Monday, November 26, 2012

Teenage Girls! Timpani! The Strange Cult Of The Cults Percussion Ensemble

Dame Evelyn Glennie provided one of the highlights of the London Olympics opening ceremony, leading 1000 drummers through a re-enactment of the industrial revolution in a thundering collaboration with Underworld. For Glennie, it was a moment of triumph in an extraordinary career.
Now, thanks to a remarkable story of vinyl archaeology, the roots of that success have been exposed, with the re-release of a record Dame Evelyn appeared on in her early teens, while at school in Aberdeenshire. More surprisingly, this disc – of which fewer than 500 copies were originally pressed – has been hailed by Tom Hodgkinson in The Times as “an avant-garde masterpiece”.
The group’s name seems to offer a clue to its future success, but the Cults Percussion Ensemble was just that: an Aberdeenshire schools group, tutored by Ron Forbes, who moved to the North East after a stint in the London Jazz Four, having earned his musical spurs in the Coldstream Guards. The album was made to sell at concerts, and had gone unnoticed by the wider world until it was spotted by Jonny Trunk, whose label, Trunk Records, specialises in library music and TV and film soundtracks (including porn – the label motto is “Music – Nostalgia – Sex”).He found the record at Spitalfields Market in London, and was immediately enthralled.
“It had the word ‘Cults’ on the front, and I didn’t know it was a place,” says Trunk. “I just thought it was some spooky thing. Then when I heard it I thought it was absolutely magical. From the second it starts, it’s just enchanting. And it’s so beautifully played. It’s amazing what a well-tuned group of 14 year-olds can do.”
Dame Evelyn admits to being “delighted” by the album’s reappearance, and readily concedes to the importance of the Ensemble in her development. It was under Forbes’s tutelage that she first explored percussion, and the success of the Ensemble – it won several inter-schools competitions – led to European dates, and an “unbelievable” appearance at the Royal Albert Hall. “I remember all the parents gathering to see us off on what seemed like the endless bus journey to London,” Dame Evelyn recalls. “It was quite an experience.”
She also recalls going shopping with her mother to buy the material for the full-length kilt that was the Ensemble’s uniform.  “She had to make the kilt. We got to choose the tartan; I think it was Mackintosh. I still have it somewhere, but it’s probably too big now. I was a chubby little girl!”
Forbes, now retired and living in Crete, is surprised by the album’s re-emergence, but has fond memories of working with Glennie. “It inspired Evelyn. Playing at the Albert Hall as a kid is quite an experience. I think she saw that what she wanted in life was going to happen. She was very single-minded and she went for it full time.”
When Glennie first auditioned for the Ensemble, she wasn’t completely deaf, recalls Forbes. “She tried to play the clarinet, but because her hearing was so bad she used to blow so loud she nearly blew the keys off, poor kid, because she wanted to hear what she was doing. So the music teacher at her school, Ellon Academy, said to me, ‘I don’t think she’ll be any good.’ But when I tested her, I knew she was a fine musician. She had perfect pitch.”
Forbes adapted his teaching to cope with Glennie’s deteriorating hearing, allowing her to “hear” the tuning by sensing the vibrations in the instruments. “She didn’t like listening to music so much then, because she was getting a lot of distorted sounds. When her hearing went, it was better for her, because she had a clear mind, and if she saw the notes she knew what they sounded like. So when I wrote the nine parts for the different players, she would learn them all, so she could hear the overall sound.”
At 13, Glennie is the youngest musician on the record, and she can be heard playing timpani and xylophone. “She was in the learning process then,” says Forbes. “It was the first chance she’d had to play something, and to make progress, to know that she was developing. 
“But she eventually became the principal player. A year later, she played all the hard bits.”
From these humble beginnings, Glennie has developed into a musician of international standing, but she acknowledges the importance of her time with the Ensemble, and the day Forbes gave her a snare drum and no sticks, and told her to create the sound of a storm, and then a whisper. “It’s not about the instruments,” she says. “It’s about the teaching, and using your imagination.”
As to the record being an “avant-garde masterpiece”, Forbes is modestly dismissive. “I don’t know how I feel about that. You guys do that – you classify it.” Suffice to say, the Percussion Ensemble isn’t the only cult record Forbes has been associated with. The London Jazz Four’s 1967 LP, Take A New Look At The Beatles has a growing reputation, with some critics – those who appreciate good vibes - suggesting that its arrangements surpass the Lennon/McCartney originals.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

George Best: El Beatle on Drinking, Shagging, Gambling, and the Perils of Living One Day At A Time

Tina Turner echoes around the Glasgow Pavilion, past the grey-haired men in trench coats the snuggling couples, the ex-boxers and the men with dates tattooed on their hands. The sound bounces off the empty seats, spins around the gods, then booms back down to the stage.
Two middle-aged men appear in matching shell suits; black with a red flash. They sit on tall stools under the spotlights, looking like a Batchelors’ reunion. #
The grey-haired one seems slightly nervous and wears his top zipped to the Adam’s apple. 
The dark one with the grey beard wears white trainers which have never seen dirt. To his left there is an ice bucket containing  an uncorked bottle of Champagne. He is happy. He is onstage, doing what he does, telling tales about himself. He is being George Best, footballing legend. Simply the Best, better than all the rest. Later, he will be asked if there is real champagne in the bottle. “I promise you it’s real,” he will say.
This is a show called A Sporting Night To Remember, a Scottish version of the chat and comedy tour George Best takes round England with his football friend Rodney Marsh, another football maverick. For this one, Marsh has been replaced by ex-Ranger ‘Slim’ Jim Baxter, who is said to be planning a tour of his own with ex-Celtic winger Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone. It is a nostalgic evening in which the most frequent complaint from the stage and the stalls is the absence of characters in today’s football. “How do you compare the football when you played with today?” Baxter is asked. “No comparison,” he replies. “Ask the punters.”
The pictures of Best tell their own story. The first clip is the one Terry Wogan used to introduce the player in his now infamous television interview. The game is a big moment in the Best legend, an FA Cup tie between Manchester United and Northampton from 1970. Best returned to the team after a long suspension and scored six goals. He was beardless then, and wore number 11 as he danced through a muddy penalty box leaving the defence stranded in slow motion. “Imagine,” the commentator mused, “what he might have done had he been match fit.”
“But,” said Terry Wogan, “at 26, tragically early, he finished with top class football. So what happened to the man Pele himself called the greatest footballer?” 
So what happened? George Best is sitting on stage and a comedian is pumping him for some scandal. “What happened on the Wogan show?” he is asking, and everyone is laughing, because in Best’s career, Wogan is the public fall from grace, bigger than suspensions, divorces, bankruptcy, jail (and he has done all of those). It is Best’s Chappaquiddick, the night when the high times demanded payback.
What happened on Wogan was that Best turned up to plug something – it could have been his video Genius, or perhaps his autobiography, The Good, The Bad, and The Bubbly – and the unfortunate host crushed the legend in a tortuous nine minutes. The centrepiece of the drama, before Omar Sharif was wheeled on to mop up, was a non-interview in which Wogan did a lot of nervous smiling and Best echoed his questions back at him. “What is important in life?” Wogan asked, timidly.
“Friends,” said Best.
“Football. Yeah. Still. Yeah.”
“The ladies?”
“The ladies are still important, yeah.”
Wogan smirked. Maybe he saw his career flashing before his eyes. All those nights at Eurovision rattled in the back of his head. From the audience came a few stifled laughs like the murmur of a distant underground train. The mood was half embarrassed sympathy, half devilment. The audience smelled blood, though they weren’t sure whose.
Vultures hovered over Best’s head. Wogan saw two doors marked “Exit”, but chose the wrong one.
“What about the booze?” he fumbled. “Is that important to you?”
“The booze is still important. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.”
The train drew closer. Towards the end of those nine minutes – an eternity in the life of Terry Wogan – the conversation turned back to women. There is an anecdote about Best and his success at bedding Miss Worlds, and it may have been this that the host was trying to prompt.
George mumbled. “I like screwing, all right.”
“So what do you do with your time these days?”
“Ladies and gentlemen, George Best.”
So what happened that night? George Best is talking about Wogan. Everybody saw it. It was one of those television moments. Best is laughing now. “A couple of lovely things happened. Omar Sharif and I got engaged. And I did get a lovely phone call from a couple of nice friends of ours, Oliver Reed and Alex Higgins. And they both said ‘Bestie, you fuckin’ looked alright to us, pal.”

