Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Sam and Dave and Isaac Hayes

When Isaac Hayes died recently there was a surprising (but deserved) amount of coverage. It may have been testament to his massive contribution to music but also to the fact that with his various roles as musician, songwriter, performer, iconic baldy, actor and voice of chef meant that there were simply more good stories about him. Death by treadmill didn't hurt the copywriters either!

Great things about Isaac Hayes.

The fact that he wrote 200 songs for Stax (and you do know a lot of them), the cover of Hot Buttered Soul with the bald head and chain and the fact that the lp only had 4 songs on it including By The Time I Get To Phoenix. With it's generous 18 minute running time, there was a fair chance you could actually get to Phoenix by the time Ike had finished the spoken intro. The slight pause as the monologue ends with the line "He said" and then the song slides into the opening line of the song. A classic soul moment, only bettered by the sweetness of the strings as it gets to the line "She'll laugh when she reaches the part that says I'm leaving"

Obviously Theme from Shaft was great. Even better was the fact that he was lifted onto the stage by a hydraulic ramp to play it at the 1971 Oscars. That's less Soulsvile USA. More like Kiss and Detroit Rock City. You've got to give credit for the fact that he had a tuxedo made of chains and also wrote a song called Pursuit Of The Pimpmobile. Oh yes. And the tooling up sequence in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka. The scene gets longer and the weapons get bigger. After being so involved in the whole Blaxploitation genre here was Hayes sending himself up.

But there's more to it than the stories and the songwriting. And more to it than great songwriter writes great song. I think what he did with Sam and Dave is even more interesting.

Hayes and song writing partner Dave Porter took an underachieving soul duo who had been signed by Atlantic's Jerry Wexler (who also died very recently) and forced them to go against their own instincts as singers. The resulting string of singles that Hayes and Porter wrote for them between 1965 and 69 are pretty much as good as it gets. Backed by a multi racial band on a white owned label that aimed at Black audiences (while in the North, Motown was the Black owned label aiming at White audiences) Sam and Dave had the Gospel fire, and the contrast of Sam Moore's pleading tenor contrasting with Dave Prater's gruff roar.

I Take what I Want
You Don't Know Like I Know
Hold On I'm Coming
You Got Me Humming
When Something Is Wrong With My baby
Soul Man
I Thank You
Everybody Got To Believe In Somebody
Soul Sister Brown Sugar

No duffers there! Hearing any of them would make anyone's world a better place. Sometimes you don't have to dig out the rare and obscure. Sometimes the best stuff was actually the hits!

Sam Moore started out singing Gospel and was all set to tour with the Soul Stirrers as a potential replacement for Sam Cooke. He changed his mind after seeing Jackie Wilson and wanted to do a broader range of material. In 1961 he was compering an amateur night in Miami he was joined onstage by Dave Prater still in his baker's whites from his day job. Prater was so nervous he dropped his mike and Sam caught it.

They'd signed to Roulette but the whole thing didn't really come together until they were signed by Jerry Wexler in 1964 and sent to Memphis....which is where Isaac Hayes came in. The hits that Hayes and Porter wrote for them forced them to sing outside their natural keys.

Sam Moore has said "The funny thing was I didn't like any of our hits when Hayes and Porter played them for us. I liked the ballads but I didn't understand their kind of music. I was looking for the straight Rock 'n' Roll and they'd come up with all these changes, horn lines doing this and we'd be doing that. Chords where you'd really have to grit your teeth to sing it"

But of course that straining gave an urgency to the sound. The horn lines, guitar and vocals were all going hell for leather. The band were doing call and response in the same way that Sam and Dave were. Hayes and Porter were writing songs for them that captured the fervour of Gospel but with celebrations of heartbreak and lust. Songs that built the Soul Man tradition. Testifying and testosterone. Sometimes he's a Broke Down Piece Of A Man (actually it's a Steve Cropper song rather than Isaac Hayes) but more likely it's Hold On I'm Coming.

Listen to the wail and flail of I Thank You, and it's opening plea for "Some more of that ooooold Soul clapping". Now go and play Black Grape's In The Name Of The Father. A record that could not have existed with Sam and Dave.

