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.

They think it’s All Over. But it’s not. It’s All Over Now.

I was really amused a couple of weeks ago to see Bob Dylan get a writing credit on It’s All Over Now, The Rolling Stones first number one.

I’d always known it as a Bobby Womack song. I’d also always assumed that Shirley Womack, who co-wrote it, was his wife. In fact, she was Bobby’s sister-in-law.

And that’s the trouble with assumptions.

Big rule of journalism: assume makes an ass out of u and me.

Which begs the question: how big can an ass possibly be, since at least 50% of the internet seems to be built on assumptions?

It has to be nearly 10 years since I had my introduction to the internet version of ‘I search, therefore I am’. My son, Remi, 14 or 15 at the time, insisted on playing me this ‘brilliant Eric Clapton track’.

He searched it, brought it up and played it. Eric Clapton my arse.

“That’s Classical Gas by Mason Williams,” I said.

“No. It’s Eric Clapton,” he said. “Look, it says so here.”

“Yes, I can see it says it is, but it’s not. When did you ever hear Eric Clapton play like that?”

“Well, that’s the point. It’s so different.”

“Yes. It’s different because it’s not Eric Clapton. It’s Mason Williams.”

Which got me looking ‘under the hood’ as they say and I was shocked at what I found. iTunes meta info rarely includes a songwriter credit. When it does, it’s frequently wrong. Elsewhere on the internet these mistakes are legion, and will probably never be corrected.

I once found You’re My World – Cilla’s number one, famously adapted from an Italian original – attributed to Burt Bacharach and Hal David. This was on a big compilation cd, so of course, the information found its way onto iTunes.

Even funnier, they apparently also wrote Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. The giveaway there is, Cole Porter. He wrote the song in 1934 when Burt Bacharach was six years old. Burt didn’t meet Hal until 1957.

Now you might think, “Does this really matter?”

To which I might reply, “Yes, it fucking matters!”

On reflection: yes, that is how I would reply.

Imagine you’re Harlan Howard, a relatively obscure country music writer and performer. You write a song called Busted. It’s picked up by Ray Charles, who has a massive top 10 hit with it. That’s your pension, right there.

Now imagine you’re Harlan Howard, and years later, you find that some lazy, feckless, ignorant, highly paid jackass has credited your song to Ray Charles as writer – forever to remain so on databases and download sites worldwide. Well, you’d be a little cheesed off, no?

Mind you, it’s a wonder Harlan didn’t get a writing credit on It’s All Over Now, along with Bobby and Shirley Womack and Bob Dylan.

Because the way Bob Dylan got a co-write credit on that song was that he did, in fact, write a song called It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. And that’s what another feckless jackass had in mind when he put Bobby Dylan’s name alongside Bobby Womack’s. It was in his mind, so he made an assumption.

But, of course, he didn’t know that Harlan Howard had also written a song called It’s All Over. Poor Harlan doesn’t get a look in. Not on his own song; nor on one he didn’t write.

This is how the record industry lets itself down. No attention to detail.

Some years back Virgin released an album called John Lennon’s Jukebox. John used to have a portable jukebox on which he carried 40 singles that had had some influence on him.

At least four of the songs on the album were credited to John Lennon as writer. How lazy do you have to be? You’re working on a project about the influence these songs had on someone. And then you credit that person with writing the songs that influenced him.

Two of these were classic Lovin’ Spoonful – Daydream and Do You Believe In Magic, written by John Sebastian. How come you’re filling in a database that determines where the money goes, and you don’t even know that John Sebastian wrote Daydream? Or at least, that John Lennon didn’t write it?

I write as a victim of the same kind of laziness, but from a different angle.

There are two versions of Car 67, the UK hit and the American version.

On Radio 2’s Pick Of The Pops a few years ago, in the chart rundown for the week when I was in the top 10, they played the American version. The following week’s Feedback on Radio 4 devoted seven minutes to this catastrophic event. (I thought it was quite funny. But I also thought ‘Get a sense of perspective!’)

The next week – that’s right, two weeks after the original broadcast – Feedback devoted another eight minutes. So across just under an hour of broadcast time on the most important consumer show on radio, I had been given 15 minutes of time for outraged fans to vent their spleen.

Some while later, I was given a private glimpse at the database the BBC uses for its music radio. And there it still was, Car 67 (US version). And there it still is eight years later.

