Macca’s Manic Months

So,Sir Paul, now officially the greatest man who has ever lived is 80.

June is going to see a lot of tributes but only one from me and that’s a reposting of something I wrote 7 years ago about the quite bizarre early recordings of Wings in the early 70’s. It’s not cheating, no one read this 7 years ago so it’s virtually a new post …..

The shadow of the Beatles dominated the 70’s, a decade bookended with their breakup and John Lennon’s assassination. Barely a month went by without some rumour of a ‘reunion’ as if that would bring back the 60’s and everybody would be happy again. We know now that reunions are usually a highly profitable business and its likely that if Lennon had lived they would have reunited at some point but this was uncharted territory at the time, we just wanted the Beatles back no matter how much they might suck this time round.

That wasn’t going to happen of course, the Beatles were pretty sick of each other and pretty sick of being Beatles. First out of the traps on his own was George Harrison who had stockpiled a load of song that his older siblings had rejected despite many of them being quite good. No one was going to expect too much of Ringo and now they had severed the umbilical cord both Lennon and McCartney were struggling a bit.

In the 70’s Lennon was the Beatle of choice, McCartney was not to be trusted, he wasn’t that good at sarcasm, still a bit eager to please and had something of the ‘entertainer’ about him. This of course conveniently ignores the fact that Lennon struggled to create anything like a consistently decent album in his final decade.

In 1971 having made one decent record ‘McCartney’ under his own name and a better one ‘Ram’ accredited to Paul and Linda McCartney our Paul was ready to be back in a band again. Personally I love the fact that he included Linda in his ventures, he was a superstar, the man who had changed the face of popular music, he could do whatever he wanted. That doesn’t mean that any band member can drag his missus along to do dodgy backing vocals, I’ve suffered from that enough personally, McCartney was special though, he can do things mere mortals should never attempt.

So with Linda in the band all McCartney had to do was find some people who could play instruments. He had recorded Ram with New York studio musicians drummer Denny Seiwell and Hugh McCracken among others. When asked to join the new band Seiwell, a man who as far as I know has never been heard of pre or post Wings jumped at the chance. McCracken declined and continued as a session man with the cream of New York, Steely Dan among them.

Also on board was a contemporary of McCartney Denny Laine, a chronic underachiever who had left the Moody Blues for less famous bands throughout the 60’s, he possessed a lot of talent but relatively little originality which made him ideal for McCartney benign dictatorship.

The first album under the moniker Wings was ‘Wildlife’.I hoped thanks to Spotify in retrospect this might be some understated work of genius, its not. Imagine you got the third best band in,say, Hemel Hempstead and told them to go into the studio, lay down some ‘heavy ‘ tracks and have a good time. When they emerged blinking into the daylight a few days later you would have something like Wildlife. Its just too easy to slag off, a little bit of genius shines through (Dear Friend) but most of it is beyond hopeless.

The band then recruited Irish Guitarist Henry McCullough which you might have thought would pep things up a bit, he had played in The Grease Band with Joe Cocker and generally seemed a no nonsense kind of guy. McCartney seemed quite happy to deal with hard men by the way,McCullough’s replacement was was another McCullough Scottish smack head Jimmy, after one gig Jimmy refused to go back on and McCartney punched him in the respect!

Anyway this line up was my first awareness of the McCartney experience. Rather embarrassingly I thought all the Beatles looked rather alike so had a job distinguishing a Harrison from a Lennon. This socially embarrassing trait continued when Wings were formed, I wasn’t sure which one of the hairy crew was the ex Beatle (although I had managed to discount Linda and the Drummer.) One day when the band were on Top Of the Pops my Mum breezed into the front room glanced at the TV and said

‘Oh look its Paul McCartney !’

Once I had located the man at the piano as Macca I was ready to take more interest in proceedings.

The new five piece band could have entered my life a few months earlier when their bus pulled up outside the University of East Anglia and they asked for a gig. I didn’t go of course, I was probably more interested in watching the Basil Brush Show, possibly a good choice if they were playing tracks off Wildlife that night.At this point they were one big happy family travelling round on a bus eating vegetarian pies prepared by Linda. One suspects they all knew their place and that Paul would write all the songs and possible punch you in the face if you refused to play an encore.

The second time they appeared on my radar was when they released their first single the amazingly titled ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’. It’s impossible today to imagine how controversial this very act was. Northern Ireland dominated the decade even more than Beatles reunions. It was a terrible situation but the only person who seemed entitled to voice an opinion was Ian Paisley. McCartney however was a British hero so he wasn’t run out of town but we weren’t even allowed to know the name of his single. In the chart run-down it was simply called ‘a record by wings’. I hadn’t actually heard this record for 40 years (thank you YouTube). It didn’t broker lasting peace but it did get Henry McCullough’s brother beaten up.

McCartney quality control was running amok at this point, his next single, and the point where my mum helped me recognise him was ‘Mary had a little Lamb’ allegedly recorded for Linda’s daughter Mary. Now, help me Rod, I loved this record when I was 13. In fact I loved it so much I persuaded my Mum to buy the piano music for it. I shudder to think about what that says about the 13 year old me that I didn’t want the record, I wanted the piano music. I couldn’t play it of course and my mum wasn’t really committed to learning the tune so it was a bit of a damp squib really.

This is the music that time forgot. I cant recall having heard this on the radio in the last 30 years. I’m quite happy to listen to Radio 2 for periods and in that time I’ve heard Meatloaf’s ‘Bat out of Hell’ 2,563 times. There’s no justice in this world. Having found it again I’m quite shocked at the presence of mandolins on the record. As you will be aware they were everywhere in 1970-73 before being retired and rediscovered by REM. Equally bizarre is the fact that the mandolin is being played by hard bitten rock guitarist Henry.

McCartney was on some crazy bi polar roll now. The next single was Hi Hi Hi which was reminiscent of Suzi Quatro’s Devil gate Drive and at least enabled Wings to sound like a rock band.

The forces of broadcasting were aware of his tricks by now and refused to play it not wanting their listeners to get Hi once let alone three times. However we all still loved Macca so the DJ’s just flipped the record over where we found C Moon.

I love this record, I don’t know why but I do. It never gets played on the radio either and worryingly on the video there is no sign of Henry McCullough, well that’s I thought but if you look closely you can see him playing the drums while Seiwell lords it on xylophone and trumpet.

McCartney continued on his crazy rampage of offence. However his next single ‘suck my cock pope/hokey cokey never got recorded. McCullough finally told him where to shove his Mandolin and exited the band, Seiwell  despite his recent promotion to proper instruments on C Moon didn’t need much encouragement to piss off back to New York.

The remaining trio of course went off for some crazy adventures in Nigeria ,which was even more dangerous than punching a Scotsman in the face, especially when you consider that Ginger Baker was waiting there for him,and recorded Band on the Run which was a lot better than we might have expected.

To quote Alan Partridge

‘Wings; the band the Beatles could have been’

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27. Nag,Nag,Nag….Cabaret Voltaire

Post Sex Pistols/Grundy Interview at the end of 1976 punk bands appeared almost overnight across Britain. Not since the skiffle boom of the late 50’s had so many people been prompted to pick up a guitar, learn three chords and form a band.

Manchester in particular asserted its position as the punk capital of the North but everywhere, even Norwich was able to boast a band or two. The notable exception was Sheffield.Fifth biggest city in Britain. Sheffield had a long-standing reputation for its steel and compared with the likes of Leeds or Manchester at the time was relatively prosperous. It wasn’t exactly Venice or Milan, but it had a huge public housing stock, anyone who wanted a home could get one from the council although that might mean living in one of the many high rises that dotted the hills around the city. It also had incredibly cheap public transport and other public facilities, it was possible to live a relatively good life in Steeltown.

What it never produced was a punk band. In some ways the city bypassed punk and went straight for the new wave of heavy metal a couple of years later when South Yorkshire became the epicentre for the movement. In terms of punk noise however they had to wait until 2002 and the Arctic Monkeys.

Although Sheffield was a northern working-class town it wasn’t particularly downtrodden. In an era where socialism was still a possibility it was possible for example to run an arts lab properly funded and pretty much free giving local youths a chance to make music of films without any real expectation that there would be a finished project. 

Also influential were Roxy Music who were huge in the city and Brian Eno in particular who was establishing the premise that you didn’t really have to be a musician to create music.

Recipients of this liberal thinking were early members of the Human League and, the Stones to their Beatles, Cabaret Voltaire.

