Sunday, November 26, 2006

Scritti Politti Birmingham Academy 18th Nov

Green Gartside may be effectively Scritti Politti but he’s not exactly prolific (he’s only released 5 albums)…or a frequent live performer. The gig at Birmingham Academy last week was on (or so he had been told by a member of the audience) the 28th anniversary of their first gig. But as he also said “We haven’t really done a tour before ….our last one was with Joy Division, Gang of 4 and Echo and the Bunnymen.”

I’d been a big fan of their early squat rockin' reggae songs like Skank Bloc Bologna and Messthetics. The trio of Rough trade singles, The Sweetest Girl, Faithless and Asylums in Jerusalem, were clever, ambitious, beautifully sung and wrapped in covers that played with consumerism and design. Either that or they just ripped off the designs for Courvoisier brandy, Dunhill cigs and Eau Sauvage.

The lp Songs To Remember came out in 82, complete with alternative versions of the Rough Trade singles, their b-sides, and a handful of new songs. Getting, Havin’ and Holdin’ contains the lyrics that Wet Wet Wet took their name from. Less controversially it takes Percy Sledges opening lyric and adds a cynical twist, “When a man loves a woman he is happy…Maybe”. Green’s song Jacques Derrida, (yes there really aren’t enough songwriters working within the field of Philosophy, Marxism and girls) has a great line “I was like an industry, depressed and in decline”.

A classic Green dilemma was during the recording of She’s A Woman. It’s a plasticized, synth driven Beatles cover done by a girly voiced unreconstructed Welsh Marxist ex art student Deconstructionist Philosopher and the less than liberal Jamaican Dancehall star Shabba Ranks. Green had done his bit, Shabba was doing his…. but Green had to ponder and consider exactly what meaning Shabba brought to the song when he sang “Love up your woman now”

I didn’t like the sound of the songs after the first album, and still don’t like the production of the hits like Wood Beez (Pray like Aretha Franklin), Absolute and The Word Girl. I still liked the way that he thought about Pop music though, so I’d read the interviews rather than listen to the records. I missed the original band’s gorgeous Pop Soul. I think he still had the touch, the clever, original lyrics, and the understanding of the importance of Pop. But I couldn’t get past the sound. Sorry Green, it’s not you it’s me.

I do really like the new album White Bread, Black Beer though and was really excited about the prospect of seeing them. After all it had been a long wait. The audience at the Academy were definitely old enough to have been through all the incarnations of the band. Babysitting wasn’t an issue, as most of their kids would have grown up and left home.

They opened with Snow In Sun. They did play some older songs including The Sweetest Girl, Skank Bloc Bologna, The Word Girl and Wood Beez. The material was predominantly from the new album, which has a definite Pet Sounds/High Llamas orchestrated feel to it. It still sounds spontaneous as if it was written and recorded at home. Technology and the clever arrangements mean that he can play it live, whereas if he had toured 25 years ago, it wouldn’t have sounded this good, this professional (even when Brushed With Oil, Dusted with Powder collapsed) or this natural.

Green is now sporting a beard that seems to be more of a Black Hole and may in fact exert it’s own gravitational force. Apart from the necessary guitar, keyboards and drums (actually 2 kits, one drummer…he needed an electronic one for material like Wood Beez), the band line up included Dave (who played Keyboards, percussion and turned the pages for Green’s book of unlearned/forgotten lyrics) and Alyssa, henceforth fondly thought of as “Fox On Bass In Pet Sounds T Shirt.”

Robin Hood was introduced as a song about “The end of utopian socialism…. and girls. I think we’re all a bit ambivalent about the end of utopian socialism. I’m definitely less so about girls.” When a member of the audience pulled him up for referring to women as girls Green responded “Women… I Know...cut me some slack.”

In the early days he’d found playing live difficult and traumatic. The Gang of Four tour had ended after Green collapsed in the van with panic attacks in the days before the term “nervous exhaustion” became the publicly acceptable euphemism for “feeling a bit Pete Docherty.” Now he seemed genial and eager to talk after each song. So were the audience. When Green suggested we’d gone a bit quiet someone called out “It’s reverential awe.” I don’t think it’ll catch on as a terrace chant though.

