Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Blue Oyster Cult Brainwashed Me

For a teenager with a creepy interest in the ephemera of the Second World War and in particular the German side of the conflict, the cover of Secret Treaties, the 1974 album by Blue Öyster Cult, the third in a series of quite wonderful tongue in cheek hard rock albums, was indeed fascinating and mysterious.

The cover featured a black and white drawing of the five band members standing in front of a Messerschmitt 262, the first working combat ready jet aircraft, introduced by the Luftwaffe in the dying months of the war in order to achieve a technological advantage intended to neutralise the superiority in numbers enjoyed by the Allied air forces. Unfortunately for the Germans it was really very little much too late. On the back cover of the album there was a different view of the ME 262 alone in a field, with wolves skulking around it. Instead of the swastika or the German cross commonly sported by its aircraft, the ME 262 sported the upside down cross/question mark that was the Cult's pagan style trademark.

The song titles were as fascinating: Career of Evil, Subhuman, Dominance and Submission, Cagey Cretins and the like. There was even a title track of sorts, in ME 262.

I knew all this because I spent a lot of time in Sigma Record bar studying record sleeves of records I never bought and Secret Treaties was one album I loved to look at. The name of the band was equally mysterious: Blue Öyster Cult! What did it mean? Where were they from?

I was too shy to ask anybody behind the counter if they knew anything about this band or even to listen to any of the tracks. My thing was to skulk behind the racks filled to the brim with album sleeves, hoping no one would notice me or ask what I was doing there week after week, flipping through the record sleeves but never buying anything, and making secret lists of the records I would buy if I had the money.

Some years later I started reading about BOC in the New Musical Express who was then on a punk crusade and did not care much for long haired, boring old fart American rockers even if they were supposedly intellectual and Sandy Pearlman, who would airbrush the production of Give 'Em Enough Rope for The Clash in a useless attempt to make the Brit punks palatable for the American market, produced them. A memorable heading to an article about BOC who was then touring the UK< mocked the short stature of a couple of their members but the writer also grudgingly admitted that he found their show surprisingly enjoyable. These guys knew how to rock and were not about bullshit rock star attitudes and took their heavy metal with a serious pinch of salt.

A fun fact about the band was that Allen Lanier, the keyboard player, dated Patti Smith, a heavy icon of the punks and the media who supported them, and she wrote the lyrics for a couple of BOC tunes.

Another fun fact or two is that the band was previously known as the Stalk Forest Group and Soft White Underbelly and once recorded a tune called A Fact About Sneakers.

It took Blue Öyster Cult four studio albums (plus a live effort), many years of hard work and the MOR FM radio blessed Don't Fear the Reaper before they became a household name with at least one certifiable classic, Classic Rock track to their credit, though they had plenty of really good tunes. It took me a while longer to become fully acquainted with the early sounds of the band.

Sigma Record bar in Andringa Street was for many years the one and only record shop in Stellenbosch. By the late Seventies their competition was Adrian & Don's Record Bar in the then fairly new Trust Bank Centre. When Adrian & Don went down, the Ragtime Records people, who owned a big and successful record store in the Golden Acre in the centre of Cape Town, decided to open up a franchise in the Trust Bank Centre in Stellenbosch and for a while going there was almost as exciting as visiting the parent branch in Cape Town but sadly the Stellenbosch shop lasted for no longer than a year before it too closed and had a massive closing down sale. I bought quite a few desirable records at this sale, including Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, and the first three Blue Öyster Cult albums: Blue Öyster Cult, Tyranny and Mutation and Secret Treaties. In a stroke I had caught up with the past of one of the great American rock institutions of the Seventies and beyond, the rarity in rock: a metal band beloved by critics. Of course this was many years after the release of the albums and by this time BOC was on the slick MOR metal of Mirrors but I did not care. The early BOC was the best cult for me.

I also have to mention that I had never thought I would ever in my lifetime come across those first two albums. To my mind they were kind of obscure in the world out there, and much more so in South Africa which was pretty far removed from the rest of the world back in the early Eighties. Coming across such objects of desire in Stellenbosch of all places was some kind of sign; not that I had known that I would desire Blue Öyster Cult before I saw the records in Ragtime Records.

My experience of heavy metal was mostly the British variety, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, and the only American heavy rockers I remembered from early Seventies radio was Grand Funk Railroad, and then later I got into Kiss, at least in respect of their debut album, and most pleasurably, Aerosmith. The British bands tended to favour keyboards and were a bit pretentious – Purple, Heep – or used guitars like battering rams and shouted a lot – Sabbath – or were a tad precious like Led Zep after Stairway to Heaven. Grand Funk Railroad had been a radio favourite with We're An American Band, The Locomotion, Some Kind of Wonderful and others and seemed almost like a pop band, and when I bought their first two albums, I was almost shocked at the raw, stripped down primitivism of the music and the banal puerility of the music. They made Black Sabbath sound like intellectuals. Aerosmith was a whole lot better and in the days of the cliché of the buzz saw punk guitar they sounded spot on like pre-punks with loud, raucous and energized tunes that hit the spot for me.

In the context of these bands Blue Öyster Cult were a little bit different. The band featured keyboards, it had crunchy and melodic guitars, it had bad ass boogies and ballads, and it had long hair, flares and aviator shades. But somehow all of these elements seemed parodic, as if BOC was playing a big joke on all of us and, like Cheap Trick, who rose to prominence only a few years after BOC hit their commercial stride, they wanted to achieve fame and fortune and nookie by playing hard rock and throwing rock star shapes that were ever so slightly skewed, just not quite serious yet also not completely comic.

Blue Öyster Cult were influenced by science fiction and wrote intelligent short story like lyrics with their various collaborators like Michael Moorcock, and could also rock out as heavy as the hardest of the heavy. The favourite party trick was a four guitar line up at the end of their shows – how awesome is that?

The music on the first three albums is a mixture of very melodic guitar tunes and heavier riffs, all with intelligent, literate and often funny lyrics, way beyond the standard banal, sexist and stupid crap so often offered by your base metal bands. In fact, in lots of ways Blue Öyster Cult was simply a heavy pop band with sci fi leanings and did not much sound like the type of heavy metal goombahs that were most popular with the spotty teenage peer group of my high school years. Then Came The Last Days Of May from the debut album was set up like a short story, a pulp fiction style crime thriller. OD'D On Life Itself from Tyranny and Mutation was your basic guitar heaven crowd pleasing rock monster track that would have had the audience on its feet, fists punching the air from the off. In those first three albums BOC did not do standard love ballads but their penchant for writing for memorable tunes was a tonic to my ears and when they rocked out, the roof shook.

Alongside of early Aerosmith early Blue Öyster Cult was my top favourite heavy American band from the Seventies. Aerosmith represented dumb, dirty, gritty rock'n'roll with fuzzed out guitars and big attitude and unadulterated fun. Blue Öyster Cult represented rock music for the alienated teenager stuck in his bedroom, but feeling quietly superior because he found a heavy band that appealed to his intellect and his ass. I could play air guitar to Blue Öyster Cult and also chuckle at the amusing things they sang about. I got the joke and I shook my rump.

J Geils Band Wanna Suck On Your Gums

In 1974 one of the stranger and more interesting songs on the Radio 5 playlist was a soul style rock tune called I Must Of Got Lost by the weirdly named J Geils Band. Not ever seeing the song title in print and not being au fait with America slang, I thought the song must be called I Must Have Got Lost, as that was the proper English, and for all I knew the artists were the Jay Giles Band. I liked the song. It had a sing-a-long chorus and a great lyric about how easy it is to lose your love: you never see it coming but you always see it going.

I Must Of Got Lost ranks up there for me as one of the great Seventies tunes. The Seventies tunes that aren't bubblegum, boogie, glam, disco or Abba. Unfortunately the J Geils Band never made it back onto the Radio 5 playlist until the release of Freeze Frame in the early Eighties, kind of their commercial peak, but not the best of the band by a long chalk. In between there was a long, dry spell when J Geils simply did not feature on the South African airwaves.