All anyone has to do is listen to the competing versions, and delete the wrong ones. But that would require a revolution of attention to detail and pro-action that seems beyond the wit of the lazy jackasses we trust with our precious work.

Net result for me? The record rarely gets played any more because no-one trusts to get the version right. That’s a couple of curries a year I can no longer afford.

When I talked to Phil Swern, producer of Pick Of The Pops, he was more outraged at the level of complaint he had received than embarrassed by the mistake.

“I could have understood it if it had been a Cliff Richard record,” he said. To me. On the phone. “But Driver 67?”

I’m on the phone, Phil. You’re talking to me. I am that Driver….

Anyway, it’s not Phil’s fault. A man more dedicated to exposing the obscure and forgotten would be hard to find. He’s made a 30-year career out of it.

But next time you hear some solid gold artist complaining about royalties and copyright and piracy and streaming, try not to get all up in his face and “Oh you greedy bastard, haven’t you had enough money yet”.

Because what’s happening to the solid gold greedy bastard is also happening to me and Harlan Howard. And, really, aren’t we allowed just a couple of curries a year out of our meagre contributions to popular music?

Meanwhile, for a quick giggle, have a look bottom, centre for the writing credit on this.

http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/rollingstones/itsallovernow.html

And if you want to hear Eric Clapton playing Classical Gas, well, you never will. But you’d never know.

 

Cool? Or uncool? Oh, away with ye and get a life.

Do we really listen to certain music because we think the band or the singer is ‘cool’? I do hope not.

We certainly weren’t giving the matter any thought at as we luxuriated in the riches of 60s pop that rained down on us after the success of Love Me Do and Please Please Me.

The whole ‘were you Beatles or were you Stones’ question was a post-rationalisation by NME writers more interested in their own philosophical musings than the music itself.

I was 13 when I heard Love Me Do, 14 when Please Please Me was released three months later.

It was a momentous time for me. Between the release of those two records, just before my fourteenth birthday,  my mother had given my sister and I a carrier bag each – containing underwear and pyjamas – and told us to go to a friend’s house down the road.

And that was the last we saw of the house we had lived in for seven years with a stepfather who had beaten and bullied us. We had been, largely, cowed into submission.

But in my fourteenth year, I had grown five inches and with increased height had come physical strength. I used the height and the strength to fight back. Oddly, it was that – me fighting back – that made my mother decide it was time to go.

Three days later, pathetic carrier bags in hand – all we had left of our previous lives – we were back at my grandfather’s house, where we had lived for six years prior to this disastrous marriage.

Back to me sharing a bed with Uncle Jack; back to one tap, cold water only, in the scullery; back to the toilet out in the back yard; back to bare floorboards and such cold that ice would form on the inside of the windows.

Do you remember that winter? January 1963 was the coldest of the 20th century; the coldest recorded for 150 years. But I was comfortable with my background and the emergence of The Beatles – touted at first as working class lads from Liverpool – could not have been better timed.

These four guys were like me. If they could do it, so could I.

Love Me Do shone through the dross of pretty young Americans called Frankie and Bobby and Ricky.

Mind you, the name – Beatles; that sounded stupid. But, you know, we got used to it.

And then, as the snow took hold and yesterday’s Daily Sketch made do as toilet paper in the iced up backyard loo, Please Please Me came out like the sun.

But even that was eclipsed nine weeks later by the first album.

The Please Please Me album was a revelation. Now we began to realise – these guys are writing their own songs!

But they were also covering songs by people we’d never heard of.

There was the sophistication of Arthur Alexander’s Anna (my personal favourite), the sweet pop soul of Baby It’s You (part-written by Burt Bacharach), the throat-tearing excitement of Twist And Shout (a Motown classic before we knew about Motown).

And standing alongside these ‘professional songs’ were the McCartney-Lennon songs – every bit as good, making excuses to no-one.

And by the way, if you think I got that wrong, check out the back cover of the album sleeve. McCartney-Lennon was the order and stayed so until She Loves You (where it reverted to Lennon-McCartney, as it had been on Love Me Do).

We were now in a different world, and things started moving at a speed that only 14-year-olds could keep up with. In the middle of 1963, along came The Rolling Stones.

