Saturday, September 24, 2011

Muddy Waters

McKinley Morganfield is such a great name I don't know why Muddy Waters preferred becoming famous under his nickname.

Howlin Wolf, once Muddy's greatest rival, also had a great name: he was Chester Burnett.

If McKinley Morganfield and Chester Burnett had not been musicians they could have done well as two tough-guy Chicago cops. McKinley is the urbane, confident one, the man who deals with city hall operators as efficiently and effectively as the hoods on the street. Chester kicks ass and takes no shit. He has no finesse and he gets the job done and when he's done no-one will undo it.

Today rappers use nicknames almost without exception. The only rappers that I can quickly think of that don't or didn't are Will Smith and Tupac Shakur, and Tupac's monicker sounded like a street name anyway. The thing is this: why would the magnificently named Calvin Broadus want to be known as Snoop Doggy Dogg?

Muddy Waters grew up on Stovall's plantation where he learnt his music, became a tractor driver so that he had an easier job than picking cotton in the field, so that he could play his guitar at parties and fish fries and was eventually recorded for the Library of Congress, at least partly because he was a kind of repository of Robert Johnson's style/. During World War II Muddy moved to Chicago, became a truck driver, a job that gave him a lot of time to recover from late nights in Southside clubs, bought an electric guitar, was discovered by Chess Records and recorded a bunch of hits that were also hugely influential in establishing the so-called electric down home style of blues and, once Muddy put together a band, the Southside style of blues. In his modest way Muddy was as great an innovator and original thinker in music as Louis Armstrong had once been.

I knew the name and I somehow knew that "Hoochie Coochie Man" was a big Muddy song, though I got to know the song through a live version by Chuck Berry, and I knew that both the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" were tributes to one of Muddy's most well-known songs but other than that I hardly knew anything about Muddy's music or life until Charles Shaar Murray wrote a piece about him in the NME after the release of the Hard Again album that revitalised the bluesman's career during the last five years before his death. Murray supplied biographical information as well as telling details of Muddy's then current success.

NME also published reviews of Hard Again and its follow-up I'm Ready that made these records sound like parts one and two of the second coming, in blues at least. The blues were back with a vengeance and the master of the blues was romping and stomping like days of old.

Of course none of these records were readily available in Stellenbosch and they got no airplay on local radio. The first time I heard any of the songs at all was when Dr Feelgood, post Wilko Johnson, recorded a version of "The Blues Had A Baby (And They Named It Rock and Roll)" on Be Seeing You. It was a pleasant enough versions, without the urgency Wilko Johnson\s guitar style could have brought to it, and seemed like a lightweight composition for the man who wrote "Rolling Stone" but my guess was that the song simply pandered to the age old cliché of rock coming from the blues.

It was a couple of years later that I found Hard Again, probably at a discount price somewhere in Cape Town. It was not the first blues album I owned but it was pretty well the best blues album I owned at the time. Albert King's Years Gone By was a close second but it did not quite have the triumphalism of the Muddy Waters record, especially since the King album was an original release from the late Sixties.

The first noticeable thing about Hard Again was the incredible loudness and toughness of the music, from opening track "Mannish Boy" onward. It was kind of like a hard rock production of a very traditional blues sound. This was modern blues, not so much in the style as in the production values that emphasised a clean, crystal clear definition of, and differentiation between, instruments and with in-your-face, yet warm, vocals. The musicians were sharp and emphatic in their profound understanding of what makes Chicago blues tick, that ensemble sound where there is hardly any lead instrument and yet there is space for everyone, and on top of this solid foundation the magisterial, imperious Muddy Waters declaimed his blues. It was Muddy's world and I was just so much in awe to be able to behold its splendour.

Yeah, I liked Hard Again that much!

The NME review of I'm Ready made it sound like even better of a deal than its predecessor. Somehow this record just never showed up in any record store I visited and I never bought it and never heard the album at all until I bought a Columbia Legacy 3-CD package of Hard Again, I'm Ready and King Bee. I have owned the records of Hard Again and King Bee but not I'm Ready or Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live, though I have the Columbia Records CD Blues Sky, which is a compilation of tracks from this quartet of albums that will serve as the legacy of the grand old man of electric down home blues as testament that even an old guy could rock the house pretty good.

A good five or six years after I bought Hard Again I found King Bee as a budget album somewhere in Cape Town. If Hard Again was the surprisingly strong and emphatic resurgence of the Muddy Waters career, King Bee was the more rollicking, almost fun, cap on the illustrious career, a fitting finale for a colossus of the blues. The songs seemed more tuneful and catchy, for example "Champagne & Reefer", which is very much what I call a pop blues. It is definitely not a song about the hardships of life; it is a celebration of life even if Muddy has to explain clearly that dope is his only vice after champagne and that he will not do that cocaine.

