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Theatre Interlude: The Hook

6 Jun

hook

The idea of a provincial British theatre staging the world premiere of a work by one of America’s greatest 20th century playwrights is remarkable yet last night I watched the first public performance of The Hook, a drama derived from an unmade screenplay by the great Arthur Miller.  Premiered in Northampton’s Royal and Derngate theatre, the story behind the production is worth recounting.

In 1951, Miller was in Hollywood, in discussion with Columbia Studios about filming The Hook, his 1947 screenplay about a young dockworker standing up to exploitation by both shipowners and by his own corrupt trade union.  The work’s title refers both to the dockers’ tool of a bailing hook but also acknowledges the Red Hook township on New York’s Hudson river neighbourhood where Miller had grown up and witnessed, first-hand, the 1930’s battles of dockworkers against racketeering and bribery within the International Longshoremen’s Association.

The early fifties were also the time when Senator Joe McCarthy was leading a rightwing ‘Red Scare’ against perceived “un-American activities”  and Hollywood was blacklisting people suspected of having radical sympathies or associates.This led to Miller being put under pressure to amend his story to include some communist characters to be portrayed in a negative light and the leader of Hollywood unions to threaten a projectionist boycott if the film was made without such changes.

Miller refused to bow to political censorship and withdrew his script but his proposed Director, Elia Kazan, proved more persuadable and went on to  give evidence to Congress, identifying others as communists. Kazan also went on to direct Marlon Brando in 1954’s On The Waterfront, a film which also dealt with violence and corruption among longshoremen but this time with a script by Budd Schulberg who, like Kazan, had volunteered names of communist associates to the House Un-American Activities Committee witch-hunt. It would be wrong to see The Hook simply as a footnote to the multi-Oscar winning On the Waterfront – it deserves to be understood as part of the canon of Miller’s work. It is certainly not fanciful to suggest that Miller’s experience of McCarthyism in 1951 shaped and influenced The Crucible,  his 1953 dramatisation of the Salem witch trials as an allegory for contemporary moral panics.

With back-story which reads like a drama itself, adapting The Hook for the theatre cannot have been easy for Emmy Award-winning writer Ron Hutchinson. Using only Miller’s own language and narrative structure, he collated the piece from various different typescripts and  handwritten notes held in academic collections in a way that is impressive. It remains faithful to Miller’s own trademark blend of social and moral drama which addresses ‘big issues’ from very human individual perspectives. In this case, the protagonist is Marty Ferrara (played by Jamie Sives), an impulsive, charismatic yet unsophisticated Italian-American dock worker who challenges the officers of his union local. This character was based, loosely, upon the real-life figure Peter Panto – a Brooklyn longshoreman activist murdered in 1939 by mobsters for leading dissent against the union leadership.

It’s probably unfair to pass too firm a judgement of a production on the basis of its first preview night but there were one or two rough edges and cues left hanging fractionally too long. That said, The Hook is a remarkably successful work. The single stage set (designed by Patrick Connellan) serves variously as wharf, street and union hall with a balcony used to show an apartment and office worked very well indeed and the lighting (by Charles Balfour) was suitably atmospheric although, perhaps occasionally, too shadowy for the audience.

The whole piece was directed by James Dacre who, as Artistic Director of Royal and Derngate, is making Northampton an increasingly recognised venue for new drama. 

Others in the strong cast who stood out for me were Sean Murray, Joe Allessi and Paul Rattray. Also, making the best of the only female role as Marty’s wife Therese (which Miller left somewhat under-developed) was Susie Trayling. All of the actors managed to pull off New York accents.

The play is richly rewarding – prompting audiences to reflect, in the words of the programme upon “disparate loyalties, mixed motives, codes of honour and allegiance”.

The play runs in Northampton until June 27th before transferring to Liverpool. I imagine that it may well transfer to the West End.

State Of Our Union

9 Feb

State of Our Union

Coming to you from 1985, ‘State of Our Union’ was the third album from The Long Ryders and their major label debut, It appeared on Island records (ILPS 9802) from when that label was still eclectic and unpredictable. I can’t recall exactly why I bought it but I know it was when I was living in Bishops Stortford, in Hertfordshire – which dates it between September 1985 and  October 1986. I can also remember how much I loved this album at the time! It is a cracker.

