A Life in Guitars, part 3 – Basses and Other Things

The unsung hero of most of my recording work is a Fender Modern Player Jazz Bass from about 10 years ago, purchased with the proceeds of a tax rebate. In keeping with my preference for finishes that show the grain of the wood, this one’s in translucent black (that is, it’s a dark grey stain).

The Chinese-made Modern Player series was a bit like the Vintage Modified series that Squier did until recently, or the current Fender Player series – subtly contemporary takes on classic recipes. What makes it a “Modern” Player Jazz is a pair of humbuckers, rather than the usual single coil pickups you’d get on a Jazz bass. The sounds are still traditional (it’s a passive instrument, after all), but they’re slightly more present and high-output compared to the tones you’d get from the usual Jazz single coils. It’s a good bass to have if you only have one bass, as it will do old-school tones perfectly well, but the extra power and projection on tap is very handy if you’re playing something a little heavier. I’m only an occasional bass player, admittedly, but I’ve not thought about getting anything different in a decade. It’s all the bass I need.

Modern Player Jazz bass close-up, with me and the light fitting reflected

Also in the house are Mel’s guitars. She has a Yamaha classical electroacoustic, another classical that was originally her mother’s, and a Squier Jazzmaster that I gave her. I originally bought it for myself in 2012, as a treat after my pacemaker procedure and to mark surviving a year after my diagnosis. Mel had donated her own Squier Strat to a raffle that her neighbour was running to raise money to support stroke patients, and I felt she shouldn’t be without an electric guitar and that her good deed deserved another, so to speak.

It was at her flat for a couple of years, but since we moved in together it lives in my den, along with the other guitars, and I make use of it sometimes on recordings – especially as it’s the only guitar to hand with a working tremolo, and sometimes you do need to be Kevin Shields or J Mascis.

Finally, and these aren’t even at my house but with my dad until I work out how to safely transport them and where to store them, are my mother’s old classical and my grandfather’s jazz guitar, which he gave me when I was a young pup, just starting out.

It’s a Hondo Fatboy, which is a copy of the Gibson L5 – a (very) large-bodied archtop with F holes, first made in the 1920s. The Fatboy was made from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, but this one appears to be from around 1980 or 1981. The model was manufactured in Korea by Samick, and was one of the first (or perhaps the very first – sources vary) production guitars to feature DiMarzio pickups, which may surprise some of you who associate DiMarzio only with super-high-gain pickups for metal dudes.

Hondo Fatboy – a big beast of a guitar

When my grandfather gave it to me, it had been in a cupboard for some years, which had taken its toll on the neck. It had a super-high action for years, because that was the only way I could get all the notes to play without choking. Eventually, I realised that meant something was definitely wrong with it, and even more eventually I realised that it could probably be repaired, so I took it to Bob Johnson of Legra Guitars for his expert view. Diagnosing a severe case of warping, he took the neck off, took the fingerboard off the neck and straightened them both (at this point, I can’t remember how – I imagine by heat-pressing them). He also replaced the knackered old wiring. For my part, I swapped the original uncompensated saddle with a tune-o-matic style bridge – precise tuning being more important in my world than historical accuracy, though I do still have the original bridge.

And so that’s it. To non-guitarists, that probably seems like an abundance – a vast, indulgent collection. I know guitar collectors, and they wouldn’t recognise me as one of them. Serious collectors could buy all my instruments by selling just one battle-scarred 1970s Telecaster. What I do have is a toolbox with some very usable tools in it. Each instrument serves a purpose and earns its keep. I use all of them.

That said, if I had to pare it down, I could. The bare-bones version of my collection would be one electric, one acoustic and a bass. The acoustic would be the Takamine, obviously. Equally obviously, the bass would be the Jazz (it would have to be). The electric – despite how much it would pain me to lose the Casino and Les Paul – would be the Strat, though I’d have to modify it by putting a humbucker in the bridge position. Strat single coils just don’t give that heavy distortion sound I sometimes need. A coil-tappable humbucker would be the best solution. I’m not a fan of the HSS configuration on Strats visually, but it would be a sonic necessity.

I imagine a good percentage of people who read these blatherings are guitar players. If that’s you, I’d love to know what’s in your collection. Do tell me. Better still, show me. I could look at pictures of guitars all day.

The Fisher King – Watertown Carps (out now!)

Last year, when I was furloughed (and therefore not working) and the UK was in lockdown (meaning I was at home at least 23 hours a day), I got quite a lot of music done.