The utterly weird thing, thinking about it now, is that the surviving Rolling Stones, who were relatively young men at the time, are now approaching the age at which Muddy died. For the White blues influenced rockers of the Sixties it was all right that their bluesmen heroes could be older than forty but the conventional wisdom was that rock is a young man's game. If you're over thirty you're over the hill. Now they have come to appreciate that rock can be a lifelong career and can be a lifelong imperative. Muddy Waters was as much of a pop star in Chicago or elsewhere in the African American community of the USA as the Rolling Stones are. It is a fallacy to think that Muddy was expressing deep, heartfelt blues emotion about his living conditions or his tragic love life. The blues tropes we are so familiar with nowadays can be described as folk wisdoms carried on from generation to generation though a more accurate description would be that these tropes are blues clichés as much as one has pop clichés. Sociologists can investigate the meaning behind the words and the hidden messages behind the lyrics of braggadocio, sexual prowess and lovelorn tears all they want and describe the secret society of Black America oppressed by the White majority and being reduced to code language to express their plight, anger and frustration, but the bottom line of Muddy Waters' music is that it was intended to be popular music, to sell, and not only or merely to be the expression of frustration and rage blues is often deemed to be. Ultimately blues is a style of music.

My second exposure to Muddy Waters was an audio cassette I bought at the Windhoek branch of the SADFI defence force store at Suiderhof Military Base, when I was stationed in Windhoek as Military Law Officer in the second year of my mandatory national service. The SADFI store was a basic warehouse building serving as a bare bones department store for military personnel and it even had a small music corner, mostly with contemporary popular music. The two strangest items were two compilations, on cassette, from the Chess Records archives. One was a selection of Chuck Berry tunes and the other was the Muddy Waters collection. It featured the usual suspects and the two outstanding tracks was the heavy rock version of "Let's Spend The Night Together" from Electric Mud and a gospelised version of |I'm Going Home", both of which sounded completely different to the other, more conventional blues on the album. Those two tunes demonstrated that Muddy Waters probably made a number of turns in his career that were nods to more populist styles for the sake of commercial success. Like all other professional musicians he would try many things at least once if there seemed to be money in it,

Today I own a number of CDs of Muddy's music. A budget compilation of his popular tunes from the latter part of the Fifties was one of the first two CDs I ever bought, along with a similar budget compilation of Howlin' Wolf tunes. Most of these Muddy Waters CDs are compilations. The only complete Muddy Waters albums I do own are the 3 Blue Sky albums referred to above and the Muddy Waters Woodstock album, his last album for Chess Records. There is an excellent chronological compilation of songs from "Gypsy Woman" onwards and a couple of live sets, one from the early Sixties and one from the late Seventies, that are great examples of the working band Muddy had behind him, and a number of compilations of the old favourites and lesser known songs, one of them even showcasing a batch of the Library of Congress filed recordings made my Alan Lomax.

My latest Muddy Waters acquisition is a mini box set from 2004, with the albums packaged in small scale, cardboard replicas of the original record sleeves, of the three final studio albums of Muddy's career, released on Blue Sky records between 1977 and 1981 and produced by Johnny Winter who gets the kudos for revitalising the moribund career of one of the giants of post war electric blues. The albums are Hard Again, I'm Ready and King Bee. The live album, Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live, that was released between the second and third studio releases is absent from this package, maybe because this would have meant too much of a duplication of studio material. Or perhaps Columbia thinks the live set is worth more or perhaps it is available as an expanded CD.

"Mannish Boy" opens Hard Again and its opening chant of "Everything's gonna be all right this morning," emphatic stop time rhythm, assertive lyrics and Muddy's triumphant vocal delivery set the scene for an album full of superlative contemporary blues in the traditional Chicago style. Muddy is back, in charge and ready to roar. The best thing about the electric Chicago blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf is that it does not feature endless guitar solos by superstar axmen. The guitar plays rhythm and fills, the harmonica is the most obvious lead instrument, yet also serves mostly as a counterpoint and the singer is front and centre. The formula is simple and effective and exhilarating, each time.

Muddy was known for his ferocious slide style on stage but does not play any slide guitar on this album. Bob Margolin takes care of the rhythm and Johnny Winters, who takes care not to overpower the music with his usual thousand notes a minute style, provides the extremely tasty lead and slide guitar. The whole is very much better than the sum of the parts and the lasting impression is of a highly tooled, powerful machine doing what it does best and doing it extremely well. Pure pleasure.

The songs are mostly quite lengthy and give everyone an opportunity to stretch out and make the most of the space and time they are given within the structure. Even after 5 minutes or more the tracks do not pall. This is prime stuff and hard again is absolutely apposite as a description. If Johnny Winter is not remembered and celebrated for any accomplishment other than his production duties and guitar playing on Hard Again and the two studio albums that followed, he will still have built a monument to himself.

The production values give the band a big, solid, commanding sound that verges on the kind of audio a rock band would have. The blues need not sound weedy or tinny or scratchy. It is music of dominance and exultation as much is it can be music of heartbreak and trouble and on this album the exultation dominates.

The original electric version of "I Can't Be Satisfied", the hit that launched Muddy's career in Chicago, and featuring Muddy on vocals and slide guitar and Big Crawford on bass, has one of the most memorable opening slide riffs ever and still thrills me every time I hear it. On Hard Again Muddy reprises his venerable hit but does not play any instrument and is accompanied by Johnny Winter on a National steel guitar. Johnny emulates Muddy's slide riff without slavishly copying it and provides a more old fashioned Delta version of the tune, as one would perhaps have expected the Mississippi Sheiks to do, and it is rollicking good fun. A lyric of ostensible despair is turned around into a performance of triumph over adversity rather than a depressed wail.