Their cover of Chuck Berry’s Come On didn’t sound like a cover (we barely knew who Chuck Berry was at the time; we found out pretty fast); Come On sounded like The Beatles on speed (we didn’t know what speed was……etc).

Which was not altogether a bad thing, because their follow up single was a Lennon-McCartney cover. Jagger and Richards were in the room and watched John and Paul ‘knock out’ I Wanna Be Your Man in 15 minutes. That, and a lot of pressure from their manager Andrew Loog Oldham, persuaded the two Stones they should give this songwriting lark a crack.

Their first attempt was As Tears Go By, a top 10 hit for Marianne Faithfull in June 1964. The Stones themselves took another seven months to ‘dare’ (according to Keith Richards) to release one of their own songs as a single. The Last Time made the top spot, and even cracked the US top 10 for them.

But look at the speed of all this. Between October 1962 and February 1965 – 29 months – the world had been stood on its head. Apart from The Beatles and The Stones, we had The Hollies, Billy J Kramer, Dusty Springfield, Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Gerry & The Pacemakers.

Not to mention Bob Dylan.

I was studying Grade 7 piano. I refused to attend any more lessons. I told my mother I wanted a guitar. In early 1964, having learned to play three chords in three different keys, I formed my first band.

So do you think, honestly, we had time to sit around asking ourselves, “Is this cool?”

It just was. Bloody cool. And it kept getting cooler. We weren’t bothered whether The Stones were cooler than The Beatles; whether we should be listening to Sandie Shaw; whether Freddie & The Dreamers were just bloody embarrassing.

We understood quality though. We knew Dusty Springfield was a touch above. And we understood that sooner or later we would have to take Bob Dylan seriously. And that it was all over for Elvis.

But we also knew, and you can’t post-rationalise this, that The Beatles were the vanguard, the leaders and the high water mark.

They went from Beatles For Sale to Rubber Soul to Revolver in barely 18 months. They went from Love Me Do to Tomorrow Never Knows in three and a half years.

Now that is cool.

But it doesn’t take anything away from The Stones, who made live their arena. After following The Beatles down the road to psychedelia – a blind alley for The Stones – they put their heads back on straight, recorded Beggar’s Banquet and slowly established themselves as the world’s biggest concert draw. They also, during the next ten years, recorded seven albums replete with stadium anthems that have kept them going for another 40 years.

Which is also cool.

So – all I’m saying – don’t ask again. We didn’t have to take sides. It was all just bloody wonderful. And it still is.

And if you don’t believe me, believe this – Mick Jagger less than a year from his 70th birthday; The Stones celebrating 50 years, and still delivering.

I’m pompous, sanctimonious and ignorant, and I don’t know jack shit about rock’n’roll. Apparently.

I recently came across a YouTube video titled Old Time Rock’n’Roll – Legends in Concert.

I pressed play expecting some Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, maybe even Fats Domino.

But what I got was a melee of early 60s pop singers mixed in with some Motown and a bit of Brill building r’n’b.

Obviously, I left a comment. I thought you might be entertained by the consequences of my folly.

Me: Don’t want to spoil the party, but with the possible exception of The Crickets, no-one here counts as rock’n’roll. Mostly they are pop or r’n’b acts from the early 60s. Rock’n’roll was Little Richard, Bill Haley, earliest Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Del Shannon, Bobby Vee, Troy Shondell, Billy J. Kramer, Brian Hyland were all post-1960 pure pop. Martha Reeves and The Contours were on Motown; Spencer Davis was British r’n’b; The Dovells were a 60s doo-wop throwback; Joey Dee (not Vee) is on the Twist bandwagon here. So, where’s the rock’n’roll? Rock’n’roll was over by 1959.

Jon Emery: If you think that Del Shannon isn’t Rock n Roll, all I can say is you don’t know jack shit about Rock n Roll……

Charles C: Clearly, you didn’t grow up during rock’s early years.  Here’s a FACT for you, my pompous, sanctimonious, ignorant friend: In the dawn and early years of rock and roll, the term “rock and roll” embraced a wide umbrella of all types of music, including what we now categorize as rhythm & blues, folk, country, blue grass, soul, and even country.

So, the next time you tout an ignorant “opinion” as “fact,” I suggest you do your homework.

