Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Fleetwood Mac: The Dance

In 1997 Fleetwood Mac reformed as the late '70s version of the band, the most commercially successful incarnation of an organisation that'd started out as a purist blues band and, after some lost years in MOR limbo, ended up as one of the biggest era defining groups of the '70s and early '80s.

By the late Nineties Fleetwood Mac was pretty well dormant and the various members kept themselves busy with solo careers or simply relaxing by the pool, enjoying their money, or at least one hopes they did. The band did not truly manage to retain its strength and creativity after the departure of Lindsay Buckingham and it limped on for a while before the remaining individuals realised it would be better to have a long hiatus than to try to regain past glories. It is interesting to note that Fleetwood Mac could survive the departure of all its previous guitarists but could not manage the same trick when Buckingham went off to do his own thing. This would possibly mean that he was the creative heart and soul of the band. On the other hand, the band was no longer as hungry and struggling as it had been during the tenure of most of the previous guitarists and this probably meant that it was not too difficult simply to lie back for a while and not flog the deaf horse of a moribund creative unit.

Anyhow, in 1997 the band got back together for a series of gigs. No doubt money played a role, and the rekindling of a monster success story, even if everybody concerned was considerably older than in the heyday of the Rumours juggernaut.

On stage the band dress quite conservatively in good, only slightly Bohemian taste, much like the somewhat older audience it drew to its concert. The 3 frontpersons wear black, which is of course highly chic and fashionable and not an intimation that they are really up there for the eulogy of a once great band whose nostalgic memories they will be attempting to revive. The audience is profusely thanked for listening while the band members do their patented Fleetwood Mac thing with the assurance and authority that come from long years of experience. This is the kind of show that once again redefines adult oriented rock, this time for an audience who may have been kids back in the day.

There is a powerful sound system and the visuals are great because the camera coverage is so extensive, and it seems that a good time was had by all, the musicians on stage and the paying audience. Of course there is no wild dancing in the aisles, everybody is super cheerful and happy and well behaved. You cannot imagine this slightly wonky group of middle aged people, wearing lots of makeup to hide the years of hard living going backstage between numbers to do a line or two just to keep the energy levels up. The look like the spring water and macrobiotic food types, though John McVie was always a bit of a lush, and Stevie Nicks probably had regular whole body blood transfusions to maintain her youthful appearance. Even her profile shows signs of a certain blowsiness and Christine McVie looks exactly like every other well preserved Englishwoman of a certain age and class, perfectly made up and every bottle blonde hair in place. She should be the chairwoman of the parish library and not some kind of rock star. In fact, on reflection, she makes me think of the female sidekick to Donald Trump in his Apprentice reality TV series.

Lindsay Buckingham is a little gray around the temples but otherwise looks quite young and fresh though in close ups his eyes seem rather sad. Maybe he is not really comfortable revisiting the old hits. Buckingham still sings as good as ever and plays great virtuoso guitar, even doing some solo numbers from solo albums just to drive home the point that he had, and has, a life outside of the monolith.

Overall the music is mixture of the old hits and some new numbers and the USC marching band is trotted out yet again for Tusk – obviously the kids of the band that played on the original version – and great fun is had by all. I would imagine, other than the styles of dress, this concert would have been pretty much similar to any performance the band gave at the height of their success and as such it is a good souvenir of one of the giants of pop rock.






Charles Shaar Murray

In the mid-Seventies Charles Shaar Murray (or CSM as I soon came to know him) wrote the first article I ever read about Dr Feelgood, published in Hit Parader magazine.

Today I watched a YouTube clip from 2009, of CSM and his band Crosstown Lightnin' performing Hideaway, the Freddie King number also made famous by Cream. CSM plays a white Fender Stratocaster and throws a bunch of conventional lead guitarist shapes.

Although he plays a different guitar and has a different stage personality, I was struck by the striking similarity between the way CSM looks today and how Wilko Johnson, erstwhile guitarist for Dr Feelgood looks today. They could well be brothers in more ways than just in the blues.

Crosstown Lightnin' sounds like a lot or competent blues bands and there is nothing in particular about the performance on the video to suggest that we are dealing with a whole new deal in blues. Evidently CSM is having fun, he can play the guitar well and I would imagine I would have a good night out at any venue they play.

