Paul McCartney saves Christmas

You are 78 years old. Your mother dies when you were 14. Your closest male friend is gunned down and your wife and ‘baby brother ‘ bandmate are taken by cancer. And that’s all before you reach the age of 60.

Like anyone who has lived a life Paul McCartney has baggage. And like everyone else he’s been locked down for the last nine months. He’s been making music for over 50 years, not just recycling his past, the McCartney back catalogue is a living breathing thing

The fact is that McCartney just can’t stop playing music and having been locked down for most of this year its inevitable that he’s been recording. The featured track (do singles even exist?) found its way onto my YouTube feed and it’s a beautiful glimmer of optimism for these dark days.

You never used to be

Afraid of days like these

But now you’re overwhelmed 

By your anxieties

Let me help you out

Let me be your guide

I can help you reach

The love you feel inside

The Album’s on Spotify, these are corporate times but to hell with negativity just enjoy an old man delighting in creating melodies out of thin air

Merry Christmas

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The Lonesome Death of John Lennon

I try not to engage with the news to much, its pretty much a constant babble and I assume that anything of real importance will get though to me somehow. I had assumed that the 40thanniversary of John Lennon’s death would somehow be a big deal. There was a certain symmetry to that tragic event, he has now been dead almost as long as he was alive and the anniversary of his last birthday certainly did creep into my consciousness. Although I didn’t seek it out there was nothing on the Wednesday when he died or the following day when we all got to hear the news. Admittedly I don’t remember any commemoration of the 40th anniversary commemoration of Glen Miller’s demise in the 70’s but this was John Lennon for Rod’s sake!

I remember the fateful day as well as I can remember most things. The weather was traditionally awful, dank and drizzly. I was still at Polytechnic but not particularly gainfully employed. For a brief period co incidentally my old school friends Phil and Dunk we also living in Nottingham, Phil was working as a lab technician and Dunk had just started a Christmas job as a sales assistant in a, now defunct, department store as well as having a room in my sharedhouse. We had agreed to meet at lunch for a drink, the fact that two of us were going back to work was no barrier. In my early days of employment, I could drink more in a lunchtime than I might consume in a whole week now. Pubs were rammed between 12 and 2pm.

I arrived in town a bit early. In the 70’s and 80’s Nottingham was dominated by the Evening Post Sellers who arrived around 11am and stayed until rush hour selling the local rag.It was only after wandering around a bit, I realised that the headline on their stalls was about Lennon’s death. I bought the paper and adjourned to a pub to read it I then went to another pub to share the news with Phil and Dunk. It was shocking but I couldn’t remember being that shocked. We had a couple more pints then they went back to work and I went to spend my afternoon sitting as close to the gas fire as I could manage without combusting.

As a house we sat around to watch the news, it must have been a big event because it disrupted the evening schedules for a couple of hours. Inevitably anyone who had ever known Lennon was trotted out for  a quick tribute, broadcasters had to do their work in those days there was no reading out tweets. At one point someone posed the question that no one wanted to think about ‘I suppose there’s no chance of the Beatles reforming now?’

Lennon had told us the dream was over a decade earlier, but we chose not to believe him. In retrospect the 70’s was a grim time to be a Beatle, not only were there endless law suits but any interview was bound to touch on the possibility of the Beatles getting back together again. Even mainstream newspapers would report the fact that Paul had been on the phone to John in the hope of rekindling the dream.

Among rock critics it was very much the opinion that John was the real deal. McCartney was Mr Showbiz, happy to dash off an insipid ditty then appear on a chat show being Mr Macca thumbs aloft and generally being bland and positive and cheerful. Most ironic was the charge that he preferred to be in a band with his talentless wife rather that his old mates from Liverpool (who were pretty much sick of being in  bandwith him). One of the great strengths of the Beatles has been their positivism but in the 70’s we wanted our rock stars to be a bit more edgy. Lennon was honest and direct, he said what he thought, he was an artist, McCartney was a hack.

All bollocks of course. With the benefit of hindsight we can appreciate McCartney’s work ethic, his ability to constantly push himself and experiment, his almost effortless gift for melody and the fact that Linda was quite a nice person. 

