Kesha and Dr Luke: just when you think things can’t get any worse

The record industry, eh!!? Drugs, sex, shouting, bullying. A few more drugs, a bit more sex. It’s a wonder we ever make any music.

And just when you think maybe people can see it’s a bit more serious than that, along comes Vinyl, Martin Scorsese’s and Mick Jagger’s take on the early 70s American record industry.

I haven’t seen the Sky Atlantic series, because I don’t subscribe to Sky. My cable provider is Virgin, and Virgin refuses to pay the necessary fee to carry Atlantic. So I’ve missed out on a lot of reportedly brilliant drama, from Boardwalk to Game of Thrones to Ray Donovan.

What I’ve read about Vinyl is that it’s either a) a rollicking and accurate rendition of the American record industry in the early 70s, albeit with some script problems; or b) that it’s a ridiculous caricature of how the public thinks the record industry behaved but rarely did.

One way or the other, it obviously reinforces stereotypes and, frankly, we could do without them.

Then up pops Kesha, tied into what looks like, on the face of it, a totally unreasonable record deal. But a US Court didn’t think so, and refused to give her leave to break the terms of the deal and record elsewhere.


Having lost that battle, we then start hearing accusations that her producer (and boss of the label) Dr Luke abused her, verbally and physically. More, she says he drugged and raped her.

I don’t know if any of this is true. And neither do you.

But that hasn’t stopped the Twitterati going mad with charges that Sony – the ultimate owner of her records – is a ‘rapist sympathiser’.

It does seem remarkable that an 18 -year-old would be advised to sign a record deal (with Dr Luke’s Kemosabe label) and a publishing deal, (with another Dr Luke company, Prescription Songs) that tied her into a situation which, 11 years later, she can’t get away from. I’m told that the initial deal was for eight albums, but as far as I can see only two have been released. Someone is doing something wrong, and someone is lying.

I can tell you, hand on heart, that I would never let the pop star who lives in my house near such a deal. The idea that one individual has one hand in your recording pocket, the other in your publishing pocket, and is also your producer – well, someone steered Kesha wrong. Or Dr Luke gave her a ton of money, enough to make her not care one way or the other.

All I can observe is that, generally speaking, courts tend to look with sympathy on young artists who have signed unsuitable deals. That would usually go double when, 11 years down the line, things have clearly broken down.

And I might also observe that if Kesha had taken the allegations of drugs and rape to court, and won, her contract would instantly have been rendered invalid.

But what with Atlantic’s fictional Vinyl, and the all-too-real life Kesha case, the public is once again fed a diet of record business exploitation and excess.

As the music business and, more particularly, artists fight to wrestle back their right to earn some money from their efforts, this is exactly the kind of jiggery-pokery tabloid fodder we could all do without. Well, apart from the public who clearly lap this stuff up before turning to Twitter and Facebook to make their uninformed observations.

You couldn’t make it up. And in this instance, you don’t have to. More’s the pity.

God bless Adele, but I think she’s done

Oh, to be Adele.

Maybe I’ve taken on too much. Trying to finish an album, build a new website, write a novel – then I realise it’s Friday afternoon and I haven’t written this week’s post. Cue panic!

Meanwhile, Adele – thirty million albums sold last time out, four years in the making for the new one.

So unconcerned is she, that she’s kept the title 25, even though she’s 27 now.

At one point in the process, she discarded an entire album because it addressed a situation in her life that had come and gone. No suggestion that the songs were below par, nor the album itself. Which, from where I’m standing (or sitting, most likely, chained to my computer) seems indulgent to a degree that is wasteful.

Still, she’s Adele, and I’m not. And you can’t help but love her. The segment in her BBC programme with Graham Norton where she disguises herself as an Adele impersonator is a masterclass in warmth, humanity and humour.

Which makes it all the more painful to say: I think Adele’s done.

From what I’ve heard of the new album it doesn’t take her one creative or artistic step forward from 21. In some respects – some truly woeful lyrics, and a dearth of memorable melodies – it’s a step backwards.

Listening to her talk about the process, particularly the consideration she gave to not even following up 21, she gives the impression not so much of an artist driven by compulsion to create but more of someone for whom this is the one thing she’s confident she’s good at.

She doesn’t even have to tour to break sales records – 25 shifted the most copies in first week history (achieved in only four days, just to stick the boot into poor NSYNC’s 15-year-long hold on the title).

But the sub-text is, she’s also good at being a human being, and clearly loves being a mother, and therefore might find as much fulfilment in raising a family.

And before anyone takes issue with my apparently non-PC (anti-feminist) suggestion that raising a family might now be a priority (and it’s only a guess on my part), I’d just remind you that no-one took issue on sociological grounds with Kate Bush leaving a 12-year gap between The Red Shoes and Aerial. For Kate, the creative rush of raising her son was not even a sub-text; it was the text, and inspired some of Aerial’s most beautiful moments.

So, good luck to Adele. I’ve loved some of her songs, and many of her performances. Her voice is a gift.

But for artists to last they have to grow, and take their audience with them. And growing doesn’t just mean titling your album after your current age.

The Beatles went from Love Me Do to Tomorrow Never Knows in three and a half years. The Who went from Zoot Suit (written by their manager) to Tommy (conceived and mostly written by Pete Townshend) in five years. Bob Dylan, of course, started as he meant to go on, never once thinking about sales, and thereby carrying his audience with him to this day.

If Adele wants to be more than a footnote in pop music history, she needs to consider whether she’s capable of more than baring her soul for the masses. I hope she can. I don’t expect her to start using sitars and backwards tapes of monks chanting; or even to write a pop opera. But she will need to channel her inner Amy (without the drugs and the self-destructive urge) if we’re still to be talking about another new album 20 years from now.