Greens 1990’s were spent immersed in hip hop as shown by the 1999 album Anomie and Bonhomie. Like the Shabba Ranks “Love up your woman” moment the prospect of Green singing Jeru The Damaja and DJ Premiere’s Come Clean was tempting. “We’re really rockin’ some shit now”. He also did Hands Up which he’d recorded with Mad Skillz “Put your muthafuckin’ hands up”. The Philosophy years weren’t wasted after all. Another song segued into a snippet of LL Cool J’s Rock the Bells.

They finished with Petrococadollar. It’s a sparse, ghostly synth rumble of a song, reminiscent of Teardrop Explodes Tiny Children. After the polished pop and hip hop pop years it sounded great to hear him singing songs about love and self doubt using the language of economics (one of their early songs was called Opec Immac). No, there aren’t too many songwriters like Green Gartside

“You can bet your petrococadollar that I won’t remember
I’ve been in the market place since last July”

A brief encore and Green announced they really had to go, as “The Missus is sick.” I’ve heard better excuses but it didn’t matter, as I was still so pleased to have seen a gig that I’d been waiting 25 years for.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The random element that makes the song right

The great thing about music is that what makes it great isn't always the most obvious feature. In a particular song, the magic ingredient could be the vocal, the music, the words, the tune, the arrangement, the production, the sound, the video, the sleeve, the story that the listener brings to it or the story the singer brought to it.

Sometimes the story doesn’t even have to be true. And the magic ingredient is going to be different for each person…. And it is “the random element that makes the song right” that’s kept me going back to music through the years.

I’m roughly as good at darts and golf as I am at levitation and invisibility, but the thing that will drive you insane about those sports is that you can know all the variables. So if only your own performance were good enough you could get the same perfect result each time. Music doesn’t, thankfully, give you that tortuous, mocking promise…because it’s the random element that makes it wonderful. Music will save you, golf will kill you.

If, like golf and darts, you could control all the variables then, the most powerful form of expression should be words…you should be able to pin a feeling down and describe it so that feeling comes alive.

And if you’ve got the skill, then you should be able to distil it further and pare back the words to stripped down writing, trying to convey an intense feeling. That would make poetry the highest art form. Maybe it is, but it doesn’t work for me.

I’ve always ended up trying to find the meaning in the odd bits in songs, in the awkward little gaps, the elements of chance, happy accidents or just the result of the personalities involved in making the music. These random elements are like the divot on the green or an attack of “dartitis”. It’s how games are won and lost and why some songs win and others don't.

Remember these are the bits that make a great song better. You can over egg a pudding, you can gild the lily but you can’t polish a turd

Radiohead – Creep. That guitar “Thuchuqq”sound on an awkward, offbeat just before each chorus.

Clash – Complete Control. Is this the ultimate Clash single? The best moment for me is Joe Strummer’s yell of “You’re my guitar hero” as Mick Jones breaks the Punk Rock no solos rule. Also love it’s sleeve with it’s close up of the battered speaker cabinet. None more rock! Mick Jones’s backing vocals are worth a mention, as I like the way he’ll just pick out one word to harmonise with eg “At the HOTEL”

Betty Lavette – Easier To Say Than Do. Terrific song, great vocals and classic sixties southern soul arrangement but the thing that I most love about it is you can hear a guide vocal in the background, it sounds like its bleeding through the tape.

The different way that Otis Redding and Percy Sledge approached Try A Little Tenderness. Otis Redding sings an upfront, blustery “Gotta gotta gotta” as the song breaks down before the final fade out. It’s the ultimate Soul Man moment.

When Percy Sledge recorded his version, it sounds like when he came to that same section, he didn't know whether or not to try and out soul the Soul Man. So he ends up squeezing out a "Gotta, gotta "or two before giving up with such a heartfelt groan that it actually works better.

Johnny Cash – Hurt. An astonishing, heartbreaking performance. With it’s bald statement “What have I become.... I will let you down, I will make you hurt” it’s someone else’s addiction song (Cash probably had no idea who Trent Reznor was before it came up as a cover) but sung by a man who knew he was dying. It’s unbeatable, but now for me it’s inseparable from the video, with it’s shots of the ruined Johnny Cash museum and the final shot of the piano lid being closed

Velvet Underground – Here She Comes Now. It’s the muffled claustrophobic sound that defines this record. It’s the sound of thighs clamped round ears and druggy desperation.

