Category Archives: Music – Rock

1970: All things must pass

I’ve just finished reading David Browne’s ‘Fire and Rain’, a lengthy volume which attempts to explain many aspects of why the 1960’s Hippie Dream turned sour and does so by concentrating on one year – 1970 – and on 4 groups or artists for whom 1970 was a big year; Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Beatles and James Taylor.

All 4 released albums in 1970 – Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge over troubled water‘,  CSNY’s ‘Déjà Vu ‘,  James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ and The Beatles’ ‘Let it be’.  Each of those albums were important inasmuch as they signified the end of the road for both The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel,  whilst Déjà Vu demonstrated how the addition of Neil Young to the mix completely destroyed the huge promise of the first ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash’ album from the previous year.  With hindsight,  only James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ can be seen in a positive light; after all, it was the template for Taylor’s hugely successful career which still endures to this day.

CrosbyStillsNashYoung 1970CSNY in 1970 – falling apart before they ever really got together

All of these albums – particularly ‘Bridge over troubled water’  – were highly successful in terms of sales but all except for the Taylor album are freighted with negative connotations.

Simon & Garfunkel’s final album was patchy.  The title track was a monster hit everywhere and became an instant ‘standard’ and there were other fine moments like the quirky ‘So long Frank Lloyd Wright’, but there were some patchy moments as well.  Overall,  the album lacked the homogeneity of 1968’s  ‘Bookends’ and, as Browne points out, many of the tracks featured either Garfunkel’s voice or Simon’s – there weren’t many moments where we were treated to the sweet joint harmonies of yesteryear.

‘Let  it be‘ was a ragbag mess of a record after the smooth fluidity of its predecessor, ‘Abbey Road’.  Few of the songs were of a quality that matched The Beatles’ achievements  at their ‘Revolver’/’Sgt Pepper‘ peak.  ‘Let it be’ revealed a band falling apart.  The only surprise is that it was released at all; few other bands would have got away with it.

Déjà Vuand the US concert tour that followed it turned Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young into the world’s biggest band by the summer of 1970.  Yet the record – like the band –  is deeply flawed, lacking the unity of mood, purpose and underlying philosophy which made the 1969 ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash‘ album one of the finest début albums of all time.  By contrast, ‘Déjà Vu’ sounds like the work of 4 solo artists, which as Browne’s book reveals was pretty much the case.  Only Crosby’s hippie potboiler ‘Almost cut my hair’ avoids this label as he insisted the whole band record it live in the studio.  Looking back, it’s clear that Young only joined the CSN collective in order to further his own solo career.  It’s of some significance that Young’s ‘After the Goldrush’, another 1970 release, leaves ‘Déjà Vu’ standing – and I say this as someone for whom Neil Young’s lengthy solo career is largely a monument to self-indulgence and tedium.  All in all, it has to be said that whilst  ‘Déjà Vu’ has its momentsStills’ ‘Carry On’ and Crosby’s title track maintain the quality of the first album –  the rest is pretty forgettable.

So, for Browne’s chosen artistes, we have two bands who disintegrated in 1970 plus one who were hardly together at all and all of this came in the wake of the Woodstock dream being soured by the events at the Altamont Speedway at the end of 1969.  Even  for Taylor, who was well on his way to becoming a major artist by the end of 1970,  success was curdled by lengthy episodes of drug abuse and flirtations with the mental instability that informed some of his lyrics.   All in all, it’s not a pretty picture, but the thing is, it’s also a distorted one, because in many other ways, 1970 was a time of harvest for many of the bands and performers who had been developing their music over the previous few years.

Even a perfunctory glance at a list of the albums that were released in 1970 show an extraordinary diversity and range of talent.  This was the year of Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ , of  Santana’s ‘Abraxas’, of Pink Floyd’s  ‘Atom Heart Mother’, Traffic’s ‘John Barleycorn must die’ and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Ladies of the Canyon’.  How different, how much more positive could Browne’s story have been if he’d chosen these albums and artists instead of the ones already mentioned?

TrafficTraffic in 1970;  (L-R) Wood, Winwood & Capaldi

Well, of course, Browne chose the artists and albums he did because they illustrated the specific point he was trying to make about the death of 1960’s idealism and the encroachment of greed, ego and narcotics upon the hippie heartlands of yesteryear.  To be honest, his points are well-made, but I have to ask myself which of the artists he covered were on my personal ‘playlist’ in 1970.  Maybe Déjà Vu‘ – though I usually reverted to the first ‘CSN’
album by preference – and from time to time later on in the year, Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ once it strayed across my radar.  The other two were not albums I listened to at all – I always felt that ‘Let it be‘ was rubbish aside from a couple of the tracks and I found ‘Bridge over troubled water‘ too syrupy and bland.  Some people found the title track magnificent; I just found it overblown.

I’ve already mentioned a few of the top albums released in 1970 – here’s a more comprehensive list:

Derek & the Dominos – ‘Layla and other assorted love songs’

The Mothers of Invention – ‘Burnt Weeny Sandwich’ / ‘Chunga’s Revenge’

Free – ‘Fire & Water’/’Highway’

George Harrison – ‘All things must pass’

Grateful Dead – ‘Workingman’s Dead’ / ‘American Beauty’

Jimmy Webb – ‘Words & Music’

Joni Mitchell – ‘Ladies of the Canyon’

IABD - Marrying Maiden

King Crimson – ‘In  the wake of Poseidon’ / ‘Lizard’

Led Zeppelin – ‘III’

Neil Young – ‘After the Goldrush’

Pink Floyd – ‘Atom Heart Mother’

Rod Stewart – ‘Gasoline Alley’

Ry Cooder – ‘Ry Cooder’

Santana – ‘Abraxas’

Soft Machine – ‘Third’

Supertramp – First Album (‘Supertramp’)

Allman Brothers Band – ‘Idlewild South’

The Band – ‘Stage Fright’

The Byrds – ‘Untitled’

The Doors – ‘Morrison Hotel’

The Rolling Stones – ‘Get yer ya-ya’s out’

Todd Rundgren – ‘Runt’

Mountain climbing

Traffic – ‘John Barleycorn must die’

Yes – ‘Time and a Word’

Family – A Song for Me’

Mountain – Climbing!

Egg – ‘Egg’

Miles Davis – ‘Bitches’ Brew’

The Flying Burrito Brothers – ‘Burrito Deluxe’

Country Joe and the Fish – ‘C.J. Fish.’

Blodwyn Pig – ‘Getting to this’


The Who – ‘Live at Leeds’

Ginger Baker’s Air Force – First Album

Dave Mason – ‘Alone Together’

Fotheringay – First Album (‘Fotheringay’)

Quicksilver Messenger Service – ‘Just for Love’ / ‘What about me?’

Nick Drake – ‘Bryter Later’

Tim Buckley – ‘Starsailor’

Quintessence 1970

Spirit – ‘The 12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus’

Roy Harper – ‘Flat Baroque & Berserk’

If – First Album & ‘If 2’

It’s a Beautiful Day – ‘Marrying Maiden’

John McLaughlin – ‘My Goal’s Beyond’

Quintessence – ‘Quintessence ‘ (Second album)

John & Beverley Martyn – ‘The Road to Ruin’

OK,  so here are close to 50 LP’s which also saw the light of day in 1970 and might paint a rather less negative picture than Browne offers in his book.  People often talk of 1967 as being the magical year for music  but for me, 1970 is the year that really counts.  You can make your own mind up about that.

After this, of course, there was Bowie and The Eagles and  Little Feat and  Steely Dan – overall,  something new.  Whilst the 60’s was a fading dream , the 70’s offered something different.  1970 was a year that marked the dividing line between the two decades and gave us a whole new set of possibilities.

Burning down the house….

It would seem that living in this part of Birmingham is rapidly becoming a hazardous business.  Going way back, the old Indoor Market in Kings Heath burned down under suspicious circumstances and only a year or so back, the old Kingsway cinema went up, yet again under similarly dodgy circumstances.

Now, a landmark of the Birmingham music scene, the former Ritz Ballroom in York Road;  most recently a branch of grasping pawnshop chain Cash Converters has also pretty much burned to the ground under – you guessed it –  the proverbial ‘suspicious circumstances’.

KHeath fire

You say ‘Hello’, I say ‘Goodbye’ – the Ritz goes up in flames

So is Kings Heath now ‘Arson Central’?  Should we go to bed with a bucket of water and a fire blanket?  Just what is going on?  As far as I am aware, neither the Indoor Market fire or the Kingsway fire were ever adequately explained and though the local Fire Department are talking of ‘suspicious circumstances’ no-one seems quite sure what they mean.

Did they find an empty firelighters box and a trail of spent matches in the vicinity?  Perhaps some shellsuited denizen of the  wretched Stalinist banlieues further out of the city loudly and publicly threatened to rain down doom and disaster on Cash Converters because they would only give him £3 for his extensive collection of PS3 games or maybe it was just some dodgy wiring in an old building which, I suspect, was never terribly well-maintained.

Whatever the case, the BBC were quick to dig up some rentamouth Brummy social historian – though not Carl Chinn for once – who deplored the city’s lack of care & attention where its musical heritage was concerned.  This bloke suggested that both Manchester & Liverpool have been much more adept at preserving their musical heritage.  Hmmm, well I’m not sure about Liverpool and that whole ersatz Beatles thing in Mathew Street, but I do know that Manchester has been equally careless with the Electric Circus, the original Factory/Russell Club and the Haçienda all now demolished.

Hooky at the Hac

Hooky at the site of The Haçienda; from yacht showroom to iconic venue to a block of yuppie flats……is nothing sacred?

Ho hum, sic transit gloria swanson, but there is a certain irony in the fact that the people behind the (ahem) ‘Kings Heath Walk of Fame’ – first to be honoured, Toyah Willcox, next up (apparently) The Move’s Trevor Burton – had staged an event in Fletcher’s bar opposite The Ritz in February to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of The Beatles playing The Ritz.


The Ritz as it was back in the day. Note bizarre multi-coloured plastic checkerboard tiled frontage.  Groovy!

The Ritz was one of 4 ‘ballrooms’ owned and run by the Regan family in this area.  In addition, there were 2 Plazas – one in Handsworth and one in Old Hill plus the notorious Garryowen club in Small Heath.  I can recall visiting the ‘Garry’  a few times back in the 80’s and it was pretty wild.  As far as I know,  it, too. was either demolished or burned down a while back .  Hmm, bit of a pattern developing here……

According to  ic Birmingham back in 2005:  “The Small Heath club, a cornerstone of Birmingham’s Irish community since 1946, was labelled by police as a hot-spot of crime, disorder, alcohol abuse and anti-social behaviour….Insp David McCrone  said there had been 223 call-outs to the club in two years, even though it was only open two nights a week, and closing time deadlines were flouted.”  That sounds about right…my strategy in the Garry was keep drinking and keep your head down.  How bad things got in there generally depended on the respective results for the Blues (Birmingham City) and the Villa (Aston Villa) on any given Saturday.  A win for Villa and a defeat for the Blues meant maximum aggravation and you might be wiser to spend your evening in an alternative cocktail bar unless you were ‘in’ with the central core of drinkers.

