Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life by Jonathan Gould, Crown 2017
Is it possible that Otis Redding’s performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival is one of the great moments in the history of western culture? Fifty years ago, in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, long after Hugh Masekela’s endless set put everything behind schedule, a 25 year old from Macon, Georgia came onstage and blew everyone who had played before, and just about everyone who was yet to play, off the stage. Jimi Hendrix felt it necessary to light his guitar on fire. Bob Weir reckoned he’d seen God. Such was the Otis effect.
Bob Weir isn’t far from wrong. Otis’s performance, fortunately captured on film, is transcendent. It’s the best Springsteen show you’ve ever seen mixed up with a sort of soul review version of King Lear. It’s what every band tries to do onstage. It’s emotional but seamless. It’s ragged but never sloppy. Otis makes a personal connection with the audience, row by row, seat by seat. There is a clip of him singing ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ at the end of the review. Make sure you are sitting down.
California was good to Otis. A few months later he wrote Dock of the Bay on a houseboat in Sausalito. He should have stayed. Instead, he went back to his punishing touring schedule and died in a plane crash on December 10th of that same year. All that energy, all that extraordinary talent that was on show at Monterey, disappeared in an instant.
Jonathan Gould’s new biography, Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life begins with his appearance at the festival, backtracks to his early life, and finishes with the slow demise of Stax Records in the 1970s. It’s an appropriate ending. Many, including guitarist Steve Cropper, have stated that Stax was never the same after Otis died. This is by no means the first book to link the Memphis record label’s decline back to his death. Otis was instrumental to its rise and embodied its spirit. Gould acknowledges this but suggests that Otis’ story is much more far reaching than the rise and fall of a record label.
Consider this: Otis Redding was born in 1941, making him an almost exact contemporary of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But if The Beatles sprang from a Victorian industrial port city, Otis was born into another 19th century altogether. Georgia, in 1941, remained segregated at all levels of society. Many of the most severe Jim Crow laws were still in effect. Those that weren’t, were still there in spirit. The civil rights movement wasn’t even on the horizon. Just over 25 years later, at the end of his short life, Otis was living in a very different America. His life spanned a period of significant change. In fact, by 1967, the era-defining civil rights movement was giving way to Black Power and more militant figures were replacing the soon to be assassinated Dr King. There is a moment late in the book where Otis is being interviewed by Life Magazine and is interrupted by Rap Brown, a figure that would have been unimaginable ten years earlier, let alone at the time of Otis’ birth. That said, when Otis decided to buy a farm outside of Macon in the mid sixties, he still had to make sure that the mainly white residents of the community would be comfortable with his presence. He told his manager that he didn’t want a cross burning on his lawn.
Gould weaves Redding’s story into the broader narrative of African American life in the mid 20th century. His generation of singers, including his occasional rival James Brown, followed the examples of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke who had both worked hard to maintain control over their careers. The young Otis had to prove himself several times in new neighborhoods when the family moved for work in the 1950s. The man that emerges in this book is no pushover and this is not the story of how a black entertainer was ripped off by unscrupulous white men. From the beginning, Otis chose the people around him carefully and, for the most part, avoided the usual pitfalls musicians encounter when their music begins to make money.
But this was still America in the sixties and Otis was consigned to the R&B market and long tours on the ‘Chitlin Circuit’. In his lifetime, he was far more popular in Europe than in America. The Rolling Stones were early fans and John Lennon named him as his favourite singer in a mid sixties interview. His first number one single in America was ‘(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay’ which reached that position on March 16 1968, almost 4 months after he died.
Gould is very good on the nuts and bolts of Otis’s various business relationships. Almost in the manner of Franco Moretti’s exacting work on the history of the novel, Gould uses detailed examples from contracts and booking arrangements to illuminate the precise nature of these relationships. This in turn puts some meat on the bones of the social context of the story. Redding’s association with his white manager, Phil Walden, is examined closely and functions as something of a metaphor for the changes that were taking place in the wider society. It is well known that Jimi Hendrix came under increasing pressure from African American activists to avoid using white backing musicians and managers. It’s an open question as to whether Otis would have been subjected to similar pressure. He had already shown a distinct lack of interest in politics – but then so did Hendrix.
From my perspective, Gould is better on social history than music. When I read a music biography, I want to finish with a deeper sense of the subject’s body of work. This, I’m afraid, did not happen. His background material on minstrel groups, the blackface phenomenon, and southern gospel is concisely delivered and appropriate to his narrative but it’s all familiar material. I was surprised initially at his dismissal of an early recording by Redding called ‘Shout Bamalama’. Yes, it’s a blatant Little Richard rip off but it is still a glorious piece of music. Gould treats it like embarrassing juvenalia. I wonder if he realizes that it has been covered by Eddie Hinton, Jim Dickinson, and The Detroit Cobras. They liked it!
Astonishingly, he seems unhappy with Otis’s body of work at Stax Records. His underlying point appears to be that Stax was essentially an amateur operation run by a hayseed – Jim Stewart. Over and over, Gould points to instances where he believes Redding’s career was mishandled. Most surprising is his unstated but obvious contention that Otis would have been better off with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic like Wilson Pickett. Pickett recorded at various studios including Fame in Muscle Shoals but his sound was created at Stax. The Fame recordings are magic, of course, but they were an attempt to recreate the Stax sound. I can see the point he is making from a management perspective but I seriously dispute that the vast amount of Otis Redding’s output would have sounded better with the Swampers at Fame or Chips Moman’s crew at American Studios. Different perhaps, but better? Better than ‘Cigarettes and Coffee’ from The Soul Album? Listen to the beginning with Packy Axton’s sax and Wayne Jackson’s trumpet on top of Al Jackson’s drums. Then there is a perfectly timed restrained guitar lick from Steve Cropper just before Otis starts to sing. In 12 seconds, the 3am atmosphere of the song is established. Could Jerry Wexler do better? I doubt he would have thought so. There is a clip below. Listen to it. That is the Stax sound and it’s right up there with Chartres Cathedral and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as far as I’m concerned.
Gould does acknowledge in the afterword that his perspective on Stax Records might be quite different to that of Rob Bowman, Robert Gordon, and Peter Gurlanick, who have all written books on the subject. The difference is that they like the music. He lost me when he dismissed Eddie Floyd as a ‘journeyman’. A few years ago, I saw Floyd, who is no longer a young man, take the roof off a St Kilda venue and send it frisbee-like into Port Phillip Bay. He may not be Gould’s cup of tea but he is no journeyman. I also dispute that Steve Cropper’s guitar work is ‘limpid’ on Redding’s version of ‘A Change is Going To Come’ or any other song. Ever.
If you’ve already read the standard Stax Records books (see my list below), most of which cover Otis at great length, there are still many good reasons to read A Life Unfinished. The research is impeccable and perhaps it is time for a serious biography that goes beyond the music and addresses the wider implications of Otis Redding’s time on earth. Gould works hard to penetrate the somewhat mysterious inner life of the man. This is by no means some kind of iconoclastic Albert Goldman style biography but we are certainly left with a sense that there was a lot more to Otis than the genial image projected by his music.
I like a music biography that sends me charging to my stereo or laptop to hear a particular version of a song or an album that I’ve henceforth ignored. This didn’t happen but perhaps Gould felt that book had already been written – and he’s right. If you’re after an account of Otis Redding’s life that skips the myth and aims to deliver the man himself along with the period he lived in, this might be the one.
Teasers: Otis and James Brown; Otis and Aretha; Otis’ serious brush with the law just as his career was taking off.
The Greatest Moment in Western Culture:
Further Reading on Stax Records, Otis, Southern Soul, etc:
It Came From Memphis by Robert Gordon (2001)
Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick (1999)
Soulsville USA by Rob Bowman (2003)
Respect Yourself by Robert Gordon (2015)
Nowhere To Run by Gerri Hirshey (1994)
Say It One Time For The Broken Hearted By Barney Hoskyns (1998)
Dreams To Remember by Mark Ribowsky (2016)
Let’s start with an activity. Go over to your collection of LPs and/or CDs. Take every one by a Texan artist out and put it on the floor. Unless I am mistaken there should now be a big mess. Blind Lemon Jefferson, DRI, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Scott Joplin, T-Bone Walker, Guy Clark, Janis Joplin, Waylon Jennings, 13th Floor Elevators, a Tejano compilation, Sir Douglas Quintet, Bob Wills, Pantera, Ornette Coleman, and, wait a minute, you own a Pantera record? Notice how many are on the floor. It’s remarkable. Now tidy them up and come back to hear about a new book, Pickers and Poets: The Ruthlessly Poetic Singer-Songwriters of Texas.