I must make a confession and say that Charles Shaar Murray was the first rock writer I really rated both for his erudition in matters of which I knew little at the time, and for his hip, funny style. In 1977 when I started buying the NME I was more or less clueless about rock music in its broad spectrum although I had started on my journey to learn as much about it as I could. The thing was that the books I had dealt with older music, the glam rock of the early Seventies was the most recent music they dealt with and by the dawning of the age of punk such stuff was well and truly old fashioned. The NME provided me with a window into what was happening in the UK at the time, albeit always about 6 months behind the times, and of its many good writers CSM was the guy who spoke loudest to me.

He liked the blues, and I was just starting on my journey into the blues as well, yet he obviously had all the right credentials and moves to fit right into contemporary rock with a somewhat more jaundiced eye than some of the young guns at the NME who either did not know much about anything before punk or chose to pretend that none of it mattered.

It was only when I bought Shots From The Hip that I read CSM's earlier pieces and fully realised how wide his experience in rock journalism had been, and I must also say that the self consciously hip style and gonzo affectations of many of the items from the pre-punk era seemed a trifle pretentious and precious and grated slightly on my nerves, but on the whole it was a good way of learning how a style develops and how a rock writer can change his viewpoint over time and yet remain true to his original vision.

I liked CSM's style in the weekly NME because he was funny, cool, and wrote in clear, precise English and said what he meant and meant what he said, unlike, say Ian Penman who specialised in clear as mud bullshit. Of course I shared many of CSM's opinions and he became a guide. If he liked something, I would like it too and if I did not know anything about the artist, his recommendation was a motivation for seeking out a record.

An NME with plenty CSM in it was a delight; an NME with no CSM in it, was a bit of a dud.

Over the years I've bought Shots From The Hip, the collection of articles for various publications, Crosstown Traffic, the critical study of the music of Jimi Hendrix (the very serious style of this book made it seem like a doctoral thesis, very unlike the loose style CSM usually employed) and Boogieman, the John Lee Hooker biography, where the CSM of old made a reappearance, in the style as well as in the narrative. I wish there was more, either anther collection or maybe just another book. Perhaps he is busy researching or writing something new, and playing blues guitar in his spare time.

Maybe he is doing a Tom Wolfe and is working on his debut novel at this late stage of his writing career which had been focused on journalism. Whatever it is, I look forward to it. This man is a major talent.

Nowadays CSM is gray and wears his hair very short, possibly to camouflage the bald spot. Back in the day he had a mop of curls and liked wearing a dark suit with red Converse sneakers. When I first read of this sartorial style, I thought the guy was unspeakably hip. Not only could he write like a god but he fitted right in with his subjects. I wanted to emulate him and in my home town there was not much call for a pudgy, spotty faced, clueless pseudo punk and I was in any event way too scared of public ridicule to adopt a complete punk attitude and style. In my heart, though, I wore a black suit and red sneakers, and cultivated irony and wit as my defence against a cruel world.

Anyhow, my view of CSM made me believe that being a rock critic or maybe just music journalist, would be one of the best careers ever. In my fantasy life anyhow, as I did not pursue that route but stuck to my law studies instead.

I did not write about music at all until 1996, after I'd heard of the death of local guitarist Nico Burger, and was motivated to write about my interaction with Burger and the music scene in Stellenbosch and Cape Town from the mid-Eighties to the early Nineties. After that I wrote a steady number of pieces about various acts I liked or did not like and started publishing them on my various blogs. So, rock journalist I am not and will never be. CSM may not even write much about music anymore as he is now elevated into the rarefied atmosphere of the famous who can probably elect what they want to write about and no longer has any deadline issues to deal with.

Greil Marcus is another of my top favourite rock writers but he is almost the anti-CSM in that I do not believe that Marcus sees anything humorous in rock and his writing style is far too scholarly and literary and I believe that he overworks the subject matter a lot of the time. It is difficult to understand why anyone could take any aspect of rock music that seriously. Maybe Greil Marcus never practised his craft as music journalist, much less in the cauldron of the competition between British music weeklies in the heydays of the Seventies and spent little time around working, big name rock acts and never really saw the ridiculous side of it in action. CSM met a number of the big names and was not to beholden to mock the pretentious and stupid. He knew that rock stars were not infallible or even intelligently articulates because he saw them face to face and was not going to suffer fools simply because he or she may be earning millions in the popular music sphere.