Thing is Hayes also had to convince the label owner. "Jim Stewart just did not like minor keys. Yeah yeah. The bread and butter of Gospel and Blues. He hated them in fact....Of course you couldn't be at all funky and innovative if you didn't use some of those options. So we were always at work sneaking them in"

As a live act they were legendary. They were Double Dynamite, with the non stop, athletic dance routines, the call and response vocals, feeding off each others lines and moves. I remember seeing a clip of Hold On I'm Coming where they make loosening a tie seem like a choreographed act of Soulful intensity, rather than just a way of breathing more easily.

In Gerri Hirshey's book Nowhere To Run (a terrific book on Soul that should be on the national curriculum) there is a lot of Sam and Dave...and sweat.
Prater saw it as proof that he'd worked for his pay and Moore said "Unless my body reaches a certain temperature, starts to liquify, I just don't feel right"

But despite their onstage chemistry the pair had a volatile relationship. Moore was a long term heroin addict. In 1968 Prater shot his wife during an argument. Prater's wife survived but he was never prosecuted. Moore wouldn't speak to him again. "I said I'll sing with you but I'll never talk to you again ever. So for 12 years our lives were completely separate"

In 1970 Moore recorded a solo album for Atlantic, backed by the cream of Atlantic and Stax musicians including Bernard Purdie on drums, Aretha Franklin on keyboards, Donny Hathaway and the Sweet Inspirations. Plenty Good Lovin' didn't get released until 2002.

Moore himself didn't remember making it but he did remember going to see the albums producer King Curtis in 1971. "Unfortunately when I got there he was ...ahh...getting murdered"
King Curtis Sax player (on everything from Yakety Yak to Memphis Soul Stew) and producer was carrying air conditioning equipment into his Harlem apartment when he was stabbed.

Moore remembers "Aretha was sitting across the street and I was walking towards the apartment. I could see King screaming at this guy to get off his steps....Aretha got out of the car and screamed but at the time I wasn't so clean. I was carrying stuff I didn't want any one to find. I ran before I saw him die

Sam and Dave continued to work with each other on and off through the 70's. There were various reunion tours and ill advised re recordings of their hits. The success of the Blues Brothers prompted another short lived reunion before Moore got a job serving Warrants and Prater worked for a Pontiac dealer.

Moore talks about those 70's gigs in a recent interview at http://www.zani.co.uk/Interviews.aspx?id=56 to plug his recent Overnight Sensational album (I'd go for the release of the 1970 album myself....it doesn't feature Sting or Jon Bon Jovi)

"Oh my god it was real bad. You've got to understand it wasn't a promoter that broke Sam and Dave, it was us. Sometimes Dave would show up, and I wouldn't. Sometimes I would show, and he wouldn't. We'd get up on stage, but it wasn't like the old days when we connected, and say to each other "Let's go and get them". We were getting high, I was pimping my girlfriends at the time. It wasn't such a good life then."

The Sam and Dave act had led to a myriad of male duo acts. Sam and Bill, Sam and Dan, Sam and Sam, Eddie and Ernie. At one point Dave Prater was touring as Sam and Dave with Sam from Sam and Dan.

There were legal shenanigans when Sam Moore stopped Atlantic from releasing a Sam and Dave album in 1985 that featured Sam Daniels. Moore himself felt the weight of legal process when he was ordered to stop performing Dole Man in support of Bob Dole. Sadly he was not stopped from recording Soul Man with Lou Reed. Prater had the misfortune to sell crack to an undercover policeman and then worse luck when he died following a car crash in 88.

The popularity and impact of their hits and their own personal problems meant that they were stuck with each other and their hits even when they weren't together. Although the sweat and intensity of their live shows was down to their own talent, it was the song writing of Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter
that gave them the hits that they could never escape from. Their story has some of the most thrilling moments in Pop, squandered talent, unseen chances and their own poisonous relationship.

It's like Rod Hull and Emu.

Bombay Bicycle Club

When Lemmy and his wart were young and handsome, they decided that they should be part of the Rock n Roll world because, instead of all the people telling you what you couldn't do…"These guys told you what you could do. Which is a lot more fun. And there were all the cute chicks"

Bombay Bicycle Club on the other hand formed to play at their school assembly when they 15. "We weren't very good. The school assembly was a bit of a disaster, and afterwards we messed around for a year."