All over the world there are regions in other countries that were once independent nations. Mercia, Java, Burgundia, Venice, Sikkim, and Galicia are just some of the ghost states that linger in the wider federations to which they now belong. Texas is another such place. From 1836 until 1846, the Republic of Texas had its own president and was recognised by many other countries including its big neighbour to the north, the United States.
Is this why so many of your records come from Texas? Perhaps it is. When Willie Nelson grew weary of Nashville in the late 60s, he grew his hair, started smoking industrial amounts of weed, and, to really make his point, threw his battered guitar in the pickup and moved to Austin. He crossed a border; he emigrated. Yes, I know he was from Texas originally but the point is that Austin, though only a long day’s drive from Nashville, represented another place entirely, another country – with all the implications of that phrase.
Pickers and Poets is not a comprehensive history of Texas music – it is, rather, a series of short essays about the state’s song writing tradition as it has played out since the late sixties. The extensive blues tradition in the state is not part of this book, nor is Texas jazz – an amazing story – or the wondrous Tejano music. Most of the artists profiled here could be classified roughly under the ‘Americana’ banner. The book is set out more or less chronologically beginning with figures like Steven Fromholz, Michael Martin Murphey and on up to contemporary songsmiths like Hayes Carll. In between, we meet such familiar figures as Kinky Friedman, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and James McMurtry. Willie Nelson gets two pieces.
I was sold when Willis Alan Ramsay turned up in one of the first essays. In the chapters that follow, it becomes clear that many songwriters continue to hold him in very high esteem. He recorded exactly one album in 1972. It sold poorly and disappeared almost immediately. But what a record! You’ll recognise one song on it. Yes, Willis Alan Ramsay wrote Muskrat Love and, what’s more, it’s a great song. His version, that is. He also wrote Angel Eyes, a song that you will either play or wish you had played at your wedding.
But it’s Townes Van Zandt who haunts almost all of the essays. He never had anywhere near the success he deserved and his story is not a happy one. However, his influence is beyond question. He was never a Nashville identity but many of his songs are standards on the Opry stage. It’s arguable that the entire Americana scene is his creation. Big call? Okay, but flip through the pages of No Depression and try to imagine a world where Townes had never existed. It’s not easy. I would argue, as many have, that his influence is comparable to Bob Dylan’s.
Townes was a hard living character indeed and as Steve Earle has observed, a terrible role model. His friend and partner in crime, Blaze Foley is mentioned in many of the essays. Blaze was Townes’ Townes, the embodiment of Kris Kristoffersen’s Pilgrim character and the ultimate cosmic country gypsy. Willie, Waylon, Tompall Glaser and Billy Joe Shaver are famous for the ‘Outlaw’ brand of country. Blaze was the pure product. And then some. His casket was covered in duct tape before he was buried. Beat that Gram Parsons!
If you are curious about the Folk/Country/Americana scene that has developed in Texas over the past half century, the book does a good job of creating a viable chronology. The original generation – Jerry Jeff, Townes, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, and so on – were essentially folkies inspired by Bob Dylan but well versed in honky tonk, Western Swing, and sometimes bluegrass. Willie was a Nashville insider who brought a modern country sensibility with him, not to mention a whole pile of talent scouts who sniffed change in the air. The hippie/redneck/trucker/shitkicker scene around the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin wound down in the early eighties but songwriters continued to gravitate to the small city. The next generation, which included Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, and many others regarded Nashville with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Successive waves have included talented Texans such as Ryan Bingham and Sam Baker.
The introduction includes a cringe-worthy explanation of why so few women are included but the chapter devoted exclusively to them is perhaps the best in the book. There are also chapters on newish singer songwriters like Kacey Musgraves and Terri Hendrix in the last section of the book. The whole thing, at times, seems edited by committee so perhaps they forgot. The chapter on Don Henley (yes, from Texas, shame about his anaemic music) was mercifully brief but still too long for this reader. The sections on figures like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams contained far too much general information that is already widely available. The chapter on Rodney Crowell, on the other hand, was fascinating. Guy Clark seemed underplayed throughout the book though the essay by Tamara Saviano bodes well for her recent biography of the man. But these are just quibbles about an engaging and informative book. Any book on music that I have to put down so that I can listen to an artist or album that I don’t know gets high marks from me. It took me weeks to get through this one! Discovering David Rodriguez alone was worth the cover price.
If for some reason, you didn’t end up with many records on the floor in the activity at the beginning of the review, this is required reading. For folks who are still tidying up, there might be, believe or not, still some gaps in your collection. Poets and Pickers might help to fill them.
Teasers: Both of the editors have written doctoral theses on Texas music. The analysis of lyrics and lyrical traditions in the book are truly insightful.
Willie Nelson on The Midnight Special, introduced by Captain and Tennille!
Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon by Peter Ames Carlin, Henry Holt, 2016
First the bad news.
In the late 1980s when I was a DJ on college radio, I heard a rumour from a musician who came by for an interview. He said that he’d heard about a legendary singer from the sixties who had sought the services of an up and coming LA band. He had asked them to back him on a song for his forthcoming album. The legend’s stock was not particularly high at the time and they were happy to lend their current street cred to his record. He arrived and immediately began ordering them around and complaining after each take. It was clear that he didn’t have anything written but was hoping that a song might come out of a jam session. Eventually, the band played a song that they had been working on. They hadn’t recorded any demos but it had a name. The legend was interested in the song but the band had decided that it would be on their next album. The sessions didn’t produce anything further and eventually he left, seemingly unhappy with the results. They hadn’t been that impressed with him either and forgot all about it. Then his album appeared. It was a massive seller. They noticed that their song was on it. He had used the recordings they’d made that day and hadn’t even changed the title. The words and music were credited to him alone. They phoned him up and his response was: “Sue me, see what happens.”
It should have been obvious to me but there was no internet in those days and just about every legendary sixties artist was staging some kind of a comeback that year. I remember hoping that it wasn’t John Fogerty! It wasn’t. It was Paul Simon and the band was Los Lobos. The song was All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints from his Graceland LP.
Question: Who would rip off Los Lobos?
Answer: The same guy who has been pulling similar stunts since, wait for it, the late 50s.
So, it turns out that Paul Simon isn’t a great guy. Peter Ames Carlin has set himself a difficult task in Homeward Bound. His last book was an excellent biography of Bruce Springsteen, a much easier subject I suspect. Paul is a complicated, not to mention litigious, guy, which might explain why this is the first major biography of a superstar who has been recording for decades.
Incidentally, I am a fan. A big one. My initial Simon and Garfunkel freak out may have even come before my first Beatles thing. Do teenagers still go through these phases? I have owned all their albums on all of the successive formats along with bootlegs, DVDs, and so on. I only say this to make it clear that I’m not using the review to trash the man. His music has meant an enormous amount to me as it has to millions of others.
Homeward Bound therefore, is not easy reading. Within 80 pages we learn that before he had even left high school, Paul had sued his first record company and made a solo deal behind the back of his best friend, Arthur Garfunkel. As Tom and Jerry, they had scored a regional hit with a song called Hey Schoolgirl. When a follow up failed to chart, Jerry, aka Paul, went solo without mentioning it. Artie, who really must be a saint, took it all in his stride. Five years later they were back together for the folky Wednesday Morning, 3AM album. It was a flop and Artie was once again sidelined while Paul went to England. When producer Tom Wilson put some folk rock spice in the mix of Sounds of Silence and released it, Paul found success, but again with Artie. And that was an issue. Art’s voice is thing of beauty and Paul’s isn’t. He had broken up the band and had no desire to play music with his old friend. The problem was that they sounded so good together.
It didn’t last long. Around 1970, Art’s involvement in the Catch 22 film proved too much for Simon’s fragile ego. He went solo, sank into depression when his first album only sold 2 million copies, and finally phoned up Artie to appear with him on the second ever episode of Saturday Night Live. “So, you came crawling back?” he said. The reunion lasted for one glorious song, My Little Town.
Carlin works hard to tell Paul Simon’s story without turning him into the villain of the piece. I’ve never read a music biography like this one. I felt like I was reading Great Expectations as rendered by Philip Roth. Or The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz as reimagined by Brett Easton Ellis.
It’s not really what you want in a book about a musician you admire, is it? If you are a fan, you’ve probably clicked away from this review and have no intention of going near this book. But wait! There is good news too.
If not exactly a hagiography (ahem), Carlin’s book is an excellent source of information about Paul Simon’s recording career. He explains, in detail, the early years when Paul recorded as Jerry Landis, Paul Kane, and True Taylor. Similarly, he explores Simon and Garfunkel’s first recordings and Paul’s long lost ‘Songbook’ album which he recorded in England. He goes through each of the Simon and Garfunkel records, song by song, commenting on the arrangements, the lyrics, and the performances. I went back and listened to all of them while I was reading. Until someone writes a Revolution in the Head type book about the duo, this will do just fine. He then applies the same microscope to the albums of Paul’s post Garfunkel career.
