Monthly Archives: September 2010

Listening to Jesper Bodilsen……

Mentioning jazz bassists and Denmark in the same sentence automatically conjures up the spirit of the late Nils-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, whose presence dominated the Danish jazz scene for so many years.  Pedersen rose to international prominence with the  Oscar Peterson Trio from around 1973 and also played with the likes of Count Basie, Ben Webster Ella Fitzgerald and so on.  In fact,  NHØP played with just about everyone who was anyone from the mainstream of jazz in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  He died in 2005 at the age of 58.

NHØP’s legacy inevitably casts a lengthy shadow across the whole Danish jazz scene to this day.  He has  also certainly been a major influence on the Swedish bassist Palle Danielsson, who has played with Keith Jarrett and Peter Erskine (to name but two) with much distinction over the years.  Now Jesper Bodilsen has emerged as the first Danish bassist of genuine stature since NHØP and he looks like being a worthy successor.

Jesper Bodilsen

Now 40, Bodilsen has already built up an impressive CV, playing with people of the calibre of Lee Konitz, Enrico Rava and Dino Saluzzi, but has really been catapaulted into far greater prominence thanks to his work with the Italian pianist Stefano Bollani and fellow Dane and drummer Morten Lund.  This trio have now released 3 albums, the most recent being last year’s ‘Stone in the water’ (under Bollani’s name) for ECM.  Across these three albums – the others are 2003’s ‘Mi ritorno in mente’ (under Bodilsen’s name) and 2004’s ‘Gleda’ (a collective release) – Bodilsen demonstrates that he has inherited much of the warmth that characterised NHØP’s playing whilst inclining towards a slightly less ‘mainstream’ approach – akin to Dave Holland in some respects.

‘Stone in the water’ got excellent reviews, but most reviewers cast the spotlight on Bollani as one of the front-runners in the exciting renaissance in Italian jazz currently under way.  For me, though, the playing of Bodilsen was key to transforming what could have been seen as yet another piano trio album into something a little bit special.  His bass has a marvellously earthy sound – almost ‘woody’ – and this quality is demonstrated even more vividly in his latest release, ‘Short stories for dreamers’ (2009), which like ‘Mi ritorno in mente’  and  ‘Gleda’ appears on the  Stunt label.

Firstly, it should be said that ‘SSFD’ is a beautifully dressed CD, featuring as it does the stunning photography of Tove Kurtzweil, which in many ways harks back to the glory days of ECM before they entered into their current and tedious  ‘murky’ period.  His images are beautiful and haunting in equal measure.

The personnel on ‘SSFD’ is unusual, inasmuch as there is no drummer.  Instead, the rhythmic pulse is sustained by Bodilsen, Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius and Finnish vibraphonist Severi Pyysalo (who also contributes melodica to the album’s closing track).  Also present is the Swedish trumpeter and flugelhorn player Peter Asplund, whose playing echoes the warmth of Bodilsen’s tone throughout.  Wakenius, who has played with anyone who’s anyone in his native Sweden, and has also played alongside Pat Metheny at a recent ‘Jazz Baltica’ festival, features solely on acoustic guitar here and there are some inevitable Metheny-esque passages, particularly on the terrific ‘Marie’. Of course, for Bodilsen itself, this album represents a liberation from the conventions of the piano/bass/drums format and his playing blossoms as a result.

‘SSFD‘ comes across as a very egalitarian project with Bodilsen taking only his fair share of the spotlight and with no particular player dominating proceedings.  The overall effect is a mesh of sound, often elegaic or melancholy but always shifting, like sunlight on water.  Having previously mentioned ECM, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they were to pick up this band as the music seems a perfect ‘fit’ for the label.  In fact, at times, the mood of this album  reminded me of  Eberhard Weber’s ‘Fluid Rustle’, which is no bad thing, frankly.

Standout tracks would be the aforementioned ‘Marie’, the Brazilian-tinged ‘Caetano’ (presumably a ‘hommage’ to Caetano Veloso), ‘Barcelona’, ‘Pigen der fløj’ and the closing ‘A New Day’ – though to be honest, there really isn’t any filler.  Whilst I was aware of Ulf Wakenius, Asplund and Pyysalo are new to me and both perform impressively here.  I look forward to more recordings and, hopefully, a UK tour at some point.

Just occasionally, you put on a CD which exceeds all and any expectations you may have had beforehand and ‘SSFD’ is definitely one of those CD’s.   It’s a pleasure to be able to recommend it unhesitatingly to anyone who has any interest in contemporary jazz.  It’s a treat to listen to and will doubtless be in residence in my CD player and on my iPod for some time to come.

Roy and schadenfreude; # 2 of an occasional series….

I have to say that I rather like Roy Hodgson.  He did great things with Fulham last year and also he comes across like a rather genial old uncle who’s a bit scatterbrained but everyone loves anyway.  Then he just had to go and spoil everything by becoming the new Liverpool manager.   Say it ain’t so, Roy…

Anyway, the way things are going for Liverpool, he may not be there for long, which is probably a good thing for him…..and for me.  You really want the team who are your arch-enemy to have a manager who you can really despise, like Dalglish, or someone who’s just a complete space cadet, like Benitez.  Houllier was always a bit too reasonable and  Hodgson even more so.  Why couldn’t they have appointed someone truly unpleasant like Dennis Wise or Steve McManaman?

Anyway on a humdrum Wednesday night of Carling Cup football, I was watching United’s second string delivering a routine trouncing to Scunthorpe United, when news came through of extraordinary goings-on at Anfield.  My home-town team, Northampton, had drawn Liverpool away in the third round.  It was the biggest game Northampton had played since they went to Premier League Bolton and won in the same competition a few years back.  I can still vaguely remember the Liverpool team of Yeats and Thompson and Hunt coming to the old County Ground back in 1965/6 when Northampton had their one season of glory in the top flight.  As I recall, it was a dull goalless draw and I don’t think the clubs have met since that season.

In the intervening years, Liverpool have had massive success – though not for a while now – whilst the Cobblers have become regular tenants in the Football League’s lower flights with only a Play-Off win at Wembley and the victory at Bolton to get excited about.  I used to go to games at the County Ground fairly often as a boy, but once I’d seen Denis Law and, subsequently, George Best strutting their stuff in Manchester United red, home-town loyalties went out the window and United became my team.  I still follow the Cobblers’ progress or more often the lack of it, but it’s been some years now since I attended a game; I think the last time was when my mate Ian (a diehard fan) dragged me  all the way from St Albans to see them play at QPR about 5 years ago.