Me: I was born at the beginning of January, 1949, Charles. Don’t know whether that qualifies me as ‘growing up during rock’s early years’ for you? But also, you make the mistake of confusing rock with rock ‘n’ roll.

Rock ‘n’ roll was over by the time Elvis came out of the army. Rock started when Bob Dylan plugged in.

Soul music is a 60s category for an offshoot of r’n’b, and there was definitely no bluegrass in rock’n’roll. Those early country artists were horrified by rock’n’roll, given that it came out of ‘race’ music. If you want more, I’ll give you more.

Jon Emery: Believe that if you want to, but you can’t make me believe it. I guess CCR didn’t rock either, right? Del Shannon was the first to write Rock n Roll songs in a minor key. I happen to be a big fan of all those other artists that you named, but, in my opinion, Rock n Roll didn’t stop there……

Me: Rock music is very different from Rock ‘n’ Roll. Rock ‘n’ Roll derived from some very specific riffs and beats that developed in the late 40s. The first Rock ‘n’ Roll record is often cited as Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston (actually Ike Turner). If you listen to collections like The Black & White Roots of Rock & Roll, you’ll see that even Rocket 88 wasn’t the first. But by the time Elvis came out of the army, Rock ‘n’ Roll was over. From then on it was mainly pop or r’n’b, some of it – for sure – with a decent back beat.

Rock music, on the other hand, started the day Bob Dylan plugged in and turned up to 11. That’s when things started to get loud. Just because you don’t agree with what I’m saying doesn’t mean you can rewrite history. Go and listen to some Big Joe Turner, or Ella Mae Morse or Big Mama Thornton, or That’s Alright Mama by Elvis and tell me what they have to do stylistically with Del Shannon or any of the other artists in this video.

Charles C: You state that rock ‘n’ roll was over by the time Elvis came out of the army and that rock started when Bob Dylan plugged in.  I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to call you out:  You’ve made dogmatic statements without supporting them with an iota of evidence, reference, or verification.  My friend, you may be selling, but I’m not buying.  At least, not until you back up your statements with documentation.

Me: First of all, Charles, I’m not ‘selling’ anything that I need you to ‘buy’. But – here goes for a little context.

Rock’n’roll was that wild and exciting music as practised by, among others, Little Richard, Wynonie Harris, Jackie Brenston, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and, of course, Elvis in his Sun days and his early RCA recordings. This was music rooted in r’n’b, although the white boys brought some country (western swing) to the mix. If you listen to House Of Blue Lights by Ella Mae Morse (there are dozens of other examples) you can hear the roots of rock’n’roll going back to the 40s. But this is still r’n’b, and a little bit more polite.

What Little Richard and Chuck Berry did was take that template, rough it up, add a back beat so the rhythm drove really hard. Jerry Lee’s Whole Lotta Shakin’ is a perfect example. The two things that did for rock ‘n’ roll as a commercial enterprise were Elvis going into the army and the payola scandal.

By the time Elvis came out of the army, the record industry had wrested control of the music back and started feeding white bread pretty boys like Frankie Avalon, Bobby Vinton and Pat Boone to the public. Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper were dead, Jerry Lee was in disgrace for marrying his 13-year-old cousin and Elvis found it easier to hit the number one spot with songs like It’s Now Or Never and Are You Lonesome Tonight rather than A Mess Of Blues.

From there on, Tin Pan Alley dominated (with some admittedly pretty great pop music, but also a lot of dross) until The Beatles came along (in the UK at least) at the end of 1962. The quality and excitement levels went up, but this was still pop music.

And then Bob Dylan plugged in and turned it up LOUD and began to play what we can now recognise as rock music. He influenced The Beatles, they influenced him. By 1968, The Stones had gone back to their roots, The Beatles were recording influential and loud rock music like Helter Skelter, Everybody’s Got Something To Hide and I Want You. Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton threw off their blues roots and we were off on the big rock adventure.

I didn’t set out to write a history of the music industry, Charles! I only came on this thread to say that none of the people in the video above – bar, briefly, The Crickets, and only with Buddy Holly – qualify as rock’n’roll. They are all from the pop era that immediately followed the payola scandal and Elvis’s transition to crooner.

Jon Emery: You think you’re the only rock historian? I know about the history of rock music because I’m a musician who has been playing this music for over 50 years. So tell me that I’m rewriting Rock n Roll if you want to, but I know about Rock History because I’ve been a part of it.