Many Simon and Garfunkel fans have only a passing acquaintance with Paul’s solo albums. I’m one of them. But this book got me listening to them, some for the first time. I was pleasantly surprised! There are gems on all of them. He didn’t forget how to write great songs after Artie left though one can’t help imagining what they would have sounded like with his curly headed pal in the mix. For a tantalising taste of what might have been, listen to the two of them singing Paul’s American Tune on the 1982 Concert in Central Park LP. Magic.
On the Bridge Over Troubled Water album, Simon had used tracks by an Andean folk band called Los Incas to create El Condor Pasa. On his first solo album, he worked with a group of Jamaican musicians from Jimmy Cliff’s band to develop Mother and Child Reunion. He eve went to American Studios in Muscle Shoals to draw on The Swampers for a few of the songs on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. In all cases, he recorded the sessions and then returned to New York or LA and overdubbed himself on vocals to finish the song. He is far from the only musician to work this way but his unwillingness to give credit where it was due is exceptional.
I suppose this is the crux of the story. Paul Simon is a gifted songwriter with a wonderful musical imagination. But to what extent has he, on occasion, exploited the generosity of his colleagues and collaborators? Carlin isn’t putting him on trial in this book but a pattern does emerge. I had no idea that he wrote Red Rubber Ball with Bruce Woodley of The Seekers. And neither did anyone else because Paul took Woodley’s name off the writing credit. He did the same thing with Woodley’s contribution to the Simon and Garfunkel song, Cloudy. Of course, Bruce Woodley went on to write the eternally annoying ‘I am Australian’ so perhaps he got what he deserved. But then there is Martin Carthy’s arrangement of Scarborough Fair. The story is well known though, as Carlin shows, Simon did try to make amends.
And that brings us to Graceland. This is where the book really takes flight. What a story! Graceland was an album that I loathed with an almost exquisite fervour when it appeared in 1986. It sounded like BMW coke music, the kind of thing Gordon Gecko would have in his car. Man, the 80s were awful. Don’t let anyone tell you differently, kids. Simon predictably ran into trouble when he went to South Africa and recorded with a group of mbaqanga musicians that he first heard on a cassette that he forgot to give back to Heidi Berg. Before he even got around to his usual shenanigans with writing credits, he was in trouble with the ANC and found himself on a UN blacklist of musicians who had broken the embargo against working in South Africa.
Carlin explains what happened in great detail and Paul Simon comes off looking pretty good. He understood the ban but assumed that it was all about performing, rather than recording. He did refuse to apologize, which didn’t help matters. The ANC, noble institution that it was, turns out to have been very unreasonable when it came to musicians. Johnny Clegg, no less, had great difficulty with them over a tour of England. And if the founder of Juluka had trouble negotiating with the ANC then what chance did a man of Paul’s temperament have? He had the support of many prominent anti apartheid activists including Miriam Makeba and Hugh Maskela who toured with him. There is a theory that the popularity of Graceland played some role in the close of the Apartheid era. A documentary called Under African Skies is worth watching if you are curious. One person not impressed was Miami Steve Van Zandt who tried to redress what he considered Paul’s transgressions with his ensemble piece, Sun City. They met just once and Paul told Steve that his friend Henry Kissinger had told him that the ANC were Soviet backed communists. Miami Steve said, “Fuck you and your friend.” Steve did manage to get Paul Simon removed from an AZAPO assassination list but that’s another story.
Ezra Pound once said, ‘I am old enough to make friends’. He was talking about Walt Whitman, I’m talking about Graceland. I listened to it again a few days ago, prepared to sit on my hands if I felt like breaking something. Funny thing is, it’s a great album. What sounded overproduced in 1986 now sounds like depth. It’s a BIG record with all kinds of elements. I know I won’t convince everyone but it is a kind of masterpiece, the vision of a great artist realised in full. The African songs are wonderful but there is also a great track with Rockin Dopsie, the Zydeco artist. Sure, he forgot that they were playing an old song of Dopsie’s when it came to the credits but still…
It’s clear that Peter Ames Carlin and his publishers had no desire to mess with Paul Simon. There are some gaps here and there where the legal department might have felt that discretion was the better part of valour. His personal life is outlined but not many of his friends, wives, or lovers were, it seems, willing to go on the record. Paul Simon certainly didn’t cooperate and neither did Art Garfunkel. The strength of the book is Carlin’s ability to arrange almost 60 years of interviews and press material into a compelling narrative. He is also, as I have said, damn good on the man’s music. He writes with enviable precision about Paul’s various musical passions including batucada, West African rhythms, doo wop, rockabilly, folk, and so on.
Behind the story is one question: What the hell is Paul Simon’s problem?
He’s a talented musician who has, for more than half a century, continued to produce critically acclaimed and highly commercial music. Who else can say that? Bob Dylan? Neil Young? David Bowie? Leonard Cohen? That’s heady company. So why is he so cranky? Paul Simon isn’t an evil man but he would appear to be a very difficult one, not to mention one who is strangely uninterested in any kind of artistic integrity when it comes to working with other musicians. So what does Carlin conclude? There seems to be two main possibilities:
- He is short, about 5′ 2″. I know this is ridiculous but when he was 12, despite being a talented baseball player, he was relegated to a league for short kids. It comes up a lot in the book. Artie’s height seemed to bother him. Watch the clip of their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Art, twisting the knife, says, “It’s mike height, that’s what split up this group.” Ouch. Mind you, I’m not making light of this situation. I understand that it can be a real sore point but then again there are a lot of six footers around who haven’t written Bridge over Troubled Water. Plus, he is hardly the only diminutive rock and roll star.
- His father was disappointed in him. Yes, the standard Freudian problem. Louis Simon was a jazz musician who never really got there and continued to belittle Paul even after his extraordinary success in the sixties. He thought Paul should have been a teacher. Better hours but…
If you have any interest in Paul Simon, you should probably take a deep breath and read Homeward Bound. I heard the other day that Art Garfunkel has written his memoirs. I might read them but then again I might just put on Bookends and imagine that Old Friends isn’t supposed to be ironic.
Teasers: His tangled up and true relationship with Bob Dylan. His role in the early years of Saturday Night Live. The whole Carrie Fisher thing. The story of Kathy Chitty who figures in several of his songs. The identity of Tom in The Only Living Boy in NYC. (Okay, it’s Artie!)
Raggedy folk glory from ’66:
Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World by Billy Bragg, Faber & Faber, 2017
Imagine a genre in popular music in which the most famous band is made up entirely of high school kids with virtually no musical experience. Now imagine that this band only ever plays a handful of gigs, never releases any records, and disappears after a few months. Then imagine that the genre more or less disappears from the public imagination while the band changes it name and becomes a cornerstone of popular culture. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Or maybe it does if you’re talking about skiffle music and a band called The Quarry Men aka The Beatles.
But let’s try another scenario. It’s 1954 and a group of young musicians are struggling to finish a recording session. One of them, the guitar player, picks up his guitar and starts mucking around with an old blues song. The producer hears something he likes and asks him to play the song again, this time with the band. The result is, in today’s parlance, a game changer. Popular music takes a sharp turn. The cultural landscape of the entire nation shifts.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Elvis, Scotty, and Bill messing around with Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s That’s Alright Mama and managing to invent rockabilly. But in the same week, far away in England, an almost identical scenario took place. In this case, the guitarist was Lonnie Donegan and the song was Rock Island Line. Rockabilly and Skiffle, distant cousins, born within hours of each other. Why? History is where geography and chronology meet. What was happening in Memphis that spawned rockabilly? What was happening in London that tossed up skiffle? The music historian, Peter Gurlanick, provides the answer to the former in his recent biography of Sam Philips. In a new book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, Billy Bragg – yes, that Billy Bragg – tells the lesser known story of the latter.
I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that rock and roll historians need to start talking about jazz and that jazz historians need to find a place for rock and roll. Not long ago, I had another look at The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a book that I read endlessly as a teenager. The early chapters make a lot of noise about blues and country but seem to skim over jazz. Duke Ellington, it should be recalled, always regarded rock and roll as a form of jazz. And he liked it! One of the many intriguing points about skiffle is that its basis wasn’t in folk or country but in trad jazz.