The ‘band’ consisted of the late Richard Kirk on clarinet and guitar, Steven Mallinder on Bass and vocals and Chris Watson on organ. The instrumentation at first was a bit of red herring, a lot of early ‘compositions’ were tape loops and treated noises. Their first gig at a university disco ended up in a riot due to the audience not fully expecting a tape loop of a steam hammer as percussion accompanied by treated clarinet noises.It was the sort of gig reputations thrive on, for three guys influenced by Dada this was a major result.

Of course, as time when on ears became more accustomed to this sort of thing but also the band started to become a bit more mainstream. Kirk started playing more guitar, the sharp dressed Mallinder started adding treated vocals and becoming a kind of front man. They also started to wrangle their way into the emerging punk world with support slots and although they might not have been exactly what  Buzzcocks fans wanted it was all publicity.

The apex of the intersection of the avant guard and the accessible occurred with the single Nag,Nag , Nag. Featuring Mallinder’s distorted vocals, Farfisa drum machine and organ influenced by American Garage band The Seeds it’s a prime work of repetition that doesn’t outstay its welcome.

For the rest of the 70’s and early 80’s the band were like a damp stain under the carpet, always present lurking on the fringes. You would only hear them on John Peel or if someone you knew had bought a single. I would find them exhilarating, intriguing or just plain irritating depending on my mood. I bought Red Mecca, possibly their defining album and still listen to it to this day (I even re purchased it as  a download) with the same reactions. The fact remains though that the drum machine on Nag,Nag,Nag just keeps the pace goingwhich isn’t the case for a lot of their other material at the time.The sound of Cabaret Voltaire around this period is a musical representation of paranoia, its not comfortable listening.

At some point Watson left the band. Perhaps the most anarchic influence, he had a job as an telephone engineer and could create sounds with a soldering iron and a collection of transistors. His departure coincided with a huge boom in technology and soon the remaining Cabs were using keyboards and samplers as well as more sophisticated drum machines. The result was hours of music with a malevolent disco vibe. I went to see them at Nottingham’s Rock City, a gig I can remember almost nothing of beyond it went on and on and on…

So; a band I admire rather than love, from a time when idea’s were more important than product, when working class young men had a working knowledge of philosophy and grey pleated flannels were the height of sartorial sophistication the band live on.

Just like that damp stain

Here’s a companion piece about the Human League

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Into the 80’s..Rockism

Between the mid 70’s and the mid 80’s I can’t remember having a proper haircut. Gentleman’s hairdressers had a tendency to think that anyone with long hair wanted to look like a footballer rather than a member of Hawkwind so I had avoided the barbers until my hair was at it’s longest ever by the end of 1978. Despite punk having hit in 1976 the tide was only slowly turning but by 1979 not only was I cutting my hair shorter but I was also trying to taper my flared jeans.

It was a slow process, every time I cut it, my hair was a bit shorter than before but it was about a year before the nation were fully acquainted with my ears again. As I was creating this transformation with only a pair of scissors and a couple of mirrors the results were inevitably patchy but at the best, I could get close to a Nick Cave, at the worst it was a Nick Lowe but the results had an inevitable tinge of the mullet about them.

My band Butisitart? was starting to fall apart, our singer Meloni has fallen in with a bunch of 17/18 year-old middle-class lads from the local college. I was nearly 23 and already out of touch. The new breed were also musicians but punk for them was a distant memory, they had severe haircuts and wore clothes that made them look like they were in Rommel’s Afrika Corps, one day I heard one of them had made a jibe at my ‘Rockist’ haircut.

Rockism had suddenly become a thing. It had started as a joke by Liverpudlian singer Pete Wylie who announced a Race against Rockism campaign. The music papers had become infiltrated by a new breed of journalist who were either interesting/challenging/pretentious depending on your own perspective. For a brief moment rock was under the intense scrutiny and it was found wanting.

Rockism was largely undefinable but I kind of got it. It largely had any legs at all because of writer Paul Morley who was still writing articles in the Guardian about it about it over 20 years later. Morley’s obviously a lot bigger than one idea and he alerted us to the possibility of a world where blues and rock and roll had not been the cornerstone of popular music. A world where Kraftwerk were as important as the Beatles and Wire were bigger than Yes.

Rockism was not just about what music a band played it was about what instruments they played, how they payed them and what they wore. Wearing jeans was rockist (guilty as charged), guitars, especially low-slung Gibson les Paul’s were rockist. Anything with a trace of the blues was rockist and entertaining a crowd with hoary rock clichés was as rockist as you could get, in fact learning to play an instrument at all was suspiciously rockist anyway.

Consequently when Meloni formed a band with her friends we were treated to a half hour of free form noise. Having shown no aptitude in playing an instrument up to now Meloni had taken up the violin. To be fair I always enjoy a bit of noise and they had nice trousers and it certainly wasn’t rockist.

Clearly it was rather silly but so was load of rock music. At this point rock was at its lowest ebb at least in England and the notion of entitlement and deference with the likes of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd needed challenging. It was a temporary blip, the likes of Q magazine (RIP) embraced rockist values and by the 90’s the big bands were all back making money out of re-releasing their back catalogue on CD. And then Guns and Roses happened and took over the world for a couple of years and we knew that any war that might have existed had been well and truly lost

It made an impression on me though , I began to appreciate pop music more and began to realize a lot of rock gods were deeply flawed individuals rather than some sort of prophets, the secrets of relationships were to necessarily contained in the lyrics of a James Taylor song and a lot of the time most musicians don’t really have an awful lot to say, but that doesn’t stop them saying it.

Apart from my haircut, I almost doubted rockism had existed, things were moving so fast musically that it was there for a moment then it was gone. Even Simon Reynolds excellent book on the period ‘Rip it up and Start Again’ fails to mention it. However, online it appears rockism debate is back again and now there’s something called poptimism, how I wish I was young again and could give a shit.

By the way, Nick Lowe is rockist, Nick Cave isn’t, please doesn’t ask me to explain.

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Into the 80’s Scritti Politti

No band transformed themselves for the 80’s like Scritti Politti.

Formed in Leeds and then relocated to Camden London, the band were the epitome of the proto crusty indie scene of the late 70’s. Naturally they lived in a squat where no doubt they smoked a lot of dope and spent hours discussing political theory’s which led to them taking their name for political theorist Antonio Gramsci. These things were important at the end of the 70’s, it wasn’t enough to play a couple of chords on the guitar anymore you had to have at least a basic knowledge of dialectical materialism.

Their big hit in the world of John Peel was Skank Bloc Bologna a squall of jangly guitar and reggae influenced bass and drums distinguished by the vocals of vocalist Green Gartside. They fitted perfectly alongside the likes of Prag Veg or the Desperate Bicycles, it sounded great at the time, 40 years later its very hard listening indeed. Interestingly when I listened to it again a couple of days ago I though it sounded a bit like Henry Cow. Apparently they were one of Gartside’s favourite bands but their drummer Chris Cutler sent his copy back saying they should leave music business to the professionals, not very comradely !

Matters reached a head in 1980 when Gartside apparently suffered a heart attack after a gig. In fact, it was probably a panic attack but it signalled the end of the depivations of living in a squat that had been a crucial part of the Scritti experience.

Gartside returned to the family home in South Wales for several months for some rest, decent food and musical reflection. Not unsurprisingly he decided he didn’t fancy a return to the indie ghetto and that the likes of funk and disco were cheerier, sexier and more profitable. As someone who had formed a branch of the Young Communist League at the tender age of 14 he tried to reconcile the fact that Marxism didn’t always have to equate with ‘challenging’ musical noise.

Unfortunately, the rest of the band still preferred a lifestyle that didn’t necessarily include an indoor toilet or hot water and declined to become too involved in Gartside’s new accessible material. The band’s first new release The Sweetest Girl therefore featured a drum machine and Robert Wyatt on keyboards. The song was featured on the C81 cassette issued by the New Musical Express and like half the people who had been in further education I had a copy (and possibly still do have somewhere).

That was just about the end of my interest in Scritti Politti. They were soon to sign with Virgin Records (they had previously been with indie darlings Rough Trade) and had a big-name producer Arif Mardin. The result was a very 80’s sound, Fairlight Synthesiser, gated snare etc. The songs may have been great, what I have heard sounds quite Prince like but he’s another person for whom the 80’s sound marred a brilliant talent. Its just me I don’t really like classic 80’s music that much.