Despite all this – or perhaps because of it, I  abandoned the procession at Glanford Park, put on Radio 5 and listened to the climactic final minutes of the Anfield game.  Needless to say,  I was delighted that Northampton went on to win in a penalty shoot-out.  It’s the greatest result they have had since the Wembley Play-Off and arguably their most impressive win ever.   What’s more, having now seen most of the match, it’s clear that they genuinely deserved  the victory because Liverpool were woeful.  So, without wishing to come across as patronising I am delighted that the club are having their moment in the spotlight; Northampton is really a rugby town these days and, as a rule,  that just makes the Cobblers poor relations even in their own backyard.  I hope they get another plum draw in the next round – Arsenal away would be nice, but for all kinds of reasons I hope they don’t get United, even though most of their fans probably do.  My prediction is they’ll draw someone like Burnley at home, so no big payday, unless Sky get interested.

Northampton players celebrate with their travelling support after beating Liverpool at Anfield

As for Liverpool, they are going through an appalling patch.  The 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford only looks close on paper; anyone that saw the game will know that we totally dominated it, and their goals came due to two stupid bits of defending from our two shakiest performers.  Otherwise, they were without any discernible cutting edge and although I would disagree with Fergie’s talk of winning by ‘a cricket score’ (we weren’t that good, frankly) we were nonetheless comfortably better than them – more so than at any time I can remember in the last thirty years. 

Of course, they have been heavily reliant on Gerrard and Torres for a couple of years now and you just get the sense that even Stevie G the Professional Scouser is getting tired of carrying his underperforming colleagues.  As for Torres, it still mystifies me as to why he decided to return to Liverpool this season.  OK, he didn’t have a great World Cup, but he still ended up with a Winners’ Medal and could probably have moved to a bigger club had he agitated to leave.  What made him think he was doing anything but rejoining a ship that is sinking fast?  After winning little or (probably) nothing at Atletico Madrid, he now looks set to do the same at Anfield and will end up with as few medals as Alan Shearer at this rate.  On Sunday, he looked as he has so often of late; half-fit and out of sorts.  And that’s it, really.  Mascherano has gone, Alonso has gone, Carragher is now as much of a liability as Gary Neville has become for United and the rest of them just look like a bunch of journeymen.  When you look at the money Benitez squandered on second-rate players like Lucas, Kyrgiakos, Insua, Babel, Rodriguez, Riera, Aquilani……the list just goes on.  OK, Ferguson has had his moments with people like Bellion,  Kleberson, Manucho and Djemba-Djemba (so bad they named him twice) but I’d say he’s had more successes than failures overall.  

Wednesday night also offered a major contrast between the clubs in terms of the quality of the ‘fringe players’.  OK, Gibson scored a great goal at Scunthorpe but is unlikely to really make it, but Smalling looks a major prospect, Macheda will  probably be a force once he loses his selfish streak and the likes of Brown, Kuszczak, Rafael da Silva, Anderson and Owen are all pretty experienced at this level.  Liverpool played Agger, Lucas, Kyrgiakos, Ngog and Babel of those who have genuine first-team pretensions, but the remainder (including Paul Ince’s son, Thomas, who was a late sub) looked pretty raw and/or decidedly average.  The one exception would probably be defender Martin Kelly, who generally played well and saved a certain goal near the end of extra time by blocking the ball on the line, then hacking it to safety from a prone position. 

Off the pitch, Liverpool’s financial prospects are probably even dicier than United’s right now, though next month may see the club pass from the hands of their current American owners into the hands of the banks, after which the ‘asking price’ for any potential buyers will probably become a somewhat more attractive proposition – possibly as little as half of what Gillett and Hicks are currently seeking.

Despite this, the picture is gloomy in the short-term.  Gerrard is in the autumn of his career, Torres will surely be returning to Spain at the end of the current season unless they can somehow contrive to win a trophy and whilst Reina is a terrific goalkeeper, he may well be their only genuine asset before too much longer.  Whoever takes on the club will have to pump millions and millions into rebuilding the squad and without the Holy Grail of Champions League football, there will be many potential targets who will most likely go elsewhere.  Also the ground is old and not big enough to generate the matchday income currently being produced by United and Arsenal.  Finally, Liverpool have had to watch as more affluent clubs – notably our esteemed neighbours from Eastlands and, more recently, Tottenham – have caught them up and overtaken them in the Premier League food chain.

Ngog’s reaction to his penalty miss just about sums up Liverpool’s current predicament

No wonder things look grim if you’re a Dipper.  Naturally, my mate Ian was at Anfield for the game and afterwards he sent me a link to a marvellous piece of confessional video that you can find on YouTube right now.  It features a lugubrious and thoroughly unhappy Scouser listening to Wednesday’s penalty shoot-out on the radio whilst pouring his multiple miseries into a webcam for our enjoyment….considerable enjoyment in my case.  If I felt sorry for him at all, it’s probably because with the Glazers in the Old Trafford boardroom, there’s a creeping fear that United might go the same way unless the conveyor belt of trophies and success continues.  For now, however, it’s possible for me to be more amused than worried by this; here’s the link

A year of blogging…..

Today marks the first anniversary of ‘Learning to say nothing’

Over 250 posts and god knows how many hours bashing away at this keyboard.  I’d have been happier with more ‘correspondents’ but it’s otherwise been a really positive outlet for me and I hope to continue for some time yet.

A big thank you to regular readers and to all those who have made contact.  Really appreciate the feedback, folks.

Let’s see where Year 2 takes us….

Where things are hollow; a sort of David Bowie review

Here’s my (sort of) David Bowie story – and bear with me because it has a long preamble..  Back in the mid-1980’s I was friendly with a strange character – let’s call him Rick (with a capital ‘P’) – who was a photographer, a hustler and a tattoo fan in just about equal measure.  He got me to write a few commentaries to accompany his photos in amateur tattooing mags, but then announced one day that he’d cut a deal with a Viennese publisher to produce a book with a German/English text about tattooed women – and he wanted a much longer piece of writing from me for this new book.  There was even some money involved, so I agreed to his proposition – and all this despite the fact that my body was (and remains) a tattoo-free zone

At the time (1984), I was working away in Scandinavia a lot and thus it was, one Saturday afternoon , I sequestered myself in the conference room of a hotel in Voss in Western Norway.   I had an IBM golfball typewriter,  a sheaf of paper and a thick batch of notes from various learned anthropological tomes that dealt with tribes from the Marquesas Islands, Borneo and other obscure parts of the world where tattooing was big news.  Rick had been bending my ear for several weeks about the text and had pursued me by fax and phone all over Norway stressing that he needed everything, like, yesterday.

