Monthly Archives: August 2010

Fleetwood Mac: Showbiz Blues (Part One, 1967-70)

I’ve seen Fleetwood Mac twice; once in London, early in 1970 (possibly at The Roundhouse) and once ten years later in the cattle-market surroundings of Stafford’s Bingley Hall.  What happened during the intervening period is a story so outlandish that you couldn’t make it up, as they say.  Or at least,  if the story formed the basis of a  Hollywood movie, it would seem too far-fetched to be remotely credible.

I wish I could remember the 1970 gig a little better; after all, living in a humdrum East Midlands backwater like Northampton where hardly anyone came to play, it might reasonably be expected that any exposure to a decent rock and roll event would be etched on my memory.  And, after all, I was a fan.  I already owned several of the band’s earlier singles, including relative obscurities like ‘Stop messin’ around’ as well as the more obvious hits like ‘Man of the World’.  Not long afterwards I would also swap  a copy of  an early Jefferson Airplane album with a classmate for his unwanted copy of ‘Then play on’.  However, crucially, that lay in the future and what I do recall of the London gig was that the band played a lot of songs I didn’t know.  The ones I did recognise were Jeremy Spencer covers of ancient rock & roll songs (initially amusing, swiftly becoming tedious).  Also, I’m pretty sure they played ‘Albatross’ and possibly ‘Oh Well’.  They definitely played ‘Oh Well’ a decade later in Stafford, with Lindsey Buckingham singing and playing the fierce electric guitar riff that dominates Part One of the song.  It was OK, but it was also weird, like some bizarre act of musical necrophilia.  I suppose that Fleetwood and McVie would argue that with Peter Green seemingly lost to mental illness at this juncture, they had more of a right to play the song than anyone else.

From L-R; Fleetwood, McVie, Spencer, Kirwan & Green, mid- 1969 at a guess

The original Fleetwood Mac came out of the so-called British Blues Boom of the late 1960’s.  Despite the grandiosity of the title, the aforementioned ‘Boom’ actually only really ever comprised a modest handful of artists.  John Mayall had been the midwife to all of this, his Bluesbreakers churning out a seemingly endless stream of new talent until he took himself off to the USA at the end of the decade.  By that time, graduates from his ‘academy’ included Messrs Bruce and Clapton from Cream, McVie, Fleetwood and Green from Fleetwood Mac, Keef Hartley, Henry Lowther, Chris Mercer  and maybe more from the Hartley Band (see separate post from 7/5/10  for more on them), Hiseman & Heckstall-Smith from Colosseum, Andy Fraser from Free and Mick Taylor from the Rolling Stones.  There were a few other bands – The Groundhogs, Savoy Brown & Ten Years After to name but three – who had no immediate connection with Mayall, but who were fellow travellers in this short-lived movement.  I think it would be hard to argue that any of these bands were pure blues revivalists.  Even Mayall, a Keeper of the Flame if there ever was one, was producing self-penned songs from an early stage.  They may have been ‘in the spirit’ of the Blues, but their lyrical concerns were much more contemporary.  Some of the bands, notably Cream, used old blues tunes like Willie Dixon’s ‘Spoonful’ as a launchpad for lengthy and (as time went by) increasingly self-indulgent improvised instrumental passages, usually built around the electric guitar.

In this era, the guitarist was King.  Eric Clapton, in particular, was feted as the acme of blues players, often by young fans who had heard of the likes of B B King, but had probably never heard any of his records.  Jimi Hendrix, who came to the UK in 1966 and quickly established himself as a pop phenomenon, had a string of Top 10 singles but soon revealed himself to be a blues guitarist of ferocious technique and invention.  Live, Hendrix played some blues covers as well – Howlin Wolf’s ‘Killing Floor’ for example – but  his albums  were taken up by his own compositions.  Most people saw Hendrix & Clapton as the top dogs in the hierarchy of new young blues guitar gods, but there was soon to be a new kid on the block who, for one reason or another, eventually eclipsed both of them

Clapton’s replacement in Mayall’s band was Peter Green and though his style and tone was more ethereal than Clapton’s he was also quite obviously a great player.  In reality, he played only briefly with Mayall, but left his mark with instrumentals like ‘Greeny‘ and, in particular, ‘The Supernatural’; the latter in some ways a progenitor of his later work with Fleetwood Mac.  Green left Mayall’s Bluebreakers in 1967 and took the rhythm section of Fleetwood & McVie with him.  The trio, at this stage called ‘Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac’ signed to Mike Vernon’s Blue Horizon label, added slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer and got to work building up a reputation on the club circuit.  So far, so predictable.  Vernon, who had produced many of Mayall’s Decca albums before striking out on his own, began to assemble a roster on Blue Horizon that mixed old school Chicago bluesmen like Eddie Boyd  and Otis Spann with new tyros like Fleetwood Mac, Chicken Shack and one-man band Duster Bennett.  The early Fleetwood Mac seemed to be inspired almost entirely by the electric blues that had originated in Chicago after World War 2.  They even went over to Chicago in January of 1969 and made a couple of albums-worth of tracks with some of the remaining bluesmen from that era. 