Anyway, the Regans are gone, the ‘Garry’ is gone and now so is The Ritz.  As I stood at the corner of York Road yesterday surveying the still-smouldering remains, an old dear next to me said ” I met my husband in there ; we used to go dancing there nearly every weekend”


The Fab Four – allegedly taken out the back of The Ritz in 1962

There is a sense of loss locally; after all it wasn’t just The Beatles who played at The Ritz – the place also played host to the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, the Rolling Stones and even Pink Floyd.  However, I think it’s dubious to start moaning and groaning about how poor this city is at preserving its musical heritage – apart from Manchester, a quick look around will show that the Rainbow (née Finsbury Park Astoria) became a Happy-Clappy Church in the 1980’s and now seems to be closed/derelict.


The former Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park

Maybe the USA does this kind of thing better;  Harlem’s  ‘Apollo’ is still open for business whilst there is a ‘ Fillmore Club’ on the site of the old Carousel / Fillmore in San Francisco.  However,  CBGB in The Bowery is now a clothes shop and whilst long-standing  jazz clubs like  Birdland and the Village Vanguard are still around,  none of them are in the same premises where they began.  Seen from this point of view, the whole thing just becomes a kind of franchise and authenticity becomes a question of branding rather than geographical  location.


The original Carousel Ballroom / Fillmore West in 1970…


…and the same intersection today

When I lived in Copenhagen in the late 1970’s, I can recall witnessing a plethora of top-flight jazz gigs at the Montmartre Jazz Club, a venue known – by reputation at least – to all European jazz fans.  In just a couple of years I saw some fantastic gigs featuring the likes of the nascent Pat Metheny Group, Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon, Dollar Brand, Gil Evans and perhaps best of all, the 1977  McCoy Tyner Sextet.  However, I knew well and good that the club on Nørregade was by no means the original Montmartre location.  Earlier in the 70’s I had been to Montmartre on Store Regnegade to see Ben Webster, but even that wasn’t the club’s original location.

So, what does it really matter?  I guess we only really miss these places when they are gone.  After its heyday, the Regans turned The Ritz into a bingo hall and it then stood derelict for quite a while before it was tarted up by Cash Converters.  Can’t say as I noticed the doyens and doyennes of Birmingham’s music scene trying to reclaim it for posterity at any time during this period.  The Ritz now joins the long and honourable roll-call of venues we have loved and lost.  And maybe they are best preserved in our memories rather than being regurgitated via places like the formulaic Hard Rock Cafés and their ilk.

Ironically, Montmartre closed down in 1995, but has now reopened back in the same Store Regnegade location it occupied for nearly 15 years.  Wonder if they have revived the red-check tablecloths that were the club’s trademark?  Doesn’t seem very likely…..


Dexter Gordon, Lars Gullin and Sahib Shihab plus rhythm section  filmed at Montmartre in 1962

Listening to Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood…..

Some readers may perhaps find it a little strange that it has taken me until the closing months of 2012 to arrive at a considered view of Messrs Clapton & Winwood’s spasmodic series of reunion gigs and product ‘opportunities’  which, after all,  have been going on for about 5 years now. 

On the other hand, that’s probably somewhat to the point; back in the day I would have been on the case at once – after all,  these two were major deities in the pantheon of rock gods who strutted their fitful hour upon the stage,  then (we assumed)  disappeared to Hawaii or Malibu or Woodstock to ‘hang out’ with other rock stars and loads of beautiful girls, take loads of drugs and (eventually) put together another album’s-worth of songs that tugged at the social fabric and suggested that the younger generation were more fitting custodians of contemporary society than their elders.

Ugly work, but someone had to do it……nowadays, though, the low spark of high-heeled boys is just a distant glimmer of what it used to be and nobody says much any more about fighting in the streets or changing the world.  The torch has passed to another generation and when The Who sing about everyone f-f-f-fading away at the end of the Olympics, you sense that they might even be singing about their own g-g-g-g-generation.  It seems that even pill-popping mods from the mid-60’s have become commodified and the anger that drove Pete Townshend’s original lyric has just dissolved into grumpiness, cynicism and empty spectacle.  No wonder I feel able to approach Winwood and Clapton at a more leisurely pace .  They’re not quite Stadtler & Waldorf yet, but it’s definitely more about relaxation than revolution these days.

Winwood & Clapton on stage in 2011

Seen through that kind of lens, Steve & Eric are nowadays really just a couple of ageing geezers whose voices won’t quite make those high notes anymore and whose recent solo records hardly sell at all compared to the glory days of the 1970’s.    And they are far from being alone; every major city in the UK has bands composed of ex-members of this or that or the other band who used to be a big deal and who now get together once in a while in the function rooms of suburban pubs to run through a few of the old favourites  – in this town, it’s generally ex-members of bands like The Move or the Steve Gibbons Band (or both) who are involved in this kind of thing and if you’re  a fan, it’s no doubt a slightly nostalgic night out.

This is really what Steve and Eric are doing, but such is their residual clout in the minds of fans, promoters and journalists that they’re able to stage their bouts of nostalgia to packed houses in huge venues across three continents and record companies will still produce DVD’s and double CD’s of it all.  It’s a measure of the stature they once had and an increasingly rare event as most of the heavy hitters from that era  -for example, Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin – are unlikely – for one reason or another – to tour again in any major way,  leaving only the possibility of a last hurrah from The Rolling Stones to turn back the clocks to when these dinosaurs really did roam the Earth and draw a line under the whole Rock & Roll epoch. 

In some respects, Eric Clapton has in any case been backtracking through his career highlights since well before the Millennium rolled around.  There have been excursions with B B King and J J Cale  ( and if  A.A. Milne or  e.e. cummings were still alive….)   and studio projects based around Robert Johnson’s slim songbook.  There have been onstage reunions with Cream and with John Mayall – and of course with Winwood, leaving The Yardbirds about the only rolling stone Eric hasn’t revisited.

Winwood has been slower to accept the role of a living museum piece and through the 1990’s pressed ahead with a series of albums of original material which largely failed to match the illustrious standards of what had gone before.  There was one last hurrah with a reformed version of Traffic who released a reasonable final album (‘Far from Home’) , toured extensively in the USA, supporting bands like the Grateful Dead  and played their final gig (though none of us present realised it) at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall in September of 1994.   

Apart from that and the odd appearance on Jools Holland’s TV show, Winwood seems to have concentrated on promoting his career in North America and his profile in the UK has quietly diminished.  There was the obligatory 4 CD retrospective  in 1995 and even a mildly diverting BBC documentary called ‘English Soul’  which showed a man largely at peace in his Cotswold hideaway where he has taken on the role of occasional church organist and pillar of the local community.  When one of his daughters got married there last year, Charles and Camilla were in attendance and the child of the north Birmingham suburbs seems more than comfortable in his new role as a country squire.

By contrast, Clapton has been a troubled soul for most of his life and even the briefest trawl through his biography inevitably uncovers a catalogue of highs and lows that few can match – and live to tell the tale.  Murky family history, controversial and ill-chosen racist outbursts, high-profile  encounters with fame,  drugs and alcohol and the tragic deaths of those near & dear to him contrast with passionate affairs,  a fiendishly complex love life  and  a ‘jet set’ lifestyle,  lived in the fierce glare of the spotlights. 

Eric with his Granny in 1971

Over the years, we have seen the hair get longer and lanker, then be shaved to a grey stubble, the weight has ballooned to saloon bar habitué proportions then miraculously melted away to leave a gaunt ascetic ,  who sometimes  looks more like an accountant or an opthalmologist  than a seriously talented guitar player.  Because, that is one thing that has remained constant – for all his refuelling problems, his serial affairs and paternity issues, for all the glitzy guest star performances around the world, Eric remains one of the world’s premier blues rock guitarists.  He has outlasted those whose talents and technique exceeded his own as well as those lesser souls who simply aped his style.  He only needs to pick up that guitar and the music takes him; he is lost and ‘in the zone’  and the accumulated detritus of the years just slips away. 

In the end, he is,  like Keith Richards, a survivor and his mild and self-effacing approach  in interviews or, for example,  when cast in the role of Musical Director and M.C. for the 2002 ‘Concert for George’ (Harrison) at the Albert Hall belies the wild excesses he has experienced over the years.

So, if Clapton has caromed erratically off the walls of luxury apartments, rehab rooms and 5-star suites around the world whilst Winwood has slowly ripened in the mellow Gloucestershire sunshine – and I accept, of course, that such a view  represents a colossal over-simplification – then what has brought them together at this juncture?  Is Eric just being comprehensive in his trawl through his list of former colleagues?  There was the feeling with the reuniting Cream that he might just be working off some previous dodgy karma, but Winwood and Clapton even emerged from the Blind Faith debacle on sufficiently good terms that Steve was an active  participant  in  the ‘rehab band’ assembled by Pete Townshend for the ‘Rainbow’ project just a few years later.  These two do go back an awfully long way – to 1966 and Joe Boyd’s ‘Powerhouse’ project at least – and there seems every likelihood that they do actually get on.  Musically, neither of them have strayed far from the blues and R’n’B that initially inspired them, although Winwood has occasionally ventured a little further afield, stylistically speaking,  in his session work with the likes of Jade Warrior and Talk Talk.

Strangely it seems to have been a peculiar brand of English political conservatism that may have triggered their most recent collaboration.  Winwood’s status as part of the Cotswold ‘squirearchy’ would probably have made it almost mandatory for him to espouse the views of the Countryside Alliance, whilst Clapton’s involvement may have been triggered by his friendship with former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters.  Clapton played a gig with Waters at Highclere Castle in Berkshire in 2006 to raise money for the Alliance – who were, at the time, fighting the Labour government’s attempt to ban foxhunting.  His involvement was reported thus: “Clapton’s spokesperson confirmed “Eric supports the Countryside Alliance. He doesn’t hunt himself, but does enjoy rural pursuits such as fishing and shooting.  He supports the Alliance’s pursuit to scrap the ban on the basis that he doesn’t agree with the state’s interference with people’s private pursuits.” (

Steve Winwood in his Squire outfit.

Given their mutual enthusiasm for the preservation of rural barbarism and the rights of the individual, a reunion was perhaps inevitable and it duly happened back at Highclere in May 2007 for another Countryside Alliance fundraiser where Winwood and his band (introduced by another Alliance apologist, the  nauseating Jeremy Clarkson) were joined on stage by Eric Clapton for the latter half of their set.   Winwood subsequently guested  at the Clapton-curated tri-annual ‘Crossroads’ Festival in the USA, after which  Clapton played on Winwood’s ‘Nine Lives’ album and some New York dates were booked into Madison Square Garden for early 2008.  Beyond any shadow of a doubt,  we were now entering the realms of a full-on reunion, but whilst it might have looked like Blind Faith Mk. 2, that was never going to happen,as Winwood made clear in a BBC interview from later in 2008  –  “The idea of reforming Blind Faith arose fairly early on but it was decided that it wasn’t going to be that, because we didn’t want to limit it to that material. We wanted to touch on our own material.”

And, in a way, the interest this project holds for me lies in the songs that Steve & Eric have chosen for the setlists on this tour.  It would have been easy to churn out a predictable 90-minute set of Blind Faith, Traffic and Cream covers, but what I will confess that I do like about this project is the interesting choices the two of them made in selecting their repertoire.  Whilst there was a degree of inevitability about the appearance of over-familiar pot boilers like ‘Pearly Queen’ and the sickly ‘Wonderful Tonight’, there are also some genuinely left-field choices, particularly from Winwood’s side of the garden fence.  I would never have believed that we would ever see him performing songs like ‘No face, no name & no number’ or ‘Midland Maniac’  on stage again. 