The fact remains though that for the 70’s Lennon didn’t achieve a great deal musically. He did what he did best on the first Plastic Ono Band album which is the only Lennon album I’ve felt the need to own. Imagine was not bad at all kind of on a par with George Harrison’s early solo stuff but as soon as he was resident in the USA Lennon appeared to be struggling to come up with anything musically that didn’t rely heavily on 50’s rock and roll (quite literally on his ‘Rock and Roll album).

One of Yoko Ono’s impressions on Lennon was to get him to consider himself as an ‘Artist’. One thing we know about artists the world over is love of talking about themselves and their experience of the world. Another trait is often an inability to distinguish between what they produce that is genius and what is self indulgent which certainly accounts for his very first recordings and the amount of Yoko screaming on others.

It was quite a wise decision to withdraw from public life for a number of reasons not least was the fact that he avoided punk and a lot a new wave which might have shown up how regressive his own recording might have been. Despite this I was really shocked when ‘Just Like Starting Over’ was released. I wasn’t expecting a lot, but I had hoped for something better that another 50’s parody telling the world how much he loved Ono. Years have mellowed me but I’m still disappointed.  

In retrospect Lennon and McCartney needed each other so much. Lennon was lazy and often unfocussed but given a little direction from the right person (not you Yoko!) his imagination was unfettered. McCartney could churn out songs with relatively little effort, but he too needed someone to focus him and sometimes tell him his songs might be a bit crap. Given time they would have worked together again, its also pretty likely the Beatles would have had some sort of reformation. We ought to be very grateful we were spared that, it wouldn’t have been as good as we would have hoped we are very luck to have all our Beatles in one place and time.

Lennon was 60% the Beatles who in turn were 50% the 60’s which were 50% fantasy anyway. The idea that the Beatles would reform and everything would be great again was childish and a false hope. Lennon told us that in 1970 but would we listen?

And that’s the great thing about Lennon, he was intelligent in a way we aren’t allowed to be anymore, he was a musician, a writer, a poet and actor, a comedian an activist, and because he was untutored, he could get over concepts directly. The song Imagine is pretty trite but also brilliant, its just about imagining, just like war is over if you want it. Admittedly he moved from one idea to another but at least he had ideas, few people are so bold these days. Had he lived it’s pretty likely he’d have made some terrible records, name anyone from the 60’s who hasn’t. He’d have said plenty of stupid things and made plenty of mistakes because he was that sort of person.

Now social media exists we just are not tolerant of anyone who makes any sort of error. There’s plenty on YouTube about what a terrible husband and father Lennon was, how he mocked the disabled and was just nasty to lots of people. It’s all true of course but there’s also a lot of clips of performances and interviews where he just lights up the room time and time again.

And that’s why I still miss John Lennon

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23: Oliver’s Army…Elvis Costello

Watching an episode of ‘The Crown’ recently I was reminded of the Falklands war. At the time I was unemployed and living in a house which had heating one room only. Having survived a cold damp winter and facing an uncertain future I considered the possibility of the war escalating and national conscription happening. I don’t know what would have happened if that has transpired but my thoughts at the time were certainly ambivalent. I didn’t really want to join the army but at least if I did something would be happening in my worthless life.

And this was the conundrum Elvis Costello was addressing in my last polytechnic disco song.

It seems incredible now but by 1979 Costello was set to rule the world. After the glossy power pop misogyny, he had changed direction for the third time in 3 LPs for his most commercially successful album Armed Forces and was now high in the charts with Oliver’s Army. A mediation on the recruiting of working class lads from ‘the Mersey, the Thames and the Tyne’ to give their lives in pointless wars, the song was apparently inspired by Costello considering the situation in Northern Ireland. Other people had tried, Paul McCartney had released ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ which was trite and jolly, Lennon later retaliated with his own song which was so awful I can’t even face checking the title of it. U2 would have a bash at it a couple of years later with ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. There was basically a war in northern Ireland which didn’t really impact on us on the mainland but for Costello and the ex Beatles Liverpool as near as you could get to ‘the troubles’ without getting your feet wet.

Costello’s so artful with his wordplay I hadn’t really picked up on this at the time. I thought his reference to the ‘Murder Mile’ referred to a street where I lived with my family in the mid 60’s but equally applies to Belfast or any road which is quite long with a significant death rate. It didn’t stop me form thinking I had a special bond with Costello at the time.