Me: Why don’t you Google me?

Jon Emery (several hours later): Well, I’m impressed with your track record—Looks like we’ve both been around the block—I take back the ‘You don’t know Shit” statement with my apology.

Charles C:  I wish to thank you for your most informative information.  It was not only enlightening, but interesting and nostalgic as well.  Indeed, reviewing and researching your information took me on a pleasant stroll down memory lane. I shall, of course move forward, continuing to enjoy rock, pop, & rock ‘n roll music, but now with a broader and deeper understanding of its history.  Take care, my friend.  Cheers.  And, thanks again.

And we all lived happily ever after…..and no reason not to watch this great line-up of pop legends in concert. Just don’t tell me it’s rock’n’roll.

And now we can get into the really geeky arguments with all the people who actually know something. Bring it on Geoff; bang a gong John; rant and rave, Dave. Let’s Have A Party….

 

 

Twelve Months of Wonderful Things

It’s a year since I launched this blog, and this is my 50th post.

I’ve written about The Beatles, Mott The Hoople, Scott Walker, The Wombles, Driver 67 (of course!), Yewtree’s investigations and Simon Cowell.

And which post got the most readers?

I’d give you 50 guesses and you’d finally get there.

Wonderful thing No 1: Kokomo – they were the subject of my most read post. A band most people have never heard of.

Those who have, though, are passionately devoted. As am I. So it was wonderful to get a rush of attention for writing about artists who have never hit the charts, or sold a million.

And it didn’t happen just the once. When, a few weeks later, I recounted an incident that ended with several of the band in A&E, the numbers peaked again. Maybe I should just start a Kokomo blog!

Wonderful thing No 2: Because I wrote about Kokomo, Nick Hornby read my blog. Say no more.

Wonderful thing No 3: If this blog says anything about me, it’s that I have half a foot in the past, but most of me is in the present. Using computer technology and social media to create and promote my own new songs caught the eye of a book publisher.

He wanted a book which would guide young music hopefuls through the maze of the digital age.

So I was commissioned to write that book. Nearly done. Out by Spring, we hope.

Wonderful thing No 4: In my fifth post, I wrote about being backstage at a Bob Dylan concert in 1978 with my friend Heather.

Completely coincidentally – nothing to do with the blog – she contacted me last week. We hadn’t heard from each other for almost 35 years.

She asked if I remembered her. The usual response is, “Of course I do!” whilst searching your mind for some clue. But I was able to point Heather back to my post last February, and there she was.

We’ve since been reminding each other of escapades we got up to, including leaving the fabled Wembley ELO spaceship gig after just two songs. We weren’t much for the grandiose, Heather and I. Although we did go to a party Barry Manilow threw for Bette Midler. That doesn’t count as grandiose, does it?

Wonderful thing No 5: I was invited to join the Illuminati. Yes! I was!

And what had earned me this privilege? Last September I wrote about the ‘Paul Is Dead‘ conspiracy and talked about the current online obsession with the Illuminati.

I had an offer from illuminati.com to get (notice that: ‘get’) $2,500 every three days, and $1,000,000 ‘membership blessing for doing what you love to do best’.

“Change your life for the better, We holds the world.”

Those mistakes are not mine – that is verbatim how the invitation was put. I don’t care how much money is involved. Where grammar and punctuation are concerned, you can’t buy me.

Wonderful thing No 6: In November last year, I wrote about mental health. It was a slightly nervous post – not the happiest of things to admit to, being bipolar, or to talk about.

But the post attracted attention from outside the music sphere, and ended up in my Top 10 posts of the year. That’s pretty wonderful, don’t you think?

Wonderful thing No 7: One of my (very small) band of Twitter followers, @maxkelp tweeted “You are responsible for the Beta Band. Thank you.”

I was baffled. I had never heard of The Beta Band. I had certainly never imagined a one hit wonder inspiring anyone. So I took his ‘Thank you’ to mean, ‘You git’.

I replied: “Sounds like you don’t think that’s a good thing!”

And he replied: “No, they’re good, but they sound like you.”

So of course, I had to check them out. Seems the main guys would have been at primary school when Car 67 was a hit. So I guess it’s possible that Driver 67 became part of their cultural subconscious.