"I'm Ready" is not as much of a powerhouse opening track to the eponymous album as "Mannish Boy" was to Hard Again. The lyrics are a "Hoochie Coochie Man" retread and probably want to make the same statement as "Mannish Boy" made but somehow "I'm Ready" is less dynamic and less emphatic. For a reason I cannot quite explain it has never been one of my favourite Muddy Waters' tunes anyway.

This 1978 album was recorded with a different line-up to the group that went into the studio for Hard Again. Jimmy Rogers is back in the band alongside Bob Margolin, and Walter Horton and Jerry Portnoy replace James Cotton on harp. Muddy does entertain us with some examples of his fiery slide technique and Johnny Winter contributes some guitar, though perhaps not as much as on the previous album.

Most of the songs seem to be new compositions, at least they are new to me. Willie Dixon has two songs on the record: the title track and "Hoochie Coochie Man." They are old songs and the rest of the bunch could be contemporary.

For the most part the songs follow the same template as laid down on Hard Again and the grooves are as tight and solid as before. The sound is streamlined, efficient and effective the album won Muddy his first Grammy ever, not only for a good record (actually two good records in a row) but as the typical long denied recognition for a stalwart of a less fashionable genre who found a new lease of life and became a breath of fresh air in a somewhat moribund style of music.

I'm Ready suffers a bit because it follows Hard Again and the shock of the brand new and improved Muddy Waters is no longer as acute. He's made the comeback with the stunning return to form and now simply consolidates his gains. There is less exuberance and more professionalism. It's as if Muddy wants to convince us, if we did not already know it, that his resurgence is not just dumb luck. This album is every bit as good as its predecessor.

The CD reissue of I'm Ready has three additional songs: "No Escape From The Blues", "That's Alright" (probably Jimmy Rogers' best known composition and on which he is the main singer) and "Lonely Man Blues".

King Bee is Muddy's last album, released in 1981 with tracks recorded in 1977 (Hard Again outtakes) and 1980. Muddy's health started to fail and he died in 1983. I bought this album as a budget reissue somewhere in the late Eighties. It was a valuable addition to my collection of blues records and a record I listened to a lot because the tunes seemed to bright, upbeat and joyous.

The title track is once again a celebration of Muddy's sexual prowess that packs more of a punch than "I'm Ready." "Champagne & Reefer" is a glorious paean to the simple joys of life. "Mean Old Frisco"
is yet another example of an Arthur Crudup song done justice by a singer other than Crudup himself, who wrote some noteworthy blues standards ("That's Alright, Mama" and "My Baby Left Me" are two more examples) but was at best a workmanlike guitarist and singer. "Deep Down In Florida" is a different version of a major track from Hard Again and there is another version of "No Escape From The Blues", one of the bonus tracks on the I'm Ready reissue.

The band consists of more or less the same personnel as on the previous records except that Luther Johnson is the third guitarist, along with Bob Margolin and Johnny Winter. Muddy sings and plays some of his always incredible slide guitar. The power of the band is undiminished, or seems so, even if outtakes had to be used to put together a complete album. The CD reissue adds two more tracks.

Having all three albums is special. I rate Muddy highly and his style of ensemble blues is more to my taste than the modern predilection for hot guitarists who solo endlessly and proficiently and who do not satisfy in the ways the Muddy Waters band could when it was in full flight. On his solo records Bob Margolin shows off the many styles of blues and rock and roll he's capable of but it is only on the odd Southside of Chicago's style tune that he throws into the mix that he really catches fire. On A Bigger Bang even the Rolling Stones tried their hand at this style on "Back of My Hand" and produced one of the most convincing songs on the album. It might be a homage but, unlike most of the rockers, it does not sound like a pastiche or a calculated move. This kind of music is their roots and if you dig deep into your roots you will almost always come up with the goods.

I gave away my entire collection of blues records when I disposed of all my records in 2009 and to a degree I am now sorry that I did, as some of them were seminal in my appreciation for the blues and will probably never be replaced. On the other hand I never really had that many blues records and my CD collection of blues albums far exceeds the couple dozen blues records I used to have. Since 1991 I have really dug deep into the blues. I've reacquired Albert King's Years Gone By, Junior Wells' "It's My Life, Baby" and John Lee Hooker's In Person. Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac debut Fleetwood Mac and The Original Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Ray Vaughan's Texas Flood. I am always on the lookout for CDs of records I used to own. Perhaps I should make a serious mission of it by ordering from Amazon but I have always preferred the method of not seeking and finding (a little philosophy I learnt from Picasso) than the more organised method of making an effort to acquire the many items on my wish list.

All of my Muddy Waters collection was acquired by chance when simply browsing through CD cases at various music stores and the same is true of this three album box set. I came across it, of all places, at the Willowbridge Mall (Bellville) branch of Look & Listen, in the heart of the northern suburbs where one would not expect such old school blues to have much of a footprint.

