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.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnhT1UdNEa4

John Lennon not a genius. Ooh-er missus! But that’s not what I’m saying.

The biggest problem Paul McCartney has with his career is that he lived.

The comparisons with John Lennon are so highly coloured by Lennon’s early death that McCartney is mocked just for surviving.

Here’s the accepted wisdom: Lennon was the soul of The Beatles; the tough rocker; the genius with words; the psychedelic heart of the more experimental days.

Now here’s the truth: Paul McCartney wrote, undoubtedly, some of the greatest songs of the 20th century.

Alongside his more sentimental songs, he wrote songs that made your parents sweat – Why Don’t We Do It In The Road, Helter Skelter.

And it was McCartney who was ‘underground’, who stayed in London and mixed with the cultural avant garde while the other three Beatles retired to their Surrey mansions.

Sgt Pepper was entirely his vision.

He was also the greatest rock ‘n’ roll singer Britain ever produced. Listen to his version of Long Tall Sally, or I’m Down, the b-side of Help.

On the other hand, if you think John Lennon was incapable of sentimental pap, you clearly haven’t registered that he wrote Goodnight, specifically for Ringo to sing. It has to be the single most saccharine song the Beatles ever recorded, with the possible exception of ‘Til There Was You, which they didn’t write, so I’m not counting it.

For every Lennon rocker, I’ll give you a Macca roller. For every Lennon gem, I’ll give you a McCartney diamond. For every genuine Lennon-McCartney classic, I’ll just give thanks.

This whole ‘Lennon the genius’ vs ‘McCartney the crass’ argument is such arrant bollocks. When you say ‘crass’ or ‘sentimental’ or simply ‘rubbish’ are we talking about the same man who wrote Penny Lane, Yesterday, Fool On The Hill, Blackbird, Hey Jude, Let It Be, I’ve Got A Feeling, We Can Work It Out, Drive My Car, Get Back, Here There & Everywhere?

It’s often forgotten that McCartney, having been in the biggest band the world has ever known, followed it up by forming – erm – the biggest band in the world. Again.

Wings were HUGE. For a generation born too late, Wings IS Paul McCartney.

You might say, well John never had the chance. But he did. By the time John was murdered, Wings had been on the road for nearly 10 years.

John Lennon made, for me, two stupendous albums – Plastic Ono Band and Imagine. Which is not to forget the wonderful Rock’n’Roll – an album beset by Phil Spector’s increasing paranoia and John’s legal problems over Come Together. (His early mantra, ‘If you’re gonna steal, steal from the best’, came back to haunt him).

But it was an album of covers, John’s last album until Double Fantasy in 1980. So it seemed, at the time, a last lazy throw of the dice by an artist who had run out of steam.

And it’s forgotten, at this late stage, that Double Fantasy was seen on release as corny, sentimental and just not a fitting comeback for the onetime Picasso of Pop. The first single, Starting Over, struggled to number 8 in the UK top 10. A week later it had dropped down to 21. In America it peaked at number six.

And then John was shot, and all critical and commercial bets were off.

Now Starting Over was a tragic swansong for a cultural hero, and the album – even Yoko’s bits – was seen in hindsight as a post-modern expression of domestic bliss and parental devotion. And history was rewritten in the blink of a bullet.

So let’s remember some other incongruities: There was a brief period post-Beatles when Ringo Starr had the most successful solo career. What! Really?

Yes.

And George Harrison did more, all at once, with All Things Must Pass than the other three combined. He also had the first post-Beatles number one with My Sweet Lord.

None of which, of course, addresses the question of quality. McCartney had the first number one album (in America) post-Beatles with McCartney. Now there’s an underrated piece of work. Maybe I’m Amazed, Every Night, Man We Was Lonely. The final track, Kreen Akrore, is the sound of a man still stretching himself, experimenting, seeing where things will go rather than pushing them. It’s not entirely successful, but that’s not the point.

The follow up, Ram, is still an incredible piece of work. Without even listening carefully, you’ll hear The Beach Boys, rock’n’roll, The Beatles (showing how much McCartney shaped the later sound of the Fabs) and, for those looking for a darker side, a little biting satire. Too Many People is a message to John which is a lot subtler than John’s own How Do You Sleep – where he tells Paul, “The only thing you done was Yesterday”.

Nearly 30 years later, well into phase two of his solo career (post-Wings) he was beset by poor reviews and the burgeoning view that he was nothing without Lennon. Mull Of Kintyre and The Frog Song became emblematic of a man derided as having his eye only on the crass and commercial.

Well, I’ll tell you something about The Frog Song. It’s a very sophisticated piece of work. My guess is that most average musicians couldn’t even pick out the chord sequences. I’m not a fan of the record, but I’m an admirer of the talent it required.

And then, in the middle of this miasma, and nearly 30 years after the Beatles split, he released Flaming Pie – an album my youngest daughter picked up on, unbidden by me, and became in her own right a bona fide Macca fan. She’s 23 this year.