Round about 1979 I was at Stellenbosch record bar (I think it might have been Sigma Records) one day when there was a whole bunch of albums in the "sale" bin and one of them was the "Live" Full House album by the very selfsame J Geils Band.

It was a live recording released in 1972, it featured a version of John Lee Hooker's Serves You Right To Suffer (at the time I was listening to a Greatest Hits album of his and was very interested in anything else featur4ing his composer credit) and band members featured on the photographs on the back cover looked weird and mean at the same time, especially the wonderfully named Magic Dick whose hair was a band member all of its own.

I believe I listened to the first couple of tracks at the counter top turntable, as one was still able to do in those days, and was immediately blown away, and bought the album right there and then for something like R1,99, which turned out to be one of the great record bargains of my life.

Suffice to say, "Live" Full House immediately became one of my top albums of all time, a frequent guest on my tape deck (once I'd taped the album to preserve the integrity of the vinyl) and a dead cert for inclusion on my desert island disc LP's along with Dr Feelgood's Malpractice, as two examples, from different sided of the Atlantic no less, of how white boys can play the R & B card with energy, commitment and a sense of humour.

The Geils boys came from Boston, and the album was recorded in Detroit, at the time the hard rock capital of the USA, but they sure did rock the house with the Boston Monkey vibe, Peter Wolf's jive and the incredible talent of Magic Dick who was the blues harp maestro of the band. The other guys were not shabby either. This was high energy the way it ought to be.

First I Look At The Purse opens the album, and if one ignores the chauvinistic lyric – the man cares not for his woman's looks if she has a lot of bank – it is one of the great set openers of all time, soon followed by an equally intense and frantic Homework. The old one-two knockout punch. I could just see the crowd instantly up on their feet at the first notes.

As a quick aside I must mention that in 2004 I bought Nick Hornby's book 31 Songs, because he discussed influential tunes in his life, but mostly because First I Look At The Purse was one of those songs and I figured that a book featuring this song, and the album, as a personal top favourite could not be too shabby a read. Some of Hornby's choices seem a tad strange given my own preferences and predilections, but I guess that is what a personal selection is all about. Perhaps my own choices are not as radical or interesting as I might fondly believe.

"Take out your false teeth, mama, I wanna suck on your gums" must be one of the funniest and weirdest things ever said on a rock'n'roll by a White boy, even if that jiving White boy is Peter Wolf, who was probably born black but just did not know it and so he settled for being a Jewish motormouth with a ghetto slang all his own. This opening line precedes Pack Fair And Square, a fast little boogie showcasing Magic Dick and his blues harp deluxe.

Then Magic Dick really gets it on with Whammer Jammer, and instrumental where he blows his face out and the band rollicks behind him in fine style. The tune is short but makes its mark. Many years later Whammer Jammer became a featured blues harp wailing number for Cape Town blues musician Rob Nagel in bands like All Night Radio and The Flaming Firestones. Just for this reason alone I really rated Nagel; if he could be into such a relatively obscure album, he must be the real deal.

The first side of the album ends with Hard Drivin' Man, a road song of sorts where Wolf really goads the happy and noisy crowd into a frenzy with his reference to various dance routines culminating in the so-called Detroit Demolition, which he probably made up on the spot. For the first time the eponymous J Geils makes a very audible appearance on guitar, and Seth Justman pounds the ivories as if he were channelling Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

After the power and energy of the opening side of the album, the band slows down a tad to get into the South side of Chicago groove of Serve You Right To Suffer, one of the few really great covers of John Lee Hooker songs. Peter Wolf turns what is actually something a hateful lyric into an almost comedy routine. At almost 10 minutes it is also by far the longest tune of the set, almost the equivalent of the bloated, lengthy jams boogie bands tend to slip into to make up time on their sets, but in this case there is no tedious or extraneous histrionics and the song almost seems to short. Seth Justman goes crazy on the Hammond B3 and J Geils gives every other living White bluesman a run for their money with a rip-roaring solo of extreme blues power.

J Geils Band close the show with another one-two knockout combo of the stomping R & B tunes, Cruisin' for A Love and Looking For A Love, that must have brought the crowd back to their feet, punching the air and generally getting down something fierce. Wolf and the boys took the crowd by the scruff of the neck, made them sweat, wrung them dry and wiped the floor with them. "Live" Full House is one of those albums, and the brevity of the set also has something to do with it, that I used to turn over and listen to again from side one as soon as Looking For A Love ended. It was very much like the brief yet intense rush of crack cocaine long before I had even heard of crack.

Definitely one of my desert island discs!

My next J Geils purchase happened to be Nightmares (and other tales from the vinyl jungle) the 1974 album from which I Must Of Got Lost was taken, and this album too was bought at a record sale at Sigma Records. The low price was the unique selling proposition because it seemed to me that from the track listing on the back that the blues part of the band had gone for a bit of a loop, and I remembered the wise words of some rock critic or other, referring to a later J Geils album, perhaps Monkey Island, that things tend to go wrong in funky R & B bands when the keyboard player takes over the songwriting function. I think the explanation was that keyboard players want to write and record sloppy ballads, showcasing their sensitive keyboard-playing ability and mawkish sentiments that seem to go hand in hand with the ballad fixation. Keyboard players tend to be musically educated and like to show off those chops, whereas the guitar player is more likely to play according to feel and groove.

Anyhow, Nightmares was a different kettle of fish to "Live" Full House and at first listen I was shocked by the difference and very glad I'd paid so little for it. I only like I Must Of Got Lost and the Magic Dick feature Stoop Down #39 which was about the only blues derivative on the album. J Geils had gone all sophisticated mid-Seventies soul infused funk and I was not sure I liked it all that much. The title track was not even much of a tune but more of a skit about, well, nightmares. Nightmares is not a bad album by any means, and it was a bit of a grower for me but it has never had the same visceral excitement as that live set.

In about 1982 J Geils Band popped up as pop-R & B hitmakers with Centerfold and I was happy for them that success was happening at last, or maybe it was a second round of success. Over the years I'd regularly read reviews of current releases, mostly in the NME who had an ideological thing about most American music made by White guys, and a particular dislike for White men who presumed to venture into what was considered to be a Black genre, and on the whole the NME writers panned J Geils Band. For this reason, and after my experience with Nightmares I made no effort to buy any more of their album. It must mean that I was shallow enough to be guided by the not necessarily infallible tastes of a bunch of prejudiced Brits, but I had limited resources and concentrated on records I believed would be worthwhile owning, although I must confess that price was always a serious consideration when it came to making the decision to buy something. If it were cheap, I did not mind taking a risk. J Geils Band simply did not seem like a risk worth taking. I preferred sticking to the unblemished perfection of "Live" Full House.

As an aside I should mention that it took me almost 17 years or so before I bought a CD version of "Live" Full House. In 2005 I was flipping through the electronic catalogue of Amazon when I looked up J Geils Band and saw that they had a terrific deal where you could buy the Houseparty J Geils Anthology double CD and get "Live" Full House thrown in at a special low, low price. I did the deal and waited for delivery. As it happened the albums were delivered to my office during my first ever overseas holiday.)

When I returned home I had the unadulterated pleasure of getting down and dirty to the Geils boys rocking the house in Detroit, and finding out more about their career as set out in the two CD's of the anthology. Some of the tracks were from "Live" Full House, and some from the first couple of albums, but most of them came from the middle part of their career and showcased a soulful R & B band growing ever slicker as time passed. Those early tracks were still the best, though.

I had in any event kind of caught up with the development of the J Geils Band by way of expanding my vinyl collection in the late 90s. There were a couple of music shops in Cape Town that still sold vinyl as well as CD's and they were Outlaw Records and Vibes Vinyl, both of which were favourite haunts of mine where I spent a lot of money over the years.

