Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Fall

Anthropologists are agreed that Humanity can be divided into 3 main groups. There are the people who love The Fall. It tends to be love rather than like...mainly because you’ve got to put so much effort into it to get the benefits (It’s a bit like the 15 years training to be a Sushi chef, or fisting).

Then there are those who think that Mark E Smith is a poisonous alco-dwarf bellowing stream of unconsciousness nonsense like “Hogwartian dogtrumpet ahh” over the tuneless racket of soon to be sacked musicians.

The third and largest group is of course ex Fall Musicians. There about 50 of them who have been in (and mostly out) of The Fall over the last 27 years.

The thing about The Fall though is that it’s always been the sound of Mark E Smith’s vision of how a band should sound. The continual churn of musicians has changed the sound over the years and like a musical geologist you can identify the different eras of the band and the different layers of sound, but essentially it’s Smiths vocals, his delivery and his dense, baffling lyrics, stories and characters that define The Fall. It’s his bus and he’s driving.

And it’s his contempt for most contemporary values, styles and musicianship that have kept The Fall sounding unique and instantly recognisable. He berates the band on Slates with “For God’s sake don’t’ start improvising” and Madchester era bands were “Idiot groups with no shape or form, out of their heads on a quid of blow”.

He listens to Beefheart and Bo Diddley but basically has kicked all the line ups of his band into playing a distinctive Fall boogie. Discordant, relentless, layered but basically simple in structure

Smith’s vocals are best summed up in his own words on Your Heart Out, from 1979’s Dragnet lp. “I don’t sing I just shout-all on one note...aaah.” Surprisingly then on 1990’s Extricate album he comes close to a croon on Bill Is Dead.

They‘ve notched up a lot of cover versions. Last year they covered The Move’s I Can Hear The Grass Grow, They played it very straight, with the band wound tight under Smith’s croon (well it was 15 years since his last one.)

They cover White Line fever by Merle Haggard on the forthcoming album Reformation Post TLC. It’s their 26th studio album. Previously they’ve also done Victoria by The Kinks, R Dean Taylor’s Ghost In My House and Groovin’ With Mr Bloe.

The two most informative covers that actually show where Smith got his sound from is Black Monk Theme by the Monks and Mr Pharmacist. The Monks were a 60’s garage band of US soldiers who wore monks cowls and played simple, pared to the bone rock’n’ roll. (I defy you to come up with a better title than Boys Are Boys And Girls Are Choice). Mr Pharmacist originally by The Other Half shows his influences both musically and chemically.

There’s always been a belligerent non-academic intelligence about what they did. In the earliest stages of the group with Una Baines and Tony Friel the band used to write and play drug music in Salford bedsits to accompany the poems they’d write. Smith arrived late for an early interview because he’d been to an English literature evening class. His ex wife and ex Fall member Brix Smith said “He wasn’t educated, but he was extremely well read. The way he looked at the world was so different. Because he wouldn’t see things the same way, he wouldn’t speak the same way.”

Mark Smith sees the continual personnel changes and sackings as being like a football manager where every now and then you’ve got to get rid of the centre forward. Brix is now the owner of London up market jeans shop. (Pre Brix, Mark E always just looked like he’d got his clothes from the market.)

Steve Hanley was the bass player through some of my favourite Fall years. He had a really harsh middley bass sound, like shovelling gravel. After he’d been sacked he became a school caretaker.

Mark Riley was sacked after a legendary dance floor fight in Australia. After a lacklustre show in 1982 Smith spotted 4 of the band dancing to The Clash’s Rock The Casbah and stormed over slapping each of them in turn. Riley punched him back and had to find alternative work....first as a Creeper (one of the very few bands who did nail the Fall sound...as well he should ) and later as a Mark Radcliffe’s sidekick Lard and a Radio 6 dj in his own right).

The 1998 line up disintegrated after Smith attacked drummer Karl Burns (he who had been in and out of the revolving door Fall since the second single) on stage in New York.

