Friday, December 30, 2011

Eric Clapton Blues

I'd long lusted after this double CD of Clapton's blues recordings in the decade between 1970 and 1980 but it had always been too expensive for me to buy in a record shop. Somehow there were many other double CD albums that were cheaper or became cheaper over time. Not this one. Even though it was still expensive I bought it in September 2011 because I had a voucher. Of course I bought 3 other CDs at the same time and still spent a bunch of money but on average the Clapton double album cost me R121 from my own pocket. Not bad.

Clapton is one of my favourite blues guitarists ever, in the top three with Peter Green and Albert King, and his work with Cream initiated me into blues and prompted me to seek out the old bluesmen from the Mississippi Delta, whether they stayed there and played at country juke joints, or went to Chicago, electrified and played taverns on Maxwell Street. Clapton's solo on the live version of "Sleepy Time Time" from Live Cream will always be in my personal top ten of great guitar moments; in fact a lot of his work will be in that top ten list.

I won't pretend to be a Clapton completist. I am fond of the Yardbirds stuff; the tunes he cut with John Mayall are pretty damn amazing and his work with Cream is unsurpassed. That is more or less where I stopped listening to or buying any Clapton release before Unplugged, and then From the Cradle and the two albums dedicated to the music of Robert Johnson. The rock star stuff from the Seventies, Eighties and beyond leaves me mostly cold. I do own 461 Ocean Boulevard and Slowhand but that is mostly because those songs resonate with echoes of my youth and rock radio. I also own Timepieces: Live in the Seventies because it was cheap and I have One More Rider, the live double album from the late nineties because it was cheap, but only the performances on the first named are any good. Obviously the Clapton band is professional and proficient yet they kind of suck the life from the songs they play. It is one thing reinterpreting your best loved songs; it is quite another thing to smother them with sophistication and stagecraft. There is a large pop audience out there for Eric Clapton and kudos to him for finding that audience in the first place and continuing to satisfy it. I prefer the bluesman Clapton and always will.

The general way in which Clapton has dealt with the blues over the years has changed considerably as can be expected from an artist with such a long career. In the early days, when he was young and hungry and played a Gibson Les Paul, it is all fury and attack with the famous "woman tone." When Clapton switched to the Stratocaster he also forsook the youthful brio and found a somewhat brighter yet also mellower sound, sometimes a tad too bright and trebly for my taste. The roar of twin humbuckers is just so much more to my taste than the piercing tone of a single coil pick-up. This was especially true of the Seventies Clapton, when he wanted to be just another guitarist in the band and not the overweening solo star, and it was a great relief to me to hear, in From the Cradle in particular, that Eric Clapton could still play dirty blues and make them count.

If I think of solo artists of the Seventies, Neil Young stands out as the guy whose records from that decade I would want to own, and I do have a bunch. When I think of Eric Clapton the only truly compelling album is Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs. 461 Ocean Boulevard is important but not a desert island disc. Nothing else really matters though I would not mind owning the expanded (CD) version of EC Was Here and perhaps Just One Night, both live sets that showcase different aspects of the repertoire. The first of these had a cover that was highly risqué for Stellenbosch in the mid-Seventies, featuring a close-up photograph of a naked female torso. It was the kind of record cover a hormonally charged teenage boy like me could secretly perve over when flipping through album covers in a record shop. I would have been embarrassed to buy the record though even if Clapton was a legitimate rock god. The music is a mixture of tunes from Blind Faith and Derek & The Dominoes and is weighted on the contemplative, acoustic side of Clapton's repertoire. The original record was flawed in that, as single platter, some songs were faded out long before the actual end of the liver rendition. In those days, it seems, Clapton liked stretching out on his blues.

The later live double album was recorded at the Budokan in Tokyo and is the typical combination of old and new, rock and blues, that was the staple raison d'etre of live albums in the late Seventies, when, after Frampton Comes Alive, record companies woke up to the realisation that this relatively low cost product (no need to book lengthy studio recording time) could be massively profitable. By 1979 Clapton had been a solo pop / rock act for most of the decade, and very successfully for about 5 years, and had a good selection of hits to entertain an audience with, and given that he is a master musician with a crack band behind him, one could expect more powerful, more expanded versions of his hits. The only tracks from this album that interested me were the blues tracks but at the time his updated version of songs like "Rambling on my Mind" did not appeal because of that trebly Stratocaster sound which sounded kinda thin and anaemic to me, compared to the versions with John Mayall or Derek & The Dominoes. In later years I have come to appreciate this sound for what it is, without hankering back to the old days. He moved on and his sound moved on.

I am not a big fan of the pop Clapton, especially the latter day version, from the Phil Collins years in the Eighties to the present. He may have made a number of accomplished, polished non-blues albums and have achieved a good measure of commercial success with them but his laid back pop style is not to my taste, however sincere and committed he may be. I now own the CDs of 461 Ocean Boulevard and Slowhand, mostly because of the significant impact their respective4 hits had on local radio, and I would not mind owning Backless either, simply for the inclusion of the two blues standards "Early In the Morning" and "Floating Bridge", but that would be just about it. The Another Rider live collection was a complete disappointment, even with the inclusion of some old favourites, because the arrangements were so anodyne and lifeless, although I can see where a live audience would have appreciated the big performances. There just does not seem to be much energy in these renditions and reinterpretations. The album of the Cream reunion concerts suffer from the same failure. Most of the venerable Cream tunes sound like Eric Clapton being backed by some anonymous session guys, churning out tired versions of songs for a nightclub audience who are as old as the band members and who are there for nostalgic reasons and not because the music is still vital. Cream once had fire, energy and brio; in 2005 it was just about the money, I guess, regardless of the protestations to the contrary.

It is the bluesman Clapton that I truly appreciate and like. Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, From the Cradle and the two albums dedicated to the music of Robert Johnson, and even the Riding With The King collaboration with B B King, are the desert island disc Clapton records in my collection. Then there would be the entire Cream oeuvre, and probably also Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton. All of these are, to my mind, imperative choices.

In the Seventies Clapton regularly recorded blues tunes for his albums and interpreted them within the context of his band sound of the time, which often contrasts sharply with the sound and attitude of the specific blues records from 1994 onwards. The blues bottom line is there but the songs tend to sound merely bluesy as opposed to being deep, heartfelt blues.

The first CD of Blues consists of recordings from the Seventies, mostly with the core bands of the time, one track with Derek & The Dominoes, one guitar duet with Duane Allman and a solo recording. Some of these tracks have never been released and some have been taken from their parent albums.

The second CD consists of live recordings from the same period.

The studio set is bookended by two different versions of "Before you Accuse Me." I know the version from Unplugged quite well and the full band take is quite interesting, given that the syncopated interplay between the guitars is reminiscent of "Lay Down Sally" from Slowhand, and typical of the Tulsa sound of J J Cale. It was recorded during the session for Backless, the album that followed Slowhand but this take did not make it to the album. It sets the tone for the type of blues interpretations Eric Clapton essays on most of the tracks on this album. Here the blues is expressed as world weariness and deep melancholy and not particularly insouciant. The approach may be intended as being laid back, in keeping with the general tenor of the Clapton sound and emotional connection to his material, yet some of the tracks, and here I am thinking of the jams on "Meet Me In The Bottom" or "Country Jail Blues", just come across as enervated and lacking in inspired drive. "Meet Me In The Bottom" sounds like an out-take studio jam, with Clapton making up the lyrics as he goes along. No wonder this track is "previously unreleased." Apart from making up the numbers on this album, there is no good reason to have unearthed it from the vault, unless it is intended to illustrate that Clapton and band could have great fun messing around with a well-known blues tune.

Strangely, "Give Me Strength" works better than the blues covers, perhaps exactly because it sounds like a real plea from a man with real problems and is not merely a regurgitation of blues tropes.

The two songs that I am really glad to meet again are "Early In The Morning" from Backless and "Floating Bridge" from Another Ticket. The first of these was the tune that made me want to own the record, as it was the first Clapton blues, other than his work with Cream, I'd heard and by then I already knew Junior Wells and Buddy Guy's version of it too. I'd recorded "Floating Bridge" from the radio but had not been completely on station for the opening minute or two, which gave the taped performance an outer space weirdness I really liked. Great performance of an interesting Sleepy John Estes tune, too, and kudos to Clapton for honouring a relatively obscure country bluesman.

The second interpretation of "Before You Accuse Me" is more of proper blues than the cut that opens the CD. It is rhythmically less interesting yet also rocks harder and has more of the feel of the disgruntlement the lyrics suggest.

It is perhaps the greatest failing of this collection of tunes drawn from a commercially successful and personally bad period in Clapton's life too often sound a tad gutless and enervated. Obviously Clapton plays the blues because he loves them and I would not say that these performances are perfunctory or rote nods to his roots and influences but on occasion, and this holds true for the live set, I would have liked some fire, some intensity. The Englishman's quiet desperation does not inform the blues as well as the oppressed, and repressed, rage of the Mississippi bluesman.