Vibes, in particular, had the best selection of records and it was from them that I bought The Morning After (the second album), Ladies Invited,
Love Stinks and a third live album. These albums represented the more sophisticated, progressive aspects of J Geils, with lots of good tunes had good playing and they brought joy in not the total adulation I had for "Live" Full House. By the time I bought the records, I had long since ceased to buy vinyl and my interest in J Geils Band was historical more than anything else, and the records were cheap. As had been my practice so many years before, I taped the albums and then put them away and listened only to my tapes. This selection of records represents the kind of collection where one could easily just lift a few tracks off each album and then make a decent double album. Not one of the records made compelling listening on their own and I was glad I had not paid full price for them and to this day I have not felt the need to replicate them in digital format. The Anthology double CD took care of that anyway.

The only J Geils album I would still like to own is the post Nightmares double live set Blow Your Face Out, Baby! that is a record of the band at the peak of their first taste of commercial success, playing stadiums and going large. It may be, as some critics claimed, bloated and self-indulgent but I believe it could well the same powerhouse set of high energy rock and blues and R & B represented by "Live" Full House.

The thing of life is that one can never regain the visceral excitement new discoveries bring, and you can never feel about records the same way you felt about them as teenager, whether you relisten to old favourites or hear new music, but new, previously unheard music is always interesting on first listen and if you are lucky you may well have a hint of that old feeling of orgasmic pleasure that a genuinely great record brought you once. J Geils was one of those bands, one of those unexpectedly delightful discoveries, and for this reason they will always rank in my estimation as being on par with Dr Feelgood and Cream.

How can you resist a record where the lead singer introduces the blues harp player with "On the lickin' stick: Mister Magic Dick!" ?


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Neil Diamond Is Forever

Cracklin' Rosie was possibly the first song I aver adopted as my own personal favourite monster hit record, after I heard it a few times on the Springbok Radio Top Twenty and rooted for it all the way to the top of the charts. Listening to the song now, I cannot quite understand why it hit home with me so strongly, but then the past is always a bit strange because we did things differently then.

I was so besotted by Cracklin' Rosie that I pestered my parents for the money to buy the 7 single record, and it was the first single I ever owned, and there were only two. The second and last one was Bachman-Turner Overdrive's You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet. In 1970, when Cracklin' Rosie was a hit, I was about 11 and not hip and liked radio pop. Neil's song did it for me.

When it came to my birthday that year, or maybe it was Christmas, it was a bit of a no-brainer for me to ask for a Neil Diamond LP as a present, and my choice fell on an album called Gold, which contained all his greatest hits to date. I've just looked up a Diamond discography on Wikipedia and it has no reference to this album. Perhaps it was a compilation intended only for the South African market.

Gold had all the good stuff, associated with Diamond in the Sixties and the early success as singer-songwriter, such as Kentucky Woman, Sweet Caroline, Song Sung Blue, and the like. And, of course, Cracklin' Rosie.

I played the record a lot, probably kind of wore it out, because it was at that point of my unhip young life the only pop record I owned. My sister and I shared ownership of the soundtrack of the Sound of Music movie, but other than that rather old fogeyish album, a joint birthday present, I had no record collection to speak of. My parents hardly bought books and hardly bought records either, and if they did, they were not pop records. My father favoured organ instrumentals, my mother seemed to have no interest in music.

In a sad kind of way I have to credit my parents for taking note of my love for Neil Diamond. On my following birthday, probably in 1971, they had a brilliant idea and bought me the then current Neil Diamond release, Tap Root Manuscript. As I recall, I was bitter twice over: firstly because I did not want another Neil Diamond album, and secondly, because this record was just about the full extent of the presents I got that year. It was rather a terrible situation as well. Mom and dad came into my room, all smiles to wish me happy birthday with the record neatly wrapped in happy wrapping paper and stood there expectantly while I opened the present. I had to work hard to pretend to be over the moon. Just what I had always wanted!

There was probably some other record I would have preferred to get though I cannot remember what it might have been.

Tap Root Manuscript was essentially an album of new Diamond material, except that it opened with Cracklin' Rosie, which meant that I now suddenly had three versions of a tune I no longer liked as much as I had when I first heard it.

To my mind the best songs on the album were Cold Water Morning, perhaps still my very top favourite Diamond tune and one that is generally absent from "best of" compilations, and Done Too Soon, a bit of a list song about all the greats in the world who died too soon. Many years later Billy Joel updated the idea for After the Fire.

Almost the best part of Tap Root Manuscript was the second side of the record, which was a kind of song cycle with a strong African feel and influence. Neil Diamond did world music and employed African rhythms long before Paul Simon discovered mbaqanga. Some of it was a bit naff and patronising coming from somebody who had not been in Africa at all when he wrote the lyrics, but the side had a energy and spirit I really enjoyed and I listened to it much more than the first side of the album. It sounded mature and sophisticated and so much more interesting than the basically pop songs on the first side of the record.

By the following year I started high school, had developed more adult musical tastes and would have died rather than admit that I owned anything by Neil Diamond who was not hip or cool in my high school where the flavours of the moment were Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep, Jethro Tull and David Bowie. I did not then own any records by any of these artists and it would be many years before I even heard music by most of them, but I knew the names being dropped and one or two of the album covers that were shown around school.

I did briefly consider asking my parents to buy me Hot August Night, because I liked live albums, but could never actually get my mind around it. There were other things I wanted more badly.

By the end of my high school career I had started building up a small record collection – Cream, Dr Feelgood, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Golden Earring, the Beatles -- and truly felt embarrassed to count the two Neil Diamond albums in that collection. I had not listened to them in years.

My cousin Raymond was starting to build up his own record collection and I suggested to him that he might buy my Diamond collection and to surprise he agree and paid R4,00 which was not an insignificant amount then for the two records. I imagine I used the small fortune to buy some other record I really fancied.

After that Neil Diamond became just a voice one heard on pop radio every now and then. In knew of releases such as Jonathan Livingston Seagull and that he starred in The Jazz Singer. In 1976 I took note that the famed Robbie Robertson of the Band produced Beautiful Noise, a somewhat surprising choice of producer as Neil Diamond seemed to be in a different universe to the soul of gritty Americana embodied by Robertson. I would have said that Diamond's polished middle of the road pop was the complete opposite of the musical principles Robertson held to be true, but then music is probably just music.

In 1977 I bought Beautiful Noise for my sister for her 14th birthday. I thought she was into Neil Diamond but I think she did not like the album all that much. I never got beyond the title track. By 1977 I was getting into punk rock on an ideological level, and was dead keen on the blues, and Neil Diamond's Brill Building homage was definitely no longer anything I was prepared to appreciate. Thirty years later, and on a British Christmas holiday road trip when a small selection of the songs from this album was the one tape (not my choice) we had in our rented car, I listened to Neil Diamond's high concept pop with fresh ears and actually liked what I heard.

Having said that, I should also point that I had been sensitised by listening to the latest Diamond release, 12 Songs, a new start back to basics album produced by Rick Rubin who allegedly was trying to do for Diamond what he had done for Johnny Cash over the last decade of the late country singer's career.

Diamond, by now in his mid-sixries, recorded a set of new, introspective songs backed by mostly an acoustic band, the opposite of the grand pop style he'd utilised over the years to emphasise the emotion and depth of lyrics that were often trite and bordering on cliché. Come to think of it, Neil Diamond and Neil Young, especially the later Young, were both masters of the sweet tune underpinning a somewhat banal set of words that are intended to convey intense life truths or emotional honesty and often grate. With 12 Songs Diamond went the other way: he tried to dignify the words, and to make them sound more portentous by stripping down the instrumental backing so that the voice is up front in the mix and the nakedness of the voice, quite obviously older and wiser than in the Tap Root Manuscript days, has sufficient force to carry the songs.

To my mind Neil Diamond had lost his voice by the Eighties, the You Don't Bring Me Flowers years, when he could do little more than croak through his songs. On 12 Songs he makes a virtue of this deficiency and it works because of the comparatively simple musical settings. Now is the time to take him seriously even if the lyrics are no better than they have ever been. Rick Rubin may not have done precisely the same kind of resurrection job he did for Johnny Cash but he certainly got me listening to Neil Diamond again, with a measure of enjoyment, no less, and that is no small thing.

