It was 40 years ago today …. The Clash

Having been diverted, for a while into the realms of 70’s pop I have just managed to miss the anniversary of the first Clash album.That’s quite fitting though as I was late to the party 40 years ago. It took me quite a few weeks to commit to punk to the extent of actually buying a record. It seems a minor concern after all these years but to go into a record shop with my long hair and flares, select ‘The Clash’ from the racks and take it up to the counter where the hippy assistant would stare at it before asking for my £1.99 was too much for my delicate constitution to take. By delaying my purchase for so long I missed out on the opportunity to get a stickered album and exchange that sticker via the NME for a free version of ‘Capital Radio’ so you can imagine how daunting the potential experience was for me.

The fact was I just couldn’t ignore how good the record sounded from the sporadic plays by John Peel. The Clash were a band on fire at this point. Strummer and Jones had proved that two heads are better than one when it comes to song writing. Strummer was one of the most compelling front men on the scene and Jones still carried a surprisingly melodic sensibility, the analogy of the punk Lennon/McCartney actually worked. Strummer, like Lennon was the more instinctual artist while Jones was more of a craftsman, they brought out the best in each other.

They had just signed to CBS which had caused some derision in the punk community. I saw an interview with them where they suggested that CBS had signed them to ‘control’ the band which is laughable beyond belief. The Clash were passionate about politics but ideologically were all over the shop, they had signed to a major record label with all that that involved but were refusing to play ‘Pop of the Pops’.

Musically the record was surprisingly good for a band whose drummer had already left and whose bass player had been plucking the strings for less than a year. By Strummer’s admission every guitar bit of note is played by Mick Jones. Playing live Strummer was living up to his name, his aggressive playing necessitating that his right arm needed to be taped up to avoid him damaging himself. I love the story that the record company suggested that he should buy himself another instrument so he went out and he went and bought another guitar exactly the same.

Terry Chimes, the drummer on the record who would have his name immortalised as ‘Tory Crimes’, was actually too radical for the band. He was fed up with the political orthodoxy especially from manager Bernie Rhodes. Chimes eventually gave up meat and alcohol and trained to be a chiropractor but still managed to drum for Black Sabbath at one point, in a weird twist of fate he returned to the band for a while after his replacement developed too much of a drug problem but was soon off again on his own life course.

‘The Clash’ received quite mixed reviews, obviously the likes of the NME swooned over it but the more musical commentators noted that the playing was a bit rough, the production was muddy and it was quite hard to actually hear what Strummer was actually singing about. Compared with live performances the LP sounded like ‘Tubular Bells’ but those reviews missed the point. Punk was now about expression, anger and energy more than musical values, something like ‘London’s Burning’ is musically an update of ‘You really Got Me’ or any other 60’s garageband classic its’s blimmin good rock music.

The notable exception to the blueprint punk in the record was a cover of Junior Marvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’. The Clash make no real effort to emulate the subtleties of the original. As a reggae performance their version is lumpy and stodgy but in the context of a punk record it is a revelation.

The real problem with punk was always going to be that it was great for about 10 minutes, that’s why there are so many great singles from that time relatively few great albums. Reggae provided an alternative, it was hypnotic and took the frantic pace down a bit. As far as The Clash were concerned this was the first attempt to experiment with different styles which was to take them from being a punk band to a rock band.

 

 

Posted in memories of 70s, punk rock, rock music | Tagged | 3 Comments

The Strangely Popular Peters and Lee

In many respects popular entertainment in the 70’s continued in the tradition that had started with the music halls at the end of the Victorian era. The growth of television meant that there was a demand for entertainers who were recruited from the clubs which remained powerful and popular in the showbiz world. The Nolans were a classic example, they were versatile and professional and could slot into most popular TV show formats.
Another huge TV and club act were Peters and Lee. A man and a woman who sang, although Lennie Peters could also play the piano, basically their act consisted of two people standing up and singing nice songs together.

The duo had made the big transition via talent show Opportunity Knocks. This prototype X Factor was huge in the first half of the 70’s. Hosted by inexplicably popular Hughie Green it showcased singers and comedians hoping to get away from gruelling one night stands while, at the same time, highlighting why they would never manage more than third on the bill at Cleethorpes Top Rank. The duo were incredibly popular, winning more times than any other act and securing a place in popular entertainment forever.