The clue is the inclusion of "Wonderful Tonight" in the live set. It is a beautiful, heartfelt and tender love song to Patti, the opposite of the emotions expressed in "Layla", also about Patti, and the latter song would have been a better fit in a blues context, as it comes from the same tortured space as "Have You Ever Loved A Woman", which is included in the live set.

The problem, though, is not really the song selection but the way in which Clapton performs them. The required intensity is just not there; some of these performances sound like a band going through the motions one more time on old favourites. I appreciate that one cannot expect Clapton to revisit the blistering version of "Crossroads" released on Cream's Wheels of Fire album but I would have hoped for something with more punch and urgency. In a way the version on Blues adumbrates the sound of the reunited Cream at their 2005 Albert Hall concerts and that was the sound of three older guys who no longer can, or want to, play with the same power and raw inventiveness of their youth. The thins is that Eric Clapton was only in his Thirties when the live performances on Blues were recorded and he already sounds like the 60-year old guy at the Albert Hall in 2005.

My belief is that Clapton recorded and performed blues during the Seventies because it is a music he loves and not particularly because he wanted to pursue it as a dedicated genre. For this reason the blues performance had to fit in with the general ambience of the rock tunes and this is why the blues on Blues seem so anaemic compared to the recordings on From The Cradle and Me & Mr Johnson, where Clapton set out to pay dues to the blues. He is always the consummate craftsman and does not overheat the blues, like (for example) Gary Moored, whether ii is with the big Clapton band of the Seventies or with the small combos of the later blues recordings, but this also means that he does not sound all that committed to the material, even if he may have been, presented on Blues.

This double album is probably an excellent compilation to represent a facet of Eric Clapton's recorded and live output during the Seventies. It reflects the fact that Clapton never abandoned the blues and that it formed the bedrock of his oeuvre over the entire length of his highly commercial solo career path following on the high pressure of Cream and the relative failure of Derek & The Dominoes. Although I am somewhat disappointed by the lack of urgency and intensity in most of these blues performances I am nonetheless glad I now own Blues. I will never be a Clapton completist, as I do not much care for his more popular recordings though I will always be appreciative of his take on the blues, whichever way it goes.

Eric Clapton may not be God and he may not be blues incarnate either but he is a jolly fine bluesman all the same.







Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Miles Davis

I love second hand book shops and I love flea market CD stalls. In either one can find amazing bargains and copies of books or albums that are no longer easily available in your mainstream book or CD stores and often one can come across an obscurity that catches the eye and the attention and turns out to be a marvel.

In late December 2011 my wife and I were in Montagu for a couple of days and one our last day, on our way out of town, we stopped at a second books shop about a block from our hotel because my wife was looking for a religious book as Christmas present for her brother . The bookshop is quite large and would have made wonderful browsing for a book fanatic and previously I would happily have spent an hour picking through the stock but I don't do that these days, as I have too many unread books at home.

I did however take the time to look over the small stock of second hand CDs on display in the front of the shop. They were mostly classical music albums but there was some jazz there too. The one jazz album I bought is a live recording of the guitarists Charlie Byrd, Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis.

The other jazz album I bought is Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (1959) in a digitally remastered version.

I do not have a particularly close relationship to jazz and especially not to the kind of jazz played by the various Miles Davis groups over the years or, simply put, modern jazz as whole, which mostly sounds like background mood music to me. The style of jazz I like the most and have liked since I first heard it on records borrowed from the Stellenbosch municipal library is the hot music made by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five and Hot Seven groups of the Twenties and Thirties. This is visceral music that makes me wanna get up and holler. Miles Davis may make music of utmost genius but ultimately it hardly moves my soul.

My mate Sean Rosenberg has a handful of Miles Davis albums he'd bought when he was a student, mostly the classic records from the late Fifties and early Sixties, well before the fusion excursions of the late Sixties. I guess Sean's musical tastes as student were much more sophisticated than mine. Although jazz is deeply rooted in blues it is not the expression of blues I prefer and certainly did not prefer when I was in my early twenties. As I've said, this stuff sounds like dinner party music you play to set a quiet mood in the background. My kind of blues has to be played loudly to work for me.

Back in the early Seventies the Stellenbosch municipal library did not have many modern jazz records and I do not recall any albums by Miles Davis. The library did, however, have John Coltrane's A Love Supreme (1965), which I borrowed, because I knew the name of the artist (and had the impression of him that he was an iconoclastic, revolutionary saxophone player) and listened to a bunch.

The album consisted of two longish tracks on the first side and a 17 minute long track on the second side. This was challenging for me who was very much into short, sharp stabs of rock or blues and my overall impression of the music and my recollection of it after all these years, was that Coltrane had an abrasive, confrontational style of squawks and honks and endlessly spiralling harsh notes that did not sound very musical to me and absolutely not remotely comforting or soothing. This, to me, was anti-jazz, in relation to the type of modern jazz, for example Dave Brubeck or the Modern Jazz Quartet that I had been exposed to at the time. On the one hand this stuff made no sense to me, as I was not musically trained and could therefore not understand or appreciate the intricacies of what Coltrane was doing, yet on the other hand this stuff was so "in yer face" aggressive I made me think of it as jazz with a punk (circa 1976) attitude that made it quite cool to like simply because it was not pretty.

I have listened to a lot of jazz over the years, mostly incidental to other activities and my thoughts on the subject have not changed much. It is still a music I can only appreciate on an intellectual level and it is a music that often, where I have encountered it as a live music, has come across as fussy, technical and highly irritating because the musicians take the music and themselves so seriously. I believe one can study jazz in the same way that one can study classical music, and nowadays can study rock music. Jazz is meant to be an improvisational music and it seems to me to be counterproductive to study it; surely the magic of jazz is in the moment of creation?

I find modern jazz, the acoustic, small group variety, palatable enough. For some reason, though, jazz fusion, whether with classical music, rock or funk, is one of my pet musical hates. The level of virtuosity may be boundless yet the vacuity is often as boundless. One of the worst listening experiences of my life was a record with John McLaughlin and some noted jazz drummer. I could not distinguish between the tracks. To my untutored, primitive ear, each performance sounded the same as the previous or next one on the album, and each of them was pretty dire. The playing was obviously of a high professional standard and the tempos were frenetic yet the emotional impact was nil. It was a pointless record as far as I was concerned.

Many years ago I bought a biography of Miles Davis and more recently I bought a book on the making of Kind of Blue. Although I have not pursued a jazz path, it is always important to have more information on one of the most important jazz artists of my lifetime.

Now, finally, I own a copy of what is thought of as one of the most important records of all times in all genres. There are 5 tracks, all of them over 5 minutes in length; three exceed 9 minutes and one track is longer than 11 minutes. That's a lot of improvisation.

On first listen it seems that the first two tracks, "So What" and "Freddie Freeloader", are based around the same intro theme and are differentiated only by what the musicians do to that theme over the length of two different takes.

"Blue In Green" sounds like the soundtrack to a scene where movie character meanders introspectively down a beach at a cold dawn. It is very pretty and doleful and perhaps it is a million movie soundtrack clichés that brings this visual accompaniment to mind. It is no good listening to even the most revolutionary of music about 53 years after it was recorded, as time and many imitations usually blunts the impact considerably and probably does an injustice to the original purpose and sense of the music. Having said that, I cannot believe that Kind of Blue truly served as some kind of call to arms for a revolution in jazz.

I guess it would help to know something about music to have a complete understanding of what it is that I am listening to. The untutored, primitive ear just hears the superficialities of mood and texture and probably cannot comprehend the complexities of the musical innovation or subtleties of the infinite variations on chord, melody and mode run by the musicians. On the other hand, I know what I like and why I like it and I know why something grips and engages me when it does, and why it does not. One does not have to understand the technique a painter employs to appreciate the work of art and one does not have to know how to read music to feel the visceral attraction of a particular piece.

I find it interesting that for the most part the performances consist of horn solos over the backing of a muted rhythm section of piano, bass and drums. This is quite unlike the busy, sometimes frenetic, style of the Louis Armstrong Hot Five or Hot Seven combos where it seems that all the instrumentalists are fighting it out for space in the tune, none giving way to the others yet none getting in the way of the others. That is a way of playing that is akin to the electric blues band Muddy Waters put together in Chicago in the early Fifties.

In the Miles Davis approach, the soloist has all the space while his fellow horn players lay out, possibly with the intention to listen to his solo more carefully than if they were also playing at the same time, but this method also adds to the feeling of enervation and lethargy. It would have been nice, for example, to hear a duel between Adderley en Coltrane, given that they have such diametrically opposed styles. I guess that kind of thing was reserved for R & B style honkers and was the farthest away from what Miles Davis would possibly have wanted any of his groups to sound like.

