollingworth, Mark Plummer, Andrew Means and Neil Roberts. By then I’d superseded Laurie as Melody Maker’s News Editor, much to my surprise, as only six weeks earlier I was a staff reporter on the Slough Evening Mail, reporting not on Status Quos change of musical direction but the penalties imposed on miscreants at the local magistrate’s court. Onwards and upwards.  



28.6.21

STRAT! – The Charismatic Life & Times of Tony Stratton Smith by Chris Groom


The photograph on the front cover says it all – a jovial looking, round-faced gent with a double chin whose shirt is stretched rather too tight across an ample belly, a loud, polka-dot tie, a drink and a customised “Charisma” Union Jack in one hand, an oversized, joke top hat in the other, a packet of Benson & Hedges protruding from his jacket pocket, hair that could use a trim, a cheeky grin on his face, a full bookshelf in the background, pens and pad on the desk in front of him, a scene abundant in mirth. 

Who was he? That’s the question with which Chris Groom wrestles in this biography of the man who founded, and somehow funded, Charisma Records, in the process discovering Genesis which made him a fortune. But Tony Stratton Smith remains elusive. There was something of the Will-O’-The-Wisp about him, his fingers in many pies, not all of them harmonising; and though his friends were many and all of them knew something about him, none of them seem to have known everything, so the author’s dogged persistence in interviewing and/or seeking assistance from no fewer than 207 named individuals in pursuit of the man still leaves a few questions unanswered. Which is how Strat, as he was universally known, probably wanted it.

Time to declare an interest. The manuscript for this book, all 268,898 words of it, landed on my desk at Omnibus Press about seven years ago. I declined to publish it, partly because it was far too long and partly because I knew from experience that books on music industry figures never sell anywhere near as well as books on music industry stars. Fast forward a few years and Chris Groom rings me up to say that he has found a publisher who requires the book to be cut by over 100,000 words, a task beyond him. Could I help? So, Chris crossed my palm with silver and early last year I reduced it to 154,000 words, eliminating repetition and rewriting large chunks in the process, tinkered with the chronology, followed a lead or two of my own, restructured and retitled the chapters, and added an index. This seemed to satisfy Wymer, the publishers, and the book finally saw the light of day at the beginning of this month.

Having thus contributed considerably – so much so that the author has seen fit to add my name to the cover, alongside that of Peter Gabriel who has written a Foreword – I can hardly review it in the customary sense. Suffice to say that although Tony Stratton Smith – the Stratton was adopted early on to differentiate him from a work colleague with a similar name – somehow manages to confound the author as regards the full picture of himself, I defy anyone to pull together a more comprehensive picture of this extraordinary man.

“Well, I never knew that about him,” was repeated to me several times by persons I spoke to for clarification on certain issues as I worked on the manuscript. This certainly confirms that those who knew – or thought they knew – him as well as anyone will find something to surprise them in the book. 

Strat was a journalist, sports writer, author, traveller, music publisher, concert promoter, manager of rock bands, record company boss, film producer, wheeler and dealer, gambler, racehorse owner and, finally, a tax exile. There were rumours, unconfirmed, that he might have worked for the British secret service. He was gay, a borderline alcoholic, overweight, addicted to risk and spoke with a posh accent that belied his humble upbringing in a suburb of Birmingham. Born out of wedlock, he never knew his father. He was befriended by millionaires and paupers. He was generous to a fault and might have been defrauded by persons who saw him as an easy mark. He died, quite suddenly, from a gastrointestinal haemorrhage attributed to pancreatic cancer, aged 53, and left no will. 

        As the head of Charisma Records, Tony became known as a generous patron of talented musicians whose work was not necessarily in line with commercial trends, an attitude that endeared him to many in the industry but may have ill-served him as regards Charisma’s balance sheet. His legacy was a label that defies logic in today’s terms. Best known for Genesis and Lindisfarne, it was also home to such disparate talents as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Sir John Betjeman, Julian Lennon, The Nice, John Arlott, Vivian Stanshall, Bert Jansch, Price Far I, Peter Hammill and many more. 