In the end, I simply bashed out about 8,000 words of text and bundled it into an envelope, addressed to him in London.  After that, I went back to work and forgot about the whole thing.  Fast forward to the December of that year and I was back in Newcastle when the postman arrived at my Fenham flat with a heavy box.  This turned out to be 25 copies of the ‘Tattooed Women’ book (“Tattoo Art – Tätowierte Frauen – Skin Fantasies on Tattooed Women“). 

I won’t say that I had forgotten about the (possible) book, but I had been back in the UK for 6 weeks and had had no contact with Rick, so the arrival of this book with my name emblazoned across the cover came as a huge surprise.  Seemingly, he had received a similar package, because he was suddenly on the phone about three times a day, ranting on about how we had to have a launch party and how he was going to organise it.
About a month later, I travelled down to London for the launch.  At the time, Rick was living in a squat in Brixton with his Japanese girlfriend.  The houses along this road had apparently been occupied at some point by ‘anti-psychiatrist’ R.D.Laing and were known locally as ‘Screamer’s Row’ because of the rather vocal nature of some of Laing’s therapies.  Rick’s place was in the basement of one of these houses and the whole flat was lined with some heavy grey felt-type material, giving it a creepily womb-like feel.  Having been up in Newcastle for 4 years and having not visited London for a while, I was already feeling somewhat dislocated, so the squat just made it worse.
The next night we all descended on ‘The Fridge’, a Brixton nightclub/music venue that had originally been The Palladium Picture House when it opened back in 1913.  Rick had been busy, hiring a heavily-tattooed rockabilly band to play and organising a buffet.  There was a bar,of course and a stall selling copies of the book.  I got introduced to about a zillion people, most of whom I promptly forgot, but there were a few who stood out.  These included a film crew from RAI (Italian state broadcaster) who wandered about filming everything and also interviewing me at some length about the ‘sociology’ of tattooing in the modern West.  This was quite difficult for me as I was a long way from being a proselytiser of tattoos and had essentially just been a ‘hired pen’ on this project.  Anyway, I did my best to sound suitably learned, though I can’t imagine how much (if any) of the footage they shot got used.
Also present were a bunch of heavily tattooed exhibitionists with pretty much full ‘body suits’ of tattoos, who, having gathered a small audience, would then disrobe in a slow and formal manner to gradually reveal the illustrations with which their bodies were covered.  It was like a kind of striptease, but without the customary heterosexual tensions.
We also had some minor celebs; these included punk singer turned trans-sexual Jayne (nee Wayne) County, in the company of several other trannies and Angela Bowie, who attended in the company of her then-current boyfriend, a sort of ageing rockabilly cat who apparently was the manager of some band or other.  She was garrulous in a typically American way but also very effusive about how much she liked the book – and it was obvious from some of the questions  she asked me that she had actually read my text.  Before she left she invited Rick and I to a housewarming at her new house in Battersea the following evening.
I would like to tell you that I spent the intervening 24 hours mulling over the transitory nature of fame, (‘Puts you there where things are hollow’) but in truth I had a whopping hangover and spent much of the next day in bed, fed on numerous bowls of green tea and miso soup by Rick’s girlfriend.  As it was, we duly rolled up the following evening at a pleasant semi in Battersea for the housewarming.  It was an unremarkable event, really, though a couple of members of The Damned showed up, but even they were terribly well-mannered.  What I do recall was that the  staircase in the house came down into the living room and at one point I noticed a few people staring at a figure that had appeared at the top of the stairs before making his way slowly down and into the throng.    White shirt, buttoned to the throat, black trousers with a knife-edge crease and a floppy brown/blonde fringe hanging over one eye.  This was Zowie Bowie, son of David and Angie, who at this point would have been about 14.  To say that he was the spitting image of his Dad would not do justice to the occasion.  To be frank, I got goosebumps just watching him come down the stairs.  He never spoke a word to anyone and just headed off in search of his Mum.  These days, he goes by the name of Duncan Jones and is the director of the critically acclaimed 2009 movie ‘Moon’.  Angie Bowie, meanwhile is apparently living in a 1-bedroomed flat in Tucson, Arizona.  Hmmm… 
As for Rick and I, we were on a roll and set to do another book for Virgin’s new book division, but they got cold feet at quite an advanced stage.  At least, that’s what Rick told me and I believed him.  Unfortunately, he forgot to remove my name from the list of people who were due to receive ‘review copies’ and I got  quite a shock when Virgin’s ‘aborted’ book landed on my doormat one morning.  An even greater shock was in store as I realised that he had used all my original 10,000 word text but had taken the credit for it himself.  I wasn’t even mentioned in the acknowledgements.  Hmm….

The unclear nuclear Bowie clan in Amsterdam, 1974

Anyway, I started out this piece to write an ‘appreciation’ of my favourite David Bowie album, ‘Station to Station’ from 1976, which is about to be re-released in several expanded forms.  There’s a 3-cd set and a 5 cd/dvd  version (at a ludicrous cost) for completists.  The 3-cd version is perhaps enough for most fans.  It features a re-mastered version of the original album, which may float the boat of audiophile geeks, but is of debatable consequence to mere mortals.  More significantly, there is a two-cd set of one of the most celebrated Bowie gigs of this era, the 23rd March 1976 show at the Nassau Coliseum, an ice-hockey rink out on Long Island.  Part of this show has long been circulating as one of the best David Bowie bootlegs, ‘The Thin White Duke’, but this new release seems to feature the entire show, though mercifully, the tedious drum solo that dominated ‘Panic in Detroit’ has been cut short.  (Note for masochists: the full 13-minute long ‘Panic in Detroit’ with complete & dreadful drum solo is available as a ‘bonus track’  in the digital download version of this set.  Some ‘bonus’!) 