Like us all that was just something Gartside had to live through, more recently he’s been involved in a tribute to Nick Drake and is apparently making more organic sounds without gated snare.

And he’s still one of the brainiest men in pop>

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Into the 80’s… The Passions

The Passions had their roots in the London squat rock scene of the mid 70’s. Guitarist and soon to be lead singer Barbara Grogan and Drummer Richard Williams had been in the Derelicts, a band that probably played more benefits than paying gigs and the high spot of their career was appearing on the cover of International Times the underground paper for trendy Trotskyists.

The Passions started out in a similar vein formed around the two Derelicts, bassist Claire Bidwell, a guitarist who soon left and a singer Mitch Baker. Soon to join on guitar was ex 101ers guitarist Clive Timperley now looking more like a member of Kraftwerk than the moustachioed hippy of Joe Strummer’s band.

Their first single, sung by Barker is something of a classic in the genre that would soon be labelled ‘indie’. Unfortunately for the singer he broke his leg and took a bit of time out. The band decided they liked the sound of Grogan’s voice and Baker was history.

Their first album, Michael and Miranda was resident on my turntable for the first year of the new decade. Jangly guitars and ethereal vocals were a new sound but soon everyone from the Au Pairs to the Cocteau Twins were exploring similar noises. Lyrically there was some pretty hardcore feminism, paranoia and other negative mental health states, relationships and an accident with a pedal bike. At the time I thought it was great but now it seems the sound of the squat, some of it just seems dingy but that was my life at the time so perhaps its more about me than the band.

When the band emerged on vinyl again there had been several small but significant changes. Bidwell had left, she was a good player but also rooted in the lesbian/anarchist/lefty scene (she joined a more hardcore punk band). Her replacement was the more generic David Algar who could sing and play guitar a bit if needed. The band had also shifted from the Fiction record label to Polydor.

And Timperley had an Echoplex device. To be fair, it sounds like he was using it on the début album on occasions but this time he was turning it up to 11. Combined with a bit more effort in the production department the band now had a newish sound, they sounded like an 80’s band !

The apex of the new sound was their single ‘I’m in Love with a German Filmstar’ written about Rodent, a Clash and Sex Pistols Roadie who also acted in German Films. It’s the sort of mildly aspirational lyric that the 80’s loved, combined with shimmering guitarwork which will forever be getting the Passions into playlists with A Flock of Seagulls and Altered Images.

The latest LP Thirty Thousand Feet over China was a big shimmering chunk of vinyl which I bought out of respect for their debut. It’s not even as if the songs are that different, some had even been written by Bidwell before her departure, but the first record had a start black and white cover and the follow up was an impressionistic splash of colour, it seemed to reflect the change in the band over the space of one short year.

1981 was a busy one for the band as finding they had a hit on their hands, they had to capitalise on it as much as possible playing everywhere they could. One such place was Trent Polytechnic where I caught them playing angsty feminist songs to a gaggle of rugby players trying to form human pyramids in front of the stage. It was a bit of a sad spectacle, they didn’t want to be there, and the crowd only knew one song of theirs. They had entered into their ‘Tour Till We Crack’ phase which finished off Timperley who left as a result of ‘serious political differences’ .

He was replaced by Kevin Armstrong a seriously professional guitarist who would go on to play with Iggy Pop and Bowie among others. More significant was the recruitment of a keyboard player. To be a band with just guitars in the 80’s was, with a few significant exceptions, career suicide,the band were moving with the times, there was a final album, which I’ve never listened properly to but what I have heard sounds more conventional 80’s rock.

And that was it for the Passions, like the Only Ones they were known for one song which has risen to the point of being iconic although they had plenty of other songs equally good, I suspect ‘Filmstar’ made them as much money as all their other songs put together.

Amazingly that was the pretty much the end of their musical careers (apart from Armstrong). Timperley and Williams are now retired which is a sobering thought. The latter appeared on ‘Never mind the Buzzcocks’ a popular music/quiz format part of which is where an ex pop ‘star’ appears in an ID line-up. The panel failed to identify him, at the time he was apparently curating the bands material for another compilation which should be a good afternoons work. Barbara Grogan collaborated on an album with French experimentalist Hector Zazou nearly 15 years after the split, it’s a good use of her voice and you wonder why she hasn’t done more of this sort of thing.

Just a couple of bars of Timperley’s guitar intro and its 1981 all over again.

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17: Keys to your Heart..the 101ers

I was going to write a more substantial piece about the 101ers but I found I had already done this a couple of years ago, that’s the great thing about a failing memory; life is full of surprises.

Here’s my original article.

By the time ‘Keys to Your Heart’ was released the 101ers were almost finished and frontman Joe Strummer’s career was just starting.

I love Joe Strummer, he was the punk John Lennon full of contradictions and flaws, but you felt his heart was in the right place. Strummer had been hugely influenced by seeing a Bruce Springsteen live show. If Springsteen had hailed from west London rather than New Jersey its not impossible to imagine him making a similar noise to Strummer in 1976.

Inspired by has relationship with Spanish girlfriend Paloma (later drummer Palmolive of the Slits) Strummer had started writing songs to flesh out the rock and roll covers that had been the staple of the 101ers. The band got to record some of them in the studio thanks to Ted Caroll who ran a Stiff type record label called Chiswick.

I only got to own a copy of this track by buying a whole compilation LP featuring the likes of The Count Bishops and the Hammersmith Gorillas. It’s the sound of 1976 in a pub in London.

Key’s to Your Heart was the best track the 101er’s ever recorded, it’s got a similar sound to Van Morrison’s Gloria which was a show stopper number the band covered. There’s a quiet bit where the tension builds and which burst into the chorus, it’s a pretty standard device but it always works for me.

Keys to Your Heart is less than a year away from White Riot but its music from a different era. At the time people (friends, journalists, and the band themselves) thought Strummer mad to be quitting a shit hot band for a bunch of people who could barely play their instruments but he jumped ship at just the right time in a years’ time the Clash would be hot and the 101ers would be not.

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8: Cortez the Killer…Neil Young

In the 70’s the USA was simultaneously familiar and alien. Our television relied heavily on imported series from the states especially comedy, Happy Days was insanely popular, but we would also get reruns or the Monkees on a spasmodic rota. Shows were well crafted and sometime very funny, but they were also saccharine. The USA still seemed to be the land of plenty, people seemed wealthy and happy and confident. The irony was that unless you lived near a tourist attraction you were unlikely to meet a genuine American person. I was slightly the exception to this as I had an aunt who had emigrated there and every decade she would return for a couple of weeks. I must admit though that on basis of that brief encounter I had no evidence to revise my opinion, my Aunt appeared happy and confident and very proud to be an American.

Perhaps because of this cultural disconnect I was slow on the uptake with American music. The like of Alice Cooper and Aerosmith seemed a bit over confident and crass to me, nobody like a show off. Even British bands who toured America a lot seem to return changed, tougher, slicker and less fun.

The early exception was the glut of singer songwriters who emerged in the early 70’s. They were producing music that was more introspective with maybe even a trace of uncertainty. Like all sensible teenagers though I needed more than an acoustic guitar, I would be into my 20’s before I was willing to sit down and really engage with the likes of Joni Mitchell.

The reason why Neil Young was different was that he had two sides, to this day I’ve never listened to Harvest, that sort of thing didn’t really interest me at the age of 16. Post HarvestYoung ‘headed for the ditch’ away from the middle of the road where he thought he had strayed to. The next few years produced some of my all-time favourite music in the form of some troubled downbeat albums. I first picked up on Young  when he was coming out of this time with his new record Zuma.

The most important thing, in all honesty, about the album was that my friend Phil had a copy, so I actually had a chance to listen to it. Records were relatively expensive, it would be a few years before I had enough money to actually buy anything I wanted and by then it was the 80’s so there wasn’t much I did want. If a friend lent you a record you listened to it, it was free music.

The other factor in Zuma’s favour was it was almost entirely electric with his band Crazy Horse. As a band Crazy Horse were simultaneously brilliant and incompetent. It’s a bit like the argument over whether Meg White is a good drummer, their playing was hard to defend on an analytical skill level but the end result surpassed all criticism. Even by the time of Zuma the band had become looser and sloppier than they had been on their debut record ‘Everybody Knows this is Nowhere’, 20 years later they would sound like they were on the verge of disintegrating with every verse they played, but they never did.