The story of Lennie Peters is far more interesting. The former Leonard George Sargent was hit by a car at the age of 5 and lost the sight I one eye. Ten years later he noticed some youths throwing stones at him while sunbathing on Hampstead Heath. He approached the lads and in his gentle London manner told them to stop. A brick was then thrown at him causing him to lose the sight in the other eye. All was not lost however, he was taken to hospital where he was informed that his sight could be saved. While resting in hospital he saw an old man falling out of bed, even prior to NHS cuts there were no nurses to be seen so Peters went to catch him before he hit the floor. Unfortunately the strain of doing this detached a retina and his sight was lost forever. The old man died the next day.

Peters was made of stern stuff, he’d survived the London blitz after all. He moved on to becoming the Ray Charles of London clubs making a respectable career as singer and pianist in the pre Chas n Dave years. Inevitably he managed to secure the patronage of the Kray brothers and throughout the 60’s was a minor celeb on the London gangster scene.

And he’s the uncle of Charlie Watts from the Stones!

Musically I could never see what he gained from Dianne Lee. Originally from Sheffield Lee worked her way up from backing singer until by 1970 she was on equal billing. Her voice was quite slight in comparison with Peters and a lot of the time she still sounded like the backing singer. In terms of what we would have called ‘crumpet’ value she was indispensable however and was a good counterpoint for the older (by 20 years) ‘geezer’ Lennie.

In the middle of glam rock they had their biggest hit.’ Welcome Home’ is the aural equivalent of leek and potato soup. I find it quite comforting.

 https://youtu.be/Ww4v2cP-MDo

Peters and Lee were everywhere whenever there was a five minute slot for music on just about any show. I must have seen them dozens of times, there was nothing I wouldn’t watch once we had bought a colour TV. Despite this I can’t remember another song by them. Usually I do some research before writing a blog but really I couldn’t face having to wade through the Peters and Lee songbook, there could be a psychedelic gem in their repertoire for all I know.

Bad luck seemed to follow Lennie Peters. He died from bone cancer at the age of just 60. His daughter was subsequently murdered by her partner in a caravan park in Essex.

Lee’s career has been bizarre since the death of her partner. Birmingham bass player Rick Price finding himself unemployed since the demise of his band, Roy Wood’s Wizzard ,received an offer to be road manager for Peters and Lee. Price initially refused, he had a history of playing in rock bands and in addition to Wizzard had also been in The Move possibly the greatest band to come out of Birmingham. Peters and Lee were offering good pay and a steady job and Price relented and settled down to a spell of cabaret hell. Love blossomed on the tour between Price and Lee (I always assumed that she was in a relationship with Peters) which has lasted to this day. Price and Lee operate a website, which looks as if it was constructed shortly after the invention of the internet, which offers an evening of entertainment from their mutual careers. This means there’s a chance to hear ‘I can hear the grass grow’ in the same set as ‘Welcome Home’ or ‘California Man’ alongside, er… well whatever else Peters and Lee recorded.

It sounds bizarre night out does it appeal to anyone apart from me?

Posted in memories of 70s, rock music | Tagged | Leave a comment

The British Jackson 5…..The Nolans

If it’s one think that the Beach Boys have taught us it is don’t form a band with members of your own family or, if you do at least don’t have an abusive father in charge and don’t become so famous that money becomes a serious issue.

Its rather ironic that the wholesome surf loving family became one of the most fucked up sagas ever in the history of music the Beach Boys still make Fleetwood Mac look like the Osmonds (strangely enough the exception to the rule I am outlining here).

So back to my original hypotheses, don’t form a family band. That advice is too late for the Jackson 5. The band that put Gary Indiana on the map had a group of phenomenally talented singers/musicians and one genuine superstar but they also had their abusive father Joe who allegedly had a detrimental effect on their collective mental health. It’s debatable whether without the likes of Murray Wilson or Joe Jackson the brothers would have achieved the same level of success. There’s a dilemma, be unknown and happy or famous and fucked up, most of us assume being famous is great unfortunately when we discover it’s not all it’s cracked up to be its too late and there are lots of expensive distractions to help us through the pain.

But we had our own band of brothers, or rather sisters.

The Nolans, initially the Nolan Sisters, were omnipresent throughout the 70s and into the 80s. Like the Jacksons there were a lot of them and they just kept on coming, like the Jacksons, and the Beach Boys, they had an abusive patriarch and eventually they just couldn’t get along and split into various bickering factions.

The differences between the two groups mirrored the difference between 70’s Britain and America.The Jacksons were black and funky, they played the chitlin circuit where they honed a tight musical act which translated into some great records. The Nolan’s were white and gauche, they played working mens clubs and variety shows, and while they toured with Frank Sinatra somehow they never made millions. They made records which were poppy and occasionally just about ok.