Despite all this dutiful forelock-tugging, there were signs early on that Green was bringing something new to the table.  The first two Fleetwood Mac albums were straightahead blues from start to finish but the band adopted a different approach to singles, cutting tracks specifically designed to impact on the singles charts.  ‘Black Magic Woman’, released as a single in 1968 was an electrifying swamp rhumba with the guitar mixed so far forward that you almost felt like you were wearing it.  But Green was never that predictable.  Next up was a brilliant and almost slavish cover of Little Willie John’s ‘Need your love so bad’ , a slow blues with a Ray Charles-style string section and (I’m assuming) Christine Perfect on organ.  By mid-1968, Green had become disillusioned with Jeremy Spencer’s lack of interest in sharing the songwriting duties for the band and to widespread amazement added a third guitarist in Danny Kirwan, whose lyrical style was far closer to Green’s own style than Spencer’s relentless channelling of Elmore James.  Almost immediately, the 3-guitar line-up hit Top 40 paydirt with a single that once again seemed to be a complete volte-face on anything they had done before.  ‘Albatross’ , a gentle instrumental that showcased Green & Kirwan at their best, was a monster hit all over Europe in 1969 and was pretty much the last throw for Fleetwood Mac’s tenure with Blue Horizon.  They moved to Immediate, one of the hippest of the new British indie labels, but recorded only one single, the glorious, heartbreaking ‘Man of the World’ before Immediate went to the wall.  ‘Man of the World’ was in many ways more of a genuine blues than any of the Blues songs Fleetwood Mac had produced previously.  Its lyrical content swam into much greater focus after Peter Green’s subsequent retreat into isolation and illness the following year.  With a glorious multi-layered melody (without Spencer’s participation), soaring electric guitar figures and an agonised lyric that reflected sadness, frustration, isolation and a longing for true companionship, ‘Man of the World’ was a high-point for the band and was, again, radically different to anything that had gone before.

Peter Green in full flow before it all became too much….

Once Immediate had folded, Fleetwood Mac got a new deal with Reprise, a label that had started out as Frank Sinatra’s personal outlet (via Warner Brothers) but which was now trying to make a name for itself in the rock market with the likes of Joni Mitchell, the Mothers of Invention and Family.  The band  busied itself recording its next album, ‘Then Play On’, recorded with virtually no participation from Spencer and released in September of 1969.   The original intention had been to compensate for Spencer’s lack of involvement by issuing an accompanying EP that featured a number of his ‘parodies’ of old rockers and bluesmen.  Thankfully, we were spared this at the time, though these tracks have subsequently been released.  What we did get with ‘Then Play On’ was an album that saw Green at the height of his powers, meshing brilliantly with Kirwan and backed up by a rhythm section on top form. 

The corporate monolith of Warner Brothers has not been kind to ‘Then Play On’ over the years.  The track listing has been amended to include hit singles and the quality of the master recordings compromised.  I recently blogged about the expanded & remastered version of  John Cale’s ‘Paris 1919’, also a Reprise release from a few years later.  For a band who have made as much money for Warners as Fleetwood Mac have over the years, you would have thought that ‘Then Play On’ was a prime candidate for a proper makeover, but much of the surplus material from the sessions (including the ‘Spencer EP’ tracks) eventually saw the light of day on 1998’s ‘The Vaudeville Years’ a well-packaged but hard-to-find double CD set on Receiver Records.  All in all, ‘Then Play On’ has to be seen as a flawed masterpiece.  There are some brilliant songs (‘Rattlesnake Shake’, ‘Coming your way’, ‘Like crying’) and superb playing  interspersed with fascinating but slightly random instrumental passages (‘Under Way’, ‘Searching for Madge’ ) and the overall effect was something of a mess.  The meddling with track listings over the years hasn’t helped much, either.

The band also pursued its policy of releasing non-album tracks as singles.  Next up was ‘Oh Well’ (Pts 1 & 2), another bipolar Mac single to follow on from ‘Man of the World’ and its tiresome Jeremy Spencer rockabilly B-side.  The first part of ‘Oh Well’ was a Hendrix-influenced blues-rocker that saw Peter Green seemingly wrestling with other people’s views of him and his of them.  There is then an abrupt segue into what sounds like an outtake from an Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western soundtrack, which continues for the duration of Part Two.  Like ‘Man of the World’ , ‘Oh Well, Part One’ interspersed almost a capella sections with thunderous rocking passages.  Even in the experimental melting pot of 1969, this was a daring approach to making hit singles – you couldn’t dance to any of these songs – but Fleetwood Mac reaped the reward for being prepared to try something different.  The public absolutely lapped it up and the record company made much of the fact that with 3 different record labels inside a year, they were nevertheless outselling The Beatles.