"Am I a rock person, or what?" Neil Diamond almost rhetorically asked a British music journalist who was doing a profile of him in the Eighties when he was doing a couple of UK shows, as popular as ever with the punters who go to rock events even if his record sales were not too spectacular. I do not know if he is a rock person; I've never seen him as one. Diamond came out of the Brill Building pop song-writer-for-hire scene, reinvented himself as a kind singer-songwriter and then became a showbiz institution with the edge over your normal, everyday showbiz artist in that he writes his own material. Some of it is quite sharpen tuneful, some of it is just schlock – high kitsch masquerading as meaningful explorations of the human condition. In all this Neil Diamond is mostly just true to his heritage as song writing hack with pretensions to grand success on the scale of Frank Sinatra but with the cutting edge of rock acts. Neil Diamond is not a rocker. He is a lounge singer who made it big in the rock era when the Sinatra, Crosby, Bennett model no longer rang true for the youth and his major audience is of the same ilk as the fans of the crooners and jazz singers of a bygone era. Neil Diamond is as showbiz as any of his predecessors. Maybe he never had the financial need to play Las Vegas but his Hot August Night era stage attire looked a lot like the jump suits Elvis Presley sported in that same era, and that is perhaps the dead giveaway.

I really do like 12 Songs – it's on my iPod. Maybe I should search for Tap Root Manuscript on There are some childhood pleasures one can try to revisit.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lynyrd Skynyrd From The Road


Long before I heard any Lynyrd Skynyrd tune I knew what they looked like from articles and centrespread photographs in Hit Parader magazine. The guys in the band had amazingly long hair, some had beards, all looked mean and ornery and not at all like any kind of progressive Southern rock band. To my mind they looked exactly like long haired Southern redneck long distance truck drivers or construction workers, simple guys who worked hard all day and went to topless bars at night to get wasted on cheap beer, to pick up sleazy girls and to get into bar fights over imagined slights. That these guys were in anything like a successful rock band did not seem possible.

The articles about Lynyrd Skynyrd confirmed my suspicions. They were beer drinkers and hell raisers and got into fights, except that it seemed the fights were in the band itself, and Ronnie van Zant, the leader and singer, seemed to be the chief culprit here, a drunken bully who knew no other means than violence to win an argument.

This was just ugly rock as far as I was concerned, not my kind of thing at all, especially not for someone who as teenager had one foot in the deep blues and another in the punk rock explosion of the late Seventies. I imagined the Skynyrd boys as dumbass rockers whose idea of lyrical poetry would be to rhyme "cock" with "rock" and not have any kind of intention of being ironic, with equally leaden, plodding music to match. Not my cup of tea at all.

One of the last pieces Hit Parader published about Skynyrd was a piece about their stand at Atlanta's Fox Theatre where they recorded to shows for release on the One More From The Road double album, and then not long after, their plane crashed. Ronnie van Zant, Steve Gaines (the newest member of the band) and some others died, and for the time being Skynyrd was put on ice. From the article it sounded as if the concerts were a lot of fun, something of a Southern homecoming for Skynyrd, though the band hailed from Florida, and a completer triumph to mark the first five or so years of the band's career, which looked particularly rosy back then.

The live double album was a sudden cash cow staple of record company release rosters in the late Seventies, inspired by the success of Frampton Comes Alive, and this type of release served as a vehicle for marking time, with a combination of greatest hits album and evidence of the live chops of the musicians, giving the fans a sampler souvenir of the concerts they may have attended. It also made good sense in the case of bands like Skynyrd who made their reputations by playing live and whose tunes were well road tested.

A year or so later I read a review of One More from the Road in the New Musical Express, which had by then replaced Hit Parader as my source for information about what was currently happening in the popular music scene, especially the British scene. Hit Parader concentrated almost exclusively on the USA and the only non-American musicians featured were those Brits, and the odd Europeans like Golden Earring, who had made a breakthrough in the States.

The NME was more eclectic in its coverage of music though by the late Seventies its focus was primarily on the punk and New Wave scene in the UK. It did however review albums by American acts, even if only for the purpose of slating them. The guy who reviewed One More From The Road was much kinder to Skynyrd than some of other, more iconoclastic writers would have been. To the punk generation Skynyrd was one of many bands who represented the old, the obsolete and the antithesis to punk. Punk was about short hair, short, punchy songs, sharp clothes and a politico-social consciousness. To the punks Lynyrd Skynyrd was about very long hair, very long songs with very long guitar solos, crap clothes and no consciousness whatsoever.

To the discerning listener Lynyrd Skynyrd was no mere mindless boogie monster but a band with a great deal of subtlety in its music and lyrics and if they celebrated the American South, it was not simply the redneck, backwoods South but a land where the people still have roots they believe in and are happy to celebrate without the need to be racist or crude. For this reason, for example, Skynyrd's very sharp retort to Neil Young's accusatory song, Alabama, in their second biggest hit, Sweet Home Alabama, explains that living in the South and being proud of it does not necessarily mean that one supports the policies or ideas of recidivist racist politicians.

Anyhow, I learnt from the NME review of One More From The Road that Skynyrd had good tunes, plenty guitar power with their three ax line-up and was sufficiently in thrall to the heritage of Cream, one of my top favourite bands of all time, to cover Crossroads. They had a road song, a song about drinking, a cautionary tale about gun control, a cautionary tale about drug abuse, a JJ Cale cover, a Jimmy Rodgers cover and a lengthy version of Free Bird, the new national anthem of the South, as it then was. The album showcased a band at the top of its game, at full throttle and with the road ahead clear and rosy.

The plane crash put paid to all that optimism about the future of Skynyrd. The band went into a lengthy hiatus while Gary Rossington and Alven Collins, the two original and remaining guitarists formed the Rossington-Collins Band and tried to carry on. In the late Eighties Skynyrd Lynyrd was revived with Donnie van Zant, formerly the singer of another Southern band, 38 Special, stepped into his older brother's shoes and led the band for a tribute tour, which led to a permanent reunion. They even brought back guitarist Ed Burns, one of the early members of the band, who'd left because he could not stand Ronnie van Zant's violence. The fans were still out there and were willing to pay money to hear those old favourites once again.

In the meantime I'd bought a copy of One More From The Road at a record sale somewhere and it quite quickly became a much played record or, in fact, a tape, because I immediately recorded the vinyl LP onto a C90 tape to save the vinyl from deteriorating in the way that local pressings of records tended to do.

One More From The Road is probably my favourite live album (anything by Cream disregarded for the moment) after the somewhat shorter Live Full House album by the J Geils Band. The Geils boys play mostly high-energy, stomping R & B styled rock, where Skynyrd's energy is found in the intensity of the performances rather than in any kind of wired nature. They combine rock, blues, jazz, and country in a funky southern stew where melody and tunefulness are as important as the riffs, or extended guitar solos.

I loved Sweet Home Alabama, Whiskey Rock-a-Roller and Gimme Three Steps to bits, and endlessly replayed Free Bird simply to get to the all-out, frenzied and extended three guitar jam in the last part of the performance. It was almost too incredible to be true! Even at home I could feel how the energy in the room must have raised the roof by the rime the band played the final notes. In a sense the guitar jam built and built like a trance tune builds to the moment of release. Great stuff!

Those tunes were my top favourites but every other tune was great too, with long jams on T for Texas, and Call Me The Breeze, and an interesting but intense Crossroads which almost matched Cream's famous live version.

To my mind One More From The Road was that elusive rarity so beloved of NME writers, the live album that should not have been reduced to a single disc.

Many years later, and after a long search, I also bought the CD version of the album and was disappointed that T for Texas was left off, presumably because of the length of the set which would not in its entirety fit on a single CD. It must have been some kind of cost saving exercise not to release the album on two discs to be able to present the entire vinyl LP.

Some two years ago I came across a double sided DVD which has almost an entire Skynyrd set from Knebworth in 1976, as well as songs from various other gigs in the same period, and one side of the 1987 tribute concert with Donnie van Zant. The Seventies Skynyrd look and sound amazing, especially the stomping intro to Gimme Three Steps, and the energised finale of Free Bird recorded in front of an audience of Californian kids. I may be an older white guy with dinosaur tastes but I have not seen or heard many current rock bands that have that energy and those chops and the really joyful pounding sound of Southern boogie blues at its best. And who look so interesting. The Seventies must have been the last proper decade where rock stars truly and utterly looked materially different from the kids they entertained.