Aretha Franklin – Do Right Woman, Do Right Man. There’s a one note organ at the start of the second verse. Now it’s not a better sound than Aretha’s voice, the lazy piano or the Memphis Horns, but that one note just beautifully demonstrates the restraint of the whole sublime arrangement.

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry – Take It All. Unloved and unremembered Leeds band. This is a single from 1982. At one point the swirling, flanged guitar chords collapse into a brief feedback squeal, leaving a big hole over the bass and drums...completely unintentional, but it is best bit of the record and makes the chorus that follows it sound more tense.

Scritti Politti – The “Sweetest Girl”. The best Pop song about Pop. Beautifully sung, odd, lilting reggae approach but sounding nothing like reggae...(I suspect Culture Club listened very hard to this for Do You Really Want To Hurt Me) the best bit is towards the end where Green sings a second speeded up vocal line against a slowed down vocal which is drenched in reverb for “And you know you never can be told” line.

Dexy’s Midnight Runners - Plan B. The single version has the World’s Best Ever Trombone Solo (That’ll get the message board hot), which is nearly equalled in breathless excitement and gruff guff by Kevin Rowland’s introductory shout. “Jimmy!”

Gram Parsons – $1000 dollar wedding. Terrific song, elevated to maudlin perfection by virtue of it being one of the Gram and Emmylou Harris duets. The best bit is the lyric “He took some friends out drinking and it’s lucky they survived.” Country and Western in 11 words.

Sly Stone – There’s A Riot Goin’ On. I’ll break the rules by including the whole lp. This is an example of where the story around the record not only increases my appreciation of the record but also explains how it sounds. When he recorded this in 1971 the feel good, positive sounding songs of a genuinely multi racial band had dried up and Sly Stone was holed up in his Bel Air mansion surrounded by guns, guard dogs, cocaine paranoia and Black Power politics. I love the sound because it’s murky, and hissy, you can pretty much hear the sound of the amps being switched on. It’s funky in musical style and funky in it’s original dirty meaning. One of the reasons for it’s sound is that Sly was constantly wiping the vocal tracks because he kept picking up women with the promise of singing on his album. Spaced Cowboy has got yodelling on it. Of course.

All the above are great songs by great artists...which leads me to…
Bryan Adams and Mel C – When You’re Gone. What raises this from a turkey twizzler to a sizzler is the bit where Mel C pleads “Don’t Go Bryan”. It makes me laugh so much that I almost forget everything that went before...apart from Everything I Do. Not forgotten, not forgiven

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Story Of The Undertones

The Story Of The Undertones is the film made by John Peel on his first visit to Derry in 2001 and (here’s the clever bit) tells the story of the Undertones through band interviews, shots of their old haunts and live clips. So far so Rockumentary. What makes this film more enjoyable than that general joyless genre though is the amiability and good humour of the band and their guest. They’re genuinely enjoying the whole thing, feel comfortable about their place in history and are enjoying the chance to play again after a 20 year lay off. The reformed band though has a new singer in Paul Mcloone rather than Feargal Sharkey. Sharkey does appear in the film in an interview filmed at Peel Acres.

The film is good at capturing the claustrophobic feel of mid 70’s Derry, with the pressures of The Troubles, unemployment and the hostility of the local community towards any one who “got above themselves.” Journalist Eamonn McCann appears in the film and describes Derry as “oppressed and oppressive” and makes the point that the natural sound for a group of Derry teenagers to have produced would be angry and hostile, and that it was actually braver for the band to make the “Sweet and beautiful” sound of "Teenage Kicks".

Even in their early days there were plenty of people who wanted a pre- emptive pop at the band, just in case they ever amounted to anything. The original sleeve of the record has a photo of the graffitied shed door with the legend “The Undertones are shite” and The Wall that features on the first album where the band sat with their legs hanging over (John Peel takes obvious pleasure in being able to recreate that photo with the band) was soon daubed with “Hang the Undertones.” After Sharkey left, one of the band gave the reason that Feargal was sick of people coming up to him and saying “Sharkey, You’re a bollux and your band are shite.” It beats musical differences.