Even Eric’s selection is not altogether predictable, with less familiar songs like ‘Tell the Truth’ and ‘Double Trouble’ given a run out, usually to good effect and the version of ‘Layla’ played at the Royal Albert Hall follows the revised arrangement that we first heard on Clapton’s ‘Unplugged‘ album.  In terms of cover versions, many observers have commented on the inclusion of no less than 3 songs connected with Jimi Hendrix and the fact that on most nights, the band’s set would climax with a 15 minute plus version of ‘Voodoo Chile’  – Winwood of course played and sang on the original version back in 1968.  Perhaps they both felt that history hasn’t been that kind to Hendrix and that songs like ‘Little Wing’ were due another airing.  Taking on ‘Voodoo Chile’  is another matter; this is one of those ‘holy grail’ tracks for Hendrix fans, but to be fair to our boys, they carry it off with considerable élan.   

Naturally, it doesn’t always work; a truncated version of Traffic’s ‘Glad’ sticks out like a sore thumb and songs like ‘Presence of the Lord’ haven’t worn particularly well.   On the whole though, the ‘everyday’ titles and the occasional variations would have kept Steve, Eric  and their cast of accomplices – including ex-Grease Band stalwart, Chris Stainton and bassist Willie Weeks who played on the 1976 ‘Steve Winwood’ album  – on their toes.  As mentioned any problems with high notes were glossed over by the  vocal talents of  Sharon White and Michelle John.  There seems to be a welcome absence of windy or sententious  pronouncements from the stage,  with Clapton handling the MC role for most of the gigs I have heard and, overall, it seems to work just fine.  There is nothing earth-shattering here; just a run through of 20 or so blues-based tunes with some accomplished playing from both the principals.  I’ve only seen fragments of the Madison Square Garden video but both Clapton & Winwood seem to be enjoying themselves and the mood is one of relaxed joviality for the most part.

Clapton & Winwood in Blind Faith days; somehow it seemed more important back then……

The music these two have made over the years – both together and apart – has often produced some high-water marks in my collection ; the original ‘Layla’ album, the ‘John Barleycorn must die’ album,  and numerous individual songs –  the original Spencer Davis Group version of ‘Gimme some lovin’, Cream’s ‘Sittin’ on top of the world’ , Traffic’s ‘No face, no name and no number’ and ‘The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys’, Blind Faith’s ‘Can’t find my way home’, Clapton’s 1975 version of ‘The Sky is Crying’  – and so on.  None of what Clapton & Winwood have produced via this reunion comes anywhere near these high-spots, but that’s OK.  This stuff can be enjoyed for its own sake and whilst  the politics are pretty dubious these days,  the playing is solid enough and the songs remain (pretty much) the same.

Welcome back my friends to the show that never, ever seems to end……

I am finding that getting old doesn’t actually have a lot to recommend it, by and large.  What’s more, it’s not just the physical battles engendered by a lifetime of bodily abuse, though it has to be said that those are challenging enough.

There are other aspects of ageing which are just as problematical as trying to cope with bits of one’s body that no longer bend or stretch or function the way that they used to.  These are often personality traits or behavioural tics that whilst considered amusing enough back in the day have now become entrenched and calcified.  For want of a better expression, this might be referred to as the Victor Meldrew paradigm. 

Thus far, I have managed to avoid mentioning the word ‘Olympics’ in this blog.  That I need to say this reminds me of the old jazz buffs’ joke about the definition of a gentleman being a man who can play the banjo – but doesn’t.  So, it might reasonably be asked why someone like me,  who is generally well-disposed towards a number of top-line sports – football, cricket, baseball – is so negative about the London Olympics. 

There are quite a few reasons, actually.  One of the main issues would be that I find  so many of the Olympic ‘disciplines’ unutterably tedious to watch – diving, fencing, archery, gymnastics, boxing, weightlifting – to name but six.   I have no interest in any of these sports generally, so why, during the Olympics, am I supposed to fill my day with endless hours of the BBC’s coverage of such events?  Then, there are the politics and corporate skullduggery going on behind the scenes, but I can (reluctantly) accept that without the likes of Microsoft and the Coca-Cola Corporation and suchlike, the Games probably wouldn’t be viable at all.  It’s the way of the modern world and whilst I may not like it, I just have to shrug my shoulders and deal with it.  Then again, I (happily) don’t live in London and won’t have to contend with an artificially inflated level of Council Tax for the rest of my lifetime in order to pay for the inconvenience and hassle and the Limo Lanes.

Watching paint dry – the latest Olympic ‘discipline’

So, having little interest in the Games as a whole, I just cherry-picked the bits I wanted to watch – specifically, the football and Usain Bolt – and ignored the rest.  Elsewhere in the house, the Partner was gung-ho for it all from the Opening Ceremony onwards, whilst the Princess slowly became an enthusiast as well.  I was doing pretty well, reining in my cynicism and disdain as the BBC milked the popular mood and ran the emotional gamut from A to B.  Somewhere along the line, everyone seemed to have forgotten that about a year ago, there were areas of London just a few discus throws from the Olympic Stadium that were going up in flames.  Instead, we were invited to join in this media-orchestrated Hallmark Cards Love-In which insisted that everyone in London was suddenly being nice to one another.  In the broadsheets, I caught a passing glimpse (and then avoided) articles by heavyweight columnists who were suddenly writing about ‘the Olympic effect’ and how we had ‘learned to like ourselves a little more’.  People even began to talk openly of ‘the mood of the nation.’  Oh dear. 

“I love everyone and I want to give all my cash to Boris Johnson”

Anyway, I was feeling quite pleased with myself, having avoided pretty much everything except the few events that did interest me – and, incidentally, all the gushing drivel from the BBC presenters.  Then along came the final day of the whole thing and we accepted an invitation to go and have dinner with friends – the only friends we have who have openly espoused the Olympics.   They had actually been to London to attend the Archery at Lord’s Cricket Ground and the Synchronised Shove Ha’penny or something similar at some other venue.   Fortunately, having not seen them for some time we had plenty of other stuff to discuss, but the TV  in their flat was relentlessly glued to Olympic coverage and I realised to my horror that dinner had been timed to ensure that we were all fed and watered in time for everyone to sit down and watch the Closing Ceremony.

I had heard much about Danny Boyle’s choreographed opening ceremony and the largely positive response it received.  Expecting something similar, I suppose I just thought ‘How bad can it be?’  and sat back in the hope that it wouldn’t be too long and that conversation could then resume or that we could then go home.

What I got was unmitigated Hell.  If anyone ever asks me – and they probably won’t – how I envisage Hell, I can now simply refer them to the three hours that ensued.  This was Hell made flesh and some of the participants – Russell Brand, Liam Gallagher, Brian May – are among its minor demons as far as I am concerned.  Of course, you can talk about the scale of the operation, the logistics of cramming thousands of athletes into the stadium during the course of two Elbow songs, the brilliant lighting and pyrotechnics and the willingness of the biddable audience to get on board with the constipated spectacle.  However, no amount of discussion could make any sense out of what unfolded.

Hell.  Note kitchen sinks being parachuted in…..

And, my, how it unfolded…and just when you thought it had finished unfolding, it unfolded a bit more.  Apart from the ceremonial bit at the end where Sebastian Coe thanked everyone for their efforts and support and the faux-sombre dousing of the Olympic pilot light before the fireworks started, the whole deranged smørgåsbord seemed to be built around British pop music of the last 50 years.  Having said that, everything still seemed to be locked into the 1960’s and 1970’s – thus, we got Ray Davies and The Who for real plus creepy necrophiliac footage of John Lennon and Freddie Mercury and The Kaiser Chiefs playing a respectably feisty version of ‘Pinball Wizard’, though, as  far as I know, pinball is not an Olympic sport – yet. 

There were those whose music was played – notably The Beatles and David Bowie – who were conspicuous by their absence and those whose music never featured at all – most glaringly, The Rolling Stones.  I was, however, pleased that rumours of an appearance by New Order proved unfounded; the last thing the happy-clappy throng needed was being serenaded by a load of miserable Mancs.  There was no reggae either;  instead we got a token rapper and some dhol drummers to remind us of  how multi-cultural we are.  

There was some surrealism as well – some of it may even have been intentional.  The Pet Shop Boys (well it was supposed to be them and they were possibly singing ‘West End Girls’) were whisked round the stadium in a dayglo rickshaw whilst dressed like a Salvador Dali vision of the functionaries of the Spanish Inquisition.  Then for some unknown reason,  we got a weird piece of video of the late Freddie Mercury doing a bit of rabble-rousing.   This was merely  a prelude to the full-on horror of the remains of Queen singing the loathsomely fascist ‘We will rock you’ – preceded by 2 or 3 minutes of ghastly guitar shredding from Brian May, whose grey curls now look like some kind of ‘Elephant Man’-type fungal growth.   More necrophilia came along via that weird video of John Lennon singing ‘Imagine‘ whilst Yoko does the dusting in the background.  ‘”Imagine there’s no countries…” sang John…….sorry John, but then there’d be no Olympics.   “Imagine no possessions….”   Err, right, John – better not tell the sponsors about that one.

The most stage-managed piece of lunacy came courtesy of Eric Idle who seemed to be dressed as a ‘Star Wars’ stormtrooper, affected to be fired out of a cannon and then treated us all to a rousing singalong of ‘Always look on the bright side of life’, which was about as normal as things got – ironic that  after all these years, it should be Monty Python making a stand for normalcy.  After the Spice Girls had stood on top of some modified black cabs and done a couple of  predictably shouty Spice Girl things about how we should take them seriously and not just ogle their legs and their tits in those micro-dresses they wear, things meandered on a bit and I have to confess to dozing through pipe bands, Annie Lennox doing her boring diva thing in a shipwreck, the band of the Grenadier Guards and some ballet dancers doing expressive dance – by this point it really was chuck in everything including the kitchen sink.  What woke me up were the opening chords of The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ and there was a moment of dislocation as I adjusted to the fact that this was the real deal and not a Kaiser Chiefs karaoke.

The Spice Girls. On top of taxis. In dodgy costumes.                They’re really serious about their art, y’know.

The Who played a medley of about three songs, concluding with a thunderous rendition of ‘My Generation’ – an interesting choice for the final piece of diced carrot in this musical minestrone, considering its lyrics tell the tale of young outsiders taking lots of drugs as a way of distancing themselves from society.

And then it was finally over.  I was grumpy and tired, an otherwise pleasant evening had been hijacked and I felt as though I’d been beaten up by the Teletubbies.  What manner of impression this ceremony created in the minds of anyone watching from Uzbekistan, Ecuador or Tanzania is open to speculation.  Personally, if I knew little about London and had watched that broadcast, I would have formed the inescapable conclusion that the whole city is essentially an open-plan lunatic asylum and would have shelved any plans to visit any time soon.  And so, the Olympic torch moves on to Rio de Janeiro – and as far as I am concerned, not a moment too soon .