Nothing on Kind of Blue sounds out of the ordinary to me. On the face of it, this music is of a piece with all manner of different jazz records released in the Fifties in the so-called cool jazz style. Maybe musical conventions I know nothing of were broken but I can hardly listen to this record and believe that it was anything as important as, say, those first recordings Elvis Presley made for Sun Records, many of which were quite conventional, with only a handful standing out as truly a breakthrough from country and blues to rock and roll.

I can see where Miles Davis achieved commercial success with this music. It is not offensive or weird and would make the perfect background for a hot, lazy day by the pool or a cold evening by the fire, whether you are indolently happy or neurotically depressed. Unfortunately it still comes down to the perception I have of this type of jazz as background music and not music that is interesting or engaging enough to make me sit up an listen intently.

I have come to Kind of Blue as an adult, with a wide and varied interest in music, as evidenced by my very eclectic collection, and it has been a long time since any piece of music affected me to the extent where I became obsessed with it or the artist's output, or where hearing a song for the first time was a light bulb moment. If I choose to explore the music of Miles Davis now, it will be a pursuit driven by curiosity rather than passion.



Thursday, December 15, 2011


In 1972 Elektra Records released Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, a double album of songs from the mid-Sixties by a group of bands who had been influenced and inspired by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dylan and psychedelics to make music that was of the youthful arrogance of musicians breaking new ground and perfect pop. Many of these songs were hits of a kind, if not always Billboard number ones. All of them are great.

In the early Eighties I bought the 1976 re-issue on Sire Records, with a different sleeve to the original. NME had highly recommended the album as at least conceptually an influence on the late Seventies punk movement the NME was championing and had more or less insisted that it was an essential part of the well-dressed record collection. Lenny Kaye, then guitarist in the Patti Smith Group and rock writer, had made the compilation and had written the comprehensive sleeve notes. All in all, Nuggets was a must have.

At the time I my first-hand experience of American rock music from the Sixties was pretty much limited to the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane. The bands on Nuggets came from a completely different angle and, often, geographical location, than the better known mainstream artists. Their basic guiding principle was to write short, fiery pop songs with an edge: that punk attitude that informed the likes of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols roughly ten years later.

The first two volumes of the Encyclopedia of Rock (which I bought in 1974) gave me a theoretical basis for my explorations into rock music by providing brief biographies of the bands and individuals the compilers of the encyclopaedia considered to be the most important rock acts. Volume 2 of the Encyclopedia covered the Sixties and amongst other luminaries, had entries on The Electric Prunes, the Blues Magoos, The Seeds, The 13th Floor Elevators, Standells and The Amboy Dukes. Nuggets afforded me the opportunity of putting a sound to the names. By and large I was blown away by this stuff. It was intensely good end enjoyable fun. The music re-emphasised to me that the experimental Sixties, when bands were trying out new sounds and new experiences, represented the best period in music ever. There was innocence, a naivety and a knowing cynicism all at the same time in the music industry. Particularly in the USA where the music industry was as much a calculated moneymaking enterprise as the movie industry, and where record companies jumped on trends and exploited them to the max for as long as the record buying public could be persuaded to buy the songs from the latest dance craze, and at the same allowed all kinds of weird and wonderful songs out on record and on to the radio. Hence the songs on Nuggets.

Neil Young recorded a version of The Premiers; "Farmer John" for the Weld live double album but could not do justice to the rough and tumble of the original version. "(Just Like) Romeo & Juliet" by Michael and The Messengers is probably the most exciting, revelatory previously unknown to me track on Nuggets. This is the most supreme of one hit wonders and I believe that it is best that the bend was never heard of again. Just for the sake of preserving the pristine sugar rush of this glorious slab of soul inflected doo wop style rock and roll.

There is the glorious mid-period Beatles pastiche of "Lies" by The Knickerbockers or the early electric Dylan pastiche of Mouse's "A Public Execution" or the inspirational version of "Hey Joe" by The Leaves (copied by Japanese psych rockers The Golden Cups) and the snotty snarl of "Let's Talk About Girls" by The Chocolate Watchband, probably my favourite Sixties band of all time.

I could write a eulogy of just about every one of these tracks, as each one is great in its own way, one visceral surge of excitement after another. I would imagine that this album could have been sequenced as an idealised example of perfect, parallel universe style, Sixties pop radio programming. These songs were never Top 40 hits and would therefore not have made it to heavy rotation and that is why it silly to believe in this selection as an accurate reflection of the wonderful world of Sixties pop. Then, as now, a lot of crap made it to the Top 40 and most of the best stuff never did.

The amazing difference between the CD re-issue and my original vinyl copy is that digital remastering gives the tracks far more sonic depth than I knew they had. Perhaps the analogue recording studios and techniques could give these recordings a lustre and a power that belie the relatively primitive times these tunes were recorded in.

Man, I love this kind of stuff! These songs are the reason why I could never get into prog rock. The music on Nuggets is not introspective and the lyrics are not the kind one pores over to seek deeper or hidden meaning. It is the kind of music where you turn up the volume and do a freaky, happy dance.


Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Gary Moore’s Blues

When I think of the great blues guitarists Gary Moore does not readily come to mind. A blues shuffle is one of the most basic guitar skills to learn and running up and down the blues scale to construct a riff or a solo is not that difficult to learn and I guess the blues is the base from which many young guitarists start their career even if they progress to something much more technically complicated or just heavier. Jamming on a shuffle in A or E, or any one other key, is one of the commonalities of guitarists the world over, a language two guys from opposite ends of the spectrum can understand.

Gary Moore was a heavy rock guitar player, with Thin Lizzy, a heavy jazz fusion guitarist with Coliseum and had a solo career too, in the rock anthem arena. He is one of those rock artists who had an entire career of which I know little and for which I could care less, as his kind of rock bombast never appealed to me. It is based on the kind of triumphant virtuosity that does not seem to have much more effect than to sound impressive yet have very little visceral impact.

In the early Nineties Moore saw the commercial light and released a trio of blues albums. The trilogy comprised of two studio albums (Still Got The Blues [1990] and After Hours [1992] ) and one live set, Blues Alive (1993). He recorded a mix of blues standards and his own compositions. On at least one track he performed alongside Albert King, whom Moore dubbed "King of the Blues", a title Albert had always claimed though that right had also always been disputed by B B King.

I guess this collaboration with Albert meant that he was a greater influence on Moore's blues style than B B King ever was, given Moore's rather muscular hard rock approach to the blues. I really rate Albert King and, if pushed to make a choice, would prefer him over B B King, good as the latter is, because I like the powerhouse Albert King style. Not that either Albert King or Gary Moore is incapable of subtlety; it just does not seem to be quite the norm. Having said that, Gary Moore also recorded a tribute to Peter Green's blues from the Fleetwood Mac years, called Blues for Greeny (1995) that amply illustrates Moore's ability to replicate the style of one of the most exquisitely tasteful and subtle of blues players.

A couple of years ago and at a now defunct flea market stall on Green Market Square I bought the album Ballads & Blues 1982 - 1994 (2006) that featured, as appears to be mandatory for Gary Moore compilations, "Parisienne Walkways" in a live incarnation, along with some rock ballads and a couple of kind of blurs tracks. I bought the CD because it was very cheap (the inlay was missing) and I was disappointed because it was not that much of a blues album and I do not care for the Moore take on would-be-anthemic rock ballads. Three or maybe only four of the tracks are worth repeated listening. "Blues for Narada", an instrumental, was the biggest surprise of the album, as it is a very moving performance, more blues in conceptual feel than dirty downhome wailing and in the same ballpark as "Parisienne Walkways" as a song that could be a major crowd pleaser at a gig. One can see the thousands of flickering lighters or, as a more contemporary innovation, flickering cell phones.

Having googled the Gary Moore discography I now know that there are even more blues albums than the four released between 1990 and 1995. I have never seen the more recent albums or even been aware of them. Clearly the commercial appeal of the blues remained even amidst the more standard rock fare. I would be so bold as to say, though, that the earlier albums are still the best.

There are a couple of compilations of the 'blues years'. The one I have is Parisienne Walkways: The Blues Collection (2003), which is in fact a compilation of tracks from the blues albums released by Moore, plus the mandatory "Parisienne Walkways", a song on a Phil Lynott solo album and which seems to be so closely identified with Gary Moore that a collection of his songs must include it to have any chance of selling in significant volume. The version generally available is a live version, with an incredibly long sustained note that is probably the moment the listener waits for as the song is not bad but hardly compelling other than for the Moore guitar part. In this instance "Parisienne Walkways" comes from Blues Alive.