What everyone agrees on is that Strat was a joyful, carefree man of the world, often to be found propping up bars in Soho, glass in hand, when he should have been working. Fortunately, his staff – many of whom went on to become leading figures in the music business – covered for him, though they could be forgiven for rolling their eyes at some of the boss’s more unrealistic ventures. I knew him briefly and can confirm he was splendid company. That he was loved dearly is clear from the testimony of so many friends and business associates in this book. Most will be saddened to read about his final months as a tax exile in Las Palmas where he seemed to be rudderless, rarely sober and lacking the support of genuine friends. 

        “Ultimately, what he really cared about were the people,” writes Chris Groom, “the creativity, about imagination, inspiration and risk, and the sheer joy to be had in bringing all those elements together, lighting the Charisma-pink touch paper and standing back, glass in hand, to watch what might happen when the sparks began to fly.”


22.6.21

ROCK’N’ROLL FANTASY: THE MUSICAL JOURNEY OF FREE AND BAD COMPANY, by David Roberts


Time was when Genesis Publications, the Guildford-based company founded by George Harrison’s friend Brian Roylance, had the monopoly on expensive limited-edition rock books but they were joined a few years ago by Rufus Stone Limited Editions in Newbury, which specialises in hard rock. Now there’s another new kid on the block: This Day In Music Books, an offshoot of the website run by musician, PR and editor Neil Cossar which, as you might expect, lists music-related events on any particular day of the year. Yesterday, June 21, the day I began to write this, Columbia Records in 1948 in New York launched a new vinyl disc that spun at thirty-three and a third revs per minute. Caught on didn’t it?

        TDIM Books have already published several conventionally priced music books but this is their first foray into the luxury book market. Rock’N’Roll Fantasy: The Musical Journey of Free and Bad Company, compiled by uber-fan David Roberts, is a full-colour 400-page large format book printed on art paper that in its £75 top-of-the-market edition is hard-cased with an accompanying bag of goodies like replica concert tickets, what looks like home photos and artwork prints. You can get the book on its own for a penny shy of £40. 

        And very nice it is too, though I must declare an interest since my reports for Melody Maker on Free and Bad Co occupy several pages within. Indeed, my arrival on MM in the summer of 1970 coincided with ‘All Right Now’ topping the UK charts, thus confirming Free’s ascendency to rock’s high table, at least until instability, competing egos, poor management and hard drugs forced them apart. I thus found myself covering them fairly closely, interviewing them and seeing several shows. Best of all was one in Sunderland on June 26, 1970, at the local Top Rank Suite. ‘Freemania broke out in Sunderland on Friday,’ I reported somewhat sensationally in one of my earliest MM concert reviews, which can be found in the book. Over 50 years later I can still recall the euphoric scenes as Free, on the cusp of greatness, triumphed on the singer’s home patch. 

        The truth is I loved Free. They weren’t naturals on Top Of The Tops miming to ‘All Right Now’ but they were naturals on stage: Paul Rodgers, an expressive, soulful, confident and sexy vocalist (1); Paul Kossoff, a tasteful guitar player who unlike many in his trade knew not just what to play but also just what to leave out; Andy Fraser, a bassist with an elastic style all of his own; and Simon Kirke, tough as old rope, solid and unfussy at the back, a handsome devil too. They had a spring in their step in those early days, the best young band of the year in my view, and I was massively disappointed they didn’t stay together for longer.  

        The rise and fall of Free occupies the first half of Rock’N’Roll Fantasy, with the rest of the book largely devoted to Bad Company aside from a few pages given over to other projects involving those former Freemen, like Fraser’s Sharks, Rodgers’ Peace, Kossoff’s Back Street Crawlers and, later, Rodgers’ solo work and his adventures with Jimmy Page and Queen. It is heavily illustrated with pictures of all the bands, record sleeves and miscellaneous memorabilia, and due tribute is paid to those members of the groups who have passed on.

        The text is largely made up of long quotes from fans, friends and a few industry insiders, some famous, most simply devotees, stretching back from Rodgers’ early life in Middlesbrough to the present day. I was particularly amused by one quote from a fan who was arrested for fly-posting. In reality he was trying to remove a poster of Free from a wall so he could hang it in his bedroom. Since the book is authorised by Rodgers and Kirke, they contribute extensively throughout.