Today I can’t ignore his use of the ‘n word’. I would never believe Costello is racist its use relates to the casual attitude towards soldier’s death. It also links the term used by the English towards the Irish with the song title which refers to Oliver Cromwell (just in case you thought it was about TV chef Jamie) There was no twitter storm, it got played on radio all the time, we didn’t feel the need to picket the polytechnic disco but those were different times, he probably wouldn’t try that lyrical device today.

What does amaze me is how a song of this depth so effortlessly get into the charts and the radio and the disco. It’s immediate strength of course is the music. From the first bars as keyboard player Steve Naive channels Rachmaninoff via Abba its peerless pop.

And you can dance to it

See also

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22:Cool for Cats…Squeeze

The polytechnic disco was a refreshingly genre free environment. There were 420 people on campus and most of us didn’t have that much in common. Dance music didn’t exist, disco did of course but the rugby club wasn’t going to be entertained by three hours of that. My memories of song selection beyond my selected tracks here are hazy. I asked my mate Al, he could remember ‘Ring my Bell’ by Anita ward which kind of makes sense. His other memory was ‘Into the Valley’ by the Skids which doesn’t but this was the music we attempted to dance to.

The fact remains that dance music doesn’t have to be actual dance music, at least it didn’t in 1978 because dance music hadn’t been invented which spared us the hassle of having to take ecstasy to enjoy it.

So, my second memory from the polytechnic disco is a great dance record or most of it is. ‘Cool for Cat’s’ just explodes from bar one thanks to its rhythm track featuring bass player Harry Kakoulli who had ironically just been sacked. Although their career was greatly enabled by punk the band were really good musicians who had been around for the previous 4 years. Drummer Gilson Lavis had been a professional musician for the decade, it’s a common misconception that dance music had to somehow be created and refined in the studio but people who know how to play together from Motown’s Funk Brothers to Muscles Sholes Swampers to Fela Kuti’smusicians have been able to create compulsive dance music simply by playing together well.

Squeeze had that ability, soon they would be tagged the new Lennon and McCartney but a this point they were very much a band, bass player sackings notwithstanding. Chris Diffordwas more of a songwriter than a guitarist, but fellow songwriter Glen Tilbrook is a fantastic player who usually doesn’t need to prove it. Also jostling for the front position was Jools Holland whose media career sometimes obscures the fact that he’s a fantastic piano player although fairly average at everything else musical.

So, what most of ‘Cool for Cats’ has is a fantastic groove. It derails slightly in the middle when it gets a bit experimental. That’s the trouble with band democracies, the Jazz bit has the hands of Holland and Lavis all over it. To be fair it creates a bit of tension but it losses the beat which leaves the dancer with the option of perhaps just giving up which is not aim of any good dance track obviously. Anyway with a cymbal crash and a sense of relief is back to the song and everything’s ok again. It’s quite a slight song that needs the piano outro to nudge it over the 3 min mark.

Squeeze were learning fast and refining the formula. Chris Difford got to ‘sing’ this time, but it would be the only time we got to hear him on a hit single. The more tuneful and melodic Tilbrook effectively became the face of Squeeze gradually eclipsing the other members by virtue of the fact that he wrote the music, sang the songs and played all the guitar solos. They were unlikely to record anything as quirky as ‘Cool for Cats’ again as the band refined its perfect pop tunes.

Difford is rightly revered for his song lyrics although he takes too many liberties with his rhyming (ie lines like ‘nappies smelly’ in up the junction) for me to get totally onboard with this. ‘Cool for Cats ‘ is a weird one though. Even at the time there was a bit of criticism the for ‘give a dog a bone’ but it’s hardly gangster rap. The band rather vaguely said the song was about their lives at the time but what the hell is the first verse about?

Clearly none of this really bothered me as I made my way to the disco floor.

Squeeze are still something of a going concern in the way that heritage bands are. They weren’t the new Beatles, but they gave the Kinks a run for their money. Its only Difford and Tilbrook left with Holland and Lavis forming a breakaway partnership and a whole load of sacked bass players littering their past.

According to Holland’s autobiography the official video is filmed at Tittenhurst Park one time residence of John Lennon, there’s a similar light to the ‘Imagine’ video so its probably true although why they needed such a location for a video which could have been filmed in a cardboard box is a mystery. It features new bass player John Bentley as well as two singers who I assume became the ‘Fabulously Wealthy Tarts’* which helped out with Holland’s solo career and went on to be featured with Paul Young who was huge in the early 80’s.Anyway,they clearly think it’s a great track to dance to as well.