Meanwhile, here is evidence of why we love her in the here and now:

On the other hand, I’m getting far more enjoyment from Songs In The Dark, an album of lullabies and other {sometimes scary) songs by The Wainwright Sisters, Martha and Lucy. Occasionally on the album, it’s like The McGarrigle Sisters are back. But Martha and Lucy leave no doubt they are the current generation.

Unfortunately, there are no decent videos of the songs I’d like to highlight, but those familiar with the Wainwright family saga will recognise the storyline of Runs In The Family.

Is Jeff Lynne Kevin Turvey? Or is he a genius?

Do you remember Kevin Turvey?*

He was from Solihull and, frankly, you have to be from Solihull or thereabouts to fully appreciate his pedantry. “I got some milk out of the fridge and I poured it on my cornflakes. Well, not all of it. Obviously.”

People from there or thereabouts will go into excruciating detail to ensure you get the full measure of whatever story they’re telling you. It’s a rarely remarked upon ethnic eccentricity.

I was reminded of this reading an interview with Jeff Lynne this week. He was asked if he’d like a cup of tea.

“Do you want a cup of tea, Jeff?”

“Yeah, I’ll have the same again.”

“The same cup of tea?”

“No, I can’t have the same cup of tea, obviously, ‘cos I’ve drunk it. But some tea. In the same cup.”

Well, it made me cry laughing, but perhaps you had to be there. Or thereabouts.

Another comment I love from Jeff was when Tom Petty pulled up next to him at some traffic lights in LA. “Hey Jeff, we should hang out,” said Tom. “Which was nice,” said Jeff, recounting the story later.

Of course, but for that chance meeting (Tom Petty had been planning a sabbatical) we might never have had The Traveling Wilburys. So ‘nice’ doesn’t begin to cover it.

I saw The Electric Light Orchestra at Fairfield Halls, Croydon on what may have been its first major outing (after a pub debut at The Fox & Hounds (also in Croydon). As a Beatle nut, an entire band dedicated to recreating the sound of I Am The Walrus, cellos and all, seemed an entirely brilliant concept.

But all was not sweetness and light. Backstage after the gig, I saw manager Don Arden line the group up against a wall and walk up and down, shouting at each of them for some invented slip-up. It was a control mechanism. He even punched a couple of them.

No wonder tensions ran high. Not long after, Roy Wood scarpered with a couple of other members to form Wizzard. To those of us who had imagined that the whole Walrus thing was Roy’s idea, ELO seemed like a dead duck.

But Roy wasn’t the creative midwife. Jeff Lynne was. So after a long apprenticeship, going back to 1965, when he first met Richard Tandy, Jeff finally had centre stage and a vehicle for what turned out to be a stunning talent for timeless pop tunes and a mastery of studio techniques.

I’m not going to go on and on about how brilliant Jeff Lynne is. But let’s just think about his timeline – The Idle Race (legendary but rarely heard), The Move, ELO, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, The Traveling Wilburys and then, a career crowner you’d have thought, The Beatles!r

But Free As A Bird and Real Love were 20 years ago. Oh, fuck me!! Really? Yes indeed. And you can’t keep a restless and creative soul like Jeff Lynne under wraps for 20 years. I bought his 2012 album Long Wave, which is a joy.

And now he’s in the process of releasing a new ELO album, though it’s really a Jeff Lynne album, Alone In The Universe. I’ll be buying it.

I know some of you won’t. There are a lot of ELO haters out there. Though you’re not in the same class as the Phil Collins haters. Just deviating for a few seconds (without hesitation or repetition) I personally cannot see the point of hating Phil. I’m not a fan, but for God’s sake, the man is a brilliant drummer, much sampled by the Hip Hop community who revere him.  And he’s written some great songs. His music career alone (preceeded by a five-year spell as a child actor) has lasted nearly 50 years.

But hating ELO at least comes with the possibility that you don’t also hate Jeff Lynne. I bet every one of you has a favourite record tucked away that has Jeff Lynne all over it. Surely no-one can hate Roy Orbison and George Harrison and Tom Petty and Dave Edmunds and Olivia Newton-John and Paul McCartney and Duane Eddy and Regina Spektor and Joe Walsh and The Beatles and The Traveling Wilburys?

If you hate absolutely every one on that list, please spare me your rationale. Instead, make a doctor’s appointment and ask to see a consultant. You’re clearly unwell.

Meantime, in case you’ve missed the buildup, here’s a gorgeous taster of Alone In The Universe, due for release late next week, I think.

*Kevin Turvey was one of Rik Mayall’s earliest inventions.

Looking for new music? You might as well be looking for a hit man or an Uzi.

(First sentence to be read, Julie Burchill-style, in a Bristol accent).

I went up to that London recently.

Weird that. Bristol is an almost straight line, west to east, pointing at London. But still, you always feeling like the big city is ‘up’.

Where I lived, which was north of that London, we also referred to going ‘up’ to London. Then some chauvinist sage pointed out that it was down.

He was strictly correct. Geographically.

But he mostly meant it metaphorically.

Metaphorically, we were being told that that London was somewhat inferior to our Wolverhampton.

Then I moved to London, and it was neither up nor down. Nor was it inferior to Wolverhampton (not superior, though, either).

Now I live on the south coast, and London is definitely ‘up’.

Which is all very confusing. But not nearly as confusing as knowing where to look for new music these days.

Music has become like the internet. The mainstream is like the worldwide web. You know how to find Amazon, and Wikipedia, and how to book your holidays, and post on Facebook. With the same limits of access, you can listen to the same few records on regular rotation on Radios 1 & 2.