Friends, football, ladies and booze. Put those together and you have the basis of the George Best story. The trouble is that the man sitting quietly in his dressing room waiting to go onstage is a smarter prospect entirely than the flip character of legend. The champagne is uncorked, but he does not drink. He talks quietly and carefully. The life of this George Best is beautifully simple. The word that peppers his sentences is “lovely”.
Friends: “Everything got out of hand until about seven years ago. And I decided to change it. I got hold of a terrific lawyer, who was recommended to me, and this man, who has become a real close friend, sorted it out for me, he cleaned it up. I paid off all my debts, particularly to the Inland Revenue, and he now looks after me, and if anybody gives me a hard time he turns around and does what he thinks is necessary.”
The other vital element in the Best revival was his girlfriend, Mary Shatila, who runs his diary. “I worked it out with Mary that in the last two years I’ve made something  like 1000 appearances. And two I haven’t turned up for. One other one, I turned up where I’d had too much to drink – obviously you take a chance with that. So, I figure, the amount I do, it’s like football, if you play a hundred games and you’re still ahead, you’re all right.”
Best’s long-standing relationship has surprised many, not least those who took a vicarious pleasure in his playboy lifestyle. “We all make mistakes when we’re kids,” he says. “I don’t make too many anymore. And the ones that I do make, I rectify very quickly.”
A few years ago, he was quoted as saying he was incapable of fidelity. “That was years ago. When we’re kids, ships in the night and all that rubbish, but I’ve found a lady I’m happy with so it doesn’t even cross my mind. I still have the opportunities, but I wouldn’t let her down. For eight years now I’ve been very happy.”
He is, however, level-headed about these things. Yes, it gives him a sense of balance knowing someone is on his side, but who knows? “Things can change. She can meet somebody else, I can meet somebody, but at least we’re mature enough to know that. We don’t drive ourselves nuts wondering if it will happen or not.”
Football? People are always asking George Best about football. He hosts football shows on Radio 5 and LBC, and his view is that the coaching of children in the British game is a disgrace, and that the overall standard is far below what it was when he played. He tells people what they want to hear – that there are no characters in the game anymore, by which he means players who entertained, broke the rules.
“I quit because the game was changing and it wasn’t fun anymore. They were talking about systems and fitness and stamina. They stopped talking about flair and charisma. And I was just a little bit disillusioned with it so I disappeared. I opened a club in Manchester for a while and then I went off to America.”
The stories about Best’s excesses are legion, and he plays up to them in his act. The Wogan humiliation has added a bitter twist to his public image, making his less sober outbursts more newsworthy than they ought to be. He has spent much of the last week retracting a remark he made about the quality of the current Manchester United team. “I did a dinner a couple of weeks ago and some guy asked me a silly question about Man United and how I felt about them. It was like asking me if I thought Muhammad Ali was a great fighter. It’s a stupid question, isn’t it? So I said flippantly that I thought they were crap, trying to be funny. And the press printed ‘Best Says United Are Crap’.”
An apology to Bobby Charlton is less successful. “They asked me what I thought about Bobby Charlton and I said he was a miserable bastard. The thing is, Bobby and I are quite good pals. We didn’t mix socially, but when we finished training Bobby went home to his wife and kids and the rest of us went out gambling, shagging and drinking. So all this crap that you read is a load of rubbish. But he still is a miserable bastard, yes.”
Offstage, Best is less excitable, though still resentful of press distortions. He intends to sue over a recent report about the cancellation of a This Is Your Life programme in which he was to be the star.
“They (the newspaper) said they cancelled it because I was unreliable or they weren’t sure I would turn up, which is totally untrue and false. They cancelled it because they couldn’t get certain people that were supposed to be there. When I think that I haven’t played for over 20 years in this country, that national newspapers would still want to print rubbish like that… It freaks me out when you think what’s going on in the world.”
And yet, his attitude to the press is complicated. Since he no longer plays, it is such stories, true or not, which fan the flames of the legend. Where the real Best can be found in this is anyone’s guess. He suggests this has been the case throughout his career.
“You see; all the stories, I let them  get on with it, because it helps me. I work around them. In all honesty, you can’t do what I did on a pitch and be out till 3, 4, or 5 on the morning. I never ever went out after a Tuesday.” He chuckles. “I did all my wining and dining on a Saturday night after the game. Sunday, Monday, maybe Tuesday, but after that, that was it. I was like a monk. You can’t do it as an athlete and be the best.” When he talks to young kids about football, he warns them that it is a very short life, that if they are lucky it will last until they are 35, and that’s when the real pressure will start.
“All of a sudden, you’re finished, and what do you do after that? You have to find something to give you the buzz that football gave you. And most of them find it very difficult, so they turn to whatever – whether it’s gambling or drugs or drink. And I almost fell into that. Well, I did for a long time. But I’m lucky, I found something that gives me a buzz. I love television work, I love radio, I love the theatres because it gives you a buzz when you do a good show. I love travelling. I love the good life. I’m still getting paid 20 years after I finished playing. I see friends of mine, people I played with, who are out cleaning windows or sweeping the roads. It’s terrible to see them. I consider myself very lucky that I’ve got through all that and survived.”
Which leads neatly to the booze. Best has tried many methods to give it up, but has now decided that the simplest thing to do is to have a drink when he wants one.
“If people buy me drinks I don’t drink them. If I feel like a drink, I do, if I don’t, I don’t. Look at my schedule – if I was as bad as people say I am, I couldn’t do it.
“Everyone who’s been through the problems knows that the rule in the AA is one day at a time – and even before I heard of the AA or had an alcohol problem I always lived my life that way. But at the moment, things are just unbelievable. I’m just trying to tidy up a few loose ends to make sure that if I disappear in a couple of weeks from now I know my son’s taken care of, I know my girlfriend’s taken care of, and my friends and family.” He adds that he is not planning to disappear.
“Oh no. I’ll be around for a long time. They told me I wouldn’t make 30, and it’s coming up to 50. I don’t want to go anywhere, I’m enjoying it too much.”
In A Sporting Night To Remember, says George Best, “they are all true stories, maybe spiced up a little bit.” Which means he will tell the audience that he reason he left Britain for North America in the 1970s was because he saw an advert which read “Drink Canada Dry” and he thought it would be a good idea to start at the top and work his way down. He will tell the Miss Worlds story (he only bedded three: it should have been seven, but he didn’t turn up for four). And he will say that he thinks Paul Gascoigne is a good player, but may never be a great one. “You know that number 10 on his back? It’s not his position, it’s his IQ.”
The answers are routines in which Best plays up to his image, though there does not seem to be a script for questions about his son Calum, who lives in the US with his ex-wife. “Does Calum have your talent?” the host Peter Brackley asks. 
“Well, he likes shagging, I know that!”
“He’s only seven!” Brackley suggests.
“Did we do Tommy Docherty?” Best snaps, changing the subject. In fact, Calum is 12, but Best deflects further questioning, preferring to expound black thoughts about what he is going to do to his former agent, Bill McMurdo.
Mostly, though, Best has no need to step over the questions. He has heard most of them before, and many of them are cues to embark on a seasoned anecdote. “It’s like Sinatra,” he says. “People want to hear the old stories.”
He ends with his answer to a question no one has asked, about whether he has regrets. It is a story about the night he went to the casino in Birmingham with his then-girlfriend, Mary Stavin (one of the Miss Worlds) and won £25,000. Returning to the hotel at 4am, he is greeted by an Irish porter who professes delight at finally meeting his hero, and subsequently arrives in his hotel room with a bottle of champagne and three glasses. Best badly wants rid of the porter, and slips him some money to leave. “He’s backing out the door, and he’s had another look at Mary in the see-through negligee, and the 25 grand, and the bottle of Dom Perignon, and he says: ‘Mr Best, can I ask you something that’s been bothering me for 20 years.’
“I said, ‘What’s that, Paddy?’
“He said, ‘Where the fuck did it all go wrong?’”
And here, in the less mythic present, George Best takes another swig of champagne, and the men in the trenchcoats and the couples and the boys with the dates stamped on their knuckles file into an orderly queue for autographs. Best signs them patiently, and poses for photographs with strangers at £5 a throw. The man with the Polaroid camera runs out of film. 
[First published in 1993]

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Carl Perkins on Elvis, Rockabilly, and the Haunting Sound of 706 Union Avenue