They're still only 18 though and have played at V and Reading festivals and supported the Young Knives. Between exams they've also put out 3 singles. And here's the thing. They're very good. It's 2 guitars, bass and drums sound, with tuneful Sonic Youth intertwining guitars, and Jack Steadman's reedy, quavery vocals sung into the middle distance. He sounds like Mr Magoo or Marc Bolan (The Glam Larry the lamb)

New single Evening/Morning is full of unexpected musical twists and turns. It starts quietly with a steadily building drums roll and a mix of ringing, guitar picking and some coarser strummage. As it reaches a crescendo it drops back to just a filthy bass. It squeezes a few more stop starts and a great false ending into a great 3 minutes. It sounds tense and it reminds me of Drink The Elixir by Salad. I doubt if they remember it though. When that record came out the band were still too young for the ball pool.

All their records have been produced by Arctic Monkeys producer Jim Abiss. How Are You, from last years How We Are ep released on the own Mmm label has more stop start trickery and has a bit more of a Dinosaur Jr feel especially the drums.

The chiming discordant guitars of Open House from their debut single Boy I Used To Be (also from last year) are more like The Strokes.

They're a band with loads of potential and I do like to hear band talk about their exams nearly as much as their records. I bet Lemmy does too.


The Hold Steady

On the few occasions recently when I haven't been thinking about The Wire, I've mostly been thinking about how much I'm looking forward to the new Hold Steady album. I was really taken by them after seeing them on Jools Holland last year. Their last album Boys And Girls In America was their breakthrough album. Bruce Springsteen meets AC/DC as opposed to their first 2 albums which were Bruce Springsteen meets Husker Du. Stadium indie played by a bunch of Brooklyn blokes who comfortably manage to pull off the look of being a bunch of 30 something blokes who know their way around a bar, a bar band, a hotdog stand and quite possibly did see the Bears games on Saturday. They are the best new old band of recent years with just the right mix of classic rock moves, the Punk Rock sensibilities to keep all that Rock in check and the terrific lyrics of Craig Finn. Part Springsteen/Strummer declamatory roar and part pissed poetry.

Stuck Between Stations was the stand out track and single from their last album Boys And Girls In America and contains more good ideas than you generally need in a song. Kerouac quoting, AC/DC riffing and the lyric "Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together. Crushing one another with colossal expectations" Phew!

The ascending riff leading into the chorus is just monumental and straight out of the Angus Young's notebook. It is the cock of the school of rock. It was one of my favourite records of the year but some ear discretion is advised. Some of the keyboards are less E Street Band and more Bruce Hornsby and his bastard Range. So if you are Bruce averse (either Springsteen or Hornsby) then you need to concentrate more on the first 2 albums Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday where the taut relentless guitars roll like tanks. There are crunching guitars and shouty bloke tales of suburban casualties where often the same characters run like a thread through his lyrics. War vets and party casualties and more painkillers than a celebrity "My Hollywood Hell" edition of Heat.

You wouldn't want him at your wedding...when the vicar asks if there is an any cause or just impediment, loose lips Finn would be bellowing out an eye watering story from the staggy!

The single from the forthcoming album is exactly what is required. Sequestered in Memphis seems to be a Police interview. (A parallel to Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine by The Killers) Something has gone badly wrong after picking up a woman in a bar. "We didn't go back to her place, we went to some place where she cat sits"

Finn leads into each chorus with a variation of "I'll tell the story, again…"

And as for the chorus itself, it's a 6 line distillation of what's great about the band. "Subpoenaed in Texas, sequestered in Memphis" A blend of legalese and geography. Craig Finn, the Replacements fan from Minneapolis is still so in love with Rock 'n' Roll that he thinks it's just enough for him to invoke the names Texas and Memphis and for that to be just enough to carry the song. In this case it is.

The American legal terms may be familiar to British ears through years of exposure to their legal system through films and telly (It's been like distance learning for me. I wouldn't exactly claim to be qualified, but I reckon I could pace around an American courtroom) but it really is not what you expect to hear in a chorus. Generally I look for a chorus that promotes cars, girls or shaking either booty, that thing or even the room.