After the album came the tour and the endless attempt to ‘crack’ the lucrative American market.  A circulating bootleg of a BBC ‘In Concert’ broadcast from this era reveals the three-guitar Fleetwood Mac to be an awesome powerhouse of a band  on stage with talent and style to burn.  However, unbeknownst to anyone outside the band’s inner circle, Peter Green had planned to quit the band after ‘Oh Well’, but had been persuaded to stay on for a US tour by manager Clifford Davis.  Green’s mental state was becoming worse by the day and he became obsessed by the obvious inequity between the band’s new-found wealth and the poverty of so many others in less-developed parts of the world.  There is strong prima facie evidence to suggest that Green’s fragile condition was being further undermined by heavy LSD usage.  Under the circumstances, playing some dates with The Grateful Dead in New Orleans at the end of January 1970 probably wasn’t the best idea for Green, particularly with The Dead’s reputation for spiking everything with acid.  What we can be thankful for is the fact that the Dead’s soundcrew recorded everything, not just the Dead themselves and it seems likely that the two bootlegs that circulate of these New Orleans gigs are courtesy of their soundboard.  Amongst a fairly ‘normal’ set, Peter Green plays a new addition; a cover of a song called ‘Got a mind to give up living’, written by Cannonball Adderley’s brother, Nat and performed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band on their ‘East/West’ album.  It’s a slow blues and Green gives it everything; an impassioned vocal and one of the finest electric guitar solos I have ever heard.  Hairs standing up on the back of your neck time…..

Coincidentally and tangentially, the notorious Grateful Dead Drug Bust happened during these New Orleans gigs, providing the impetus for their song ‘Truckin’‘. 

A stellar jam at the Fillmore East on the 1970 tour; front row from the left: Fleetwood, Green, Pigpen, Bob Weir, Duane Allman, Greg Allman. Rear: Jerry Garcia, Berry Oakley, Bill Kreutzmann, Butch Trucks, Phil Lesh.  Don’t touch the Kool-Aid.

The Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac recorded their valedictory single, ‘The Green Manalishi (with the two-pronged crown)’, a thunderous rocker, in Los Angeles during this tour. It was either about money as the root of all evil or a demonic hound from one of Green’s dreams.  take your pick.  Backed with the beautiful Kirwan/Green instrumental, ‘World in Harmony’, it was released in the UK in May of 1970 and was again a major hit.  Ironically, the public were largely unaware of Green’s psychological malfunction and were probably equally unaware that the 24th May gig at The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm (not the one I attended; that was earlier) was to be Peter Green’s swansong with the band he had founded just three years previously.  In that time, they had risen to the heights of fame in Europe and were building a solid fanbase in North America and worldwide.  It seemed unlikely that,  deprived of their main man, Fleetwood Mac could continue and prosper, but they did, eventually – and then some.

Next time, the proverbial ‘Wilderness Years’…..

Listening to Yes…..

Guilty pleasures…….

For some reason, it came over me to dig out a CD of some 1971/1972 live recordings of Yes ( Göteborg 1971, Columbia, Maryland 1972) and give it a spin.  Now, like all ageing prog rock fans, once I became a father, I had wrapped this item  in lead foil, placed it inside an old biscuit tin and buried it under 4 feet of soil in the back garden.  Parenthood brings its share of responsibilities and protecting innocent children from Jon Anderson’s lyrics and Rick Wakeman’s dress sense comes fairly high on the list.  Before any Yes fans reading this go into paroxysms of rage at my cavalier treatment of their heroes, consider the fate of my ELP collection; hurled into a tank of slurry at a disused colliery in County Durham.

Of course, we have all listened to a lot of embarassing crap over the years; after all, how do you know what’s good unless you’ve experienced what isn’t?  And, to be even-handed about this, I attended more than my fair share of terrible punk gigs in the late 70’s at convenient venues like Eric’s in Liverpool and The Electric Circus in Collyhurst.  I say ‘convenient’ venues simply because they were like conveniences….

But punk bands often revelled in their own incompetence; it didn’t matter how shit they were musically, because ‘attitude’ and demeanour counted for at least as much (if not more) than musical expertise.  Not so with the Prog bands – they were expected to be virtuoso players, able to handle tortuous staccato riffs in deranged time signatures, able to switch from guitar to oboe or cello in mid-riff, able to fill their interminable solos with quotes from Dvorak or Khachaturian and perhaps more than anything else – able to avoid the blues cliches trotted out by a million other blues/rock ensembles from Cardiff to Calgary.

So, where does the finger of blame point?  What was the first prog album?  Should we blame The Beatles?  ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds’ maybe?   Or perhaps those early Pink Floyd singles…‘Arnold Layne’ and ‘See Emily Play’? Hard to say, but my vote would go to The Moody Blues, not just for their ‘Days of Future Passed’ album (let’s face it, a classic prog album title) but for the album that followed it, 1968’s  ‘In search of the lost chord’. 

Hayward & Lodge of  The Moody Blues; two ludicrous haircuts for the price of one

Let’s go to our Prog checklist……drug references? Tick…that singalong epic about Timothy Leary.  Cod-oriental mysticism?  Tick…..a song called ‘Om‘.  Say no more.  Mellotrons? Tick……keyboard player Mike Pinder worked in the bloody factory near Fort Dunlop where they actually made the things.  Multi-instumental noodling?  Tick…..cellos, flutes, sitars etc.  Spoken word recitations?  Tick….pseudo-profound doggerel, all delivered by drummer Graeme Edge in a trademark Brummy twang.   All pretty damning. 