Watching The Police……

You know how it goes; you’re going through a pile of stuff looking for something and you happen across something completely different and then get distracted by it – a bit like Columbus discovering the Americas when he was looking for China.

So it was that I sat down this week and watched videos of two concerts given by The Police that are nearly 30 years old.  Where did all those years go?  I’d been looking for a CD of a Thievery Corporation album that I’d burned off for my mate Adrian and suddenly came across these 2 DVD’s that someone gave me around Easter 2011 .  Oops….hope they haven’t been waiting by the phone for a ‘thank you’ call.

Anyway, with the football season over and in a sort of inter-Box Set hiatus  and catching my breath after finally watching the original & stunning  Danish version of Season 1 of ‘The Killing’, I thought I would revisit some ancient history – literally in the case of the first DVD, which was of an open-air gig at Gateshead Athletics Stadium in July 1982 and I was there!

It was a typically canny midsummer day in the north-east……banks of lowering grey cloud sitting on the hills of northwest County Durham, intermittent waves of drizzle sweeping in over South Shields, so dark by mid-afternoon that the streetlights were probably coming on…..

I remember that we dressed as though we were doing a day’s hill-walking in the Cumbrian fells….cagouls, woolly hats, thick-soled boots, flasks of home-made soup and doorstep cheese sandwiches…..not too rock and roll, really.  Not being at one with the whole Brendan Foster/Steve Cram running thing, I’d never been to the Stadium before; as I recall, it was in the middle of a council estate on the eastern side of Gateshead.  It was a mid-afternoon start and my first surprise was seeing how small the crowd was.  I assumed that more people would show up later on and I was right, but even so, it never reached a point where you could say it was packed.

First up were The Lords of the New Church, who were a hybrid US/UK post-punk band who shared the same management company as The Police (hence their presence) and had produced a  pretty good single called ‘Dance with me’.    If people were dancing it was probably just to keep warm.  The Lords of the New Church played a mercifully brief set that indicated very clearly why they were unlikely to be the Next Big Thing and then we were on to the Gang of Four.

This was a band that everyone claimed to love but no-one could name any of their songs or anyone who was in the band.  I seem to remember that they played a kind of sub-Talking Heads angular funk with shouty agit-prop lyrics which appeared to go down well enough, but it would all probably have made a lot more sense in a sweaty nightclub.

Then came The Beat, who had a string of hit singles behind them and played a short set of user-friendly ska-punk that actually did get people on their feet and dancing.  They always seemed to be able to connect with the crowd at such events  – I saw them the following summer supporting David Bowie at another open-air gig and they were even better. 

Next came U2, who had been  big favourites since I first saw them at Manchester Polytechnic S.U. in 1980 when they were third on the bill to Wah! Heat and Pink Military Stand Alone; I’d been to loads more of their gigs, I’d interviewed them not long beforehand for a fanzine, we’d had dinner in a Greek restaurant in Liverpool, they’d been for tea at my place in Stockport and one of my cats had sat on Bono’s lap – as you can probably tell,  we were virtually related by this point.

What I’d never seen was them playing in this kind of environment.  Bono – never short of an opinion or ten even in these formative days – always said that the key to what U2 did (he always used ‘U2’ rather than ‘we’ as though the band were actually a different set of people, which in some senses I suppose they were) was to break down the barriers between the crowd and the band.  This was really down to him, although Edge skipped about prettily enough in the acres of space available to him at Gateshead.  Bono, however just treated the stage as an adventure playground, climbing the PA stacks and waving expansively to the crowd as he busked his way through an extended version of ‘Electric Co’ interspersed (as was usual at this stage)  with random chunks of ‘Send in the Clowns‘.  He also did the old ‘falling backward into the crowd’ trick  – a sort of early form of crowd-surfing, where he trusted to luck when it came to people ‘catching’ him and holding him up whilst he sang.  My mate Kevin Cummins was photographing the gig for one of the music papers and he later gave me a great   8 x 6 black and white glossy of Bono lying atop a bunch of Geordie lads who all looked a bit pissed off about it to be honest.

So much for U2, who were about par,but it wasn’t one of their better performances.  The stage was now set for the Return of the Prodigal; Gordon Sumner, once of this parish – well, across the river in Wallsend, anyway – returning in triumph, having conquered the UK and well on the way to world domination.  Hardly your quintessential Geordie, Wor Sting.  A bit too flash and he’d long since cured himself of the local accent, so for a lot of local people this wasn’t as big a deal as it probably was for him.  I actually lived in Wallsend when I first moved to Newcastle in 1981 – in fact my first flat was only about a block away from the Sumner household where young Sting had grown up.  Wallsend will, of course,  always be associated with the Swan Hunter shipyards and those black & white images of colossal superstructures towering over the back-to-backs running down to the river.   There’s a  really good song on his album ‘The Soul Cages’ called ‘Island of Souls’  that tells of the lives of  some of those shipyard workers, but if you harbour images of Wor Sting running around barefoot and snotty-nosed in the shadow of the shipyard cranes, think again    Where I was living and where Sting grew up was well away from there – we were up the hill near the Rising Sun Colliery (closed by 1981) on the other side of the Coast Road – it was proper posh, like; we were almost in Forest Hall!  Fruit on the table and naebody sick!  Net curtains!  Suburbia!

Anyway, who knows what he felt as he, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland came striding up the ramp that led to the stage?  One thing is for sure; he crossed himself as he reached the top of that ramp.  Then it was showtime and as Sting looked out on to a sodden landscape of scudding apocalyptic clouds and shivering punters, you had to feel that when he’d envisaged this day, he’d probably had something else in mind.  To be fair to The Police, they did their best; plenty of energy and all of their best songs in a lengthy set – no-one could say they weren’t getting value for money.

The Police on stage at Gateshead, 31st July 1982

Some things had changed, though.  They had a three-piece horn section with them, Stewart Copeland’s drumkit seemed to have acquired even more cymbals and shakers and twiddly things that he would thump enthusiastically from time to time but there was also a droning backing track of synthesiser going during many of the songs, filling out the usual white boy skanking and fleshing out the band’s sound.  Sting actually played the keyboard during ‘Invisible Sun’, but the rest of the time, I think Andy Summers was controlling these pre-recorded ‘backing tracks via his  pedals board. 

I have to say that I didn’t notice these  keyboard drones during the gig, but watching what seems to be a Korean video of the concert, it does become readily apparent, particularly during the newer songs.  Channel 4’s ‘The Tube’ showed a good chunk of the day’s events in a one-off ‘special’ but this recording was of The Police’s set alone.  Not exactly a triumphant homecoming and some comedy episodes with the dry ice, which blew off the (open) back of the stage and probably caused localised fog patches down the road in Felling, but was hardly seen at all by the fans at the gig.  Oh well……

The second DVD was recorded just over a year later in the radically different setting of Atlanta’s Omni Amphitheatre on the U.S. leg of the band’s ‘Synchronicity’ tour.  By this juncture, all of the band’s members had become embroiled in extra-mural projects and there was an indefinable feeling that they weren’t going to be together for too much longer.  For all that, the ‘Synchronicity‘ album had some of The Police’s best songs and been a huge success, especially in the USA and despite having to compete with Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller‘, released the same year.  The Omni was a vast barn of a venue, used for basketball or ice hockey and accommodating around 15,000 customers.  It is no more, having been demolished in 1997.  Playing an indoor gig in front of an enthusiastic crowd offered The Police an opportunity to produce a concert video under much more controlled circumstances than had been the case at Gateshead.  Ex- 10cc members Kevin Godley & Lol Creme were the hottest ticket when it came to shooting promo videos in the early 1980’s and  as they had already directed videos for many of  the singles lifted from ‘Synchronicity’,  they were an obvious choice to direct the concert video.

And what’s more, they did a pretty good job of it, too from the opening adrenaline rush of ‘Synchronicity I’ right through to the final encores.  Even all these years later, it remains a superior example of the genre and captures the band – with more, and more elaborate backing tapes,  more percussion possibilities for Stewart Copeland, more garish Sting costumes (think Rod Hull & Emu meet ‘Mad Max II’)  and more FX pedals for Andy Summers – plus three girl singers – on a really good night.  I saw the show about a month later at (of all places) Blackpool’s Winter Gardens and although there was a sense that we were witnessing the closing stages of their career, they still turned in a tremendous show, every bit as powerful as the Omni performances. 

Sting on stage in Atlanta, November 1983

So that was The Police, mid-80’s style, and seeing those shows and hearing those songs  again for the first time in donkey’s years, it has to be acknowledged that whilst punk gave them the initial platform they needed to get a foothold, they pretty soon left all that behind.  After all, Sting had been playing in a jazz-rock band called Last Exit before he left Tyneside and Andy Summers – who was too old to be a punk, anyway –  had a background in prog rock, having played with both Soft Machine and Mike Oldfield, to name but two.  By the time of the ‘Synchronicity‘ tour, they had become a well-oiled pop-rock machine,  incorporating elements of jazz, reggae and rock, fuelled by backing singers, an expanding use of on-stage technology and Sting’s gift for knocking out a succession of superior pop tunes – with increasingly obtuse lyrics. 

After the ‘Synchronicity‘ tour, the band went ‘on hiatus’ for a couple of years and an attempted full-on regrouping in 1986 was scuppered when Copeland (allegedly) fell off a horse and broke his collarbone the night before sessions were due to start.  In truth, there was so much tension between Sting and Copeland by this point that it’s unlikely that the sessions would have lasted too long anyway. 

I didn’t see the band on their 2007 reunion tour, nor indeed have I heard any live recordings from it, nor do I feel moved to do so.  Most bands have a functional lifetime and The Police’s was – compared to U2 – pretty short, but during that lifetime, their star shone very brightly.  The Atlanta gig is a valuable document, I think, if only because it catches them at the absolute peak of their powers as a live act.

Listening to Donovan (1965-70)

There’s an excruciating few minutes of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1965  movie  ‘Don’t look back’  where Donovan and Bob Dylan encounter one another at a post-gig party in London’s Savoy Hotel.   Possibly, this wasn’t their first meeting but it comes across that way in Pennebaker’s movie.  The typically chauvinist British media had been baiting Dylan about this new British pretender to his ‘throne’ from the moment he first arrived in the country and Dylan was obviously curious.  Early in the film, he and his Sancho Panza / Tour Manager Bob Neuwirth are seen riffing on the whole ‘Donovan thing’ – quite clearly, they don’t have much idea about who he is, which could have been why the Savoy encounter was set up.

Donovan is ushered into a bearpit atmosphere like an unsuspecting  human sacrifice and performs two songs, only one of which made it into Pennebaker’s movie.  This is ‘To sing for you’, a typical early -period Donovan folk ballad; inoffensive but slight.  Dylan responds by grabbing the guitar and producing a sneering, powerful version of ‘It’s all over now, baby blue’; at that time a relative newcomer to his setlist.   And, as the man himself might have said, you don’t need a weather-man to see which way this wind was blowing.  Seen through Pennebaker’s lens and editing, the encounter ended Dylan 1 Donovan 0, and that’s pretty much the way  the world has seen it ever since, hasn’t it? 