It’s too much to ask that everyone take the time to re-evaluate McCartney’s later career. But I’m telling you now: when he dies, you’ll wish you’d listened to Flaming Pie. Even now, Little Willow – written for Ringo Starr’s first wife, who died of cancer – will make you cry.

And you’ll also realise you should have listened to bits of Chaos & Creation In the Backyard, and to most of Memory Almost Full. Even New, his most recent solo album (2013), has songs to warm the heart of Beatles fans. But it also contains tracks any writer would be proud to have created.

So, can we buck the trend, and appreciate McCartney’s continuing ability while he’s still alive?

Or do we have to wait till he kicks it?

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….

 

 

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.

 

 

Insomnia In Song. So Wrong It Keeps Me Awake At Night.

It’s five o’ clock in the morning. Birds are singing. Somewhere far away I can hear church bells ringing.

These are things of beauty to someone else, I know. But in my sleepless brain, they’re just another form of cruelty.

Or, as John Lennon put it: ‘I can’t sleep. I can’t stop my brain. It’s been three weeks. I’m going insane.’ (I’m So Tired).

I don’t expect you to take a sudden interest in insomnia, but it’s interesting that if you Google “songs about insomnia” most people’s choices are songs about sleeping. Ruminating on ignorance like this keeps me awake at night.

The worst thing about insomnia is that it stops you from sleeping. The best thing about insomnia is that it stops you from sleeping.

On the one hand, it can literally be painful. Unchecked, it will lead to serious mental illness.

But on the other hand – all those extra hours in the day to get more things done!

My insomnia started when I was eight years old. I know why it started, and I’m not going to tell you about that.

But I had just learned to read, which was a nice coincidence. Inability to sleep meant I had extra hours to devour books under the bedcovers, illuminated by a night light I can still picture. I can even summon up the way the light felt in my hand, and the little button that clicked it off if I heard the wicked stepfather approaching.

When I went to London aged 17, I took to leaving the house at one in the morning, taking the night bus from Brixton to Waterloo, and walking along the Thames, calmed by its relentless movement.

A year later, I was in the thick of the music industry whose night-owl habits suited me fine. But a year after that, I was married with a child on the way (we didn’t hang around in the 60s, y’know).

Through my 20s and 30s, insomnia was my friend. I would do a day’s work, leaving the house around nine in the morning, getting home anywhere between 8pm to 2am the following morning.

If I got home early, I’d see my kids, have some dinner and then go straight into my ‘studio’ (the front room of my house, furnished with a piano, a tape recorder and a microphone).

When everyone else was tucked up in bed, that’s when I would write my songs and make my demos. God knows what the neighbours made of these strange goings on floating through the window at all hours.

ATT88981

Later, when the music career had gone, a combination of a manic episode and insomnia proved to be seismic. I could do anything I put my mind to – more energy and more time than the next guy.

And then, aged 42, the insomnia left me. Just like that.

I’d go to bed. I’d go to sleep.

That was novel.

In some ways, I felt bereft. How was I going to cope without those extra hours? Eventually, though, it just felt normal to be asleep by one am, or even before, and get six or seven hours.

About ten years later, it came back with a vengeance, all the crueller for having allowed me a taste of ‘normality’. If insomnia and a manic episode could be seismic, insomnia and depression combined to be, well, even more fucking depressing.

Having previously felt like a friend, a co-conspirator in getting things done and achieving dreams, now it felt – still feels – like an enemy.

And you get unwanted – and unwarranted – advice.

“Just get into bed, lie down and shut your eyes. You’ll soon go to sleep”.

No I bloody won’t!!!!!!

Al Pacino portrays it brilliantly as a detective in 2002’s Insomnia, with Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. He’s not helped by being up in Alaska, during a season of perpetual daylight. Watch the scene where he tries to black-out his room. It’s sheer torture.

Tonight, if I don’t take at least half a sleeping pill, I’ll still be awake at six or seven tomorrow morning. It’s a given. Which brings me back to Googling ‘songs about insomnia’.

The Beatles I’m Only Sleeping features a lot. But that’s a song about sleeping and dreaming, and not wanting to be woken from a pleasant experience.

Others that turn up – Asleep by The Smiths, Sweet Dreams (Patsy Cline), California Dreaming (The Mamas & The Papas) – show that insomnia is woefully misunderstood.

In penance, I think the people who chose those songs should all be forced to listen to Insomnia by Megadeth, turned up to 11, until they beg for mercy.

But I’ll let you off lightly by directing you to my own song on the subject, One AM.

It’s more country rock than death metal, and it has no references to ‘the guilty past I’ve buried’ or ‘my swollen bloodshot eyes’  (© Megadeth, 1999).

But if you listen closely, you’ll hear that the first lines of this post are the third verse of the song. And the backing vocals were arranged by the very wonderful John Howard, the first time we’ve worked on something together since 1975.

Sleep well tonight.

George Martin STILL owes me that favour

The phone rings. I pick it up.

“Paul?”