The Long Ryders embodied Americana before the term was invented!  They emerged from the so-called Paisley Underground in California but, at the time they seemed to embody an intriguing synthesis between country rock and punk. The album is a the sort of mash-up  that might have occurred if The Byrds and The Clash ever met. Do watch the YouTube clip at of Looking for Lewis and Clark to see what I mean  ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0saf-DKQoM8 ). It is unique and brilliant – one of those musical avenues that were never developed)!

I loved and championed this album when it came out – and since the Long Ryders  eventually folded in the late 1980s, I’ve followed and bought work from singer/guitarist (and writer) Sid Griffin, who is now UK-based and making great bluegrass-influenced music with the Coal Porters – but why this album was not successful baffles me to this day.

It contains  eleven cracking tracks (plus four more if you download it nowadays – which I have). All are classic guitar based rock/pop – but all are more melodically-aware, intelligent and lyrically literate than the British equivalents of the time,

The other key tracks  (especially ‘Good Times Tomorrow, Hard Times Today’) draw inventively on an American folk tradition going back to Woody Guthrie but with a new wave sensibility and urgency.  Other corkers are ‘You Just Can’t Ride the Boxcars Anymore’ and  the anthemic ‘Capturing the Flag’.

I guess nowadays I see indie guitar bands like Gaslight Anthem as being part of the same tradition – but without quite  the same sensibilities that the Long Ryders had. It was the lyrics that really set them apart. These are from ‘Good Times Tomorrow’ (and could have come straight from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath):

“If it weren’t for the rocks in its bed, you know, the stream would have no song

If it weren’t for the dreams my father held we’d just have moped along.

Now some men kinda crawl through life never asking why

My Ma, she chose a restless, type always reaching for the sky

Good times tomorrow, a few hard times today

 I can hear his voice right now explain bad times away

Good times tomorrow, hard times today

Every stream has got a song, like a stream we’ll roll along

Hard times won’t touch this family. “

 

This is one band I really wish had succeeded more than they did. Do check them out.

Parallel Lines

1 Feb

Parallel Lines

Yesterday, while in London, I dropped into an exhbition at Somerset House called Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie and The Advent of Punk. It is a selection of photographs taken by Chris Stein, who, in addition to being the co-founder of Blondie and a guitarist is also a former visual arts student. The period  featured in the shots covers those years in the 1970s when Blondie was coming together and first making its name alongside others such as Television, the Runaways, The Ramones and Talking Heads. The exhibition is  also a document of a particular moment in the popular culture of New York City.

My sense is that early punk in New York was more knowingly commercial than was the case in London. Perhaps it’s because they had Andy Warhol’s sensibilities whilst we had to make do with Malcolm MacLaren who was not nearly as clever or significant as he liked to think.  Anyhow, Blondie was probably one of the most ambitious and commercially successful of the New York bands of the genre, which was why, about a year after it had first been issued, I was pleased to pick up a copy of ‘Parallel Lines’ (Chrysalis Records 1192) for the bargain price of $1.99 when I was in New York myself, at the end of the month I’d spend travelling in the States in the summer of 1979.

‘Parallel Lines’ was actually the band’s third album. They’d established themselves pretty well in the UK with the first two (and charted with the singles ‘Denis’ and ‘Presence Dear’) but it wasn’t until the release of this, in 1978,  that they broke through from the underground into mainstream success in their native country.

It’s a bit ironic that, for all the supposed iconoclasm of punk, a large part of the success of the album is down to the brilliant production work of Mike Chapman, an Australian  responsible for many of the hits of British glamrock band The Sweet  and even more lightweight popsters like Smokie and Mud! What can’t be deniedis that he did a damn good job – because no fewer than half of the twelve tracks were hit singles – and even those that were not are radio-friendly slices of pop-rock, dragged out of a band which was apparently a mix of the stoned,  the fractious and the instrumentally weak and was still composing the material in the studio!