What always made ‘The Thin White Duke’ such a special album was not just its illicit provenance, but principally the fact that it caught Bowie and his band on top form.  That recording was probably lifted from an FM radio broadcast, but this ‘official’ version is taken directly from the master tapes and is quite splendid.  When I checked, the 3-cd version seemed to be available on advance order from the usual internet traders for as little as £11.99, which to my mind is twelve quid well-spent by anyone’s reckoning. 

Despite all this fervent praise, I have to say that I am mystified as to why it has taken Bowie nearly 35 years to sanction the release of this stuff.   Of course, there’s pension funds to be thought of and all that, but back in the day, this one would have been the hottest of hot potatoes and would have sold by the skipload.  Bowie could have taken the wind out of the bootleggers’ sails (and sales) if he’d wanted to, but elected not to.  Perhaps it was because we’d had the insipid ‘David Live’ just a year or so previously and would then have to wait until 1978 for the equally anodyne ‘Stage’. Talk about missing the boat.  At least this finally demonstrates officially what a great band this was and how Bowie was at his peak in this era. 

“It’s too late to be grateful…..”

Fergiewatch # 1

Second-guessing Sir Alex Ferguson is a dangerous pastime at the best of times, but as far as he’s concerned, this isn’t the best of times.  Manchester United have begun the season without the new creative midfielder they so desperately need and Ferguson has sat through the summer and watched as players like Ozil and Van der Vaart have gone to other clubs instead of United.  

The team has also begun with some indifferent results, giving away late goals to drop points at both Fulham and Everton and now failing to find a way past an obdurate Glasgow Rangers defence in a Champions League match at Old Trafford.  Next up is a potentially tricky encounter against another bunch of underachievers in Liverpool on Sunday. 

United need to win that game and win it well if the mutterings about Ferguson are to recede.

Of course, he’s been here before and has bounced back to confound his critics, but you have to wonder with each passing year whether the fire burns as brightly as it used to and whether he retains the ability to motivate and inspire  his teams in the way that has characterised the majority of his tenure as United manager.  Some United fans regard it as something approaching hubris to question anything that Fergie says or does, but there is a growing constituency of fans that believes that he is a lot closer to ending his Old Trafford reign than anyone suspects; possibly as soon as the end of this current season.

Time for a new prescription, Sir Alex…..

He has been fortunate this season in the sense that Paul Scholes  is going through a creative Indian Summer of major proportions.  Without Scholes, United would not even be within sniffing distance of Chelsea.  However, you have to question the wisdom  of going into a season relying on a 36-year old whose stamina must necessarily be limited and whose record in picking up injuries and suspensions is not the best.  United have yet to come up against a team that can nullify Scholes’ influence, but I’m sure that this will be what Roy Hodgson has in mind for Sunday.

Stop Scholes and you stop United, it seems, because without him last night United were totally bereft of guile or imagination against a Glasgow Rangers team who carried out Walter Smith’s brief to the letter.  Today, some United fans have been fulminating on the messageboards about Rangers’ lack of ambition, but their anger is misplaced and probably born out of sheer frustration at our inability to create any worthwhile opportunities against a team we were supposed to swat from our path.

Ferguson is the person against whom they should vent their frustrations.  He was the one that decided to make 10 changes from the team that capitulated against Everton, throwing out the baby with the bathwater by excluding those that have done well for us – Berbatov, Vidic, Scholes, Nani – as well as those who didn’t perform on Saturday. 

Instead, we got a lot of fringe players like Darron Gibson, Thomas Kuszczak and Fabio da Silva. To show how poorly United played, it has to be said that Darron Gibson’s inevitable handful of long-distance piledrivers represented our biggest threat on the Rangers goal.  Having said that, and Gibson being Gibson, the people sitting behind and above the Rangers goal were probably in more danger than Alan McGregor in the Rangers goal.  Quite how Ferguson has allowed the promising Tom Cleverley to go out on loan to Wigan whilst retaining the lumpen Gibson  is beyond me.

“…and Gibson shoots…..”

There’s also the Rooney issue.  Ferguson opted not to involve Rooney on Saturday as he didn’t want to expose him to the ‘nonsense’ he would get from the Everton fans.  Since when was Rooney such a shrinking violet?  Since never, that’s when….

As it is, Fergie has now invited every set of away fans for the forseeable future to get on Rooney’s case even more than they would be doing anyway.  A major error of judgement in my view.  All he needed to have said was that Rooney’s off-field problems had affected his readiness to play…which seems to be the case, because he was poor in the Rangers match and currently looks a shadow of the player that scored 34 goals last season.

In the summer, Fergie brought in a central defender (Chris Smalling, who looks a great prospect) and 2 strikers (Javier Hernandez and Bebe) who are both young and raw and will take time to settle.  We are currently overloaded with front men; to Bebe & Hernandez, you can add Berbatov, Rooney, Diouf, Wellbeck, King, Owen and Macheda.  Wellbeck is on loan at Sunderland, Diouf at Blackburn and King at Preston, which may or may not assist their career development.  Owen’s continued presence at the club is something of a surprise, though the arrival of Gerard Houllier as Aston Villa’s new manager might see him on his way  down here come the January transfer window. To my knowledge, Bebe has yet to represent United at any level.

With Rio Ferdinand’s fitness an ongoing worry, I can see the logic in acquiring Smalling, who looks a similar type of player.  Hernandez may also turn out to be a good buy, though he will probably take half the season to settle in properly.  As for Bebe…who knows?  However, the point is surely that we have not strengthened where we have needed to strengthen for the past 2 years – central midfield.

Darren Fletcher will run all day and always puts in the effort, but with the best will in the world he is what Eric Cantona would describe as a ‘water-carrier’   Fletcher’s inability to penetrate the massed ranks of Rangers defenders last night should be an object lesson to the many United fans who confuse skill with effort.  These are the same fans who poured scorn on Juan Sebastian Veron and who have made Dimitar Berbatov’s stay at Old Trafford an uncomfortable one (though he’s currently – but probably only temporarily – back in favour, it would seem).  For them, effort and ‘getting stuck in’  means more than subtlety or skill.  Five minutes of vintage Veron would have unravelled the Rangers defence last night, but to these people he was an expensive failure who never got ‘stuck in’ or ran around like a demented attack dog, as Fletcher is prone to do.