In fact this area has a lot to answer for where prog is concerned.  Sometime, off & 0n member of Traffic, Dave Mason, who came from Worcester, sullied the otherwise good name of Steve Winwood’s new band with the dreadful ‘Hole in my shoe’ and two other tracks of embarassing tweeness on the band’s debut album.

Dave Mason with sitar. Enough said….

Which brings us to Yes, who weren’t from round here at all, but came from all over the place.  Singer Jon Anderson; he of the improbable contralto and impenetrable free-verse lyrical tosh, originally came from Accrington or somewhere thereabouts, which has always struck me as quite extraordinary, but maybe Accrington’s that kind of town – sort of Glastonbury North.  In terms of the Prog checklist, they were guilty on the mellotron front, but any attempts to interpret the content of their lyrics are likely to induce migraines.

The first Yes album, entitled……you guessed it, came out in 1969 and was largely ignored by everyone.  At this stage, they were playing a sort of post-Beatles pop with lots of cover versions and high-pitched harmonies.  Peter Banks played the guitar in a style largely free of blues inflections, drummer Bill Bruford already had a distinctive style that emphasised speed and dexterity over power and Chris Squire played the bass in a style that emphasised the treble range of the instrument.


From the left; Banks, Anderson & Squire on stage, circa 1971

1970’s ‘Time and a Word’ drew more attention because of the unlikely juxtaposition of the theme music from a Western (‘The Big Country’) with a song by black American folkie Richie Havens (‘No opportunity necessary, no experience needed’) and a powerful but airy piece called ‘Astral Traveller’ which featured a tremendous guitar solo from Banks and thunderous Hammond from Tony Kaye. 

By the time ‘The Yes Album’ appeared in 1971, Banks had been replaced by Steve Howe.  Howe shared Banks’ aversion to anything that might evoke B B King and slotted in to a line-up that was increasingly finding its range.  It was by no means a perfect album ,  but it did feature 2 epic songs – ‘Yours is no disgrace’ and ‘Starship Trooper’  – that saw the band abandoning their pop roots for good in favour of the dark and mysterious uplands of Prog.  Sandwiched between these two monoliths was a simple three-minute acoustic guitar piece by Howe called ‘The Clap’, which if it didn’t disperse the pomposity completely, at least helped to dilute it.  The music press of the time adopted Yes as one of their favourite new bands but no-one could explain what Jon Anderson was singing about.  Anderson himself seemed disinclined to do so at any rate.

The next album – ‘Fragile’ – came out in 1971 and was a disappointment in some ways, though it was notable for being the first Yes album to feature that trademark Roger Dean artwork.   ‘Roundabout’ got things off to a solid start, but with solo ‘interludes’  for Howe, Squire and new member Rick Wakeman, the overall impression created by the album was one of fragmentation.  The 11-minute ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ just seemed too bombastic for its own good and Anderson’s lyrics became yet more obscure.  Ominously, the gatefold cover featured a lavish booklet which showed the band members at home in their country retreats with ludicrous quantities of guitars and the whiff of conspicuous consumption.

Despite that, the next Yes album (‘Close to the Edge’) was their finest hour and, for me, the best Prog rock album of all time.    The three tracks are all perfect in their own way and encapsulate all the best things about the band.  The BBC recently screened a  slightly sardonic documentary about Prog and in it there was a great interview with Bill Bruford who said that when they were making ‘Close to the Edge’, the band had heard how Simon & Garfunkel had taken 3 months to make their ‘Bridge over troubled water’ album.  It was immediately decided that they would take 3 months and one day to make ‘CttE’.  He also said that he knew when they were finishing up the recording and mixing process that they had ‘cracked it’ and were never going to be able to top this album – so he immediately left to join King Crimson.  A brave man, and – as it turned out – a wise one. 

Yes continued with new drummer Alan White and recorded their next album ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’ in 1973.  The headlong dash along the road to excess continued unabated as this  double-disc monster had one song per side and featured the most obscure Anderson lyrics to date.  The band toured the world with this album and I saw them at London’s Rainbow Theatre some time late in 1973, complete with a Roger Dean stage set and more pseudo- mystical claptrap than a Scientology convention.  I mean, they played  a recording of most or all of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ suite as a preamble.  Rick Wakeman wore a golden cape for chrissakes and played a jolly medley from his ‘Six Wives of Henry VIII’ solo album.  The sound was thin and awful.  I was bored by the newer material.

Yes onstage in 1973 – Wakeman in gold cape to the right and what looks like a giant piece of sushi above the drum riser. Phew…..Rock’n’Roll….

All of this was, shall we say, immortalised on a triple live album (‘Yessongs’) which lumbered out into the world the following year and was a bridge too far for me.  Hubris is OK for a while if delivered with a modicum of humour, but things had all become terribly po-faced and serious in Yesworld. 

In all probability, Johnny Rotten was already clearing his throat…….