The English trad jazz story is itself fascinating and Bragg does a great job telling it. It all started with a record collector named Bill Colyer who went off to the army in the 1940s and came back to find his little brother Ken listening to his records and playing guitar. Colyer’s records, and this is critical, were a mix of early New Orleans stuff like King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, along with people like Blind Blake. In the mind of these fans, blues was at the heart of the jazz they loved so why wouldn’t they listen to Blind Lemon Jefferson. Naturally, they recognised that rural blues artists, songsters, and jugbands like Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers used different instruments but to them it was all part of the same story.
When Ken Colyer and similarly inclined folks like Chris Barber began to play early jazz live, they broke up their sets with ‘breakdowns’ where they would pick up guitars and play songs by Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Lonnie Johnson (an influential musician who deserves some kind of revival). Robert Johnson had yet to be rediscovered at this stage, as incredible as that seems. The breakdown sets allowed them to rest their tired embouchures and introduce other songs to their audiences. As so often happens, the other thing became the thing. These sideshows brought people like Lonnie Donegan and Alexis Korner out front with their guitars. As rock and roll landed on the shores of England, guys out front with guitars looked like money to the boys on Denmark Street. The age of skiffle had arrived.
Why didn’t they just call it blues? Billy Bragg addresses this in the book. Apparently, when asked for a name for the members of his brother’s band that had just recorded some guitar based music – Bill Colyer said, ‘The Ken Colyer Skiffle Band’. Skiffle is an old American word for rent party so the association with good times and gutbucket blues is there. But apparently he just couldn’t bring himself to use the word ‘blues’ to describe English music. It offended his sense of authenticity. I wonder what he thought of the Stones’ first record.
Speaking of The Stones, did you catch the name Alexis Korner back there? Yes, it’s the same guy whose Blues Incorporated band featured a drummer called Charlie Watts with guest stars, Brian Jones and Mick Jagger. He began his musical career replacing Lonnie Donegan in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen and was an architect of the skiffle sound. Later, it was his collaborations with Cyril Davies that laid the foundations for British blues. Now that’s a career!
Billy Bragg’s point in this book is devastatingly simple and very difficult to dispute. By 1964, British acts dominated the Billboard charts in America. From The Beatles through to Billy J Kramer, every one of these acts had begun as a skiffle band. All except Petula Clark. She didn’t start as a skiffle band. Bragg’s contention is that when Lonnie Donegan had a big hit with Rock Island Line, a whole bunch of kids were hit by two revelations.
The first was that a lack of talent didn’t disqualify you from music glory. This isn’t to say that Donegan wasn’t talented but he played three chords on guitar and told his story in a voice that would have sounded untrained and raw to kids raised on crooners. It was, as Billy says several times, a similar phenomenon to punk. No suburban kid with a guitar aspired to form a band like ELO. The Clash’s music, on the other hand, sounded like the kind of noise you and your friends could aspire to making without being doomed to certain failure. Of course Jeff Lynne of ELO was himself one of those kids who saw Lonnie Donegan on television and thought, ‘I can do that!’ So there you go.
The other revelation was that English kids could sing American songs. This is significant because without this understanding, it is unlikely that the British blues boom would have occurred in the same manner. It was as though Lonnie Donegan gave a whole generation permission to sing whatever they wanted to sing. And, of course, British blues became a genre in itself that, in turn, shaped the future of American blues.
It was observations like this that Billy Bragg caused a minor storm with an article in The Guardian about skiffle in 2013. He was trying to suggest that ‘Americana’ music could be traced back to England. His evidence had to do with The Animals’ decision to record House of the Rising Sun and the impact this had on Bob Dylan. The real point he was making was that skiffle has been unfairly written out of rock and roll history. The article was typical Bragg fare, earnest and provocative.
Nonetheless, this earnestness provoked Pokey Lafarge, and he took Billy Bragg to task in a Ted talk. He said something to the tune of: “Don’t let people like Billy Bragg tell us that our music came from Britain.” Billy replied on social media that he had said no such thing. At the Womadelaide Festival of 2014, Billy approached Pokey backstage and suggested a beer and chat. Pokey, still affronted, turned him down. Billy then suggested that they have an exchange of views in print. Pokey sourly walked away, leaving Billy and his olive branch to wilt in the South Australian heat.
Billy Bragg is an old punk rock warrior and a sort of George Orwell style English patriot. Pokey, on the other hand, sounds like he needs to update his manners software. He also seems to have missed the deeper irony of the argument. The musical exchange between the UK and Ireland and America is ancient. The ‘old timey’ music that makes up some of Pokey’s repertoire can be traced back to the Ulster Scots and others who arrived in America in the late 18th, early 19th century. To Pokey and everyone else, I recommend the book, Wayfaring Strangers by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr. It’s a brilliant antidote to any overly nativist ideas about music history.
If you’ve never listened to skiffle, Billy presents the genre in great detail, picking out the notable from the forgettable. Ever wondered about the song ‘Maggie Mae’ on The Beatles Let It Be album? The original was the biggest hit of a Liverpool outfit called The Vipers. One of the issues for skiffle bands in the studio was the tendency for older producers to top up their sound with strings and other embellishments. The Vipers, fortunately, found a young producer who correctly noted that their rawness was part of their appeal. He simply recorded them, live on the floor. That young producer would use a similar strategy with another band from Liverpool a couple of years later. His name was George Martin.
This is a top read. Billy Bragg is a very capable writer who has done an enormous amount of research. He covers a lot of ground here and, setting skiffle in context, he has provided a comprehensive history of British popular music, in general, between 1945 and 1960. This is also a social history that made for very interesting reading as the British election unfolded. Skiffle, the rise of rock and roll, John Osborne and the Angry Young Men, Pop Art, and the CND movement are all part of this story. And Billy Bragg, as his fans know, has exactly the right voice for the job.
Teasers: A possible explanation of the line, ‘Look at those cavemen go’ from David Bowie’s Life on Mars; the possibility that this book will get you listening to British trad jazz. It’s good stuff. Ken Colyer, Chris Barber, Acker Bilk! Legends!
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry recently collaborated on an album called Shine A Light. They recorded the whole thing live in railway stations and hotels as they traveled southwest from Chicago to LA on trains. Great album to listen to while reading the book!
A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel by Slim Jim Phantom, Thomas Dunne, 2016
In his memoir A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel, Slim Jim Phantom, the drummer in the Stray Cats, makes the following observation: “There were quite a few rock guys in our school and neighboring town who could play faster and harder than I could. None of them had any fashion sense…”
Black slacks. Blue suede shoes. Put your cat clothes on. Flat top cats and dungaree dolls. Clothes are a big deal in the music Slim Jim plays.
Rockabilly is perhaps the most enduring of all rock and roll subcultures. Its origins are murky and earlier than generally thought. The name, a portmanteau of rock and hillbilly, suggests something that might sound like Workingman’s Dead or The Gilded Palace of Sin. Of course rockabilly sounds nothing like either of those records.
I’m happy to argue (you buy the drinks – I’ll talk) but I think rockabilly began in 1927 with Jimmie Rodgers. His first Blue Yodel, better known as T for Texas, has crept into the repertoire of many a rockabilly band for good reason. It has all the basic elements. It’s an up-tempo blues sung like a country song. A number of Rodgers’ subsequent hits have the same quality. But the key moment for rockabilly and American music in general might be the day in 1930 when he sat down with Louis Armstrong and recorded Blue Yodel Number 9. Number 9. Number 9…
Louis Armstrong’s records with the Hot Five and Hot Seven are as eclectic as they are brilliant. Yes, he is laying the foundations of jazz but that foundation also supports swing, jump blues, and rock and roll. The fact that he and Jimmie Rodgers could hear the symbiosis in their work is significant because the next important chapter in the rockabilly story belongs to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.
Western Swing as played in the 1930s by Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, The Light Crust Doughboys, and Milton Brown represents a rich period in American music. It’s swing played on strings. The cowboy hats and corny lyrics are deceptive because this is jazz. And it is why rockabilly doesn’t sound like New Riders of the Purple Sage. There is a jazz sensibility in early rock and roll that stretches back to Lindy Hoppers of 1930s and Cab Calloway at his most frantic. When Sam Philips made his questionable assertion that he could make a million dollars if only he could find a white man who sang like a black man, he might have had someone like Nat King Cole in mind. Elvis – and perhaps more importantly, Scotty Moore and Bill Black were channeling something else that day at Sun Studios. They were playing blues but they were playing it the way jazz artists play it. They were swinging it around, slowing it down, speeding it up. Listen carefully to the ‘Sun Sessions’ and you can hear the whole history of American music. In rock journalese, Louis Jordan meets Hank Williams, Lionel Hampton jams with Gene Autry with T-Bone Walker on guitar. Or something like that.