But what if you want to find the musical equivalent of a hired hitman, or an AK47, or mind-altering drugs that will drop through your letterbox? That’s called the Deep Web, or the Dark Web.

(Which is also confusing, because they are two separate entities. But still you and I couldn’t get to either without the internet equivalent of GPS, programmed by someone else with postcodes only they know).

The web that most of us see is reckoned to be anywhere between 5-10% of what’s actually out there. But us mere mortals can’t see the other 90-95% because a) we don’t want to buy a nuclear weapon; and b) we don’t know how to dig that deep even if we wanted to.

So anyway, I went up to that London to see a gig featuring an old friend. And being in the room at the Phoenix Artist Club felt a little like being in the Deep Web. Practically everyone I met is a performer, and you’ve never heard of them, and very unlikely to because you don’t know they’re there in the first place.

There was JJ Crash, who told me nothing about himself other than that he played with Lucy’s Diary. Lucy herself turned out to be a stunning young woman of somewhat bonkers demeanour, who, I was later told, is the daughter of my old colleague Norman Jopling. I had no idea.

Watching a couple of videos of Lucy, you have to ask yourself how, in this anodyne era of formula pop, someone of such personality and edginess has a social media presence almost as well hidden as the hitmen and drug dealers of the Dark Web’s Silk Road.

JJ himself also has quite the background as a post-punk performer, described somewhere as ‘the pearly king of anti-folk’. (He’s from Welwyn Garden City. Go figure).

Here he is with Lucy’s Diary. JJ’s the guy with the maracas and the natty hat.

And then there was Ralegh Long. My friend John Howard had told me about Ralegh, a young performer he rates highly.

I’m not often surprised, but Ralegh sat at the piano, accompanied by slide steel guitar and French Horn. It’s such a lovely combination I have to admit I couldn’t wait to get home and try it for myself with one of my own songs (Sorry, Ralegh!).

Back in the day, when the pop mainstream was a vivid rainbow of colourful styles – folk, rock, pop, jazz, singer-songwriter, Beatles, Stones, Cat Stevens, Jim Hendrix, the Animals, Bob Dylan – Ralegh Long would have found himself on regular rotation on Radio One.

In the almost monochrome 21st century, he’s lucky to get the odd play on Radio 6 Music. Why do we bother? I asked him. His answer was the same as mine: “I can’t not”. Well, good for him. I’ve had my day, and if I choose to keep making music that no-one will ever hear, it’s nobody’s business but mine.

But young musicians have to pay the rent and feed themselves. Art for art’s sake, because they ‘can’t not’, is truly admirable. You can buy or listen to his album Hoverance iTunes or iMusic. I seriously suggest you do.

On the other hand, artists today are industrious in ways we never were. On stage later were John Howard & The Night Mail. The Night Mail consists of Robert Rotifer, Ian Button and Andy Lewis.

In addition to performing as Rotifer, writing songs and starting this Night Mail project, Robert Rotifer also helps to run Gare Du Nord Records, a label with some hidden delights that are well worth investigating.

Ian Button played on the first four Death In Vegas albums. Before that he was in Thrashing Doves. Today he’s a leading light of Papernut Cambridge, a collective that includes many names I’ve mentioned above. If you like gorgeous-sounding pop with an insistent beat and hooky melodies, don’t get lost in the deep web – just Google Papernut Cambridge.

And then there’s Andy Lewis, currently moonlighting as Paul Weller’s bass player. Hardly able to contain his joy on the night, Ralegh Long shouted at me, “It’s like he’s got the whole history of soul music in his fingertips”. And that’s very accurate.

Here he is with Paul Weller singing, from Andy’s album You Should Be Hearing Something Now.

Robert, Ian and Andy all co-wrote songs with John Howard for the Night Mail album. It was a truly collaborative effort. But on stage, no question, Howard is the attraction. The audience at The Phoenix went nuts for him.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll never tire of saying it: it is an extraordinary oversight on God’s part that John Howard is not a superstar. At age 62 he is writing tunes and lyrics that shame many more famous artists. If you like great pop with a bite of satire, a touch of social commentary, and a huge dollop of human compassion, I implore you to check out John Howard & The Night Mail. It’s worth signing up to Apple Music for, if you’re not in a buying mood, and it’s also on Spotify.

And in those places you’ll also find Ralegh Long, Lucy’s Diary but not JJ Crash. You’ll also find Andy Lewis’s absolutely wonderful Billion Pound Project – a lush and soulful and timeless delight, the sort of album you think doesn’t get made any more, but here it is.

It really did feel like I’d found a secret chat room on the Deep Dark Web. Except, rather than trying to buy pharmaceutical grade cocaine (which would have turned out to be sulphate with glittering bits of ground glass) I found a bunch of sweet and talented people who make music I’ve been enjoying ever since, but would never have known existed if I hadn’t popped into the Phoenix Artist Club on September 8.



Amy Winehouse: the magic, the tragic and the art of being classic

Rachel and I went to see the documentary film Amy last weekend.

It’s not possible for me to explain how I felt/feel about Amy Winehouse. I simply don’t have the words to do her justice.

She was an instinctual artist, in the true sense of that word. Before she was out of her teens, she had soaked up a phenomenal amount of influences that generally mean nothing to others of her generation.

Her contemporaries rarely have a cultural reference point that goes back further than the day before yesterday. I have a name for for them. I call them ‘one note sambas‘.

Of course, as a description of their current pop fave, it’s lost on young people. Post-punk generations don’t know what a samba is. The idea that they may ever have heard (or at least be conscious of) Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim’s clever and jokey One-Note Samba would be presumptious at best.