Smith’s current wife (and current Fall member) Elena Poulou describes him as the best on stage mixer in the business. What she actually means is Mark E will go and mess about with the amps behind the musicians backs in an attempt to unsettle them.

In earlier years he would produce a kazoo or a squealing Dictaphone to produce similar chaos. It’s either a case of a tactical mastermind who is trying to coax an edgier performance from his band or it’s an out of control, drink and drug crazed megalomaniac who can’t stop messing about.

The proof’s in the results though and I’ve seen the Fall about 30 times over the years and seen some storming performances, with the band locked into a moment, concentrated and radiating malevolence.

You probably would not want him as a neighbour or employer but he is utterly unique, like a Punk Dylan who has just stuck to his musical guns and followed his own path (stopping at the pub on the way.)

His talent is almost certainly getting a battering from his lifestyle. Nick Cave has a similar self destructive past but he’s been able to write novels and a film as well as raising the standard of his own musical output. You just can’t see MES doing projects outside music.

When The Fall did the ballet collaboration with Michael Clark in 1988, Mark E Smith’s take on the 300th anniversary of William of Orange probably doesn’t stand up to rigorous academic debate. MES as a day time drinking Simon Schama anyone? Lyrically could he really just be spouting nonsense? Or is it just that it‘s different nonsense to anyone else’s?

Paul Morley said he sometimes he wonders if collectively, we may have all been had by MES.....we’ve spent all these years thinking that he’s a genius, but what if he is really just a pissed old tramp shouting at traffic.

Thing is though, for each year that I’ve been ready to write off The Fall, they’ve done something that makes me glad he’s still there....and there still isn’t anyone else who sounds like them.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Lady Sovereign

The very fact that I like her record should be the end of her career. Poor Lady Sovereign. The people who enjoyed her in the first place have moved on and she’s left with me and the rest of the Radio 6 audience.

That is the problem for underground acts though. Once you are in the mainstream, you’ve lost your underground status, your mainstream career will be probably be short-lived and then the underground won’t have you back because they can’t forgive you for ever leaving them in the first place and anyway they’ve got someone new who‘s better than you ...and they were lying when they said they fancied you.....and anyway.... you smell.

As always there is a bit of a story. Lets introduce the characters and hope there’s a happy ending. Once upon a time Lady Sovereign, was cast as the reverse Miss Dynamite. So while MD and her positive message was welcomed into Indie arms as a Brits Nomination and a breath of fresh air from the underground, Lady Sov was the stale air wafting up the escalator, the female Mike Skinner, brash white trash and in tabloid terms...The First Lady of Chav.

She appeared on a remix of The Streets Fit But You Know It and also as The Ordinary Boys vs Lady Sovereign on 9 2 5 (which was a remake of her own song 9 to 5). Her original version of 9 to 5 had a bit of an Eminem feel and the video is vintage era Madness, camcorder style. Well it’s got a bus, toy saxophones and hats. Her material is based on the specialist subject of Rappers since the dawn of time. Me, me, me and me...and (the obligatory) Haters.

By the time Julie Burchill had built a Chav documentary round her for Sky 1 (that would be a existential Pot and Kettle conversation on the meaning of blackness....followed by an episode of Britain’s Hardest Pubs) the game was up.

So she hauled herself off America, where she became the first non American woman to sign to Def Jam. Now her gimmick is that she’s a female British Rapper rather than the British view of her as MC Chav. So, are we ready to buy her back?

Love Me Or Hate was released as a single last year in States, but is only just starting to get mainstream radio play here. (ie I’ve only just heard it... I make no apologies about that. I find it hard enough keeping my ear to the ground, let alone to the Underground especially as I’m not actually a teenager and I don’t live in the ‘Hood, although I do sometimes catch a bus that goes quite near it)

The backing track is a descending series of squelchy electronic bleeps and sounds like the music from the Boss scene of a particularly crazed video game, you know the bit where you’re on a skateboarding donkey and are trying to dodge the low flying coconuts. It sounds excellent. It may well provide ammunition for any one old fashioned enough to actually like a tune, to complain that “All modern music sounds like a ringtone.” But so what. As I said, it sounds excellent.