In Memphis, everyone has an Elvis ghost story. If Mystery Train, the Jim Jarmusch film, is to be believed, he appears most often on the outskirts of town, hitching a ride to Graceland. The boy Presley is never far from the action in the movie; providing a nickname for Joe Strummer, making a friendly visitation to a lonely hotel room, and prompting a bone of contention between two Japanese tourists.
Having made a pilgrimage to Memphis, the young couple must establish the identity of the king of rock’n’roll before their sightseeing itinerary can be finalised. “Elvis,” says one. “Carl Perkins,” says the other.
Fifty-seven years old, and still wearing blue suede shoes, Carl Perkins himself has an eerie story to tell. It happened in 1986 when, along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, he visited the partially-restored Sun recording studio at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee.
An 18-wheel mobile recording truck stood outside the tiny studio, while inside, the four rock’n’roll greats recreated the Million Dollar Quartet of some three decades before, with Orbison filling the slot vacated by Elvis Presley in that most celebrated of jam sessions.
Even today, the memory makes Carl Perkins shudder. “I don’t know much about ghosts,” he notes cautiously. “I can’t say I do or don’t believe in them. I believe in spirits. I know that I have felt my brother Jay, who was killed in 1956. And I do feel my dad around me sometimes, I have my own little private talks with him when I’m out alone fishin’.
“But there was a feel that Presley was there. We talked about it. The piano that we all used was sittin’ there, 30 years later. I said: ‘Right here is where I was standing scared to death when I was singing my first song.’ And John said, ‘Well, he had the mike right close up to that corner when I walked in.’ And Jerry Lee, he came out with comments like, ‘Hell, I don’t know where I was at. I was drunk then, and I still am!’
“There was a song on that album called We Remember The King, and when we finished singing that song [producer] Chips Moman called us out to the truck. We listened, four old rockers standing there with our heads down. Nothing was said, not one word, till that song was finished and it was silent. I seized the moment. I said, ‘Guys, I want you to know, and I’m not ashamed to tell you, I love you.’ We all hugged each other, and it was a very touching time.’”
The thought of Elvis has not always generated such benevolence in Carl Perkins. In March, 1956, en route to the Perry Como Show to promote his song Blue Suede Shoes, Perkins’ eight-seater Chrysler Imperial smashed into a pick-up truck, fracturing Carl’s skull and leaving his brother Tony in intensive care.
“I was 85 miles away from being the first rockabilly ever to be on national television,” he recalls, with little trace of bitterness. Instead, from his hospital bed, Perkins heard increasingly heated reports of how Elvis was making the song his own. “I had a lot of questions to ask the good Lord, and I did. I was laying in a cast; being flat on your back, you’re forced to look up. During my long days and nights of laying there I wondered and questioned: ‘Why did this happen to me when I was so close?’”
Today, Perkins is philosophical about it all. “I could never have been in Elvis’s class. The accident and those alcohol bouts … I don’t know how much stardom it might have took away from me, but it wouldn’t have hurt Elvis at all had I not had them. He just had that magic of being the total entertainer. He had the most unique look. He was a handsome dude. He had moves that they will try to copy for the rest of eternity. I see a lot of Elvis moves in people like Michael Jackson, but Elvis – those hipshakin’. Kneeknockin’ moves he made – he didn’t go to school to learn how to do that, that was how he felt about his music. His soul made him  move like that.
“There has never been another star like Presley. I haven’t known anyone come close to him, even the Beatles, the Stones, Tom Jones. Elvis never came down off that ladder. When he went to number one, he stayed there.”
For Perkins, the road to these truths was long and winding. At first, tormented by the biggest ‘what if?’ of them all, he sought answers in the bottle.
“I turned to alcohol very heavy after that,” he sighs. “There’s no question that it had a big effect on my songwriting. I got to the point where I drank every day and it almost destroyed my family life. My personal physical condition was getting very bad until I started counting my blessings.”
A true musical innovator, Perkins started out working the cotton fields of Tennessee. His first guitar was made of a cigar box and a length of baling wire, and he was one of the first players to add rhythm to country music, creating what became known as rockabilly. The power of the result, as heard in countless Sun recordings, stands as pure and inarguable as it did back in the 1950s. Yet by the early 1960s, Perkins was unknown in his homeland.
Then, in 1964, he hit Britain with  Chuck Berry, and reaped the rewards of his influence on the Beatles. George Harrison has virtually learned his guitar style from a Carl Perkins LP. “A lot of the kids liked me, and I got a renewed feeling about myself.”
Cash and Perkins (right)
The drinking didn’t stop, and in 1965, Perkins became guitarist on the Johnny Cash Show. “He and I put our habits together. John had a very bad drug habit and I was an alcoholic. But the two of us straightened our lives out.”
Today, having come to terms with his past, Perkins is in fine shape. Like Cash, he has found solace in the Lord, and also come to recognise his musical strengths. Born to Rock, his latest set, is a creditable return to first principles, balancing sprightly rockabilly with sad old country laments. The album was recorded in the old-fashioned way, with all but backing singers The Jordanaires playing together in the studio, recording the song as a complete entity, rather than as the sum of multi-tracked parts. “You get an incentive to really try to play licks when you’re looking at a player sitting across from you, and you get those smiles and eye contacts.”
It’s also the way it used to be on the Sun recordings. And, though the studio building has been mythologised by musicians and actors from U2 to Dennis Quaid, Perkins locates the secret of the Sun sound in the people. “Every artist that walked in there was thrilled to death to get on a record,” he says. “Plus the fact that Sam Phillips made you reach down there and give it everything you had. And he’d take mistakes with it. I’d tell him a lot of times, ‘I’m sorry, Mr Phillips, I made a terrible mistake on that guitar.’ He’d say, ‘Yeah, but listen, I’ll show you where you made up for it.’ So overall, the man might just have been a recording genius and nobody realised it.
“There wasn’t a clock on the wall in Sun studio. If you took all night, he didn’t care. You go into Nashville and the players are sitting looking at their watches, and they know that after three hours they’re gonna start getting time and a half.”
Having rediscovered his strengths, Perkins is concentrating on staying fit and enjoying being number one in his home. He’s been happily married for 37 years, and counts his pro-family anthem Daddy Sang Bass (a hit for Johnny Cash) as his best piece of work.
“You know, when all this is over,” he reflects, “and Carl Perkins is being laid to rest, I’d just like for anyone that walks by to say, ‘Well, when he did get his life together, and realised that he had more left than he lost by not getting to be a big superstar, the old dude really tried, and he left us a song that I really want to listen to again.”
Interview October 1989

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Jam, The Modern World, and Paul Weller's Jumper

I wrote a piece about The Jam's This Is The Modern World in the new Uncut special edition about Paul Weller. Along the way, I asked the sleeve designer Bill Smith a few questions, and he was good enough to send me this.
I was responsible for all the Jam covers – singles and albums, from In the City through to Absolute Beginners. For the cover of This Is the Modern World I wanted to produce a very Post-Modern image, with some small nod to Situationism. The photographer was Gered Mankowitz, a photographer who was working with the Stones and Hendrix in the ‘60’s and many other pop stars from then through to the ‘90’s. I wanted an urban/modern setting for the band that firmly rooted them into London culture, so we found the location for the shoot under the Westway near North Kensington. The Mod influence was very much down to Paul, he had seen Pete Townshend wearing a jacket or something with arrows on, so we put the arrows using gaffer tape onto his jumper. Having used the suits for the first In the City shoot, we quickly moved into the more Mod/Carnaby Street look from then on. The shoot was done using daylight and then added flash to give heavy shadowing and emphasise the concrete monoliths of the Westway support columns and the feeling of claustrophobia from the road above. We were all pleased with the resulting images.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Swamp-Psych Gardening: The Organic Strangeness Of Plant And See

Plant And See: Forris Fulford(left),
 Willie Lowery (2nd left)
Plant and See, a Southern swamp-rock group with psychedelic fringes, were never going to be easy to categorise. They were led by Willie French Lowery, a Lumbee Indian from Robeson County, North Carolina, who devoted his life to his people’s culture. Previously, he worked in a carnival, and as bandleader for Clyde McPhatter (of the Drifters). He wrote a deodorant commercial, and fronted the psychedelic also-rans Corporate Image.
Plant And See offered an escape, though the group’s line-up was remarkable enough in the still segregated South. African-American New Yorker Forris Fulford played drums, and was joined by Latino bassist Ronald Seiger and Scottish-Irish singer Carol Fitzgerald. “All of us had history of playing with soul groups,” recalls Fulford. “It was pretty popular in that area at the time, and Willie knew Carol, she was into Janis Joplin and stuff like that. We had good chemistry. I was really laid back, and Willie was laid back; even though we were in the South in the Sixties, and actually it was kinda rough around there. When they said ‘living across the tracks’, they really meant that. When I went to do the soul gigs, I would play across the tracks, at Big Joe’s Plantation or something like that.
“Our music pulled everything together. In the South, it was really separated. We used to do the college circuit, and there would be a lot of tension with the rednecks. We were a mixed group. The cats had long hair, and I had a ’fro. And we had this white redhead as a singer. We’d go into some places after the gig and we’d get some really hard stares!”
Though the group’s background was in soul, their ambitions lay in jazz. “We would try,” says Fulford, “but when you start playing you can’t play jazz, you just think you’re playing jazz! I really came from a jazz-influenced background and started playing soul, and I always liked the rock groups, especially Led Zeppelin and Hendrix. As a group we went to see Grand Funk Railroad live at Chapel Hill in North Carolina, and we saw Edgar Winter, then the Allman Brothers came to town and we were the warm-up group, so we got to know them pretty well – the original group with Duane Allman and Berry Oakley.”
Musically, Plant and See were diverse. Personally, they were unassuming. “Willie was very talented, but very laid back,” recalls drummer Forris Fulford. “He’d go into a place, and you wouldn’t even know he was there. He wasn’t the one to get up front and go ‘see me’. Actually, nobody in the group was – we were a shy band!”
Their only record came out in 1969 on the foundering White Whale label (home of Jim Ford and The Turtles). “Willie knew these agents in North Carolina. There was two of them – one, he was a crook, a Costa Rican. And there was another guy who was like the local agent, so they got together, and so when we came over with our material, they said ‘Well, let’s see if we can get you guys into the mix’. So we had an audition to go to New York and play for this firm – we were just glad to go and play. They liked the group, they bought us equipment, and they sent us to California to record with White Whale Records. We had a chance to work with some big producers like Al Schmitt who did a whole lot of Elvis Presley recordings [and engineered Moon River]. We stayed out there long enough to record and then we headed back to the East Coast.”
The album suffered because it was impossible to pigeonhole, though that is its strength too. The sound is built on Lowery’s swampy guitar, but flits between the sultry rock stylings of “Put Out My Fire” (like a jittery Hendrix, channelling tribal rhythms) and the sweet soul of “Henrietta”, with Lowery’s pained vocal floating over lush harmonies.
“In those days everything was psychedelic,” says Fulford. “The way you dressed, and kaleidoscopes, and incense, and tie-dye. The parents of the children coming to the gigs were more rigid than the kids going to college, even in the South, so when we played the colleges, they didn’t have any problems with race – it was just outside the college, dealing with the folks in town. Willie understood what it was like growing up like that – I understood – even though I grew up in New York, just travelling to the South my parents.”
Plant and See evolved into Lumbee, recording another album, before Lowery retreated into community-oriented songwriting. He died in May, just missing the change to see his music being re-issued and appreciated afresh. MC Taylor of Paradise of Bachelors label-mates Hiss Golden Messenger offers this tribute.
“Willie Lowery ran the gauntlet of the music industry for nearly 50 years and never played a dishonest note, in the process becoming an inspiration for, and hero to, the native Lumbee community, as well as South-Eastern red dirt musicians who decide to tell the truth, consigning themselves to the long road. He was the real thing.”
Fulford, who now plays residencies in a Tokyo hotel, is happy that Plant and See are being given another outing. “Racial tension was pretty heavy, but we were able to get by because of our music. I think we did some playing that was fresh and raw and spontaneous.”
Buy Plant And See on limited edition virgin vinyl from Paradise of Bachelors

Monday, September 17, 2012

Mistaken Identity? Another Side of Bob Dylan (With A Soupcon Of Biographical Masquerade)

How do you solve a problem like Bob? There is, hidden within the 588 pages of this gnarly, splenetic biography, a simple solution, proposed by the subject himself. It occurs at a press conference held to promote Dylan’s 1969 appearance on the Isle of Wight. “What is your position on politics and music?” the singer is asked. “My job is to play music,” Dylan replies. “I think I’ve answered enough questions.” In that answer lies the riddle. Dylan plays music. He raises more questions than he answers. His autobiography, Chronicles, though beautifully written, was a bit magical realist with the verité. No Direction Home, the Scorsese documentary made with the approval of Dylan’s management, was celebratory, not penetrating. The less he talks, the more Dylan disappears beneath the pondweed of his reputation. The longer he plays, the more the algae multiply. These days, Dylanology is a swamp of intrigue, with Bob as its frog king. But even as a croak-voiced deity, Dylan presents a problem, as Bell notes, wearily. “The famous mystique, like the abhorrence of interpretation, is founded on an implacable reticence.” Which leaves us where? Well, this is not a biography of revelation. Those hoping to discover what really happened when Dylan crashed his motorcycle will be disappointed. (“There was an accident. Or rather, there was an accident.”) The gory details of his heroin use (or non-use) are not contained within. At times, Bell derides the notion of biography itself, referring dismissively to “biographical stalkers”, a class of writer he puts on the rack of contempt next to rock hacks. There is, perhaps, a problem of method. Bell shows every sign of being the best kind of Dylan fan, with a questioning spirit and an abiding fascination with the music. He has inhaled the songs, examined the run-out grooves of countless bootlegs, and scoured the library for clues to Dylan’s motivations. But if he has done any first-hand research, he’s not boasting about it. It’s a given, of course, that Dylan himself wouldn’t help. And it’s true that there exists among Dylan collaborators a polite omerta. But it wouldn’t have done any harm to seek out the likes of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott or Pete Seeger to probe their memories of the Greenwich Village scene; Dylan’s reverence for Woody Guthrie; or the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where Dylan (apparently, allegedly) offended the folkies by making an electric rock racket. Part of this can be credited to Bell’s clinical distaste for gossip, but he does borrow from existing interviews and books. Suze Rotolo’s 2008 biography, for instance, helps establish her as an important figure in Dylan’s creative development. (That other famous girlfriend, Joan Baez, is cast less sympathetically). The book’s insights are elsewhere. At its heart, Once Upon A Time is a literary biography, centred on a fictional character named “Bob Dylan”. (The inverted commas are part of the deal). So “Dylan”, for Dylan (nee Zimmerman), is a continuing act of reinvention. Bell writes: “His ‘Dylan’ … was cast in line of descent from Huck Finn, John Ford, Steinbeck and Woody [Guthrie]. He was, even in 1961, a recognised American type, a ghost from the back roads. And Bobby Zimmerman wished he had been that type. It was the only way he could make sense of himself.” Viewing Dylan as a set of characters is not unusual, as evidenced by Todd Haynes’s baffling film, I’m Not There, in which six actors competed to misunderstand the Myth of Bob. But Bell’s literary bent is his book’s strength. He brings fresh insight into the poetic qualities of Dylan’s verse, examining the rhyme scheme in Subterranean Homesick Blues, and detecting hitherto unknown value in his book, Tarantula (its verbal experiments led, Bell argues, to the triumph of Like A Rolling Stone.) Bell is also interesting on the writers who influenced Dylan (notably Kenneth Patchen), and as a one-line summary, his quote from Hunter S Thompson’s 1961 essay on the “fraudulent farmers” of Greenwich Village is hard to beat: “Dylan is a goddamn phenomenon,” frothed Thompson, “pure gold, and as mean as a snake.” Bell is a muscular critic, too. “That unaccountably popular dirge,” Masters of War, he says, has “one of the dullest melodies Dylan ever stole.” If his dismissal of Dylan’s country-influenced 1969 LP, Nashville Skyline, as “a symptom of artistic paralysis” is too cruel, it prompts him to reveal his view that “ultimate seriousness lies in the blues and the ancient wisdom of folk music.” Likewise, his hostility towards DA Pennebaker’s documentary Dont Look Back is overstated; though it does trigger a defence of TIME interviewer Horace Judson, who is subjected to a patronising assault in the film by the cool, cruel Dylan. “An ignorant journalist was treating him as a pop-culture mystery,” Bell writes. “That wasn’t exactly unreasonable.” Not exactly. In truth, Judson was a patsy, and Bob, hopped up on something, was in no mood to explain. He rarely is. Bell’s book, by unpeeling the masks, goes a long way to proving something that should be obvious, but isn’t always: Dylan’s most compelling fictions were songs. ONCE UPON A TIME: THE LIVES OF BOB DYLAN By Ian Bell, (Mainstream, £20)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Artist, Singer, Cyclist, Herky-Jerky Intellectual: The Endless Curiosity of Shy Talking Head David Byrne

David Byrne was never going to write a conventional autobiography. As lead singer of Talking Heads, and as a solo performer, artist, cyclist and herky-jerky intellectual, he has always displayed a restless curiosity; a rare quality in rock music.
But then, Byrne has only ever had one foot in rock. Though emanating from the same New York scene which produced the Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith and Television, who all got their start in Hilly Kristal’s club CBGB, Talking Heads borrowed heavily from disco, even though they couldn’t quite play it, and as Byrne’s confidence increased, they inhaled funk and gospel, with the singer exploring musical styles which favoured ecstatic abandon over intellect; though, obviously, he pursued this path with relentless intelligence.
In his solo career, he has explored Brazilian music, opera, and film soundtracks, without ever abandoning the pop song. In a personal sense, he is more concerned with questions of creativity and – a difficult idea, but not a contradiction – the sincerity of performance.
In what is perhaps his most celebrated incarnation, as the centrepiece of Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense, Byrne offers a parody of a musical frontman, disappearing inside a giant suit, as if to demonstrate visually that the role of the performer, the clothes he inhabits, are more important than the singer himself. Hence, the pressures and pleasures of his own life appear only fleetingly here. When recording his eponymous 1994 album, the music became more spare, “possibly… in response to a recent death in the family.”
Around the time of his 2004 solo LP, Grown Backwards, he notes, “there was love, anger, sadness and frustration in my life”. For his 2008 collaboration with Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, he explains: “I wanted to find a reason not to be cynical, to have some faith, even when nothing seemed to justify it. Writing and singing seemed to be an attempt at a kind of musical self-healing.”
Actually, the Big Suit has a broader significance for Byrne, because it signals his acceptance of theatricality. There had been costumes before, of course, including a checked polyester suit which shrunk to absurdity in the wash. Prior to that, Byrne had been an art student and a busker, with an “old world immigrant beard”. He had toiled in the folk scene, playing Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran songs on the ukulele (“it was an oddball mish-mash, but it wasn’t boring”). Then, on tour in Japan with Talking Heads, he encountered traditional theatre – Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku. These forms, Byrne noted, were highly stylised, unlike the more naturalistic Western tradition. So, when fashion designer Jurgen Lehl suggested to him that “everything on stage needs to be bigger”, he took the remark too literally.
You can get lost trying to locate the irony in the symbolism of that outfit. On one level, at least, it symbolises Byrne’s view of himself as an art worker (he’s not big on the notion of musicians as creative geniuses). “Sometimes,” he writes, “it seems as if writing a group of songs is like getting  groceries or doing the laundry – banal things I do more or less on a day-to-day basis. We deal with the issues involved in our mundane activities as they come up, and songwriting might be viewed similarly, as the response to specific and even pedestrian needs.”
Nor is he keen to explain the meaning of his songs, because he believes it changes with the context in which the song is heard, and in many cases his lyrics begin as gibberish and evolve to fit the music. Or, the songs change shape as other players join in: Psycho Killer was originally envisaged as a ballad, but Byrne’s bandmates pulled it in a different direction. Byrne applies the same dry logic to his chosen career.
He really does try to explore how music works, right down to the neurons, without ever quite letting go of the sense that its beauty is located in its mystery. At times, the book resembles a business manual, exploring the influence of technology (not always benign, he suggests, but mostly irresistible), and the death of the music industry.
There is much surprising detail – perhaps too much – on the economics of recording and releasing music. The choices, these days, are a) being Madonna and selling your soul to a concert promoter or b) doing it yourself. It’s not impossible to pay the rent by following the second route, but generally speaking, money is made by touring, not recording.
Byrne does OK, but not without careful arithmetic. If he seems detached and almost clinically logical in his prose, it may be because his brain is wired that way.  He suggests he had, or has, a form of Asperger’s syndrome (“very mild, I think”) in which “leaping up in public to do something wildly expressive and then quickly retreating back into my shell seemed, well, sort of normal to me.”
He adds: “Poor Susan Boyle; I can identify.” No irony there either; just a sincere appreciation of the power of song. 
How Music Works is published by Canongate, £22