        I was never as enamoured of Bad Company as I was with Free. I acknowledged that they were a solid, hard-rocking, hard-working four-piece band whose success was more or less inevitable, given that they included Rodgers and Kirke, along with Mott The Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs and wild card bassist Boz Burrell, and were managed by Led Zeppelin supremo Peter Grant. Despite their success, I felt there was something predictable and rather formulaic about their music; as if – much like Queen – it was designed on a drawing board where essential requirements for success were ticked off according to market research. Still, they made it big and their fans loved them, as can be seen from the citations from the many admirers who have contributed to this book.

A spread from the book showing Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers on stage. 

        I saw Bad Co several times, the most memorable in New York’s Central Park on September 4, 1974, when Jimmy Page, watching from the side-lines, hopped up on stage to jam with them on their closing number, much to the horror of Foghat whose unenviable task it was to follow them. My review of that night is also in the book, as is my report from California when they performed two nights at Winterland in San Francisco and a night later at the LA Forum, where once again members of Zep stepped up on stage to boost the excitement to fever pitch. A picture taken that night made MM’s front page the following week. 

        What I didn’t mention in MM at the time, for obvious reasons, was that on Bad Co’s Viscount jet from SF to LA I was sitting minding my own business when one of their roadies came down the aisle and whispered in my ear, “Peter wants to see you.” It was like being summoned to face the judge. I made my way to the private room at the back of the plane where Peter Grant was holding court with some of the band. On a table in front of him was a big mound of cocaine. Peter offered me some and I partook. “Did you enjoy the show?” he asked quite pleasantly. 

        “Er, yes Peter.” 

        “Well, mind you say so in that paper of yours. You can go now.”

        There was a big smile on Peter Grant’s face but the hint of menace he conveyed is as memorable today as that night all those years ago in Sunderland with Free.

******

(1) One day in 1972, during one of his periodic bouts of dissatisfaction with Deep Purple, Ritchie Blackmore confided in me that he thought Paul Rodgers was the best young singer in the UK and wanted to form a band with him. “Can you have a word with him?” Ritchie asked, knowing that I knew Free. I never did. 


18.6.21

THE REMARKABLE TALE OF RADIO 1: THE HISTORY OF THE NATION’S FAVOURITE STATION 1967-93 by Robert Sellers


Unwelcome, misunderstood and barely tolerated by the hierarchy at the BBC, Radio 1 was for many years the Corporation’s unloved bastard child. Its parents, loathed to an even greater extent, were the pirate radio ships that took to the UK airwaves between 1964 and 1967, chucking egg in the faces of the stuffy old Beeb as pop fans throughout the UK disdained the fogyish Light Programme and tuned in their thousands to Caroline, London and all the rest.

        So, when the Labour Government of the day brought in the Marine & Broadcasting Offences Act to sink the pirates, it was clear to the BBC that since the nation’s appetite for non-stop pop was here to stay they had better to do something out it, albeit very reluctantly. Their solution was Radio 1 which, in its own way, continued to chuck eggs in the same direction by becoming the country’s most popular station, proving the rule of thumb that you cannot legislate against something people like – if that wasn’t the case the “War on Drugs” would have been won 50 years ago. 

        So it was that on the morning of 30 September 1967 the “cheery” DJ Tony Blackburn, a refugee from Caroline, launched Radio 1 and, like it or not, it’s been the country’s premier pop station ever since. Its struggle for survival in the early days, its ups and downs, and its heroes and villains, are covered extensively in Robert Sellers’ The Remarkable Tale Of Radio 1: The History Of The Nation’s Favourite Station 1967-93.

        According to this book, the reality is that Radio 1’s existence has been a constant battle between the traditionalists on the one side and the progressives on the other, with each step forward resisted by the established powers, not only those at the top of the BBC itself but also the Musician’s Union, who viewed the playing of records as a danger to their members’ jobs. It’s hard to believe that for years the playing of records in the top ten on the radio was monitored by upholders of archaic cultural values, the sort of people who write letters to The Daily Telegraph from Tunbridge Wells and like to blame everything they don’t like on those with progressive ideas. The ongoing crusade is an almost endless theme of the book, tapering off somewhat after the two-thirds mark at which point it becomes less interesting, and it’s a given that after 1993, the point where the book ends, things finally loosen up.