It’s a killer playground taunt of a chorus...Love me or hate me that is the question. If you love me Well thank Yooooooooou. If you hate me well Fuck you.” The way she sings Yooooooou just make s me laugh. It’s not big or clever or even original but it’s funny and jauntily juvenile.

To put the record in a context, it’s a gimmicky song that just sounds right. It’s like the “Ow” in Althea and Donna’s Uptown Top Ranking, or Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s Push It or even (and I’m loathe to mention it in case I have to make a defence for it) Whigfield’s Saturday Night.

There are lines about missing shepherds pie and “I’m the funky little monkey with the tiniest ears, I don’t like drinking fancy champy I’ll stick with Heineken beers.” She plays to American perceptions of England with “Oh gosh I’m not posh” and about being The Royal Highness who doesn’t own a corgi (but she did have a hamster that died ‘cos she ignored it) but the line that really shows that she’s English and means business in America is the defiant “I’m English try and deport me.”

Lady Sovereign is the Wembley girl, the self styled “Biggest midget in the game”, who started rapping and doing online rhyming battles in chat rooms because “I didn’t go to school because it was boring so I stayed at home watching Trish and that was boring.”

The UK sent her packing after too much Vicky Pollard and Catherine Tate but America has not got that baggage. She’s got through customs and she may well be picking up her lost luggage. But will we have her back?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Fred Wesley

It hasn’t happened yet, but someday I may be asked “Who is your favourite funk trombone player”. Well I’ve been practising my answer for years... Fred Wesley. He was James Brown’s trombone player and musical director for crucial periods of Brown’s career and made some terrific records as part of the JB’s and their offshoots, Maceo and the Macks and later as the George Clinton spin off The Horny Horns.

Fred Wesley was born in Mobile Alabama on 4th July 1943. He’d played with Ike and Tina Turner but was about to start a job as the first black milkman in Mobile when he got the offer to join James Brown in 1967. You can say what you like about James Brown (and thanks to his recent death and the libel laws you probably could) but one of his greatest skills was as a band leader.

Like Bowie George Clinton or Kevin Rowland, JB always surrounded himself with top notch musicians and then used them as a spring board for his own immense talents. He had it all....His voice spanned the full range of Soul singing from “Huh” to “Ugh” and could go from The Willie John style Please Please Please Me pleading to spoken tracks like King Heroin.

He had the dancing, the showmanship, the capes, the sloganeering and the ability to make a phrase like “Let a man come in and do the popcorn” have almost the same cultural and political significance as “Say it loud I’m black and I’m proud.” But the funky foundations were built on the performances of supremely talented players, who had to take their musical cues from James Brown’s movements, his spur of the moment rearrangements, improvisations and a habit of fining musicians.

Brown wrote the words and gave the songs the star quality, but it was the bands who supplied the tunes and grooves which Brown would twist and pummel into funky shape. Wesley describes how Brown needed someone to translate and organise his ideas. “James Brown would give me horn things to write, but sometimes it would be incoherent musically and I would have to straighten it out, so to speak. When it came out of my brain it would be a lot of James Brown’s ideas and my organisation....he was the instigator”

James Brown pretty much invented the Funk style, and commercial success meant that he could run a parallel career for his backing band; releasing the records on his own People label and grab song writing and production credits as well. A marvellous mercenary idea and the records were great too. Different band names, same personnel. Essentially Fred Wesley on trombone, Maceo Parker on sax, Jimmy Nolen on guitar and Fred Smith on bass

Breakin’Bread came out in 74 and was credited as Fred Wesley and the New JB’s. Each of it’s 8 tracks is preluded by snippets of a 9th track of supper club schmaltz, where Fred will say a few words about the song. A kind of Funky Chicken in the basket.