Unfortunately for the classic line-up of Lynyrd Skynyrd they were not the street survivors their last studio effort claimed they were, but the memory sure does live on. The Skynyrd body of work, especially in the form of a "best of" compilation, is right up there with the gods of rock and roll.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008



In May 2005 Cream played a series of reunion concerts in the Royal Albert Hall, the setting for their farewell concert in November 1968. These concerts by the Cream of 39 years on were held whilst I was in Europe on my first overseas holiday ever and yet I did not learn of these momentous events until well after the fact. At the end of the year I bought the double CD set of the concerts and received the double DVD set as a requested Christmas present. These purchases were perhaps as highly anticipated by me as the concerts were at the time, but left me more than somewhat disappointed because the Cream of 2005 were sure as hell not the Cream of 1968.

Somewhere on the DVD Ginger Baker, I think, says something about the band playing their repertoire as the musicians they are in 2005, a very different version of the group that stormed the world in the late 60's, but that this current version was good because it represented a different perspective on their abilities and vision. Something like that. On the evidence of the CD and DVD set, the musicians no longer had the energy and power they had as young men, which is obvious, yet age and experience did not seem to being anything new to the table, except to present Cream as a kind of pub rock covers band; a bunch of 60-somethings who have been around forever and really know the Cream repertoire backwards yet seem to go through the motions for an adoring audience who were simply seeking to relive a vague memory of the barnstorming Cream of old, who defined the lengthy hard blues jam session and made some of the most compelling psychedelic rock of their time.

My position on Cream is, alongside Jefferson Airplane, and the Rolling Stones, they are one of my favourite bands from the Sixties, and along with Dr Feelgood, they are perhaps my two top personal favourites of all time especially since Cream and the Feelgoods were the first two rock bands I discovered on my own and outside of any influences from any peer group.

Back in about 1974 my father book me book called The Story of Pop for my birthday. The book was compiled from a series of part works dealing with the history of rock from the Fifties to the early Seventies. I learnt the histories of the icons of rock, pop and R & B, from Elvis Presley to the Beach Boys, the Stones, the Beatles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, to the early Seventies superstars such as Bowie, Bolan, Led Zeppelin and David Cassidy. Amidst all of these acts, I found an article about Cream, which was a true revelation about a band I had never heard of before.

At that time Eric Clapton was riding high with his 461 Ocean Boulevard album and I Shot the Sheriff single, with his slightly scruffy image of plaid shirt, jeans and beard, and it was fascinating to read about his prehistory with the Yardbirds, John Mayall and Cream where in particular he was a bit of a dandy, and of course a very flash guitar player. One of the things I noted was that Clapton played a Gibson Les Paul with Cream where he was currently playing a Fender Telecaster.

I read the article over and over, and pored over the photographs, one of which showed the early, almost pre-psychedelic band looking very serious and bluesman-like at a BBC TV shoot, and then later in all their psychedelic peacock finery and Clapton with his "enormous puffball hairdo allegedly grown with the aid of hair restorers." The music sounded astonishing and otherworldly and I became deeply obsessed.

I have no idea when I first heard any Cream music on the radio; but somehow I was familiar with Sunshine of Your Love even if it was not a staple of the kind of pop shows I listened to at the time.

In 1974 Sigma Records was the only record bar in Stellenbosch and it was my habit of a Friday afternoon to hang out at Sigma, flipping through the album covers in the racks, longingly making mental notes of the records I would buy if I had the money. My record collection was minute: two Neil Diamond albums, the Beatles "red" album of greatest hits, and the soundtrack to the British rock 'n' roll movie That'll Be The Day. I just did not have the money to start a serious record collection. Sigma Records represented a world I could gaze at but never be part of and it ate me up, yet I continued with the stupid pastime week after week, compiling my wish lists of desirable vinyl.

Amongst the LP covers on show was the double albums Cream's Cream Live and Heavy
Cream. The first was priced at R6,25 and the latter, perhaps because it was imported or newer stock, was priced at over R7,00. In this day and age it almost seems ridiculous but even those prices were beyond me. Both albums were compilations of hits, but Heavy Cream seemed to be simply studio recordings while Cream's Cream contained live versions of the hits, including the famous version of Crossroads that allegedly had two of the most perfect guitar solos ever. For a long time I could do nothing but long and feast my eyes. I was even too shy to ask the guys behind the counter if I could listen to any of those albums, as one could do in those days.

My friend Natie Greeff had more money than me and was into buying records, such as Deep Purple's live album Made in Japan, which was in itself an object of desire at the time in the aftershock of the monster hit Smoke On The Water, and I listened to it a couple of times at his house. For some unknown reason he wanted to sell the album – it might have been because he wanted to buy a live double album by Uriah Heep – and offered it to me for R4,00. I managed to scrape together the money somehow and took the record home with me and listened to it enough times to realise that it did not appeal to me all that much. I've owned a few Deep Purple albums over the years, but have never quite loved them as much as theoretically I should have, given my predilections for hard rock.

Somewhere towards the middle of 1974 and after I had almost memorised the article about Cream, and had ogled the cover of Cream's Cream Live often enough so that I dreamt about it, I concluded that I wanted Cream and that the only way I would be able to fund the purchase would be to sell Made In Japan back to Natie Greeff who was kind of nonplussed about my offer but generously agreed to take back Made In Japan for the amount I had paid for it, namely R4,00.

I was flush with cash yet R2,25 short of the amount of R6,25 the album sold for at Sigma and as my birthday was long gone, and Christmas a long way away, and I needed to own the record straightaway, I knew desperate measures would be called for to help me achieve my goal. My parents did not give me any pocket money, I had no job, there was no prospect of any cash gifts and I had nothing more to sell. Thievery was the only option as I saw it.

My father had the habit of leaving small change lying around on a bookcase in the passage of the house we then lived in and I made a calculated guess that he would not know or remember how much there was from time to time, so that I could safely take small amounts that would not be missed. This is what I did over a period of weeks, cautious enough not to be too greedy and to take so much at any given time that the deficit would be noticeable. My dad never noticed anything or at least never let on that he noticed anything, and I soon had the extra R2,25 I needed, all the while praying that on-one else would suddenly feel the burning need to buy the album that had been skulking in the Sigma Records' racks for so long, just because I wanted it.

It was with a fast beating heart and clammy palms that I went to Sigma that particular Friday afternoon anxiously hoping and trusting that the album would still be there and that the price would not have suddenly risen since my last visit. The anxiety was superfluous: the album was right where it had been and the price was still right. I paid my money and I took the album home with me. The pleasure and relief were almost orgasmic.

At home I hid the album in my wardrobe, underneath some clothes as I could obviously not show anyone my new acquisition without explaining where I'd found the money to pay for it. Our house hi-fi was in the lounge and I had some time before managed to buy a pair of cheap earphones that I used when I listened to the few records I had, and to music on the radio, and it was with the earphones that I could camouflage my listening habits and hide that I was listening to something new. When I wanted to listen to Cream I sneaked the record into the lounge when no-one was about and hid it beneath the small pile of LP's there and simply pulled the records out of the sleeves without revealing the cover, when I listened to them. In this way no one knew for a long time that I owned Cream's Cream Live, until a year or two later when I had larger collection anyway and no longer cared whether my ownership of this album was public knowledge.

Cream was the first hard rock, as I saw it at the time, I listened to that was not Deep Purple or Uriah Heep, who I despised anyway, and who seemed to be an unknown quantity to my peer group who followed those two bands, or Led Zeppelin, or Jethro Tull and some progressive prog rock groups like Yes or Audience and Pavlov's Dog, all of whom were popular amongst the teenage boys I knew. Cream did not feature, perhaps because the band was already ancient history by then, and Cream became my secret vice, surpassed only by my discovery of Dr Feelgood who was a contemporary band but beyond the ken of my mates at school.