As an electric guitar player Young has the same qualities and most importantly he knows about sound, Young and Crazy Horse are a pretty visceral experience which is why as punk was raging, I was listening to Zuma.

The standout track is ‘Cortez the Killer’. Its long but not by the standards of his later work. It’s also lyrically intriguing, there’s not a whole load of songs about the Aztec empire. There’s an ambiguity about the words encompassing both awe and admiration of the Aztecs about to be subsumed by Cortez ‘what a killer’.

But there’s a strange magic in the music itself. I’ve played it in many settings, I jammed it only a couple of weeks ago. When I played in an acoustic duo we would jam the song for ever if an audience appeared disengaged or absent. There’s a dreamy quality to the music the chords can go around and round forever. And that’s the magic, its only three chords, three basic chords at that but chords that are altered a little with suspensions and augmentations. It sounds complicated but really its just adding or taking away a note, it’s not hard to play. What it does mean though is the song never really resolves or comes to an end, it finishes when the player(s) decide.

I’ve stuck with Young over the years, not everything of course, I’m not insane! The last record I bought by him was Psychedelic Pill which offered more of the sonic thuggery of Crazy Horse. Lets face it, I’m unlikely to feel the need to buy anything else from the Young catalogue in the future. 

Over 40 years later there’s still some magic left in Cortez though

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Rory Gallagher

Rory Gallagher was a constant throughout the 70’s. It was not that I would every get to see him, he was a little too big to play somewhere like Norwich. Occupying a place in the popularity ratings somewhere just above Budgie but below Status Quo, Rory was just there in the background all the time.

I cant remember his records being released with any great fanfare and it was debatable why anyone could make a strong case for preferring Deuce over Blueprint or making a pitch that Tattoo was a better record than Against the Grain. It sounds like damming with faint praise but the unassuming Gallagher was one of the greatest guitarists ever.


Firstly he was older than he seemed having been musically active since the early 60’s. For most of that decade he had been tucked away in Ireland and therefore invisible to the rest of the world. While in his teens he had been a mainstay of the Fontana showband  which he managed to mutate into the  Impact which in turn became more blues orientated and eventually became a trio which was to be Gallaghers’s preferred method of working.


By this point it was the late 60’s, he had barely turned 18. Already he was flying in the face of convention, the showbands were still pretty much the only outlet for music for most of Ireland and the blues may as well have been a Mongolian death chant for the level of popularity it could garner. It would take a pretty exceptional 16 year old to start to turn this around in conservative Ireland.

Gallagher was starting to play abroad which was the only way forward. Finding that a residency in Hamburg didn’t want to book his trio he sent them some publicity pictures with a friend behind the organ and then went anyway.

By the time he had formed Taste in 1966 he had pretty much arrived at the format for the rest of his life. Taste supported Cream at their farewell gig. I you want blues based power trios I would have picked them over Eric’s boys any day of the week.


As the 70’s dawned Gallagher’s solo career was underway, joining up with bass player Gerry McAvoy  who was to be with him for the next 20 years along with assorted drummers and an occasional keyboard player he toured and toured and toured. Gallagher was the antithesis to glam and prog and punk and whatever new fad came knocking. Almost always dressed in jeans and a check shirt and playing a severely distressed Stratocaster, allegedly the first in Ireland that he had bought in 1963,he was regarded as generally humble, decent and hardworking, not always qualities associated with rock gods. Significantly he continued to tour Ireland through what we quaintly called ‘the troubles’ (also known as a war) when most English rock bands simply would not have bothered.


If anyone wants a dose of the 70’s Gallagher experience I would direct them swiftly to Irish Tour 74 where Gallagher wows provincial audiences onstage before returning soaked in sweat to the rankest dressing rooms ever, night after night. It’s a real delight to see these purest of performances, Gallagher seems to get by on a guitar, an amp and a lead, there’s no pedal gazing and without any sonic trickery there’s some scarily accurate guitar playing, night after night.

Don’t take my word for it; here’s wings of Pegasus

And there was more, Gallagher could play slide and acoustic and mandolin and harmonica.With Taste he even switched over to saxophone, and pretty good it was to!

I liked and admired Gallagher, who couldn’t but he never really moved me. I had an early compilation LP which, naturally was a bargain buy, and I liked it enough, but post Beatles there probably wasn’t enough for me in the actual songs. In my formative musical years I grappled to understand what made his music. Most people said it was blues but it wasn’t the blues like BB King or Clapton.It was only decades later when I began to understand more about folk music that I noticed the uniquely Irish take. Listen carefully and there’s an element of the ‘diddly diddly’, reels and jigs that he must have heard growing up.

Gallaghers’s reputation has grown steadily over the years. There’s a surprising amount of footage available of him in his heyday which is a mystery and a delight. He had a sad end, having survived the 80’s which were the kiss of death for organic music, his liver began to fail. There were mentions of him being a heavy drinker, but if that was the case it never seemed to affect his career which is pretty weird when you consider the amount of out and out drunks who are still with us. I had lost track of him, he still made good records and seemed to have avoided any attempt to spruce him up for the MTV generation. It was a real shock to me to find him in the pages of the glossy new Q magazine clearly ill and bloated on steroids and it was only when we lost him that I realised I missed him. Soon the blues would be back, and the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn would be celebrating the same simple formula that Gallagher has started.


Gallagher worked hard, he didn’t seem to have any other interests, his brother was his manager but there were no other significant relationships. His musical achievements are magnified by the fact that he came from a country that would do little to promote his talent when he started out. And his legacy is his music, there are no bad or even poor performances by Gallagher, you could pick any at random and be impressed.


So here’s one of them.



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This Is Pop

A quick perusal of this month’s Shindig magazine has convinced me that 1968 is back in fashion. It’s 50 years ago of course and so it is time to convince the ageing punters that still buy CD’s that now is the time to but another version of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake or The White Album or Electric Ladyland.

We all love nostalgia of course we do, I remember in 1976 that the New Musical Express was listing all the great albums that had been made in 1966. To be fair they had a point, it was a great year for music, but then 1966 seemed as far away as 1968 does to the present day.

And so, with my Futureispast head on I thought I would look at 1978 to see if it held the same sort of treasures as 1968. The latter, of course was when psychedelia and ‘progressive’ music was becoming heavy and ‘rock’ was being born. You can hear the Beatles doing it before your very ears on ‘Helter Skelter’ on the White Album.

So, onto 1978, a mixed bag as might be anticipated, the nearest to a classic might be Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town which has grown in stature over the years. A genuinely great British eccentric, namely Kate Bush was emerging and there was interesting stuff from the likes of Pere Ubu, Television and The Only Ones.

Inevitable there was going to be variety, these were interesting times, my overall memory of the end of the 70’s however was the emergence of post punk and the re-emergence of pop.

These days pop is hotbed of force-fed acts where the songwriter and producer are king (or queen). It is the sound of radio one and the X factor, I don’t like it, it’s too artificial. But then again, I am 60.

In the late 70’s however pop was a broader church, the weight of the Beatles still laid heavy on us all, they had been the ultimate pop band, they had spent years playing covers in clubs trying to entertain everyone with everything from showtunes to Elvis. There was a lack of snobbishness about the band but also a lack of desperation. The Beatles were happy to play pop.
After a couple of years of punk, we were beginning to consider there might be more to life than going to be insulted by a bunch of people who couldn’t play very well and risk being beaten up by whatever local subculture had turned up looking for a fight. However, Punk had opened some kind of door to other possibilities and one of these was the need for a bit higher energy playing.
All of a sudden, the time was right for a bunch of people who had been biding their time on the side-lines waiting, watching and making sure they could play their instruments. Notably  Glen Matlock’s Rich Kids were ahead of the pack. Since leaving the Sex Pistols Matlock was free to indulge in ‘wanky Beatle chords’ and this time we were willing to listen. In his new band he had recruited Midge Ure, a talented and opportunistic young Scottish Guy who would have been laughed offstage in 1976 but now was newly credible.
The Rich Kids were a very short-lived phenomena but others were in it for the long term (which in the 70’s was about 4 years)

Blondie had been lurking around as a kind of joke band since the mid 70’s. They had toured Britain with Television and during the attractive women shortage of 1977 Debbie Harry was everywhere. Blondie never got that good at playing live but Harry was a brilliantly charismatic front person. Their other strength was their songs were melodic and energetic. Likewise, Elvis Costello was transforming from county influenced  angry young man to angry young man with good pop songs. His Armed Forces was in the pipeline, chock full of tunes that had allegedly been deconstructed from Abba. Costello’s old producer Nick Lowe had released Jesus of Cool which mixed rock with pure pop. Spikey Swindon band XTC were on the verge of jettisoning their experimental keyboard player for Drums and Wires. Squeeze had suddenly revealed a real flair for melodic song writing as had Buzzcocks. The Police had now left their individual Jazz Rock and Prog Rock projects behind and after flirting with punk for a while had stumbled across a kind of pop reggae that would take over the world.
All of a sudden musicians seemed to be having a bit of a good time and getting paid for it. At the Polytechnic Disco we could dance to ‘Oliver’s Army’ ‘Heart of Glass’ ‘Can’t Stand Loosing You’ and ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ without any real self-consciousness. These were all proper bands with proper musicians who just happened to make great records. There was more to come, the Two Tone movement and then the advent of electo pop recognised the importance of tunes. We had a couple of years before it all started to get a bit silly or miserable.