There’s an entire thesis to be written about this, but briefly it has to do with the proliferation of media. Why look back when just a sideways glance reveals an oasis of distraction?

When I talk to Rachel’s father, Don – 87-years-old and plenty old enough to be my own father – there’s barely a cultural or political reference we don’t both know. Despite our age difference, we grew up at a time when the past informed the present in a very direct manner.

The entire 20th century and even bits of the 19th furnish our playground.  But we’ve also had to keep pace with cultural and technological developments that sped up mightily from the mid-60s on. We’re not too shabby about the first decade and a half of the 21st century.

Post-punk generations can scarcely believe there was ever a world without computers and mobile phones. As for watching a black and white film, well, why would you? It never occurred to me that generations might grow up not knowing who Charlie Chaplin was, let alone Buster Keaton.

The first act I ever referred to as a ‘one-note samba’ was Oasis. They took their look from the back cover of Revolver and their sound from a Beatles B-side. For their entire career they barely varied anything. The only thing that noticeably developed was Liam Gallagher’s yobbish ego.

The Beatles had been steeped in Music Hall, Variety, big bands, crooners, jazz, Latin America, comic songs, war, silent movies, blues, Hitler, rock’n’roll, country & western, modern art, Labour and the unions, the establishment and the anti-establishment.

They had 60-odd years of popular culture and politics to draw on, and they drew on every single bit of it – from the late Victoriana of Marie Lloyd through Louis, Bing and Frank, Elvis and Buddy to the Everlys.

At their peak they didn’t stop. They imbibed inspiration from their working contemporaries. Their battles with the prodigious Brian Wilson are legend. But Shankar, Stockhausen, Moog and Dylan also kept them constantly on their mettle and moving forward.

And that’s how you get magic.

What separates contemporary greats – Blur, for instance, and Amy Winehouse – from the one-note sambas is an open mind and open ears married to a singular talent. You don’t repeatedly create magic by knuckle-headed adherence to a single card in the pack; nor, for that matter, to a single deck of cards.

I mostly hear Dinah Washington in Amy’s voice, with occasional echoes of Billie Holiday and Nancy Wilson. Others cite Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. I’ll allow the first two; but not the third. If you hear Nina Simone when you listen to Amy Winehouse, you’re not really listening to either of them.

Despite and because of her influences she was her unique self. But what made her unique also made her a huge star, and that made her uncomfortable. The letters a, r and t may be in the word ‘stardom’, but they’re not – necessarily – in the right order. They spell out instead something sticky, dark and vaguely unpleasant – which seems to be how Amy viewed her status.

As Tony Bennett says in the film: “Amy was a true jazz artist. And no jazz artist wants to look out at an audience of 50,000 people.”

Amy Winehouse’s lyrics told her story, and she was happier telling her story to a few properly appreciative and attentive listeners than to a huge crowd attracted to her stardom rather than her art.

There are moments in the film when she talks about writing, and it’s a revelation to see her working around a guitar fretboard looking for the perfect, or at least the most interesting chord for the note she’s singing. Not for her the repetitive four-chord turnaround of modern pop writing.

But her lyrics are the key. It’s easy to ignore that this fragile slip of a girl – so sassy, funny and tough, but also vulnerable – had a mind like a steel trap when it came to noting the passage of her minutes and days.

The way she wrote down her life was not as other writers do (except the very greatest). There’s the searing honesty for a start, not to mention the frequent and unembarrassed mentions of sexual moistness.

More to the point, reading her words, it’s not always easy to see the scan, catch the rhyme, feel the rhythm. That’s all in the phrasing, the performance.

In her song Wake Up Alone, she ends successive lines with the word ‘him’. Few would be so brave. But she ensures the rhyme with the preceding words: I stand before him; it’s all I can do to assure him.

If I was my heart
I’d rather be restless
The second I stop the sleep catches up and I’m breathless
This ache in my chest
As my day is done now
The dark covers me and I cannot run now
My blood running cold
I stand before him
It’s all I can do to assure him
When he comes to me
I drip for him tonight
Drowning in me we bathe under blue light

The scan, the rhythm and the rhymes are mostly in her head till you hear her sing it. Then it’s a heartbreaker.

As we sat in the cinema watching the film, you could have heard a pin drop. No munching, no scrunching, no slurping. I was very conscious that Rachel, mother of the pop star who lives in my house, might well be thinking: “My daughter? No way!”

As indeed she was. Any parent looking at Amy would have to take a close look at their own musically ambitious child – measure their strength, evaluate their vulnerabilities, assess the risks.

Amy Winehouse wasn’t best served by some of those around her – and that’s putting it kindly. Her friends were stalwart. Her record company boss did his damnedest for her. Others shouldn’t be sleeping too well.

But we have to get past that and simply celebrate a blazing talent, in no way a one-note samba.

The actual One-Note Samba by Tom Jobim perfectly demonstrates how the ear can be fooled into thinking it’s hearing a melody, when what’s really happening is that the underlying harmonies are changing under a single repeated note. It’s technical, but it’s fun.

Soccer Mom Hendrix or Jessie J? I know who my money’s on.

I was thinking about what it is to be an artist, as opposed to a common or garden performer.

Kate Bush is an artist. Bob Dylan is an artist. The Beatles were artists, but Paul McCartney probably isn’t. Jessie J certainly isn’t.

People get cross when I make these distinctions. “You’re being elitist.” That sort of thing.

Well, yes. And in reply, I’ll say, “Tonight, make yourself some beans on toast.