I picked up this blues collection for a song at Cash Crusaders. The presence of "Parisienne Walkways" was not a unique selling proposition; in fact, I would have preferred an album without it.

As I recollect Chris Prior played a few of these Gary Moore blues numbers on his late radio show on Radio 5 and they sounded pretty good on the FM airwaves. I really like the blues and have a fondness for good blues rock as well, or maybe I should call it blues influenced rock, as a bunch of bands who have tried to make rock songs out of blues just made crap. The two main issues are the rock rhythm section just cannot get the backbeat that is so necessary to swing the blues and that the lead guitarist believes he should solo as often and as long as he can, usually to boring effect over the length of an album.

Blues is meant to be about feeling and not simple technical ability, awesome as it might be. Gary Moore comes from a musical heritage where he could use his technical skill work for him in the blues context to produce music that satisfies as a whole. The backing musicians are often not, as far as | know, blues musicians but most probably simply top session musicians who can play in any style you require.

On this collection we have few Moore tunes, a couple of standards, including a duet with Albert King on "Oh Pretty Woman" and, significantly, a handful of songs either written by one P A Greenbaum, better known as Peter Green, or associated with the Green-era Fleetwood Mac.

"Oh Pretty woman" is the bravura opening track with a big blues rock guitar attack that belies any semblance of a deep attachment to the spirit of the blues though, of course, the Albert King signature tune, is pretty well standard braggadocio by a bluesman who was never ashamed to grandstand when he could. It is just that the bluster of the rock trappings do not do justice to the song or to the concept. This version could easily have fitted in with the Gary Moore heavy rock show.

I know "Walking By Myself" better in a much more sympathetic treatment by Johnny Winter from Red, Hot and Blue, the second album Winter cut with the Muddy Waters band in the late Seventies, and Moore's take on this Jimmy Rodgers classic is not as leaden as the opening track, yet also not as easily swinging as the Winter interpretation. I guess this is the difference between a guitarist who grew up in Ireland listening to the blues on record and a guitarist who grew up around the Texas juke joints.

"Need Your Love So Bad", "Merry Go Round", "Showbiz Blues" and "Love That Burns" represent the Fleetwood Mac tribute and are the most bluesy and sensitive of the tunes on offer. Moore has an appealing lovelorn voice and does justice to his material here. He cannot quite beat Peter Green at his own game though. Who can? Nonetheless these versions are worth revisiting.

The weirdness on this compilation is a George Harrison song that is rather appealing and melodic but I would hardly have thought of Harrison as a bluesman. The pop smarts of the song works well in this context of good time rocking blues. Great sing-a-long chorus. Coulda been a hit, I guess.

The three versions of "The Sky Is Crying" I know best are by the composer Elmore James, Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Here Moore takes the Albert King approach with piercing, forceful leads though he adds to the more or less dimensional King thing with a nod to Stevie Ray Vaughan's virtuosity. The basic thing one can say about Moore's take on the blues is that is loud end powerful. Unfortunately it is also somewhat too technically proficient and clinical to move me in the way Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf or Albert King move me. The blues should be about a feeling and the feeling Moore gives me is that he is making a commercial move and not a heartfelt one.

The album ends with three Gary Moore compositions: "Cold day In Hell", "Only Fool In Town" and "King of the Blues" and these tunes show that he is facile songwriter who knows his blues moves and can contemporise them to fit in with his big rock anthems. Rock solid rhythm section with melodic lead guitar combined with rousing choruses, is a formula for audience enjoyment and Moore knows how to work a room. He does not write blues from the heart, though. It is an exercise in song writing, albeit a successful exercise, that cannot truly touch the heart or even the gut, at least not mine.

Whereas I have listened a lot to Eric Clapton's blues and will continue to do so. The same applies to early Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green, Michael Bloomfield and even Stevie Ray Vaughan, all of whom were steeped in the blues and tried to do justice to the music and the emotion of it. My feeling is that I won't spend that much time listening to Gary Moore's version of the blues. Owning this compilation has more to do with satisfying my curiosity, after all these years, than with a desire to immerse myself in the man's product. Undoubtedly talented and skilled, yet not nuanced enough for my liking.



Wednesday, November 09, 2011


As far as I know Chicago, the band, is the only prominent rock band from the city of Chicago, which is otherwise known as a cradle of electric downhome blues, on its Southside and its West Side. On the other hand, Detroit, although it had its own blues musicians, was not a blues town but is well-known as a rock city and gave birth to a number of important bands such as The Stooges, Grand Funk Railroad and the MC5. There is even Bob Seger. Not all of them originated in the inner city of Detroit, in fact they came from the satellite cities and communities around Detroit, such as Flint and Ann Arbor, but for all practical purposes these bands can be called motor city bands.

The cliché has it that the industrialised Detroit ambience gave rise to a particular brand of high energy, uncomplicated rock and roll for the people. Grand Funk Railroad represents the truly dumb end of this spectrum, especially on their first couple of albums as power trio with somewhat pretensions revolutionary and anti-establishment rhetoric, mixed in with the paeans to good times, fast women and a tearaway lifestyle. The Stooges also sound pretty dumb and basic and had a sex god type as front man. The MC5 were the revolutionaries who belonged to something called the White Panther Party, played truly furious rock and roll and were not only influenced by revolutionary politics but also free jazz and, apparently John Lee Hooker and classic Fifties rock'n'roll.

The NME liked the MC5 and wrote about them as doomed outlaw rockers who tried their hardest to be bad ass and perfect pop and were ahead of their time, or not quite of their time. The MC5, along with the Stooges, were seen as forerunners of the punk wave that swept through the British rock establishment from 1976 onward.

By that time the MC5 were long gone as functioning unit. Wayne Kramer was leading his own band, Fred 'Sonic' Smith hooked up with Patti Smith, and who knows what the rest were doing. The Detroit unit released 3 albums and exited.

The second album, Back In The USA (1970), is deemed to be masterpiece of concise rock that not only spoke to teenage concerns but also made serious political points with a rock and roll beat and truly invigorating guitar fire-power. Jon Landau, one of the early rock critics and by all accounts a very conservative one at that in terms of what he regarded as perfect rock, and later Bruce Springsteen's manager, produced this album and made a short, sharp Fifties style pop record of it. Previously, on Kick Out The Jams, the debut, the MC5 had played to their strengths of brute rock power and advocating the revolution that was expected to sweep the nation. It was kind of in yer face and too basic and confrontational to make either the record company or the public happy.

Apparently the perfect pop album did not make it either. The MC5 could not or would not write perfect pop hit singles and were probably too notorious for their pop moment to make the commercial breakthrough.

In the late Seventies the MC5 was an influence but the records were not all that available and I was pleasantly surprised when I found Living In The USA at Ragtime Records, and at a bargain price as well. I snapped it up. It had a great black and white cover photograph of a sweaty, post gig band. It must be one of the classic rock album covers of all time. I did not listen to any of the record before I bought it, partly because I thought it a bit infra dig to listen to a bargain price record and partly because I was buying it purely on the recommendation of the NME. It was simply a record one had to own, an essential part of the well-bred record collection.

My anticipation was rewarded with great joy and happiness. From the opening cut "Tutti Frutti" to the last cut "Back In The USA", this was indeed an album of high energy, powerful rock, and rock that had something to say and said it well.

"Tutti Frutti" sets the mark for the obscure language of rock'n'roll that sounded like gibberish to adults and yet required no translation to have meaning to the teenage audience. "Back In The USA" was an ironic song, whether sung by Chuck Berry, its composer, or by Rob Tyner. Either way it was sung by an outcast from the perfect American society it describes and that obviously does not exist anywhere outside of some tourist brochure. The America eulogised in this song is most likely the America the White Panther Party was geared to destroy.

In the middle there are songs of teenage lust and of rock band member lust (something of a theme) and there is a tender ballad "Let Me Try", somewhat at odds with the general tenor of the songs, and a couple of punchy, funny political diatribes, such as "The American Ruse" and "The Human Being Lawn Mower." Not only are the songs snappy, they are also short and to the point.

A fascinating thing about the general information on the band, given on the record sleeves, is the very specific reference (Kick Out The Jams) to Fred 'Sonic' Smith playing a Mosrite guitar and Wayne Kramer playing a Fender guitar. Who knows whether it is Telecaster or Stratocaster? The only other Mosrite guitar player I know of is Johnny Ramone; perhaps Fred Smith influenced him. Which other bands ever took the trouble of telling you exactly what brand of guitar you hear on their records, unless it was an endorsed product?

On Back in The USA we are specifically informed which solos Kramer plays and which Smith plays. The only other album I know of where this information is available, is on Bachman-Turner Overdrive\s Not Fragile, a band that also featured two lead guitarists.