        We hear from all the relevant sources, executives, programmers, producers and, most of all, the DJs, some of who are in it for the music, others for the glory and opportunity to move on to TV, fame and fortune. Invariably they are the less likeable. No one likes the odious Jimmy Savile, which is a relief, and John Peel comes across someone the establishment would love to dump but can’t because he’s so popular. Blackburn, on the other hand, is a bit of a prima donna.

        Sellers has done his research well, talking to all the right people and his book will certainly go down as a definitive history the nation’s ‘favourite’ radio station. Then again, there hasn’t really been that much competition has there?


13.6.21

THE WHO AT WOODSTOCK


Eight days after I first saw The Who in person on August 9, 1969, at the Plumpton Racecourse near Lewis in East Sussex, they appeared at Woodstock, an epic performance played out in the most dreadful of circumstances that in many ways sealed their reputation as the greatest live band of their or any other era. 

        For reasons related to the 50-year copyright lapse, it is now possible to buy The Who’s full Woodstock set on a CD of questionable legitimacy advertised freely on the internet, as I did last week. Universal Music, which recently acquired The Who’s entire back catalogue in a deal worth a reputed $50 million, would be justified in taking legal steps to curtail such releases but seem disinclined to do so, probably because no sooner had they stamped on one pirate copy than another would crop up elsewhere.

        In my book Tommy At 50, published in 2019, I was asked by the publishers to write a small feature on the Woodstock performance that was separate from the main text. “Most estimates suggest that as many as four hundred thousand were in attendance,” I wrote, “but disorganisation meant the band’s appearance occurred eight hours later than planned, and, in the meantime, they had inadvertently sipped drinks laced with LSD. The delay, the acid, and the difficulty their tour manager had experienced in extracting the balance of the group’s fee [$11,200] in cash from the promoters meant they were all in a foul temper. Finally, at around 4 a.m., they took the stage.”

        Until I acquired the CD on the London Calling label (illustrated above) from Amazon last week I hadn’t heard The Whos Woodstock set in its entirety which, according to the sleeve, was ‘broadcast on WNEW-FM’, the inference being that the recording is taken from the broadcast*. This, of course, is untrue. No act’s set from Woodstock was broadcast, not at the time anyway, though the entire festival was recorded on 8-track by the noted engineer/producer Eddie Kramer. We can therefore assume that the CD comes from Kramer’s tapes. 

        Originally, all that could be heard of The Who at Woodstock was ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, included on the triple Woodstock LP released by Atlantic in 1970, and ‘Sparks’, ‘Pinball Wizard’ and ‘See Me Feel Me’ (ie, the coda of ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’) on The Kids Are Alright double LP released in 1979. Additionally, I included what we called ‘The Abbie Hoffman Incident’ on the 1994 4-CD box set 30 Years Of Maximum R&B, which I think my co-producer Jon Astley found among Pete’s tape collection. Hoffman barged on stage in the middle of Tommy to express his disgust at the jailing of MC5 manager John Sinclair on drug charges. Pete dispatched him into the pit with a wave of his guitar, an action he later regretted. In 2019, however, The Who’s set was made available on Woodstock - Back To The Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive, a very expensive 38-CD collection that was limited to just less than 2,000 copies, but those who’ve heard the disc with The Who on it claim the sound mix is poor, not an issue with the CD I bought.

        So, what’s the CD like? It begins with an easily identifiable twang from John’s bass before the announcer, Chip Monck, speaks, somewhat profoundly. “Will you please warmly show your appreciation… a group that came to us specially for this festival… please warmly welcome The Who,” and without hesitation they crash into ‘Heaven And Hell’, the regular set opener during this run of shows. They sound like they mean business too, with John’s vocal ringing out loud and clear, Pete’s guitar wafting in and out of the mix until it settles and Keith exploding at the back. There’s a two-second delay before ‘I Can’t Explain’, a sharp, angry, needle-fine version that puts to the sword any ideas about this festival being about peace and love. I doubt that any performer could have taken Woodstock by the scruff of the neck like The Who did at four am that morning. 