Cream's Cream is a combination of the two earlier official live albums released by Cream, live Cream and Live Cream Volume II. The first two sides contained songs such as NSU, Sleepy Time Time, and a very long version of Sweet Wine, and the second record had shorter, more concise versions of Deserted Cities of the Heart, White Room, Sunshine of your Love and Tales of Brave Ulysses, as well as a very long version of Steppin' Out (Hideaway.)

My favourite side was the side of four relatively short versions of Deserted Cities of the Heart, White Room, Sunshine of your Love, Politician and Tales of Brave Ulysses, because the versions were concise and energetic. The biggest revelation of the album, though, was Sleepy Time Time, with a long melodic solo of a sustained intensity that almost boggled my mind. The solo was so tuneful I could, and did, sing along to it; the inventiveness was amazing, and I just could not believe that anyone could play the guitar like that. Now I could understand the "Clapton is God" cult.

I also listened to Steppin' Out (Hideaway) quite bit, mostly because it was just so interesting in a weird kind of way to listen to a piece of improvisation that was just about 15 minutes long. In the Story of Pop article the writer narrates the tale of a gig where one member of the band got so lost in his virtuosity that the other two left the stage without the soloist noticing. There is a long passage in Steppin' Out (Hideaway) where Clapton solos on completely solo, and I believed that it was this example the Story of Pop writer had referred to. Many years later, when I bought a DVD documentary on Cream, made after the historic Royal Albert Hall concerts of May 2005, this fond belief was punctured when Ginger Baker told the story, and Clapton confirmed it, that it was Jack Bruce who was so lost in his playing that he carried on even when the other two had stopped and were watching him. Baker tells this story, not to illuminate the incredible virtuosity of the three musicians, but to illustrate his moan about the manner in which Bruce turned up his bass amplifier to such a level that he could not even hear anyone else, and nor could they comfortably hear their own playing.

I do not quite know why any version of this tale is told to illustrate the alleged overbearing egocentricity in the band as the conventional wisdom, especially at the time, was that Cream was a rock band built on the principles of a jazz band with three awesomely talented and able musicians whose forte was to play with rock ferocity and with great technical facility so that in most instances on stage the band consisted of three soloists improvising at the same time, and feeding off each other. This kind of superior ability was the unique selling proposition of the band. Ultimately it became the albatross when Clapton, in particular it seems, grew tired of the excesses and wanted to return to simpler song structures. The thing is, apart from the elaborate arrangements and extra instrumentation, that is what Cream did with its studio tracks. Cream did not construct elaborate prog-rock suites but stuck to the 4-minute rule.

The side I listened to least of all was the one with the 15 minute Sweet Wine, partly because I just did not get into this version of the song and partly because of the quality of the pressing of the LP that rather too quickly allowed the vinyl on this side to deteriorate into the kind of snaps and crackles that made listening to anything a trial.

On the whole, then, I really grooved to the shorter, energised versions of the hits, and had a kind of hit and miss relationship with the extended improvisations but I truly and utterly adored Cream just from the evidence of this record. In early 1976 we moved to a new house and for a few summers after that I used to tan on the lawn outside the lounge where the hi-fi was, and I used to position one speaker in the window so it could blast out over the garden and invariably I lay in the sunning soaking up rays to the pounding, boisterous blues rock of Cream. I have no ideas what our neighbours thought of my taste in music. They never complained, though.

Once I started my Varsity career I had a job with the Sports Department, working at the box office of the Coetzenburg and Danie Craven Stadiums of the University of Stellenbosch and I suddenly had a lot of cash, compared to my high school years, which could be applied solely to luxuries because I lived at home and my parents paid my Varsity tuition fees and supported me. The cash enable me to expand my record collection at a rapid rate, especially through the bulk purchase or sale records but every now and then I did buy new product as well, including most of my Cream albums. The second impetus to the record collecting spree, was that at the end of my Matric year I won a competition where the first prize was a small hi-fi set with amplifier/tuner, turntable and speakers. Up to that point the only record player in the house was my parents' one, which stood in the lounge. I had my dad's very old medium and short wave valve radio in my room but once I had the new hi-fi, the valve radio went straight to shelf in the garage and I could listen to glorious FM radio and, better still, I could listen to my records in the privacy of my bedroom.

The initial focus of my record buying was blues records, in particular the budget priced albums I found in various Cape Town record shops, and at Stellenbosch record shops when they had sales. The cheap records were less than R2,00 a copy and new, contemporary albums costs either about R6,00 if locally pressed or R8,48 if imported. My sense of value for money made me prefer 5 albums for R10,00 rather than just one or two.

It was therefore a couple of years before I bought my next Cream product, even if I had the money, and this was the Best of Cream single album, that contains the very best of the studio albums, plus the legendary live version of Crossroad. The compilers had decided to give the punter the heavy blues Cream and the heavy Cream, the greatest bits, and omitted the more interesting and poppy songs that I discovered only when I bought the original albums. There was no Wrapping Paper, or Anyone for Tennis?, or even NSU, but there was I feel Free, I'm So Glad, White Room, Badge (the only tune off Goodbye) and the other usual suspects. The Best of Cream quickly became a favourite that was heavily rotated on my turntable.

The third album acquired in my exploration of the Cream oeuvre was their second album, Disraeli Gears, with a most fascinating psychedelic cover, almost light years away from the fairly sedate cover of Fresh Cream. I believe my copy of Disraeli Gears also came form Sigma Records. This album was even more of a revelation than Cream's Cream because is excellently showcased the different aspects of the band's musical vocabulary, from heavy riffs, to psychedelic pop songs to blues and a weird little Cockney joke song at the end. The best part was that the production was so clear that listening to the album on headphones was a true ear-opener. Here, for the first time I could clearly distinguish between the contributions of the three musicians to the extent that I could simply concentrate on one at a time, and still have a marvellous experience. Disraeli Gears specially illustrated Ginger Baker's busy, intricate and compelling drum technique. Never before had I ever just listened to a drummer on a record, filtering out anybody else. Baker's drumming was so spectacular that one could dot that.

The initial attraction of the album lay in the heavy numbers such as Strange Brew, Sunshine of Your Love, SWLABR, and familiar tunes such as Tales of Brave Ulysses, but after a while I really got into the heavily psychedelic World of Pain, Dancing the Night Away, and, most of all, We're Going Wrong, that starts out as a quiet, broody rumination that slowly builds up to an explosive guitar solo. After Jefferson Airplane, this music is my favourite Sixties psychedelic creations. Power and grace; energy and beauty. These guys were the cream of the crop.

To this day I have never seen a vinyl copy of Fresh Cream, and had to wait until the early Nineties and the CD boom, and the generosity of my cousin Minnette, an air hostess, before experiencing the full delights of the debut album but in the early Eighties I got kind of lucky in finding in a record shop in Cape Town a German label record called I Feel Free, which was a version of Fresh Cream, but with the omission of some significant tunes, such as Sweet Wine and Cat's Squirrel, and the addition of Sunshine of Your Love and Strange Brew. I could now hear for the first time the studio version of NSU (quite astounding) and Sleepy Time Time (a bit twee in the face of the awesome live version on Cream's Cream), and also the weirdness of the atypical Wrapping Paper and The Coffee Song. This album highlighted the weird dichotomy of Cream as being on the one hand a serious blues and heavy group, and on the other hand a typical mid-Sixties pop group with ambitions to have hit singles that could compete in the same market as Herman's Hermits. Clapton allegedly left The Yardbirds because they were becoming too commercial, yet something like Wrapping Paper could have fitted right in with the commercial Yardbirds. Maybe the idea of psychedelia informing the music mitigated this strain of twee pop for Clapton.

I had seen the Wheels of Fire double album in a couple of record shops but was reluctant to pay a double album price for a record that had a number of tunes I already had versions of on the Cream albums I did own, and a number of studio tracks that were unknown quantities. I could not quite see that Wheels of Fire would be value for money. Then I came across the live part of the double album on sale as a single album at Silverstone's record shop in Cape Town. The live set consisted of the very excellent Crossroads and a lengthy version of Spoonful, but unfortunately also a seriously long version of Toad, which did not exactly thrill me, but at the price I would pay for the record, I was prepared to overlook the endless drum solo. As it turned out, I really only listened to the one side of the album. Toad was too tedious and Traintime also did not fire me up. I did not play this album all that much.