The other thing is the seriously large puffball hairdo Rob Tyner sports. Even more than the long hair of the other guys in the band, this kind of outrageous hairstyle must have shrieked rebel and flouter of social convention. Plus it is pretty awesome. I always wonder how such a magnificent hairdo stays in such pristine condition but I guess it was specially puffed up for the photo shoot.

Back In The USA is a brilliant album that deserves to ranked up there with the usual top ten suspects on best rock album lists.

It was some time later that I finally bought Kick Out The Jams (1968) and it was a relative disappointment after the brilliantly concise pop rock of the second album.

The notorious aspect of the debut album is the war cry of "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers" just before the band launch into the title track of the album. Sadly, my record had the sanitised version where the words "brother and sisters" have been crudely patched in to replace "motherfuckers", as the latter was apparently highly offensive to middle class America and in particular a chain of Detroit department stores that not only refused to stock this record but eventually refused to stock any record by Elektra Records, the record company with which the MC5 had a short-lived business relationship. Apparently Jac Holzman could kind of deal with the radical politics but the offensively vulgar language. At least not commercially. This was in days before gangster rap.

Anyhow, the music was a lot rougher and more brutal than on Back In The USA and a lot less pop friendly. This was the MC5 amping it up, riffing it up and rocking the house with sheer noise and balls. The energy is undeniable yet also seems somewhat pointless on occasion, such as on "Rocket Ship" or "Rocket Reducer. No 62 (Ramalama Fa fa Fa)" The sex rock chant of "Come Together" is not the more funky Beatles song. If the MC5 song is indeed intended as a sonic re-enactment of sex, I would pity the poor woman on the receiving end.

This kind of breakout may have meant a lot to the audience at the Grande Ballroom, especially if they were wasted and spaced but on record the noise palls somewhat. For all I know Kick Out The Jams is a much more accurate reflection of what the MC5 were about than is the case with he following album. It does seem a tad trying though. The shorter, sharper songs, like "Rambling Rose" or the title track are the stuff of legend; the lengthier noise workouts, not. MC5 were not a jam band and their long extrapolations sound a tad too formless for effect. The effort and the sweat are palpable yet the result is a tedium and not a longing for release. At the end of this Grande Ballroom set the audience would have gone home with ringing ears and not necessarily expanded minds, whether cosmically or politically.

For many years I owned only those first two MC5 albums and it took until October 2011 before I finally acquired the third, and last, studio album High Time (1971). I had known of its existence but had never seen it anywhere, whether as LP or CD, until I order the trio of albums from The CDs were manufactured in Germany, though.

Apparently one can categorise the three releases as the Sinclair album, the Landau album and the MC5 album. It took the band five or more years to get to the point of being themselves, musically speaking. Perhaps, but I believe that the first two albums were simply the instalments of an ongoing process of refinement of the primal rock force the MC5 were from the beginning.

High Time has a terrible cover, a very literal interpretation of the album title, with photographs of the five band members as part of the clock face of a smashed alarm clock. Perhaps it was intended to be symbolic of the destructive power of revolution. Perhaps the destroyed clock was the result of a drug orgy gone wrong. Perhaps it was meant to evoke the almost cartoonish timer mechanism of a homemade bomb. What it true, is that it is terrible. It reminds of the similarly terrible cover photograph of Grand Funk Railroad's debut album, On Time, where the three Grand Funkers hold similar time pieces and look kind of sheepish, as well they should.

The one thing High Time has in common with Kick Out The Jams is that both album feature only 8 tracks, most of them on the long side.

The opening track, "Sister Anne", is as relentless a three chord rock attack as one could possibly want (could be the template for Status Quo if it wasn't for the far rougher vocals of Rob Tyner) and ends with a Salvation Army brass band outro. Trippy is not the word. It is also the most catchy track, by a long chalk, of the first four tracks, on what would have been side one of the LP. The concise, bright rock and roll of the previous album has been consigned to a dustbin of history and has been replaced by a sleeker version of the brute rock intensity of the debut album.

"Gotta Keep Movin" has a riff and lyrics, commenting on the state of the nation, that would have fitted right in, with brighter production, on Living In The USA, as complementary to "The American Ruse." "Future/Now" tries to do the same but the riff is too stodgy and there is no tune. "Poison" has an almost pretty vocal and "Over and Over", another deeply political song, has very impassioned singing that at times borders on the hysterical.

High Time comes across as a heavy rock and roll album. It is not heavy as in heavy metal even if tempos are often slower than the frenetic pace of earlier records, but it is hard and bottom heavy and almost deliberate, in strict contrast to the bright, crisp sound of Back In The USA. The heaviness is also a moral and political heaviness because the MC5 have not forgotten or abandoned their radical roots although John Sinclair is a mentor of the past. Instead of advocating revolution the MC5 are more concerned with highlighting the evils of the establishment society rather than smashing the walls for they are, after all, a rock and roll band and a rock and roll band cannot make a career of violent confrontation.

Although High Time is as visceral as the previous albums, it is not as immediately accessible and exciting, apart from "Sister Anne", as Back In The USA yet it is a more engaging and album than Kick Out The Jams.

The MC5 came in kicking and went out on a high. That is no mean feat.

Rob Tyner and Fred Smith are dead. Wayne Kramer spent time in jail for drug dealing and has resurrected a rock career since his release, as elder statesman of a distinctive style of high energy Detroit rock and roll. Blues Oyster Cult regularly performed "Kick Out The Jams" live and recorded one such performance for Some Enchanted Evening. The NME rock writers who championed the punk and New Wave waves from 1976 to about 1979 name checked the MC5 as definite influences, both conceptually and musically, on the destroyers of AOR. The MC5 cannot be rated by the numbers of records they sold in their lifetime. They will be rated by the longevity of those records and the impact they will continue to have on brash young rockers everywhere.












Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Status Quo

NME once described Status Quo as a bit of a national treasure and this was in the days when the Quo was still a serious gigging band who toured the UK constantly and was probably also quite big in Europe yet meant diddly squat in the USA. Quo had perfected the heads down, no-nonsense mindless boogie, with sing-a-long times. and had built a loyal following of mostly young men that made touring a financially viable prospect and they even had hit singles and hit albums. They were big without ever becoming truly massive.

Status Quo came to my attention with their 1974 single "Down, Down", which was a tremendous bit of that no-nonsense, mindless boogie. It sounded good on the radio and it sounded even better being blasted from a fuck off PA at a University of Stellenbosch student carnival rock festival at the university's Planckenbrug River picnic site, probably in early 1975.

I was underage and not allowed to enter the grounds where the festival was being held. For most of the afternoon I was in position next to the fence that surrounded the picnic terrain. It was a rock DJ and he played the best rock hits of the past few years. "Down Down" was among them and the one I remember best because it sounded so much heavier and dumber than on the radio.

I had no clue what the band was about or who they were. The Blue For You album, with the lads dressed almost totally in blue denim, was available at Sygma Records and it was one of the records I made a mental note to buy one day when I had the money. When I did have money, though, I did not buy Status Quo. In the meantime, Status Quo was an excellent advertisement for Wrangler jeans, or whatever brand it was that they wore.

The next Quo single of note was "Rocking All Over The World", their 1977 version of a John Fogerty song and if it was pleasant enough, it did not have the brute rocking power of "Down Down."

"Rocking all Over the World" and its eponymous parent album were released in year as Status Quo Live!, a good collection of hits recorded at the Glasgow Apollo. For some reason it did not feature "Down Down".

I acquired Live! about two years after its release when it was on sale at one of the bi-annual CNA record sales. Coincidentally the other records I bought at that particular sale were Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True and Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps. This must be an indication of the eclectic nature of my record collection.

My relationship with Live! was not exactly wine and roses. Some of the time I really liked it, especially the fast paced boogie songs, yet the interminable "Forty Five Hundred Times" with the audience sing-a-long soon started to drag. Unlike say, Cream's Cream Live or Live Full House (J Geils band) I just could not fully internalise and unreservedly love Status Quo though, on paper, the Quo sound is just my kind of thing. Pile driving shuffle rhythms, lots of melodic lead guitar and hummable, memorable tunes. For all that, Status Quo live on stage did not gel with me.

Live! has this lack of complete identification in common with Deep Purple's Made in Japan. "Smoke on the Water" is in my all-time top ten of great rock songs and the piano breakdown from "My Woman From Tokyo" is so awesome I once taped it over and over into a ten minute repetitive loop. For all that the live Deep Purple also did not gel. I bought the album from my friend Native Grief, had it for a month of two and sold it back to him to raise cash to buy Cream's Cream Live, a truly seminal album in my record collection.

By the time I bought Status Quo Live! I had enough of an income not to have to sell records to buy other records and I kept the album until 2009 when I gave away my entire record collection. I had not listened to the album in probably 15 years or more. From about 1981 when I bought a Yamaha tape deck it had been my habit to tape all my records and then to listen only to the tapes and save the records. I never taped the Status Quo album.