“Yes. Who’s this?”

“Paul. It’s George Martin.”

Gulp.

I’m 25 years old. There aren’t many people who can make me feel like a slavering child. But on the top 10 list of those who could, George Martin holds at least three of the places.

“Hallo George. How are you?”

Oh, come on! Did you expect Oscar Wilde?

“Yes, I’m fine, thank you Paul. I need a favour from you.”

Double gulp.

George Martin. Needs A Favour. From Me.

George left EMI after having it thrust in his face that a) he was just an employee and b) that he was responsible for a huge percentage of the company’s profits.

The employee thing came up because he had tried to persuade the management that the farthing a record they were paying The Beatles was, in the circumstances (world domination), perhaps a little too parsimonious?

He was made to feel he was being disloyal, and should be a good soldier.

The final straw came over lunch with head of the company Sir Joseph Lockwood. George thought he deserved a rise.

I’m not going to re-read the whole of his autobiography, All You Need Is Ears, for confirmation of this (go read it yourself) but as I remember it Lockwood agreed to only a part of the rise George thought he was due.

And in doing so, he tried to pep George up by telling him what a great job he was doing. All those hits. All those albums on the chart. All that lovely money rolling into EMI.

As a motivational talk it ranks up there with the very best, don’t you think?

So in 1965, George left EMI, taking with him his colleagues John Burgess and Ron Richards. Together with Peter Sullivan from Decca they built AIR Studios. They also managed to keep most of the acts they were producing for their previous employers – most notably, of course, The Beatles for George Martin.

Now it’s 1974 and I have a session booked in at AIR Studio One with CBS signing Asha Puthli, the only woman I’ve ever known who mistook rudeness for desire.

“Dahlinng. I know why you insult me so. You want to FUCK me.”

I digress. Here’s George’s problem. At the same time I’m booked in with Asha, he now has a session booked with The Mahavishnu Orchestra, jazz guitarist John McLaughlin’s ambitious multi-ethnic and cross-genre project.

Trouble is, as well as the members of The Mahavishni Orchestra, McLaughlin wants to get the London Symphony Orchestra involved. Suddenly, a session that would comfortably fit onto 24 tracks in Studio Two, requires Studios One and Two, and 48 tracks. George is going to sync the equipment in both studios and make the first 48-track recording I’ve heard of. Didn’t know such a thing was possible.

On top of all that, to pull it off he needs Geoff Emerick to engineer, and I’ve specifically booked Geoff on my session, in Studio One.

“So, Paul. Is there any way you could move your session to another day?”

This is tougher than it sounds. I’ve booked my favourite band, Kokomo, to lay down the backing tracks, and Kokomo has some busy session musicians among its nine members.

To add to the logistical problems, Asha Puthli is struggling with work permits and may, at any time, be asked to leave the country.

On the other hand, George Martin is asking for a favour. So it takes me about 30 seconds to pretend I’m really struggling with it, and, gosh, this is hard. But, “Yes, I can do that, George”.

“Paul, thank you so much!”

And then he says: “I owe you one.” Gentleman George, as always.

The Mahavishnu recordings, released as Apocalypse, made history. My recordings with Asha Puthli, not so much.

But those sessions did go ahead a week later, with Kokomo and Geoff Emerick. Geoff took such pride in setting the studio up for a nine-piece band, who were going to play live. He was thrilled. So thrilled, he thanked me for booking him!

You have no idea, he said, what a pleasure it is to hear musicians playing together like this, rather than building the tracks one or two instruments at a time (which had become the norm as producers sought more ways of taking the ‘room’ out of recording, separating each instrument completely from its bandmates).

They were a joy those sessions. As for Asha Puthli, her work permit failed to materialise, so I took her to a studio in Cologne, West Germany for some of the most miserable vocal overdubs I’ve ever been involved with.

By this time I think she detested me, and I can’t say I blamed her. We simply couldn’t establish any rapport, and having had to drag myself to Germany, I just wanted to get it over with.

Still, the four songs we recorded made it onto an album that was released as She Loves To Hear The Music, where my name appears alongside the producer legends that are Teo Macero and Del Newman.

And to give her credit, the song I’m putting up this week is Asha’s own, You’ve Been Loud Too Long. Listening to the track, Kokomo’s fabulous funk and John Barham’s trademark strings combine to great effect.

Asha’s vocals, after all this time, bear testament to her professionalism. She could have phoned it in, but she didn’t. At one point, during the German sessions, she was struggling with Neil Sedaka’s Laughter In The Rain. “I hate this song! I never want to hear it again”, she said. Amen to that, I thought. And then on we went, two stubborn pros, looking for magic and refusing to be defeated.

Forty years later, despite its tortuous genesis, the album, I’m astonished to discover, is available on iTunes. And it’s ok.

And George Martin? He never did repay that favour.

Well, unless you count the kudos every time I tell this story.

Actually, yes. That’s payment enough.

George, you’re off the hook.

And Kokomo? More about them in another post.