The last Cream vinyl I bought was, aptly, Goodbye, the final album in the studio canon, though half of it consisted of live tracks. If memory serves, I bought it on sale when the Stellenbosch branch of Ragtime records closed down and sold off its stock. The live cuts were the most interesting tracks, apart from Badge, the single from the album that I already knew from the Best of ... set, and then there were the baroque, psychedelic studio tunes that sounded like outtakes from Wheels of Fire, and did not advance the Cream cause all that much.

And that was where I left off with Cream until I started buying CD's and duplicated a portion of my record collection.

The first Cream album I duplicated was Disraeli Gears, bought at the independent record shop Outlaw Records in Hout Street, Cape Town. The digital version of a well-beloved LP was a revelation all over again. The remastering gave a much improved stereo effect with cleaner sound, devoid of the crackles and pops of the vinyl, and allowed me to luxuriate even more than previously in the amazing playing of the three principals. Even better: each time I played the album the quality was the same as on the previous occasion; there was no deterioration. I fell in love with Disraeli Gears all over again.

My cousin Minnette is an air hostess for the South African Airways and about 1992 she started flying overseas and later that year, or perhaps early in 1993 she asked me to give her a list of CD's I wanted but could not find in South Africa. My list included Going Blank Again, the then latest album by the contemporary "shoegazing" style band Ride, Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti, and Fresh Cream. The other albums I could probably have found locally but Fresh Cream was elusive, being neither contemporary nor particularly legendary. Led Zeppelin's back catalogue is probably a perennial money-spinner but the debut album from Cream would nowadays be a relative obscurity.

Anyhow, Minnette brought back the three albums I've mentioned, of which Fresh Cream was the most welcome and ultimately the most played. I knew most of the tracks already, but the exciting newbies were the studio versions of Sweet Wine and Cat's Squirrel. Sweet Wine I knew from the lengthy live version on Cream's Cream but I had never heard Cat's Squirrel before. The nice thing about the CD is that it included Wrapping Paper and The Coffee Song, which weren't on the original record.

In about May 1993 there was a burglary at my flat and the thieves stole my amplifier, CD player and half of my CD collection, including the Disraeli Gears CD and fortunately left behind Fresh Cream. At the time my CD collection was so small, perhaps 100 albums, that I could keep the whole lot of them in two shoeboxes. For some unexplained reason the thieves took only the one shoebox. My collection was decimated and my heart ripped out to the extent where I had nightmares about the loss for years and years afterwards.

Fortunately it was not too difficult to rebuild the core of the lost collection, included buying another copy of Disraeli Gears. In quick succession I bought a budget album called Sunshine of Your Love, which is was just the second half of Cream's Cream and on the Internet CD track database the album was fortuitously listed as Live Cream II, and Live Cream, and Goodbye. In short order I rebuilt my Cream collection in the digital medium.

In around 2002 I came across The Best of Cream CD in a Cash Converters shop in Wynberg. This CD was more or less the equivalent of The Best of .. vinyl album I'd bought so many years before, and was a tad superfluous since I owned most of the albums from which the tracks had been drawn. I bought the CD because the completist urge collectors have.

Around that time I read about a new double CD compilation called Cream at the BBC, part of an extended series of similar named releases by a number of famous Sixties and Seventies bands. The review said that the album consisted of nothing more spectacular than versions of Cream favourites recorded for various BBC sessions during the band's heyday in accordance with accepted BBC practice at the time and that the versions were not particularly different or more interesting than the studio versions as these songs were not in the form of the extended "blows" for which Cream had become famous. If you owned the studio albums, you pretty much had similar but better versions of the BBC tracks.

So, when I saw the Cream at the BBC album in HMV in Oxford Street, London, in 2005 I passed it by as not being good enough value for money for a South African shopping in England at a time when a British Pound cost a cool ten South African Rand. These days I regret my failure to splurge out. After all, if one is truly a fanatic, such an album must be in the collection.

However, during the same overseas trip I finally again came across the CD version of Wheels of Fire, for a more competitive price than the BBC session, and I promptly bought it. Now I owned CD versions of the entire official Cream catalogue, latter day compilations excluded, and could die in peace. The previously unheard studio tracks were a bit of a mixed bag for me. Of course White Room and Born Under a Bad Sign were well-known, but Politician and especially Deserted Cities of the Heart were revelations, more so because they were much more subtle and intricate ( Politician had such incredible overdubbed guitar parts) than the hard charging live versions I loved so well. The other psychedelic pop type songs were improved variants on the Disraeli Gears' blueprint, with the added extra of Felix Pappalardi, but on the whole were less satisfying than the earlier album, perhaps because so much of it sounded too much like trickery for its own sake, without depth or even anything particularly interesting in the lyrics, tunes or playing and I guess it is telling that these tunes have never become Cream standards.

In 2005 I ventured into a different media for another fix for my Cream addiction. I bought the DVD version of the November 1968 Cream farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall, something I'd always thought would be beyond my experience. Yet not only did this DVD contain the original 59 minutes long version broadcast by the BBC, it has an extended version of the concert footage, with extremely plummy and pukka voice over and archive interview footage with the three band members. This was exciting stuff indeed but also quite flawed in that the Tony Palmer documentary is shot in the typical experimental and avant garde style of the time, where the viewer is forced to watch Ginger Baker flailing away while Eric Clapton is playing a blistering solo. We see lots of Jack Bruce's face in close-up, or Ginger Baker bashing away, and lots of shots of the back of Clapton's shirt, but very little of him playing. This makes for very frustrating viewing, and after maybe two screenings, I resorted to treating the DVD as a live album playing in the background when I do other things. Watching the damn thing was just too frustrating.

The interview snippets are probably the best visual material on the DVD as they give a bit of insight into the workings of the musicians' minds and a good glimpse into what was fashionable to wear in about 1967 when the interview inserts were filmed, if the hairstyles are anything to go by. Clapton tells and demonstrates how achieves his celebrated "woman tone" and demonstrates licks. Baker informs us quite nonchalantly that he no longer practices his drumming technique and shows us a few of his tricks. Bruce simply gets mystical and ethereal about what he does without demonstrating too much bass guitar technique.

The best use of the Cream Farewell Concert DVD is to contrast the performances on it with that of the reunited band's Royal Albert Hall gigs in May 2005. Of course the band members were in their 20's back in the later Sixties, full of energy and attack, and the performances crackle with the vigour of a band at the top of its game, a group that is breaking up only because the individuals not longer see eye to eye on various matters, are tired of incessant touring and would rather go out at the top than keep on milking it for it's worth for as long as they can.

In 2005 the three guys are older, more staid, less adventurous and obviously no longer have the strength or stamina to stretch out for as long as they did back in 1967 or 1968. this is understandable from a Jack Bruce who had been sickly for a long time, or Ginger Baker who was already in his mid-sixties, but Eric Clapton is the major disappointment for me. The main problem is that his playing style has changed so radically over the years, from the blazing, hard-charging, sustaining and feedback inflected Les Paul style to the Seventies laid-back Fender Stratocaster style where every solo is a blues solo, and even if it almost hurts me to say so, the solos on the CD or DVD of the 2005 concerts are invariably technically excellent but not very interesting. The solos actually detract form the tunes, they are unnecessary breaks in the action that do little to enhance the tune or the performance. I did not expect Cream 2005 to sound exactly like Cream 1968, or that they should soullessly replicate the old live versions of their best loved tunes, but I did expect more fire and brio, more life. The three guys clearly enjoyed themselves on stage in 2005, and made a ton of money for such a keenly anticipated reunion, but bring nothing of value to their back catalogue. Cream sounds different but different is not necessarily good. They do play tunes that were never or seldom performed live back in the day, but this is almost little more than novelty for its own sake when you can't bring those songs to life.