Greil Marcus may continue to be regarded as some heavyweight observer and critic of popular culture and CSM may become a footnote as just another Brit who got a bit lucky in his career but never quite transcended is roots in the populist rock weeklies, but for my money I would almost rather have a collection of CSM's product than that of Marcus. When I regularly bought the NME I also kept scrapbooks of cuttings from it: reviews, articles, photographs. Those scrapbooks contained copious amounts of writing by CSM, from articles to reviews to Smart Arse Oneliner replies to letters addressed to NME, and covered pretty much everything he got published in the NME between 1977 and 1981 and of course I am talking about many more items than collected in Shots From The Hip. Some years ago, when I amalgated my household with my girlfriend's, I threw away a lot of stuff, including those scrapbooks, some 40 in all, and every now and then I feel a pang of regret. It would still be nice to look back at rock music history on the go as presented by NME and to have a comprehensive collection of CSM's opinions on the passing scene as he observed at the time.

One of the earliest CSM pieces I kept, was a profile of Muddy Waters, then in the twilight of his life and career, though the career had been resuscitated under the auspices of Blue Sky Records and Johnny Winter. For some reason I did not simply cut out the article, perhaps because it ran over a couple of pages and there may have been something else of value on the reverse of the Waters article. So, in order to keep the article (and the fact that it was about a legendary bluesman weighed very much in favour of the piece) I laboriously typed a copy of the article. The typing took much longer than I had anticipated as I used only 2 fingers to type and it turned out that what seemed a relatively concise article in printed form, took up more paper in A4 size than I would have thought possible. Apart from anything else it gave me a new insight in the amount of effort required to produce such a piece.

The NME writers were fond of referring to themselves, perhaps not completely sardonically ironic, as hacks but it is difficult to believe that a hack would have been able to turn out high class prose and entertainment almost each and every time he put his fingers on the keyboard of a typewriter. CSM has talent in spades, has an enquiring mind and sharp wit and was not, and probably is not, afraid to make use of these tools to make his mark and to say his say. Whether he is a genius as a guitarist, is difficult to say from the evidence of one video clip but I must say that I always found it slightly weird that the man would be a blues aficionado, to the extent of playing in a R & B band, amidst the New Wave acolytes of the NME who would have considered the blues as so obsolescent that it would make boring old farts seem fresh, hip and happening. This was one reason why I loved the concept of CSM; he was not afraid to be different amongst the young Turks and to be tolerant of their brutish Philistinism and almost reactionary antipathy towards anything that did not jibe with the new orthodoxy. CSM was not that old but he must have been regarded as fucking ancient by the newbies who seemed not only to know little of rock's history but did not care.

CSM knew that it was, all jokes apart, a big tapestry furl of rich colour and images, that a lot of it would be repeated in different shapes and forms over the future years and that even a young Turk will grow old and be superseded by even younger and more radical Turks. In rock music writing you are only as good as your last published piece, and CSM was good in every one and excellent in most.




Big Bill Broonzy

In the Forties and Fifties there were a handful of bluesmen who became favourites of the hip White establishment particularly those who favoured American folk music and the Black sub-variant thereof, and they were Leadbelly, Josh White, Lonnie Johnson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Big Bill Broonzy. These guys knew the blues and perhaps played quite deep blues in their time but were also successful with White audiences because they sanitised the blue, removed the salaciousness and deep emotion and presented it almost as a pop music.

Big Bill, for example, was well-known as a musician in the Thirties for the Bluebird label, recording blues tunes with small groups that had much more in common with the small group jazz popular at the time than with the typical Delta bluesman. Big Bill's very urban, very commercial blues was very much a musical style that appealed to his audience and not quite a serious expression of any kind of mental state even if being Black in an American city was only slightly better than being Black in the rural countryside of the Deep South.

When he was a young guy, Big Bill was a professional musician who made his living by entertaining his people; he played for dancing and not for contemplation.