But by then it was the 80’s

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Unsung Hero’s… Jordan

Jordan, born Pamela Rooke and later named Jordan Mooney has passed away.

I read the news via a tweet from Jonathan Ross followed by the inevitable fully of responses ranging from the absurdly grandiose ‘without Jordan there would be no punk ‘ to the  more mundane ‘who?’.

It may seem absurd to those of us who lived through the punk wars that there are people who need to ask that question but it kind of makes sense that in the scale of things Jordan played a minor role for a couple of years and then faded from view.

Jordan worked at Malcolm McLaren’s shop SEX which was to become the epicentre of punk and the birthplace of the Sex Pistols. She was involved in the whole scene and later took over management of Adam and the Ants who had been sucked into the void created when the Pistols imploded. She married later Ants Bass player Kevin Mooney and appeared in two films, ‘The Great Rock and Roll Swindle and Jubilee which both could be described as ‘of their time’.

It was for her physical appearance that she will best be remembered by those of us who weren’t involved in that scene. It might sound trite but in 1976 she was genuinely shocking. Women in general and women in music in particular were supposed to be attractive. There was a bit of a leeway for the ‘rock chick’ Janis Joplin template but it wasn’t an overcrowded marker. Jordan was, despite her predilection for fetish dressing quite an asexual figure, almost an alien. One had the impression that she had dressed entirely to please herself. Not only that, having done so she took the train from Sussex to London dressed like that every working day!

It might not seem such a big deal today but despite glam rock which allowed men to wear make up 70’s Britain was visually very conservative. In a two hour commuter trip people would have been dressed for work some men even still wore bowler hats, Jordan would have been the most exotic/provocative/weird/outlandish person they would have ever seen. Its almost impossible today to evoke the shock that people could evoke my their dress. 5 Years later Boy George was to do the same thing on a larger scale which completely confounded the public, was he a man or a woman or something else. It didn’t take a lot to get us confused.

Jordan herself denied any particular bravery say she just didn’t care about other people’s opinions which in itself is pretty remarkable when one considers that she was only around 20 years old at the time. The make up helped, it was usually impossible to read any emotion from Jordan’s appearance.

For a couple of years she was all over the music papers and the tabloids sharing photo opportunities with the likes of the Slits, Souxie Sioux, Chrissie Hyde, Vivienne Westwood and the long lost Soo Catwoman. She wore a swastika and threwchairs about at the first TV appearance of the Sex Pistols, she had her top ripped off at another appearance by the band. Yes, it wasn’t all big or clever and would cause a complete twitter storm these days but these were different times.

Sensibly she never tried to expand her role beyond its capabilities, she never formed a crap band (although she did sing one song for Adam and the Ants), she didn’t appear on endless chat shows or celebrity competitions. Instead, she went to work as a veterinary nurse in her hometown of Seaford on the south coast. Stating she preferred animals to people she also bred Burmese Cats where she spent the next 40 years pretty much out of the spotlight although she did release an auto biography a couple of years back.

I never met her, never even saw her and its quite possible I wouldn’t even like her but somehow it seems yet another piece of our cultural history has passed on.

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26…Food for Thought: UB40

What happened to UB40?

Its not unusual for a band to lose its Mojo, Slade, Lindisfarne and Dr Feelgood all fell from grace in the 70s with the pressure of coming up with new product but they found new ways of keeping going and adapted to the changes in the music business. No one fell from artistic grace as rapidly as UB40 but only in an artistic sense, for decades they remained pretty much the same and were/are hugely popular.

A band in the very real sense, formed from a collection of mates who really didn’t have much going for them beyond an interest in music. The name UB40 reflected that as it was the card we all used for signing on for benefits. By the end of the 70’s business wasn’t exactly booming in their home town of Birmingham and the band learned to play their instruments at the same time that they we learning to play together. The two front men of the band were sons of Ian Campbell, a reasonably famous folk singer. Ignoring the dire forecast for bothers who play in the same band they gathered a multi cultural gang of reggae fans and practiced and practiced.

Reggae has huge potential having come to prominence as a respite from the first wave of punk. If you went to a gig it wasn’t unusual to experience your trousers flapping from the bass lines from the music played between sets. By the late 70’s punk had gone and reggae remained.

We had the fantastic Two Tone explosion with the Specials. Madness, the Beat etc, UB40 were far more reggae orientated, their music seldom broke sweat, but they were in the right place at the right time. Despite this the band weren’t really part of any musical scene, just getting them to fit onstage in the average pub must have been a challenge. The band approached the drummer in the Steve Gibbons Bands who was the only musician of any importance they knew. Luckily he had a recording studio at home and over the summer of 79 the band recorded there. Given the fairly basic facilities which sometimes meant the band had to do overdubs in the garden despite the bird songs the recordings sounded great. The band had been spotted by Chrissie Hynde at an early gig and had secured a support with the Pretenders as well as landing a recording deal with the Graduate label, it was a pretty meteoric rise.

The first impression for most of us was ‘Food for Thought’, lyrically its actually a Christmas song highlighting the differences between with West sitting down for Christmas dinner while a lot of the rest of the world is starving (take note Bob Geldoff). Luckily we didn’t make that link because the record was released after the festive season so it didn’t spoil Christmas at all. ‘Food for Thought ‘ was to prove an atypical track for the band. For a start its one of the liveliest tracks they’ve ever recorded with a bit of a shuffle feel. It was a double a side with ‘King’, a more representative example of their future work but FFT was the one we put on the Jukebox. Its not a great song but it’s a great performance, thanks in no small part to the Saxophone playing of the late Brian Travers. For a few months Sax was back, Lee Thompson was doing the same thing in Madness, simple saxophone hooks that were a significant part of the song rather than a bit of aimless noodling.

With their first single UB40 had patented their early sound. Ali Campbell’s voice, a bit of percussion and keyboards, a prominent catchy sax line and bass and drums who really understood the genre. The political stance of the band was also significant in a few singles we covered discrimination, global poverty and the environment .

And then something happened,

There was the breakthrough single, a cover of Neil Diamond’s ‘Red, Red Wine’ and a couple of years later the iniquities of racism seemed less important than the perils of a rat in the kitchen. Unfortunately, the 80’s were in full swing and on records virtually all the band seemed to have been replaced by soulless technology and everything that made the band unique, with the exception of Campbell’s voice had disappeared. Although they still made albums of original music the ‘Labour of Love’ recordings had started up and ‘I’ve got You Babe’ was to be a massive hit but there’s a whole lot more where Campbell sings virtually any popular song over a synthesised backing.

There’s a style of career management where ‘the brand’ becomes all important. Status Quo were notable exponents of this where creation of a new product becomes irrelevant. For years Quo recorded dull records but did loads of publicity and played loads of gigs and made loads of money. UB40 seemed to be doing the same thing where each new record just seemed to keep the band in the public eye enough to convince us they are a big name and worth purchasing concert tickets for. Like Status Quo they remained a huge live draw, often with people who didn’t go to a whole load of gigs as a rule.

As so the band became a kind of legacy act, away for the studio there sound was a bit more organic and they certainly delivered the goods but I couldn’t escape the fact that they could have been the next Clash. That’s me though, I expect too much and have no pressure to deliver anything, the fact the UB40 preferred to travel the world staying in first class hotels seems a no brainer these days.

But things were to get worse with Ali Campbell leaving to be replaced by another brother. He was critical of the management and seeing that most of the rest of the band have had to file for bankruptcy it looks like he had a point. Inevitably though leaving the family businesses is bound to have impact and one suspects Christmas dinners in the Campbell household could be a tense affair .