Dylan looks the other way at the Savoy Hotel, 1965 

A less well-known story from this encounter is that Donovan’s other contribution to the cosy singalong was a new song he had written as a tribute to Dylan and entitled (ahem…) ‘My Darling Tangerine Eyes’, which apparently caused consternation in the room because it used exactly the same chords and  verse structure as ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.   Donovan had – allegedly – assumed that ‘Mr Tambourine Man’s’ melody was a traditional tune rather than something Dylan had written and that it was therefore ‘up for grabs’.  Dylan soon disabused him of the notion and ‘My Darling Tangerine Eyes’ was apparently consigned to the dustbin of history.  Also, significantly, Dylan apparently asked Pennebaker not to film this episode, yet ‘To sing for you’ does appear.  What seems more likely is that Donovan’s ‘Tambourine Man’ tribute/pastiche just ended up on the cutting room floor.

Whatever the case, there is a school of thought that suggests that Dylan knew plenty about Donovan’s music by the time they met and that he actually wasn’t scornful of Donovan at all.   He had probably listened to Donovan and correctly concluded that there wasn’t that much common ground between them lyrically and to say that Donovan was like Dylan because they both  played acoustic guitar is,  at best, facile.  

The fact that we still tend to see it that way is at least partly because of the way the media depicted it at the time.  The press loved nothing better than to set up ‘rivalries’ – usually involving The Beatles – where none really existed.  Beatles v Stones, Beatles v Beach Boys, Liverpool’s Beatles v London’s Dave Clark Five and so on.  When they emerged, The Byrds were America’s answer to The Beatles, so when a young guy with a beatnik look playing an acoustic guitar made it on to ‘Ready, Steady, Go’ and started to have some chart success with songs like ‘Catch the Wind’ , the Dylan v Donovan conflict was only just around the corner. 

The fact is, the press were being rapidly outflanked by what they were still referring to as ‘The Beat Boom’ and certainly didn’t know what to make of Dylan.  His lyrics were ellipitical and sometimes impenetrable, his singing voice was, let’s say,  an acquired taste, his attitude in press conferences was often combative and anatagonistic, he was smart, sharp and engaging – more like John Lennon than anyone else.  Donovan Leitch, meanwhile,  was almost a polar opposite – soft-spoken, slightly fey and without Dylan’s ‘edge’.   The results, however, were similar; where Dylan confounded the media with snappy wit and New York attitude, Donovan utilised rambling Celtic hippy platitudes to similar effect; both were intent on keeping the press pack at a safe distance wherever possible.  Still, Donovan played an acoustic guitar and sang the odd protest song, so for the lazy, outdated, bamboozled hacks of mid-60’s Britain, he would do as this month’s anti-Dylan – and he was British, too.

Quite what Donovan made of all this is unclear, but he is unlikely to have felt too happy about it.  The truth is, by 1965 he was probably savvy enough about the music business to understand the perils of becoming pigeonholed as a Scottish bloke with a denim cap and an acoustic guitar.  His late ’65 album  ‘Fairytale’ featured a self-penned song that clearly offered him one way out of his unwilling role as the ‘British Dylan’.  This was ‘Sunny Goodge Street’,  a wonderful, jazzy, impressionistic picture of bohemian London in the pre-hippy era.  Recorded in September of 1965, it stood out from the broad mass of his output mainly because it featured a discreet jazz trio – flute, cello and drums – playing behind Donovan’s acoustic guitar.

“Hope you like my new direction….”  Donovan in 1966.

Donovan’s unwillingness to be Dylan’s stooge was one of the factors that led to a radical change of approach which began when he started working alongside producer Mickie Most.   Most had gained a reputation as a dynamic producer with a gift for picking likely hit records, but had generally worked with pure pop acts like Herman’s Hermits.  His interest was purely in the singles charts – his disdain for albums was well-known – but Donovan’s desire to escape from the ‘folk ghetto’, not unlike Dylan’s,  led to this most unlikely of collaborations.   In Donovan, Most saw a songwriter capable of producing ear-catching melodies and  lyrics that tapped into the prevailing hippy zeitgeist, whilst in Most, Donovan had found a producer who knew how to frame his songs for the pop charts.  It’s perhaps also worth noting that whereas Dylan’s move from folk to rock & roll became a hotly debated topic among the chattering classes on both sides of the Atlantic, Most and Donovan headed in the same direction with only a fraction of the same ‘static’ from the public.

The first fruits of this new  electric collaboration came in January of 1966.  The song recorded that day was ‘Sunshine Superman’, which featured Jimmy Page on electric guitar.  Most had successfully persuaded Donovan to move away from folk and towards psychedelic pop and this was the first evidence of his change of direction.

Due to arguments about distribution between Most and Pye – Donovan’s record company – it would be nearly a year before the ‘Sunshine Superman’ single was released in the U.K. and by the time it emerged , Donovan had already recorded two albums of material which came out in the USA as the ‘Sunshine Superman’ and ‘Mellow Yellow’ albums whilst, with typical industrial efficiency,  Pye compiled one album – the U.K. version (released in June 1967)  of ‘Sunshine Superman’ – from the two.

Donovan &  Most in 1967 – “LP’s, Mickie – like this, but bigger”

Donovan’s re-invention of his career under Mickie Most’s tutelage had established him at the hipper end of the pop/rock spectrum.  During 1966-7, he became a regular on shows like the BBC’s ‘Top of the Pops’ and it was his singles rather than his albums that drew most people’s attention and achieved most success.  All of which was a shame, because the two 1966 albums he recorded featured some seriously accomplished songs such as ‘Season of the Witch’, ‘Fat Angel’ ;The Trip’, ‘Young Girl Blues’ and a whole sub-set of ‘London’ songs – ‘Museum’, Sunny South Kensington’, and ‘Hampstead Incident’ to sit alongside ‘Sunny Goodge Street’. 

Donovan was really on the horns of a dilemma.  He had clearly hoped that his Faustian pact with Mickie Most and a move to a more ‘produced’ or ‘electric’ sound – utilising  imaginative  arrangements by John Cameron or John Paul Jones – would help him to escape the Dylan comparisons and bring his music to a wider audience.  On the other hand, the elongated dispute between Pye and Most was preventing him from releasing any albums in Britain at a time when he was in the midst of this risky strategy.  With hindsight, this had a hugely negative impact on his career in the UK – between 1965’s ‘Fairytale’ and 1970’s ‘Open Road’,  whilst numerous singles made him a chart regular, only 3 of the 6 albums Donovan recorded saw a UK release.

In truth, his real problem was that he was with the wrong kind of record label.  Pye had grown out of a Cambridge-based company who made radios and televisions.  To them, their record label was simply another asset  and they were content as long as it made them money.  However, their first instincts were always commercial rather than artistic and they probably had a minimum of insight into Donovan’s frustrations.  They had other artists – The Kinks, Petula Clark, The Searchers, Sandie Shaw – who seemed to churn out the ‘hits’ uncomplainingly, so they approached their dispute with Most with little apparent regard for the impact it was having on Donovan’s career.

To illustrate Donovan’s ongoing problems with Pye and Most, it is instructive to step back briefly and contrast his fortunes with those of another promising singer/songwriter of the same era and how he fared by comparison.  Across at Decca – another ‘old school’ record company – another young singer/songwriter, Cat Stevens, was enduring similar frustrations for different reasons.  Decca were trying to groom him as a pop idol in the way they had with other male singers such as Tom Jones.  After an initial burst of successful, highly-arranged singles (‘Matthew & Son’, ‘I’m gonna get me a gun’) and equally successful British tours,  Stevens had insisted on a different,  more folk-rock approach for his second album,  ‘New Masters’, (1967) which duly sank,  almost without trace.  Subsequently, he became extremely  ill with tuberculosis and after a lengthy convalescence of over a year was released from his Decca contract, eventually finding a home at Island Records, where he was treated far more sympathetically, paired with like-minded producers and musicians, effectively being allowed to make music the way he wanted.  The next few years offered a graphic endorsement of  Chris Blackwell’s artist-centred ideology as Stevens went from Decca’s forgotten prodigy to Island’s international superstar via a series of albums that almost defined ‘soft rock.’

Cat with dog; about 1966 at a guess.

By contrast, Pye and Mickie Most were more interested in maintaining Donovan’s position as a heavy hitter in the singles charts.  Most’s hostile attitude to long-players was probably mirrored by long periods of relative indifference on the part of Pye.  By the time Donovan and Most parted company in 1969, the long-playing album had begun its long period of market dominance, yet the Donovan albums with which most people in the UK were likely to be familiar were a series of budget-price compilations of his early, folky songs on the Marble Arch label.  Pye really didn’t know how to develop ‘album artists’ and Most didn’t want to, so through 1966 and 1967,  Donovan’s profile remained that of a singles artist. 

Eventually, Pye caught up with the growing impact of the long-playing format and, almost as though they were trying to atone for their laxity to that point,  issued the lavish two-album box set ‘A Gift from a Flower to a Garden’ (1968) and the under-rated ‘Donovan In Concert’  (also 1968).  Despite this, Pye’s  reputation as a pop label worked against them and both records under-performed, not only in terms of sales, but also in terms of their critical reception; the ‘In Concert’ album in particular is a superior example of the genre and places Donovan before an adoring Los Angelino audience with an accomplished backing band of seasoned UK jazzers.   Two further studio albums followed – ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ (1968) and ‘Barabajagal’ (1969), the former notable for the presence of three-quarters of Led Zeppelin plus Allan Holdsworth on the title track, the latter because of the presence of another Most act, the Jeff Back Group, on about half of the tracks.  Again, whilst singles were released and made an impact on the UK charts, these albums were only released outside the U.K.

Donovan and family in gypsy mode…..not too clever on the M25

Despite his success in the singles charts, Donovan was clearly totally frustrated by the impasse between Most and Pye.  He split with Most during the ‘Barabajagal’ sessions and formed his first proper ‘band’, Open Road.

Pye didn’t really sign any genuine rock acts until 1969/70 when they belatedly launched a ‘progressive’ offshoot in Dawn Records. This label ran (with decidedly mixed results)  for the next 5 years, but ironically – given that it had been set up to promote rock acts – Dawn’s greatest success was in the singles market with Mungo Jerry.  Open Road signed to Dawn, as if to signify a new era for Donovan.  However, the band only survived long enough to make one eponymous album before Donovan left to finish off  another project – a double album of children’s songs released in 1971 as ‘H.M.S. Donovan’.  Neither of these albums made any real impact, though the ‘Open Road’ album had its moments.

Donovan re-emerged in 1972/3 having ended his long and frustrating association with Pye.  He now signed to his American label, Epic, for the whole world and produced a series of albums (‘Cosmic Wheels’, ‘7-Tease’, ‘Essence to Essence’) which, whilst they didn’t disgrace him, certainly failed to make much of an impact.  Through the punk era, he became almost a walking watchword for hippy excess and stoned cosmic gobbledygook, only becoming partially rehabilitated when Gap used ‘Mellow Yellow’ for a TV ad campaign a few years back.  Now, all the ‘missing’ albums have finally seen a CD release in this country, with numerous extra tracks added and we can get a better picture of a guy whose career seems dogged by adversity – firstly dismissed as a poor man’s Dylan, then enmeshed in a business dispute that blighted his career in this country and finally written off as a hippy has-been.  It all seems a little unfair; the mid-period of his career from about 1965 to 1970  saw him writing a substantial number of interesting songs,  producing music of considerable quality and working alongside seriously talented session-men .  History could and should have been a little kinder.