For most of the 70’s The Nolans floundered with terrible clothes and hairstyles. To some extent this is why we liked them they looked like a typical teenage girl at her birthday party. As a teenager myself I struggled to differentiate between the various sisters, there were blond ones and dark haired ones and some were older than the others. To be fair if you take Tito’s guitar away I would struggle to differentiate most of the Jackson 5 though. After a while however they began to take shape in my mind aided by the fact that they were women. There was Anne the oldest, Linda the blondest, Maureen, the most attractive one and Bernie who was clearly the feistiest. To this day I would struggle to identify Denise but soon the sisters were joined by Coleen who was by far the youngest.

The family was originally from Ireland, in fact Coleen was the only one born in Blackpool where the family had migrated. The family were steeped in the Irish showbiz tradition and ideally placed to crack the northern club circuit. Originally both parents were part of the act. The family harmony was a facade though. Father Tommy Nolan was apparently violent towards his wife and the young Coleen. Worst of all, after his death Anne alleged in her autobiography that her father had sexually abused her between the ages of 11 and 15.

Although they seemed to be almost permanently on peak time TV for most of the decade it’s didn’t mean they shifted a lot of records. In fact from what I’ve seen in interviews the sisters themselves are quite disparaging about their own careers. They were loved by the BBC who wanted them on any variety show going and insisted on dressing them in a variety of horrendous badly fitting outfits for performances. Things improved when The Nolans realised the BBC where charging them for these costumes and decided it was time to dress themselves.

The group eventually petered out as various members diversified into acting and musical theatre. Things turned sour after a reformation tour when Anne and Denise were excluded from the line up resulting in the sort of fallings out that only families can do really well. The sisters were also plagued with health problems with Linda, Anne and Bernie all being diagnosed with breast cancer which finally took Bernie’s life in 2013.

Just like the Jackson’s had the car crash that was Michael it was Coleen who seemed to epitomise the hollow success of showbiz. Here was a woman who had been singing and dancing almost since she could walk. She had lived through the good times and bad times and at the age of 14 had been groped on TV by Jimmy Saville. She has since made a full time career of being a TV presenter and being the sort of celebrity who goes on celebrity TV shows. She has been on Big Brother twice and both times seems to have sucked all the turgid air out of the house, she’s not a happy woman.

And to some extent that is the entire appeal of The Nolans. They used to be the girls next door and now they are the middle aged women next door soon they will be the grandmothers next door. The Nolans have had similar lives to ourselves, bad marriages, illness, family feuds and bereavement, and they have just kept on going. I saw a clip of them on YouTube performing on ‘Loose Women’ (where else). Bernie was still with them and they just seemed to be having a great time in the way that middle aged women can when they’ve worked out that life is pretty shit so you’ve got to enjoy the good bits when they appear. It was strangely moving, at one point I felt the stirrings of a tear.

The song they performed was ‘I’m in the Mood for Dancing’ the more I hear it the more apparent it becomes that this is not exactly ‘Visions of Johanna’ but it works in a mumsy hen night sort of way and it is the song that will be forever their signature tune.

 

The Nolans were on a roll when this was released and were achieving a slightly ironic fan club with the rock set, they even got to perform with Motorhead. And so, in 1980, sick of the white noise of post punk I declared myself a Nolans fan. The turning point was this single which my friends Al and Clare bought me for my birthday. To be honest I would still rather listen to it than The Pop Group or early Scritti Politi .

Or maybe not!

Happy Easter ,

Posted in memories of 70s, rock music | Tagged | Leave a comment

Gonna Make You A Star….David Essex

The career of David Essex has paralleled that of Paul Nicholas, both were products of the 60’s beat boom who have diversified into acting and musicals, both have had hit singles and both are sex symbols into their 60’s.
Essex claims to come from a long line of Romany Gypsies although he was brought up in London, as a teenager he moved out to Essex and so he changed his name from the less desirable Crook.. He certainly adopted a gypsy dress style with waistcoats, handkerchiefs and earrings which along with his twinkly eyes and curly black hair was bound to set hearts a flutter.

His first musical explorations were as a drummer although his looks and fairly average vocal skills meant that he was soon tempted out from behind the kit and like many similar young men was recording singles that made no impact on the charts. This was to work to his advantage as although he was old enough to be a 60’s pop star he became synonymous with the shiny new 70’s where he was able to start with a clean slate.