Somewhere in the early years of the 21st century I bought a CD with some tracks of the early Status Quo, with songs like Pictures of "Matchstick Men" and "Down The Dustpipe", one of the earliest boogie Status Quo songs I knew. Some years later I bought Disc 2 of the 3-CD The Essential Status Quo set. It was the only one of the three available at a Cash Crusaders store. Somehow I never got that much into either of them though the older, more poppy songs on the one CD were on the whole tastier than the more rocking tunes on the other album.

Now I have bought a twofer one set of the albums Quo (1974)and On The Level (1975), mostly because On the Level has "Down Down" (in fact two versions; the single edit is a bonus track, along with a handful of live recordings) and also because each of them has a couple of songs I know from the Live! set.

Either Francis Rossi or Rick Parfitt complained about the tinny sound of their early albums. It was only once they stopped touring and got to the Eighties that they learnt how to make records that had a full, solid sound, the sound they had always had in their heads but could not reproduce in the studio. Perhaps they were just happy to have the typical Eighties production values at their fingertips, given that that sound was then the cutting edge of recording technology. Today the stereotypical Eighties production just sounds terrible to me whereas the stuff from the Seventies seems to have held its own over the years despite the relative primitivism.

On the Level does have a solid bottom end sound. The guitars do sometimes sound a tad too brilliant and fussy, until the shuffle kicks in, for the boogie the Quo boys make and the vocals often come across as weirdly nerdy. The pop aspirations of the Quo, who wanted audiences to be able to sing along, almost undercut the power of the guitar crunch.

Status Quo came from psychedelic pop and knew how to write recognisable tunes. Then they put down that bottom heavy boogie sound and rocked the house. If that is not a winning formula I would not know what is. They ought to have had many number one hit singles.

The sight of Rick Parfitt, Francis Rossi and Alan Lancaster dressed in tight denim flares, denim waist coats, legs wide and head banging in unison while digging deep into a Quo riff must have been impressive sight at the Glasgow Apollo, or anywhere else the band took the stage circa 1975 or 1976. The term bone crushing comes to mind. In their day, with the power cranked up, Status Quo would have been louder than Led Zeppelin. This is why the records sound so weirdly like the simple bubble-gum rock of The Sweet, Mud or Suzi Quatro. Status Quo has harmonies, arpeggios, tunes and pop smarts on record. Live they had no mercy for the audience and their collective eardrums.

In this twofer collection Quo is the straightforward album as released in 1974 and On The Level has 5 bonus tracks from the era, mostly live (except for the single edit of "Down Down") that could be outtakes from Live!, if it weren't for the duplication that would suggest previously unreleased versions of well-loved anthems. Both albums have the requisite number of ingenuous variations on the basic shuffle I will always associate with Status Quo as its unique contribution to rock and also the requisite number of slower songs. On the whole On the Level is more satisfying and has the better songs. Quo has been called the heavier album of the two but I do not quite see why this would be so. Each album has the same crunch and same heaviness; Quo simply comes across as having less inspired song writing. And a drum solo that serves as a segue between "Lonely Man" and "Slow Train."

The four live bonus tracks to On The Level take me back to Quo Live! though the more interesting connection is that the opening tracks of both On The Level and Quo, respectively "Little lady / Most Of The Time" and "Backwater / Just Take Me" were paired together on that official live album. This would probably be an indicator that these two albums are prime Status Quo, hence the budget price pairing.

The well-known songs are much better than the rest of the songs on these albums and that is the likely reason why they have become Quo standards. The albums do not by themselves serve as inducement to investigate the rest of the band's oeuvre. I would perhaps not mind owning Quo Live! again and my interest in the band would be limited to the preceding studio albums but that would be a passing interest motivated by curiosity. I would like to own Blue For You but only really because I knew the album cover so well back in the day and not because I believe the music would be completely fabulous.

Status Quo is an acquired taste now, though once acquired, it is not a bad taste at all. The singles sounded fabulous on the radio and a greatest hits package would be the best way to experience the band's music. Alternatively one should have been at the Glasgow Apollo, or any of the other venues where the Quo rocked the house time and again. The albums are not intended for the quiet listening experience or the intense studying of the meaning of the lyrics. They are intended for playing loud, very loud, and for heads down no nonsense air guitar boogie.












Bob Marley

Robert Nesta Marley is probably to this day still the greatest reggae superstar there is, has been and always will be. No doubt he was the first internationally recognised reggae artist and the principal reason why Rasta and reggae are synonymous in many people's minds. Bob not only wrote early hits for Johnny Nash, but also "I Shot the Sheriff", Eric Clapton's monster comeback hit from his 461 Ocean Boulevard album, all of which gave him an entrée into the world of rock superstardom, but also wrote "No Woman, No Cry", which probably is as much of an anthem as "I Shot the Sheriff." in the late years of his career, from Kaya onwards, Marley also wrote a series of pop hits that leavened the heavily politicised Rastafarianism he had become known for and proved that reggae could be as much a vehicle for popular standards as for political expression.

Reggae, like Seventies funk, is an example of a genre of music I truly enjoy because I experience it viscerally and should have explored more thoroughly yet never have. Mostly because there is so much other music out there I love, that blues and rock is the predominant flavour of my CD (and my record before that) collection.

I guess my first exposure to reggae, or even ska, would have been Milly's "My Boy Lollipop", Johnny Nash's version of "Stir It Up" and Eric Clapton's monster hit version of "I Shot The Sheriff." I also heard the live version of "No Woman No Cry" every so often on local radio, as well as whatever reggae influenced pop was given airtime. Other than that, reggae was mystery music.

In about 1979 I attended the first of two (Cape Town) Woodstock music festivals in the Good Hope Centre. The Steve Walsh Buddies Band was one of the acts and amongst the other cover versions they played, they slotted in a couple of Bob Marley tunes, such as "Crazy Baldhead" and gave us a taste of White reggae at just about the time The Police were about to make it a lucrative genre.

Bob Marley was the big guy in reggae and the only international star; a household name. He had dreadlocks, was a Rastafarian (whatever that was) and smoked copious amounts of ganja. it was called from time to time. All of that made Marley the antithesis of what was considered a good, wholesome role model for South African youth. Apparently Rastas were also incredibly chauvinistic and sexist.

One of the interesting little facts about the punk movement that took Britain by storm in 1976 and 1977 was the NME reported that the leading lights of the movement seemed to listen to little else but heavy reggae.

The NME gave their favoured JA (it took me some time to realise that this as an abbreviation for Jamaican Archipelago) acts quite a bit of coverage and I knew a good deal about the top reggae acts long before I heard much of the music. One of the interviews with Marley that always stuck with me was headed A Lickle Love an' T'ing, by Cynthia Rose, if I am not mistaken, and if I remember correctly this was one of the first times a journalist raised the vexing question of the sexism that was prevalent amongst male Rastafaris who thought of women as little better than second class citizens whose job was to serve the menfolk and to be sexually available to their men and otherwise be chaste, while the men could avail themselves of whatever young stars truck women were hanging around the Rasta camp.

I found Burnin', the second album on Island Records of the internationally focused Mailers at the OK Record Bar as a budget release and bought it from curiosity and because it was cheap. My expectations were dashed. The main reason why I liked reggae was the deep, bottom heavy bass sound and drum rhythms that we wanna get up and dance. Burnin' sounded tinny and weedy, unlike the "rock" production I was expecting after reading how Catch A Fire had been gussied up for international rock palates. It seemed to me that Burnin' just had no power and that it was no better than a series of limpid, lazy songs of Rastafarian praise. I cannot say that it hardly ever left my turntable. In fact, I did not even take the trouble of recording it on a cassette tape.

I bought the Bob Marley & The Wailers Live album only some time afterwards and this, too, was unfathomably great, not only because of the rock solid grooves but the magisterial tone of the incantatory lyrics. This album made me understand why Marley was the superstar and not the other excellent reggae musicians show albums I owned.

During one of my moves from home to home in the early Eighties this album was stolen (along with most of my rap collection) by the movers. As was my practice with all my records I had taped the album and therefore still had the music and listened to it often. For some unknown reason I never replaced the record with its CD equivalent.

In 2005 I bought a DVD of a live performance of Bob Marley in 1977, at the Rainbow theatre in London, with a cover that was an almost direct copy of the live album. The songs from the Rainbow shoe overlapped with the songs from the Lyceum show released on the record, but there were some older songs and some newer songs from the then current Exodus album. The DVD is exciting, as it showcases Bob Marley and his touring band at the height of their powers with a powerful set of definitive songs in the Marley canon, and it was intriguing, so many years after Marley's death, to see him perform. He had played in Harare in 1980 as part of the celebrations of Zimbabwe's newly established lawful independence and democracy and some of my Varsity acquaintances had gone to see him but I did not have the gumption or even the inclination.