They all seem to be having a great time, a period in time when the band was just starting out.

As was I, I suppose

* there’s lots of theories as to who they were so I’m probably wrong

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21: Heart of Glass.. Blondie

Weekends at Trent Polytechnic were a mixed affair. It depended who was around. Some Fridays it seemed everyone disappeared leaving me rattling round my accommodation block. It always amazed me how many students had decided to leave home and then wanted to return almost immediately, it was even rumored that someone had kept their Saturday job and would return to this every weekend.

Stuck, as I was, on the very outskirts of Nottingham the campus offered a bare minimum of entertainment opportunities and, after an initial flurry of activity when term started that boiled down to just one thing; the Poly Disco.

So, for three weeks only here are three 70’s tracks indelibly imprinted on my brain from the ‘Poly Disco’.

As a keen student of the New York scene I had had my eyes on Blondie from the moment that the first started to appear in the music papers. This was partly for obvious reasons as Debbie Harry seemed to be one of the most beautiful women who ever walked the planet but also their early repertoire tied into the slightly cheesy sixties punk rock that I had been listening to on the ‘Nuggets’ compilation LP. I bought the first record and quite liked it. Harry seemed to be a really distinctive singer, I loved her voice and Clem Burke’s drumming and the 60’s organ sound, the first LP was good but not great. There was so much going on musically that I missed the detail of their career after that but the subsequent singles sounded pretty good.

And then, all of a sudden there was Heart of Glass.

I think this was a bigger thing in the States but there was a casual hatred of disco amongst rock fans. Although you were never going to find me down studio 54 I didn’t really share this. This was partly though lack of choice, there were so little opportunities to hear music that having a blanket hatred of disco meant that radio would never be an option and radio was pretty much all there was in the 70’s. As a consequence I listened to a lot of that genre and enjoyed a lot of it.

For a band that was loosely considered punk however, recording a disco influenced track was a big step and a big risk.

The band had been playing around with a version of what they called the ‘disco song’ for a while. White rock bands trying disco always tended to sound a bit lumpy, I suspect this was the case until top pop producer Mike Chapman got his hands on it and utilised the latest technology in the form of a drum machine and synthesizers to create the irresistible groove.

By doing this he was in effect making the band a bit redundant but Chapman always prioritized a great sound over a great band. In truth Blondie weren’t that great a live band, live they could sound tinny and bombastic at the same time but by having the twin bases of vocals and drums covered they managed to get by.

Although theres apparently not a sequencer involved Chapman got the sequencer effect with the synthesizers which in tandem with the drum machine pushes the song forward. Nigel Harrison does that octave bass thing that rock players had been experimenting with since the Stones recorded ‘Miss You’ and Clem Burke (reluctantly) beefed of the rhythm with some actual drums (you can almost hear their relief in the fade out where they can cut loose and relax a bit)

Like a lot of great records its the sound that captivates, theres a glamour but its the style of the glitter ball and the Mecca ballroom rather than the catwalk. Like a lot of their earlier records theres fun mixed in with the style, just right for a crowd of gauche polytechnic students on a Friday night.

Interestingly this was a blip rather than a change in direction, the next track by the band was a return to guitar jangling with Sunday Girl, there were to be no attempts a cashing in on some sort of punk disco craze which leaves Heart of Glass in it’s own little oasis of pop perfection.

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You Can’t do that in the Studio Anymore

In the 70’s recording studios were magical places. There was the holy grail of Abbey Rd but also lesser legends such as Rockfield where you could stay an immerse yourself in a 24 hour recording experience. At the bottom end of the scale there were cellars with egg boxes stuck to the wall. The things they all had in common was they involved a band getting together in a special place for a fixed period of time. Any studio was relatively expensive and were charging by the hour or day. For this reason most recordings were a compromise and a race against time. For anyone at the top of their game and the backing of a big label things were a bit easier and sessions tended to expand to fit the time with extended partying and ‘hanging out’. Never underestimate the appeal of squeezing onto a tatty settee with a bunch of like minded people listening the guitarist laying down his solo for the 99thtime.