“And then tomorrow go to Murano, and have dinner prepared by Angela Hartnett.”

It’s a safe bet to say that any chef worth a Michelin star and a handful of AA rosettes is an artist. You and your baked beans, not so much.

This all came to the fore when I asked the pop star who lives in my house what was happening with Jessie J. Turns out she’s having a career break. Having a career break? What does that mean when you’re a songwriter?

I found this fabulous headline:

“Jessie J shows off her toned bikini body in a zebra-print two-piece as the hits the beach during idyllic getaway in Portugal.”

Substitute the name Kate Bush for Jessie J.

Just wouldn’t happen, would it?

I’m not picking on Jessie J in particular. In fact, I’m not picking on her at all. But what a treadmill it is being a pop star these days. And how soul-destroying it feels to listen to what passes for a song at the moment.

The pop star was listening to something on her phone. It was just sitting on the kitchen table (no headphones) and its tinny little speaker was mincing up an already bleak track that appeared to consist of one chord, nothing that could be called a melody, and a bunch of words that would never qualify as lyrics. Straight after came another song in the same key, with a similar riff. I seriously thought it was an extended fade of the first one.

And for some reason, my mind wandered off on my last trip to America, where, after maybe 1,000 miles of driving I ended up in Portland, Oregon.

At the time, Portland was taking over from Seattle as the indie music capital of the world. For about ten dollars, almost every night of the week, you could go and see two or three bands. And, honestly, they’d all be bloody marvellous.

I saw Cloud Cult, a sort of precursor of Arcade Fire. Lots of people on stage, all sorts of instruments, and an artist creating paintings as the others played. You could buy a painting at the end of the gig.

I saw Pseudosix, whose dreamy indie pop sent me straight to the CD table before they’d even finished their set. Seven years later I still love it, and they don’t even have a Wikipedia entry.

There was the frankly bonkers 31 Knots, fronted by Joe Haege, a frequently scary guy who can nevertheless play the varnish off a guitar neck. I felt sure he would come over to London and get something going.

Most of all, though, there was Anita Robinson.

Anita and her husband Kevin toured and recorded as Viva Voce. Viva Voce had some success, and toured Europe a few times. They made a handful of albums before they divorced and sadly split the band.

But the hook for me was Anita. She looked like a soccer mom, all neat and tidy, sensible dress, maybe from WalMart. But oh my God – when she started to play guitar it was like she was channelling Jimi Hendrix.

And there were no histrionics. She wasn’t showing off. She wasn’t playing as if every note had to be ripped from her very soul. She is just … a musician. It was one of the sexiest things I’ve ever seen. This ordinary looking woman with her sensible hair and sensible clothes (she may even have had a string of pearls) just absolutely tore the joint up.

And I suppose that’s why my mind suddenly drifted back to Oregon. It was probably the last time I saw great, interesting new music live.

Not that I’ve seen nothing good since. I’ve seen Black Rebel Motorcycle Club for goodness sake. And Blur. And Kokomo.

But everyone I’ve seen has been a known factor, a guaranteed good time. Portland, Oregon, 2007 was the last time I saw seven or eight unknown bands, all of whom rocked my world to some extent. I came back with four cds, which I still treasure.

But most of all, Anita Robinson: where are you now? I guess the world just wasn’t ready for Soccer Mom Hendrix. But at least I had the pleasure.

This first YouTube clip will show you what I mean. You may not watch it all, but you’ll get the picture.

Then have a look at the second video, which is a neat rip-off of John & Yoko’s Bed-In. There’s a blistering guitar solo about two minutes in. Soccer Mom rules.

Michael Jackson: a magpie, not a genius.

I’m sitting in my regular coffee bar, reading the latest John Grisham. It’s about massively important issues – strip mining, public health and workers’ welfare.

But that doesn’t stop my brain becoming alert to the music playing in the background.

I can tell it’s Michael Jackson. But it’s also Horse With No Name – the America song that sounds like Neil Young, but Neil Young with glossy makeup and a permanent wave.

I never rated Michael Jackson except as a singer and performer. Ooh, I can hear the multiple intake of breath from here!

But let me ask you, seriously – without Motown’s Corporation (a quartet of writers formed by Berry Gordy to write Jackson 5 material), the Holland brothers, Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton where would Michael Jackson’s reputation be?

And that’s not to mention Don Black and Walter Scharf who wrote the wonderful Ben, which gave MJ his first solo number one.

It was album five of his solo career before MJ even got one of his own  songs on one of his own albums.

Off The Wall opens with Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. I’d hesitate to call it a song. It uses fives notes, in two repeated patterns, over two chords. That’s not a song; it’s a riff.

What Don’t Stop is, though, is a great track. And that’s down to Ben Wright’s thrilling strings and Quincy Jones’s arrangement and production. All those wonderful string and guitar riffs that stick in your head, the driving rhythm and the superb scoring for strings and brass.

Now before you get too far on your high horse and start sticking pins in my effigy, a little perspective.

Elvis Presley was 21 when he recorded Heartbreak Hotel, the same age Jackson was when he made Off The Wall. And, in a world where singers sang and producers produced, Elvis produced Heartbreak Hotel, as he did most of his records from there on. And he did it with musical giants such as Floyd Cramer and Chet Atkins in the room.

If you want to use phrases like ‘revolutionary’ and ‘ground-breaking’ (as have been used about MJ), let’s be sure we give them full meaning. What Elvis did with Hotel, and Blue Suede Shoes, and Teddy Bear, and Don’t Be Cruel, and Paralyzed – that was revolutionary. With only a couple of years studio experience under his belt, Elvis Presley turned the system and popular music on its head.