And so at the start of the new decade Essex was singing in the musical Godspell which raised his public profile enough to land him a part in a movie. ‘That’ll be the Day’ was the first movie I can remember being reviewed by Barry Norman on his phenomenally popular ‘Film night’ I also remember that Norman wasn’t that impressed by the movie. The problem being that Essex was overshadowed by his co-star who was no less than Ringo. Given the right script Ringo Starr could, by force of his personality, shine. In a movie where Essex was more apparently acting Ringo was being himself. The film itself has worn well concentrating on the under looked period before the Beatles, a time of holiday camps, dancehalls, funfairs and greasy rock and roll. As well as Starr the other notable rockers in the film were Keith Moon who was not exactly stretching himself as a mentally unbalanced drummer and Billy Fury who was the band’s singer.

As well as a potential film career Essex also embarked on a parallel career as a pop star. His first hit ‘Rock On’ was one of the strangest things to ever hit the charts. Apparently written by Essex without any accompaniment there are no chordal instruments on the record, just weird dubby bass and percussion and rather frightening strings that sound a bit like the soundtrack to ‘Psycho’. Lyrically concentrating on mood rather than meaning the record owed a lot to the producer Jeff Wayne. His own ‘War of the Worlds’ (featuring Essex amongst a star cast) was to prove a huge hit with of sales reps listening on their in car stereos. Given the bland ubiquities of his monster hit its impressive how experimental this recording was for Wayne. Essex didn’t disappoint either, he’s not the best singer ever but you always know it’s him and that’s so much more important than any X Factor show off/mean nothing.

For a couple of years Essex was at the top of his game musically, ‘Lamplight’ was quite an edgy single and then ‘Gonna make you a Star’ and ‘Hold Me close’ were enjoyable sing along pop. He also made the inferior follow up to ‘That’ll Be the Day’. ‘Stardust’ sidestepped any possible problems of Ringo being the star of the show by replacing him with Adam Faith who was fine but had never played drums for The Beatles. Also in the film and indeed fronting the fictional band The Stray Cats (with Moon still on drums) was Paul Nicholas.

Essex kept going as a jack of all trades which means that a later generation might know him from an acting role in EastEnders rather than as a pop star. It has to be said that his top 10 hits dried up in the 80’s with a noticeable loss of quality control. In the States he means nothing apart from his first hit which amazingly was a big hit there.

Although he’s a one hit wonder in the USA back in blighty David Essex still counts for something, he’s never been naff or even out of fashion

Here’s his second hit which has kind of been forgotten in the mists of time. Love those Top of the Pops audiences

Posted in memories of 70s, rock music | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Cheesy Pop…Paul Nicholas 

Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.I don’t believe in guilt and so I can’t have guilty pleasures but if I did I could admit to a fondness for ‘celebrity’ TV reality shows. I don’t mean Love Island or their like but rather the program where Bear Grylls dumped a load of celebs on an island so survive by eating limpets or the one where they had to survive in hypothetical Victorian times had me gripped.

My latest much watch TV was ‘The Real Marigold Hotel’ where bunch of old age pensioners travel to India to see if retiring there is an option for them. It is a mini replica of a film of similar name which was, of course, fiction involving a death of one of the travellers which thankfully hasn’t been replicated in the reality show.

And so we had the likes of Sheila Fergusson on the Three Degrees (manic, looks about 40), comedian/naturalist Bill Oddie (genuinely Bi Polar) and dancer Lionel Blair (total luvie) pottering about, doing yoga, feeding stray dogs and pondering about the ageing process. Sheila Fergusson will probably live for ever by sheer force of will but the rest of them, like the rest of us are only too aware of the fragility of life and for that reason just watching them being alive in India is a life enhancing experience (unlike Love Island).

But among the geriatric celebrities is one Paul Nicholas which came as quite a shock for me. It was a bit like seeing Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney tagging onto an old folks outing, which they would be quite entitled to do of course.

Nicholas is guaranteed to get the pulses racing among women of a certain age (about 56) because he starred in a gentle romantic sitcom called ‘Just Good Friends’ where he played a character called Vince. The fact that I even know this is testament to the popularity of the series which I don’t think I ever watched mainly because I didn’t have a television. The ‘will they won’t they’ nature of the show had audiences entranced (I suspect they did by the way) and for a while Nicholas was hot property.

Since then he has been a successful actor and a name that everybody of a certain age will be aware of. He’s still a charming man but perhaps more like a retired head teacher than a sex symbol these days. The hair is largely gone but the smile is still very much intact, he has aged well.

But before Vince, Nicholas was a musician and singer dating right back to the 60’s. After releasing a couple of solo singles he joined Screaming Lord Sutch as part of his backing band The Savages. In the early 60’s Sutch was to rock and roll what John Mayall was to the blues. Unlike Mayall however Sutch had very little real talent beyond outrage but his band was a hotbed of talent. The most famous Savage was Ritchie Blackmore later of Deep Purple. It would have been nice to think of Nicholas and Blackmore trading licks but such was the personnel turnover of The Savages that they were never in the same band.

Nicholas was only with Sutch for about a year and he had continued to release singles under his real name Paul Dean and also under the assumed name Oscar. He was also on the fringes of rock greatness having been signed to the Robert Stigwood agency. The second Oscar single was ‘join my gang’ which judging by the title is a reason to be grateful that it’s writer Pete Townsend didn’t record it with his regular band. The Who connection seemed to persist as Nicholas had roles in the films Tommy and Listomania as well as other films and bits of musical theatre.

But, just for today, I am looking at his brief career as a pop star in the mid 70’s. As the Ramones were playing their first gigs in Britain and The Sex Pistols were playing British pubs and clubs Nicholas was in the charts with three hit singles.

‘Reggae Like it Used to be’, ‘Grandma’s Party’ and ‘Dancing with the Captain’ were all enjoyable pieces of fluff that were on the radio pretty much full time for the second half of 1976. I was a discontented teenager at the time so why would I rather listen to this rather than Rag and Bone Man any day? I can’t even get annoyed that ‘Reggae like It Used to be’ is not related to actual reggae in any sense. What I do like about this trilogy is that although they are pop songs they are not about love at all which is more than you can say about the current top twenty, admittedly ‘Dancing with the Captain’ is hardly a dissection of capitalist materialism but like ‘Grandma’s Party’ is sounds likes somewhere I want to be.

So here they are in full

And yes…that was entertainment for the masses in Britain, just add dancers! 

His next single ‘Heaven on the 7th Floor’ showed that there was a limit to the number of cheerful bouncy pop records we required from Nicholas but it was a far bigger hit in the USA. There was a sense that really he had his sights set on acting and musicals and pop records were just a way of increasing his public profile.

And sure enough the next 40 years were mainly spent in acting with a bit of singing when the role required it although now he has created his sexy pensioner role it’s quite possible he will have a twilight career as a celebrity. Good luck to him.

In the 70s music was subjected to various tribal groupings. If you were a punk you couldn’t like country of if you were a heavy metal fan you just wouldn’t consider listening to reggae. Music was altogether a more serious lifestyle proposition then which may be why today we tend to be more broadminded as music is just one of many entertainment options which we can dip in and out of.

And although April 1st has just passed I feel it is time to have a break from The New York Dolls or The Sex Pistols or Yes or Neu or The Who or whoever we like to think the 70’s were about musically. So for one month only I’m going to look at some of the pop music that dominated the charts and sold a lot more records than The Lurkers or The Ruts or The Cockney Rejects.
If easily offended stay away, see you again in May !

Posted in memories of 70s, rock music | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Chuck Berry…The Wilderness Years

This morning stuck in traffic with only Britain’s most popular radio presenter Chris Evans for company I was treated to the latest recording by Chuck Berry.‘Bad Boys’ has got it all, a catchy tune, Chuck’s best two guitar licks and surprisingly good singing. All this is not surprising really, recording technology has reached the point where it can do almost anything apart from bring the artist back from the dead. I’m sure there’s been a lot of postproduction work but it doesn’t really detract from the fact that this recording was by an 89 year old man and it sounds pretty good.

It all began in 1952 in St Louis when a local bandleader found himself in a dilemma on New Year’s Eve. Johnnie Johnson’s saxophone player had suffered a stroke and in desperation he turned to an unknown guitarist and singer who, by virtue of not being that good, was the only musician without a gig that night.

The rest is history, Berry soon outgrew the band and moved to Chicago. The is a suspicion that he learned/stole a lot from his old bandleader and strangely, for a guitarist, a lot of his songs are in jazz keys like Bb. Johnson himself later claimed he had co-written a lot of Berry’s hits and took out legal action. Unfortunately Johnson had not only left this several decades but had been drunk for the intervening years and the matter was thrown out of court.

If you haven’t got some sort of greatest hits compilation really you need to re-examine your life, it’s an essential purchase. I’ve got ‘The Great 28,’ it’s highly recommended and it’s all you need.

By the 60’s it was all over creatively for Berry, apart from ‘Nadine’ he had little memorable material left, he had influenced everyone, The Beatles, The Kinks, The Stones, The Beach Boys, Marty McFly, there were very few bands who hadn’t tried their hand at a Berry number. For a period he had it all, fantastic lyrics, a great guitar style and an absolutely incendiary stage act.

It appeared by the 60’s that the muse had left him. He was still a great performer but his career became increasing money orientated. Berry seldom had a regular band, it reached the point where he would arrive in a city with his guitar, walk on stage and launch into a song. His backing band would be recruited locally and often the first time they would see Berry was coincided with that of the audience. Not surprisingly performances were pretty shambolic especially if the band hadn’t worked out that Berry liked to play in Bb.

In his 1986 documentary ‘Hail Hail ! Rock and Roll’ long-time fan Keith Richards organised a tribute star studded concert for Berry’s 60th birthday. Richards was to experience the whole force of the Berry persona. In one scene he is suggesting that Berry might want to change his guitar tone to something that might sound just a bit better, Richards is met with a blank refusal ‘That’s the way I sound’. After the concert Berry charged Richards for using his equipment.

For much of his 60’s and 70’s output it sounds that not only has Berry refused to change his guitar tone but he’s also refused to tune it as well. Most of his records are just over 30 minutes long and are a combination of hack writing and blues covers. There are two exceptions to this, his 1964 collaboration with Bo Diddley ’Two Great Guitars’ goes into serious trance territory for two extended instrumentals. ‘Concerto in B.Goode’ from 1969 is even crazier, ignore the hack work on the first side, side two is were Berry meets Hallogallo by Neu and ‘In a Silent Way’ by Miles Davis in a horrific mashup. Several performances are crudely cut together where Berry jams over one chord for some 13 minutes.

The 70s featured Berry in some serious psychedelic shirts and increasingly large mutton chop sideburns churning out sloppy versions of his old hits. It was, of course, the period of his greatest hit which almost overnight negated the rest of his career namely ‘My Ding a Ling’.

I had assumed that this was a toss off song that he’d made the mistake of recording live but in fact it is a proper song by Dave Bartholomew who wrote with Fats Domino among others and is currently first in line to be the first rock and roller to reach a century (he’s 98). Berry had recorded the song as ‘My Tambourine’ initially but the ding-a-ling version made its debut on a live album where he was backed by, of all people, The Steve Miller Band in San Francisco.

The hit version comes from an album he recorded in London. Howling Wolf had set the president for recording with the new generation of white British Artists and had met with some commercial and critical success. Berry wasn’t going to pay for the likes of Eric Clapton but cut some studio sides with some unknown session musicians and a couple of members of The Faces who were yet to hit the big time. Side two was live and recorded at the Lanchester Arts Festival in Coventry. The band on this occasion included two members of the Average White Band and Nic Potter taking a break from Van Der Graff Generator. Far from infusing a funk/prog vibe the band are just keeping up and sound no better and no worse than any of his other pick up bands. Also on the bill that day were Slade and Noddy Holder can he heard singing along apparently (I can’t hear him but there’s a limit to the number of times I’m going to listen to this). The original My-ding-a-ling lasted over 11 minutes and was edited down for the single, listening to it again after several years I can’t help but admire Berry’s showmanship. By the time the band have finished (at different times) playing Johnny B Goode the audience are eating out of his hand and won’t let the band go, one of the festival organisers has to take the mike and explain that the show has already over run and they need to clear the hall so Pink Floyd (!!!) can set up, this seems to have little effect on calming the audience.

And, of course ‘ My ding-a-ling’ became the biggest hit ever for Berry and for many people this is the only song for which he is known which is a travesty when you consider the quality of his early material.

Berry hadn’t a lot more to offer artistically there were three more 70’s albums and then nothing until ‘Bad Boys’. It’s likely that his yet unreleased record will be an attempt to rehabilitate him either by bringing in a stellar cast of stars like John Lee Hookers ‘The Healer’ and/or re-evaluating his work as in the Rick Rubin/ Johnny Cash recordings. It’s unlikely Berry would be an easy person to mold for a new generation but now he’s not around to express an opinion and studio technology has improved there is every chance that his next record could be his best for nearly 60 years.

Believe it or not I am a huge fan of Berry, presumably he means nothing to the average 20 year old today but when I was in my teens he was still a huge influence, you can even hear his licks on Sex Pistols records for Rods sake. If you really want to know about Berry just listen to ‘The Great 28’. But sometimes it’s more interesting to look at an artist’s failures as much as their successes as Jung observed ‘there is gold in the dark’, for me a creative person is interesting whether they are turning ideas into lead or gold. Expecting an artist to be a genius all the time is like expecting politicians to be kind people or Santa to be real. Berry was a flawed human but he wrote Johnny B Goode.

Never mind Johnny B Goode though it’s a song I could go without ever hearing again and not be disappointed, he has at least 27 other songs just as good. Here is the real gold, Berry kicking out the old and bringing in the new, and things would never be the same again.

Posted in memories of 70s, rock music | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Eight fingers,Two hands,Four strings

As the 1970s became the 1980s Phil, my old friend from school and myself set about forming a new band. Phil had moved up to Nottingham after finishing a degree and was living on a council estate on the outskirts of town with his girlfriend’s mother. His main priorities were getting a job and somewhere a bit more bohemian to live but musically neither him or me had achieved a great deal musically over the last couple of years so it was time to get a band together.It was summer when he moved to Nottingham and the middle of winter before we actually started any musical activity together, in fact I had actually joined another band in the interim so bored was I at the interminable wait. The other band made a cardinal sin of not turning up for the second rehearsal so I blew them out pretty quick and waited and waited.

In this day and age all it takes is a quick post on the right website and within 24 hours your inbox will be inundated with offers from fantastic musicians who thought your advert was just what they were looking for but mysteriously disappear when an audition date is set. In 1979 however things were a loot slower, recruitment involved going to the local record store and putting an advert on their notice board. Selectadisc was the store of choice, it would usually be packed out with punks, goths and assorted new wave types. It employed staff notably for their interesting haircuts and their total distain for all music apart from their own particular choices. Posting on their notice board was a traumatic experience, you had the choice of either

a) Trying to sneak a post on without the assistant seeing you, this meant that you needed you own drawing pin as well as scrap of paper. The downside of this approach was if the assistant saw you doing this you could be singled out for attention and called up before the assembled mass to…

b) Give the assistant your scrap of paper which meant they would then read it, if it failed to meet their exacting levels of cool they would then sigh and give you a long withering look, then, If you were lucky they might then give you the advert back and nod at the board which meant you were free to proceed with your hopeless dream, otherwise they would just put it on the counter leaving you uncertain as to whether it would end up on the board or in the bin.

I know it sounds pathetic but when you’re 20 this sort of thing is agony and by 1980 the music scene was stratified and had so many layers of etiquette you might as well have been living in a Jayne Austin novel.

Phil had to take the brunt of this by virtue of the fact that he had a telephone, if he hadn’t we would have had to use an address and risk all sorts or wierdos just turning up at the door. All the same this was not an immediate experience, ads could remain yellowing on the walls of Selectadisc for months or at least until they were covered by the next generation of muso dreams.

And so Christmas passed and a new decade began, I had no phone so I would arrange to meet up with Phil on a regular basis to check on progress, but at least our patience was rewarded one day when Seth made contact.

Seth was impossibly young and enthusiastic. His father had actually been a big cheese in the Socialist Worker’s Party and although he no longer lived with the family Seth had bohemian credentials and lived in a big house in a nice part of town in conditions that were more like a squat than a family home.

Seth also affected to wear a lab coat which he had died orange no matter what the weather, this genuinely freaked people out as there were no identity markers as to what sub group he belonged to. He had a copy of a violin bass like Paul McCartney and, more recently Captain Sensible of the Dammed had used, at some point he also acquired a bass cabinet which was the size of a small family car.

Soon we had a singer Meloni who like Seth had no previous musical experience but that wasn’t a problem because we were going to create new music and those old notions of musical theory were simply going to hold us back from the purity of our goal. There was never any thoughts of cover versions because that was outdated rock and roll nonsense we were going to create our own sound.

Even with that particular ideology however Seth was too far out there, he simply couldn’t play, he didn’t really know this because he hadn’t really tried, most of his musical attention had been on getting the strap on his bass so long his instrument was down to his knees. We later found out his bass was so badly set up that it went way out of tune above the 5th fret but that was all for the future at problem was we had a bass player but he couldn’t play.

Having spent 6 months trying to get him we were not going to just give up, instead I guided him through the bare basics and within a couple of weeks we had written a song using Seth’s limitations. I can’t remember the title of our first creation but should you want to play along it went

GGGG/AAAA

And that’s it, the whole song all three verses, no chorus of course that was too tin pan alley for us.

Four strings, eight fingers, two hands.

For years the bass had been a bit of a default instrument. When Stu Sutcliffe decided to stay on in Hamburg it was piano player and guitarist Paul McCartney who decided it was time for an instrument change. When he ran out of family members to coerce into his band Brian Wilson shrugged nonchalantly and picked up the bass, he was a musical genius, how hard could it be? The same thought also occurred to brass player Phil Lesh when offered a chance to join a bunch of hippies in a musical adventure called the Grateful Dead. Back in Britain guitarist Lemmy picked up the bass when Hawkwind’s usual player failed to show and never put it down again.

More recently the aforementioned Captain Sensible and Steve Diggle of Buzzcocks had picked up the 4 stringed instrument as it gave them a chance to be part of something momentous but both were biding their time before they could get back to their instrument of choice namely the guitar.

I know, I know, John Entwistle, James Jameson, Jaco Pastorious, that bloke in Level 42, the world has had it’s share of great musicians who play bass but it’s an instrument it’s easy to be diffident about, you miss it if it’s not there but as long as it’s in the right key no one is going to get too excited about it.

For that reasons bass players tend to be the easy going steady members of the group, it’s not a glamorous job. Bass players are nice people.

With the advent of punk however bass playing temporarily hit a low ebb. Not only was the bass player an inferior musician willing to take a step down the food chain for a while it became acceptable for the bass player to actually not be a musician at all.

It was largely Sid’s fault of course. Vicious was recruited for many reasons but bass playing was not one of them. In their final days it is apparent that musically the band were operating quite effectively with just guitar and drums, a concept that failed to take off pre White Stripes.

Vicious didn’t really get a chance to develop as a musician in fact he probably just got worse.

Also on the scene were a Mr TV Smith and his girlfriend who had arrived in London from Devon with the purposes of forming a band. The musician pool for punk was really limited and so Gaye picked up the bass and became a focal point and feminist icon with The Adverts. Her playing was about adequate but wasn’t helped by having a drummer of similar ability which meant despite having some of the best songs of the era The Adverts never quite did as well as the should/could have.

Finally there’s the case of Paul Simenon recruited to play bass with The Clash, another non musician. His early playing is a bit ploddy but such was the band’s dedication to the cause that within a year he was fully up to strength and still resurfaces playing bass occasionally to this day.

So in the big four British punk bands we had a two guitarists who had to play bass because the guitar slot was filled and two non-musicians who were recruited to play the instrument from scratch. It says something about the lack of dedicated bass players on the scene, initially bands struggled to get together due to lack of bass players and drummers and anyone who could remotely fill the role was in.

It also led to a devaluing of the bassist with the concept that if you could hold a bass you could soon learn to play one. There was some truth in this initially, the minimum the bass player had to do was to shadow the guitarist’s three chords but only use one note for their six. The bass is a fairly forgiving instrument and particularly in a live situation they could get away with murder but is the drummer was also not up to scratch the band was in trouble. On the other hand a good player did make the world of difference which is one of the reasons that the Pistols with Glen Matlock were head and shoulders above the competition for a while. There were also The Stranglers but don’t get me started on that one.

For quite a while post 1978 the most influential bassist was Jah Wobble. The previous John Wardle has missed out on the Sex Pistols gig but was present and correct when Johnny Rotten needed a mate to help him out in PIL. As well as punk Wobble was a reggae aficionado and was starting to experiment with bass lines from that genre. I doubt that Wobble did any proper practicing or even knew what key he was playing in but his bass lines were simple and effective and he showed that anyone with a bit of talent could be an effective player within a few months.

And so my band now called Butisitart? * started out having to work the ability of our weakest musical member. Seth got better quite quickly, within a few weeks he could play the bass part to PIL’s ‘Death Disco’. His unorthodox approach kept us on our toes as did the fact that his bass easily went out of tune so we weren’t sure whether his bum notes were intentional or not.

Despite this Butisitart, was the most successful band I ever played with, we did plenty of gigs round Nottingham, Derby and Leicester, the local radio show was most impressed with a demo we sent in and the very same poorly recorded piece of work secured us a couple of support gigs to Altered Images who were enjoying their 15 minutes of fame.

Post punk having too much musical skill was still regarded as extremely suspect. Soon the concept of the non musician bass player would be surpassed by the one fingered synthesiser practitioner and so the 80’s emerged.

 

* Note the lack of the definite article, one of the things that separate punk and post punk.

* Note also we’re also moving towards pretention another thing that separates punk and post punk.  

Posted in memories of 70s, prog rock, punk rock, rock music | Tagged | Leave a comment