Times have changed, most of the studios have now closed and keen musicians have their own  studios at home in the spare room. You can even have a studio on your phone. We have gained and we have lost but here are some of the things that no one will be doing in the studio anymore.

Singing out of Tune

Lets face it, singing is pretty hard and the singer has the very worst time of, too many late nights, long haul flights, hangovers, air too hot, air too, dry air too smoky, all these things can take their toll on the delicate vocal chords. On top of that is the fact we are not all born equal, Lou Reed has a voice so does Tom Jones, they are not the same. Ray Davis has a vocal wobble, Bob Dylan has a croak and there’s no words to describe Johnathan Richman’s vocal sounds !

But you’re not likely to hear any of that on a modern pop record, the vocal noises there bear as much resemblance to the human voice as cheesy string does to cheese, they are an artificial creation. There’s a good chance however that any recording would be subject to a bit of tweaking. There’s a YouTube clip where someone autotunes Robert Plant’s voice- it turns out that when rock god started screaming, he wasn’t in tune all the time. The auto tuned results are fine but its not quite Robert.

To be fair singers are much better today, most of the youth don’t want to hear some indie shambles so more people are singing pop which is a lot more demanding, singers today are a lot more skilled than just being the people who wrote the songs or just couldn’t play an instrument. In fact, the general quality of musicianship is so much better today which is unsurprising given the learning resources available.

But when all else fails there’s always autotune.

Hanging out in the studio

In the 70’s studios could mix business with pleasure, certainly if you were in a band who could afford the rates you might invite some friends down. Perhaps, as in Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland sessions those friends might join in the playing, maybe they’d just bring some drugs over. There’s a couple of reasons why studios don’t have hoards of hanger-on’s on board. Firstly most of them are glorified bedrooms, the days of bars and canteens attached to a cavernous studio complexare long gone. The sadder reason is that now music is totally monetised there’s always the risk that some no talent sycophant is going to claim a writing credit in retrospect. The courts are full of such claims that invariably go nowhere but saps the time and energy from everyone apart from the lawyers. A locked door keeps these claims to a bare minimum.

Changing Time Signatures.  

Modern recording practices dictate that an unwavering beat is set to a click track. It’s always 4 beats in a bar. The way modern recording happens means any deviation is pretty perverse. Recording invariably happens from the bottom up, that’s always been the case but the rhythm track is disproportionately significant today. It wasn’t unusual for earlier songwriters to switch beats about just because it fitted the words to the song so there might be a bar or 2/4 or 3/4 placed to accommodate that. The Beatles could accommodate different time signatures in a song not because the wanted show how clever they were but that’s just how music sounded to them. No one is going to think like that anymore, we’ve had too many decades of 4/4.

Sloppy Playing,

In Louie Louie by the Kingsmen, theres a moment where the singer comes in too early, the drummer covers it up with a drum roll and the band carry on. That’s the finished article no one bothered to re record it and when bands cover it now they often include the mistake. In modern recording studios not only can you hear the mistake you can also see and exclude it with a couple of clicks of the mouse. Bear in mind for most of the 60’s there were no tuners in studios, they didn’t reallybecome current currency until the 80s. It not surprising therefore that a whole lot of music was recorded which was a bit out of tune. At the time it didn’t bother anyone, we still admire and love those old records for no one worried the bass was half a semitone flat. Almost every record is recorded to a click track, if the drummer’s a bit sloppy it can be tidied up easily.

Sonically things are hugely superior today especially with electronic music that works so well to the new technology. Just about all modern recordings are brighter and clearer but are they lacking in feel or interest? Isn’t it quite good to hear a guitar a bit out of tune or someone fluffing their vocal? You can find that on most Beatles records and apparently they are still pretty popular, not only with the old folks. Tapestry,orRumours or Led Zeppelin IV or a whole load of other 70s albums still stand up because they sound like they were created by living breathing people getting together to play music.

Are their any great rock records created this century, I’m sure there are, I rather liker Mastodon’s  ‘Crack the Sky’ for example but sonically its just to bright and lively, after a couple of tracks I feel quite exhausted.

Has anyone got any recommendations for anything modern that actually sounds good?

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20 Whatevershebringswesing..Kevin Ayers

For a couple of years the second hand record shop in Norwich was pretty much the centre on my retail experience, I wish I could remember the name of the shop, its worth a blue plaque.