The three most important names in my blues music collection would be Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and John Lee Hooker, going by the impact their music had on me and by the number of albums of each I have. Albert king is also pretty important but I don't have that many of his albums. BB King is also getting there though his urban style is not always to my taste. Too sophisticated. I prefer the electric down home styles of Muddy, Wolf and Hooker above all else. Their blues are generally exciting, visceral and intriguing. The solo Muddy and Hooker recordings are at the top of my list but even the records made with various bands are pretty damn fine. Wolf led a crack band from the beginning and is best appreciated in this context. In fact, I don't think I've ever heard him other than backed by a band. For a long time I wanted to be able to play guitar like Willie Johnson, Wolf's main man in Memphis, before Hubert Sumlin joined him.

When I listen to Howlin Wolf I can understand why writers like Robert Palmer call him a feral beast. He does sound dangerous. Muddy, on the other hand, is magisterial and even imperial. He does not have to be in your face to impress his value on you. He does what he does with understated power and eloquent gravitas. Wolf can be hectoring and over the top. Muddy is calm, unruffled and as relentless in his drive as Wolf yet persuades almost with logic where Wolf wants to leave you no room to think.

Obviously one cannot and should not be expected to choose between any of these giants of the blues. Each is simply different to the rest in his respective style and not better than any of the other two.

John Lee Hooker had a far longer career than Muddy or Wolf and his comeback in the late Eighties lasted longer and produced more albums than Muddy's. Wolf never had the good fortune of such massive popular success late in his life and never won a Grammy. Somehow that is appropriate and fitting. Feral beasts do not stoop to collecting Grammy's.

Muddy was happy to experience the late coming success. It was better to have it late in life than not having it at all. I guess he was a realist and a stoic. He had been commercially very successful in the early part of his career and was critically acclaimed for most of, regardless of record sales. The black audience for the blues had declined by the end of the Fifties but the White audience, particularly the young Brits who fuelled the early Sixties and late Sixties blues booms, picked up the slack and Muddy may have had comparatively lean times but was never completely down and out. Perhaps he only became less of a vital innovator and more of an institution of the blues revered and respected but no longer at the cutting edge.

The three studio albums recorded at the end of Muddy's career revitalised the career and gave him a fitting final few years of glory: some kind of reward for consistently doing what he did best. I would imagine that no-one would claim these recordings are the best of his career, though they probably come close, and they do not break new ground, yet the enthusiasm and pleasure that come across, are infectious and both leader, band and producer deliver a product of certified quality.

Ultimately blues seems to have been taken over by purveyors of the West Side and Texas styles where a virtuoso lead guitarist is the dominant and characteristic element. Southside blues is still my favourite electric style and will always be.

Muddy Waters or McKinley Morganfield? What does it matter? At an advanced stage of his life he was the king bee, hard again and ready to take back his crown. And he did. It is still his and no-one will ever take it away.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Publicity Machineri

One of the wonderful benefits of having an Edgars charge card and belonging to the Edgars Club is the monthly Club magazine that is essentially an advertorial for Edgars merchandise. Now Woolworths, with which I also have a charge card, offers me the same, the W magazine, probably printed on recycled, organic paper.

That's the intro. Here's the thing: in the first W magazine I received there is a couple of pages worth of fashion for the young, which no longer speaks to me as I am way beyond the retro, neo-grunge look and never took to the original grunge look of 20 years ago either. The clever device the Woolworths marketers have come up with, and they are not the first, is to use local music scene celebrities as the models for the apparel they want to flog.

In this particular spread we see two members of Machineri, Sannie Fox and Andre Geldenhuys, somewhat self-consciously throwing supermodel shapes. There are others but these two are the only ones I recognise.

The main impression I gain from this spread is that Machineri's publicist must still be working hard for them to get them as much media attention as possible and possibly an extra income as models, even if this kind of mainstream fashion is not exactly rock and roll. In this day and age, though, one has to compromise with the corporate dollar to earn a crust from your main day job as bona fide rock star, or just an aspirational rock star. This is a small pond and if your media image is positive end ubiquitous, you can parlay a party trick into something approaching fame, or whatever passes for fame in South Africa.

The spread is 8 pages with photographs and text. Two males are featured: Spoek Mathambo (producer, designer, singer, DJ, rapper) and Andre Geldenhuys who is not the renaissance man Mathambo is made out to be. He is introduced merely as a guitarist and band member of Machineri. Where Mathambo resembles a parody of the guy from The Aloof, Geldenhuys poses like one of the more anonymous members of Alice In Chains, circa 1992. Mathambo is obviously not into neo-grunge; I guess Black dudes were not much into old school grunge either. Geldenhuys claims to be 27 and he must have infused the grunge from somebody else\s CD collection.

One of the problems with the youth of today is that they tend to look so much like the youth of some years ago. Grunge as a fashion was pretty much of a drag twenty years ago and nothing much has changed, except the age of the devotees.

The second chick singer in the mix is one Zoë Kravitz who is yet another multi-talented or at least multi-aspirational person. She is actor, singer, songwriter and member of Elevator Fight. Are these people serious about every aspect of their creative aspirations or is one or more of these facets merely the hobby while there is a core interest and talent? Hey, I am a lawyer, poet, writer, guitarist, songwriter and chef.