Mind you, I’ll grant you that Elvis never wrote a song that was worth a damn. So let’s look at another 21 year old and what he’d achieved by the age of consent.

Paul McCartney was born in 1942. Before his 22nd birthday he had recorded three albums with the Beatles, all but 13 of the songs written by him and John Lennon. They’d topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and – like Elvis before them – turned the music world upside down.

And every one of those chart toppers, and their B-sides, were written by McCartney and Lennon. In the next six years they wound up the gold standard to heights that have never been equalled, experimenting, pushing boundaries, testing their own abilities, testing their own sanity, and pushing everyone around them to previously unimagined heights of creativity and achievement.

Now – Michael Jackson.

Well, he’d been performing since he was six years old. He was an absurdly talented entertainer and right from the off – when he sang lead on I Want You Back at the age of 12 – you were clearly listening to a natural born singer.

He had his first solo release at the age of 13 and continued to make albums with his brothers.

But it’s eight years, five solo albums and 10 group albums before he gets to record one of his own songs.

You have to ask yourself: was MJ totally unambitious; or was he just a really slow learner?

Or was it the case, as I believe, that he just didn’t write terribly good songs?

Let’s not forget that his Motown stablemate, Stevie Wonder, was 15 when he cowrote his second international chart record, Uptight. He also co-wrote I Was Made To Love Her at the age of 17. Age 21, he wrote the entirety of his Where I’m Coming From album with Syreeta Wright. We know that Stevie had to fight all the way for artistic control with Motown. But he did fight, and he did win.

Go and listen to Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer. Did Michael Jackson ever in his life write such a gorgeous, technically accomplished song?

And he also never managed a ‘classic period’ such as Wonder’s, which started with Music Of My Mind (every song by Wonder, one co-write with Syreeta), continued with Talking Book and ended, arguably, seven years and six albums later with The Secret Life Of Plants. During this period, Wonder wrote, arranged and produced everything – with some help, but still …

Can anyone argue that Michael Jackson really ever did anything to match that? While you rage and fulminate, let’s talk about his dancing.

Fact: Michael Jackson was a great dancer. Really? If so, then what were Bill Robinson, Pearl Primus, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly? There aren’t the superlatives to cover the distance between MJ and their talent.

And, back to Elvis, who personally choreographed the iconic Jailhouse Rock sequence in the film of the same name. Look at that sequence again and tell me it wasn’t the prototype for every classic pop and rock posture.

MJ had about six moves, none of which he invented. Even ‘the moonwalk’ wasn’t his. Watch this clip if you don’t believe me. There’s Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, Cab Calloway, Bill Bailey and a bunch of others, some of whom you will recognise.

Maybe you’ve never seen some of these entertainers; but that doesn’t mean MJ hadn’t. He knew the move existed. He asked dancer Jeffrey Daniels to teach him how to do it.

So my point is, Michael Jackson was a great entertainer. But he was also vastly overrated as a musical artist, as a songwriter and as a dancer. He had a lot of help, and even by the time of Thriller he wasn’t able to fill an album with his own songs. Four songs out of the nine are by MJ. Thriller itself was written by Rod Temperton.

Thriller was released three years after Off The Wall; Bad came nearly five years after Thriller. That’s three albums in eight years. Stevie Wonder managed six classic albums in seven years, all self-written and co-produced.

Which brings me back to my coffee shop and this song that’s nagging in my head. Turns out it’s called A Place With No Name.

Horse With No Name/Place With No Name. I swear it’s even in the same key. By the stuff you leave on the shelf shall you be judged. It is beyond unoriginal, shamelessly filched and completely beneath a supposedly great artist.

And I find another song on the same album called Slave To The Rhythm. But it’s not the Grace Jones song. (I’m gonna write a song called Heartbreak Hotel – why not?!)

He was a magpie, Michael Jackson. He collected other people’s dance moves; other peoples riffs and song titles; he feathered his nest with great songwriters; and with Quincy Jones and, frequently, Rod Temperton. And only when this team had fed, raised and trained a new song was it allowed to leave the nest. At which point, MJ got all the credit.

So let’s celebrate a great entertainer and performer. But let’s cut down a little on the ‘genius’ side of things. And just to illustrate my point about how little of a ‘song’ there is in Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, have a look at this.


Brian Presley here. My brother’s famous.

Did I not tell you about The Brians? Really? Well, let’s put that right, right now.

Mind you, I’m not making any promises. You probably had to be there. But it ranks as one of the maddest and funniest experiences I ever had making music.

It started with a phone call. My friend John Williams needed help. “Help!” he said. He was in Matrix Studios, where Driver 67 had recorded all of his hit. Oh, and his album.

“Working on a track here,” said John. “Struggling a bit. Could you and Pete pop by and lend a hand?” So I called Pete Zorn, and off we went.

John explained he had two problems. Actually he had three, but we didn’t find out about the third one till much later on. (And the third problem had problems of its own).

Problem one: the track had to be delivered to the record company, mastered and ready, at 9am the following morning.

Problem two: he just couldn’t seem to pull all the disparate parts together to make a coherent record.

So we had a listen. Well, Pete and I, we laughed like drains. This was a seriously funny concept, and mostly brilliantly executed.

The Brians are made up of the unknown brothers of big and famous stars. There’s Brian Brando, Brian Travolta, Brian Presley and Brian Costello. You’ve never heard of them, naturally.

The song, written by John Williams and his flatmate Anthony Pryce, was a series of rants about how ungrateful the famous brothers were. “My brother Frank, he did it his way. But none of the cash came my way!”