And now theres been two significant losses, Astro defected to the Ali camp but passed away last year not long after Travers who had remained with the original band. It would seem that the only chance of really pulling this together again would be some form of reunion but otherwise expect some version of UB40 to be playing some festival near you this weekend. Soulless music is easy to reproduce with session players and a bit of technology so I suspect most of the public wont miss any of the key players too much.

But lets not forget that once there was a band called UB40 who were unique and that’s the band I will choose to remember.

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25.. Tears of a Clown, The Beat

Back to my own personal ‘tracks of my years’ and a tie in with one of the musicians we lost last year.

The Beat were the perfect pop group for a couple of years. Luckily for them the Two Tone movement exploded just when they were hitting their stride catapulting them to a kind of fame just at they hit their creative peak.

Birmingham has never been a fashionable city, but it’s spawned some great bands which considering its population is only right and proper. My old schoolfriend Duncan was at university there but a visit to the city never really got my pulse racing, it seemed huge and grey. The city centre dominated by the concrete monstrosity of the Bullring and most of the pubs just seemed miserable . Given the environment you see how it spawned Black Sabbath but the Beat coming through the ranks a decade later were a far sunnier prospect.

Left to their own devices the skinny white boy element of the band may well have ended up as an early indie band but never underestimate the importance of the right drummer. Everett Morton was originally from St Kitts and despite being employed in a sheet metal factory in Birmingham had brought some of the Caribbean rhythms with him. Added to the mix was a teenage ranking roger on vocals and good vibes and the geriatric Saxa on, well, sax. Saxa  provided a bit or gravitas to the band having played with genuine  ska artists back in the day. He was always portrayed   as the wise old man of the band older and wiser than methuselah, in fact he was turning 50 when the band started to appear on Top of the Pops- times change!

Their first album ‘I just can Stop it’ is virtually a greatest hits album but also one of those rare records which I can listen to all the way through without wanting to skip a track or two. Despite the ska influence its not hugely apparent, there’s even a couple of tracks of high energy jangle pop which hint at where the band couple originally have been heading without their key members .

My own person track, partly because it fits into my 70’s agenda is the first single ‘Tears of a Clown’. Recorded not long after Saxa joined it is, of course, a cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles peerless hit. Covering something as wonderful as that is a high risk strategy but somehow they created a track just as great in it’s own way. Perhaps I was just in the right place at the right time but I went out and bought the single right away. As a bonus it was paired with ‘Ranking Full Stop’ , 2:47 of pure fun. Despite it getting to no 6 in the UK singles chart it wasn’t even on the first album.

That’s how good the Beat were in 1980.

I don’t know why but they never really recaptured the heady rush of their early days. For a while they were pop enough to be in Smash Hits but still credible enough to play Rock against Racism benefits They had a good looking front man, great songs, great musicians, hi energy performances and a 50 year old guy on Saxophone. It wasn’t all the bands fault, they still had some good singles in store but the general public, which included me, just didn’t want that much more of them. Such was the nature of music in the early 80’s, they’d done enough, time to split up.

They never managed a full scale reunion -which was fine. Now Roger,Saxa and Morton are all gone so has the magic, for some reason the hired hands in later amalgamations just couldn’t recreate the feel but we’ve still got the legacy of one great single and one great album.

Which should be enough for anyone.

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RIP Burke Shelley of Budgie

I had hoped to stop writing about dead people but I couldn’t ignore the passing of Burke Shelley .Budgie we’re never of the first bands I ever saw live and I wrote about about it some years ago .

Here’s an early The Future is Past Post

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You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go ….Who Will You Miss Most ?

It’s got to end sometime, life that is. As mentioned in my last post, last year saw a fine crop of deaths which got me thinking. There are people I’ll miss a bit and others I won’tmiss at all. But there are a few who will leave a huge void when they shuffle off to that great gig in the sky.

Who are they? Obviously, it’s a personal thing but I’veidentified a handful that for me will leave the musical world a far emptier place. It’s not about being a great artist (although that would help), it’s about losing people who have been part of my life in some special way. It’s not surprising then that they are all British because although I love the music of Dylan or Young or Mitchell they are rather in the same bag as Beethoven, brilliant but distant.

Some of my favourites have already gone, Lennon of course but also Joe Strummer and perhaps Keith Moon and Charlie Watts, the world went on turning but it was just that bit emptier.

So, here are my five people who I will miss more than a little

Hank Marvin

Marvin was something of a child genius. He’s actually younger than John Lennon but by the time The Beatles hit their stride Marvin and other members of the The Shadows were appearing in panto. That’s the reason why he’s a legend, he conjured British rock and roll guitar out of almost nothing. Marvin had the first Fender Stratocaster in Britain. Quite how he learned to play it in such a distinctive style remains a mystery, there were no lessons and precious little in the way of records to learn from. He was certainly driven, movingfrom Newcastle to London and establishing a reputation as a guitar player while still a teenager. His band the Shadows were the prototype for many groups that followed (lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass and drums) and although they were capable of vocals established themselves with guitar instrumentals after backing the English Elvis Cliff Richard.

Marvin conjured his guitar tone out of nowhere, the average teenager could knock this up in their bedroom with a couple of free apps on their iPhone but Marvin had to somehow pluck this out of the either and as a result recordings such as ‘Wonderful Land’ still sound both dated and futuristic.

British rock and roll wasn’t really worth a whole lot, mostly it was Jazz musicians slumming it but despite the cheesy grin and the soppy dance steps Marvin was the genuine article and only about 17 years old.

He survived Panto, in the 60’s and 70’s he was even in a kind of Crosby Stills and Nash type band but the Shadows kept making comebacks of sorts and he also indulged his interest in Django Reinhart type playing. No one expected groups in the 50’s to have any extended relevance but the shadows did it first and let’s not forget it.

For years Marvin has lived in Perth Australia, the first Stratocaster in England which was bought by Cliff Richard is now in the hands of fellow Shadow Bruce Welch, I don’t think he’s expecting Marvin to Collect it in the near future.

Noddy Holder

The epitome of Glam Rock Slade was hard working 60’s survivors who somehow got lucky aided by Chas Chandlers Management and due in no small part to the song writingabilities of Jimmy Lea and Noddy Holder. I couldn’t be too enthusiastic about the band at the time because the Slade fans at school tended to be the toughest kids even in a Grammar School in Norwich. Like the Faces Slade were the right band at the right time. They had a handful of peerless singles better than Sweet or Garry Glitter (booo!) or even Mud. Like most of Britain I lost interest when they band decided to crack the States and when they came back, they were struggling to make up for the absence and when I got to see them live on my 21st Birthday I couldn’t summon much interest to my perpetual shame and regret.

Noddy always had a career plan and handed his notice into thew band some years before leaving. He’s sustained a minor career since as an actor, broadcaster and all-round celebrity although I’ve not seen much of him in recent years. Holder is one of those people who everyone seems to like and for those of us of a certain age he is the face of Christmas.

Ron Wood

Another of my teenage crushes, Wood was a key member of a favourite band of mine the Faces. Since then, he’s always been around, with the Stones obviously but also cropping up with almost any who would have him on stage or on record.The amazing thing about the man is he still loves music, he’s a far better guitarist than his track record might suggest and that just might be because he’s rather play with other people, even if it means playing bass or pedal steel, rather than step out front on his own.

Wood is a survivor of the time when people got together in the same room to play music rather than send files to each other across the internet. In the 70’s his home the Wick was the epicentre of ‘hanging out’ taking drugs and making music. It’s another world and one that could only be sustained by young men in the 70’s. Amazingly Wood has survived and like his mate Keith Richards appears indestructible

But we all know that can’t be the case. 

Billy Bragg

Bragg is about the same age as me so let’s hope he’s not ready to depart in the near future. The reason he’s so important to me is partly the fact that he’s been around and active for most of my adult life, starting from post punk to the present day. Throughout that time, he’s continually remained active in both music and ‘politics’ The latter marks him out as unique but even in the mid-80s when the socialist workers party was trying to claim him as their own Bragg shied away from easy answers. Its fairly rare for anyone from the left to avoid the twin traps of easy rhetoric and intellectual naval gazing. The danger of this is that you get attacked by both sides, he was recently swamped by anti vaxers on a recent Facebook post, there are still people around who want to call him to task for failing to support various lefties in 1979 while at the same time getting flack around controls around coronavirus.