Rockabilly never went away either. Very few people heard it outside of the south in the first place but, as someone once said of the Velvet Underground, everyone who did formed a band. A slight exaggeration perhaps – but certainly all of The Beatles held this genre in high regard. They covered a lot of rockabilly songs. Watch the Let It Be film. When the going got tough, the tough jammed on Carl Perkins’ numbers.
But they weren’t alone. As Slim Jim Phantom notes in his memoir, Blind Faith covered one of Buddy Holly’s most smoking tunes in Well Alright and The Who did Summertime Blues. CCR, the biggest selling band of the late sixties, were a rockabilly band, no more and no less. Their blues excursions aren’t a patch on their rockabilly moments. Jimmy Page is a better at rockabilly than blues and so is Keith Richards. They might talk about Buddy Guy but their best moments say Cliff Gallop, in Page’s case, and Chuck Berry in Richards’. Head Stray Cat Brian Setzer said that when he first met Keith, the guitarist picked up an old Gretsch and played a letter perfect version of Elvis’ Baby Let’s Play House. Setzer later became one of Robert Plant’s many Page stand-ins in The Honeydrippers. Many of the great guitarists of the 60s and 70s started out playing this kind of music. Robbie Robertson, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Blackmore, Alvin Lee, and Jeff Beck all began as twangy sidemen. Even Robert Fripp started out playing in a band called The Ravens. Robert Fripp! I’ve always maintained that Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited is essentially a rockabilly record and he seems to drift back to the genre regularly. Listen to Dirt Road Blues on Time Out of Mind.
Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones, and Led Zeppelin. Rockabilly is the secret hero of Rock and Roll’s many stanza’d Howl.
Which brings me to The Stray Cats, a band featuring vocalist and twangmaster Brian Setzer and ably rhythm sectioned by his Long Island high school chums Lee Rocker and our author, Slim Jim Phantom.
Slim Jim (real name James McConnell), Lee Rocker (Drucker) and Brian Setzer came together as teenagers with a mutual interest in rockabilly. They were all playing in other bands. The side project, as so often happens, began to attract attention and the other bands disappeared. It’s Slim Jim’s book but Brian Setzer was part of a late 70s New York new wave band called The Bloodless Pharaohs. You can probably download a box set and footage of every show they ever did now but in the 80s I found one of their songs on a compilation album and did a victory lap around a record store. They’re not mentioned in this book. Slim Jim, it must be said, has a big heart but little interest in that sort of detail.
Slim Jim’s implied and occasionally stated assertion that The Stray Cats single handedly revived rockabilly doesn’t hold up. It wasn’t part of the music mainstream in America in 1980 but it wasn’t a non-entity either. Slim Jim and the boys might have got something happening in Long Island but The Blasters were weathering gigs with Black Flag in California in the late 70s. A ferry ride away in NYC, Robert Gordon had already recorded two absolutely stellar rockabilly revival records by the time Slim Jim bought his first jar of Royal Crown.
Over in England, rockabilly was alive and well. The Shakin’ Pyramids’ sizzling debut, Skin ‘Em Up, appeared a year before The Stray Cats’ first English record. You can laugh about Shakin’ Stevens but there is some great rockabilly on his first couple of albums. Matchbox is not much remembered these days but they released their first album in 1976 and scored a big hit with the classic Rockabilly Rebel in 1979. The Stray Cats are easily the most successful revival band but they are only part of the story. Slim Jim doesn’t mention it but the whole reason they left the cozy club scene of Long Island for London was to join a movement already in play.
But this isn’t to slight Slim Jim or his book. The Stray Cats were the real deal and, to be honest, better musicians than most of the English revival guys. The competition was a bit stiffer in the States. While they never enjoyed anywhere near the success, The Blasters and The Paladins were hard to top.
But back to Slim Jim. He is probably best on the early years. The memoir hops around a bit but the basic story of their move to England and the space they found within the immediate post punk scene is of great interest. Rockabilly always seemed to be just below the surface in early English punk. Malcolm McLaren had run a shop for Teddy Boys called Let It Rock on the King’s Road before changing the name to Sex and, well, you know the rest. The Sex Pistols recorded a couple of Eddie Cochran songs. The Clash looked like a rockabilly band for a while. Billy Idol sang about a club blasting out ‘maximum rockabilly’ in Generation X’s Kiss Me Deadly. Tom Petty noted that “rockabilly music was in the air” in King’s Road on the Hard Promises album. The Stray Cats arrived in a city ready for their look and their sound. They somehow skirted the slightly moldy atmosphere of, say, The Polecats, and became a band most people could agree on.
Remarkably, ‘most people’ included not one but all of The Rolling Stones. In 1980, Keith and Mick could hardly bear to be on stage together but they turned up with the rest of the band one night to see The Stray Cats open a show in a crummy London pub. The idea was that they would sign with Rolling Stone Records and that Mick and Keith would produce their first album together. Like that was ever going to happen! It didn’t but they did do a series of dates opening for the old boys in America. Bill Wyman was still in the band then and he was, and is, a rockabilly fanatic. Remember the Willie and Poorboys album? A little overproduced but full of heart. Slim Jim played on the b side of a single apparently.
The Stray Cats ended up on Arista Records in the capable hands of Dave Edmunds who produced all of their best work. Edmunds is a rockabilly legend who scored a hit in the late 60s as part of Love Sculpture with an instrumental called Sabre Dance. He then went solo in 1972 with a stunning rockabilly album called Rockpile, not to be confused with the band he later formed with Nick Lowe. There was no one better qualified to produce The Stray Cats and the album was a great success in England. Songs like Runaway Boys and Rumble In Brighton became big hits there but the band were still virtually unknown in America.
Luckily, MTV had just appeared and, come the moment, come the band. The Stray Cats looked cool. All of them, all the time. The clothes were vaguely 50s style with some Ted additions and a punk overlay that made them look somehow contemporary. MTV was perfect for them. TV in general worked pretty well for the Stray Cats and an early appearance on a now forgotten show called Fridays made them stars in the States.
There was a lot going on in the early 80s. The music industry was enjoying the last few years of prosperity before everything went shit-shaped in the late 90s. There was a lot of money and, it would seem from Slim Jim’s account, a lot of cocaine. The period has a more or less deserved reputation for excess and overproduction but the sheer size of the industry had some benefits. There was room for a band like The Stray Cats in among Madonna, U2, Bruce Springsteen, and the other superstars of the period.
Their moment, however, was brief and no sooner is Slim Jim married to Britt Eckland and walking his dogs in Hollywood than the band is making its last album. Interesting stuff but the timeline in this book is very difficult to follow. Slim Jim will note that he has been sober for five years on one page and then be found having a bump of coke with Lemmy on the next. Either Slim Jim simply told the stories as they come to him or the book was ghost written by Peter Hoeg. Probably the former.
His post Stray Cats life has been slightly less exalted but no less busy. He appeared in Clint Eastwood’s Bird, remembering his co star Forest Whittaker as ‘the guy in Fast Times’. Yeah, I’d forgotten he was in that too. He also tells a hilarious story of an incident that took place while he was filming one of his two scenes. I won’t spoil it but it involves a very angry Clint Eastwood.
He opened a bar and music venue called The Cat in Hollywood, toured and recorded with a dizzying number of other bands, got back together with The Stray Cats, broke up with them again. He was here in Melbourne last Thursday. Slim Jim still gets around.
What does one say about a memoir like this one? It’s a bit of mess in terms of chronology and anyone looking for a detailed account of The Stray Cats’ career will want to look elsewhere. In fact, there’s not much about The Stray Cats at all. I would have been very curious to hear about the recording of those early albums and what it was like to work with Dave Edmunds. Perhaps Brian Setzer will cover that if he ever writes a book. There is a bit about their sound but never enough to really satisfy. Just when you think he is about to double down on the band that made him famous, he’s back in a club with Michael J Fox or someone.
But this is not a book without merit. For one thing, Peter Hoeg notwithstanding, I am convinced that he wrote it. That might sound silly – his name is on the cover – but, as I have said before, I doubt that a lot of these rock and roll memoirs are written (or even read) by their subjects. I could name three very recent and notable examples but I’ll be kind. For now! This is most definitely Slim Jim Phantom and if you fancy an evening with a guy who has had a remarkable life that has brought him into contact with the cream of rock and roll, blues, and beyond, this book is worth reading. It is also frequently funny as hell. Michael Jackson appears out of nowhere with Elizabeth Taylor in tow and whispers to Slim Jim, ‘I really like that song about the cat.’ Our hero ends up in the dark with Jerry Lee Lewis and a groupie. Keith Richards throws everyone out of his dressing room while Slim Jim is in the toilet. The drummer has to come out and face the enraged Stone who sits him down and feeds him narcotics. Clothes are a big number in this book if male rock and roll style is your thing. Slim Jim always tells us what people were wearing and details the evolution of his own look. Much is made, for example, of a polka dot scarf that he receives from Keith Richards in a trade. Without giving too much away, Britt is annoyed because Slim Jim ends up with a tatty cotton affair while Keith gets a silk one from her collection.