It was only Feargal Sharkey who really wanted to get out of Derry though partly because he attracted more flak than the rest of the band. Their early parka and Docs anti fashion dress code was an attempt not to alienate their old friends, and there were frequent and expensive trips back to Derry during tours. They declined the chance to extend their first American tour with the Clash because half the band was home and girlfriend sick.

There’s a great moment where John O’Neil muses that he’d only ever had one girlfriend and wonders what his songs would have been like if he’d known more women. His wife then tells a story about one of his songs that was written about her…He’d gone to return some clothes to a shop for her but the youthful songwriter was a useless consumer, so his opening line to the shop keeper was “I know a girl.”

But that’s the thing about Derry, as the band and Peel look round from a hill, all the bands landmarks and reference points are easily visible and walkable. For a Birmingham band it would be like Moseley with murals.

After 2 albums of songs about chocolate and girls, the band were struggling with the dilemma that their hearts and experiences were still in Derry and they wanted to their songs to reflect the Political situation there. John O’Neil describes Crisis Of Mine from Positive Touch as a song about him trying to change his songwriting after meeting a recently released IRA prisoner. Damien O’Neil talks about It’s Going To Happen being about the IRA hunger strikers and wearing a black armband on Top Of The Pops the day Bobby Sands died.

There are some great music clips, including an Old Grey Whistle Test appearance where one of the band shouts “This is the last good song you’ll hear tonight” before launching into a dynamite version of True Confessions. Sharkey’s hands are in his Parka pocket, as it opens and closes like an enthusiastic and fearless flasher. What the audience should be afraid of though is John O’Neil’s guitar sound. The explosive, low flying opening chords of the song are rocket propelled. They could take a camera man’s head off.

After the Undertones split in 83 Mickey Bradley and Damien O’Neil were in a band called Eleven who were very poppy. I saw them play twice at the Marquee in 84 and the singer was like a black Annie Lennox in cycling tights. Although they did do a John Peel session (the band rather than the tights), nothing really happened and they split. (The tights already had).

The next effort was more successful as the O’Neil brothers formed That Petrol Emotion, where they were fused politics, Indie dance and Pere Ubu. I saw their first show at The Mean Fiddler when the band shared vocal duties between themselves in 1985 and a gig at Thames Poly (The Nightingales were also on the bill) which was the first show that American singer Steve Mack did. I never really took to him as a singer but I did go to lots of their gigs, which I enjoyed more than their records. They always played like demons. After That Petrol Emotion split John O’Neil dabbled with a dubby electronic project called Rare and Damien issued an album through Poptones

In the film The Undertones are quite open about what a bad idea it is for a band to reform twenty years after they split, without their original singer and especially when their singer was as distinctive as Feargal Sharkey. The new singer Paul Mcloone does have more than a hint of Feargal’s vocal style though and the band are obviously just really enjoying playing again, without the responsibility and as fun rather than a career. They’ve said they don’t want to haul themselves round the Punk nostalgia circuit and tarnish their good name.

I saw them at the Birmingham Academy in 2004 which was great fun and I posted a full review at

The album Get What You Need came out on Sanctuary in 2003 and it’s a lively Ramones pop punk blast and definitely a better listen than the original band's final album, 1983’s The Sin Of Pride.

The film brings out the fact that The Undertones were always split between Sharkey and the rest of the band and those differences go back right to the beginnings of the band where Sharkey was the last to join, the only one who worked, the only one who had a car and the only non songwriter. So from the remaining Undertones point of view they’ve now got the chance to play to an appreciative audience with a new mate and none of the previous tension.

In one of the extra scenes though there is a careful consideration given to replacing newbie Paul with Brittney Spears. Several of the band can barely speak at this point as they are giving it so much thought.