Watching ‘This Life’ and ‘This Life + 10’

Anyone remember the days of ‘One Nation TV’?  Those were the days when the population only had access to a small number of channels and there was a reasonable chance that when you went into school or work, your friends and colleagues had all been watching the same programme(s) as you the previous evening.  TV execs and advertisers today probably go all misty-eyed just thinking about it. Thus the whole country was on tenterhooks about the finale of ‘Quatermass‘, the identity of the person that shot J.R. in ‘Dallas’ and other similar cliffhangers.

A few things happened to explode this cosy constituency, the first of which was the advent of the VCR in the early 1980’s.  I had a friend in Cheadle who was what they call ‘an early adopter’ and he started out with this monstrous Betamax machine and 2 videotapes full of episodes of ‘Fawlty Towers’ and clips from ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’.  The top of the Betamax machine used to fold up and out like the gull-wings of a De Lorean sports car.  Seems hilarious now, but at the time it was revolutionary.

What it ushered in was the era of time-shifted viewing which, as far as TV people were concerned was a crucial shift inasmuch as it eventually led to the current television landscape where the viewer, rather than the broadcaster is in control.  Back in the day, if you missed an edition of your favourite soap, that was it.  No ‘Catch-up TV’, no BBC iPlayer, no DVD box sets, no Channel X + 1 (where programmes run an hour behind the main broadcast), no recording to tape, DVD or hard drive.  You had to rely on word of mouth descriptions from friends about what you’d missed.

The next revolution, of course, was the advent of satellite TV and the development of its little brother, cable.  Now we had a multitude of channels to choose from, so whether your penchant is for buying zirconium rings on shopping channels, watching daytime re-runs of ‘The New Avengers’ or (in my case) watching MUTV to find out just who is this Slovenian ‘libero’ we are reportedly chasing (for example), your needs were likely to be met.  I don’t have any figures to back up this point of view, but my suspicion is that the overall TV audience in this country is unlikely to have grown much (if at all) and may well have declined, which means that the available audience is now diluted among a plethora of channels.  So, ‘One Nation TV’ is out of the window and whilst you’re watching ‘Celebrity Pets Makeover on Ice’, or I’m watching re-runs of United hammering Newcastle in 1996, the world could be coming to an end and we’d probably be none the wiser.  And you do end up missing things that are worth watching – for example, I have managed to miss out on both ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ due to a bewildering choice of channels and the fact that I can only cope with so much TV, frankly.

Further competition for our viewing time has come from commercially available recordings of programmes.  Initially video, and now DVD Box Sets have become one mechanism through which programme-makers can claw back or retain the loyalty of an audience, though that is of no consolation to advertisers.  It’s now possible to watch every episode of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ or ‘Stargate SG-1’.  Then again, it’s possible to walk the Pennine Way or learn Portuguese or write a blog – the issue is choice,  and here in the Wicked West, we probably have too much of that for any TV executive to sleep easily at night.

Thanks to the magic of Box Sets, I spent much of last summer with the Princess watching all 7 series of ‘The West Wing’, another one I had missed first time around.  What I loved about it was the fact that you could just bung on an episode if you had an hour to spare, or as a ‘nightcap’.  On the other hand, you could have a binge and watch three episodes in a row.  This was the way forward, I told myself and have now borrowed a box set of the first 2 series of ‘The Sopranos’ with a similar strategy in mind.

I’ve also been revisiting another high-water mark of 90’s TV, ‘This Life’, which ran to 30-0dd episodes between 1996 and 1997.  I also re-watched the 2007 reunion special ‘+ 10′.  This tale of 5 newly-graduated lawyers and their travails at work and in the  house they share in Southwark was really not aimed at my generation at all,  but at those ten years younger than me.  Just as I sometimes felt a bit of a fraud at punk and post-punk gigs in Manchester in the   70’s and ’80’s, I felt similarly out of step watching ‘This Life’.

Having said that, it was compelling stuff.  In a way, my attraction to the show baffled me; after all it’s not as though these were the kind of people I would have liked – except for Egg.  He and I would no doubt have bonded over our mutual love of United, besides which he never seemed as driven as the others.  Miles was a boor and a product of his upper-class public school background.  Milly was a snob, a conniving bitch and a liar.  Warren was just too self-obsessed, especially about his sexual proclivities.  Anna was…well, where do you start?  Mouthy yet insecure…a walking car crash in many respects.  Even so, the dramas and melodramas of the house and its occupants were compelling stuff.

The extended ‘This Life’ cast

Jason Hughes (Warren) left at the end of Series 1, with one of his ex-lovers, Ferdy (Ramon Tikaram) drafted in as a replacement for the second run.  Ferdy’s internal conflicts about his own sexuality led to  a serious entanglement with Glaswegian handyman Lenny (Tony Curran) and numerous run-ins with Miles, culminating in Ferdy flooring him.  Miles and Anna continued to spar with one another – both verbally and sexually – even as Miles headed for what was clearly destined to be a catastrophic marriage to Francesca.  The ever-aspirational  and increasingly paranoid Milly pursued an affair with her Boss in favour of Egg, who had by this point abandoned the law in favour of working in a ‘caff’.