It’s a thankless task but Bragg is usually willing to engage in debate (until things get really silly). Luckily there’s a lot more to him than being a ‘lefty’. He’s a great songwriter especially when he’s covering human relationships ‘Worker’s Playtime’ being a high-water mark to his creativity. The voice remains a problem for some but they probably have the same issue with Dylan (and are therefore idiots). He’s also a writer, and a good one at that, as well as being a broadcaster and general activist.

Ultimately Bragg carved out a career in popular music very different to the traditional on (see Ron Wood) there’s been little in the way of drugs/divorce/hotel wrecking which were mainstays of the rockstar’s CV in the early 70’s. Bragg continues to work as a cottage industry and hopefully long may this be sustained.

Paul McCartney

A no brainer with this really. There’s the Beatles connection certainly but Wings were just an enormous band in the 70’s who seem better now than they did then. I’ll own up to never having the urge to play Paul McCartney solo album post 90’s but there’s only so many hours in a day. If McCartney has a problem its that he is so accomplished that he can’t recognise what songs are genius and what are crud but his genius is simply his amazing creativity, music just flows out of the man.

Being an ex-Beatle is bound to play some tricks on the mind but for someone who has been insanely famous for almost all his life McCartney still seems to remain pretty level headed. In the 70’s it seemed cool to sneer at him for having his wife in the band, writing songs for his kids and going vegetarian, now it just seems rather sweet. The only time he really seemed to lose it was his marriage to Heather Mills but that’s all in the past now and McCartney is firmly established as a national icon a kind of musical David Attenborough. 

And he’s still going, critics have noted that the voice is going but, fuck it, the human voice will go eventually, that didn’t stop Johnny Cash’s late flowering and hopefully it won’t stop McCartney. He’s still playing bass and piano just as well as ever and, significantly, he moves like a far younger man on stage.

Just imagine a world without Paul McCartney, its too awful to comprehend.

That’s my 5 musical icons who I would be very sorry to lose.

Do you have anyone famous who you dread passing on, or perhaps they’ve already gone?

If you’ve been affected by any of the contents in this post just leave a comment below

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The Grim Reapers Work in 2021

As might be anticipated there’s been a bumper crop of musicians and singers passing away this year. Its only to be expected, the heros of our youth are now older people. A lot of the departed, Phil Spector, Sylvain Sylvian or Gerry Marsden , are all names familiar to me but didn’t really impact on my life. The ones below are more personal.

Les McKeown

The Singer with the Bay City Rollers passed away at the relatively young age of 65 from heart problems . The band had a kind of reformation in 2015 which was a huge financial success. In the 70’s however the Rollers didn’t really have a following beyond 13 year old girls and their records have not really stood any test of time. McKeown was often the only member on a lot of the records and his personal story is far more interesting than the bands music. Suffice to say it involves drink and drug problems, issues with sexuality, health problems , criminal convictions and surviving the bands monstrous manager Tam Paton

Richard H Kirk

At the other end of the fame spectrum, Kirk was a member of Cabaret Voltaire. An (initially) experimental band using electronics and drum machines who seemed to be lurking everywhere in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Very much a band of their time, as technology became more accessible Kirk turned to the Techno/ Dance market where he continued to make a living until his death.

Alan Lancaster

Lancaster formed the band that would eventually become Status Quo with Francis Rossi in the early 60’s. It developed into a classic case of band member rivalry where Lancaster considered himself the leader despite Rossi playing lead guitar and doing the bulk of the song writing and singing. A further split in the friendship was Rick Parfit joining who along with Rossi became the public face of Quo leaving Lancaster somewhat resentful.

Lancaster didn’t like the musical direction the band was heading towards in the 80’s. You could see his point when the band released Margarita Time as a single, Lancaster refused to mime the track on a TV show and was replaced by Jimmy Lea from Slade for that appearance. The band split then got together for Live Aid then split again. They then reformed but declined to invite Lancaster along which led to bad blood and lawsuits for much of the 90’s. If Lancaster had had his way the band would probably have become an English Ramones whether that’s a good or bad thing is debatable.

The band reformed for a brief tour a few years ago, law suits sorted and grudges temporarily forgotten, despite being clearly frail, Lancaster was on good form and did make a case that the original Quo was the best.

Astro and Brian Travers

2021 wasn’t a good year for UB40 as two of them passed away. Admittedly they were a sizable band but that seems like bad luck. Whatever happened to UB40? their first album Signing Off was one of the great debut albums but a couple of years later it sounded like they had just pressed the ‘reggae’ button on a Casio keyboard. A lot of the bands initial sound was down to Traver’s one fingered saxophone playing. Astro was a bit harder to define, he had a bit of a role in the band similar to Bez in the Mondays. Despite a bit of toasting, trumpet playing and background vocals (apart from the toasting in their big Red Red Wine) I cant recall any definitive contributions but he was probably just a good guy you have around, don’t knock it.

Everett Morton

Drummer for The Beat and one of the great drummers of the post punk period. Morton was originally from St Kitts and he had a lightness of touch but was also capable of driving a beat. A kind of amalgamation of the rhythmic intricacies of the Caribbean and the powerhouse of industrial Birmingham. He taught me a lot by playing along with the first Beat album over and over in the early 80’s, great band, great drummer.

John Miles

In the wilderness years of the mid 70’s John Miles was touted to be the next big thing. He was on Supersonic ,the nearest rival to Top of the Pops, virtually every week. He was good looking, a good musician and a good songwriter but somehow we just knew it wasn’t what we really wanted. Miles was also responsible for the song ‘Music’ which was played all the time not just on Supersonic. It was kind of Mile’s Bohemian Rapsody but I still have a soft spot for it. He was from the north east, so I expect a tribute from the likes of Sting and Jimmy Nail in the near future

Mike Nesmith

There is a theory that each Monkee reflected a member of the Beatles. That rests heavily on Davy Jones being Paul McCartney so lets not take it too seriously. Nesmith however was rather a George Harrison figure, thoughtful, musical, sardonic., and the favourite band member of all right-thinking people. Post Monkees there were the country rock years, he always had a melodic sensibility that meant his records never really had the grit I prefer from that genre but he soon moved into all sorts of other media areas. In fact, he released an album called ‘the Prison’ which came with a book that was meant to be read at the same time. It sold about three copies but along with his Monkee’s money Nesmith inherited millions from his mother who invented liquid paper. Nesmith had enough money to invest in any projects he wanted to which meant he was able to sit out a lot of the Monkee’s reunion shows. Just a few weeks before his death however he was doing the Mike and Micky show with his old partner Dolenz. Two old men singing shaky versions of songs that were over 50 years old. It was quite touching but I’m not sure I would have paid for a ticket.

Thomas ‘Mensi ‘ Mensforth

Mensi was the leader of scary Geordie punks the Angelic Upstarts. Utterly uncompromising and left wing, some of the audiences were equally uncompromising and sometimes very right wing which made their gigs a magnet for violence. 40 years after their debut the band sound more acceptable and less threatening but in the late 70’s they sounded like the musical equivalent of a blow torch. Incredibly they actually got into the top 30 and appeared on Top of the Pops, they also caused outrage by getting to play Acklington Prison and despite this still got signed to Warner Bros.

As we know by now, it’s a hard lifestyle to quit and he was fronting new versions of the Upstarts up until this year. At one point the drummer was Paul Thompson from Roxy Music who also played in John Mile’s first band and more recently was in Lindisfarne. You can’t say they don’t look after their own up there, expect a tribute soon featuring Sting and Jimmy Nail

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Ring Out Solstice Bells – Jethro Tull

What is it about Jethro Tull that I just don’t get? They’ve got folk and blues and Jazz influences, flute solos, intelligent lyrics, cod pieces, a sense of the absurd, tricky time signatures, theres a whole load of stuff to like. I’ve accommodated Gong or Gentle Giant both with the same unique sensibilities. Yet Tull leave me completely uninterested, not bad just..well, nothing really.

Ultimately, I think it just boils down to the fact that no one I knew listened to Tull at all, there were no records to borrow, no discussions to have, I wasn’t enough of a free thinker to go it alone, the music press didn’t really like the band, in the days when that was a prime factor, lets face it, I didn’t have any chance of hearing them unless I was will to spend at least £1.99 on an album. 