Of the hits, one (‘Sunday Girl’) was written by Chris Stein alone and he also co-wrote ‘Heart of Glass’ (with  vocalist Debby Harry) and ‘Picture This’ (with Harry and keyboard player Jimmy Destri. The other Hits were ‘One Way or Another (by Harry and English bassist Nigel Harrison), a cover of the old Buddy Holly number ‘I’m Gonna Love Your Too’ and ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ (one of two songs on the album written by Jack Lee).

Listening it it again after a few years it must be said, it is very much of it’s era – right down to the disco-influence in ‘Heart of Glass’ which does date it rather – but apart from that it’s Blondie’s finest hour and  one of only two Blondie albums I own (the other being a greatest hits compilation).  That said, I played it today with a smile on my face!

King of the Georgia Blues

22 Jan

Blind Willie McTell

“Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell” wrote  Bob Dylan back in 1983 (although he didn’t actually release the song, ‘Blind Willie McTell‘ until 1991).

I didn’t buy this six CD box-set just on the basis of Dylan’s recommendation – I’d been aware of him for a long time before, not least through Ralph May who so admired the man’s guitar playing that he incorporated it into his own stage name, Ralph McTell in homage!

This package, released in 2007 on Snapper Music as part of a wider project (‘Complete Blues – the Works) designed to showcase the work of several dozen vintage blues musicians is clearly a work of love.  Although it doesn’t include every last note of music recorded by Willie McTell , born ‘McTier’ (1901? – 1959) it does include more than 100 tracks spanning the period 1927  to 1949.

Arranged chronologically, the package includes a well-produced biographical essay and full details of the recordings (dates and personnel).

The material includes  includes some religious tracks (‘Ain’t it grand to be a Christian’  and ‘Old Time Religion, Amen’ for example) and spoken monologues as well as secular blues. These include ‘Statesboro Blues’ which was  covered by the Allman Brothers Band and ‘Lord, Send Me An Angel’ which was covered by the White Stripes.

My own favourites include ‘Southern Can Mama’, ‘Georgia Rag’  and ‘Dirty Mistreater’ on which he’s accompanied by Curley Weaver.

What these and the other tracks showcase is McTell’s light, clear tenor and fluid guitar work on a range of his own songs plus traditional and other material.

Despite the fairly basic quality of some of the recordings, the musicianship shines through.

Watching The Dark

15 Jan

WatchingTheDark

With hundreds of thousands of  bad compilation albums out there, it’s easy to forget that there are some good ones too. I suppose the advent of iTunes and shuffle buttons mean that fewer people care about listening to tracks in the sequence the artist intended them to be heard – and certainly a lot of compilations are thrown together, seemingly at random. This one is an exception: A triple-CD collection of  tracks recorded by Richard Thompson  between 1969 and 1992. It was compiled (actually, I’d prefer to say curated) by long-time Thompson enthusiast Edward Haber and issued in 1993 on Hannibal Records (HNCD 5303), the label set up by Joe Boyd who had produced many of Thompson’s finest recordings over that period. It was also pulled together with the artist’s full involvement.

In more recent years Thompson has been the subject of two substantive box sets.  (Plus a double album anthology of his period with Capitol Records (Action Packed)). There’s  RT: The Life and Music of Richard Thompson, a mammoth 5 CD + book collection produced by Free Reed in 2006 and a 4 CD retrospective, Walking on a Wire put out by Shout! Factory in 2009) but this was the first real anthology (although Island records issued a double album of live tracks and rarities in 1976 when Thompson had left the music business for a while to live in an Islamic commune). Listening to this again though, I think it may be the best of the whole bunch.

The first thing to note about Watching the Dark is what good value it is. Each of the three discs contains more  than 70 minutes of music and of the 47 tracks, only half (24 if you’re pedantic) were available at the time of issue. The remainder are a mixture of  live versions of songs, re-mixes, wholly unreleased or unavailable material. The package also includes a carefully compiled and expensively-produced colour booklet. While not including song lyrics this does provide details of the source of each recording (studio or venue) and every musician plus a thoughtful essay on Richard Thompson’s career to the date this collection appeared.