With  Owen Hargreaves probably heading for early retirement,  Michael Carrick injured and seemingly out of sorts anyway, and with the plodding Gibson seemingly capable only of peppering the crowd behind the goal, that leaves only Giggs & Scholes, the Statler & Waldorf of the Premiership, to carry the fight to the Dippers on Sunday.  Where’s the young blood that United always profess to promote?  To be honest, only Cleverley of the current batch of youngsters is ready for regular first team action and he’s at Wigan.  So why didn’t Fergie bring in Ozil or Van der Vaart?  The latter spoke openly of his admiration for United, but in the end, Spurs picked him up for a relative pittance.

If United fail to win on Sunday, you get the feeling that the Press will once again start to speculate that both Ferguson and United are in decline.  Given our current form and the Manager’s bewildering decision-making of late, you get the feeling that there might just be a case to answer this time.

Finally, best wishes to Antonio Valencia for a speedy recovery from his horrific injury last night…..

Listening to Richard Thompson’s ‘Dream Attic’……….

The only surprising thing about Richard Thompson’s new album, ‘Dream Attic’ is that it hasn’t been released on the English Heritage or National Trust labels.  Of course, neither organisation operates a record label, as far as I know, but if they did, Thompson’s status as a full-blown ‘national treasure’  would surely guarantee him as their first recruit.  He’s now been making solo albums for nearly 40 years and it’s  difficult to remember a genuine turkey among them.  He has steadily built a large army of dedicated fans (mainly men of a certain age, one suspects) for whom he can do little wrong.  Where opinion divides, it is usually around the issue of whether his best live performances are those where he plays completely solo or those with a band.

With his latest album, we get the best of both worlds, or at least we do if we’re quick off the mark.  ‘Dream Attic’ is available in what is presumably a limited run as a two-CD package, with one disc of band versions and one of largely solo acoustic demos.  Thompson has been down this road before to some extent; the 1996 ‘You? Me? Us?’ double set featured an ‘electric’ disc and an ‘acoustic’ disc  with a couple of duplications, but here we have all 13 songs in 2 distinct versions.  Comparisons therefore become inevitable, but as someone who generally prefers the acoustic RT, I would concede that a few of the ‘rockier’ numbers do work better as band outings.

The conceit behind these ‘band’ versions is that they were recorded live at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall back in February.  The band  comprises Thompson himself (guitars, vocals) with Michael Jerome (drums, vocals),Taras Prodaniuk (bass, vocals), Pete Zorn (multi-instruments, vocals) and Joel Zifkin (electric violin, mandolin, vocals).  It is, of course,  unusual to record an album’s worth of new material in a live setting, but the performances are generally good and sometimes better than that.  The band offer sympathetic support to Thompson and he responds with some incendiary electric guitar playing, particularly on the impressive ‘Crimescene’  and elsewhere. 

The ‘Demos’ are also pretty good, though the songs that work best are the slower, ballad titles.  Much has been made of Thompson’s caustic attack on Sting in ‘Here comes Geordie’, but like all his ‘comedy’ songs (‘I agree with Pat Metheny’, ‘Now that I am dead’ and so on) it’s a song that provokes a wry smile on the first few hearings, but after that goes largely unremarked.  Frankly, poking fun at Sting is a bit like shooting fish in a bucket and Thompson can surely find worthier targets.

Sonically, the main departure is the inclusion of Joel Zifkin’s violin in the musical mix on the live album.  As far as I can recall, Thompson seems to have avoided working with violinists for quite a while now, probably in order to avoid the inevitable echoes of Fairport Convention’s  ‘Liege & Lief’-era sound but Zifkin is at least free of the folk fiddle clichés that Dave Swarbrick brought to Fairport’s table and concentrates on adding a little ‘colour’ to proceedings rather than trying to engage Thompson in high-speed, twiddly-diddly duels.

Even so, whilst there are some great songs on ‘Dream Attic’, it’s not an album for which I can offer unreserved praise.  The problem for me lies with the arrangements, which sometimes seem to recycle the same old riffs that Thompson has regularly exhumed ever since he left Fairport.  Only in the 90’s when he worked with Mitchell Froom at Capitol did he seem to leave most of that tired English folkery behind.  For me, songs from those years like ‘Ghosts in the Wind’, ‘Beeswing’ and ‘Bathsheba smiles’ showed a breadth of imagination in their arrangements which is largely lacking here.  It’s a pity because songs like ‘Crimescene‘  and ‘Stumble On’ are vintage Thompson and deserve a slightly more innovative approach.  The one exception to all this is undoubtedly ‘Big Sun Falling in the River’ in which lyric, arrangement and instrumentation blend perfectly.

‘Dream Attic’ has garnered almost universal praise from all quarters, so I am clearly out of step with the majority viewpoint here.  As I’ve said, for me, it’s  another good, but not flawless, addition to the RT canon.  Personally, I still prefer him solo and acoustic, but if he is going to work with a band, it would be nice to see someone else having a bit of input into the arrangements, offering a gleaming framework for his marvellous songs rather than just a backing band recycling folk-rock pleasantries from the early 1970’s.

Fleetwood Mac: Shake your moneymaker (Part Three -1975 —>)

For a band for whom instability was almost a watchword for so much of their career up until 1975, the history of Fleetwood Mac since then has been relatively stable.  Sure, there have been personnel changes, mostly temporary in nature, although Christine McVie did retire permanently from the band in 1998 and seems to have no inclination to return to the fold.  However,  in 2010, with every remaining member of the ‘Rumours‘-era band into their sixties, Fleetwood Mac have abandoned the headstrong passions of youth and the follies of middle age to become an institution, much like The Rolling Stones.  Like the Stones, little attention is paid by the wider public to their newer songs, but large audiences will turn out every few years and fill anonymous arenas to hear them crank out ‘The Chain’ and ‘Rhiannon’ and all those mid-seventies radio favourites.  Hardcore fans will doubtless disagree, but they have in effect become their own tribute band.  The company may be spiky and the egos fragile, but the money is good.  Makes you wonder what Peter Green thinks about it all.