And so I passed on the Jethro Tull experience

In 1977 however, when punk was supposed to have wiped out all traces of the old guard. Ian Anderson leader and surviving member decided   to make a play for an actual hit record and ‘Ring Out Solstice Bells’ is the result of this. This was around the time of their album ‘Songs from the Wood’. I think I caught the title track on the ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ which was still stuck in 1975 and I rather liked the folky stylings with all the band members dressed as squires or poachers. It was all quite English although the band had been doing mega tours of the states. God knows what they made of this sort of thing in the Midwest but its symptomatic of the quirkiness that should have made me love the band.

As might be deduced from the title ROSB is a pagan rather than a Christian or traditional family orientated song that crops up every Christmas. The solstice is around the 21st of December, the darkest part of winter but also a beginning of the journey towards spring.

As such there’s no Christian imagery but references to druids and non-romantic mentions of mistletoe, its hardly insightful but it makes a nice change from the snow falling/children singing cliches. 

I haven’t worked out the time signature but its not in 4/4 most of the time. And yet its was still accessible enough to be ‘Diddy’ David Hamilton’s record of the week on Radio 1. Its impossible today to make a play for the charts  with anything that plays fast and loose with time signatures. Pre drum machines it was a common policy to switch things around with time signatures- the Beatles did and we didn’t mind, you cant do that anymore, people’s heads would explode.

The record company wanted to make a big play for a top 10 record, so they sent it to Chief Womble Mike Batt to sprinkle some festive fairy dust on it. The results weren’t good, so the original version was then released late and despite the best efforts of the likes of Diddy David and Radio 1 it only got to number 28.

Despite that it’s of stood the test of time as a ‘out of time’ curiosity. It’s a song that references a pre-Christian culture. Compositionally the song structure references the early 70’s, the keyboards sound like the late 70’s and the flute marks it out entirely as Tull which remains their trademark for better or for worse to this day.

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2021….What I’ve Seen

As music declines as s force in our cultural lives there’s an inverse blooming of analysing the past. 

We are living in a golden age of documentation which has probable reached its peak with the ‘Get Back’ documentary which would take the best part of a working day to watch.

Theres also a plethora of platforms SKY, Apple, Netflix, TV (especially BBC4) as well as YouTube, so many in fact that I’ve forgotten half of what I’ve seen this year. So, here’s what I can remember.

The Velvet Underground.

A Todd Haynes documentary it says so I guess that must be important. A bit of research shows that he’s done this sort of thing before notably with Dylan where he used 6 different actors to portray  different periods of the bards life.

Thankfully he plays this pretty straight. The first 20 minutes or so are just stupendous with split screens and sound collages, Its  nearly two hours long though and difficult to sustain that level of intensity, Theres also the issue that Sterling Morrison, Nico, Andy Warhol and Lou himself are all gone  so there’s inevitably a few gaps. There’s also the issue that there are no clips of the band with real time sound  soHaynes has to work hard to compensate.

If you had asked me for my all time favourite albums in 1981 ‘The Velvet Underground with Nico’ would have been in there but its not stood the test of time for me, its great music but not my favourite anymore. By the same token the whole New York Factory scene that seemed so exciting just looks pretentious now especially the whole cult of Reed as an ‘Artist’ we don’t feel the need to do that with the likes of Ray Davis or John Lennon or Joe Strummer in Britain and I rather like that.

The most interesting person seems to be John Cale who is still around to tell his story  but his journey from a small Welsh village to New York is fascinating. The other notable character is Mo Tucker who has become very right wing (apparently ) and quite terrifying . Doug Yule doesn’t appear in person for some reason and Angus MacLise the bands first drummer is written out of the story  altogether which is a shame because he’s got his own tale to tell.

To be fair though this is probably the best Velvet Underground documentary its possible to make lets leave it there.

Foundation Velvet: The Drumming Of Maureen ‘Moe’ Tucker

At the other end of the production scale there’s this fascinating video by Cam Forrester which analyses the drumming style of Tucker. It’s a real labour of love instigated by Forrester reaching 100 (!) subscribers. 

It’s a great piece of work and he now has 21.5 K subscribers. Its meticulously researched  and Forester recreates many of the Velvet’s tracks  which is impressive as Tucker’s drumming tends to get lost in the general noise of their recordings.

He also remembers  Angus MacLise ands its half the length of the Haynes documentary so I cant recommend it highly enough 

King Rocker

Even less popular than the Velvet Underground were Birmingham bands the Prefects and the Nightingales both fronted by Robert Lloyd, The prefects were punk, the Nightingales were post punk and probably not a whole lot different to a whole load of other bands up and down the UK. Early on though the band attracted the attention of John Peel and in Britain that meant the difference between obscurity and cult status.

And so, Sky Arts have made a documentary fronted by Stewart Lee who is much loved by the Guardian Crowd and  adds a bit mor credibility to the notion of an obscure band being regarded as genius’s.

There’s not a huge story to tell, when the Nightingales disbanded Lloyd tried his hand as a solo artist with diminishing returns then dabbled in writing before reforming the Nightingales with new and better musicians and he’s spent the last 15 years playing to small numbers in rooms above pubs. He still has a small but fervent following.

To pad out the scenes of Lloyd and Lee sharing drinks and amusing each other there’s a kind of King Kong metaphor  about a statue of the great ape that was put up in Birmingham town centre much to the disgust of the residents collective disgust leading to its removal, at one point ending up as scrap. It’s a thin analogy but Lee makes it work and it makes a break from another visit to a curry house or café.

Much is made of Lloyds fringe status buts that’s exactly why he has any career at all. He has a loyal following because of his self depreciating demeanour and his championing by John Peel which will be recycled at every interview  even though its 40 years old.

It’s an entertaining  documentary , Lloyd knows he’s not exactly doing something the world needs but its given him a purpose and a small number of people love his music which isn’t a bad way to spend your life.

Lindisfarne’s Geordie Genius: The Alan Hull Story

Unlike the Velvet Underground, Lindisfarne just seem to get better to my ears every year that passes. BBC channel 4 have commissioned a documentary   fronted by a young man Sam Fender, who I haven’t heard of course, to tell us how good their main songwriter Alan Hull was.

The thing of note here is just how isolated Newcastle on Tyne was and is from much of the rest of England. It’s still a close knit society and those paying tribute tend to be fellow Geordies like Sting, Dave Stewart and Jimmy Nail, Hull pretty much reflected that society, he never decamped to LA, his politics remained grassroots left wing and he loved his beer and fags and his family. In the northeast in the 70’s he was a god. He wasn’t a genius or the new Bob Dylan but a talented songwriter who documented time and place and he died from a heart attack at the age of 50.

Madness: Before We Was We 

3 separate hour long videos were released by this year although a bit of searching can fine them online. Like all right thinking people I enjoy a madness song  but they weren’t my favourite band, however these documentaries made me reappraise their career.

Britain in the late 70’s wasn’t really that difference from the 1930s or 1940s, A bathroom was a luxury, an outside toilet was the norm, schools were brutal and career opportunities were limited or non existent. Or at least that was the case in North London where all of Madness grew up, they weren’t all dirt poor, but they grew up in pretty much the same circumstances, all self-taught musicians who really learned to play by being in Madness where they’ve continued pretty much uninterrupted since the late 70’s

There’s  a case for Madness being the 70’s Beatles, they possessed a real knack for song writing and instrumental abilities that were just right for the band they were in. In addition to this they had a sense of humour and an ability to connect with each other and the general public.  

Sometime around their first flush of success the band made the extraordinary film Take it or Leave It where they basically acted out their own biopic. Clips cropped up thoughout BeforeWe Was We creating the illusion  they were real rather than recreated. Take it or Leave it seems extrodinarily genuine and might be the best film featuring a band since Slade in Flame.

And it can usually be found on YouTube.

Finally, also occasionally on YouTube, is a biography of Sax Player Lee Kix Thompson. Thompson’s father was a career criminal  and his son seemed likely to follow suite with regular run ins with the police and a period in youth detention. Thompson’s triumph over an inauspicious start is quite moving, not only because of his own persistence in learning the saxophone but also the band’s sticking with him though times when he wasn’t really offering musical or personal reliability.

One Man’s Madness is quirky and funny but most touching is the way the band themselves have continued to remain comfortable with themselves. Relatively few of the band came from two parent families and the group became their surrogate. Theres no massive fall outs, no drug hells and none of the scandal one might associate with almost any band. Madness remain the blueprint for the healthy and still creative functioning outfit .

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