When you’re Smile-ing; listening to The Beach Boys…..

Trying to get back into the normal run of life after all the emotional disruption of the last few months, so catching up with some music seemed as good a way as any of doing so.  Had a pile of things stacked up and decided to start with one of the longest-running sagas in the annals of post-Beatles recorded music – the finally-released ‘Smile’, the epic Beach Boys album from 1966-1967.  This has now been made available as a 5 CD Box Set,  a 2 CD ‘Highlights’ package,  on vinyl, double vinyl and (doubtless) every other format and permutation imaginable .  Being a sucker for punishment and a long-time fan, I have inevitably opted for the Box Set 5 CD version.

Books will be – in fact they probably already have been – written about the whole  ‘Smile’  saga – and herein lies the problem, because it would be impossible for this album to ever live up to the hype that surrounds it.  Not that what we have here is at all unfamiliar.  Many of the songs from ‘Smile’  – ‘Wind Chimes’, ‘Vegetables’, ‘Surf’s Up’ , ‘Heroes & Villains’ and others  – were released in one form or another by The Beach Boys during the late 1960’s or early 1970’s and in any case, Brian Wilson has already issued his own version of ‘Smile’,  released 7 years ago.   And that’s to say nothing of bootlegged versions of the ‘original’ album, one of which I bought from a stall on St Albans Market at least 10 years ago.

So, it would be reasonable to ask why this after-the -Lord -Mayor’s-Ball  official release has created even a moderate stir, and to explain that requires a look at the whole Beach Boys story – especially the crucial period from 1965-1971.

The thing about The Beach Boys is that  they were both naff and cool at the same time.  In the early days, there was always something geeky and awkward about the band as individuals, with the sole exception of drummer Dennis Wilson, who seemed a conventionally good-looking Californian scruff.  The other Wilsons, Carl and Brian, always tended towards porkiness even as young men.  Al Jardine was scrawny and Mike Love was rapidly losing his hair, something that he tried – fruitlessly – to disguise with various hats and elaborate comb-overs.  On stage, they affected camp candy-stripe shirts and white trousers and seemed to borrow heavily from the rock and roll traditions of the 50’s.  Judged on image alone, they weren’t in the same ballpark as The Beatles or The Stones and over and above all that, multiple songs about fast cars and surfing were never likely to resonate overmuch with a young teenager growing up in the East Midlands.

This being the case, everything hinged on the quality of the band’s music and that was always special.  Even the early rock & roll inspired romps like ‘I Get Around’ were a cut above the norm because of their superbly arranged vocal harmonies.  These suggested a level of musical sophistication that was well in excess of the requirements of the material the band  were churning out. Subsequently, once Brian Wilson began to flex his compositional muscles with songs like ‘The Warmth of the Sun’ or ‘In my room’, what rapidly became clear was that  in musical terms The Beach Boys were a substantial cut above most of their contemporaries. 

Even so, whilst Wilson’s compositional chops were a decided asset, the band’s influences were not exactly what you might expect.  If The Beatles were inspired by early Motown and the Stones by post-war Chicago blues, then The Beach Boys’ influences, Elvis and Chuck Berry aside,  were straight out of white Norman Rockwell suburban Americana.  On one level, whilst that meant Gershwin and Sinatra, it also meant preppy favourites like Doris Day and The Four Freshmen, all  growing out of  the  gauche, crewcut, bobby-sox awkwardness of post-war white American teen culture.  Years later, the band would release Bruce Johnston’s  open love letter to this whole era – ‘Disney Girls (1957)’ on 1971’s ‘Surf’s Up’.  They did so without any apparent sense of irony  or regard for the prevalent counter-cultural zeitgeist.

 “She’s really swell
Cause she likes
Church, bingo chances and old-time dances”

Well, gee whizz, fellas……it’s a long way from there to Woodstock nation, but the same album also featured eco-anthems like ‘Don’t go near the water’ and openly experimental songs like ‘Feel flows’…..would the real Beach Boys please stand up?  By this point, it seemed that not even the band knew who they were or what they wanted to be.  However, I’m getting ahead of myself here….

As mentioned,  what set The Beach Boys apart from Jan & Dean and the other surf groups of the mid-60’s  was Brian Wilson.  It was Brian who, as a child, had led the way in teaching his brothers to sing harmonies.  It was Brian who, throughout his stellar career as a high school quarterback had continued with his musical studies, it was Brian who drove The Beach Boys on to greater and more ambitious projects despite growing unease among other band members – particularly Mike Love.  Finally, it was Brian who led the band out of their collective comfort zone and into uncharted waters like ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Smile’.

The Beach Boys in one of their stage outfits; probably around 1964

Brian stopped performing regularly on stage with the band in 1965, with first Glen Campbell and then Bruce Johnston taking his place.  Fear of flying seemed to be the immediate cause of this, but whereas The Byrds used a similar problem as a lever to force Gene Clark out of the band at around the same time, The Beach Boys were savvy enough to realise Brian’s value to the band.  He had swiftly moved on from niche songs about surfing and hot rods to a growing collection of more personal songs that revealed his vulnerability and sensitivity and it was these songs – ‘In my room’, ‘The Warmth of the Sun’, ‘Help me Rhonda’ and the like – that were turning heads around the world.

So Brian stayed home with his piano and his thoughts whilst the rest of the guys headed off round the world to fly the Beach Boys flag.  In many ways, the removal of the pressure of live performance released the brakes on Brian’s talents and the work he did at this time took the band’s music to a whole new level of sophistication.  They had by this stage already recorded basic tracks for an intended new single, a version of an old folk tune called ‘Sloop John B’.  Careful listening reveals a broadening of the band’s instrumental textures – now it wasn’t all Phil Spector-ish organ and guitar; there were glockenspiels and piccolos and other less discernible sounds lurking in the mix and the overall quality of the production had been cranked up a notch or two.

It was always said of Duke Ellington that although he played very good piano, his real instrument was his Orchestra and with Brian Wilson, it would probably be fair to say that although he played piano and sang well, his real instrument was the recording studio.  Brian wasn’t a great instrumentalist per se, but he had a great ear for innovative arrangements and a vivid imagination.  With the band away touring, Brian began a collaboration with lyricist Tony Asher early in 1966  and around the same time also went into the studios with ‘The Wrecking Crew’, an assemblage of L.A.’s finest session players, to lay down the backing tracks for ‘Pet Sounds’.   

A previous Beach Boys box set ( Good Vibrations – Thirty Years of The Beach Boys)  included a ‘bonus disc’ of some of the sessions (and the between-takes studio chat) that created ‘Pet Sounds’ and they offer a fascinating glimpse of  a confident Brian deploying an astonishing range of musical instruments including oddities like bass harmonica, ocarina, contra-bassoon and harpsichord.  The impression you are left with is that the use of such a wide palette of instrumental colouration was no accident, nor was it a wilful embrace of novelty for the sake of novelty.  Yes, Brian Wilson comes across as a kid let loose in a toyshop, but this kid seemed to know exactly what he wanted and exactly what he was doing.  Even if he didn’t, the results – when ‘Pet Sounds’ finally came out later in 1966 – justified all the complexities of instrumentation and arrangement.

The full story of ‘Pet Sounds’ could detain me here for hours, but it’s ‘Smile’ that I’ve been listening to, so I’d better restrict myself to observing that  ‘Pet Sounds’ marked a sea change in Brian Wilson’s development as a composer/arranger and also in his relationship with the rest of the band.

They returned from an Asian tour to be presented with a ‘fait accompli’ of six backing tracks for the new album with Tony Asher’s lyrics ready to be sung and only the vocal harmonies to be worked out.  This did not go down well with some of the other members, notably Mike Love, whose musical conservatism led him to question why the band should abandon the successful formula of surfing & car songs that had propelled them to worldwide success.  From ‘Pet Sounds’ onwards, Brian was effectively ‘on probation’ as far as Love was concerned and though the band would continue to follow their Pied Piper, they would do so only as long as the hit singles continued to flow.  From hereon, Brian was part of the band but was also apart from the band, his growing use of drugs was starting to have an impact and the mental unravelling that would blight his career was only just around the corner.

In some respects, by 1966, Brian Wilson was no longer looking to his fellow Beach Boys for inspiration – they probably didn’t understand what he was trying to achieve and in some cases (Love) were openly hostile to it.  His peers were now the likes of The Beatles and if ‘Pet Sounds’ was directly fuelled by Brian’s response to ‘Rubber Soul’, then ‘Smile’ was probably Brian’s attempt to match ‘Revolver’.    Subsequently, the fact that ‘Smile’ was shelved was partly because of Brian’s sense of insecurity about his own work when confronted  with ‘Revolver‘ and ‘Sgt Pepper‘ .  One of the problems here was that unlike Lennon and McCartney, Brian had no-one to compete with or to bounce his ideas off.  The ‘guys in the band’ had just become his ‘voices’ as The Wrecking Crew had become his orchestra.   As late as 1968, The Beatles would still audition one another’s songs by getting together with acoustic guitars and sitting round playing their new songs for the rest of the band.  For Brian Wilson, it was a much more solitary path and he was way ahead of virtually everyone else in his field.  The Beatles had George Martin to lean on, Smokey Robinson’s arrangements were taken care of by in-house Motown arrangers but with The Beach Boys, the songs, the production and the arrangements were all down to Brian.  No wonder he cracked in the end.

Brian plays his new stuff for the rest of the band….

The link between ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Smile’ was ‘Good Vibrations’.  Originally slated for inclusion on ‘Pet Sounds’, Brian decided that he wanted to do more work on it, so it was held back…and held back….and….

Early sessions for the song date back to February of 1966, fully 8 months before it was finally released.  It has been estimated that it cost 50, 000 dollars to make – a colossal sum at the time for just one song – and involved no less than seventeen recording sessions in four separate studios during the spring and summer of 1966.  Tony Asher supplied the original lyrics but these were later replaced.  Mike Love gets a co-writer’s credit but given his generally negative attitude to ‘Brian’s New Direction’, it beggars belief that he could have authored some of the song’s wilder flights of lyrical fancy.  At one point, Love allegedly dismissed the song as ‘avant-garde shit’ and as the passing years have revealed him to be – amongst other things – a man who has an over-developed sense of his own importance, it hardly seems likely that he would pour such scorn on anything for which he might be held partially responsible.

Whatever the case, ‘Good Vibrations’ was released in October of 1966 and probably changed perceptions of The Beach Boys forever.  In the UK, it was received with reverence by BBC and Pirate DJ’s alike – I can recall one informing us that this was ‘what the future will sound like.’  For all its innovative stylings, it was still recognisably a Beach Boys single and it fairly  hurtled up the UK singles chart to give the band their first British # 1.