Zoë looks like someone who is small, feisty and trouble. She wears a little black dress and, in a solo spot, a white shirt and jeans combination that is classically sexy in a Patti Smith kind of way, though Zoë is more appealing to the eye. Hmm, I must seek out the music of Elevator Fight. Would it be more pussycat dolls or more punk rock? Sophisticated lounge-core prog rock? Math rock? Acoustic instruments, harmonies and songs about healing the hurt inside the world? Someone at W magazine must have thought Zoë connects with the youth of today who are likely to shop at Woollies.

One of my all-time favourite Page 3 models is a girl called Zoë who must be close to 30 now.

Second rock chick du jour is Gabi-Lee Smit who is also a mere guitarist and vocalist, in a band called The Pinkertons. I have no idea what they sound like, either. Reminds me of The Finkelstiens but that would be just my imagination, I guess. Why does Gabi-Lee not write songs? She looks like the kind of girl with something to say and those kinds of girls tend to want to say things and write songs if they happen to be in bands. Does Gabi-Lee even belong in the lustrous company of Zoë and Sannie Fox if she has such limited talents or aspirations?

I like the look of Gabi-Lee in her abbreviated short sleeve black and white plaid shirt (though plaid is a style I absolutely abhor) and tight short shorts, long thin legs and combat boots. Roadies dress like this, although maybe not as sexily. I also like Gabi-Lee's long, straight, dark hair and fringe that cover the eyes. She does not need Ray-Bans.

Then there is Sannie Fox. Actress, singer, songwriter and (mark you) electric guitarist in Machineri. She has been in a movie called Long Street and her band has played at venues in Long Street.

In one pic Sannie wears an off the shoulder America crop top and skinny red jeans with faded denim jacket tied around the waist. She shares the pic with Zoë and Sheila Marquez, a New York model who seems extremely superfluous to requirements. We are not told what other talents Marquez has. She sits, facing the camera while the other two appear to be dancing in front of a speaker or bas amp and next to a Vox amp. So very rock and roll. I can't see the handbags around which they were dancing.

In the last pic of the piece Gabi-Lee and Sannie lean against each other and where Gabi-Lee has fun with the setup, Sannie has an embarrassed, distant look in the one visible eye as if she is hoping the pay check will make up for this absurdity. Sannie wears another white top, denim jacket and red short shorts. Hey, maybe she is not into blue denim at all. Maybe red is her favourite colour. Her footwear is what I think of Cuban heeled Beatle boots and that must be an indication of my stunted fashion sense. Sexy, grungy shorts with Doc Martens obviously ain't the image anymore.

There is quite a bit of text in the 8 pages, mostly in the language of superheated publicist. Andre Geldenhuys lives in the here and now and in his head. Of course. Sannie Fox is fragile, soulful, open-hearted, tough and weary at the same time and fiercely private. All that and more. Without question.

What's my gripe? Nothing. Kudos to Machineri for being able to penetrate mainstream marketing opportunities. This is not the first time they've been featured in a South African glossy magazine and may not be the last time. Will this help them sell records? Perhaps. I would guess, though, that their sound is not exactly geared to great commercial success and if they want to make money from their music it will not be through selling CDs or even playing gigs.

The sound is defiantly anti-commercial in the pop song sense of that concept and this generally means that the songwriters cannot write pop songs for toffee and then turn this deficiency into a virtue. Does Sannie Fox enjoy wailing tunelessly simply because she has something serious and significant (to her) to say? The music has to carry the entire performance and bears the responsibility for grabbing our attention and making us stay. Who gives a damn for the private hell or private pleasures of the songwriter unless those insights touch the fucked up interior of the listener.

Music is not that important and not that significant. The world did not stop turning and music did not wither because Kurt Cobain topped himself. Courtney Love did not throw herself on the funeral pyre. Nevermind is significant for what it represented at the time, not for the actual content. Kurt did understand the need for a memorable hook, though, along with the crunchy guitar noise.

According to W magazine Machineri's debut album was released in July 2011. I have not seen it in my local Musica and I must find it. It is an album I want to own, as the on-line tracks I listened to a while ago sound mostly good and compelling. I saw Machineri for the first time last year, supporting The Pretty Blue Guns at Zula in Long Street, and my opinion was that the Blue Guns pretty much blew Machineri away because they had songs and Machineri had this free form noisy crap that is so tedious unless you are wasted and do not care anymore. The recorded songs have structure and some of them have hooks. Even so, I doubt that Machineri plays in the same league as the Blue Guns. The latter band just does not have the publicist's wet dream of a front woman like Sannie Fox or the same publicist. Can't see them in a retail brand's house magazine modelling middle of the road fashion tarted up as edgy. Might be their loss in the long run.

Machineri has the cogs. The cogs are oiled. They are cranked up to go. We just don't know how far yet.





Friday, September 02, 2011

Soul Brothers: mbaqanga for the people

On a 2011 Gallo Records compilation Soul Brothers are referred to as the kings of mbaqanga and there is a statement that they have sold 4 million records in South Africa. Even when I first heard of them back in the late Seventies, the basic statement about the Soul Brothers is that they were probably the most popular South African act of the time, white or black.