Some years later, when his commercial value had waned, he was "discovered" by trendy White loves of Black music, still somewhat of a taboo, and they were some times more purist than truly at one with the music they purported to love and to support, yet I have always thought it had more to do with fashion and the assumption that the so-called love of blues music was more of an intellectual discourse than a really visceral experience.

This was why the British blues and trad jazz aficionados were so appalled by the noise and energy of the Muddy Waters band when he first played in the UK. The British blues fans thought of blues as a quaint folk type of music played by one guy and a guitar, telling tales of a hard life and unfaithful women, not some electrified band concerned with entertaining their audience in the same way they entertained back home.

Broonzy came from the musical background of blues as popular entertainment and not some 'authentic' style practised by unsophisticated back country bluesmen. That aspect of his career had gone forever and he quickly realised that a new career beckoned if he were prepared to change his style and adopt the guise of the type of blues musician approved of by the White impresarios who would market him and of the audience he would be playing to. He picked up his guitar, learned some country blues and suddenly he was lionised all over Europe as the very epitome of the authentic bluesmen. Apparently he lapped up the attention, and who could blame him, and had an excellent last few years of his life, a bit like the resuscitation of Muddy Waters in the late Seventies.

The music from the Bluebird years showcase Broonzy as a musician who can master a number of styles and it is mostly joyful blues, sometimes racy and salacious, sometimes more serious, always played by an ensemble of musicians who probably know more about infusing their jazz with blues than sounding like anything that came from the Delta. One feels that the Delta musicians, even if they were employing the technique of composing new blues from putting together bits and pieces from a standard selection of licks and phrases, more or less reflected the truth of their lives, where Big Bill Broonzy's urban blues tunes sound composed from scratch with an intellectual, musicological approach rather than as life experiences.

Lots of overly serious White blues enthusiasts saw blues as a pure folk expression of the musician who wants to make art out of his life, whereas in fact most blues musicians of the very old school, the guys from the Mississippi Delta, for example, made music as a way of getting out of manual, low paying labour, or to supplement the income from manual labour and not as some expression of high art. The folk art aspect of it was a pure invention of the intellectualised approach to blues appreciation by people who mostly knew the blues because they listened to records and not because they went to rent parties or Saturday night fish fries, or visited juke joints where the audience wanted to eat, drink and be merry, and wanted the musicians to play loud and long for dancing and maybe fighting, not to make art. Those audiences were not sitting down, quietly and reverently taking in the subtle nuances of the lyrics or instrumental backing, they shouted, argued, laughed and had a good time. It was only much later on his career that Big Bill Broonzy found himself playing to audiences who were so well-behaved you would hardly know they were there until they politely applauded at the end of numbers. No rowdiness or rambunctiousness here.

And, being no fool, Big Bill soon realised that he had to present his craft, and his life, as art in order to keep his new set of patrons happy, and by all accounts he did. He had entertained his ghetto audience in one way and he now adapted his act to entertain his uptown audience in another way; but one way or another it was all schtick.

I love the story of how Muddy Waters brought his electric band to Britain on his first visit there, because he heard the English audiences were keen on the blues, and then freaked them out by the sheer loud energy of his superb Chicago band, when the average British blues lover thought of the blues as a quite folk-style performed by some old guy and his acoustic guitar. When Muddy returned some years later, having learnt his lesson, he left the band at home and packed only his acoustic guitar, happily prepared to be the folk blues guy he thought the Limeys wanted. Much to his surprise fashions had changed and now the audience was annoyed precisely because he did not have his Chicago band with him.

The point of this is also to demonstrate that blues is as much subject to popular fads and taste as any other popular music and that the average bluesman had to, and still has to, keep abreast of what his audience wanted from time to time. From this perspective Big Bill Broonzy was no sell out or cynical seeker of the White man's moolah when he turned all down-home and folksy. This was his time, a bit like the revitalisation of Muddy Waters in the late Seventies, or the rediscovery of Mississippi John Hurt or Fred McDowell, who were genuinely country bluesmen, and Big Bill knew a commercial opportunity when he saw one and had been after that pot of gold his entire career in music.