I was very keen on acquiring the CD and DVD of the 2005 Royal Albert Hall concerts but quickly realised that I would not be watching or listening to them all that much. In fact, the last time I truly listened to the tunes was on a walk on a West Coast trail. I'd downloaded the tracks on first CD of the double set onto my cellphone and tried to mitigate the tediousness of a section of the trail by listening to Cream while I trudged along on the soft beach sand in the heat of the day, wondering how soon I would be able to down an ice cold Windhoek Lager. The music helped some but I could not help but wishing I were listening to Disraeli Gears or Fresh Cream instead.

Sometimes one's heroes should remain the faded old archived legends they were when you first heard of them and investigated them. The Cream of 1967 was well nigh perfect. By 2005 the Cream had gone sour.






Monday, May 05, 2008

Rodriguez Just Won’t Die

A 55 year old Hispanic man in sleeveless tank top and dark glasses has an exchange with some Black labourers holding spades, in what seems to be the grounds of an institutional building; in an attempt to find some common ground he tells them that he too works with a spade back home. They stare at him with incomprehension because they have no clue who this man is and why a video crew are filming this silly scene. The Hispanic man is one Sixto Rodriguez, a former musician who gave up trying to make a living from his music way back in the Seventies when his native country more or less ignored him and the few albums he'd released there. Rodriguez (he is known just by his surname) is being filmed for a TV documentary of his first ever concert tour of South Africa in March 1998. In the Southern Hemisphere he is a cult figure of truly mythical proportions and his Seventies albums Cold Fact and After The Fact remain in print here and are easily found in almost any record store while elsewhere in the world his name means nothing.


There were two spin-offs from the tour. Firstly there was a concert recording souvenir of the tour, a CD ingeniously titled Live Fact, probably the first Rodriguez release anywhere in the world since the mid-Seventies. Secondly there was a made for TV documentary called 'Dead Men Don't Tour' that was shown on SABC3 on Thursday 5 July 2001


There were other township scenes in the documentary. Rodriguez was obviously given the standard tour of the real South Africa, the people on whose side he would have been back in the Seventies. All good and well, but it comes across as the cliché of the well-meaning foreigner coming into the country for a brief visit and insisting on seeing the squalor with which he identifies so that he can go back home feeling a great solidarity with the people whereas the people feel no solidarity with this man at all.


Fair enough, Rodriguez is entitled to see the conditions of the people whose struggle for freedom from oppression he probably fervently supported in his younger days when he had a brief music career in the early Seventies as a post-hippie, Dylanesque singer-songwriter with a couple of albums to his credit, none of which made a dent in the consciousness or wallets of the great American rock audience. Rodriguez lost his recording contract and as a conscientious man with a wife and chidden to support he packed away his rock star dreams along with his guitar and took up a blue collar job where he languished in obscurity for the next twenty five years or so, not even an entry in Rock Encyclopedias of the time much less current ones. He was just another talented musician who found that mere talent was not enough to give him the career success so many of his contemporaries enjoyed.


In the late Nineties in South Africa there was Craig Bartholomew a chubby, balding journalist and obsessive Rodriguez fan who made it his Herculean mission to track down an obscure, local cult musician of whom most rumours suggest that he was long dead. He managed to make contact with the cult object through the local record company who were still paying royalties to one of their perennial good little earners and eventually he obtained a phone number and phoned the very much alive cult figure who, not unnaturally, was totally incredulous that there was someone out there, for that matter a whole bunch of white rock fans in Africa, who was still interested in him and his music. One thing led seamlessly to another and a South African tour was set up for the legend who apparently was so far removed from the music business that he no longer owned a guitar. The promoter of the tour bought Rodriguez a new ax as a gesture of good faith and also brought his wife and two daughters to South Africa to keep him company.


The tour took in the major urban centres and everywhere Rodriguez played he was welcomed like a god returned to his people after a long absence. He filled 4000 seater venues (self-deprecatingly he tells us that he expected to play to audiences of about 800 or so; maybe that was the size of the largest audience he ever played to in his professional career) and received tumultuous, joyous ovations from rapturous audiences, a great many of whom are shown happily singing along to the famous tunes that are, to be sure, his greatest hits.


The documentary is full of little camera tricks probably informed by the digital age but mostly it is in the standard format of concert footage at various shows interspersed with interview clips, soundbites of musicians and other people involved in the project and soundbites of (mostly) young fans at the gigs telling us what a groovy legend old Rodriguez is.


The legendary thing is that he is a major cult figure in South Africa and his only other markets were Rhodesia (as it then was), Australia and New Zealand. In these countries he sold a fair wack of records back in the Seventies, and presumably still does, seeing as how both his albums are still in print here (there is this semi-apocryphal story of the CD pressing factory somewhere in Europe that only presses Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon and one might almost think that there is a CD pressing plant in South Africa that does nothing but press Rodriguez CD's for the market in the Southern Hemisphere) but in his native country he meant and means zip, diddley squat.


Why this is so is obviously a mystery. Cold Fact, the major player of the two albums, is a small gem of post-psychedelic folk rock with interesting lyrics and great tunes, tunes that one can easily sing along to or hum in the shower. A great pop album. My theory to explain the success over here has to do with the forbidden nature of the two most popular tracks, "Sugar Man" and "I Wonder." The first is unambiguously a drug song and the second asks "how many times have
you had sex?" They have great tunes and in a just parallel universe ought to have received a lot of air play but back in the Seventies South Africa was a very repressed society and the airwaves was controlled by the SABC which in turn was controlled by men who saw themselves as solemn guardians of the nation's morals and politics and they would rather have died than allow songs as these two songs to be played on the airwaves. One can easily understand how such a "ban" (rather typical of the way the SABC music programmers operated) could have led to the album achieving underground notoriety and hence popular success: the SABC could not stop you from playing the album on your hi-fi.


It is one of the glaring omissions in the TV documentary that we are never told how many copies Cold Fact have sold in South Africa to date or indeed how many copies it is still selling annually. Indeed, there is very little biographical material; his wife tells us what a wonderful guy he is and there are glowing testimonials from local fans and musicians alike but we are not told when he started his career, how many albums he released and when he actually gave it up and why. Possibly the makers of the documentary were determined to preserve of the mystery and obscurity; the myth grew despite the lack of biographical detail, so they may have conspired not to diminish it with petty facts.


Rodriguez is strictly a white South African secret delight. He means absolutely nothing in the local Black market (then or now) and it was white people who attended the concerts. By all accounts Rodriguez is a man with a social and political conscience -- the songs tell us this, he tells us and his wife tells us – and this is why he would never have toured South Africa in support of a newly released Cold Fact. At the time this country was firmly and seemingly forever in the grip of apartheid and a paranoid government that would barely have allowed him in much less allowed him to play to racially mixed audiences as he would have demanded even though his local fan base has always been exclusively White.


From the video footage it seems that the concert tour was a financial and emotional success, although probably not on a Rolling Stones kind of scale. The venues seem to have been filled to the brim with hugely enthusiastic, substantially young audiences who thoroughly enjoyed themselves, sang along to the well-known tunes and gave Rodriguez tumultuous welcomes wherever he appeared. He must truly have felt like a long lost hero making a triumphant return to the scenes of old success; there was a lot of love in the rooms he played.


Unfortunately, if the video clips are evidence of the general and overall nature of his performances, Rodriguez had lost whatever passion and fire as a performer he might once have had. One can understand that he was forced to rely on lyric sheets for songs he had not played for more than two decades but even so he could have put more passion into his singing. In all the clips the vocal performances lack power, for all the world he sings like someo9ne who has been singing the same old hits so often that he has completely lost interest in them, he is trotting them out one more time to fulfill a contract. I would have expected him to be more joyful in his singing, happy and enthusiastic to be singing long lost songs that he probably thought he would again have the opportunity of singing for any kind of audience much less a large and adoring one. Before the TV show I was considering buying the Live Fact album but now I'll stick with the studio albums; what is the use of putting out a live album that will do nothing but tarnish the image? It is perhaps a nice souvenir if you were there but if not, stick with the tried and tested studio versions and the bubble will never burst.