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Mike Scott's Adventures Of A Waterboy: (Or, How To Misread A Book In One Easy Lesson)

Some years ago – towards the end of the period covered by this autobiography – I interviewed Mike Scott. The Waterboys’ frontman had a reputation for being difficult, though “taciturn” might have been a better way of putting it. To break the ice, I took a copy of Jungleland, the fanzine he published while living in Edinburgh in the late 1970s. It was a passionate document, all punk fury and sputum, tempered by a poetic sensibility. Yet he observed this relic with dispassion. His past, it seemed, was a foreign country.
Happily – and this may be a question of happiness – Scott now seems reconciled to the value of looking back, albeit in a way which desaturates the torment. Possibly he was encouraged by the memoirs of Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, artists who shaped his aesthetic vision, though Scott’s story is more rooted in detail than the sketchy poetics of Dylan’s Chronicles or Smith’s Just Kids.
Jungleland, Scott's fanzine.
Scott has always been self-aware. As a soundtrack to reading this book, I’ve been listening to a tape of a solo concert Scott did at the Hackney Empire in 1995. The tape itself is a fascinating biographical document, intimate and eerie – made eerier by virtue of being recorded direct from the desk, so there’s no applause. All you hear is Scott, emboldened but vulnerable, as he emerges from career hibernation. The details of his journey are evident in the songs, most specifically Long Way To The Light, which follows the singer to New York, where he aims to get back to what he does best: “Plug in an electric guitar, lead a rock’n’roll band.”
At the time, there was some talk among Waterboys’ fans about his relocation from the West Coast of Ireland. Scott, it was said, had journeyed West, full of visions of Jimi Hendrix, abandoning the music that had made his name – a fusion of Celtic folk and rock’n’roll swagger. (This, to be fair, is mere hearsay – but it wouldn’t be the first time Scott’s freewheeling spirit had caused him to up sticks in search of fresh inspiration.) But it didn't work out. Instead, he learned how to meditate, and to live “one step at a time”. So, instead of recharging his cosmic batteries in Electric Ladyland, he came back to Scotland, to the Findhorn community.
On the Hackney tape, he calls Findhorn a “mystery school”, which sounds better than a religious retreat, and is probably closer to Scott’s sensibility. His God doesn’t have a beard and a set of Commandments, and he might just as easily be called Pan.
This, by any measure, is heady stuff, and Scott’s openness about his quest for spiritual succour is commendable. (Rock’n’roll, which appears to celebrate freedom of thought and behaviour, is actually a conservative church).
He does seem to have learned about humility along the way. The book details Scott’s first gig in the Findhorn community, where he was vain enough to imagine that the residents might be grateful to hear a performance by a professional musician. Instead, he was received politely, before being upstaged by “a motley parade of men in drag, G-strings and feather strewn crash helmets”. (Which sounds a lot like Top of the Pops).
As with all autobiographies, the narrative is shaped by the author’s current priorities. I could have read more about his truncated university career in Edinburgh, and his time with Another Pretty Face, a great live band who fused the energies of The Clash and Springsteen and briefly won the favour of Julie Burchill with the Sapphic anthem All The Boys Love Carrie.
But APF are briskly despatched (just as they were by Virgin Records). There is, though, a succinct description of his Edinburgh contemporaries, The Rezillos, “a shrieking gang of rubber-faced pop-art terrorists with great choruses and sheet metal guitars”. He also mentions the thrill of seeing Johnny Thunders up close at the Hope and Anchor in London, and the disappointment of witnessing Thunders being unable to perform due to his addictions. And, speaking of the destructive side effects of the rock’n’roll lifestyle, there’s a delightful image of the journalist Nick Kent, at home in London. “I’d often see him standing in his garden, watching the world pass him by like a horse looking over a hedge”.
There is also a sweet, incredible story from that period, in which Scott, as editor of Jungleland, manages to blag his way into the entourage of Patti Smith when she plays a 1978 show at the Rainbow in North London. Smith even pays for his hotel room, expecting in return nothing more than the possibility that Scott will enjoy the show and take the word back to Edinburgh. Scott gets more than he bargains for, witnessing the sound check, and insinuating his way into Smith’s chauffeur driven car for the after-show party, where he gorges on free sandwiches. But this is a parable, and what Scott witnesses is chastening. In the car, he observes that Smith’s voice had taken on “a subtle, yet pointed, warning tone.” It was, he says, “dominating, aggressive and scary. I was witnessing what happens when a star performer, the centre of attention, high on the residual energy of the show, lets that energy overflow into their offstage life.” No longer talking about Patti Smith, he notes the danger of an unchecked ego: “encouraged by the fawning and lying of sycophants, this process turns sane, talented loving people into vile monsters. ”
That's how he sees it now. But consider this paean to Patti, from that 1980 edition of Jungleland. “The girl w/ the big eyes is a heroine of mine, who connects not just w/ my eyes + ears, but somewhere deep inside. this communication is not from the beat of the music, the thrash of guitars or the words of the song. It's somewhere else - an inexplicable thread which twists + pumps, like the music, almost parallel if you like, but never touching. the girl with the big eyes says a lot to me that can't be found in lyric sheets + the further in I get, the harder it is to get out.
What else? Well, Scott is a fan first, so there’s a nice story about waving at Bob Dylan through the windows of his tour bus at Earl’s Court in 1977, and then following him to his hotel in Kensington, only to be expelled by promoter Harvey Goldsmith. Later, Scott will jam with Dylan at Dave Stewart’s studio in Crouch End, North London. He also punctures a Waterboys’ myth – that he missed an appearance on Top of the Pops because he was strumming with Dylan. He didn’t. But it is the kind of thing he might have done.
Musically, things are sketchier, possibly because Scott doesn’t want to fray the inexplicable thread by offering an autopsy of his inspirations. One of his first musical epiphanies came when he first heard the psychedelic outro to The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever. “Surely everybody knew the outro … represented a procession of brightly clothed Beatles jigging in and out of traffic during rush hour in an Asian city, pursued by water buffaloes and snake charmers?” But the young Scott is surprised to discover that not everyone shared this perception. An appendix in the book includes other interpretations of Strawberry Fields, as if to prove that we all march to different drums.
But there are valuable glimpses into the creative process, including an explanation of how he wrote his anthem, The Whole of the Moon. (The piano sounds that way because Scott taught himself to play on a piano with broken strings). He also details his gradual immersion in Celtic folk, and the growing realisation that some of its rhythms were in his blood: “In the bloom of their youth on the Isle of Mull my great-grandparents themselves might well have shaken a leg to The Fiddler’s Frolic.” In Ireland, too, he learns to laugh at himself, and let himself go creatively: “Polishing off Bang on the Ear with tragi-comic lines such as ‘It started off in Fife, it ended up in tears’ was something of a breakthrough for me, and it felt good.”
The book ends with Rock In A Weary Land, in 2000. Since then, of course, Scott has re-energised and retooled the Waterboys more than once, and departed Findhorn to return to Ireland. 
What’s he like? Well, on this evidence, Scott is a restless soul, a wanderer seeking stimulation as much as peace of mind. He frames his life’s journey as a mystical quest, oscillating between something spiritual and something poetic, with the author being happiest when these two forces are entwined.
I think, I guess, that Scott’s journey was more painful, and more destructive than the one he describes in Adventures of a Waterboy. Only he will know for sure. But consider the story of his reunion with his estranged father, Allan. They had lost touch after Scott’s parents broke up, though Allan did drop round on Scott’s 10th birthday with a gift of an acoustic guitar and a Rolling Stones album. Thirty years later, Scott tracks him down to an address near Birmingham, and knocks on the door, unannounced. They get on, but Scott’s dad is not as he imagined he would be. “All those years I’d believed I was cast in the image of my father, I’d actually been casting him in the image of me. The free spirit shifting from scene to scene was myself...”
POSTSCRIPT: Mike has been in touch to point out that I have misinterpreted his reaction to seeing Jungleland - he was, and is, proud of it. The rest of the review, he suggests, is amateur psychology, based on that misconception.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Cosmic Ceiling Tiles, Elvis Presley, And The Abiding Genius Of Sam Phillips: What Made Sun The Crucible of Rock'n'Roll?

Inside Sun at 706 Union

The Sun studio, at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, has many special qualities, some of which remain mysterious. It is possible to analyse them in terms of engineering, and the way that the sound bounces around the room. You might also consider history and coincidence, and the fact that an extraordinary array of talent dropped into Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service between 1950 and 1960. Not just the now-fabled, Broadway-celebrated, Million Dollar Quartet of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Roy Orbison got his start there, as did Howlin’ Wolf and Charlie Rich. Ike Turner may even have invented rock’n’roll within the walls of this fabled space.
But T Bone Burnett, whose affection for Sun is such that he plans to build a replica in Los Angeles, believes that Sun’s success may also be a matter of geography; specifically, the meanderings of the Mississippi.  “That river system is the lifeblood of this country,” Burnett says. “Most things that come in and out of this country go up and down the Mississippi and through that river system. The river starts right where Bob Dylan was born, up in Minnesota, and it gets big by about St Paul, Minneapolis. I find it very interesting that Dylan was up at the top of it, and Louis Armstrong was down at the bottom (in New Orleans). That is the axis, definitely, and Memphis was right in the middle.”
The first record on the Sun label was released exactly 60 years ago. Johnny London’s “Drivin’ Slow” had a rolling blues piano, and a haunting saxophone sound. It was recorded on 1 March, 1952, and delivered on acetate to DJ Dewey Phillips on the same day. The 78rpm record was pressed on 27 March, with a rooster label designed by a commercial artist on Beale Street.
As beginnings go, “Drivin’ Slow” was decidedly low-key. But listen closely to the way the sax seems to exist in its own hollow space, and you may detect the first inkling of what has become known as the Sun sound.
Sam Phillips’ studio was a no-frills affair, housed in a building first built as a bakery, and latterly-used as a radiator repair shop. “I hadn’t been to many studios, so my first impression was great,” says Roland Janes, who played guitar in the Sun band, accompanying Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as being a member of Billy Lee Riley’s Little Green Men. “I didn’t know what a studio was supposed to look like, really. I thought it was a small building, and I was amazed at the sound that we got out of it, but I didn’t think anything but good thoughts.
“The first part of the building, there was a small office. You’d go through a door, directly into the studio, and you’d go through the studio up to the control room. So the entire building was not real big.”
“Man, the office in Sun, that’s about 10’ x 10’, and they had two or three desks, so you could get a crowd in there real quick” says house drummer JM Van Eaton. “Most people hung out at Sun because it was the premier local label, plus it had a nice little restaurant right next door to it, Taylor’s Café. That’s where all the musicians would come and hang out, because Sun was so small. They’d sit around there and drink coffee, talk about their gigs and write songs.”
“Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins (the Tennessee Two) worked right across the street at a garage,” says rockabilly bandleader Sonny Burgess, “and they’d walk over there to that café and eat lunch every day. Marshall told me: ‘We didn’t even know there was a music studio there until (Johnny) Cash took us in there to record.’”
Commercially, Sun’s breakthrough came in March 1953, with Rufus Thomas’s “Bear Cat”; a novelty response to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog”.
“It was mainly blues bands at first,” says musician and Memphis cultural historian Tav Falco. “They didn’t have the term rock’n’roll at the time. They had rhythm and blues, but that encompassed jump blues, jazz blues, r’n’b sounding bands. Ike Turner was pretty important. Who knows what Sam would have recorded without Ike? Who knows if those people would have come in like they did?”
Ike Turner had showed up on 3 March, 1951 to record the supercharged, fuzzy “Rocket 88”, with singer Jackie Brenston. To some, the distorted guitar on the record marked the birth of rock’n’roll. But in those early, pre-Sun years, Phillips also made some extraordinary blues recordings. “The first major breakthrough Sam made was with Howlin’ Wolf,” argues T Bone Burnett. “That’s when he started bringing the bass and drums up loud. Back in those days the bass and drums were background instruments; it was all about the horns and the piano, the melody instruments, and Sam brought the rhythm section right up front, and that became rock’n’roll. That was a big shift.
“In some ways “How Many More Years” by Wolf would be the first rock’n’roll song because that has the guitar lick that became the central guitar lick in rock’n’roll, and that’s the first time we heard that played on a distorted guitar. It was an old big band lick, turned into something completely fresh.”
But Sun’s reputation rests largely on what happened when happened when Phillips managed to fuse hillbilly music with the energy of rhythm and blues. Famously, Phillips’s grand ambition was to find a white singer who could replicate the energy found in black r’n’b. That singer was Elvis Presley, who also added a dash of gospel.
The 18 year-old Presley first entered the studio in July 1953, to record two songs - “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Began”. “You could pay a few dollars and they let you cut two acetate dubs, one song on each side,” recalls Van Eaton, who did the same thing. “The first time I went in there, Sam was doing the engineering.”
Phillips wasn’t present on 18 July, 1953, when Presley first visited, but the singer made enough of an impression on his assistant Marion Keisker for their brief conversation to become part of Elvis lore. “Who do you sound like?” Keisker asked. More out of humility than boastfulness, Presley replied: “I don’t sound like nobody.” The truth of this statement was evident when Phillips finally got round to recording Elvis, along with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. Their version of “Blue Moon,” says Burnett, “is psychedelic for sure. Elvis was being Bing Crosby, right? And the Inkspots. He was synthesising all this stuff.”
“The recordings that Elvis and Scotty and Bill made are out of another world,” says Chris Isaak, whose current album was recorded at 706 Union. “That voice and that echo and that guitar… and Bill Black: even his bass doesn’t sound like it’s a bass. It’s like a click and a clack, like some guy walking in the background. It’s an otherworldly sound. Carl Perkins told me, he could listen to a record and if it was cut at Sun, he could hear the room.
“Sam Phillips was Thomas Edison with music. He was light years ahead of the rest of us.”
Presley’s first single, “That’s All Right” was issued on 19 July, 1954. JM Van Eaton is in no doubt about the importance of the moment. “When Elvis came out,” he says, “man, it changed everything.”
Certainly, after Elvis, it became possible to talk of a Sun sound. Presley’s Sun recordings – around 20 songs in just over a year – crystallised a musical revolution. It started with the untutored energy of what became known as rockabilly, and matured into rock’n’roll. “What was going on at Sun records was outside of the mainstream,” says Falco. “Nobody was touching this stuff with a 30 foot pole except for race records and blues labels. Sam said: ‘People didn’t know what to call this music, they didn’t know whether it was fish or fowl.’”
It’s tempting to imagine that Phillips was a man who was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. But such an analysis ignores the technical brilliance of his work.
“Sam looks like a lucky hillbilly who started a little studio and all this talent was just here, and all he did was turn the lights on,” says Sun’s current engineer, Matt Ross-Spang. “But Sam had his electrical engineering license, and that’s a tough test. He came into this room, he put in a hardwood floor and he designed the tile for certain frequencies. That’s not hit or miss – acoustics is one of the hardest things in the world. He always talked about how he had this sound in his head that no one else was recording.”
“His greatest talent was in being able to spot unusual talent and get the most out of them,” says Janes. “He was a great engineer. He had a great ear, a great imagination. He was smart enough to let people do what they did best and then he kind of loaded it.”
“When we were in that studio, playing that first session, Sam was our audience,” says Burgess. “Only one person – it didn’t matter, as long as somebody wanted to hear us play. So we were playing like we were in front of a huge crowd. That’s why it’s so wild.”
“He didn’t have a lot of equipment,” says Janes, “but he put it together wisely, and he was one of the first people that I knew of that used slapback echo. He had three tape recorders in the control room. He had one, the main recorder that he cut the sound on, and he had another one that he used to transfer tapes from. Then he had a third machine that was rack-mounted. He fed a portion of the signal, as it came into the room, into that machine, then he played that back through the board, and added it to the original recording machine; by increasing or decreasing the volume, he was able to get, and control, the slapback echo.”
Phillips was also a master of microphone placement. “Even during a session,” Janes continues, “he might move the microphone further or closer, but once he got it to where it was sounding good to him he left it alone. And he came up with a brilliant thing with Johnny Cash – he took thin paper, and put it over one string and under the next one, over the next string, under the next one, on his guitar, and then he had that little bit of slapback on that, and that’s how he got that boom-chicka sound, along with Luther’s guitar playing to have sort of a snare drum sound. They were recording with just three instruments. He got a big sound.”
For all that rock’n’roll was decried as the devil’s work, there was a spiritual side to the revolution which took place at Sun. “Gospel and rock and roll were cut from the same cloth,” says Falco, “even though one is considered by some the devil’s music, and the other sanctified music. It was played by the same people, and appealed to the same audience.”
Sun even pitched to the same marketplace. Sam’s brother Jud Phillips – who pioneered record promotion - was a former gospel performer, and he hawked the records to the DJs he knew in Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee.
“It gets to a point where musically it’s not so easy to distinguish,” says Falco. “The lyrics, yeah, and the content, but if you listen to Roebuck Staples playing the guitar in sanctified music, you hear hill-country blues coming out of the guitar.”
If this conflict could be located in the body of one individual, that person was Jerry Lee Lewis. JM Van Eaton vividly recalls his first meeting with the piano player from Ferriday, Louisiana. “The first time I ever saw him he had a goatee, and JW, his uncle, was with him, and he had his arm in a cast. And I’m thinking, ‘Man, they called me in to do this with this crazy looking piano player and a guy with his arm in a cast trying to make music? Man, this is strange.’ But I’m going to tell you, man, Jerry Lee was awesome. He could make any record his own.”
Lewis’s ability to synthesise faith and devilment in the same phrase was evident in the ferocity of his recordings, which were delivered with the untamed passion of a hellfire preacher. And it wasn’t an act. As luck would have it, the tapes were rolling in 1957 when Phillips tried to coax Jerry Lee into recording “Great Balls of Fire”. What ensued was a furious spat, in which Lewis wrestled with the notion of sin, and Phillips tried to counter with the suggestion that a rock’n’roll singer might, in some way, be able to save souls.
“I had experienced it before, so it wasn’t a total shock to me,” says Van Eaton. “I thought it was kinda funny because I could see both of them: Sam’s as serious as he could be, and Jerry’s as heated as he could be.”
“It’s an argument that went on for almost 50 years,” says Burnett. “I think it’s finally been resolved: music is a good thing, it doesn’t need any particular name put on it to make it good; like writing ‘Jesus’ on a flower doesn’t make it more beautiful.”
“I think Sun was a God thing,” concludes Van Eaton. “Certain things happen, man, in life, and that was one of them. Sam Phillips being there and opening that studio at the right time, and the people came to him. It wasn’t like he was out discovering these people. It wasn’t like a record producer going to a venue and saying ‘Hey, I’d like to sign that band.’ These people came knocking on his door. How strange is that, that you’ve got Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Billy Riley – all of these guys coming in asking you to make records on them? That’s phenomenal, you know? There is something more to it – that just doesn’t happen every day.  To me, that’s amazing.”