So Slim Jim Phantom leaves us with a memoir that won’t trouble the Pulitzer folks but might improve your spirits on a long flight or a rainy day at home. You might even find yourself hauling Rant n’ Rave out of an old crate for another spin. Meanwhile another rockabilly revival is either imminent or underway. In the immortal words of Joe Clay, ‘don’t mess with my ducktail.’
Teasers: Slim Jim’s Rules of Rock and Roll are a highlight. Number Four is: “Always wear something around your waist that has nothing to do with holding your pants up.” Noted!
This TV appearance launched them in America. Still gives me chills:
Dave Edmunds and The Stray Cats:
Jimmie and Satchmo:
You Know What You Could Be: Tuning Into the 60s by Mike Heron and Andrew Greig, riverrun 2017
Mike Heron and Andrew Greig’s book, You Know What You Could Be: Tuning Into the 60s might appear from the cover to be a ghostwritten or co-written memoir of the former’s career. It isn’t, though it does include a lengthy section at the beginning by Mike Heron that recounts the early years of the band. The core of the book, however, is Andrew Greig’s own memoir of growing up in the late sixties with The Incredible String Band providing the soundtrack and a spiritual path.
I was a bit perplexed by this format as I began the book. Mike Heron’s section is fascinating. His memories of the Scottish folk scene of the early sixties are vivid. Readers of Colin Harper’s Dazzling Stranger will already be aware that this period represents one of the great gatherings of talent and unique characters in popular music. Locals such as Bert Jansch, Alex Campbell (one of the drunken revelers in Dylan’s hotel room in Don’t Look Back -not the dude who threw the glass though), and Hamish Imlach mix with mythic figures like Anne Briggs in the legendary folk pubs of Edinburgh. At the semi rural home of Mary Stewart, the folk community mixes with the mountain climbing set. Rose Simpson, in fact, met Robin and Mike in the house after an unsuccessful attempt on Ben Nevis. Mary’s children appear on the cover of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, considered by many to be their finest album.
The first incarnation of ISB included Clive Palmer, another great Scottish folk eccentric. He left after the first album and headed for Afghanistan before returning to the music world as a sort of cult musicians’ cult musician. If you’ve never heard Sunshine Possibilities by his Famous Jug Band or any of the early Clive’s Original Band (COB) records, the time has come! Mike Heron was an early fan who ended up playing with him in the trio that became The Incredible String Band. The story of their trip to London to record a demo for Elektra is wonderful and partially explains Clive’s plastic coat on the front of at least one version of the LP.
Just when I was getting ready to hear about the recording of my beloved The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion album and the time that Paul McCartney declared The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter the most important record of the year, the narrative came to an abrupt end.
Suddenly we’re back in Scotland in the mid sixties. It’s raining and Andrew Greig is at school. He discovers the Incredible String Band, has his mind blown, forms his own freak folk outfit, and becomes a poet. I enjoyed the stories but I kept waiting for Mike Heron to come back. Then the penny dropped.
Andrew Greig is not a rock journalist. He has written many books of poetry, a few novels, several books on mountain climbing, as well as a memoir about his friendship with the Scottish poet, Norman McCaig. He is a literary writer and thus his memories, musical and otherwise, of the 1960s are assuredly delivered. There is also a discernible subtext here and it relates to what is perhaps the most enduring legacy of The Incredible String Band. Andrew Greig heard the whisper of freedom in these endearingly loose records. The 1960s in Scotland was not, he observes, all that different from the 1940s. Men went to work, women stayed home and ironed sheets. Even Mike Heron’s father, the head of English at George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh, finds it hard to come to terms with Mike’s decision not to become a chartered accountant.
The Incredible String Band bring colour and light to the young Andrew’s dour existence in Fife. He and his friend George form a band called Fate & ferret. They write their own songs and go as far as meeting with Joe Boyd in London. Boyd is, of course, the John Hammond of English folk rock. His good taste brought, in addition to ISB, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Fairport Convention, and many others to the recording studio. In Greig’s memoir, he is friendly with them but not particularly interested in their music. Their initial meeting with him does lead to a gig opening for John Martyn at Les Cousins. Not bad for a high school band!
There are a number of books on The Incredible String Band that will provide a chronological account of their musical journey. Rob Young’s take on their career in Electric Eden is particularly good. But You Know What You Could Be is something different. Surely a band’s story must include their audience to some extent. Without going all ‘trees falling in the forest’ here, the effect of the music is often as significant as the music itself. Most rock and roll biographies will trace the influence of their subject on subsequent acts but what about the ordinary fans whose lives are changed, sometimes dramatically, by the music? Clearly, no one wants to read a whole book of Led Zeppelin fans cooing about Knebworth or, worse, a Deadhead memoir (there are many, if you do!) but I like what Greig has done in this book.
He has explained the real power of The Incredible String Band in a manner that wouldn’t be feasible in a straight biography. For most of us, our favourite bands exist in a dreamscape with a great soundtrack. We may see the band live or even meet the members but, as Yeats says, it is the dream itself that enchants us. You Know What You Could Be is a book about music, imagination, and the freedom to do exactly as you please. Who could ask for more?
(*The Band’s performance at Woodstock didn’t go over that well either. The Dead were booed apparently. No shame in struggling to identify the elusive zeitgeist of half a million wet hippies!)
Teasers: Wish you’d seen The Incredible String Band live in 1968? I sure do! Andrew Greig did and he has the writing chops to put you in the front row. I find many of the concerts I see these days far too formulaic. These chaotic evenings sound glorious!
Best song ever about insomnia!
These Are The Days: Stories and Songs by Mick Thomas, Melbourne Books, 2017
I’m sure Mick Thomas gets tired of hearing this statement:
‘Weddings Parties Anything changed my life!’
But I might be able to impress him with my story.
“No really, Mick!”
In 1990, I was living in Toronto and had no interest in Australia. I knew that Sydney had the Opera House and Melbourne was the other city. That was about it. Less than four years later, I was living in Carlton, barracking for the Saints, and knocking back pots of VB at Young and Jackson. What happened?
Weddings Parties Anything happened.
My cousin Tim invited me to see them one night at a venue called The Siboney Club in Toronto’s Kensington Market. He promised me that they were like the ‘Australian Pogues’. It wasn’t easy to summon that up but I went along. I remember a furious version of Knockbacks in Halifax and the religious experience that resulted. If you’ve seen enough live shows, you’ve had this happen. Something snaps and you become a fan. A really big fan.
I moved to Japan soon after with a 90 minute cassette of their music. Melbourne had begun to loom large in my imagination. Songs like Under The Clocks, Roaring Days, and Brunswick were calling me in a southerly direction. I took a short vacation there in 1992 and walked up Johnson Street singing Manana, Manana. Back in Japan, I played my 90 minute cassette for a woman from Melbourne. We got married and moved to Carlton.
I’ve spent nearly a quarter of a century in Mick Thomas’s city. Weddings Parties Anything ceased trading about 15 years ago but Mick has continued to build on his repertoire as a solo artist. If you stopped at WPA, you’re missing some of his finest moments. Melbourne still figures in his songs and I still see the city through his eyes. That said, my life has begun to drift towards the northern beaches of Sydney of late but the 90 minute cassette will come with me when I finally head up the Hume for good.
Mick Thomas’s book, These Are The Days: Stories and Songs is beautifully presented with sharp photos and reprints of tour flyers and posters. If you leave this book on your coffee table, your guests will pick it up and start reading. They’ll be happy and you won’t have to entertain them. Win win! The photos frame the chapters, each of which is based around a particular song from either WPA or his solo years.
He begins with The Lonely Goth, one of many standout tracks on the Dust on my Shoes album, his first without the band. The song is the kind of story that Mick tells so well. A Goth kid in a small town hangs around the war memorial, shocks his grandmother in the chemist by buying black nail polish, and corresponds with a Goth girl from a nearby town he met at a Marilyn Manson show. If Mick wrote crime novels, he’d be Elmore Leonard. His characters breathe. The listener can not only picture them but can hear them. Recently, I read Jock Serong’s brilliant new novel, The Rules of Backyard Cricket. I kept thinking of Mick Thomas’s mastery of voice. Then I noticed that Serong is thanked at the back of the book. I pictured the two of them sitting together in the Mona Castle Pub in Seddon, not talking but just listening.