I’ve never been afraid of cheese and these snippets only make me love the album more. As an album opener you can’t beat “Hi, this is Fred Wesley introducing our new album to you. It’s called Breakin’ Bread. We wanted the album to remind everybody of how it was with the folks back home, not only how good the food was but how we had a lot of fun, with all the groovy people, relatives and girlfriends. We hope it’ll bring back some pleasant memories and make you feel good”

And then with a trumpet fanfare it’s straight into the title track....and it’s about food, funk and good times; about cooking up hoecake bread on a skillet (it’s a corn bread traditionally cooked on a hoe or spade) dropping crumbs all over the place and having a good time.

It’s a great song and fits nicely in the tradition of Soul songs about Soul Food, such as Memphis Soul Stew, Barbara Acklin’s Gonna Bake Me A Man or Grits Ain’t Groceries by Little Willie John (who was one of James Brown’s idol’s).

The reason I like the album so much is it just sounds so warm and joyous. There’s a moment on the track Little Boy Black where after a line about “A hungry man can hardly think straight” there’s a shout to Wesley of “Show me how a hungry man plays”....and he does, playing a hustling, dancing, trombone shuffle, that sounds like it’s busking on a street corner for attention and spare change.

It’s a crazed riffling through some Starsky and Hutch type theme. Then “Show me how a full man plays” and Wesley plays a solo so full of rich, snoozy contentment that it’s virtually calling out to the waiter for brandy and cigars. The opening verse sounds like James Brown himself is sharing call and response vocal lines with Fred Wesley or at least adding an “Uh huh”, “Say it again” or “Tell me”.

There’s no chorus as such, but the link between verses is a soaring sweep of strings, brass and flute, that sounds like it should come from the closing credits of the best Blaxpoitation film that was never made. It’ll do me fine for a chorus anyway. As a title Rockin’ Funky Watergate anchors the album securely to it’s era, while Rice n’ Ribs gets the theme straight back to the kitchen.

The final track Step Child may need approaching with some caution though, depending on your sensibilities. For those with more jazz attuned ears than mine, it may indeed be a masterpiece. It may be a blistering work out with each horn part egging the other on, the musicians shouting encouragement to each other as they take turns to solo over crashing milk float drums and walking bass lines. To me though it’s a blether and squawk too far though and I just don’t get it.

Another of the interludes has Wesley thanking James Brown for “Giving me a chance to do my thing. Thanks to him there’s a little meat to go along with the bread”. Like I said the whole Brown /JB’s/ People enterprise kept the money rolling around the same group of people and a watchful George Clinton pulled the same stroke later by using the same pool of musicians and signing them to different labels as different bands.

George Clinton was a buy to let Funk landlord, with an expanding portfolio of often bewildering properties. Parliament, Funkadelic, Brides of Funkenstein, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Parlet and The Horny Horns.

James Brown was a notoriously hard taskmaster and all his band line ups had a turnover of musicians that would make the Fall seem stable. Many of the graduates, leavers and runaways from the James Brown School (including Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley) would become part of George Clinton’s parallel universe. Fred Wesley himself saw James Brown as the creator and founder of the funk style but saw Clinton as the innovator who took it as far as it could go.

But then George Clinton would take everything as far as it would go anyway....it’s a frightening funky thought. I like Parliament a lot but within the George Clinton set up Wesley just was one part of the huge simultaneous explosion of garish colour and craziness. It was the sound of George Clinton’s hair. Fred Wesley’s Breakin’ Bread though was the sound of simpler pleasures....food and funk.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Seasick Steve/Morphine

My New Years celebrations this year followed my usual routine…. traditional naked conga down the High Street and then back in time for the real party…Jools Holland’s Hootenanny.

The best thing on this year was SeaSick Steve. He’s a busking blues singer with a big check shirt, an even bigger beard, a 3 string guitar, a raw sound and really entertaining patter.

“I’d like to introduce my band here…. on percussion we have the Mississippi Beat Box.” This high tech marvel turns out to be a wooden box which he stamps out a rhythm on.

It’s decorated with a Mississippi number plate and a piece of carpet. “On my lap here is the 3 string Trance Wonder…most guitars have got 6 strings - this one’s only got 3 strings.”