By the time of his untimely death Bob Marley had become a huge legend, one of the international and iconic superstars of the Seventies and one of the few who was not White and wasn't born in either the UK or the USA.

The live version of "No Woman, No Cry" from the Live album had been played on South African radio and it became one of my favourite tunes of all time, and more loved than even the mega hit "I Shot The Sheriff" but I was totally blown away when I heard the original studio recording of it, many years later, as released on Natty Dread. One of the revelations was that the slightly jerky, funkier rhythms of the original sounded miles different to the streamlined live version. It seemed to me that there had been a serious change in how reggae sounded from the early to the late Seventies. The latter sound was bigger and more monolithic and the earlier sound was lighter and more ska inflected. In most respects I found the early reggae sound preferable but I guess it is all good.

Somewhere in the first half of the first decade of the new millennium I bought the CD of Rastaman Vibration at Cash Crusaders and for the first time I got why Bob Marley became so huge. The songs were mostly unfamiliar to me, except for "Johnny Was" that I had heard in a version by some British band, perhaps The Ruts, from the early Eighties, and "Crazy Baldhead", the very same tune Steve Walsh had performed at the Woodstock festival in Cape Town in 1979. I had read about the Haile Selassie speech that formed the backbone of "War." On the whole I experience Rastaman Vibration a joyous, uplifting album, musically in transition between the early reggae style of the band that record Catch A Fire and Natty Dread, and the rockers style of Live.

I must also point out that the version of "No Woman, No Cry" on Natty Dread is a million miles away from the live version that became the international hit, and though the studio cut sounds kinda emotionally lightweight in comparison to the somewhat ponderous gravitas of the live version, I prefer the studio cut to the live performance.

My best Marley memory comes from taping one of his later studio albums that I'd borrowed from a friend. I'd put the record on the turntable, let the needle drop, pressed "record" on the tape deck and sat down at my dining room table where I was busy with some task or another, only half concentrating on the music. What I did notice of was a really good repetitive, rhythmic, dub-like instrumental groove that opened the record. It sounded like an extended, rather catchy, jamming intro to something that might promise to be a satisfying tune. After maybe 15 minutes it struck me that the instrumental intro had in fact become a long instrumental number and I was curious because I would not have thought that Bob Marley would record a song without vocals. I stood up and went over to the record player and found that the needle had stuck in one of the first grooves of the vinyl. The first track on the album was not a long instrumental after all. I had in effect been listening to a loop of the opening chords.

I immediately stopped recording but I listened back to the tape I still liked that loop and kept about 5 minutes of it. Then I cleaned the record surface and recorded it again, this time without any loops. The first five minutes of the tape was still the best part, though.

My most recent Marley & The Wailers acquisition is a CD called Classic Wailers and it is another version of a seemingly endless recycling of recordings the Wailers made in Jamaica before Chris Blackwell took them under his wing and made international stars of the group, and Marley in particular. After Marley's death the budget CD market was flooded with compilations of these early tracks and up to recently I resisted buying any of them because I suspected the music would not be all that wonderful. This album, though, cost less than R50 and was therefore not much of a risk if it turned out badly.

As it happens, the album turned out quite pleasantly even if the songs and performances generally feel more poppy end lightweight than the later more Rastafari infused albums. The songs are very tuneful, the rhythms grooving, bottom heavy and infectious and the material is a good cross section of almost straight R & B styled pop and the more philosophical and militant type of song the Wailers recorded when they became international stars. There are "Small Axe" and "Duppy Conqueror" I knew from Burnin and here they sound very much of a piece with the glossier versions on the Island Records release. There is Peter Tosh's very self-assertive "Stepping Razor," a number he re-recorded a couple of times in beefier versions but it is still one of his best tunes. There is "Stir It Up," there is "Lively Up Yourself" and there is a conceptually strange, though captivating, and version of "Sugar Sugar" by The Archies. The Wailers could do serious and militant and they could do sweet pop. They could absolutely do compelling listening, long before Chris Blackwell got his hands on them.

After spending some time with these songs I would almost say I prefer the pop reggae incarnation of the Wailers to the more militant incarnation. Catchy is as catchy does and these tunes are spectacularly catchy. Perhaps the Rasta influence and identity was the motivator for a less overtly commercial sound and a more "rock" approach that could co-incidentally lead to international stardom, given the strong, striking image righteous dreadlocked Jah warriors could parlay into recognition and success far beyond the borders of their island home.





Friday, November 04, 2011

Dan Bern

My favourite saying, or personal philosophy, is the Picasso statement "Je ne cherchez pas; je trouve" translated as "I don't seek, I find." This way of looking at things, in my case, applies particularly to the way I once built up a record collection and how I now go about building a CD collection. I have gone, and still go, to various CD shops simply to browse and then come out with unexpected finds, some of which turn out to be unexpectedly brilliant finds. Dan Bern's debut album is one such find.

Vibes Records in the Old Mutual Arcade, Cape Town CBD, was, with Outlaw Records in Riebeeck Street, one of my favourite music shops in Cape Town from the mid-Nineties through to its demise in the early years of the 21ste century. As the name implies Vibes originally concentrated on LP records, vinyl, as kind of specialist collectors' and second hand shop for old fashioned vinyl, which somehow clung on and even regained cachet in die era of the CD.

I, for one, completely abandoned records when I started buying CDs, because I saw no sense in duplicating my expenditure and because the quality of sound on CDs seemed so far superior to records that it was a no brainer to adopt digital technology and abandon analogue. The other really pertinent factor was that the surfaces of compact discs did not deteriorate as rapidly as record surfaces did. Anyhow, I did not frequent Vibes all that much when it mostly sold records, as I had no interest in their vinyl.

After a while Vibes started stocking CDs as well, probably when it realised that diversity of stock would ensure more sales. At first the CDs were displayed in a row of display cases along the outside window of the shop, with the central floor area given over to the mass of records. By and by the stock of LPs shrunk and CDs took over more and more space. When the store relocated to larger premises in the main part of the Golden Acre Concourse, Vibes sold CDs almost exclusively. The time of records, especially second hand records, was well and truly over.

I did buy a couple of records at Vibes, though, mostly J Geils albums, such as The Morning After,
Love Stinks and a live album. This was when I still had a working Yamaha tape deck and could record the records to audio tape, which I listened to rather than the vinyl.

Anyhow, browsing through the CDs at Vibes became a regular lunch time routine for me and I was in there at least twice a week, just to see what they had in stock. Over the years I bought many good items there, such as the 2-CD Neil Young live album, Weld, and the Fleetwood Mac double album Blues Jam in Chicago, to name just a few. I also started my South African music collection at Vibes, with the likes of Squeal, Sugardrive and Springbok Nude Girls, and many obscure others. I quickly became adept at sniffing out local product even most of the bands were completely unknown to me before I laid hands on their CD. Lastly, I bought a whole bunch of equally obscure, mostly American, rock music on the basis of price, primarily, and just curiosity. I was not averse to risking R10 on the album of some American punk band I'd never heard of and had not become internationally famous. I googled most of them and discovered that in many instances I had bought the first and only album the band had ever released. The best part was that most of the albums were quite good. Some of the hard rock was pedestrian and not very compelling but the punky type stuff was often excellent and made me wonder why worldwide fame and fortune had not followed.

One of these discoveries, based on price, was Dan Bern. The cover photograph shows Bern (for I guess it must be him) strolling along a dusty alleyway in what I guessed to be Los Angeles (don't know why) carrying a low slung acoustic guitar, and dressed in long shorts and T-shirt as if he were a skate board punk playing folk music. When I studied the CD inlay I could see that he was backed on some tracks by musicians but none of the information gave any clue as to what the music would sound like. If I remember correctly the CD was priced at R8,99 which was dirt cheap. I think Vibes had a whole selection of obscurities they were trying to get rid of by pricing them way down and I was steadily working my way through these. After a few weeks of seeing the Dan Bern album at Vibes I finally bought it along with some others.

I have a lifelong habit of buying music by obscure artists simply because the records or CDs were cheap enough for a gamble. Ninety nine percent of the time I've been pleasantly surprised. Apart from some records by early Eighties American new wave artists, I cannot recall any disastrous purchase. A number of the albums actually became hot favourites. Dan Bern's debut is one of them.

When I studied the CD insert I saw that Bern was backed by musicians, though the front cover photograph suggested that he was a punk folkie, and this was a motivation for buying the CD as I was not particularly interested in purely acoustic music, even from a punk folkie. The pleasant surprise was, even though Bern's musical backing was mostly his own acoustic guitar, that the accompaniment was a mixed bag of furious strumming and small combo, at times reminiscent of the breakthrough sound of "Like A Rolling Stone" with its emphatic, yet also almost subliminal Hammond organ part.