Some-time Beatles and Byrds publicist Derek Taylor described  ‘Good Vibrations’  as a ‘pocket symphony’; an apt description, especially as it hints at an internal structure of different ‘movements’ with differing moods.  The song was certainly a landmark on many levels – for one thing, it was probably the first truly ‘psychedelic’ hit record but more significantly in the light of what was to come, it represented a new way of making records for Brian Wilson.  ‘Good Vibrations’ was recorded in sections which Brian then assembled, rather as you might put together a pre-fabricated building.  This was not necessarily ground-breaking, but what changed with ‘Good Vibrations’  was that rather than being edited out to create the impression of a seamless performance, the ‘joins’ between the different sections were not only left in but were almost exaggerated.  The classic example here is the section where the band softly sing “Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations / A happenin’ with her” and repeat it several times before plunging back into the main chorus.  This section begins abruptly with only a quiet organ and softly plucked bass before the voices come in.  At the end of 2011, it doesn’t sound like much, but in 1966, it was.  

‘Good Vibrations’ was a huge success for the band all over the world and it gave Brian Wilson the license to pursue this approach with his next project, which was to be called ‘Smile‘.  For this project, he enlisted the support of Van Dyke Parks, a Los Angeles session musician who had recorded with The Byrds and written songs for bands like Harper’s Bizarre.  Parks had a reputation for witty and literate lyrics and Brian Wilson decided that he was the man to help him with ‘Smile’.

Brian Wilson in the studio with Van Dyke Parks, 1966

In the loosest terms, ‘Smile‘ is  that dreaded beast, a ‘concept album’, but only in the same way that ‘Sgt Pepper’ is.  Both albums are really just an umbrella for a group of songs that (in the case of ‘Sgt Pepper’) we have grown used to hearing run together in a sequence  – the lack of tracking between the songs on ‘SPLHCB’ creates the illusion of a unified structure, but there is actually little connection between the suburban angst of ‘She’s leaving home’ and the ensuing acid-fuelled whimsy of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ .  It’s the same with ‘Smile’; not much connection between ‘Heroes & Villains’ and ‘Wind Chimes’, except that they were both part of the ‘Smile’ project.

What makes ‘Smile’ interesting in 2011 is not so much the flimsiness of its over-arching concept as its massive grab-bag of influences,  the continuation of Brian’s ‘cut & paste’ approach to recording, the way in which it drove a wedge between Brian and the rest of the band and his eventual decision to relinquish not only the album but his role as The Beach Boys pioneering leader.  What’s interesting about the 5 CD Box is that a whole CD is given over to version after version of ‘Good Vibrations’ (or parts of it), whilst another disc is mainly taken up with multiple versions (or part-versions) of ‘Heroes & Villains’.  Both of these discs are – in my view – for serious ‘anoraks’ only. 

After ‘Good Vibrations’, Brian Wilson’s next big project was indeed the epic ‘Heroes & Villains’, a song that to my ears is every bit as awe-inspiring as its predecessor, but which was ultimately ditched in its original ‘expanded’ format and  released as a stripped down and re-recorded single later in 1967 after ‘Smile’ had been shelved.  Brian spent just as much time noodling with this  one as he had with ‘Good Vibrations’ , but the ‘finished’ version available to us on ‘Smile’ has extra sections which render it disjointed amid an already slightly chaotic soundscape.  More than anything else it was Brian’s failure to produce a version of ‘Heroes & Villains’ that satisfied him for a single release that led to the release of ‘Smile’ being put back and ultimately cancelled.  You have to ask, what was Brian doing messing with these 2 songs for so long?  Here is the point at which an experienced ‘outside’ producer could maybe have had a positive impact on a fraught situation in which arguments between Brian and the rest of the band were becoming commonplace.  Whether an ‘outside voice’ could have helped or not, we’ll never know. After the re-recorded single version of ‘Heroes & Villains’ failed to match the success of ‘Good Vibrations’, Brian effectively gave up his attempts to emulate The Beatles and began his long retreat from the public eye.

So, apart from ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘Heroes & Villains’ what is there to excite us about ‘Smile’?  Sure, there are some other fine songs – especially  the luminous masterpiece of  ‘Surf’s Up’, but my own history forces me to see that as being part of the wonderful 1971 album of the same name, which featured a partially re-recorded version of what is one of Brian Wilson’s greatest songs.  The original version of ‘Wind Chimes’ certainly knocks spots off the weird, revamped version that eventually came out on the late ’67 ‘Smiley Smile’ album.  However, what has to be said about ‘Smile’ is that it signally fails to leap out of the CD drive as a full-blown classic as Brian Wilson intended.  It comes across as more of a curio, a fragmented collection of  toytown whimsy,  half-songs and embryonic ideas that actually reflected the collective state of the whole band in 1967. Wilson would no doubt argue that he never properly completed the project and that this new release has been assembled from a series of unfinished fragments that don’t really do the material justice.  Well, maybe….

Whilst those of us who were old enough were out enjoying 1967’s  ‘Summer of Love’, The Beach Boys – and Brian Wilson especially – were falling apart.  Brian had (consciously or inadvertently) excluded his bandmates from the creative process and was clearly happier in the studio dealing with the likes of Van Dyke Parks and The Wrecking Crew.  The rest of the band, with Bruce Johnston aboard as Brian’s doppelgänger had, meanwhile,  effectively become their own tribute band, long before such things were ever thought of.  A stronger, braver Brian Wilson would have officially parted company with the band at this point, leaving them to their surfing and car songs, whilst pursuing his own star as a solo artist.  However, Brian wasn’t strong – his mental health was already poor and for whatever reasons he was unable to sever the umbilicus connecting him to his brothers.

Drugs may have been another contributory factor in Brian over-reaching himself but the rift between himself and the other band members was at least partly down to poor judgement on his part.  The hours he spent fine-tuning endless versions of ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘Heroes & Villains’ was a strategy that was never going to play particularly well with a group who were slogging their way round the world and had fundamental concerns about where Brian’s new conceits were taking them.

The received wisdom about ‘Smile’ was that Brian wanted it released but the others wouldn’t agree – after all, he eventually recorded it and toured with his own version in 2004.  Having now heard what will be seen as the ‘official version’, no matter its unfinished nature, I would have to say that I have some sympathy with their reluctance and it really doesn’t matter which of them blackballed it up until now..  As I said at the outset of this piece, no matter how good it was, ‘Smile’ was never going to live up to all the hype that has slowly built around it over the intervening 40-0dd years.  More than anything else it reveals a band in the process of disintegration. 

It cannot be a time that any of The Beach Boys remember with much affection; after all, the mid-60’s is littered with the carcasses of post-Beatles bands who never made the transition from pop to rock.  Seen from a 1967 standpoint, The Beach Boys must have feared that they were about to be eclipsed by all these new young bands who were coming through with their long hair and outlandish names – The Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Spirit – and that was just in California.  None of them could have foreseen the way in which the band would rehabilitate themselves in the 1970’s with albums like ‘Surf’s Up’ and ‘Holland’ , let alone a series of triumphant live shows such as the one I witnessed them give at a packed and sunny Wembley Stadium in June of 1975.

Last year I wrote about the best gig I have ever attended – The Blue Nile at Birmingham Town Hall in 1990, as you asked – but The Beach Boys at Wembley is # 2 on that list and though Brian Wilson was not there, his songs were and a band I had never considered to be a top live act produced a show for the ages.  Not only that but they did so amidst some pretty serious company – great sets by Stackridge, Rufus, Joe Walsh and The Eagles (aided and abetted by both Walsh and Jackson Browne) had already established a buzz among the capacity crowd.  The sun beat down; it was perfect weather for a Beach Boys gig and – augmented by some seriously good session players (including Chicago’s early producer, James William Guercio) – Carl & Dennis Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine came out and set the place on fire.  What’s more, Brian Wilson’s absence didn’t mean that Mike Love’s greasy MC routine was allowed to dictate the setlist – they played ‘Sail on Sailor’, they played ‘Surf’s Up’.  they even played some avant-garde shit called ‘Good Vibrations’.  Summed up, they were little short of sensational and it must have warmed the cockles of their Californian hearts to hear 100,000 sunburned kids bellowing the chorus to ‘California Girls’ into the London skies.

Carl Wilson at Wembley Stadium in 1975

As a footnote, I should probably point out that The Beach Boys were actually a last-minute replacement for Stevie Wonder, who had been taken ill.   I wonder how much top-of-the-bill Elton John regretted the decision to book The Beach Boys as he had to follow them on stage. Poor dear didn’t stand a chance.  In the years since, I must have spoken with 100 people who were also at that gig and I have yet to meet one that stayed to the end of Reg’s set, even though he had Steely Dan’s Jeff Baxter playing guitar for him that day. 

That glorious day at Wembley is the way that I would like to remember  The Beach Boys.  Listening to ‘Smile’  in 2011 is, by contrast,  like wandering through the rooms of a dusty old house where no-one has lived for 45 years;  it’s fascinating and exhibits moments of brilliance to match anything that had come before, but whether it’s the ‘unfinished’ nature of the songs or some other factor, it just doesn’t cut it as an overall project.  In the end , it remains for me just an interesting peek into Brian Wilson’s world shortly before all his dreams came crashing down, denying him his health and denying us the work of a true genius.  Sure, it’s been great to see him back in recent years performing and playing the old hits, but you do wonder about what might have been….

Listening to Sara Isaksson & Rebecka Törnqvist

Just occasionally, simple is best and that’s certainly the case with ‘Fire in the Hole’  (Moule Recordings, 2006) by Sara Isaksson and Rebecka Törnqvist, two Swedish singers in their forties who have come together to record an album of Steely Dan covers using mainly unaccompanied keyboards and their own voices.

There are 12 tracks in all on this short-ish album, all drawn from Steely Dan’s key period – roughly 1971 -1980.  The band were always renowned for their sophisticated arrangements and their ability to  slide seamlessly from one sub-genre to another, often thanks to input from the best musicians around at the time.  The likes of Jeff Baxter, Wayne Shorter, Dean Parks, Steve Gadd and Michael McDonald have, over the years, all brought their talents  to  bear on Becker and Fagen’s artful compositions, but  Isakssson and  Törnqvist offer us something just as compelling by stripping away all the horn arrangements, percussive fol-de-rols and slinky guitar parts. 

Rebecka Törnqvist (L) and Sara Isaksson (R)

It is, in fact, the very simplicity of the arrangements that works in their favour, helping to expose the skeleton of the songs and emphasise the (often) astringent lyrics.  What quickly becomes clear, if we weren’t already aware of it, is the fact that Walter Becker & Donald Fagen are very fine songwriters and the songs themselves are muscular and powerful enough to withstand this stripping-down process; indeed, it enables us to re-experience them anew and appreciate them all over again.

As for Törnqvist  and  Isaksson, they have both experienced some success domestically in various rock and pop bands since the 1990’s and were both previously members of a band called Gloria, who had a good deal of success between 1999 and 2003.  They have toured domestically around the success of ‘Fire in the Hole’ but the enduring popularity of Steely Dan and the simple effectiveness of the album have led to a good deal of interest from overseas.

On paper, the idea of two mature Swedish female singers recording an album of  30-year old Steely Dan songs seems like a recipe for commercial disaster, but somehow it just works.  Stand-out tracks for me would be ‘Don’t take me alive‘ and ‘Pearl of the Quarter’, but I guess everyone will have their favourites.  If your interest is piqued, the album is available here:

“If Food be the music of love…….Who’s Next?”

Saturday night just gone was both memorable and slightly surreal, hence my re-invention of Shakespeare’s well-known quote about the soothing of savage beasts.  Don’t fret; all will hopefully become clear as we proceed.