But I’m not claiming it. They remind me more of The Grease Band or Black Rebel Motorcyle Club, and I suggest if you like your music more on the acoustic and interesting side, The Beta Band is well worth a YouTube visit.

Wonderful thing No 8: Did I mention – Nick Hornby read my blog?

Wonderful thing No 9: I sent a box of 40-year-old tapes off to be digitised and received back a treasure trove of memories. Sessions I’d produced in some amazing studios: Apple, Air, CBS (mostly CBS, to be fair – I did work for the company!), Olympic.

As a result, I wrote my Kokomo post, wrote about South African Tony Bird, and about some completely bonkers sessions I did with crooner Vince Hill. Sadly, I haven’t heard from Vince, but Tony called me from New York and we talked for over an hour.

I have to say again, if the wind had been in the right direction, you would not now be needing me to tell you that Tony Bird is one of the greats.

Wonderful thing No 10: A couple of weeks ago, comedian Tim Vine Tweeted: “Hey who likes Car 67 by Driver 67?”

I love Time Vine (my favourite line: ‘Velcro. What a rip off!’). I like him even better now.

His Tweet resulted in a sequence of tweets mostly consisting of lines from Car 67. Even for an old cynic like me, that was heartwarming.

Wonderful thing No 11: In May last year, I wrote about my friend John Howard, and how the powers that be at Radio 1 deliberately stifled his career in the mid-70s.

I put up a video of John singing My Beautiful Days. It describes a trajectory where today, if you’re attractive enough, being camp is a career move (think Graham Norton, Rufus Wainwright).

But back then, his handlers were trying to make him more ‘butch’. My Beautiful Days is a very affecting song. I’ve seen people reduced to tears by it.

One Very Famous Person emailed me to thank me for introducing him to the song, which he had duly downloaded from iTunes. “What a should-be classic!” is how he put it.

Wonderful thing No 12: The Driver 67 catalogue (all 21 songs!) was reissued (online only) – after 35 years languishing in the vaults – by Cherry Red Records.

This year, I will release the follow up (!) album, called The Return Journey. This old cab still has some fuel in the tank.

I’m going to indulge myself here (it is the blog’s birthday!) and show you a performance by Lisa Hannigan, whose videos kept popping up while I looked for The Beta Band.

Lisa achieved some prominence as part of Damien Rice’s band. But solo, she is a revelation. Not since Joe Cocker have I seen anyone whose movements and facial expressions suggest such total immersion in the music. Except in Lisa’s case, it’s sexy. (Sorry, Joe).

 

 

 

 

Let’s have an argument about Nick Drake. I’ll chuck in Donovan for starters

After last week’s post about the excess of musical talent in my family, my friend Slavena posted on Facebook, “Well Paul, maybe you could excel in writing…..”

She was trying to cheer me up, and also, maybe, tell me that she likes the way I write.

Of course, what she doesn’t know – and neither do you – is that my dad, in addition to being a phenomenal pianist (and holding down a day job at the Southern Electricity Board) also wrote about 70 crime novels that sold millions.

Which is not to mention that my brother Dudley is now trying to get his first novel published.

So, no Slavena, my family won’t even let me have writing to myself!

But at least I have this blog, where I can talk about what I want to.

And this week I want to ask you:

So, where do we stand on Donovan?

Bit of a bore now? A bit full of himself? Talks self-importantly, making frequent references to his influence on The Beatles.

Certainly hasn’t made any music of note for a very long time.

Now, where do we stand on Nick Drake?

Beautiful young man, genius songwriter, brilliant guitarist, left a wonderful legacy. Tragic he died so young. So sad.

Given all that, where do we think we’d stand on Donovan had he died after 1968’s A Gift From A Flower To A Garden?

My guess? We’d all be bewailing a tragic loss.

But no-one listens to Donovan any more. His first two albums were incredibly influential on young starter-guitarists like me, and then, in 1966, Sunshine Superman took it to another level. But after 1970 – well, it’s a long way down.

Which just goes to show, as some mega-cynic once said, that dying young is a great career move.

This all came to mind because my friend John Howard mentioned he was reading Gabrielle Drake’s biography of her brother Nick. I found myself thinking “I’d like to read that”.