The second series culminates with an altercation at Miles’ wedding reception as Egg is informed of Milly’s infidelity and Milly duly launches an extraordinary physical assault on Rachel (the informant).  Lenny and Ferdy are high on E’s and snogging on the stairs.  Anna is avoiding Miles, who has declared his love for her and whose marriage is already clearly doomed, Egg is weeping in the Gents and everyone else is cavorting drunkenly on the dancefloor.  Into this chaos strolls Warren, back from a trip to Australia and California.  “Excellent” he declares,  grabbing a drink and surveying the carnage in front of him.  Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose…..


The climactic fight between Milly & Rachel at the end of Series 2; one manipulative bitch attacks another…

Apparently, there was a plan for a third series of ‘This Life’ with a completely new set of characters moving into the Southwark house, but this came to nothing.  However, some 10 years after the second series ended, there was an 80-minute one-off ‘reunion’ called ‘+ 10’ with the original five principals reunited.  The reunion episode hinges on a number of conceits; firstly that the five are reunited at Ferdy’s funeral.  How likely it is that Anna or Miles would have attended is dubious but we’ll let that pass.  10 years in the future, Egg has abandoned catering in favour of writing and has produced a runaway best-seller based on the events in the house of 10 years before.  He and Milly are reconciled and have produced a child.  Miles has opened a chain of cut-price hotels in the Far East and has acquired a trophy Vietnamese wife, whilst Warren is grieving for Ferdy, trying to get a ‘Life Coaching’ project off the ground. and ‘addicted’ to health supplements.  Anna is the only one of the five still working as barrister, but her ‘biologocal clock’ is ticking and she wants a child. 

The second main conceit of  ‘+ 10’ is that Egg is being followed everywhere by a documentary film-maker.  A reunion weekend is set up at a Sussex country house that Miles is renting.  The camera is on hand to record the abrasive interactions and growing tensions between the principals.  Miles’ Vietnamese wife storms out, then Warren storms out and only comes back when Milly persuades him.  Milly envies Anna her career whilst Anna envies Milly her role as a Mother.  Milly is similarly frustrated by Egg’s successful career as a writer.  It’s the customary chaotic scenario.  In the end, Egg steals the videotaopes of the reunion and hurls them into a lake.  Anna and Warren surprisingly agree to have a child together, whilst living apart.  A repossession crew arrive to strip the house of its contents – Miles is apparently not as well-heeled as he suggested.  He leaves to go ‘travelling’ leaving the others to sort out their messy lives.

‘+ 10’ was apparently not well received by diehard fans of the original two series and in truth, it’s a bit of a curate’s egg – bits of it are quite convincingly done, but other parts just seem far-fetched.  Egg remains the most sympathetic character but with deadlines imminent and no second book in prospect, his future, too, is also back in the melting pot.  There’s a scene near the end that rather sums up this dysfunctional crew.  Warren is upstairs, having crashed out due to a surfeit of herbal tranquilisers whilst the others are downstairs having a barbecue.  Loud music blares out across the night-time landscape and Miles, Milly, Egg and Anna cavort drunkenly – but they cavort alone.  There seems to be minimal companionship and none of the fondness that you would expect from old friends in such a scenario.  One of the best-written passages has Egg holding forth on how they all knew each other when their personalities were only partially-formed and that they had all seen one another both at their best and also at their worst.  One thing is for sure, they certainly don’t seem to have mellowed.

The poor reception for  ‘+10’ makes it less probable that there will be a ‘+ 20’, which would be due about 2017.  I wonder if the writers and cast would be tempted a second time?  If they do, it should probably revert to the London settings that were such a prominent and effective feature of the original series and probably needs to be a little less hysterical in tone.  After all, by that point the characters would be in their mid-40’s and surely will have mellowed a little….except for Anna; you suspect she will never change.


Richie Hayward, 1946-2010

Without wishing to turn this into a morbid obituary blog, I nonetheless feel that it would be wrong of me not to mourn the passing of Richie Hayward at the age of 64.  As I’m sure you won’t need to be reminded, Hayward was one of the finest rock drummers around and occupied the drum chair in one of the most memorable of 70’s bands, Little Feat, from their inception until last year when he was diagnosed with liver cancer.

A native of Iowa, Hayward had lived in British Columbia in recent years and the news of his illness plus his lack of any health insurance led to a rash of benefits by numerous bands to raise money for his treatments.  Sadly, all to no avail.

Drummers tend not to get too much of the spotlight unless they are out and out eccentrics like Keith Moon, but it’s a measure of the regard in which Hayward was held that he featured on recordings by a virtual wh0’s who of 1970’s rock music…Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, The Doobie Brothers, John Cale, Warren Zevon, Joan Armatrading, Nils Lofgren, Taj Mahal, Robert Palmer, Bob Dylan, Stephen Stills, Tom Waits etc.  Frankly, you don’t get to play with folks like that unless you’re pretty damn good – and he was.

Richie had run into medical problems long before the illness that claimed his life.  The back cover of Little Feat’s 1975 release – ‘The Last Record Album’  – is festooned with sheet after sheet of charges from a Los Angeles hospital.  These were incurred by Hayward following a motorbike accident – seems like he had no health insurance then, either.