My record buying had settled into a pattern that I’ve maintained pretty consistently ever since where I’d found a point in a venn diagram which intersected desirability, availability and affordability. By and large it worked well, it meant I would commit to records I quite liked the look of but were relatively cheap and were for sale at the aforementioned second hand record shop.

The nature of the second record market meant that most of the albums for sale were 5-10 years old. No problem there, it was the golden age of the LP and I was able to pick up gems by the Grateful Dead or Hendrix for a couple of quid.

And so, I came by a copy of Whatevershebringswesing by Kevin Ayers. I wasn’t hugely in the market for a Kevin Ayres LP but I was curious and the price was right. The LP contains what what probably Ayer’s greatest hit,’Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes’ which sounded like Lou Reed might have done had he hailed from Canterbury. It wasn’t a track that was hugely appreciated by the general public. Ayers had been the Bass player in Soft Machine, he wasn’t exactly high profile. On the other hand he had credibility, he could write songs, sang in a baritone voice and was good looking. Over a five year period Ayers drifted slowly from fringe to more accessible thanks to virgin records who wanted to find a way to make records that sold. As is often the case it didn’t work and Ayers didn’t have the work ethic to change things, By the end of the decade he was spending most of his time drinking in Majorca and became increasingly resistant to coming out of his semi retirement.

By ‘Whatevershebringswesing’ Ayers was probably at his peak although that’s a relative term. Its captured in the beautiful languor of the title track, relaxed to the point of comatose it features Robert Wyatt on background vocals. Another musical highpoint is the guitar solo by Mike Oldfield who, at the time, was the touring bassist with Ayers’s band The Whole World.

My summers were as unfocussed as Ayers career. After purchasing the record I went to a favourite pub where I had a few pints before adjourning to a river bank where I had a little sleep in the sun. On the inner sleeve of the album Kevin is seen frolicking in the water with a young lady, I was on my own and kept my trousers on (Ayers is on the verge of a wardrobe malfunction) but I knew where he was coming from.

At the moment I am still selling off what’s left of my vinyl and Whatevershebringswesing is arousing quite a bit of interest, the highest offer so far is £12.50 and I’ve had interest from Holland. It might not seem much but I’ve had to sell for 99p recently so this is the big time for me. What usually happens is I let it go to final auction and sell for a lot less but I need some excitement in my life.

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Can Any Bands Career End Well??

I happened to watch ‘Long Time Running ‘on Netflix a couple of weeks back. If you aren’t already familiar with this ‘rockumentary’ it’s a chronical of the final tour by Canadian band The Tragically Hip, I wasn’t familiar with their work,but they appear to be massive, at least in Canada. At one point in the film guitarist Rob Baker unleashes an analogy about a band’s career being like a hot air balloon, it can rise very quickly but at some point its going to come crashing down with disastrous consequences.

So, I got to thinking, is it possible for any band to have a career that ends well?

For the purposes of getting a working definition of a happy ending I’ve come up with a few ground rules.1. The band has to keep at least the classic line up together no ‘Trigger’s Broom’ *cases where its just the original drummer and a roadie.2. No major litigation post break up.3. No reformations4. No Deaths

On the face of it, it doesn’t seem a huge ask but its just about impossible lets take a few genre based examples. Prog Rock for example,just about every line up has been through a load of permutations, King Crimson, Genesis,Camel etc etc. None of them have had stable line ups for any time, the classic bad example was Yes which had so many ex members they could form two separate bands at one time.

Let’s try an even more niche example, British ‘two tone’ bands. The Beat were in with a chance until they reformed not one but two bands with various ex members, the Specials fell started to fracture into a different band formed around main man Jerry Dammers only to split and reform decades later with all the original members (for a while) apart from the aforementioned Dammers. Madness almost make the grade but their keyboard player Mike Barson left in the 80’s before the band split prior to reforming with the original line up years later..

See, its impossible to find a band that ends well. I did think the Smiths might be a decent result but there was major legal action from  the rhythm section post split, I think one of them settled out of court and got a small pay out and the other toughed it out in court and got a far better settlement but I might be wrong. The fact is that most bands cant resist extending their career forever with various band members substitutions along the way.