Two of the beasts in question were myself and my mate Adrian, out for a night of fun and frolics in the suburban wastelands of south Birmingham.  We’ve become good mates over the last few years and like many blokes of our age and  ilk and to the frequent despair and mystification of our partners, we share a love of decent beer, curry, football and music, though not necessarily in that order.  However, finding common ground on the music front has been trickier than you might think, given that we are ‘of an age’ and grew up listening to the same stuff in the late 60’s and 70’s.  I have a feeling that Adrian drifted away from music a little in the 90’s before his kids re-connected him to it all via the dance music of the rave era.  I, meanwhile, never really drifted away from music altogether, but during the same time went over to a ‘diet’ composed largely of jazz and ‘world music’.  Dance, techno, hip-hop and the like just left me cold – and still does for the most part.

After a certain amount of trial and error and a few misfires, one of the areas where Adrian and I found common cause were the points where technology and experimentation meet. He introduced me to the Thievery Corporation, whilst I got him interested in the kind of ‘Nu Jazz’  personified by people like Nils Petter Molvær and Jaga Jazzist.   We both enthused about the Cinematic Orchestra and I even joined him at a gig by Pendulum. 

We both enjoyed seeing Molvær last time he toured, so, when I saw that Food were playing a gig at the newly-refurbished Midland Arts Centre in Cannon Hill Park, I knew that Adrian would be interested.  I had already introduced him to the band via their ‘Quiet Inlet‘ album and I knew he had liked it.  We were all set.

Food at MAC with guests

It’s difficult to believe, but Food have been around for over 10 years now.  The original quartet (with bassist Mats Eilertsen and trumpeter Arve Henriksen) has now been whittled down to a duo of Iain Ballamy and Thomas Strønen, who add guests (Molvær and Austrian guitarist Christian Fennesz on the last album) as and when they feel the need to do so.  Saxophonist Ballamy was part of the original Loose Tubes collective and has subsequently compiled a CV that leans toward the ‘freer’ end of the jazz spectrum.  Drummer Thomas Strønen has been involved in numerous projects – often via the Rune Grammofon label – since the turn of the millennium.  His range of current activity sees him working with pianist John Taylor and saxophonist Tore Brunborg in the Garbarek-inspired trio Meadow, playing solo percussion under the Pohlitz banner and in another duo – Humcrush – with Supersilent keyboardist Ståle Storløkken.  Busy boy – he’ll actually be back in Birmingham later this month to do a gig with Meadow.

Adrian picked me up about 8 pm and by common consent, we headed for Balsall Heath and our watering hole of choice, the Old Moseley Arms, known by all as ‘The Old Mo’, an unreconstructed back-street boozer of considerable charm in Tindal Street.  They offer a rotating slate of  micro-brewery real ales, look after them properly and generally work hard to cater for a loyal but demanding clientele.  On Saturday, they were in the throes of one of their intermittent ‘Beer Festivals’ where they lay on an extra range of beers, all served out the back of the pub in the semi-outdoor  ‘smoking area’ with a barbecue and a band.  When we arrived, the band were just setting up but we took little notice, just grabbing a quick pint before heading off to MAC.

The Old Moseley Arms in Balsall Heath

The Midlands Arts Centre has been a fixture in Cannon Hill Park for as long as I have lived in Birmingham.  It was always a focus for film, music and sundry arty stuff, staging everything from yoga classes to photography exhibitions.  The original complex had a slightly ramshackle feel to it;  buildings joined on to one another with a variety of extensions and corridors, so it was no real surprise when it closed down a few years back for  a complete refurbishment. It’s been open again for a while now, but I’d had no occasion to visit before Food rolled into town.  First impressions of the new place were of slight anti-climax; it’s all clean and brightly-lit, with an impressive new entrance, blond wood floors and white walls, but no great sense of innovation.  Signage is poor, too – we weren’t sure whether the Theatre was in its original location or had been moved and there were no signs to enlighten us one way or another.  Also, the bar – quite an engaging space in the old MAC – is now a narrow corridor-type area with the feel of a motorway service station.  Oh well.

Once we got in there, the Theatre had been changed as well, with the stage lowered and a steeper rake to the seats in the auditorium.  The old place felt like a converted cinema, the new one is like a modern lecture theatre.  For some reason, the air was filled with effects-type smoke when we got in there, though this may have been the legacy of a previous performance by someone or other.  Certainly, it didn’t appear to have anything to do with Food;  they took to the stage as a trio, with the addition of Norwegian guitarist Bjørn Klaklegg, who proved to be a kindred spirit in every respect, adding effects-laden drones and chiming chords that enhanced everything else that Messrs Ballamy and Strønen were concocting.  To refer to Thomas Strønen as a drummer is to do him a considerable disservice;  throughout Food’s set – essentially one continuous 70-minute improvisation – he was as busy with a table full of electronic gizmos on the table to the left of his kit as he was with any traditional percussive instruments.  Ballamy, too, whilst alternating on soprano and tenor saxophones, also had a table alongside him with a slightly less impressive collection of gizmos, enabling him to manipulate his sound, adding delays, fades and echo.  Klaklegg, meanwhile, was using what looked to be a reel from a fishing rod affixed to the back end of his guitar.  As he spun this, filaments of fine plastic would brush against the strings, providing an interesting drone effect. 

When Adrian and I saw Nils Petter Molvær’s band a while back, one of the most extraordinary aspects of the gig was the way in which this use of electronics and effects enables three guys to concoct a huge sound that would suggest a far larger ensemble.  So, it was with Food, whose set built to a series of crescendoes before dropping away to a virtual whisper.  For the last 20 minutes or so, they added two trumpet players – Percy Pursglove and Aaron Diaz – who further ‘beefed up’ the sound.  As improvised music, it was at one and the same time both ephemeral and massively solid – like  waves crashing  on to a rocky coastline before retreating, reforming  and sweeping in again.

We emerged, energised,  into a warm Indian summer’s evening and decided to head back to the pub.  Pulling up in Tindal Street, we could hear the band battering away at ‘Born to be wild’ or something similar and plunged into the fray.  They were doing good business, too; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people in the place.  Out the back, the joint was jumping, so we grabbed a couple of beers and found a place in the garden where we could hear ourselves think.  At this point, the band, who featured a wizened lead singer with a mop of greying curls and a goatee beard, launched into what became an elongated trawl through The Who’s back catalogue.  As far as I can recall, over the next hour or so, they played virtually every well-known Who song apart from ‘Pictures of Lily’ and,  I have to say, they did a pretty good job of it as well.  Sure, the aged singer lacked the explosive bellow of  ‘Dodgy Poultry’ as he referred to him, but the drummer had Keith Moon’s contrapuntal thrashing off to a tee and the bassist and guitarist also did a fair job of reproducing the band’s trademark sound. My next door neighbour wandered over to say hello – not only is he Canadian, but he also plays in a Neil Young tribute band – double jeopardy for me.  He handed me a flyer for a forthcoming gig for his band and I again failed to come clean with him by telling him that I would sooner eat my own head than attend.  God knows, I find listening to the real Neil Young difficult enough, so the prospect of a Neil Young tribute band  just fills me with horror.  I really must get round to telling him the truth; he’s fundamentally a nice guy and I think he deserves that much.

The night wore on and the barrels of beer rapidly emptied as the whole event turned into a good-natured Brummie piss-up.  Out in the garden Adrian and I surveyed the clear night sky and the glittering skyline of the City Centre as the band hurtled into a selection from ‘Quadrophenia’ and people threw themselves around the improvised dancefloor.  This was about as far removed from the cerebral electronic mélange of Food as it was possible to get.

Wonder what Pete makes of it all….?

The whole tribute band thing is something I have consciously shunned – too much of a musical snob I guess.  A woman I worked with used to go off with a bunch of her mates to an open-air festival in North Wales that takes place every summer where the line-up is composed entirely of tribute bands.  She thought it was great and always seemed to have a ball but I just felt that the whole process somehow devalued the original.  Inevitably the lines began to blur when heavy metal band Judas Priest replaced their departing lead singer with a guy who was the lead singer in a Judas Priest tribute band.  Life imitating art imitating life?  Who knows?  Who’s next? Who are you?

What is clear,  listening to this highly competent band and their lovingly crafted renditions of 45-year old pop songs is that I need to lighten up a bit.  There were a bunch of young girls standing just near us who undoubtedly weren’t born when The Who had their last chart single and they were singing along with each song with enormous gusto; for them it was just a good night out and the purist lurking inside me can at least take comfort from the fact that whilst two of the band have shuffled off to Buffalo and the remaining duo have become marginal figures at best, the songs they created all those years ago live on.

Listening to Lanterns on the Lake

When you write about music, even at a humble blogging level like this, there’s an inevitable tendency to train-spot…..ah yes, well this band have obviously been influenced by X.Y and/or Z.  Of course, it’s natural enough; to any reader that may not have heard the band in question,  it ‘s a sincere attempt to offer them a way in to that band’s music.  It’s a (probably futile) stab at describing  the indescribable, the intention being that the reader’s interest is sufficiently piqued so that they check out said band. 

However, it does, of course, have its downside.  If I were to write that Newcastle-upon-Tyne six piece Lanterns on the Lake sound like a cross between Neil Young and Showaddywaddy (happily, they don’t sound like either) then I am automatically setting up expectations in the minds of readers that may be misleading.  Any band worth its salt are a good deal more than the sum of their influences and so it is with LOTL.  

So, keeping that in mind, let’s get the inevitable comparisons out of the way.  LOTL’s music is rooted in the traditions of English folk music and they join a growing roster of artists based in the north-east – The Unthanks and the excellent Johnny Dickinson are others – who are integrating the folk tradition into a more expansive framework.   What that means for LOTL is to place their words in a musical framework that evokes the whole Opal/Mazzy Star/Hope Sandoval ethic of intimate lyrics delivered against a widescreen backdrop of chiming guitars and  echoing piano – with judicious use of electronics as well.  Hazel Wilde’s naturalistic vocal delivery merely accentuates that connection, though other band members also sing lead on certain numbers.  Brooklyn’s Hem are another point of comparison and there are others, but, as mentioned previously,  LOTL are, of course, far more than the sum of their influences.

Lanterns on the Lake are  Hazel Wilde (vocals, guitar), Adam Sykes (vocals, guitar), Paul Gregory (guitars, electronics), Brendan Sykes (bass), Sarah Kemp (violin) and Ol Ketteringham (drums, piano).  This is not a band of teen prodigies; all of them have played in and around Newcastle for some time with other bands, but have been working as LOTL since 2008.

After a couple of well-received independently produced EP’s, they signed with the (apparently) über-cool Bella Union label, have presumably given up their day jobs and have put out their first full-length album, recorded on a modest budget and entitled  ‘Gracious Tide, Take Me Home’ , which, as debut albums go, is an absolute snorter.  They have also played at Glastonbury and recorded a session for BBC’s Radio 6, so they are already some way up the music biz food chain and, given the almost universally positive reviews accorded to the album,  seem set fair for the proverbial ‘Big Future’.  Let’s hope so; we need more music like this…and less Neil Young & Showaddywaddy.

LOTL will be touring the UK in November to promote their album and if they’re anything like as good on stage as they are on CD, it should be memorable.

Details of the tour can be found here: