Motown Anthems

14 Nov

MotownAnthems

Every music collection worth the name needs to have some Motown in it and this four CD collection (Universal Music 5341396) is a great way to do it since it contains 98 tracks – about 90 of which are belters!

Motown always seemed to function  primarily as a label for hit singles and, until I bought this, the only other item I had was another compilation (Diana Ross and the Supremes if you’re interested). Until I picked up this ,  I couldn’t really imagine myself buying a full CD by any other single Motown artist (with the possible exception of Stevie Wonder).

That’s my mistake really because thiscollection is a powerful reminder of how, particularly in the 1960’s and 1970s, Motown was almost certainly the dominant label for black American artists and released dozens of classic hit songs.

There can’t be many people of my age in the UK or North America who wouldn’t recognise the majority of these tracks even if we didn’t buy them at the time! In addition to artists already mentioned, there are songs by The Temptations,  The Four Tops, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, The Isley Brothers, Gladys Knight and many more.

There were two real revelations for me though; Firstly, listening to this made me realise that my collection is woefully deficient in music by Marvin Gaye. How on earth had I managed to neglect Let’s Get It On  and What’s Going On? for starters?  The second eye-opener was how much I’d undervalued the Commodores and Lionel Richie (who I’d tended to dismiss as too smooth and over-produced by half!).  I even managed to listen to early Michael Jackson and Jackson5 without being reminded of the grotesque, self-obsessed damaged figure he later became.

By the mid-1980s, Motown had rather lost its way and  the (relatively few) tracks from later years don’t do much for me. On the other hand, some of the earlier stuff by artists who didn’t go stellar was great to hear again (I’d have been hard-pressed to identify the The Marvelettes or The Contours for example).

This collection brought home two other things as well. The first was the business acumen of label boss Berry Gordy jr. in knowing what would sell to his audiences for so many years (it was perhaps moving the company from Detroit to LA that started the decline as it lost touch with its roots). No less important was the reminder of the genius of Lamont Dozier, Edward Holland jr. and Brian Holland who wrote so many of the songs!

I picked up a secondhand copy of Motown Anthems for a fiver and new copies seem to be available on the net for less than a tenner. You could do a lot worse than giving  it to yourself or a friend for Christmas!

 

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Stupidity

13 Nov

Stupidity 

One of the more cheerful bits of news this autumn has been about the health of the guitarist John Wilkinson  (aka Wilko Johnson).  Earlier this year Wilko collaborated with Roger Daltrey on what everyone (including him) thought would be a final CD before he succumbed to what had been diagnosed as terminal pancreatic cancer. However, following surgery to remove an enormous tumor, he now appears to be clear of the disease. While I really enjoyed the collaboration ‘Going Back Home’, today’s post features something from much earlier in his career – the live album ‘Stupidity’ made as a member of Dr Feelgood.

My reasons for this choice are selfish : It’s my favourite Feelgoods album and this is, in part, because when it was released originally (in 1976 on United Artists), the first pressing came with a bonus single (Johnny B Goode and Riot in Cell Block No 9). Unlike the rest of the (live) album, this was recorded at the legendary Friars Club in Aylesbury in 1975 – and I was in the audience! This, sadly, is the closest I am ever likely to get to being associated with a No.1 chart topping album.

Dr Feelgood were one of the very best of the  ‘pub rock’ bands that paved the way for the whole punk explosion. They had energy, they had attitude and few of their songs exceeded three minutes. Unlike many of the punk bands that followed them, they also had talent.  Even now I can recall the names of every member off the top of my head: Frontman Lee Brilleaux on vocals and nasty blues harmonica, Wilko, playing a unique and aggressive hybrid of lead and rhythm guitar, The Big Figure (John Martin) on bass  and John B. Sparks on drums.

The Feelgoods had put out two albums before  ‘Stupidity’ (‘ Down By The Jetty’ and ‘Malpractice’) and had developed a reputation as a great live act.  Having seen them twice in this period, in relatively small venues,  I can confirm that they were simply awesome  live – playing a mix of Wilko originals (‘She Does It Right’ and ‘Roxette’ my faves here and R&B covers (Bo Diddley, Rufus Thomas,  Chuck Berry etc).

Intense, brooding, menacing, the live interaction between Johnson and Brilleaux was electric and this is apparent and  reflected in the album’s cover picture – an classic LP cover image.  Others will decide whether Wilko was sacked from the band (his line) or walked (implied on the band’s website)  but whatever, the Feelgood’s moment in the sun  faded with his departure. The chemistry was different with his replacement, Gypie Mayo, and never again would the Feelgoods be cutting-edge. And despite a solid career later and wide respect and affection in the niche he created (with Solid Senders, the Wilko Johnson Band and as a member of Ian Dury’s Blockheads) Wilko himself hasn’t yet ever surpassed his first three recordings – although if he continues his association with Daltrey, I hope the best may be yet to come!

But, just for a few weeks in 1976, Dr Feelgood  were absolutely the hottest band in Britain. And they deserved to be.

 

PS In one of those slightly surreal coincidences, one of my friends and former colleagues (hi Jonathan!) from the 1980s, was a contemporary of Wilko’s at Westcliff Grammar School in Southend and at Newcastle University!

Dead & Born & Grown

10 Nov

STaves

From 2012 and on Atlantic and that’s really weird because Atlantic is not a label I think anyone would associate with acoustic folksy stuff from a trio of English sisters! In fact the only odder mismatch I can think of is when the English folkie, Steve Ashley, had his debut album in the seventies issued by Motown in the USA.

Anyhow, this is the full-length debut from The Staves (who are  Camilla, Jessica and Emily Staveley-Taylor). Now if you are from the UK, those three first names, combined with a double-barrelled surname do rather suggest a certain type of home-counties upbringing and the music is, to be honest, what you might imagine. That’s shameful stereotyping on my part I know, but maybe not inaccurate.  Apparently the Staves are from Watford (a town which, granted, is not usually seen as part of the ‘Gin’n’Jag’ belt but is  hardly evocative of  mean streets, inner-city grit either).

So to the music, which is produced, immaculately by Glyn Johns (producer/engineer to Rock Royalty). There are twelve tracks, each of which is pleasant enough – nice harmonies, gentle lyrics and plenty of acoustic guitar. After a few listens though, I found that there weren’t really any tracks which were standing out and demanding to be re-played repeatedly. The two which came closest were the opener (‘Wisely and Slow’) and the closer (‘Eagle Song’) but I still can’t work out if that’s simply because of their positioning. And the downside of that is that, while I find this CD good background music, it doesn’t demand that I should listen to it – there’s simply not enough range in the music or the lyrics.

Enjoy Every Sandwich

20 Jul

Sandwich

Issued on Artemis Records/Rykodisc (RCD17304) in 2004, I picked this up last year for a ridiculously cheap price on Amazon. It’s a posthumous tribute to the songs of Warren Zevon, who died of mesothelioma in 2003.

The title is Zevon’s laconic response to an interview question about what having this terminal disease had taught him.

It’s an interesting mix of songs and artists paying tribute – not all of which work – but when they do, it’s terrific stuff.  Perhaps the two most noteworthy contributors are Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Both are live recordings – Dylan’s heartfelt take on Mutineer is let down by the sound quality but Springsteen’s version of My Ride’s Here is rather good.

Apart from those, my favourite track is The Wallflowers take on Lawyers, Guns and Money (such a great title and lyric) while Adam Sandler has a brave attempt at Werewolves of London which works well and although Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt don’t really add much to the original of  Poor, Poor Pitiful Me , it’s always good to hear them.

Others on the plus side are Steve Earle (Reconsider Me) and a poignant version of Don’t Let Us Get Sick from Jill Sobule while on the ‘not quite’ side are The Pixies and Pete Yorn.

If you see this cheap, my recommendation would be to buy it – but probably one for completists otherwise.

 

 

Cajun Classics – The Kings of Cajun at their Best

15 May

CajunClass

This compilation CD from 1993 on the fine Ace Records label (CDCHM 431) marked the point when I thought that I’d actually translate my enjoyment of Cajun music (see 16 April 2013 piece on The Electric Bluebirds) into something more than liking particular artists or songs into attempting to explore the whole cajun/zydeco scene in a bit more depth – and how it mutates into the blues.

That all sounds dead academic – but it’s much more simple really!  I just like cajun and zydeco music even if my understanding of Cajun French is such that I have little or no idea of what the lyrics are about most of the time! There’s just something the good-time vibe that make you want to dance.

And this is a great entree to a range of performers.  The tracks are selected from over the period 1959 – 91 and include heavyweight US musicians of the genre including Nathan Abshire, Dewey Balfa and Austin Pitrie as well as Michael Doucet’s incomparable Beausoleil (who I saw a few years ago). There are also some classic songs – not least D.L. Meynard’s  classic ‘La Porte En Arrière’, the traditional ‘Jolie Blon’ and Eddie Shuler’s ‘Sugar Bee’.

Every half-decent music collection needs to have some cajun tracks and there are a lot worse introductions than this.

Theatre interlude: Every Last Trick

15 May

Everylasttrick

Another ‘Made in Northampton’ original production from my local venue, Northampton’s Royal and Derngate:  ‘Every Last Trick’ is a very loose adaptation by Tamsin Oglesby of an 1892 farce (Le Systeme ribadier)  by Georges Feydeau. It is ridiculous, absurd and great fun – involving  people associated with the established companies ‘Told By An Idiot’ (director Paul Hunter) and ‘Spymonkey’ (actors Atior Basaur and Adrien Gygax).

Imagine a plot which starts with the  premise that the Spanish Ambassador is a philandering member of the magic circle who mesmerises his wife in order to meet his mistress (using the the codeword ‘I love you’).  From there, it is but a short step to an actor (Basaur) contributing to a musical interlude while dressed as a grasshopper and later (no longer dressed as a grasshopper) sawing a man in half!

Feydeau may be there – somewhere – but the spirit of this production  is physical theatre, slapstick, pantomime and  and a surrealism that  kept reminding me of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer and even Monty Python. It was very much an entertainment to be enjoyed rather than written about.

The other cast members were Sophie Russell, as the ambassador’s wife and Toby Park as her former love (returned, by elephant from Borneo of course). Russell’s role requires her to dance and play the ukelele but also act comatose while being manhandled. On more than one occasion the silliness of the performance was so infectious that she was struggling not to giggle, prompting Basaur, who is a natural clown, to ad lib “she must be having a very nice dream”!

Not a great piece of theatre – but certainly an amusing night out.

 

Theatre interlude: The Roaring Girl

5 May

RoaringGirl

Last weekend I was at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, to see the RSC’s production of The Roaring Girl, written in 1611 by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton. The play focuses on the character of Moll Cutpurse, a cross-dressing ne’er do well based on a genuine 17th century character (real name Mary Frith) who, according to the programme, “associated herself with ruffianly swaggering and lewd company” and “to the great shame of her sex oftentimes drunk hard and distempered her head with drink”.  So, four hundred years ahead of her time then!

For reasons I don’t pretend to understand, the director, Jo Davies, chose to set this production in the 1890s – which worked okay-ish but didn’t add a great deal for me. She also employed, for the music, a (rather good) on-stage all-women rock band which I enjoyed but which was neither Jacobean nor Victorian. The main plot of the play centres on a young man, Sebastian (played by Joe Bannister) seeking to convince his father that he has fallen in love with the notorious Moll Cutpurse (played with great swagger and spark by Lisa Dillon in a bravura performance) so that his real love, Mary (Faye Castelow), of whom his father disapproves because of the inadequate dowry she will bring, looks a preferable match.  Well, what do you expect of a Jacobean comedy social realism?

What made the production interesting though was less the almost Robin Hood-like way that the character of Moll goes around righting wrongs (she seems altogether too ‘nice’) than the sub-plot concerning another battle of the sexes between shopkeepers and their wives where Lizzie Hopley (playing the apothecary’s wife, Mistree Gallipot) almost steals the show. The scene which has stayed in my mind most though was the opening one of act four, set in Sebastian’s father’s house in which Moll and Sebastian seek to conceal Mary from his father – which was high comedy.

Although lacking a real ‘wow’ factor, this production was a joy to watch, not least because of the number of strong parts for women actors. Of the men, perhaps the strongest performance came from Geoffrey Freshwater as a villainous Ralph Trapdoor

Buckets Of Songs

20 Apr

BucketsTraum

This one may be just a bit on the obscure side! Happy Traum is an American folkie who was part of the Greenwich Village scene of the early 1960’s and who first recorded on the Folkways label’s Broadside collection alongside Bob Dylan (credited as ‘Blind Boy Grunt’), Phil Ochs and Pete Seeger. He also crops up on a few tracks of  Dylan’s Greatest Hits II compilation but is not enormously prolific and indeed may be best known for his guitar instruction books/CDs.

I’ve mentioned before (see entry for 7 September 2013 – Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand) that I was really impressed by another album in which he was involved (1976’s More Music from Mud Acres) but this was the first time bought anything released under his own name. To be honest, I’m not sure that I’d even SEEN much of his stuff in the UK!

Anyhow this CD, Buckets of Songs, was released in 1988 on (Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop label (GWCD2). It contains twelve tracks, eight of which are traditional with the remaining three coming from the pens of Bib Dylan (‘Buckets of Rain’) and Leadbelly (‘When I was a Cowboy’, which I though was traditional), and ‘Relax Your Mind’ along with a Turlogh O’Carolan instrumental.The sleeve notes  are informative not only about the songs but also about the tunings used and , capo position

Although there is an understated and largely acoustic accompaniment (including John Sebastian on harmonica), the thing to listen to is Happy Traum’s acoustic guitar work and arrangements of the songs.

My favourite tracks run from six through to twelve and I can listen to them  time after time: ‘American Stranger’, ‘Gypsy Davey’, ‘Sheebeg an Sheemor’ (O’Caronan), ‘Willie Moore’, ‘Dark Road Blues’, ‘Delia’s Gone’ and ‘When First Unto This Country’ (which Happy Traum learned from Mike and Peggy Seeger but which I learned via Dave Swarbrisk on Fairport’s 1976 Gottle O’ Geer’ album). While many of these are fairly well known songs of which I have several versions, these are ones I return to because of the quality of the playing and production.

 

 

 

 

Bob Marley and the Wailers LIVE!

16 Apr

marleylive

Like so many others, I was first turned onto reggae through this album, recorded in 1975 at the Lyceum in London and released on Island records (ILPS 9376) later that year.  Although Island was originally a Jamaican label, in the seventies it had been known as much for its English rock acts (Traffic, Free, Roxy Music, Fairport, Vinegar Joe, Nick Drake, Incredible String Band) than for its black artists.

I had heard singles by Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker of course – as well as the ‘rude reggae’ innuendo-laden novelty singles (banned on the BBC) by Judge Dread who was, remarkably the first white artist to chart in Jamaica with a reggae track).  I also knew that the genre had a significant skinhead following which (given that many skins were associated with racism and far-right politics) always seemed odd.

Nevertheless, this was a really groundbreaking collection for a lot of white teens because it was an album rather than a single song and it had rock, rather than pop credibility (different from soul or Motown – although I suppose Stevie Wonder was crossing over too).

I’d picked up on the name of Bob Marley largely through  ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ (included as track two side two here) which Eric Clapton had covered  a couple of years before.  Probably my first exposure to Bob Marley’s voice though came through the single release (which opens side two of the LP) ‘No Woman No Cry’. This is seven minutes of wonderful music which makes me smile every time I hear it.  Although written by Marley, it is credited to his friend, Vincent Ford – so that the song’s royalties could be used to support a soup kitchen that Mr Ford ran in Trenchtown.  The album is worth having for this track alone.