Which is not to say that Messrs Fleetwood, McVie, Buckingham & Nicks are without talent.   After all, ‘Rumours‘ remains one of the biggest-selling albums of all time and though there’s always the odd exception like ‘Frampton comes alive’, mega-selling albums are usually popular for good reason.  In America, 1976/7 was the last gleaming of the Woodstock era before the twin blights of punk and corporate sponsorship brought a plague of serpents into the garden and the two big sellers of that era were ‘Rumours’ and The Eagles’  ‘Hotel California’.  I was involved in record retailing in Manchester at this time and I can still remember the local Warners rep talking with disbelief about the ‘Rumours’ phenomenon.  He cut us a great deal; we took 500 copies of ‘Rumours’ at a hugely undercut price but one of the partners in the shops was less than enthused and said so in words of one syllable.  However, he was the one left with egg on his face when we cleared all 500 in the space of a fortnight and went back for more. ‘Rumours’ was like that;  just when you thought that everyone in Manchester must own at least 2 copies, there would be another surge. 

Mick Fleetwood’s fateful visit to Sound City Studios in late 1974 was the start of the most successful era in Fleetwood Mac’s tortuous history.  Keith Olsen reputedly played Fleetwood a tape of ‘Frozen Love’, as recorded by Buckingham Nicks to demonstrate the sound of the ‘room’ at Sound City. Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks had been an item since 1966 or so and had been the leading lights in a northern Californian band called Fritz.  Olsen had persuaded them to leave the band behind and make a record themselves.  They signed to Polydor and recorded ‘Buckingham Nicks’ in 1973.  The label, however, offered them little in the way of support and things were looking somewhat bleak until Mick Fleetwood decided that Lindsey Buckingham would be the ideal guy to replace Bob Welch in Fleetwood Mac.  Buckingham  made it clear that, although interested, he wouldn’t join unless Stevie Nicks came with him as part of the deal.  Perhaps appropriately, the deal was sealed over margaritas in a Mexican restaurant, following which Buckingham and Nicks  went out on the road to fulfil their remaining commitments as BN before becoming members of Fleetwood Mac in January of 1975.  The ‘Buckingham Nicks’ album, extraordinarily, is still unavailable on CD.

Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, circa 1974

‘Fleetwood Mac’ was recorded over three months at Sound City and released in July of 1975.  By that juncture, the revamped band were already out on the road playing support to people like Loggins & Messina and creating a genuine buzz with their new personnel and repertoire.  Lindsey Buckingham had a powerful voice and a guitar style that was every bit as distinctive as any of his predecessors , whilst Stevie Nicks twirled and pranced and sang like the ultimate hippie dream-girl.  They brought some pretty good pop songs with them, too; songs that had originally been slated for a second Buckingham Nicks album.  Early sales and airplay for the album were promising; typically pre-1975 Mac would sell about 300,000 copies of each album, but ‘Fleetwood Mac’ was a slow-burning hit, aided by a succession of chart singles and sales quickly headed for the million mark and beyond.  It was only the start….

Much has been made of what was happening to the band behind the scenes.  The McVie marriage had broken down, Buckingham & Nicks were on the way out as a couple and Fleetwood & Nicks even contrived a clandestine dalliance at some point further down the road.  Christine McVie took up with the band’s lighting director…it was all heady stuff.  Unusually for a successful band,  Fleetwood Mac seemed almost to revel in the public washing of dirty laundry.  Somehow they took the tension and used it to fuel their performances.  Their next album, ‘Rumours’ was aptly named and as mentioned previously, it became an absolute monster.  The old codgers of the band, Fleetwood and John McVie, emerged into the sunlit uplands of their late-blossoming careers and who can deny them their houses in Hawaii and their opulent lifestyles?  After all, they are great survivors, living through the drugs and the breakdowns and the religious cults and the affairs.  They’ve become the Statler & Waldorf of rock’n’roll in many ways. 

The classic late 70’s line-up

Having nailed their place in history with ‘Rumours‘ and its attendant string of hit singles, Fleetwood Mac followed the well-trodden path of excess.  We had to wait until 1979 before the hopelessly overblown double-album ‘Tusk’ came out, which featured some strong songs by Nicks, cementing  her gypsy princess persona, but not much else of note.  Then there was a monstrous tour of the entire universe, which revealed the band to be an impressively coherent unit on stage.  I caught the show in 1980 at Stafford’s Bingley Hall, usually a cattle-market, travelling down to the gig with a girl I’d been trying to win over for 12 months or more, with only intermittent success.  Afterwards,  it took us nearly 2 hours to escape from the car park, during which time I managed to let her know that since the tickets were bought some months beforehand, I’d now actually met someone else who was travelling up from Devon to move in with me  the following weekend.  An appropriate scenario for the aftermath of a Fleetwood Mac gig, I thought…more rumours…

As far as the band were concerned, they no doubt made and squandered a fortune on that tour.  Subsequently there was a halfway decent live double album, followed by the inevitable rifts, break-ups and tiffs.  In time, there would be new players to replace Buckingham (including, at one point, Dave Mason, of all people) and more hit albums and singles.  Somehow, though, it had all become a tad predictable and music had moved on.  After the excesses of ‘Tusk’ came the modest ‘Mirage’ and the inevitable rash of solo albums.  Only Nicks has really had much success here, although Lindsey Buckingham’s reinvention of himself  as a family man has brought a maturity to his songwriting and  some excellent solo albums; in particular ‘Under the Skin’ (2006).  I don’t really feel the need to chart all the band’s splits and reunions over the years; let’s just say that they’ve happened and no-one has been terribly surprised.  Christine McVie’s decision to relocate to Kent in 1998 and prop up the bar in the village pub is a rare example of a band-member showing good sense and judgement.  As rare as snow in the Sahara where this lot are concerned. 

Fleetwood Mac started out as a blues band playing grubby little pubs and colleges.  These days, they are up there in the ranks of the megabands who tour once every five years or so and charge a small fortune for the seats at their arena gigs.  Where they began was undoubtedly a lot more interesting than where they’ve ended up, but for the first 10 years or so, the journey was rarely anything less than astonishing.  If they hadn’t met up with Buckingham & Nicks, Fleetwood Mac would probably have eventually gone back to the blues, turning up on the bill at revivalist events that are often staged at off-season holiday camps and suchlike.  Whilst they never exceeded the creative peak they reached around the time of ‘Then Play On’, their reinvention of themselves as the perfect late 70’s Californian pop band is as remarkable as it was unlikely.

Fleetwood Mac: Future Games (Part Two, 1970-1975)

Fleetwood Mac in 1970…the best of times and the worst of times.  On  one hand, they had broken free of the blues/rock ghetto that had spawned them, they were beginning to gain a following in America to rival their huge popularity in Europe and they were making sublime and fascinating music based on the brilliant songwriting of Peter Green. 