If I were asked to nominate Richie Hayward’s finest hour, I think it would have to be the thunderous drum pattern that underlies Little Feat’s ‘Old Folks’ Boogie’ from the ‘Time loves a hero’ album (1977). 

Little Feat are due to play the Cropredy Festival tonight and it will no doubt be an emotional occasion for the remaining members.

Condolences to all those who knew and loved the man.

The Curious Case of the Enforced Facelift

Sorry about that…I’ve just been watching the BBC’s ‘modern dress’ version of Sherlock Holmes  and a little Conan Doyle seems to have rubbed off…

 Something weird seems to have happened as regards the appearance of this blog today.  It looks different and when I logged on early this evening, pretty much all the stuff – calendar, hits counter etc –  in the sidebar had gone AWOL.  WordPress moves in mysterious ways it seems…….

Anyway, not that most people will notice or care, but  it gave me a chance to reorganise things a little.  The header is now a suitable blue to match the image below (which is of the island of Træna in northern Norway, in case you were wondering) and I’ve added  a ‘Categories’ drop-down in the sidebar, making it easier for you to find more archive posts in a similar vein, so to speak.

I’d really like to change the font to something a bit less bland than this but as far as I can tell, they start charging you once you get into that kind of thing.  Also, frankly, there are limits to how much messing about I can be bothered to do…

Right, that’s enough of that…..time to move on….

Listening to John Cale….

Distance lends enchantment, it’s said and I have to say that nowhere is that truer than with The Velvet Underground, the band which  gave the world its first taste of the music of John Cale.  Any discussion of 1960’s music with anyone born after 1990 always seems to get round to the Velvets sooner rather than later.  In the backwash of punk, it seems that the Velvets became – along with Bowie, Iggy and maybe the MC5 – one of the names that everyone had on their checklist.

Not that I would question the influence of the Velvets on punk and its aftermath; clearly their doomy thrash and glacial love songs influenced every rock  band that strutted its stuff in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  Play any album by – for example – Echo & the Bunnymen, Magazine, The Cure, Talking Heads or Japan from that era and the connections are crystal clear.  What it’s hard to convey to anyone who wasn’t there at the time, however, is that in the late 60’s, whilst we’d all heard the Velvets, they were regarded as a bit of an anomaly.   The perceived rain and grime of Warhol’s New York and the songs about heroin and black angels, the suppression of musical ‘chops’ in favour of mood and image – all of this didn’t sit that well alongside the Californian sunshine of all the Bay Area bands, Jimi’s purple haze or Pink Floyd’s English pastoralism.  Yes, we were aware of what the Velvets were doing, but they seemed to be a band born out of the New York art scene rather than out of the prevalent ‘youth culture’ of the time.  Talking to the early 20-somethings of today, however, it’s hard to convey to them that the Velvets just weren’t that big a deal in 1969.  We could all drift away in a lysergic haze to ‘Atom Heart Mother’ or ‘Rainy Day, Dream Away’ or ‘Dark Star’, but the full-on grunge of ‘Sister Ray’ failed to make the same kind of connection.   Then again, it probably wasn’t intended to.  In a nutshell, like many of my mates, I owned a couple of Velvets albums, but I rarely played them.

I was aware of John Cale’s presence in the band largely because of his viola playing.  Not exactly anyone’s  choice of classic rock’n’roll ‘axe’, but it’s always been an instrument I’ve liked.  I also knew he was Welsh.  And that was about it.  Once the original Velvets split up, I knew that Cale had made a couple of left-field albums for Columbia; one with trance/ambient pioneer, Terry Riley.  Then, out of nowhere, came ‘Paris 1919’. 

‘Paris 1919’ is one of those early 70’s albums – like ‘Surf’s Up’, Stackridge’s ‘Friendliness’ or the first Culpeper’s Orchard album – that were almost a soundtrack for my life at that time.  I can’t remember how I first heard it or who introduced me to it, but I remember clearly being delighted and amazed by the craft of Cale’s songwriting and the care with which the songs had been arranged.  It seemed almost an album divorced from any one genre, whilst partaking of most; there were bits of everything in there.  With hindsight, it seems an even more remarkable achievement, given that Cale used two players – Lowell George and Richie Hayward – from the archetypal blues/funk band Little Feat and jazz-funk bassist Wilton Felder from The Crusaders as his companions for this voyage of discovery.  It perhaps says a lot that the only track on the album where Lowell sounds like Lowell (so to speak) is ‘Macbeth’, which along with the cod-reggae ‘Graham Greene’, is one of the album’s more disappointing tracks.  The rest (not that there’s a lot of it; the album clocks in at about 31 minutes) is pretty much pure gold – and amazingly pastoral in tone, given Cale’s origins in the Velvets. 

Perhaps crucially ‘Paris 1919’  was recorded in Los Angeles, away from all that New York stuff.  Having said that, the lyrical content of the songs is relentlessly European – Wales, Dunkerque, Andalucia, Paris, Dundee, Norway – there are frequent references to these and other European locations and the title track, of course, addresses the year and the place in which the torch finally and unequivocally passed on to the newish kids on the block – the Americans who saved the Allied bacon on the Western front in 1918, just as they were do again in 1941.  Close to Paris, of course, is Versailles where that most fateful and short-sighted of peace treaties was imposed on the Germans and their allies and where the seeds of the next global conflict were sown.  1919 was a watershed year for Europe – a true fin-de-siecle.  Afterwards, all that Victorian/Edwardian pomp and circumstance began to recede into the distance until with the partition of India in 1948, or perhaps at Suez in 1956, it disappered completely.