The next thing to note is how the project is sequenced – which us unusual but works surprisingly well. Instead of attempting to ‘theme’ the material or simply present it chronologically, Haber groups the tracks into two or three year periods (1978-80,  1972-73 and so on) but then spreads it about (so three tracks from Thompson’s Fairport Convention period are in the middle of disc 1 while three from his  first solo album are on disc three while the five most recent songs of all are in the middle of disc 2.  I can’t work out why this works so well – but it does! Another thing I found impressive was that Haber didn’t feel the need to represent all of Richard Thompson’s side projects. This means that although the French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson collaboration is featured (‘Bird in God’s Garden/Lost and Found’) there’s nothing from other ensemble albums like Morris On, Rock On or Saturday Rolling Around.

Finally, there’s the music. The five LP’s worth of songs recorded with his former wife Linda Thompson form fifteen of the tracks here – and for me they’re among the most outstanding (‘Withered and Died’ and ‘Strange Affair’  are certainly in my top-ten Richard and Linda favourites! Interesting too are three songs which were released on the Shoot Out The Lights album (‘For Shame of Doing Wrong’, ‘Backstreet Slide’ and ‘The Wrong Heartbeat’)  but which are represented here in earlier versions produced by Gerry Rafferty and Hugh Murphy for an album which Richard Thompson vetoed because he hated the production.  I think they’re rather good though, although the sound is rather ‘lusher’ than I would have associated with Thompson at this time.

Also well-represented are live tracks from the Richard Thompson Big Band which, for a while, included Clive Gregson and Christine Collister (who were making their own albums as a duo around this time). A later female vocalist who was part of the band for a while and who is represented here is Shawn Colvin.  Others featured include Pete Zorn, John Kirkpatrick, Simon Nicol as well as past and present Fairport Convention drummers Dave Mattacks and Gerry Conway.

In the mix too are some solo performances – including a handful of acoustic guitar versions of traditional tunes.

All in all, it’s a really impressive collection and worth commending. Although it’s not cheap, even on Amazon, it shows that decent compilations are worth buying if they’ve been compiled with care and attention to detail (unlike those which appear without even crediting the artists, producers and engineers whose work is represented).

O Canada!

15 Dec

Canada

My previous post (about Frazey Ford) set me thinking about my comment that I was not surprised that recording an album in Memphis gave it a different feel to what I would have expected had it been recorded in Vancouver.

This led me to think about all the artists in my musical collection who are Canadian or who have Canadian roots – which was interesting and is reported on below.

Equally interesting though is the extent to which Canadian artists are nurtured by their roots or whether they thrive better if transported south to the USA!

The starting point is that there are three Canadians who have really shaped popular music and who feature heavily in my music collection. This is not to disrespect others who may yet do so or who have made significant contributions in their own way but who do not feature in my collection (namechecking Bryan Adams, Randy Bachman, Celine Dion, Nelly Furtado, k.d. lang or Pat Travers). (I would like to try k.d. lang – can anyone tell me where to start?).

The BIG THREE in my opinion are:

  • LEONARD COHEN
  • JONI MITCHELL
  • NEIL YOUNG

These are people whose work cannot be ignored! Young is the most maverick – the best of his work is breathtaking but he’s also released some bizarre and disposable albums. The thing is, he’s always interesting and it’s fascinating to see where he goes next! Mitchell is classy but sometimes inaccessible and detached (try as I might, I can’t warm to some of her later stuff). Which leaves Leonard Cohen. I’ve always loved some/much of his output and as I grow older,  I find new depths to his music and lyrics. For me, he’s,   the real guv’nor of Canadian musicians!

Beneath the Big Three come Kate and Anna McGarrigle, who have given me more pleasure than the others combined but whose potential never exceeded their  jaw-droppingly awesome debut album. At their best, Kate and Anna produced some of the best music I will ever experience but consistently great performances were not their strong point.

Next come The Band (not entirely Canadian of course – and benefiting from the USA sensibility injected by Levon Helm) . And then there’s Martha and Rufus Wainwright (also half US),who are great but, for me, have yet to surpass either of their parents. 