Either way it's a great record and exactly what I want to hear from them. The new album Stay Positive is available on ITunes but I'm holding out until the 14th for the physical release, the digipack and the extra tracks.

There is more Hold Steady at http://www.thestirrer.co.uk/ps1405071.html

Stuck Between Stations is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Cem1ME-OvQ

Sequestered In Memphis is at http://www.myspace.com/theholdsteady

Zutons - You Can Do Anything

The Zutons are back. Like the first cheeky bollock peeking out of the shorts of summer. Not quite want you want to see all the time, but the occasional view is always funny. I do like the band, although they may not appreciate being compared to cheeky bollocks. They started it though by calling their last album Tired Of Hanging Around.

This time round they've lost a guitarist, gained a producer (George Drakoulias who produced The Black Crows and Primal Scream) and singer Dave McCabe has had a new beard fitted.

The album cover has the band in the desert playing second fiddle to a giant silver Z. Now there is a proud tradition of monuments in Pop Culture from the monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey, Spinal Tap's Stonehenge, and the monument on the Cover of Who's Next that seemed to be both public and convenient. The giant silver Z just feels more like a left over prop from a car advert though and I end up looking at Abi's legs rather than the fine corporate branding.

The albums is less odd ball than Who Killed The Zutons and doesn't have anything as good Valerie or Oh Stacey (Look What You've Done) from the last album, but there's still plenty to like. Starting with McCabe's hoarse yearning vocals and Sean Payne's excellent drumming.

My swaggering greasy Southern Rock A Boogie requirements have usually been satisfied by The Black Crows, rather than a bunch of Scouse Beefheart botherers. I'm not complaining though. Harder And Harder is a great opening track with slide guitar and gamely honking sax and really is only a few footsteps away (over the on stage Persian carpet) from The Black Crows. And if that's the Drak influence then I'm all for it.

What's Your Problem is a stomping brassy pop soul affair ushered in with jabbering sax and guitar riffs with plenty of" Huh" and "Yeahs" for backing vocals.

Always Right Behind You sticks it's thumbs in it's belt loops and rocks like a vintage Top Of The Pops. All slide guitar and platform shoes. It's extremely silly and you really shouldn't like it as much as you will

McCabe's lyrics on this album have come in for criticism as being clich├ęd and poisonous. Bumbag opens with the line "Raise a glass now to the person who invented the word called scum"

Family Of Leeches is a Shameless episode set to music. All asbos and hearts of gold. Maybe he's having problems with the neighbours of the house he bought with the proceeds of Valerie.

The first album definitely had odder lyrics though with it's images of zombies, Dirty Dancehalls and the self referential Zuton fever. McCabe claims he wants to write stories you can dance to and always writes about "trouble and mischief".

Valerie is "About our mate Valerie getting done for drink driving and about telling her to come and see me, give her a hug, kind of thing. 'Cos she's got ginger hair too. It's obviously her, it's very literal."

I quite like literal. One of the best tracks from the last album was The Little Things we do. Literally about hangovers, it's a wry look at the problems of sandwich making after hay making and it may not have been prize wining poetry but id did have a sax part that sounded like it was hurtling down the hallway to hurl.

There are plenty of songs of trouble and mischief on this album though.

Freak is a Gigolo song while Put A Little Side is a tale of funny money and bogus jobs.

"5 times a year I'll return with the fake pay packet that I didn't earn. I'm the one who works the oil rigs but clearly I'm not".

My favourite tracks are the up-tempo, rockier ones like Harder And Harder and Always Right Behind You. But I've made a little room in my life for Don't Get Caught. It is pickety country folk, that's part Everybody's Talkin' that sits comfortably on a cushion of perfectly judged keyboards. I also like Give Me A Reason with it's George Harrison guitar

There are sample tracks at http://www.columbia.co.uk/listen/the_zutons/you_can_do_anything___the_times_online

They've been playing a series of gigs at Forestry Commission sites (come on wouldn't you rather go to an arboretum than an auditorium) and play at Cannock Chase 28th June