And, of course, the bigger the band the bigger the crash. The Beatles have spent more time in court than they spent playing live. Zeppelin needed a death to stop them, the Who had two but carried on and the Stones have a similar approach to hiring supplementary musicians to keep the brand alive when needed. The Small Faces almost finished properly if not entirely amicably when they split at the end of the 60’s but they couldn’t resist staging a reformation a few years later which, of course, was never going to be as good as the original.

Of course, I’m sure there are plenty of smaller bands who had their time in the sun and then split up with a minimum of fuss and bother but perhaps the hot air balloon analogy does hold up, the higher the ascent the harder the fall.

Which brings us back to the Tragically Hip. The reason for the film of the tour was that front man Gord Dowie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, it was their last tour. One of the many tragedies coming out of this was the band was one of very few who might have ended well. They were all from the same town and same backgrounds. They had also done the thing that is more likely to keep a band together than anything else, namely they were all on the same wage. If there’s one thing guaranteed to drive a wedge between friends, its inequality. U2 knew that and they are probably the most stable band around, on a downside I think Coldplay have the same financial equality.

So, for any band who hopes to ‘make it’ (if such a thing still exists these days) in the music business, the simple message that it’s not going to end well, all evidence is against that happening, to be blunt though life doesn’t end well and we all get on with that.

So, think I have found two bands who might have kept the same line up and broken up with the minimum of fuss if not regret. Significantly they are three-piece bands whether it’s the specific dynamics of a trio or just less people to fall out with, they are…

Rush, I don’t know a lot about the band, I do know it’s not the original drummer either but lets be positive. The existed and then they split up, I hope I got that right because drummer Neil Peart died not long ago and if they hadn’t split up by then that would have disqualified them.

The Jam, I’m sure Rick and Bruce would have liked it to last a bit longer but they split, they never reformed and no one died.

Also,I’ve just thought the Talking Heads might qualify

And that’s as good as it gets

I’m sure I’ve missed someone, have I missed a band that ended ‘well’, if I did do let me know.

*I realise my international readers may not be fully up to strength with life lessons from UK 80’s comedy series to here is ‘Trigger’s Broom’

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19. Who Loves the Sun…Velvet Underground

We filter music, not only through out own memories but through our collective consciousness and then add a dash of time distortion for good measure.

Take the Beatles for example, they haven’t existed since 1970 but they are constantly being re-evaluated. In the 70’s Sergeant Pepper was pretty much universally accepted as their best album ever, if not the best album ever, no questions asked, we could still remember the 60’s and SP captured our collective memory of those heady days. Skip forward a decade of so and Revolver had taken the number one spot, to be honest it probably had better songs and the summer of love was a more distant memory and also Revolver helped pave the way for britpop in the 90’s. For a while there seemed to be a flirtation with the White Album as the Beatles top trumps but now we have settled into Abbey Rd as the pinnacle, apparently ‘here comes the sun’ is the most played Beatles track on Spotify and despite an over reliance of half arsed tracks Abbey Rd is the nearest they came to a modern sounding record which hasn’t really dated sonically in the same way as their earlier records..

If you had asked me in 1979 what my favourite albums were the Velvet Underground with Nico would have got a namecheck somewhere in the evaluation. Bear in mind that the only way to hear a record was to buy or borrow it, I cant recall a whole lot of that record being played on the radio. On the other hand it was possible to read about the band who had been namechecked many times by the emerging punk groups. I liked the sound of them, at least culturally and visually so as soon as I had some spare money I resolved to purchase a record all of my own.

For my first choice I was seriously wrongfooted. I had been playing in a band The Aerials and we covered Sweet Jane so that was one song I knew fairly well. Rock and Roll had also had the occasional radio play because it was a straight-ahead pop/rock song. Putting the two together influence my decision to buy Loaded, the last VU album to be released.

Basically it was a big disappointment , it’s the Velvets most mainstream album, its also an extremely watered down version of the band. Drummer Mo Tucker was pregnant so wasn’t keen on squeezing behind a drumkit. Guitarist Sterling Morrison was around but was taking advantage of the time based in New York to study a college course. Lou Reed was about to leave, in fact by the time the record was released in 1970 Lou was gone. The one person who was committed to the record was most recent member Doug Yule. Originally recruited to cover John Cale’s departure on bass and organ, Yule had expanded his CV to singing, playing guitar and even drumming when his brother Billy wasn’t around to cover for Tucker. The album is at its best when Reed is audibly involved as in ‘Sweet Jane’ or ‘Rock and Roll’. Its at its worse when Yule is singing about ‘Lonesome Cowboy Bill’ it’s a question of degree, both of them were involved and I think Reed later won some lawsuit that confirmed he wrote all the songs.