My first exposure to local Black music came in about 1979 when I started listening to Radio Xhosa because I was fed up with the terrible disco centric format of Radio 5. I happened on the radio station while I was turning the dial on my radio and was immediately captivated by the wild music I heard. A trebly guitar played a weird, fast, repetitive pattern, the bassist played a fluid bass line low on the neck that is a co-equal lead instrument (and is reminiscent of the more bottom heavy reggae style), and a horn section played stabbing interjections. It sounded wild, crazy, out of control. It was The Other. It sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. I was hooked.

Radio Xhosa's playlist not only included this type of wild music, for which I had no name at the time, but the programmer also included a lot of current American R & B and, completely bizarrely, Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way." I could not understand what the announcers said and therefore had no idea who I was listening to unless they were foreign acts. I truly wanted to be able to buy the records I was hearing but had no idea how to identify them or where to find them. My local record stores, Sygma Records, Adrian & Don's Record Bar or, later, Ragtime Records, did not stock this type of music. I was not about to venture into KayaMandi, the Black township outside Stellenbosch, to look for this music, however much I wanted to have it.

Somewhere in the period 1977 to 1981 the SABC very surprisingly broadcast a documentary on Mahlathini "The Lion of Soweto" and the Mahotella Queens, as backed by the Makgona Tsohle Band (featuring West Nkosi and Marks Mankwana). This was as much an eye-opener as listening to Radio Xhosa for Mahlathini and his three female backing vocalists were portrayed as superstars in their community and in South Africa, and yet I had never heard of them before. It dawned on me that there must be an entire segment of the music industry in South Africa to which the White population is not exposed and which aims straight at the largest demographic in the country. On pure numbers alone even a moderately successful Black artist would have a far large audience than the most successful of White artists.

The Makgona Tsohle band played the stuff I wanted to desperately to hear yet I had no idea where to find their records.

My opportunity to acquire local Black music came when I noticed from the discount bins at the record bar of my local OK Bazaars that they were selling some records by local Black artists cheaply. Somehow I was expecting exactly the same wild sounds as the bands I heard on Radio Xhosa. In fact the first handful of records I bought by bands like The Grasshoppers sounded more like an African take on the Stax soul sound of Booker T & The MGs, with a prominent electric organ and no wild lead guitar.

It was still interesting music but not quite what I had hoped for.

A few years later OK Bazaars really started dumping records by local Black acts. I bought a stack because they were cheap even if I had no idea what I was buying. There was little description of the style of music or who the musicians were. Some of the albums would state that the music was Sotho vocal or Zulu vocal but that meant nothing in particular to me. I wanted the weird piercing guitar and fluid bass that I had heard on Radio Xhosa. What I mostly got was a bunch of vocal groups with a kind of plodding backing that was far removed from the wild excitement of the sounds that had attracted me to local Black music.

Amongst the best albums was a gospel record by the Rustenburg Boys; there was a very strange, almost completely percussion free album by Boyoyo Boys, who seemed to have only guitar between them; there was the Abaqondisi Brothers whose harmonies I liked; and various others. The only record that came close to the mbaqanga I wanted to hear, was called Tshungu Hits and, as I later gathered, was a compilation of tunes from the then Rhodesia. Although there were no Mahlathini & Mahotella Queens albums among the cheap records, there was one Soul Brothers album.

The best stuff, though, came from a series of audio cassette albums that seemed to be compilations of single tracks by various artists. I thought of them as the Mabone series, as some of the album titles featured this word, preceded by a number that suggested it might be a series number. This music was the mbaqanga in the style I'd heard on Radio Xhosa: fast beats, lots of sharp guitar and honking saxophone playing off each other in call and response patterns. The cassettes had no information other than the track listings. It would have been great to know more about these groups, the songwriters and producers. My guess was that the Black audience for whom this music was intended, did not care much about this type of information.

What I learnt from these records was that South Africa must have a significant Black recording industry and that a small band of writers and producers ran it to the extent of putting out the product. I guess the actual record companies may well have been White owned.

Anyhow, I thought that the Soul Brothers record was quite a find as they were legendary. Yet the music was that same tame backing of so many lesser bands with strict, metronomic four on the floor percussion that had no syncopation or poly rhythmic effect at all. It seemed that the drum kit consisted of only a bass drum and maybe one cymbal. The guitar was subdued. Usually the only interesting part was the agile, fluid bass playing. Obviously the emphasis was on the vocal harmonies but it would have been nice if the music added some excitement to the mix.

During the Eighties and Nineties I had the opportunity of watching a good deal of Black music television, mostly the fairly traditional stuff, and almost all of it had that same lethargic effect produced by the staid, though solid drumming. It seemed to me that the harmonies, the matching clothes and the dance routines were more important elements. The musicians had the simple job or providing backing music and they were not stars in their own right nor were they expected or required to be more dynamic than the vocalists they served.

The traditional Black music was only part of the entirety of the Black music industry. There was township pop, there was hip hop, more sophisticated R & B and jazz styles and, biggest of all, kwaito., all of which also had their share of exposure on the SABC but for a long time it seemed to me that the SABC was making an effort to preserve and promote the traditional music, perhaps beyond demand, in the same way the old SAUK Afrikaans Service had promoted "boeremusiek" far beyond what I thought of as necessary. Perhaps, as is the case with "boeremusiek", there is a far larger audience for traditional Black music styles than I knew.