I was particularly struck by the chapter on Sisters of Mercy. This song from Weddings Parties Anything’s Roaring Days album was written in response to a nurses’ strike in the 1980s. In 2012 he was invited to play it for a large group of nurses at a strike meeting in the Melbourne Convention Centre. This chapter might have been a straightforward story about the song and how things never change. But it wasn’t. Instead, Thomas talks about a critique he’d copped in another setting for overdoing the emotional dimension of a song about asbestos poisoning. He was accused of emphasising the victimhood of the sufferers instead of celebrating their fighting spirit. The charge seemed terribly unfair and few singers would have the courage to revisit such a hardline dressing down. Mick then finds himself playing Sisters of Mercy for the striking nurses and choking back tears so as to avoid a repeat of the asbestos song episode. He manages it but only just. My own eyes grew a bit misty reading this chapter. The idea of a singer at a strike meeting in these cynical times is itself moving!
I was going to say that Weddings Parties Anything is the biggest Australian band to have missed out on the big time but that’s a pretty competitive field. They are a cult band but it’s a big cult. For a different sort of musician, this sense of ‘there but not there’ would be unbearable. The story of their song Monday’s Experts is a case in point. Many years ago now, a sports commentary television show called Talking Footy used the song. For most bands this would have been a lucky break and for Mick it should have been some extra cash in his pocket. But the TV station squirmed around on paying royalties, claiming it wasn’t the show’s ‘theme’ so the rules didn’t apply. I used to watch it occasionally. It was the theme. When Mick asked politely if they might be willing to pay for it, they immediately replaced his song with a similar and wholly inferior one. Don’t be a musician, kids!
Fortunately, Mick isn’t a bitter man or least he doesn’t sound like one here. He seems to have enjoyed the ride and never lost the desire to write songs. This doesn’t always happen when I finish musicians’s memoirs but I wanted more. I particularly would like to hear more about the early days of the band. The chapter on Away Away provides a tantalizing chronology but I need details! I think another book is in order but for the time being this wonderful collection will do just fine.
Teasers: The lyrics and guitar chords for every song! Jim Dickinson says that no one wants to hear a short song about cannibalism! A frank discussion of dysentery and marital discord in Turkey!
All is Given: A Memoir in Songs by Linda Neil, University of Queensland Press, 2016
Ed Kuepper’s version of Phil Jones and the Unknown Blues’s If I had a Ticket is a gem. His masterstroke on this track is the use of a single violinist who unearths a sort of eastern atomosphere in the minor key of the song. The garage groove of the original gives way to a desert caravan jam. It’s a remarkable performance. The violinist is an Australian writer called Linda Neil. Her new book is called All is Given: A Memoir in Songs and it’s a gem too.
It feels more like a collection of songs than a linear memoir. There is certainly a narrative thread here but it is largely thematic, like an LP perhaps. Linda Neil is a wanderer and a listener. The book starts with a party where she is, Coleridge style, prevailed upon to listen to a story. We don’t hear the tale but the stage is set for a memoir where her story will be woven with those of the people she meets. This is not a standard musician’s memoir. The ‘songs’ in the title are largely metaphorical. Nick Hornby she ain’t.
The relationship between travel and music is subtle and deeply personal. While listening to a raga musician stumble over a scale and give up, Neil recognizes that she has done the same in music and in life but that travel is somehow the answer. She likens it to ‘the thing in music that shrinks inside the thing that grows’. Music itself is in the background but music as metaphor grounds the narrative as we follow her through China, India, Nepal, Mongolia, Paris and Sydney.
In Kathmandu, she meets Gabriel who will become ‘her Gabriel’ but that’s in the future. The story is about a chance meeting and the discovery of a recording studio. Travel, at its best, is spontaneous. A few hours spent in the company of an intriguing stranger, finding something that you weren’t looking for, getting lost and not really minding, are all part of the nomadic life Neil celebrates.
I was reminded, at points, of Patti Smith’s M Train. Linda too has a unique and unconventional view of the world. Like Patti, she tells her stories in a self-deprecatory tone that is never alienating or pretentious. It is easy to imagine standing in a long line at an Indian train station, chatting to her about weather, food, books or, indeed, music. She manages to capture the rhythms of travel in her prose. Many writers attempt this trick; very few pull it off.
Whether it’s a story from her childhood in rural Queensland or a conversation with a guitar player in Paris, there is the sense that the richness of the experience is in the experience itself rather than the location. Her approach to travel is slow and thoughtful. On an early trip, her luggage disappears after a flight to Kolkata and she falls in with a group of volunteers at Mother Teresa’s mission there. The real adventure was supposed to take place when she headed south from that city but it is the afternoon spent in the mission that she remembers.
In Sydney in the early 90s, she heard Ed Kuepper’s The Way I Made You Feel on the radio and thought, ‘that needs a violin, my violin’. A little while later she ran into Ed himself on the streets of Newtown while on her way to Social Security. She mentioned her idea and gave him her number. It’s easy to imagine Ed Kuepper often fielding offers of this sort but, remarkably, he called her a few months later to play on his version of The Loved Ones’ Sad Dark Eyes. Neil became a regular member of his band and can be heard on a number of his albums. As a longtime Waterboys fanatic, I consider myself a connoisseur of the rock and roll fiddle. Her work with Ed must be heard. Start with Kuepper’s Character Assassination, a wonderful LP from the mid 90s.
Her violin playing is like her writing, filled with travel tales and experience. She is classically trained but her style has absorbed many different sounds and rhythms from her journeys. The album on her Bandcamp site, Beautiful on the Inside, feels like an extension of the book. The lightness of touch, the evocation of spirit, and the sheer warmth is as present in the music as it is in her storytelling.
Shock and Awe by Simon Reynolds, Dey Street Books, 2016
I don’t really understand the concept of comfort food. Nothing that requires a trip to the supermarket and/or actual cooking could provide me with any real comfort. However, I do have some sense of what it might mean in terms of a musical diet. I’m not talking about ‘guilty pleasures’ here. I never feel guilty about the music I like. This is macaroni and cheese music, reliable old stuff that doesn’t challenge but does satisfy. It might not change your life but it reminds you of just how good it can be.
For me, Glam is comfort music. There is no more reliable record in my collection than The Slider by T Rex. It’s not my favourite album by any stretch and I wouldn’t even call myself a huge fan of the band. But when I’ve had a bad day, there’s nothing like that opening riff to Metal Guru. I’m slightly too young to recall glam as such but I was around for it. Maybe it was on in the background, maybe it was Suzi Quatro on Happy Days. I’m not sure but I feel as though it represents something fundamental to me as far as rock and roll goes. I was, thus, very keen to read Simon Reynolds’ new book on the matter, Shock and Awe.
This is, arguably, the first major study of the genre. There are other books on the subject. Philip Auslander’s Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Pop Music is a thoughtful take on it and Dandies in the Underworld by Alwyn Turner is an informative, if brief, account too. However, the Simon Reynolds treatment is of another order altogether. He has previously written on hip hop, nostalgia, post punk, and rave. He is not simply a fan with flare. All of his work mixes critical theory with extensive research. This isn’t rock and roll, this is serious!
He begins with Marc Bolan, the dreamy ex Mod whose reinvention as an acoustic Syd Barrett in Tyrannosaurus Rex is one starting point for the glam genre. Another is Beau Brummel, the Regency clothes horse who shined his shoes with champagne. There is also Oscar Wilde whose paradoxical (were they?) pronouncements on superficiality read like a mission statement for the period.
Reynolds also looks into the etymology of the term ‘glam’ which is, of course, short for glamour. The word was originally associated with magic and the occult. David Bowie fans will know that Aleister Crowley is mentioned by name in the song, Quicksand. Glam famously revives the 50s and to a lesser extent, the 20s. I would add the Blavatsky scented 1890s too.
But back to Tyrannosaurus Rex. The funny thing about this duo – Bolan and Steve Peregrine Took (replaced by Mickey Finn on the fourth album) – is that, although they sound like a freak folk band, folk music isn’t at the heart of the sound. It’s something else. Yes, it’s rockabilly. I know it’s a stretch but look at two of the song titles on the first album. Hot Rod Mama, Mustang Ford. It’s a bit hard to imagine The Incredible String Band doing songs about classic American cars, isn’t it?
I suppose this is an important point for me because it defines what I love about Glam music. It’s beautiful, simple, rock and roll. Glam is not prog or psychedelia though it has some aspects of both. It is closer in spirit, if not always in sound, to 1950s style rock and roll. It redefines it, speeds it up, slows it down and adds crazy chords to it. But the greasy stuff is still the point of reference. The anxiety is in the influence of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent rather than the glam practitioners’ immediate predecessors, Hendrix et al.