        After Explain the group embark on Tommy with no introduction, opening with ‘It’s A Boy’ as the ‘Overture’ wasn't played until later in the year. By now The Who had performed Tommy almost 50 times, in both the UK and US, and what follows over the 17 linked songs is as fluent a chunk of Who live musicianship as you would expect after such training. ‘Amazing Journey’, a bit faster than usual, bursts out; ‘Sparks’, already heard elsewhere, opens with a distorted rumble from John and screaming feedback guitar from Pete through the endlessly repetitive opening section before sliding into the lighter octave drops and surging peaks, Keith skittering around his kit, as towering a version of this Who staple as you’ll hear anywhere; ‘Eyesight To The Blind’ sees Roger, Pete and John singing in perfect unison; and ‘Christmas’ features Pete roaring ‘Tommy can you hear me’ before Roger replies ‘See me, feel me…’ for the first time. When Pete repeats his lines, he sounds truly deranged. 

        By now it’s clear the group are on a roll, the indignities of earlier in the day forgotten in the rush of their performance. ‘Acid Queen’ fairly zings along, followed by the intricate ‘Pinball’ strum, again a bit faster than usual, and in the final verse John conjures up a drone of feedback for Roger to sing over. With this momentum having been achieved it’s no wonder Pete angrily dismissed Abbie Hoffman who intrudes before ‘Do You Think It’s Alright’. On this recording, however, there are edits that weren’t there on 30 Years…. The word “shit” (Hoffman) is edited out, while Pete’s “Fuck off my fucking stage” is so low in the mix as to be unheard unless maximum speaker volume is applied. 

        Tommy continues at this frenetic pace until the end, the already released ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, with ‘I’m Free’ another vigorous workout. Finally, there’s ‘See Me Feel Me’, commented upon by Roger in the eight-page pamphlet accompanying the disc. “Shortly after 6 we got to ‘See Me Feel Me’ and the bleeding sun came up. Right on cue. You couldn’t have topped it. After all the shit we’d been through, it was perfect. It was extraordinary. It was one of those moments you couldn’t ever recreate if you tried. Once in a lifetime.” 

        The Tommy presented here is certainly on a par with the live versions from Leeds and Hull now circulating (or any others for that matter). This, of course, is a much earlier reading  perhaps the earliest on record  which finds The Who performing their opera long before they became weary of it. It shows too. Despite the arduous circumstances surrounding the Woodstock festival, there’s a spring in their step, a sure sign they’ve lost none of their enthusiasm for Pete’s first magnum opus. If it had been available to me, I’d have included ‘Amazing Journey’ (as well as the ‘Sparks’/’Underture’) on 30 years

        But the show wasn’t over yet. After the 8-minute 46-second climax to their opera The Who lurched into a brutal ‘Summertime Blues’ (as seen in the movie, split screen too) and, without hesitating, ‘Shakin’ All Over’. Both are played ferociously, as good as Leeds. “Ladies and gentleman, The Who,” says Monck, a bit of an understatement, as the crowd cheer. Pete returns. “Thank you very much indeed,” he says, sounding quite humble. “We’d like to play a song which, kinda, is our… we knew we were gonna come back and do it… this is kinda our hymn. It’s a song about you and me, we’re getting a bit old now, it a song called ‘My Generation’.”

        The bass solo never sounded better, and neither had Roger though the backing vocals – ‘Talkin’ about…” – seem a bit strained which isn’t surprising considering the trial they’d endured before. ‘My Generation’ ends suddenly, followed by loose chords from Pete that morph into the licks that would eventually wind up as the chorus of ‘Naked Eye’. Roger is largely frozen out, and a fairly tight jam breaks down after about three minutes when Keith and Pete lose the plot, only to reconnect moments later. Then, as seen on film, the Gibson SG that Pete used gets some abuse and is thrown into the crowd. 