It’s a sentence that could have come straight out of Spinal Tap…but he’s absolutely correct. It’s a battered acoustic with pick-ups gaffa taped to it which he plays with a slide…and it does indeed have only 3 strings.

He claims that he bought it for $75 dollars in Mississippi from a man called Sherman Cooper, and was so outraged that there was $50 mark up on a guitar with 3 strings missing that he vowed he would not replace the missing strings but would travel the world telling people how he had been ripped off. Well it makes a change from the traditional blues biography of riding freight trains and killing a man (or at least mildly annoying him)

Seasick Steve’s mum calls him Steven Wold and he actually grew up in Oakland California where he learnt some chords from Delta bluesman K C Douglas. He started playing the West Coast clubs in the 60’s and during the 90’s he ran a studio in Seattle and for a time had Kurt Cobain for an upstairs neighbour

Doghouse Blues on Jools Holland sounded fantastic. Rough, autobiographical, funny and loud, it sets out the stall for the whole SeaSick Steve persona as he sings “Daddy left home when I was 4 years old, when I was 7 Mama got a new man….It was hell y’awl.”

Leaving home at 14, riding freight trains (It is a blues song remember, so you’ve got to ride freight trains…it’s the law), getting cold and hungry and “I’d pick on a guitar, put the hat out and try and get your spare change…that’s an advertisement”

Apparently Doghouse blues “Aint the kind of blues you get for a day, you have it your whole life long.” The song itself is John Lee Hooker chug with a bit of a Norman Greenbaum Spirit in the Sky feel and some Warren Zevon Werewolves Of London style howling.

He plays sitting down, hammering out a huge sound from his unlikely pair of instruments. He also sometimes uses the The One Stringed Diddly-Bo which is a guitar string nailed to a plank.

If the man looks and sounds like he should be playing the blues on his porch you suspect the only reason he isn't is that the instruments look like they are made out of the porch.

He’s a compelling and entertaining performer and this has probably come out of his busking past where “I learned storytelling. The guitar was just a thing to keep it going, to keep people from walking away!”

Before Seasick Steve the former champions of missing strings were Morphine. This Massachusetts 3 piece had an unusual sound, which they branded Low Rock. A bit like a jazzy Violent Femmes or a minimalist Eels.

Singer Mark Sandman played a 2 string bass with a slide, getting a sinuous bendy sound. Sax player Dana Colley would often play 2 saxes at once like Roland Kirk used to. These were baritone Saxes as well…enormous instruments, outrageously raspy and fruity.

1993’s Cure For Pain is a really good album and includes the excellent adultery song Thursday that starts with meeting every week for a couple of beers and a game of pool and ends in tears.

“Well her husband he's a violent man a very violent and jealous man. Now I have to leave this town I got to leave while I still can.” Over a clattering drums and a chukka chukka bass thrum he delivers the sorry tale in a rich crooning voice full of resignation. The sax egging him on in a “Tell me More Tell me more” style.

Unlikely as it sounds there is something about the lyrical structure and phrasing that reminds me of Prince. The pause as he delivers the line “And the name of the motel was the Wagon Wheel” makes me think of Sign o’ The Times.

I’m Free Now could be a continuation of the purple diddy man’s Nothing Compares to you with lines like “I'm free now to direct a movie Sing a song or write a book about yours truly.” It’s good stuff though. The sax lines build up as long slow ascending notes that then come tumbling down with the singers black mood of despair and self loathing

The song Cure For Pain has got the elegantly simple line. “Someday there'll be a cure for pain That's the day I throw my drugs away.” It just sounds completely right coming from a band called Morphine.and with it’s line “I propose a toast to my self control You see it crawling helpless on the floor” it could sit comfortably (and numbly) alongside the Johnny Cash version of Hurt.

Sandman collapsed on stage and died of a heart attack in Rome in 1999 but the remaining members still tour as Orchestra Morphine. I don’t know how many strings they use now though.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Phantom Limb - The Shins

Just as I thought that I’d got all my years favourite records mentally wrapped for the festive season, along comes a record that undoes all that Anthea Turner/Nigella Lawson musical planning.