Looking at my own music collection, the next names that leap out are Gordon Lightfoot (if I were older I suspect he’d feature more highly), then Ron Sexsmith (as a writer as much as a performer – which is also the case for Ian Tyson). Then Stephen Fearing and Frazey Ford and the Be Good Tanyas. After that I’d namecheck Natalie McMaster.

For a country of fewer than 37m people, Canada (like Ireland) seems to punch above its weight in musical terms. I wonder why that is and I’m sure that I’ve missed some great  musicians in this round-up! 

 

 

Frazey Ford Five EP

7 Dec

FrazeyFord5

I’ve admired the work  of  Canadian Frazey Ford ever since I first heard a track (“The Littlest Birds”) from the debut album of her band, The Be Good Tanyas, while stuck in a traffic jam trying to get out of Leicester in 2001.  I went and bought that album (“Blue Horse”) immediately and liked it enough to buy their third collection (“Hello Love”) when I saw that in 2006 ….. but wasn’t quite enough taken to seek out their second offering in between those dates in any proactive way!

The offer of a free five-track EP sampler of Ms Ford’s solo work was clearly going to work for me though when I saw it on Noisetrade earlier this year*. It contains two tracks from her 2010 solo debut (“Obadiah”) and three from “Indian Ocean”, her latest release. I downloaded it and was impressed but rather thought it would be some time before it got a UK release. (Yes, I could have bought it as a download but I am old-fashioned in preferring CDs so that I can read sleeve-notes and lyrics).

I like Frazey Ford’s music for much the same reasons I like that of Gillian Welch – it’s modern but has a timeless quality to it which makes it impossible to date. The vocals are languid and have a certain fragility about them and the instrumentation is not overpowering meaning that the focus is on the song itself.

What I wasn’t expecting, this morning, was to see a variant of the artwork above staring out at me from the Culture supplement of my Sunday Times newspaper telling me that “Indian Ocean” features as number 6 in the 100 best records of the Year!  What seems to have been decisive in attracting a wider audience was to have recorded the new album in Memphis rather than Vancouver and to hire the session musicians who backed Al Green in the 1970s in order to give the music a more polished soul sound than would be expected from the folkie/old-timey Tanyas.

While I like the two “Obadiah” tracks a lot, the newer ones take Ms Ford into a whole new place, with the outstanding track being the opener (“September Fields”)  which mixes Ford’s distinctive vocals with an impossibly  slick upeat organ/horn/drum groove. This gives way to a pair of tracks with a  laid-back, late-night, sound which just seems a world away from British Columbia!

You can of course sample this EP for yourself (see below) but do leave a tip if you like it!

* http://noisetrade.com/frazeyford/frazey-ford-five-ep

 

Star Collection Buffalo Springfield

30 Nov

buffalo_springfield-star-collection_a

This compilation of Buffalo Springfield tracks came out on an anonymous budget label (Midi) in 1972 and I bought it (possibly from Woolworths), at around that time and despite the naff sleeve.  I’d already bought ‘Harvest’ by Neil Young (see April 27th post), had taped a copy of ‘After the Goldrush’ and wanted to hear more but was too mean to shell out for Mr Young’s two earliest solo records or his CSNY group recordings! This then was the cheapskate alternative – a collection of  work from his first band – which also featured Stephen Stills.

I’d never heard anything by Buffalo Springfield on UK radio and I think the original three albums ( from 1966, ’67 and ’68) had been deleted by the record company at that point so I was taking a gamble with £1.50 (maybe even less) but it turned out pretty good value for money!

The record contains eleven tracks – five by Young, three by  Stills and two by Richie Furay. All of them with that distinctively sixties sound when US rock music wasn’t ashamed of displaying its pop roots and  when pop music was flirting with psychedelia and a heavier sound. There’s plenty of Byrds-like jangling guitars among this collection. None of the tracks are bad at all and most have lasted very well over the years. The better of Furay’s pair is ‘A Child’s Claim to Fame’ , while the outstanding Stills track is the ominous ‘For What It’s Worth’ followed closely by ‘Rock’n’Roll Woman’.  It’s the Neil Young tracks that make it for me though: Both ‘Mr Soul’ and ‘Burned’ are up there among his best and ‘Out Of My Mind‘ is pretty good too.