From the late Nineties I started buying CDs of local Black acts, first a series by band leaders that played what was called "saxophone jive" that resembled the music on the Mabone cassettes. Some of it was pretty dull and some of it was exciting. One of them was a selection of Wes Nkosi tunes. He'd been the saxophone player in the Makgona Tsohle Band and I hoped the compilation of alleged hits would be something but over the length of the CD it just got wearying. I would imagine that the songs made sense as singles heard in different contexts. As album tracks the tendency was towards too much of the same thing. Something similar happened to the Mahlathini & Mahotella Queens greatest hits CD I bought. I knew a couple of the songs and they remained interesting but on the whole the set dragged a tad. It was just not the crazy mbaqanga music I wanted to hear, particularly as these greatest hits tended to favour the late Eighties revival of the Queens. There has to be a proper compilation of their early hits somewhere.

I guess it must be difficult selecting appropriate tunes by such a prolific recording unit as the Soul Brothers. How does one summarise a 40 career in 10 songs?

"Imali Yami" is a good example of the mbaqanga sound of the Soul Brothers starts off with a swirl of electronic organ, followed by a wiry bass that serves as a second lead instrument after the organ, with guitar way down in the mix and the drums supplying a solid, bass drum heavy foundation. It seems to me that the typical mbaqanga is the least technically able of all the musicians. He simply and only has to count out a strict, unvarying beat and stomp the bass drum pedal on that beat. There is some saxophone riffing to add an extra texture. The guys weave their harmonies over the top.

Damn it! I know this tune! Was it on the sole Soul Brothers album I used to own?

Anyhow, that is the template. Fortunately there is a lot of variety within patented style and the benefit of cherry picking 10 tracks is that each one sounds like prime Soul Brothers. There are variations in the musical palette from tune to tune though the prominent bass and metronomic drumming remain constants.

I cannot read the Soul Brothers' song titles and I have no idea what the lyrics say. Frankly I do not know whether the Soul Brother sing in Zulu (as I suspect) or in isiXhosa. All I can say for sure is that they don't sing in Tswana or Sotho.

Back in the day when I listened to Radio Xhosa a lot the fact that I did not understand the language were no hindrance and very much a plus factor, as far as I was concerned. The music was the universal language the cliché has it and it was a boon not to know what the many advertisements were about, though the jingle punch lines were often understandable enough, or what the radio presenters were saying. Call in shows were prominent during the times I tuned in and some of these calls seemed to last forever but because I could tune out to what was being said because I could not understand it, it was not that much of a bother and certainly not as irritating as similar shows on Springbok Radio had been. The only negative was that there seemed to be an incredible amount of talking and advertisements between tunes.

So for all I know, the typical Soul Brothers song is nothing more than a bunch of heard-it-all-before platitudes about love. Maybe they sing about social conditions and advance arguments for socialism and poverty alleviation. Perhaps the songs are calls for revolution (though I guess this is probably just a fantasy) and retribution. It does not matter much to me. The fact is that the tunes are great to listen to, move the heart and the feet and just seem generally like top of their game South African soul music by two veterans of the showbiz game.

The "soul" part of the group name could come from the soul in their music; it could be a reference to Sam & Dave, who were not brothers at all, but were kind of brothers in soul and soul brothers as well, at least until the one guy shot his wife and the other one no longer talked to him. Anyhow, my guess is that the Soul Brothers chose their name to reflect all these interpretations of the name.

Apart from the rather inflexible drumming one could well imagine that the basic mbaqanga sound was modelled on the Stax house band, with a resolutely African twist. The instrumental line up behind Soul Brothers is just about the same as with Booker T & The Mgs but the Soul Brothers band does a whole new thing with the same tools. The bassist is less about locking in with the drums and more about a solo voice and is generally played at a higher register. The keyboards do vamp behind the singers but the keyboard player also has the opportunity for wild intros and various flourishes within the songs. The guitar plays less choppy rhythm like Steve Cropper and more of his solo style, continuously throughout the song. The horn section does not always play simple stabbing riffs but present a kind of African jazz sweetening. It would have been nice, however, to have an Al Jackson understudy on the drums. I am not a musician but it seems to me that the basic mbaqanga drummer eschews the back beat and drums strictly on the one, which is funk or disco thing, and not really the soul thing.

My experience of listening to African music, from anywhere on the continent, sung in the vernacular is purely visceral, as I do not have to understand or analyse the lyrics. The totality of the song, words and music and beat, is the enthralling package. The words do not distract, as they are simply an element of the whole, equal to everything else and the vocals could easily be just another instrument.

This is very true of how I experience and appreciate the Soul Brothers. This compilation of 10 top tunes is a delight and a pleasure. Will I seek out more Soul Brothers records? I do not think so, unless it is yet another compilation of 20 of their best tunes that I see mentioned on the Gallo Records website. As I've said, I think the Soul Brothers would be best in the context of a hits package. On reflection I would say, musically speaking, that mbaqanga is not about drums at all; it is all about the bass. I can get behind that.

Give the bassist some!


