        As I wrote in 50 Years Of Tommy: “The ovation they receive was long and loud, still ringing in their ears as they hopped aboard a helicopter that took them to New York City. The performance onstage and in the subsequent film of the event turned The Who into superstars, brand leaders of the stadium rock explosion waiting just around the corner.

“Later, though, all of The Who, especially the guitarist, would say how much they hated Woodstock. ‘Fucking awful,’ was their most common observation. 

        The next show The Who played, on August 22, was at the Market Hall in Shrewsbury in Shropshire, England, where the capacity was just short of one thousand.” 

_____

*Indeed, a note in the accompanying booklet states that all London Calling releases feature FM radio broadcasts from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s

8.6.21

DYLAN, VAN MORRISON & JOHNNY ROGAN: THE LAST EMAIL FROM MY OLD FRIEND


Two days before my friend Johnny Rogan passed on January 21 this year I received an email from him drawing my attention to an article by Niall Brennan in Untold Dylan, a scholarly Bob Dylan fanzine, published in July 2020. In it the author posits the theory that Dylan’s song ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ from Rough And Rowdy Ways was inspired by a passage in No Surrender, Johnny’s Van Morrison biography. 

        In his email to me Johnny wrote: “I’ve just been sent some scholarly articles, one in the Dylan academic zine Isis, and another below. Both make mention of the theory that Dylan’s song ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ on his last album Rough And Rowdy Ways was inspired by my Morrison book No Surrender. Read on. What do you reckon? Anything that connects me with Dylan is just all right by me...”

        Thats fantastic, I responded. Good on you. Hope to get together soon when the Covid restrictions are relaxed. 

        I never heard back from Johnny. 

In his piece Brennan writes about the song ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’, offering a brief biog of Reed before analysing the song and, finally, drawing attention to the passages in Johnny’s Van Morrison book that bear a remarkable resemblance to some of its lines. Below is the relevant passage. 


July 13, 2020

‘GOODBYE JIMMY REED’, HELLO VAN MORRISON

One of [the] new songs is of a quite different nature to Jimmy Reed’s city blues. ‘Key West’, the stately, paced, gorgeous meditation on time, nature, and happiness that closes the first record contains a multitude of beautiful lines and imagery. One in particular struck this listener on first hearing.

I’m searching for love and inspiration

On that pirate radio station

Coming out of Luxembourg and Budapest

        Aside from the fact that Radio Luxembourg was not a pirate radio station, both it and Radio Budapest feature in Dylan’s fellow music expeditionary Van Morrison’s song ‘In the Days Before Rock and Roll’ from his 1990 album Enlightenment. In these lines, narrated rather than sung by Irish poet Paul Durcan, the speaker is on his knees,

At those wireless knobs

Telefunken, Telefunken

And I’m searching for

Luxembourg, Luxembourg 

Athlone, Budapest, AFN

        When Durcan finds the station he and Van need, the song proceeds in a most Morrisonesque manner deep into Proustian reverie, namechecking such heroes as Fats Domino, John Lee Hooker, Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters, Little Richard, Ray Charles and so forth, in a remarkably similar cathartic fashion to Dylan’s invocation of his cultural heroes, via the legendary DJ Wolfman Jack, that closes the majestic ‘Murder Most Foul’ on the second disc of his new album.

        Thus we find Dylan and Morrison, two old soldiers, raised on the old records, paying homage with the help of old radio stations and late DJs to the crackling sounds that first alerted them to the world outside their northern homes. Touching that dial, turning that wireless knob just a little brings us back to those Dylanesque incongruities the listener might skip over on first hearing in his Jimmy Reed homage. But as with much of Dylan’s work, with a little diligence, secrets can be uncovered.

        Considering the first verse of ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’, the very Northern Irish derogatory word for Protestant, ‘Proddy’, made this listener think of Belfast soul man Morrison again. This lead to a search through Johnny Rogan’s magnificent 2005 biography Van Morrison: No Surrender, and aside from an entire chapter entitled ‘Are You A Proddy?’, uncovered several further references, some oblique, some quite precise in the lyrics of Dylan’s ‘Jimmy Reed’ song. An initial study revealed the following (page numbers are noted in parentheses). 