Apart for those tracks, the third and final song on side two is the Bob Marley/Peter Tosh song ‘Get Up, Stand Up’.

In comparison to side two, the four songs on side one are not quite as strong – although ‘Burnin’ and Lootin” and ‘Lively Up Yourself’ are fairly well known.

It’s as a collection though, including the great front cover photo,  that this album really stands up.

 

Planet Waves

12 Apr

PlanetWaves

I bought this Bob Dylan album from 1974 sometime between 1978 and 1981,  not as a conscious decision for this particular item but because it was discounted. (At that time  very few retailers discounted  anything much – and certainly not for big-league artists like Dylan)! I know this because during this period  I spent unhealthy amounts of time in every record store I passed, calculating what I could next afford. Honestly.

I always think of it as a curiosity from the strange interregnum when Dylan left the Columbia/CBS/Sony label before realising that this rather corporate company actually did a pretty good job for him. In addition to ‘Planet Waves’, this period saw the live ‘Before the Flood’ appear on Asylum (in North America) and on Island Records (ILPS 9261) in the UK. In addition, it always seems to me to be both under-rated and overlooked given the proportion of strong songs it contains.

There are eleven tracks on ‘Planet Waves’ including what is probably the best-known (and most covered) song Forever Young, which appears in two versions. A slow version closes side one of the disc and a more jaunty one which opens side two.  It’s a tender, warm, song from Dylan to his children and is one with which any parent can empathise. The first version (lasting nearly five minutes) is something of a dignified, hymn-like paternal blessing while the up-tempo, rockier version comes in at a little under three minutes. Both are great – and for anyone two likes understanding how a song takes shape, I’d also recommend a two-minute early demo take of the song which did not appear until 1985 (on the ‘Biograph’ collection).

The familial theme continues in the album closer (Wedding Song) which is a love song – but one with typically Dylaneque twists of enigmatic ambiguity. If it’s not entirely an autobiographical song to his then-wife Sara, then there must certainly be some personal elements in it – and it’s performed by Dylan alone with his guitar and harmonica.

Backing elsewhere on the album is provided by The Band – members of which are on top-form throughout – particularly on the more out-and-out rock ensemble pieces (like the opening track On A Night Like This and later on You Angel You).

There are two other great tracks for me though. The first is Going, Going, Gone, a moody, bitter song of endings and partings where the lyrics blend anger, hurt and resignation and the  backing oozes a sense of foreboding and weariness.  It really is a remarkable, intense three and a half minute of music.  Dylan’s final verse runs:

I been walkin’ the road
I been livin’ on the edge
Now, I’ve just got to go
Before I get to the ledge
So I’m going
I’m just going
I’m gone.

I’ve always wondered, as someone who admires Dylan and Richard Thompson in equal measure, whether this lyric is answering the anthem Meet On The Ledge, written by a teenage Thompson for Fairport Convention’s second album (1969’s ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’) which has the lines:

The way is up along the road, the air is growing thin
Too many friends who tried, blown off this mountain with the wind

Meet on the ledge, we’re going to meet on the ledge
When my time is up, I’m going to see all my friends
Meet on the ledge, we’re going to meet on the ledge
If you really mean it, it all comes around again.

(OK, this is a speculative conceit – but Fairport DID include a cover of Dylan’s I’ll Keep It With Mine on the 1969 album!)

If Forever Young and Going, Going Gone are the stand out tracks, the understated gem is (and one of my Dylan favourites) is Never Say Goodbye. There are two reasons why I like this track. The first is a wonderfully melodic bass line from Rick Danko which introduces the song from 11 seconds in until the vocal begins at 26 seconds. I don’t quite know why but I just love it!

The second reason is the opening verse which runs:

Twilight on the frozen lake
North wind about to break
On footprints in the snow
Silence down below

I can’t articulate why, but it’s really evocative.
I really don’t get why this album is so overlooked – perhaps the the austere cover. Anyhow, go listen!