Fifties rock and roll is there if you look for it. The Cat Crept In by the lesser known band Mud comes to mind immediately. Suzi Quatro, who Reynolds contextualizes very well here, is another example. David Essex’s Rock On, T Rex’s I like to Boogie, and Drivin’ Sister by Mott the Hoople are other possibilities. In fact, Mott The Hoople’s metamusical commentaries like All The Way From Memphis and The Golden Age of Rock and Roll all reference the early period of the music. It’s worth remembering too that Bowie claimed Ziggy Stardust was inspired by a conversation with Vince Taylor, the English rocker best known for the original Brand New Cadillac.
So what was going on in the early 70s? Musically speaking, a lot of stuff, including prog, singer song writers, country rock, boogie rock, art rock, hard rock, soft rock and so on. As the punk year of 1976 drew closer it became increasingly clear that the centre couldn’t hold. A whole bunch of bands and genres were going to be swept away. So goodbye Foghat. I’d be happy to argue about this over a Guinness but I think glam was punk in the womb. The term punk rock was being batted around in the early seventies to describe everyone from Bruce Springsteen – a huge influence on Bowie’s post Ziggy period incidentally – to Alice Cooper, a band that gets a fair bit of space in Reynolds’ book. If punk was a rejection of the sixties’ values, it seems to me that they had already been comprehensively rejected by Bowie, Bolan, Ian Hunter, not to mention Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and The New York Dolls.
That’s what my book about glam might look like. Simon Reynolds has a slightly different take. He doesn’t deny the clear line from glam to punk but he is far more interested in the journey from glam to post punk. I really enjoyed reading this book but I wasn’t always with him when he was talking about the music itself. What I like about Bowie’s Ziggy period is Mick Ronson’s guitar playing. I hear great rock and roll, Reynolds hears string arrangements. They are both there so it is a matter of taste, I guess. As with his earlier book Rip It Up and Start Again, he seems to be primarily interested in the non rock and roll influences and elements in popular music. In that book, he seemed to be suggesting that a lot of high concept early eighties bands were somehow more exciting than the punk bands that preceded them. To each his own, but for those of us who were teenagers when pretentious ‘post punk’ was evolving into banal ‘new wave,’ 1977-style punk sounded pretty good.
Similarly in Shock and Awe, Reynolds sees glam as part of a long tradition that stretches back to old Hollywood and reaches up to Lady Gaga. I don’t dispute this but, for me, it’s the killer riffs and the sheer three chord fun of it that makes it my comfort music. Slade, who Reynolds rightly suggests have been unfairly forgotten, are wonderful purveyors of power pop. They don’t have to be anything more. The Sweet are The Monkees of glam but at their best are a joyful reminder of good times and warm summer evenings.
Reynolds’ book must be read. It is well researched, beautifully written, and comes from the heart. Despite my misgivings about his approach to Bowie’s music, I believe he has written the definitive account of the man’s early career. Glam, like many musical genres, is difficult to define and impossible to date. This book will challenge your ideas about the period and the artists mentioned. It will get you listening to some albums you may not have heard. I’m now stuck on Cockney Rebel’s first two records. You might start listening to Alice Cooper again for the first time since junior high. You might check out early Sparks. You might see Queen in a different light. No, really!
This book is up for the Penderyn Prize. I think it will win.
Teasers: If you thought you couldn’t dislike Don Henley any more, wait until you hear his views on The New York Dolls. Kiss, and in particular their drummer, are dismissed in one brutal paragraph so don’t worry, you won’t be compelled to revisit Hotter Than Hell.
Kill ’Em And Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride, Spiegel & Grau 2016
Rick Moody wrote a review of this book in which he suggested that African American writers bring something different to books about African American musicians. Somewhat predictably he was taken to task for even daring to suggest such a thing. I read Moody’s review in the NY Times and then I read George Saunders’ response in The New Yorker. George Saunders’ article might have seemed justified but I now wonder if he had read McBride’s book. If you followed this small controversy at the time and have since read the book, try rereading the review and its follow up. It’s Moody who seems reasonable and Saunders who sounds like he’s missing the mark.
To some extent, Kill ’Em And Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul is as much about the latter part of the title as it is about the former. Somewhere in the book, McBride makes the interesting observation that America can only handle one African American superstar at a time. There is a meteoric rise followed by a spectacular fall that clears the way for the next contestant. There are examples aplenty to support this thesis in popular music. I immediately thought of Sam Cooke, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, and the proto Michael Jackson, Frankie Lymon. McBride draws Jackson himself into his discussion of James Brown. There was a strong connection between the two. When the former child star was up on charges and his career was in free fall, Brown deployed Rev. Al Sharpton to stand by him. Sharpton was initially reluctant and McBride’s story of how Brown finally compelled him to go to LA is a good one. Jackson, for his part, stood by James Brown to the bitter end. Sadly, he only outlived the older man by a couple of years.
But at its heart, this book is pure Southern Gothic. It kicks off with McBride being warned to watch himself in a diner as he researches James Brown’s early life in Georgia and South Carolina. His late night meeting with Brown’s cousin on a back road puts the book in Midnight in the Garden of Evil territory. Brown never really left the South. His extensive network of friends, business associates, ex wives, children and cousins is the stuff of a humid multi generational blockbuster. Though he died more than a decade ago, his family continues to fight over the crumbs of his estate while lawyers get rich. Bleak House, as rendered by Tennessee Williams.
I enjoyed the part where McBride acknowledges that he didn’t want to write the book at all but needed the money following an expensive divorce. He tried to pass the project off on to Gerri Hirshey, the Motown chronicler of note, but the publisher wanted James McBride, a black musician and writer. That was the perspective the publisher had in mind. It’s what Rick Moody was referring to and what Saunders and others completely misconstrued.
I have only ever been a casual fan of James Brown. Like everyone else, I have owned Live at the Apollo in at least four formats, along with a greatest hits collection purchased during a brief teenage Mod phase. I saw him once too. In the mid 80s he played the Ontario Place Forum in Toronto with its revolving stage. It was a strange show. He did about five songs. Two of them were It’s A Man’s World. Then he came out with the cape, etc, for an encore. You guessed it, It’s A Man’s World one more time. I walked out of there like Robert Bly with a six-pack.
While I was reading the book, however, I listened to some of his early albums with the original Famous Flames. His stage show and distinctive delivery is so famous that it is easy to forget that he began as a prodigiously talented soul singer. Unlike so many other singers of the period, he did not begin singing in the church. After a stint in reform school, he sang with a small harmony group. One thing led to another and he scored an early hit with Please, Please, Please in 1956. It doesn’t quite fit, does it? That’s the year Elvis went national. What was James Brown, a figure of the 60s and 70s, doing on the radio in 1956? It is this seemingly incongruent and off kilter aspect of Brown’s career that McBride draws out.
James McBride’s provocative account of Brown’s career makes one thing clear. The self styled Godfather of Soul does not fit easily into the received story of rock and roll. Motown makes sense. The Beatles drew from Motown. Chess makes sense. The Rolling Stones found something there. But James Brown’s legacy, in rock and roll at least, is less obvious. The story of his upstaging of the Stones is famous. Keith Richards has said that trying to follow him was the dumbest thing the band ever did. Brown, by some accounts, begat funk which begat disco. Okay, but we’re still talking about tributaries that exist outside of the rock and roll critical river. James McBride’s point here is never stated explicitly but his meaning is clear. James Brown is central to the African American experience of popular music. The standard Elvis – Beatles – Bowie – Punk – and so on story is arguably a very white one that, while not excluding black music, does sideline it. Elijah Wald explored this theme in his book How The Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll a few years ago. James Brown’s story is certainly illustrative of it. If you’re shaking your head, think about this: The Beatles have appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone more than 30 times. James Brown, one of the key innovators in popular music, has appeared twice. The first time, in 1989, was well after his heyday and the second time, 2006, was after his death.
Brown’s struggles, musically and personally, are detailed here through intimate interviews with family, friends, and business associates. At the end of his life, his world collapsed in the grand Faulknerian manner. I couldn’t help thinking about Poe too. The story of James Brown’s body in the mausoleum on his daughter’s lawn, the same daughter who sued him for a the royalties of a songwriting credit he gave her when she was a toddler, was right out of Tales of Mystery and Imagination.
McBride himself tasted literary stardom a few years ago with his memoir, The Color of Water. He is a formidable prose writer who has also worked as a professional musician. It’s not surprising that this book made so many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. As one era in the White House ends and we await the full implications of the one that will follow, McBride’s story of a man who scored his first hit in 1956 couldn’t be more relevant. The search for the soul of America is ongoing.
Teaser: Pee Wee Ellis, Brown’s tenor sax man, explains in technical terms the late 60s transformation of James Brown’s sound from soul to funk.