But then I asked myself, “Why wouldn’t you want to read a biography of Donovan?” And the answer was: actually, I would.

Just for context, Donovan had released five albums, one of them a double – before Nick Drake started recording his first.

What’s Bin Did And What’s Bin Hid was released in May 65. For emerging folkies like me, it was a revelation. I didn’t want to sing sea shanties, but Bob Dylan was too intimidating. The Times They Are A-Changing held a definite message, but it wasn’t one you could hope to credibly carry at age 16.

Catch The Wind, on the other hand, was beautiful, simple and easy to sing. And the album which that song leads you into had at least five other songs you could incorporate into your set. Car Car was like a child’s nursery rhyme – but it was written by Woody Guthrie, so everyone would happily sing along; no credibility problems back then.

Six months later, Fairytale was released. Apart from the hit single, Colours, it showed – as was common back then – artistic and musical development from the first album.

In particular, Sunny Goodge Street was quite jazzy. It was also lyrically a little oblique for 16-year-olds from Wolverhampton with its references to hash-smokers, Mingus, and ‘smashing into neon streets in their stonedness’.

I would hazard a guess that this song was a touchstone for 17-year-old Nick Drake, still three years away from beginning to record his first album, which was eventually released in 1969.

Not to take anything away from Nick Drake, but back then singer-songwriters were ten-a-penny (as we used to say pre-decimalisation).

At Music Week, I was the only teenage staff writer. So all the folk, progressive, underground and far-out stuff came my way.

Before you even heard their albums, you would have been to see Al Stewart, Roy Harper and Cat Stevens. You could watch James Taylor, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen. Certainly, after their debut release there would be important showcase gigs.

It’s beyond doubt that at least one of Nick Drake’s albums came across my desk. What I said about it, what I thought about it I can’t possibly remember.

I might well have raved about his first, as I did about Joni Mitchell’s, Leonard Cohen’s, Kris Kristofferson’s, Randy Newman’s – it’s a long list.

But the thing about Nick Drake was, he didn’t follow through. He didn’t gig and he wouldn’t do interviews. In a maelstrom of emerging talent – it was an absolutely extraordinary time – he didn’t get lost; he actively hid.

You might say, “But it should really be about the music”. And I might reply: “Oh, get over yourself”.

Nick Drake’s albums emerged into an overcrowded world of pop, folk and rock music that was exploding in an unprecedented display of talent, the existence of which was previously unimaginable. Who knew?

But my main point today is not to knock poor benighted Nick Drake. Forty years later, we can all see that if he’d gigged, if he’d done the publicity rounds he might well have been a contender.

Or he might not. Many weren’t, for various reasons. But what is clear forty years later is that he made music that survives all fashions, all fads.

And it is also clear – to me at least (and I think John Howard) – that if Donovan Leitch had died after the release of his 1968 double album, A Gift From A Flower To A Garden, today we would all be talking about what a loss Donovan was.

The fact that he’s still around to bore us with his tales of how he taught Lennon and McCartney to fingerpick – resulting in songs like Blackbird, Julia, Dear Prudence and Mother Nature’s Son on the fabled White Album – only goes to say how damaging to your heritage it can be to live too long.

So, to somewhat redress the balance, here’s Donovan and Sunny Goodge Street. Have a listen, and then we can start the arguments about whether Nick Drake might have been influenced by Mr Leitch.

And, for comparison, here’s Nick Drake’s At The Chime Of A City Clock.

 

 

Mad Mandolin Man, Neil Sedaka and the man from Edelweiss

I’m at one of the biggest dinner parties I’ve ever been to, maybe 40 people around the table.

About ten seats down to my left is a dark-haired and very pretty woman. I feel sure I know her.

Then someone says: “Norma, pass the potatoes?”

“Norma! That’s who you are,” I call down the table, like she doesn’t know her own name. “The tape op at CBS.”

She looks at me for a few seconds, scrolling back 20 years through her memory: “Oh my God – you’re Mad Mandolin Man!”

Shall I explain? I think I should.

Towards the end of my time at CBS, with half a foot out of the door, they signed Vince Hill, a British crooner who had narrowly missed the number one slot with his signature hit, Edelweiss from The Sound Of Music.

At that time, I was developing a sound in my head, a sound gleaned from a few seconds of a Bob Dylan track.

