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)