Friday, July 27, 2012

James Kelman's Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul Is A Relentless Train Of Thought, Not A Cakewalk

When James Kelman won the Booker Prize in 1994, his reputation was sealed.  That win, still flagged on his book jackets, was “a disgrace” according to Booker judge Rabbi Neuberger, because Kelman’s writing was “deeply inaccessible”. That was the polite end of the debate. Elsewhere, Kelman’s use of industrial language was criticised, on the peculiar premise that the way people talked - in Glasgow, specifically – should not be replicated in fiction. It was bad language.
Much of that criticism now seems like snobbery or – to be charitable – ignorance.  True, Kelman does not write beach novels, but his inaccessibility can be overestimated. He writes with warmth and empathy about people with unglamorous, sometimes miserable lives. That shouldn’t be a political act, but it is.
His new novel, Mo Said She Was Quirky (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99) is not exactly a page-turner but, unusually for Kelman, it does have a sense of narrative tension. The book documents 24 hours of the inner life of Helen, a London casino worker who thinks she sees her long-lost brother from the window of a taxi as she travels home from nightshift. The brother, or possible brother, is homeless, and Helen spends the next 24 hours wondering, obsessing, about what to do.
It’s a relentless train of thought, but not a smooth ride. The logic of Helen’s internal chatter is jittery, unreliable, unsure of its direction, and possibly neurotic. But it drives on regardless, into the past, the future, the present, the imagined, the misremembered and misconstrued; into affairs, fantasy affairs, worry over the consequences of actions not taken, childhood slurs, with Helen’s fears and anxieties magnified through hesitations and repetition.
Literary award judges may be relieved to note that Helen, though Glaswegian, thinks in Standard English, and doesn’t swear. (There is, at a rough count, just one f-word). In what may be a Kelman joke, she explains the need to change the way she speaks in order to be understood in London: “They made fun of her anyway”.  There are no apostrophes, and sentences are sometimes left hanging, but there is nothing difficult about the prose.
She thinks a lot, and what she thinks about is child abuse, racism, DIY television, divorce, and the boundaries of work friendships. Occasionally, the banality teeters into parody (a rumination on unironed vests, say), and Kelman’s agenda is sometimes more visible than it should be, as in a passage about the usefulness of celebrities.
Mostly, it’s a hamster-wheel of displacement and alienation. “Tonight was another day. That was what nightshift workers said,” Kelman observes. And later: “Today. Tomorrow was today for nightshift workers.” The narrative is fuelled by the cruel speed of urban life: “Everybody rushing around in the same way, everybody just like here there and everywhere, all roundabout, and bad-mannered too.”
What happens? Well, mostly, Helen exists, which is an achievement. She makes approximately one conscious decision in this single, sleep-deprived day; one attempt to overcome the sense of being burdened by ordinariness. 
Does it end happily? That is a question of luck, and the evidence that Kelman believes in the concept of benign chance is scant.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Languid Country Soul of Dylan LeBlanc, Born 10,000 Years Ago in Muscle Shoals

Dylan LeBlanc by Herschell Hershey
Dylan LeBlanc, a photo by Herschell Hershey on Flickr.
I owe Dylan LeBlanc an apology. When I reviewed his first album, Paupers Field, in UNCUT, I suggested that his father was Lenny LeBlanc, a Muscle Shoals sideman who played with Hank Williams Jr and Roy Orbison before scoring a big hit with Falling. It was an honest mistake. The sketchy information which accompanied the record had mentioned the Muscle Shoals connnection, I had Googled, asked for conformation, and pressed "send".
It was a nice idea, but wrong. His dad is another Muscle Shoals sideman, James LeBlanc. Lenny has graduated to Christian music. James hasn't, though he does play on LeBlanc's beautiful, bleak new record, Cast The Same Old Shadow, which is out on Rough Trade in August.
LeBlanc played the Lexington in London last night. I was surprised by a few things. Mostly, I thought he would be more popular. The Lexington's a fine venue, but it only holds 200; Paupers Field was one of the best records of 2010.
Still, there's no accounting for public taste, and LeBlanc's sensibility is bleak. (The new record, produced by Trina Shoemaker, is even more dense than Paupers Field.) And it was a shock to be reminded how young LeBlanc is. He doesn't sound young. To paraphrase Elvis Country, he sings as if he's 10,000 years old, and he's spent most of those years rolling his regrets in chewing tobacco. But, in person, what you get is a young man in a tweed jacket who takes a deep breath before the lights come up, and sings with his eyes closed. His patter is modest, much of it concerning his earnest hope that people buy his new record, because he needs the money.
The self-deprecation extends to the set, too. He finishes with three cover versions. He plays Lay Lady Lay, in tribute to his grandfather, also a picker, who used to sing to his grandma. It was, LeBlanc said, "the only true love I've ever seen in my life". Then he encores with Al Green's Let's Stay Together, which works surprisingly well with a pedal steel guitar; and Neil Young's Ohio.
He played all of these songs well, and they give a good pointer to his tastes. As an encapsulation of the mix of soul and folk that informs his music, you couldn't be more concise, unless he'd worn a Gram Parsons Nudie suit while singing them. But I prefer it when Dylan LeBlanc plays Dylan LeBlanc. When you have songs like 5th Avenue Bar, If The Creek Don't Rise or - a highlight of the new record - Part One: The End, you don't need other people's crowd pleasers.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Billy Bragg and Wilco, Doing It For The Little Guy. Or, How Woody Guthrie Was Rescued From Sainthood on Mermaid Avenue

Mermaid Avenue, in which Billy Bragg and Wilco wrote tunes for lyrics from Woody Guthrie’s archive, was recently re-released in a 3CD box set, along with a DVD of the documentary Man In The Sand. It’s a fine record, and there are some great songs on the third disc of previously unreleased material. I spoke to Billy Bragg about the album.
What was the original idea?
Wilco, with Jeff Tweedy, left; and Billy Bragg (far right)
Nora (Guthrie) wanted to do was to make Woody into a three-dimensional character. Her concern was that he’d become an icon, almost like you couldn’t get to the real man. She felt the lyrics in the archive said more about Woody than “This Land Is Your Land”.
So it was like you were writing a biography through his song?
We were connecting with him. Very few of the songs we chose were written in the 1930s. They were almost all written in the 1940s. That means they were written in New York. It’s an urban Woody Guthrie. He’s not the guy riding the railroads.
It’s like Robert Johnson – everyone thinks of the delta blues, yet he could play any style.
Woody’s the same – you always think of Dorothea Lange’s photographs, Grapes of Wrath. That was part of Woody, but… are you familiar with On The Town? Sinatra and Gene Kelly in 1948. They chase some women out to Coney Island. Woody lived there in 1948. So, yes, put him in Grapes of Wrath, but him in On The Town too. That’s what Nora was talking about – the Woody Guthrie who wanted to make love to Ingrid Bergman on the slopes of a volcano.
How does Woody Guthrie’s reputation stand now?
Guthrie: "He was the first alternative songwriter".
Nora’s done an incredible thing by opening the gates to a new Woody Guthrie. I met her at the 80th birthday celebrations in Central Park in New York. Then he still belonged to Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie and that Bob Dylan folk revival thing. But with Mermaid Avenue she bust that open and brought in a new generation of people who came to appreciate Woody as a songwriter, rather than as an icon. I brought in a younger generation who were into Wilco and alt country. But also an older generation of greybeards who were into Woody and Pete started turning up at my gigs. Nora brought me into the family.
Why was there so much unreleased material?
Really, just because we had so much stuff. It wasn’t because we didn’t think it was good enough. If they’d turned round and said ‘look we’ve done two great Grammy nominated albums, shall we put another one out?’ we could have done it. But Wilco had moved on and I’d moved on. So really it was a matter of always knowing that the songs were there. And in the meantime the albums had reverted to me, to my ownership. I wanted to get them re-released, and I didn’t think the film had been seen widely enough either. So I started talking to Nora, and to Wilco, and said maybe we should try and put out the complete sessions, what do you reckon? And particularly since Jay Bennett has passed away, as well, some of Jay’s best work is on this record. Jay Bennett was a cat who could play anything. You could throw ideas at him and he’d get hold of them really quickly. He was a great collaborator, Jay. During the sessions, Jeff Tweedy never quite got onto European time when we were in Ireland – which was fine, because when you’re in the studio you work day and you work night. But there were times when we were in the studio and he wasn’t there. So when he wasn’t there, they were kinda my band. Just in the sense that they wanted to play, you know? The thing about Mermaid Avenue is you can play the song any which way you like. Let’s play this one like Tom Waits; let’s play this one like Chuck Berry; let’s play this one like Metallica. And Wilco, those guys were really up for that sort of thing.
Partly that was why I approached them, because I thought Being There was such a great record, and they could clearly play in any style, and that’s what I needed. There are outtakes of tracks that are completely different styles, that haven’t been released. I would say they’re proper outtakes, they’re not the sort of thing I’d feel comfortable putting on something like this. I wanted these tracks to be the ones people hadn’t heard. But we had three or four goes at some of those songs.
I hate to draw comparisons, but it’s what Dylan and the Band were doing in the Basement Tapes. They took those old folk songs, that had deep roots, and they messed around with them and made a great record. We were able to apply that same idea to these songs, although we were perhaps more radical, because we had the whole history of rock music between when Woody wrote the songs, and us, whereas Dylan was quite early on in that tradition. That’s the trick with these Woody Guthrie compilations, is not to be too reverent to the material. Don’t worry about Woody’s words – they’re going to work. Bring yourself in – do what you think he would do. Do what you think you should do. Meet him half way.
There’s a hundred different ways to write a song. And every way is the right way, as long as you end up with a song. Some of those songs that Woody wrote, who knows what tunes he had for them? Maybe we were miles off, maybe we were close, I don’t know. But ultimately it’s what the guy was saying that matters – not the way he was saying it. And what he was saying is preserved. We were fortunate enough to put a frame around his artistic endeavours.
Did you learn anything about the way he wrote songs?
Well, I’ll tell you what I did learn from him – that the enemy for those of us that want to make a better world is cynicism, not capitalism or conservatism. There’s not a cynical lyric in Woody’s writing. He said himself, I hate songs that make people feel sad about themselves, I hate songs that put people down, I hate songs that make people feel there’s no hope. I learned that off of him – cos I was a great fan of the more cynical end of songwriting, be it Dylan or Elvis Costello. And connecting with Woody, what I learned as a songwriter was to be able to see the superstructure of the song, finding the rhythm in it by looking at it. Not finding the tune, but finding the metre.
The film alluded to conflict between you and Jeff Tweedy – what was that about?
It was a very simple conflict that happens almost in every band, at the end of every album. I think Jay Bennett alludes to it when he’s interviewed. It’s who is in charge of the production. It was a simple case that Jeff Tweedy and I had never made a record in which somebody else had a say in what the songs sounded like at the end.
I don’t think it’s the defining issue of Mermaid Avenue. To me the defining issue was bringing Woody to a new audience in a new way. We all kept focused on that idea. We were all working for the little guy. And I’d like to think, 20 years after that concert I was at with Pete Seeger and Arlo, that Woody now is seen in a more contemporary light as a great songwriter, and not someone up on a pedestal; as someone who was flawed, who wasn’t a great father, who did shag around, but who equally wrote great songs. He was probably the first alternative songwriter. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Gospel, With Bluenotes: The Mellow Fruits Of Hiss Golden Messenger's Quest For Faith