If You See Her Say Hello, from Blood On The Tracks, has a magical sonic accident where a guitar and a mandolin, just for seconds here and there, react together in a way that really caught my ear.

From these snippets, I built a sound in my head where I used more and more guitars, and multiple mandolins.

Then Vince Hill came along, and he had been talking to Neil Sedaka.

Sedaka was embarked on a major comeback and writing the best songs of his career. One of them, The Hungry Years, he had promised to Vince.

When I heard The Hungry Years, I knew this was the song on which to try out my sound. It’s a long way from Bob Dylan to Vince Hill, I know, but they don’t call me Mad Mandolin Man for nothing.

I telephoned arranger Keith Mansfield and asked him to score the session for me. No way, he said. Sounds bonkers. I’m not getting involved with that.

So I did it myself.

Now consider. I had never written an arrangement. I could write music, very slowly. But an arrangement? That was ridiculous. There would be more than 50 musicians in the studio, and I’d have to hire a conductor. If I failed it was going to be spectacular. It was also going to be very expensive.

But I’m nothing if not determined. And stubborn.

I scored three songs, including The Hungry Years, for 20 violins (in four parts), 10 cellos, five double basses, six 12-string guitars, six 6-string guitars, six mandolins, drums, bass and electric guitar. Oh, and a harp.

Actually, I didn’t score for the harp. I asked Skaila Kanga – the most revered harpist in the country – if she’d be ok with me giving her the chord sheets and she could just vamp it.

How mad is that? You get 50-odd players in a studio, and ask one of them – a classical musician who’s worked with Otto Klemperer, Andre Previn, Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle – to make it up as they go along. Looking back, I’m embarrassed at my own chutzpah.

On the day I’m about as nervous as it’s possible to be without falling over. Vince is there, along with his musical director, Ernie Dunstall.

Keith Mansfield turns up. “What are you doing here?” I ask. He laughs. “I’ve come to watch you fail.”

The booker’s there too. This is the guy who books musicians for sessions. They never go to sessions. They’d never get any work done. I’m getting a bit paranoid now. He explains: “You’ve got just about every guitarist in London here, so I’ve got nothing else to do. I thought I’d come along and see what you’re up to.”

With all this pressure and anticipation building, I’d love to tell you it was brilliant.

So I will. It was. It was brilliant.

Ernie Dunstall had been watching intently through the studio window as perspiration became preparation became pin-drop quiet as the conductor lifted his baton.

About one minute in, Ernie turned round, beaming. “Mr Phillips, I think you’ve triumphed.”

Skaila Kanga, front and centre with her beautiful concert harp, had been perfectly willing to go with my flow. Now she was also smiling.

It was absolutely thrilling, the sound coming from that studio.

Later, Vince put his vocals on, and even added harmonies. I’ll never forget the look on his face just before he left the sessions. “No-one’s ever gone to this much trouble for me,” he said. “Thank you.”

Unfortunately, back at the record company, they got the jitters. They hadn’t signed Vince Hill as an experimental artist (which is a laugh: listening now it’s a really sweet sound; nothing shocking about it at all. It just didn’t adhere to the formula).

I knew what they wanted. For a singer like Vince, the formula was to find a bunch of songs that were going to be in the charts in three to four months time, put them all on an album arranged much like the originals and pray that one or two of the songs would be in the Top 10 when the album was released.

So that’s what I did. By the time the album was released – arranged by Keith Mansfield, and minus my mad mandolins – its title track, Mandy, had been number one for Barry Manilow. A couple of the other songs were either in or on their way out of the charts. So we cracked the formula.

My Vince Hill/Bob Dylan collaboration was never released, not even finished. The sessions were never mixed.

All I have to remind me of one of the biggest challenges – and thrills – of my life are the monitor mixes where the magical harmonics caught between 12 guitars, six mandolins and 20 violins are not really apparent.

But maybe, somewhere in there, you can apply your own imagination to my wall of sound and hear at least some of what I heard on the only occasion in my life when 50+ musicians played arrangements that I had written down.

And Vince – I know you’re having the toughest of years. This one’s for you, just to remind everyone that you really did have what it takes. And you let a 25-year-old mandolin fool mess with your career. Thank you.

 

PS: Of course, that wasn’t the end of me and mandolins. Car 67 features a bunch of ’em.