Thursday, September 01, 2011

Suzi Quatro

Suzi Quatro was one of my early pop music fave raves, along with Slade. Mud T Rex and The Sweet of "Ballroom Blitz." Quatro came from the Nicky Chinn / Mike Chapman stable, along with The Sweet and soft rockers Smokie. She was the tiny, bass toting leather clad bad girl of glam rock with a series of killer rock singles. She is an American who made it good in the UK. Her sister Patti was in an all-girl band called Fanny. Suzi's husband Len Tuckey played guitar in her band. For some people Quatro became most famous as the character Leather Tuscadero in the sitcom Happy Days. And, apparently, she is still going at the age of 61.

Suzi Quatro was the best female rocker I knew before I heard Joan Jett.

Some NME 'scribe" paid Suzi Quatro the backhanded of saying that "Can The Can" (the first major hit) was a brilliant proto-girl power song and that she had lost it by the next release, "48 Crash." Honestly, I preferred "48 Crash" but this may be because I actually owned the single. In fact I also had "Daytona Demon." "Devil Gate Drive" and "The Wild One." I bought the singles, long after they were released, at Sygma Records who had a table full of boxes with budget priced singles in a room behind the main record store.

Suzi Quatro's music can be called glam rock or bubblegum rock and roll but the drum and bass heavy music was very exciting and energising to a gawky kid like me. I cannot say that Quatro ever was a rock 'n roll pin-up for me, as she did not seem all that sexy. The leather did not exactly do it for me and she was too small to seem dangerous. It was many years later before I could appreciate the virtues of being small, dark and dangerous

I've watched YouTube videos of "48 Crash" and the later song "Rock Hard" and in both videos Suzi Quatro looks incredibly young and vulnerable, especially in the older song, released when she was about 23 years old. She has serious lung capacity and could really scream in tune (like the Bee Gees) whilst playing a bass guitar that almost outranks her, though I believe she is an excellent bass player.. it is just slightly weird that one of the first upfront front women in rock looked so much like a 16 year old

The Quatro band had the unique selling proposition of a powerful chick singer who could also play a mean bass guitar. This also meant that the four piece band could be an instrumental four piece with guitar and keyboards. Most chick singers with bands just sang. Suzi Quatro was the first female rock front person I knew who also played an electric instrument. That she played bass was disturbingly unusual and cool at the same time. That she had a powerful voice was a major virtue.

The Chinn / Chapman songs were relatively simple, straightforward rockers with instantly memorable sing-a-long choruses and the production emphasised the booming, stomping drums that would have give these songs a distinctive edge at the rock disco. Quatro also recorded a fair share of standards like "All Shook Up", "You Keep A-Kockin:" and "Move It" but the tailor made tunes were by far the best probably precisely because they were written to suit her image.

"Daytona Demon" and "Devil Gate Drive" not only alliterate well but are clever examples of bubblegum rock with extended metaphors to suit a rocking chick like Suzi. I do not recall "Devil Gate Drive" ever receiving airplay on the SABC probably because the powers that be would not allow a song with 'devil' in the title to sully our pristine, Christian airwaves.

EMI Records has a budget priced compilation of Suzi Quatro's greatest hits in the period 1973 to 1979 that I recently bought at Musica as part of a 3 CD's fro R99,00 promotion. The other two albums were Gallo Records' compilations of best tunes of South African acts Mango Groove and the Soul Brothers. I guess I have a pretty eclectic record collection.

Be that as it may, the Quatro collection has all the songs you would want to hear and some I had not heard of before, such as her versions of Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run" and Steve Harley's "Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)". There are also the slower songs "If You Can't Give Me Love", "Stumblin' In" and "She's In Love With You" to showcase the more mature, sensitive side of the rocker chick. And possibly the point that rockers need to get serious about love too. A glaring omission as far as I am concerned is the failure to include "Rock Hard" from the Times Square movie soundtrack. "Rock Hard" was Quatro's take on New Wave and a damn fine take at that. Perhaps it did not fit the compilation's theme of Seventies hits or perhaps the soundtrack was not on EMI.

The pure sugar rush of the first batch of singles is still unsurpassed. I find that I want to keep playing this CD over and over again. The sequencing is chronological and only the slight slow down in pace of "Fever" interrupts the adrenaline run from "Can The Can" to "The Wild One." After that first wave has crashed against the beach, the songs become more proficient and businesslike, like Suzi-by-numbers and to a degree the cover versions of more contemporary songs like "Make Me Smile" or "Born to Run" are more satisfying because the evade the stereotype Quatro attitude. I must say, though, that where "Make Me Smile" works quite well., this version of "Born To Run" makes no sense. The pace and dynamism of the Springsteen version are sore missed and though the point of the song seems a good fit for the Quatro image, she sounds a little lost.

Although Suzi Quatro was no one hit wonder I would imagine her music is best appreciated in the format of an all hits compilation like this. It is just about all killer and no filler.; even my doubts about the latter-day Suzi-by-rote and dubious cover versions cannot really sustain a contrary opinion.

Having said that, I could happily have lived with a 10-track greatest hits album. Just the super hits and nothing but the super hits. That would be mainlining the Quatro factor and it would be no bad thing. It's silk sash bash, after all.