Phantom Limb by Albuquerque based 4 piece The Shins has gone straight to the top of the pile, top of Santa’s list and is scampering up the tree like a bauble crazed kitten, leaving the year’s other singles contenders languishing, unloved, with the slipper and tea towel gift set. The single is released in advance of the bands 3rd album Wincing The Night Away due to be released at the end of January on Sub Pop.

Phantom Limb didn’t so much jump out of the radio; it sort of sidled up to me with a knowing look and an air of “I’ve got all the things you like.” There’s a whiff of Weezer, The Beach Boys and Jesus and Mary Chain’s Some Candy Talking. There’s a touch of a Morrissey inflection to the vocals and a hint of Always The Sun by The Stranglers.

Psychedelic 60’s folky pop meets The Rubinoos soaring Beach Boys Powerpop version of I think We’re Alone Now. I’ll pass (possible mis print) on the Tiffany version. The song starts on a dum de dum bass line (back to the Mary Chain/Shangri las) and the opening guitar chords ring out clearly, but feels like the strings have just been stroked. And I know how they feel.

Singer James Mercer was previously in Flake and has got a high, clear, wide ranging voice and can definitely carry off a Beach Boys type melody. The lyrics sound intriguing and baffling...There’s a line about “They are the fabled lambs, Of Sunday ham” and the slightly more obvious “Another afternoon of the goat-head tunes, And pilfered booze.”

I definitely got the hang of the vocal line “Oh woagh oh oh oh” and sometimes that’s all you need. The icing on the cake for me is the 2 note organ cheese and a twangy guitar on the fade out.

It’s complete twisted pop gorgeousness and I’m really excited by the record and looking forward to hearing the new album and investigating the previous 2 albums, Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow released in 2001 and 2003 respectively.

I instantly liked Phantom Limb, and it set me thinking about another 2 songs that I instantly took to and got that same feeling of “Rightness” from. The thing about listening to Music is sometimes you want to hear brand new stuff, new ideas or be challenged but there are also times when it just sounds great to hear a new song that uses building blocks that you, as a listener, just feel absolutely at home with.

It’s not about being derivative, it’s just good solid house building. The opening bars of The Thrills, One Horse Town has got that Soul Pop opening feel of Gates of The West by The Clash. The bass guitar and the hammered low notes from the non tinkly end of the piano sound like Luther Ingram’s Northern Soul masterpiece If It’s All The Same To You Babe.

It just instantly felt right. I liked the vocals too, dissatisfied, yearning and a bit breathless. Absolutely right for an Irish small town band whose hearts and record collections were in the USA.

"Yeah you're burning
Oh you're burning
My ears with your travelling tales
But my in laws
Oh baby my in laws
Well they're trying to tie a young man down
Well I never should have settled down
Hanging around in a one horse town"

The other record that got me with that instant grab was Belle and Sebastian’s The State I’m In. I first heard it on Mark Radcliffe’s show in 96. The track was from the album Tigermilk that had been recorded as part of a College music course and had been released as a limited edition 1000 copies. I was hanging wallpaper at the time.

I remember my heart sinking as Stuart Murdoch’s high trembling voice started a stately warble across gently strummed guitars. The world did not need more fey indie nonsense. As a reluctant wallpaperer I certainly didn’t need it...except of course...I was wrong. The record gradually builds a momentum and the lyrics are waspish and sharp, clever and Morrissey literate.

"I got married in a rush
To save a kid from being deported
Now she's in love
I was so touched; I was moved to kick the crutches
From my crippled friend
She was not impressed
That I cured her on the Sabbath
So I went to confess
When she saw the funny side,
We introduced my child bride
To whisky and gin"

By the end of the record, I was hooked. In this case it was not so much the sound of the record, but the lyrics and story that had reeled me in. It had knocked my socks off and hung them out to dry along with my pre conceptions.

There have been more than 3 records that I instantly loved. There’ll be others in the future too no doubt.....but for now Phantom Limb and I are definitely making plans.