On the other hand, Green, their leader and inspiration, was sliding into mental illness,  collectively, they were taking too many drugs and they had a member who hardly participated in recording sessions and when he did, only seemed interested in musical styles that they were trying to leave behind.

Jeremy Spencer

Jeremy Spencer

This was Jeremy Spencer, whose onstage demeanour was that of a ‘wild man of rock’, whilst offstage he was quiet and withdrawn and when the band toured would often retreat to his room to read the Bible.  Looking back from a distance of 40 years, it’s hard to see how Spencer stayed in the band for so long  when he was apparently so disinterested in the band’s newer material or in any kind of collective songwriting with the other writers in the band.  The only plausible answer must be that his Elvis/Buddy Holly/Elmore James parodies were popular with crowds at gigs and that ontsage, if not offstage, he took some of the pressure off Green as bandleader.

When Green finally walked away from Fleetwood Mac in mid-1970, there was widespread consternation among industry insiders and fans alike.  In 1969 & 1970, Fleetwood Mac were at the zenith of their popularity.  Their singles since ‘Albatross’ had all been huge hits, the critics loved them, their most recent album, ‘Then Play On’ was selling well across the world and their touring schedule in the USA was beginning to bear fruit.  It was a bad  couple of years for guitar worshippers as Cream, too, had  recently split up.  The music press was full of stories about what Eric or Greeny or Jimi were planning next.   Within another year, Hendrix was dead, Green was lost to mental illness and Clapton seemed content to be just one of the guys in the band.  The person with the biggest smile on his face must have been Jimmy Page, whose Led Zeppelin were poised to capitalise on the ground already broken by others. 

Howls of dismay were heard from Fleetwood Mac fans when Green left and the band may well have contemplated splitting at this stage.  Instead, they retreated, Traffic-like, to the country and emerged with a new album in the late summer.  Spencer played a full role in the album, contributing the inevitable parodies and John McVie’s wife, Christine, having left Chicken Shack, contributed  uncredited backing vocals throughout and provided an attractive if slightly whimsical illustration for the cover.  The new album was called ‘Kiln House’ and was greeted with little enthusiasm by the band’s European fan base, who were still mourning Peter Green’s departure.  In the USA however, it fared somewhat better and that relative success may have been enough to persuade the band to focus their energies on the North American market.

Another American tour was set up and with Christine McVie as a full member, the band set off  in early 1971 to promote the new album.  In San Francisco, the band got news of a major earthquake in Los Angeles, their next port of call.  Jeremy Spencer, already struggling to cope with his intake of psychedelics,  pleaded with the rest of the band to abandon the Los Angeles dates – the earthquake had given Spencer ‘bad vibes’ (ho ho).  Ignoring his pleas, the band continued the tour.  Once in Los Angeles, Spencer left the band’s hotel and disappeared, which led to the LA gigs being cancelled.  When the others  tracked him down a few days later, Spencer had shaved off all his hair and joined the ‘Children of God’, a quintessentially happy-clappy cult, with whom he still maintains strong ties.  Spencer refused to honour his commitments to the rest of the band for the tour, so Peter Green agreed to ‘come out of retirement’, just for the duration.

In the wake of the tour something important had happened to Fleetwood Mac, inasmuch as in losing first Green, then Spencer, they had lost not only their leader and guiding light, but also the umbilicus that connected them to the Blues had been well and truly cut.  At this point, they could have quit completely or recruited a Green sound-alike to continue that connection, but bravely, they decided to pursue (excuse the ‘Spinal Tap’-ism) their new direction.  ‘Kiln House’ had sold poorly, but undeterred, the band recruited American guitarist and singer Bob Welch and with Welch, Danny Kirwan and Christine McVie now all writing songs, they pressed ahead with another album.

‘Future Games’-era Fleetwood Mac; from the left, Kirwan, Welch, Fleetwood, Christine & John McVie

What came out of this uncertainty was one of Fleetwood Mac’s best and most under-rated albums; ‘Future Games’.   This album was released in November of 1971 and confirmed the band’s stylistic shift towards what was sometimes rather sniffily referred to as ‘soft rock’.  This was, after all, an era in which artists like Simon & Garfunkel, The Eagles, America and the whole Crosby, Stills & Nash collective were selling records in huge quantities.  Even the doyen of British bluesmen, John Mayall, had released a semi-acoustic, drummer-less album in 1970 (‘The Turning Point’), so electric blues was taking a back seat for a while.  A whole new generation of singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Neil Young, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell were coming to the fore, especially in the States, so FM’s instincts were sound enough.  What’s more, ‘Future Games’ revealed Bob Welch as a guitarist, singer and songwriter whose style meshed well with the new-style Fleetwood Mac.  Free of Peter Green’s brooding presence and Jeremy Spencer’s infatuation with 50’s rock’n’roll, Danny Kirwan stepped forward to embrace the new approach and Christine McVie’s keyboards and vocals offered new possibilities.  There were some strong songs as well, fitting in well with the prevailing mood of pastoral mysticism.  Welch’s title track, ‘Sands of Time’, ‘Woman of a Thousand Years’ and ‘Morning Rain‘ all stretched out beyond the five-minute mark and revealed a cohesive and unified approach.  As re-inventions go, it was pretty impressive after the disappointing ‘Kiln House’ and in many ways established a template for the Buckingham Nicks era to come.