It’s a good-humoured uplifting piece of filmmaking. Bassist Mickey Bradley is currently recovering from treatment for bowel cancer. Obviously I wish him a speedy and full recovery and I’d love to see them play again. And I think you should too.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Nowhere To Run - Gerri Hirshey

The mark of a good music book is that it makes you want to listen to the music it’s about (obviously Motley Crue’s biog is the exception…embrace the book, avoid the music). Nowhere To Run is Gerri Hirshey’s account of the development of Soul up to the mid seventies.

It’s a terrific book that traces the story through interviews with most of the major players against a backdrop of racial politics and a changing music industry. It was first published in 1984 so she managed to get to artists like Michael Jackson and James Brown before they started to unravel.

This book (along with a steady stream of records and tips from passengers already aboard) was partly responsible for getting me aboard the soul train. As I was listening and learning about the music, this book gave me a peg to hang it on and brought the characters involved to life. The clattering, rolling writing style has a musical rhythm of it’s own and there are some fantastic quotes.

Wilson Pickett was a man who believed his own press, but I think this quote shows some of the truths and myths behind Soul music. “Me and a million other dudes said “later” to picking cotton. Moved north, learned to live in the city. Detroit, My Lord what a place…..Lean the lady up on one of them big Pontiacs – we in the 50’s now – be sweet and she slide right down the tailfin and into your arms. Lord bless and keep them automotive engineers. Give a country boy a reason to sing in that dirty old city,”

It was a business, (many of the artists and songwriters only want to talk about the hits in the interviews and Martha Reeves left Motown after asking awkward questions about her royalties) but it was also music built on a shared history of Black migration from the south to the industrial cities of the north, and then with labels like Stax, the music went South again.

Hirshey’s story moves between the City Soul sounds of Motown which was aspirational, sophisticated and shamelessly populist (black musicians selling to white teenagers) to the southern studios like Fame and Muscle Shoals where black and white musicians fused country and soul. Aretha Franklin was actually born in Memphis, moved to Detroit and then ironically, had to go back to Memphis to capture the sound that made her.

The time that the interviews took place meant that most of the artists had already had to adjust to harder times. Many had found themselves displaced by the Disco boom and the early 80’s didn’t look like it was going to be any easier.

The interviews with Martha Reeves and Isaac Hayes show bruised, reflective individuals just trying to get on with the business of getting by. Martha Reeves muses that she often found herself appearing on the bill with bands like The Cramps or Bad Brains. Now I think that sounds like a great show. As Clarence Carter prepares for a show on the nostalgia circuit he wonders aloud what songs to play, or whether just to laugh. The Clarence Carter trademark chuckle was a feature of many of his songs…ripe, fruity and lewd. It’s a laugh that may include scenes of a sexual nature.

The archetypal soul hustler though was Solomon Burke. His first session for Atlantic was recorded in the middle of a blizzard. Burke left early without hearing the results because, “I’ve got to go back to Philadelphia. I’m running a dump truck to pick up the snow. Pays 4 $ an hour.” When he played the Harlem Apollo he sold “Solomon Burke’s Magic Popcorn” in the aisles between his own shows. The owner was furious because there was already a popcorn concession. Burke decided that didn’t include Pork Chop Sandwiches, so he promptly set up a grill outside the venue and cooked and sold his own sandwiches between shows instead. The Bishop of Soul, cooking up fast food outside his own gig. The Solomon Burke chapter is fantastic. His quotes are as funny and outsized as the man himself. I’ve got a live album where he tells the audience “There’s 295 pounds of me…you can have any 5 pounds you like” and “All we need now is waterbed.” And he can sing.

The experience and effects of racism and segregation crop up frequently as many artists describe the tours of the south in the early 60’s. Solomon Burke tells a story of how Sam Cooke and himself were bundled out a restaurant by Police in Shreveport Louisiana and taken to the Fire Station, stripped, and forced at gunpoint to sing their hits, naked, to an audience of Police and Firemen.

To become fully soul qualified you also need to read Peter Guralnick’s book Sweet Soul Music. It’s a fine book, which really gets under the skin of Southern Soul and ties it all in to American music, racial, social and political history. Hirshey’s book is less academic but really does bring the whole era alive. It’s obviously written by someone who loves the music and that joy just leaps off the page. It’s a celebration of Soul Music and it’s artists and her enthusiasm is infectious. Go on, read the book, buy some records.