MC Taylor, a songwriter and a student of folklore, is not a declamatory man. His songs are compressed and poetic, with nary a syllable out of place. You will hear echoes of familiar things – a bit of Van Morrison’s mystical warmth, or John Martyn’s angst, and the language will be unfussy, and derived from the folk tradition.
A bit of context may be required, as Hiss Golden Messenger operate in a way that seems designed to cultivate obscurity. The group's new LP, Poor Moon, for example, is not available on CD. For now, it exists in a limited edition of 500 hand-tooled copies. (The North Carolina boutique label, Paradise Of Bachelors, is not fond of CDs, believing them to be technologically obsolete, and – with only a slight acknowledgment of the contradiction – a poor substitute for a beautiful vinyl artefact.) 
Hiss Golden Messenger is the collective name for Taylor, the principal songwriter, and his long-time cohort, Scott Hirsch. In a previous life, they both toiled in the San Francisco-based country-rock group, The Court and Spark. Taylor relocated to the rural Piedmont mill town of Pittsboro, North Carolina, to further his studies, and Hirsch moved to Brooklyn, where he works on film music.
Musically, Taylor seems to have been inspired by the move. Living in a rural environment where old-time music is not an affectation has broadened his horizons.
“There are some touchstones musically,” Taylor says, “but we’re resigned to the fact that we’re never going to sound like anyone except for ourselves. So we’re just trying to refine what it is that we do. We reference records, and we always think we’re being clever about it, but if we got down to it, I think we’d realise that we are referencing the same records time and time again.
“A lot of my work is framed by American country and western music, folk music, gospel music – American roots music, for want of a better word. I tend to use those kinds of music as a rubric when I’m writing; obviously I depart pretty significantly, but I think that there are certain lyrical motifs that exist in traditional American music, that I carry into what I do.”
Poor Moon does not sound especially like a record from 2011, but Taylor has a way of explaining the distinction between timelessness and revivalism. Hiss Golden Messenger are not, he says, “civil-war re-enactors”. “There’s all kinds of other stuff that we like and grew up together listening to. We’re always referencing John Martyn records, we’re always referencing Fairport Convention records – Full House is a really big one for both Scott and I, we’re always referencing the first couple records by The Band. A lot of this stuff comes from a time period in Western popular music when people seemed to be searching for their roots. Obviously with Fairport they were inspired by The Band to come up with an electrified English music, as the Band was doing with this melange of American musics. I like to think that we’re sort of carrying that on in some way, but obviously this is a different time period.”
So, while it may be Taylor’s ambition to adapt traditional forms, there is nothing precious about the way the music on Poor Moon unfurls. The impact is emotional, not intellectual, because this record  is the sound of a man grappling with matters which go beyond cold reason. It is a record about faith, in which the most startling song is also the least typical. That song is called ‘Jesus Shot Me In The Head’ (and you are permitted to laugh).
“Well,” Taylor explains, “it’s the most narrative tune on the record. I don’t consider myself a narrative writer, generally speaking, and Jesus Shot Me In The Head is the Exception. I’m interested in an economy of language in songs. A lot of the rhythmic qualities that appear in my songs – a lot of the way that syllables work, is not really anything that I’m getting from music at all, it’s stuff that I’m taking from poetry, a lot of Japanese poetry, which can be, its own way, sort of devotional, like haiku: Basho, Issa, Buson, Ryokan, Santoka, are all folks that I find myself referencing when I’m doing a lot of writing myself. But Jesus Shot Me In The Head – there is a story in there. I think it’s sort of a funny song. Maybe it’s couched in such a dirgey or minor key that people aren’t seeing the humour. It’s definitely a reckoning of faith. The narrator at the end says ‘At least I hope this is how it goes, cos I’m just about out of bread’ which, for me, sums up the song because it’s playing with the dogma of faith. In that song, the narrator is hedging his bets by becoming a crusader for Jesus Christ. The person in that song is saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m afraid of what is to come, and I am going to hedge my bets against Hell by following Jesus Christ.’ It’s cynical. But I don’t think it’s completely untrue to the relationship that a lot of people have with faith. Including myself.
“Glad you got the humour though, Every time I announce the title there’s maybe two people that laugh. It’s no more shocking than Lindsay Lohan having to report for Community Service at a morgue.”
Broadly, Poor Moon is concerned with a quest for faith. “Even prior to HGM there was at least one branch of my music that was dealing in faith. On at least the past couple of records it’s become the dominant theme. I don’t think you need to be a church-going person to wrestle with questions of faith and spirituality. Particularly in the light of having a child: you have this other human being for whom you are completely and wholly responsible. And you start to realise just how little of this earth is in your control. Now, my son is healthy, he’s happy – I consider myself fortunate – but there is this anxiety about the lack of control in my life. So part of this is: is there a way to find comfort or solace in life as we muddle through?”
On a rough count, Poor Moon is the fifth HGM album, though digital EPs and bonus releases make the tally unreliable.  Two LPs (2010’s Bad Debt, and 2009’s Country Hai East Cotton) were given a broader release on the Blackmaps label), and – to muddy things further - several of the songs from Bad Debt are reworked on Poor Moon.
“I felt like I wasn’t quite done with those songs yet,” says Taylor. “I thought it would be worth taking another look at them. Often the artists that I really loved would re-record their songs. I mean, how many times did Bert Jansch record Needle Of Death? I like different renditions of the same song – I think it’s an interesting experiment artistically, and as a listener I like the idea that a song could have a few different lives as well.”
Confusing? Yes. But perhaps that the price you pay for single-minded songcraft.  Poor Moon is a beautiful, accomplished record. The songs are autumnal, and linked by swampy sound-effects; rain here, cicadas there. In the bloody-mindedness of its vision, I was reminded of that other faith-seeking mongrel, Mike Scott, particularly in the use of gothic language: see the beautifully mellow ‘Drummer Down’, with its archaic talk of hexes, or ‘Under All The Land’, a pained strum, evoking the Israelites and Canaan-land, played out beneath a super-blue crescent moon. ‘Dreamwood’ is a sweet, wiry instrumental, channelling John Fahey, and ‘A Working Man Can’t Make It No Way’ is a straight-up overalls-on country shuffle about the travails of a hard-workin’ family which deserves to be covered by Merle Haggard.
Taylor mentions two albums as being a direct influence: Ronnie Laine’s Anymore For Anymore (for its deep humility) and Richard & Linda Thompson’s I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, not least because it was recorded in a few days.  (Poor Moon took a week.) He talks earnestly about pursuing “an organic aesthetic”, incorporating traditional sounds within a contemporary framework.
If that makes the record sound like a yoga workshop, it isn’t. Poor Moon is gospel, played with blue notes. It is the sound of a sweet soul contemplating deliverance; as mellow and fierce and fearful as that.