The European markets were still too infatuated with the Peter Green era to truly embrace the new band, but airplay in America was encouraging.  The band returned to a dogged schedule of tours and recording, striving to recapture the moment when America seemed likely to fall at their feet like a ripe peach. 1972 brought the release of ‘Bare Trees’, which whilst less memorable than its predecessor continued to build the new band’s reputation.  However, the ongoing drama that seemed to dog Fleetwood Mac’s footsteps returned when Kirwan and Welch got into a major bust up prior to a gig and Kirwan was ushered out of the band.  He was replaced by two new faces; singer Dave Walker from Savoy Brown via The Idle Race and guitarist Bob Weston from Long John Baldry’s band via Black Cat Bones.  Mac’s manager Clifford Davis was the driving force behind these new additions, particularly Walker.  Davis was not blind to the success that Led Zeppelin (Robert Plant) and Deep Purple (Ian Gillan) were having with a dominant lead vocalist.  Walker was supposed to fulfil that role in Fleetwood Mac as Davis pushed the band to abandon their softer aspirations and return to the harder rock sound of the ‘Green Manalishi’ era.  Another disappointing album (‘Penguin‘)  ensued in 1973, but Walker was contributing little in terms of songs and was soon eased out.  Weston contributed more to the band but his extra-curricular activities with Mick Fleetwood’s wife meant that he, too, was shown the door during the 1973 ‘Mystery to Me’ tour.  The remainder of the tour was cancelled, but Clifford Davis assembled a Fleetwood Mac ‘doppelganger’ and sent them out on the road  in the USA to fulfil the band’s touring commitments.  This led to a protracted legal battle to determine who exactly owned the Fleetwood Mac ‘trademark’ and though the courts ultimately decided in favour of Fleetwood & McVie, the battle was lengthy, expensive and attritional.  This period also saw the collapse of the McVie marriage, due in no small part to John’s alcoholism, so it was business as usual for a band for whom drama and chaos had become almost second nature.  And, just for good measure, it was about now that the band relocated permanently to the USA.

Fleetwood Mac as a sextet in 1973

1974 saw a new Fleetwood Mac album – ‘Heroes are hard to find’, which added to the slow but steady progress that the new Mac were making in the States.  In Europe, there was barely a flutter of interest and I would imagine that many fans assumed that the band had split up.  In truth, after the promise of ‘Future Games’, Fleetwood Mac had produced three patchy albums with the odd memorable song, like ‘Hypnotised‘ or ‘Station Man’, but the material was largely anodyne and there was no indication that the band were about to regain their former position of prominence.   Conceivably, these thoughts had crossed Bob Welch’s mind as well.  He left at the end of 1974 and the band were faced with a familiar problem.  They had made some progress in America, whilst being ignored or forgotten in Europe.  They had now produced six albums for Reprise, of which only the first, ‘Then Play On’, had made any real impact on the charts.  After 5 years of relentless touring in the States, they had made some inroads but with Welch’s departure were effectively back to square one.  Whatever happened next was probably going to be their final shot at regaining their status as a major act.  So, late in 1974, Mick Fleetwood ran into an old acquaintance in Los Angeles and mentioned that he was on the lookout for a new studio.  Said friend took him out to Sound City studios in ‘The Valley’ and introduced him to owner Keith Olsen.  Olsen wanted to demonstrate the quality of his studio and played Fleetwood a track recently recorded there by a young folk/rock duo  called Buckingham Nicks.  The rest, as they say, is marketing….

Comings & goings at Summer’s End

I’ve always had this irrational prejudice against the Edinburgh Festival.  Not because of what it is, but because of when it is.  Same thing with the Notting Hill Carnival.  To me, these two events symbolise the end of summer, the end of warm weather, the onset of autumn.  It’s ridiculous, I know, but I don’t seem able to shake it.

The Princess is the same, only with her, it’s those signs that go up everywhere in shops from mid-August, saying ‘Back to School’.  She’s about to start her final year at University and still it bugs her.  I can understand it.

Her birthday falls at the end of August and this year she turned 20.  Big change for her; no more teenage angst.  She went off to the Leeds Festival, which was actually in the middle of nowhere between Leeds and Tadcaster.  The weather was kinder than down here, though the nights were cold and she seemed to have a really good time.  Enjoyed a lot of the bands, hooked up with a guy she’s been brooding over for about a year now, drank and smoked a great deal but hardly ate at all.  She came home with the start of a serious cold which has now blossomed into hacking and sneezing and piles of snotty tissues everywhere. Ecccckk.  She sat next to me the other night on the sofa and said ‘I’ve got the End of Summer Blues’.  Birthday notwithstanding, she’s into her last 2 weeks here, having come home after her exams finished at the end of May.  I’m going to miss her horrendously when she finally disappears back up to Mancunia.

And it’s not just her; her cousin is doing a French degree in Bristol and she disappeared off to Rennes in Brittany today.  She’ll be there for 9 months.  We went round last night to say our fond farewells, promised to go and visit.  She’s just broken up with her boyfriend of some 4 years, who was supposed to be going with her, but now she’s going alone.  She’ll cope fine; this is the girl who went off to Kolkata, aged 18 and worked in a place that tried to look after/ educate/ feed some of the city’s street kids.  The prosperous surroundings of a Breton town shouldn’t tax her survival skills too much, but it’ s going to be very different for her as she’ll be alone – though not for long, I suspect.  She’s an extremely gregarious girl and I have no doubt that she’ll make lots of new friends out there.

Then there’s my Dad.  Now 86, he’s about to head off on a three week tour of the Scottish Highlands.  Not with Saga Tours or Wallace Arnold or one of those ‘oldies’ tour operators, either.   He’s driving up and has booked all his accommodation via the internet.  Most of the time, he’ll be based in Oban and he intends to buy a pass that will enable him to jump on and off the CalMac ferries that run out to the Hebrides.  That will be a very sentimental journey for him as he and my Mum used to disappear off to the Highlands and Islands with their caravan until she died six years ago.  He was also round and about the Scottish coast during the Second World War as well, travelling from Greenock up and around Cape Wrath en route to Scapa Flow, so the trip will bring back those memories as well.  From Oban, he’ll be heading up to the Fort William area, then across to Inverness for a few days.  He’s then going to visit his sister, who lives near Elgin, for a few days, though she really can’t cope with house guests for long.  My Mum never had much time for his sister, for all the usual dumb reasons; family fall-outs and suchlike.  Since she died , they’ve picked up their relationship, speak regularly on the phone and have visited one another a couple of times. 

After Mum died, I can recall urging Dad to get a computer, so he invested in a fairly basic Dell.  In the intervening six years, he’s learned to send & receive e-mail via a Hotmail account, does all his banking online, buys DVDs and books from Amazon and now books bed & breakfasts.  He’s about as far from being an ‘I.T. native’ as it’s possible to get, but credit where credit’s due.  My biggest problem has been discouraging him from joining Facebook and accessing the Princess’ homepage, which is filled with profanity and photos of drunken student behaviour…..

As for me, I’m going nowhere; still struggling to find work and still blogging away.  To adapt a well-known lyric, I never felt more like singing the End of Summer Blues…….