The vocals had been done by the engineer, Simon Heyworth – he of Tubular Bells and Car 67 (and the guide to the Driver’s Last Guided Tour. Versatile chap, young Simon).

It didn’t seem such a big deal. Mix the track, have some dinner, go home. We’d done it 1,000 times. But, when we started listening, really listening, and pulling up different instruments, the problems began to manifest themselves.

To cut a long story short (because there’s a much better one to follow) we eventually focused on the guitar as the problem. So we got the guitarist back in and re-recorded his parts. Since he was imitating all sorts of iconic players (Hendrix, Harrison, Clapton, Richards) it required a tour de force. But he was more than up to the task and we got what we needed.

Hours later, Pete and I thought we had it pretty much fixed and the stress levels were descending. John Williams even took a nap on the studio sofa. At 3am, we shook him awake to have a listen.

“That’s great,” he said. “Now, what about the B-side?”

Which was problem number three. Well, three, four and five. First of all, there was no B-side. There wasn’t even a song to go on the B-side.

But – and here’s where you kinda had to be there – the song that hadn’t been written or recorded did have a title.

And the title had already been printed on the labels.

And the master for the B-side also had to be delivered at 9am, with the A-side.

So, five hours to write, record, mix and master. No dinner. No sleep. Definitely no going home.

And so it was, at 3.30 in the morning, that Pete Zorn started scouring Matrix Studios for any spare instruments, while I sat at the piano trying to write a song – a song whose title had to be “Brian’s Sister’s Sue“, because ….. that was the title already printed on the label!

Now I don’t want to make a fuss, or claim that songwriting is a mystical art that requires some form of alchemy. But, honestly, the last place to start is with a title. And what kind of title is “Brian’s Sister’s Sue“? It’s a bit too precise in its punctuation to leave much room for poetic licence.

This was my first verse:

“My sister’s name is Sue, and I’ll tell you what I’d do, if I was you, I’d stay away from Sue. She’s a mean kind of mother. She’ll make a mess out of you”.

By the time I came up with that gem, Pete had found a rusty old Fender in a cupboard under the stairs. The strings were about fit for building a chicken coop. He also found a bass drum and a cymbal.

As he set it all up, he listened to my first verse and delivered one of his own:

“She drinks her own bathwater through a dirty straw and as sure as my name is Brian, I swear she ought to be against the law.”

Honestly, I don’t know how we did it for laughing. The very long day had definitely been chemically enhanced and by 6am it was all getting a little hysterical. Simon Heyworth, true pro that he was, foreswore anything but coffee, and kept the show on the road.

Of course, he had to learn the song, and sing it. Vocalist on the A-side; vocalist on the B-side – no getting away from it. He delivers it perfectly seriously and with some fabulous little emphases that rescue some dire lyrics.

But the funniest thing on the track, for my money, is Pete Zorn’s guitar solo. It is beyond wild and crazy. It’s the kind of thing Captain Beefheart would have given his right hand for; but Pete just did it. I can’t help it. Every time I hear it, I burst out laughing at the sheer balls of it. It’s so bad it’s brilliant.

And there we were, 9am the following morning, frazzled and hysterical (well, I was anyway) and in walks this perfectly coiffed and tailored woman, just to remind us that most people had had a night’s sleep, and were at the beginning of a new day.

She was Carol Wilson, the boss of the label this masterpiece was to be released on. We handed her the tapes, and we shot the breeze. I got the impression she was a bit surprised that it was all done and dusted, but she didn’t actually say so. She was perfectly lovely, and perfectly professional. Our paths crossed twice again, years later, nothing to do with music. She’s a big shot in the world of Professional Coaching now.

We ended up on TV, y’know, The Brians. We don’t have the clip (it’s not on YouTube). But I have ITV searching for it as we speak. My friends in the FB group Popscene tracked it down. (Thank you, guys). It’s catalogued, and it’s officially available. If I get my hands on it, you’ll be the first to know!

There’s a last little irony to this story. John Peel, in his eternal search for the bizarre and ridiculous, played the Brians. But he didn’t play the A-side. Well, he wouldn’t, would he? He was John Peel.

But I can say that the maddest song I ever wrote, accompanied by my most hackneyed piano playing, is the only track I’ve ever been associated with that was played on the John Peel Show.

Brian’s sister Sue achieved at least that much immortality.





John and Paul, a new record, 40 years on!

Sorry … what?

Oh don’t be ridiculous. Of course it’s not.

No, it’s me and John Howard.

John wrote a fabulous song called The Time Of Day, which I’ve now recorded, with John adding backing vocals and harmonies. How Fabs is that?

This is what happened.

Five years ago I was in the throes of depression – divorced, but stuck with my ex-wife in a house that refused to sell.

I had just celebrated (!) my 60th birthday and it was very clear that once the house sold, I would be all but broke.

Always one to like sharing life, it occurred to me that I may spend the rest of mine alone. Who would be interested in a broke, overweight 60-year-old with no work, and no prospects of any?

And then John Howard sent me his album, As I Was Saying. As I listened, alone in my garrett (well, the top of the house, which I had colonised), this lyric poked through:

“Who in his right mind would give the time of day
To a man, no longer young, the space to stand and say: 
I am young in my heart, I am young in my heart.
Though some days I look much older than I feel.”

Well, you can imagine, can’t you?

I had tentatively started writing and recording again after 30 years, and this just seemed like a gift. There was no question I was going to record it.

First of all, let me say that John Howard is a proper musician. He plays the piano as if it is his orchestra. And he has a particularly expressive and emotive voice. He also happens to be gay.

But for him, Time Of Day had nothing to do with sexuality or even romance. It is “an introspective song to oneself about the process of getting older physically”.