        ‘I live on a street named after a Saint’, Dylan begins. Rogan quotes Morrison directly in this childhood memory: "Catholics all went to schools named after saints and Protestants went to schools named after streets" (40). Further down the same page Rogan describes the volatility that existed between young Catholics and Protestants in the Belfast of Morrison’s youth, and the various ways respective faiths could be identified from afar. In the same way 20th century blues musician Reed could never fully escape the societal divide brought about by a century of American history, the struggling musicians of Belfast similarly had to walk a careful line, keeping their distance in a very literal societal divide. ‘I can tell a Proddy from a mile away’, Dylan continues, as later on the same page of his biography Rogan quotes a childhood friend of Morrison’s: ‘you could tell by looking at somebody if they were a Protestant’ (4). The contents page of Rogan’s book tells us of a later chapter’s title: ‘Are you a Proddy?’, referring to an incident years later when comedian Spike Milligan would query the more elderly Morrison on the nature of his tribe. But is this sufficient evidence that Bob Dylan might have shoehorned the word ‘Proddy’ into a tribute to one bluesman as a wink to a second? 

        Reading and listening further, the second verse begins: ‘For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory’, Dylan intoning some of the Lord’s Prayer, and on the same page of his biography, Rogan writes: ‘Protestants add[ed] an extra line for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, omitted from the Roman Catholic version’ (40). Dylan’s verse continues: ‘tell it in that straightforward puritanical tone’ as Rogan refers to Morrison’s ‘puritanical upbringings’ (43). Little is known of Reed’s youth, and the effects, if any, that faith had upon his life and work, but even a casual listener recognises the immense importance of religious belief and writings in both Morrison’s and Dylan’s work.

        In the next verse, Dylan’s accounting of the young Reed’s first attempts at playing to an audience is remarkably similar to Rogan’s account of Morrison’s early band, the Monarchs. ‘You won’t amount to much the people all said, because I didn’t play guitar behind my head’, Dylan sings of Reed, while Rogan tells how ‘the Monarchs enlivened their stage act ...playing guitars behind their heads’ (42). And again, Dylan: ‘never took off my shoes and threw them into the crowd’ and Rogan: ‘the famous Morrison trick of taking his shoes off on stage’ (44). 

        For those who know Belfast, the world-renowned Crown Saloon has been a favourite watering-hole for generations, but given the more complete cliche used by Dylan in ‘I’ll put a jewel in your crown’, reading the opening few pages of Rogan’s book we find, in referring to the boyhood Morrison’s educational opportunities, his area ‘included a number of inner city schools in the scheme with Orangefield [Morrison’s school] regarded as the jewel in the crown’ (25).

        So,did Dylan have Rogan’s book to hand when composing this song for the late Jimmy Reed? Has he at the same time crafted a tribute to his friend and fellow Reed fan, Van Morrison? We could suppose further. Perhaps Reed’s butcher’s hook is not only a reference to his time at the Chicago meat plant, but also a darker reminder of the so-called Shankhill Butchers, a Protestant gang who spent their nights getting high and kidnapping Catholics to torture and kill. Killing floor indeed. 

        But there is one further moment, from late in Rogan’s book, and later in Morrison’s life. He has found love with former model Michelle Rocca, and in the throes of love, Morrison has written and recorded one of his lesser works. The song is called ‘Perfect Fit’, which in Rogan’s opinion is ‘a transparent paean to [Morrison’s girlfriend] Rocca’ (434). Morrison’s love song contains the line ‘see that dress you’re wearing baby suits you right down to the ground’. Dylan’s song, of a different hue, goes: ‘transparent woman in a transparent dress, it suits you well I must confess’. Let the listener and the reader judge for themselves what Dylan might be referring to here.

        Dylan’s song concludes with him meeting a friend, a brother, seeking out the resting place of their mutual ancestor: ‘God be with you, brother, dear’, Dylan invokes once more, and one can’t help but recall the 1989 BBC Arena documentary that brought both of these singers together on the Hill of the Muses in Athens, to sing each other’s songs for a while in the setting sun.

        One hopes that Jimmy Reed might have approved, from down in his metaphorical Virginia.