Since buying this, I’ve acquired the band’s first two albums but haven’t seen the final one (‘Last Time Around’) to buy yet – but it’ll probably join them in due course.

Tubular Bells

24 Nov

TubularBells

It’s going to be difficult to write anything original about Tubular Bells, the recording which launched the Virgin Records label (catalogue V2001)  back in 1973 and is probably responsible, at least in part, for transforming Richard Branson from the owner of a mail order record company into the tycoon he is now.  It was, of course the solo debut of Mike Oldfield (recorded when he was still in his teens and his only other recordings were as part of a folkie duo with his sister). It’s also something where the bulk of the performance is by Oldfield himself, using multiple overdubs in a way that was still pretty unusual at the time (although there are other musicians involved) and it contains just two tracks (called, imaginatively, part 1 and part 2).

It’s also a piece that is almost entirely instrumental. The first of two exceptions being Viv Stanshall‘s monologue introducing each instrument at the end of part one. This of course reprises the Master of Ceremonies role monologue in the track ‘The Intro And The Outro’ from the Bonzo Dog (Doo Dah) Band‘s 1967 LP Gorilla. This had also been parodied by the Incredible String Band on a track called ‘Waiting For You’ on their 1970 album Be Glad For The Song Has No Ending – right down to the plummy accent).  The second set of ‘vocals’ appears on the ‘Piltdown Man’ section in part two and comprises Mike Oldfield grunting screaming and snarling – allegedly because Branson wanted some lyrics in the performance in order to have a single to release.  He didn’t get the single but I don’t suppose that was a problem because Tubular Bells has sold by the millions, deservedly so since it was and remains an original, innovative and creative work.

PS: Oh yeah, I don’t suppose being used in the soundtrack of The Exorcist got in the way either!

Who Knows Where The Time Goes?

17 Nov

CollinsWHoKnows

I’d heard of Judy Collins when I bought this, on vinyl, sometime in the late 1970s but, truth be told, the main reasons for acquiring it were the two songs by Leonard Cohen (‘Story of Issac’ and ‘Bird on a Wire’) and the title track (‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?‘) by Sandy Denny, lately of Fairport Convention. I suppose, back then I thought of her as a cover artist (of Dylan, Joni Mitchell and, of course her hit single of Steven Sondheim’s ‘Send In The Clowns’).

It’s only as time has passed that I’ve grown to appreciate just what a powerful  and interesting figure she is.  There was clearly something in the water in the USA as the 1950s gave way to the 60s since that period not only saw the birth of the whole Greenwich Village scene that nurtured Bob Dylan, Dave van Ronk and Phil Ochs but also Joan Baez, Judy Henske and Judy Collins.

By 1968, when this album came out (on the Elektra label), Ms Collins had not only established herself as an interpreter of songs, she’d also shown a remarkably  eclectic taste in what to cover.

This album has has nine tracks. None are less than good and four are very good. Part of this is down to the instrumentation – which is pretty classy – featuring James Burton, (guitar/dobro) Stephen Stills (guitar/bass)  and  Van Dyke Parks (keyboards).

The first stand-out (for me anyways)is ‘Hello, Hooray‘ (which between this recording in 1968 and the time I bought it,  had been a big chart success for Alice Cooper – covers by two very different artists must be a feather in the cap for composer  Rolf Kempf)!   The second cracker is Sandy Denny’s ‘Who knows..?‘ which is up there with the composer’s own version.  Given Fairport Convention’s notorious inability to translate talent into cash around this time, one can only hope that royalties from this track helped out with Sandy’s income!

The third  stand-out is Ms Collins’ version of Dylan’s  ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’ which (just) avoid becoming too saccarine and the fourth is Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire’ (which, co-incidentally was part of the Fairport’s repertoire at the same time – someone should get them to book her for Cropredy!)  I like all the other five tracks too, especially ‘Someday Soon’, which may not be a great song but is the only other one in my collection by Ian Tyson – composer of  ‘Four Strong Winds’ which I have in differently beautiful versions by Neil Young and Johnny Cash!