When I heard it, the word ‘his’ immediately transposed to ‘her’ and it became a song about how no-one in their right mind would take me on at this stage of my life.

Which provides an opportunity to demonstrate for you the influence a producer can have on a song.

I’m not saying it’s a good influence, or that I haven’t ruined a perfectly beautiful song. But it is a perfect – as the Americans say – case in point.

John’s own version is a slow, elegiac lament, accompanied by a wonderfully controlled piano arrangement. I have no doubt many will prefer it to mine.

There was no point me trying to match John’s style. I don’t play like he does, and I don’t have the voice or the technique to carry off his soulful balladeering.

So I thought, I wonder how this would sound if it was covered by an indie band?

And that’s what I did. Built it up from an indie drumbeat and a non-stop eight-to-the-bar bass, some jangling acoustics and a lead guitar.

But when he heard it, John immediately wanted to put “a big backing vocal wodge of harmonies coming in and out”. Eventually, we got round to that, and it changed my version all over again. We are a pair of Beatle nuts, and his contribution introduced that element.

It took me quite a while to remix and incorporate John’s harmonies. In the end, I had to let go of the ‘indie’ idea, and go with what I was working with. After all, a Driver 67 track, featuring John Howard – irresistible. It’s forty years since we last recorded together. There’s a perfect symmetry to it.

So here it is – my version, then John’s (although you can listen any way round you want). Decide for yourself (it’s not a competition!). I still prefer John’s. It’s a stunning rendition of a beautiful song.

But I’m glad I recorded my version, which I hope to include on a new album to be released later this year.

Well, I didn’t wake up this morning….How the blues gave me the blues

It’s one of my favourite music jokes – the shortest blues ever.

You may not be amused, because you’re not familiar with the genre. So let me completely ruin the joke…

No, no. Not ruin it. I’ll deconstruct it. That sounds more, I dunno, Radio 4.

Many, many blues songs open with the line, “I woke up this morning” or something similar. There follows a litany of miseries the like of which would fell a tree.

But if your first line is, “Well, I didn’t wake up this morning….” there’s nowhere to go.

Which always makes me chuckle.

Unfortunately, and generally speaking, a cul de sac opening line would more often than not be a blessing these days. Because, good Lord!, there’s a lot of shit passing as ‘der blues’ in the 21st century.

I was listening to the Paul Jones Blues show on Radio 2.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Why would you do that, Driver (as my friends call me. More formally I’m addressed as Mr 67). 

But, y’know, it’s Monday night, you’re in the kitchen and in a panic to stifle the Archers you quickly flick the dial and there’s some grown guy going, ‘I love you baby, I really love you baby, you don’t know how much-a I love you baby, and I got the blues’

And I think to myself, What?

This is definitely not what Robert Johnson had in mind when he met the Devil at the crossroads. Robert Johnson sometimes wrote lyrics of heartbreaking beauty; sometimes they were chilly and scary. So this, for instance:

And I followed her to the station, with her suitcase in my hand,
And I followed her to the station, with her suitcase in my hand.
Well, it’s hard to tell, it’s hard to tell, when all your love’s in vain,

And this:

Me and the Devil
Was walking side by side

And I’m going to beat my woman
‘Til I get satisfied

What he never did was throw off a lyric just to showcase his guitar skills, which were phenomenal.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the model today.

The old blues guys, they knew it needed more than some slick riffs on a pawn-shop Gibson or, more commonly, something from the Sears catalogue costing $10. (Some of those old catalogue guitars are now worth small fortunes by the way).

Lead Belly, for instance, brought a whole bunch of classic songs out of the cotton fields and into the daylight of popular culture. Rock Island Line, Black Betty, Goodnight Irene, Midnight Special, Pick a Bale of Cotton.

If you already love Lead Belly, or want to know more, follow this link .

For Robert Johnson, Lead Belly and all the greats, the song was the thing. Always the song. When white guys began singing the blues – the Stones, Peter Green, Eric Clapton, Jeremy Spencer – they either covered the great songs, or wrote their own great songs.

Sometimes, they were covering the covers. Jeremy Spencer learned his slide guitar from Elmore James. Elmore James learned Dust My Broom from Robert Johnson.

(By the way, Dust My Broom is neither about a broom, nor about dusting.

‘I’m a get up in the morning, I believe I’ll dust my broom….’

Now what do you suppose he means by that?)

My favourite Robert Johnson song is Come On In My Kitchen.

Woman I know
took my best friend
some joker got lucky
stole her back again
he better come on
in my kitchen
it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors
Well she’s gone
I know she won’t come back
I took the last nickel
out of her nation sack
you better come on
in my kitchen
well, it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors

You haven’t got a clue, have you? What is he talking about and what’s a ‘nation sack’ (Google it); who is it that better come on in his kitchen; and why a kitchen?

But it sounds great, and even in your incomprehension, it paints a picture.

It’s a long, long way from ‘I loves ya baby, you done did me wrong, if I don’t wake up tomorrow, you know it’ll be too long‘. I made that up, as I was typing. Took me as long to make it up as it took me to type it. And that seems to be the standard of many of today’s blues lyrics.

Which is a shame, because in the right hands, the blues can still surprise and entertain. Have a listen to this Joe Bonamassa track. The first few seconds is a mini-history of the blues – the African roots, the familiar guitar lick. And then off he goes into a mix of Cream and Led Zep, but with his own maestro touch. Man, he can play.

But those lyrics – they are dark. This is the song of a man who knows he is gonna wake up tomorrow, and suffer all over again.

And from reader M. Sacree of Hove comes this much pithier deconstruction of the blues cliche.