Cale’s lyrics don’t really refer directly to all this history, but they somehow evoke the autumnal mood of that era. The songs have an elegaic feel to them which made ‘Paris 1919’  stand out from pretty much anything else that was around at the time, indicative of the fact that John Cale wasn’t bothered by contemporary trends and was just going his own way.  I can think of a few others that stood apart from ‘the pack’ in that way – Brian Wilson and his buddy Van Dyke Parks would be obvious nominations, as would Townes van Zandt.  You can supply further nominations I’m sure.

Now,  ‘Paris 1919’ has  become the latest ‘classic’ to get the expanded format treatment, with a second disc added.  This features one genuine outtake – ‘Burned Out Affair’, which sits nicely alongside the existing tracks.  Why it failed to appear on the (short) original release is beyond me.  In addition, Disc Two features quite a few alternate takes, some demos with just Cale on acoustic guitar and versions of the title track without strings and with just strings.  As I remarked when writing about the recently expanded ‘Exile on Main Street’, these expanded formats don’t always do the original album any favours and you sometimes end up wishing that the ‘extras’ had been left to moulder in the can.  Happily, this is not the case with the expanded ‘Paris 1919’ , where most of the extras offer a welcome insight into how these thumbnail sketches reached fruition on the original release. 

Listening to this expanded ‘Paris 1919’ has inspired me to dig out the next Cale album – ‘Fear’  from 1975 – probably his best.  More of that another time, maybe.

Watching ‘Tron’ (1982)

There’s a certain irony in the fact that the passage of time is usually pretty unkind to science fiction movies.  For example, few, if any such movies made before the ‘digital revolution’ reflect the centrality of computers and mobile phones in our lives. The predicted future is often rapidly outstripped by the real future catching up with itself.

‘Tron’ was made by Disney in 1982 when video game ‘arcades’ were big news – well, they were in America, anyway.  Seemingly, it never occurred to anyone involved with this movie that we might actually prefer to own this ‘fun’ ourselves rather than pumping cash into pub or arcade machines and that we might also prefer not to have to stand next to a load of nerdy, noisy  teenagers whilst trying to outwit the alien space-fleet in Galaxians or one of those early games.  In the end, we took the arcade home with us,  plugged in to our TV or computer and left the teens behind.

The thing that got me about ‘Tron’ when I first saw it – and it’s still true nearly 30 years on – is how different it looked to anything else that was being released around that time.  In the pre-CGI Dark Ages, the movie had a look all of its own, or at least it did once Jeff Bridges had been disassembled and sucked down into the world of the gaming grid by the ‘Master Control Programme’ that has the usual predictable ambitions of world domination.  Skin tones are weirdly unnatural in the heart of the machine and the so are the inner landscapes of cyberspace, 1982 style.

There’s something immensely reassuring about any movie with Jeff Bridges in it.  Over the years, his genial persona has lent its own special flavour to a fair number of good movies (‘Arlington Road’, ‘Starman’, ‘Winter Kills’) and two or three really great ones (‘The Big Lebowski’, ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and especially ‘The Fisher King’).  In ‘Tron’, Bridges looks ludicrously youthful and plays his role like an over-enthusistic puppy.  He’s joined by the intriguingly-named Bruce Boxleitner, the nubile Cindy Morgan and David Warner doing that sexually-repressed, hammy English villain thing that is often allocated to British character actors like Alan Rickman, Ian Holm or Warner himself.

Watching it again after a gap of at least 25 years, I can better see why it became a cult among science fiction fans of a certain age –  not least because of  the obsession with gaming and the possibility of being dragged through the screen into a world where it actually does matter if you win or lose the game.  In some ways, ‘Tron’ has aged more gracefully than some of its contemporaries – the early ‘Star Wars’ films look a bit tatty, the ‘Star Trek’ movies with the original cast makes them all look like ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ in the 23rd Century; only the ‘Alien’ movies (and especially the first two) have really survived intact.  After all, who’s to say that cyberspace isn’t full of boxy landscapes with infinite horizons?  Only the virtual villain looks really dated; like a cylindrical version of Jabba the Hutt from ‘Star Wars’, but without his winning personality.

Anyway, ‘Tron‘ is back in the news as Disney have finally decided to make a sequel, to be called (for a reason or reasons that will hopefully become clear) ‘Tron Legacy’. Bridges and Boxleitner reprise their roles from the first movie, but Morgan doesn’t as the producers seem to have opted for drafting in a slightly newer variety of eye candy.  Without wishing to lift the lid too much, the new movie apparently features Bridges’ son re-entering the virtual world to rescue his Dad.  Bless.

 ‘Tron Legacy’  will be in a theatre near you around Christmas – and, with no apparent hint of irony, there will be at least one tie-in computer game.