As soon as Dan Bern opened his mouth on opening track, "Jerusalem", I realised that I was dealing with something unexpectedly weird and delightfully eccentric. Mr Bern's persona was very much modern neurotic Jewish guy, unlike the poetics of, say, early Bob Dylan, and that he had a way with words that was kind of out of the box, semi-hysterical, funny, sardonic and very, very erudite and articulate. The two antecedents that come to mind are, again, Bob Dylan in his days of Desire, where he told cinematic stories that were far removed from the Dylan the Rock Poet days of "Like A Rolling Stone", and the similarly erudite, articulate and wordy songs of Paul Simon. Dan Bern just came across as much more neurotic than either of these examples.

I guess that Dan Bern is a storyteller and does not rely overly on biographical detail. When he starts ranting about how many olives he ate in "Jerusalem", apropos of nothing much, I realised that I was listening to either one of the best minds of his generation or to a crazy weirdo with a recording budget. Seeing as how Bern has released more than one album, though I've never seen the others, I guess he must have found an audience.

Apart from the seemingly autobiographical tales like "Jerusalem" and "Rome" (he must be well-travelled) Bern also muses on the fates of Marilyn Monroe, Henry Miller and James Dean, and waxes lyrical about the best minds of his generation playing pinball in the modern cultural wasteland, and other such concerns of the intellectualised artist of today.

There is even a song that is very much a pastiche, or adoring homage, to that "Like A Rolling Stone" sound I've referred to above. That Al Kooper organ part is so distinctive and makes such a dramatic impact on the song that it has been copied in various songs over the years by artists who want to emphasise to a greater or lesser degree their debt to the master rock poet of all time (to date hereof anyway) by a musical reference to one of the great songs of all time. Some of the music of Lloyd Cole and The Commotions are in this vein and Michelle Shocked's "Anchorage" plays to the same strengths, and was the compelling reason why I actually bought Short Sharp Shocked.

"Estelle", Bern's take on the "Like A Rolling Stone" template, works better than most because he may actually be trying to do an entire homage to the |new Dylan" cliché by doing an impersonation of the kind of impersonation comedians used to do when they spoofed Dylan and the school of protest folic singers that followed in his wake. Bern seems at the same time deadly serious and slyly humorous.

This is in many ways an amazing and truly delightful set and I would almost never want to hear any other Dan Bern record, in case the shock of the new and the delight in the weird wonderfulness of his worldview cannot be sustained. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was great; Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, less so. The first Matrix movie was innovative and marvellous and the next two provided seriously diminishing returns. I would not want to spoil my perfect record of the Dan Bern experience with a less than brilliant follow up.

This debut album also shows that one can pay less than R9 at a budget shop and find a treasure simply by taking a chance.

Iggy Pop

The Stooges were a legendary kind of band for me in 1977 when I embraced the NME and its tales of punk London. Iggy Pop was the Godfather of Punk or something stupid like that. There was a photo of a semi-naked Iggy (I think he wore a dickie bow and something to cover his cock) next to an equally naked 15-year old looking girl. There was a photo of Iggy on the floor of s stage, tangled in wires and with cuts all over his body. There was the photo of Iggy walking on the hands of a crowd.


The Iggy albums of the day were The Idiot and Lust For Life (both 1977) and they were very contemporary and Berlinesque and did not seem too dangerous at all. The NME wrote up Iggy as some kind of demi-god or wild beast or universal bad boy and spun tales of his out of control behaviour and notorious lifestyle. There were plenty references to The Stooges, the band he led before he went all proto new wave and weird electro disco. Allegedly Iggy taught the musicians in The Stooges his songs note for note. All the songs on their first two albums, The Stooges and Funhouse, were his visions and his destiny. The best songs on the debut album, basically everything not written by John Cale, are so basic that it is hard to fathom what the big vision was. Or how much Iggy had to do to teach his band his songs.


Anyhow, I read about Iggy and his awesome past for a couple of years before I actually owned any of his records. I do not remember whether any of the songs from The Idiot or Lust For Life were ever play listed on any of the South African radio stations I listened to then. There was no incentive for me to buy these records. I was much more interested in the legend and the assertion that The Stooges, along with the MC5, were giant influences on the punk bands.


Ragtime Records was a major independent music store in Cape Town that opened a branch in the then Trust Bank Centre in Stellenbosch. This branch lasted maybe a year and at the end it held a massive clearance sale. I bought not only the first three Blue Oyster Cult albums and a couple of Dylan albums but also the first two Stooges records. In one fell stroke I owned the original Iggy Pop firestorm of punk delights.


The Stooges sounded very much like punk, or how I imagined punk to sound like, basing my impressions purely on what I was reading in NME, as none of the punk bands were played on South African radio and their records were not available at Sygma Records. The Stooges played simple, basic music that sounded like the kind of three chord rock the NME was celebrating. Except for the weird psychedelic guitar freak-outs on the tunes. The basic rhythm sounded like punk. The guitar solos sounded like a totally different band altogether.


The second side of The Stooges (1969) from "No Fun" to "Little Doll" and the first side from "1969" to "I Wanna Be Your Dog" (and that would be from first cut to second cut) are well-nigh perfect as punk statement of intent. That this album was recorded and released in 1979, the year of peace and love Woodstock generation seems impossible. This rough, tough and ridiculously exhilarating stuff must surely have come from the heydays of punk, somewhere in 1976 or early 1977.


Only the 10 minute long tedious drone of "We Will Fall" seems of its time. it is a 'what the fuck' song, after "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and I've always thought it was imposed on The Stooges by John Cale, who produced The Stooges, as penance for the gall of all the other tunes. I think I listened to "We Will Fall" about once, on my first spin of the album and then ignored it for ever after. I don't care how avant garde it might have been or still is. I don't care if it represents a higher form of artistic expression. It sucks. It sucks and it fucking sucks.


"1969", "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and "No Fun" were my top tunes. I could easily sing along to them. I could sing them in the shower. I could shout out their words and not care whether I could hold a tune. It seemed that Iggy was the king of the non-singers. His words were not as profound and certainly not as knowingly poetic as the best Bob Dylan songs and yet they were probably truer.


Funhouse (1970) was the eye opener though. The first side from "Down In The Street" to "Dirt" (only 4 songs) and "Fun House" on the second side are just so achingly visceral; somehow more of a punch in the gut than even the debut album's finest moments. The words are better, the emotions rawer and the guitar dirtier. The most startling thing is the punk saxophone that excoriates the mental flesh. The two albums could have made a deliciously addictive single record – take away John Cale and "1970" and "LA Blues" sand you have perfection on vinyl.


I love primitive in music and The Stooges had that in spades. The MC5 were prog rock by comparison.


Nude & Rude is a collection of what the compilers must deem to be the best or best known Iggy Pop tunes. It starts with "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and ends with "Wild America" from American Caesar (1993.)


The narrative is the rock journey of a primitive, who was not as self-destructive as the myth would have it, reaching towards the standard rock dream of making a living from the only thing he was good at, gaining sophistication and experience and longevity along the way and where he might have been the Godfather of Punk when he was much younger, he is now the Michael Corleone of punk. Although incredibly wrinkly and loose of skin, Iggy still has an incredible body and it seems, like Anthony Kiedis from Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Iggy insists on performing with bare torso. I would imagine he no longer cuts himself with shards of broken glass on stage.


The Idiot and Lust For Life, the back to back comeback albums recorded with David Bowie guiding Iggy in Berlin, are probably the best Iggy albums to own other than the first three or four Stooges albums and this late Seventies era rock modernism no doubt inspired by metronomic Krautrock, gave us "Nightclubbing" and "The Passenger", respectively interpreted by Grace Jones and Siouxsie & The Banshees. "The Passenger" was a big hit in South Africa and remained a club favourite into the late Eighties.


I have no idea how many other artists have covered Iggy Pop songs or how many of those interpretations have been commercially successful in any way but my guess is that that there can't be that many. Iggy has an idiosyncratic vision and off-kilter way with a song and this approach is not for everyone.


One rather alarming impression, given how I have also thought of Iggy Pop as some kind of extreme rock performer, is that the majority of the late period tunes in this compilation seem kind of thin and without much rock muscle. The Ig can croon and he can roar and I prefer the roaring Iggy, or at the very least the petulantly yelping Iggy of The Stooges or Funhouse,

with Ron Asheton's freaked out guitar blasts. Iggy got older and perhaps wiser and needed a more commercial sound to sustain his career longevity, but his producers did him no favours by smothering the guitars.


On the evidence of this package I'll stick to the first two Stooges albums. I no longer have the LPs and I should order the CDs from Dumb fun gets no better than this.