For me in 1978 it wasn’t enough, I wanted to hear something more than good natured songs and as soon as I had a bit more money, I bought the first album with all the songs they wouldn’t play on the radio, it was challenging and edgy, it was so 1978.

A couple of decades on and I was engaged in the ongoing commitment of feeding the iPod, I had retired my vinyl but I would head to Leicester City library at least weekly and take out a few CD’s which, if I liked them I would load into my little white box. I made some great discoveries but there was also the option of downloading some old favourites including the Velvet Underground with Nico. Twenty-five years on though the record had nothing for me. I knew every track off by heart but there was no feel good nostalgia just a record that I had listened to as many times in my life as I needed to. I didn’t download it.

On the other hand Loaded sounds fine now, I still think ‘I Found a Reason’ is terrible but the rest is a good listen.

There was one other reason I bought Loaded though. Radio North Sea International used to play ‘Who Loves the Sun’ regularly. Naively I didn’t realise that this song was totally unrepresentative of the general Velvet Underground catalogue. Its actually possible that there’s no one apart from Yule on this track, its hard to find anything aurally to suggest Morrison or Reed were involved. Its not edgy or challenging at all it’s a song the Beatles or the Turtles could have created in 1965 but it’s a lovely song which I can still enjoy to this day.

Which is more than I can say for ‘Heroin’ or ‘Venus in Furs’

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70’s Instrumentals…more Mike Oldfield

Mike Oldfield made a huge but slow burning impression with Tubular Bells and was to follow this up with more of the same (but possibly better) Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn. But, like any right thinking person, Oldfield couldn’t resister a cheeky stab or two at the singles charts.

After Tubular Bells Oldfield had retreated to his parents home apparently to build a duck pond but in reality to escape the pressures of being a performer which makes his singles career more bizarre. The formula was simple, take a fairly straightforward folky tune, play it on something fluty, bung in a bit of trademark Oldfield  guitar hopefully turn 2 ½ minutes of tunefulness into a hit single.

First out was In Dulci Jubilo a medieval sounding tune which for some reason evokes a Christmas spirit without actually being a Christmas song.That was just as well as Bohemian Rhapsody was dominating the charts, there was no room for a proper Christmas no 1 but Oldfield’s effort made it to No 4 by January and unlike Bohemian Rhapsody we weren’t all sick of it. 

The thing I really like about In Dulce Jubilo is how Oldfield’s guitar takes of half way through, he’s such a lyrical player that the solo is an integral part of the tune and lifts a fairly routineperformance into something far better than the sum of its parts.

He followed this up with Portsmouth, a fairly straight forward run through of a traditional tune where the melody was carried on the recorder and built up in layers in the traditional Oldfield way. No guitar though, the tune doesn’t really go anywhere which is probably why its only 2 minutes long

Oldfield had a huge potential fanbase, there were the hard core rock fans attracted to the new stuff on the virgin record label but he was an intriguing character with his ability to overdub himself on a variety of instruments and he was at the forefront of what would soon be called ambient music. He had the potential to be represented on Radio’s 1,2,3,or 4 . Symptomatic to that was a request to provide the new theme music to long running children’s TV show Blue Peter. The show was tremendously popular but also quite conservative so asking any ‘pop’ musician to be involved was quite a big step. Oldfield gave the tune his traditional treatment but with a synthesiser instead of a recorder as the main instrument. It’s a slippery tune so Oldfield had to record the melody at half speed. Here is the inevitable Top of the Pops appearance with the almost equally inevitable dance routine from Legs and Co, apparently put together in 20 mins.

He was now in the consciousness of millions of children who would hear this twice a week.

As an unwanted bonus feature here is Oldfield playing the William Tell Overture. Its an impressive but fairly pointlessexercise which I’ve never seen before but is unmistakably Oldfield. The strange this is that post Covid the internet is full of people choosing to produce videos of themselves playing all sorts of tunes and looking an awful like Oldfield 40 years ago

. Perhaps the future really is past

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