First up, I finished mixing Borders (Cruel Expectations), the third James McKean and the Blueberry Moon album. Then I moved on to Away from the City, the first joint release by Melanie and me. After that, I began working with Yo Zushi on some of his songs. We had tentatively started recording the previous November, but lockdown was when things began in earnest, and only one song begun at the late-2019 session made it to completion.

Since we couldn’t work in the same space, Yo would send me guitar and vocal recordings he made at home, and I’d build arrangements for them. On a couple of occasions, I sent him a completed backing track I’d written and recorded, and he wrote a melody and lyrics. It became enough of a partnership that Yo felt it was appropriate to release it as a collaboration, not as a Yo Zushi solo record. So we became Watertown Carps, and soon had a whole album.

I’m delighted to say that the album, Mermaids, is due to be released on 9 September by Rose Parade Recording Co., a Cardiff-based independent label run as a community-interest company. That makes them unusually democratic and collaborative, and it’s really cool to be working with people who so transparently care about what they do, who they work with, and how they do it, and who have been putting out great music too (TJ Roberts’ Love, Loss and Other Useless Things from last year is an absolute indie pop/power-pop banger – my choice cut is Somebody’s Someone, because I’m a sucker for that kind of washy guitar sound and a vocal harmony, but there’s something there for everyone).

Our first single proper, The Fisher King, is out now: it’s a Willie-Nelson-meets-Pavement lo-fi indie-country song that’s actually on some level about fishing. You can listen to it on Spotify, or whatever your favoured streaming platform is: https://open.spotify.com/track/3yesAZYPKjRwZrG9HhwPc7?si=122502f563cd44f7

I’m really excited for September. We’re hoping (praying) that we’ll be able to do a launch gig.

A Life in Guitars, part 2 – Electrics

My longest-serving electric is a Fender Highway One Stratocaster. I bought it new in 2007, but I think it had been kicking around in the shop for a year or two as it has a 1960s-style small headstock, and at some point around 2006 the Highway One range was revamped, with the Strats getting bigger, ’70s-style headstocks (and hotter pickups). Because it was an older model, it had been discounted, bringing it down to a price where I could, at a stretch, afford it. Highway Ones were conceived as workhorse “player’s” guitars – officially American made, but with at least some of the manufacturing process taking place in Fender’s Mexican factory, and hence sold at a lower price than American Standard and Professional models (or whatever they were called at that point). They had thin nitrocellulose finishes, supposedly designed to scuff up and look played-in quickly, but again, that was probably at least partly a cost-reduction thing.

Strat, when blue. Live with Carterhaugh at the Camden Eye, 2008. My good friend Chris Martin on drums

Mine began life a cool translucent blue, but about four years ago I followed my heart and asked the great Andy Gibson (guitar tech based in Denmark Street) to remove the paint, so I’d have the natural-finish Strat I’d hankered after for years. It’s put in a lot of hard yards for me, but still looks, sounds and plays great. To aid tuning stability (which I have to say is rock solid), the tremolo is blocked off.

That same Strat, stripped bare and refinished by Andy Gibson. Photo by Andy, taken in his workshop.

My other main electric is my most recent purchase. In 1997, while still at school, I did a few weeks’ work for my dad during the summer holidays and used the money earned to buy an Epiphone SG. I hung on to it for years but decided in 2019 I’d earned an upgrade to a Gibson model. Thing is, when I tried out various SG Standards, Specials and ’61 Reissues in a shop in Camden, I didn’t like any of them as much as a Les Paul Tribute model that I’d tried out on a whim because it was on display near the till. Although I’d have willingly paid whatever the asking was for an SG Standard if I’d have fallen in love with it, the Les Paul was about £300 cheaper, too (like my Highway One Strat, it had been discounted as it was the previous year’s model).

Live with the Les Paul. James McKean and the Blueberry Moon, Spit & Sawdust 2019

Les Paul Tributes are the cheapest Gibson LP range, selling for a couple of hundred quid less than Studios. They have the same pickups as Studios, but an even more stripped-down finish. That’s actually a plus point for me – as you can probably tell, given I love the Takamine EN series soundhole rosette and I stripped the finish off my Stratocaster, I’m very much of the less-is-more school aesthetically.

Les Paul, close up

Anyway, this Les Paul was more to my taste in terms of feel than any of the SGs I tried, even the one I liked the most, which was the Standard. The SG Standard had a thin neck, wide but low frets and high-output pickups – it just felt aggressive in a way that even a set-up (lowering the pickup height, raising the strings a little) wouldn’t have compensated for. The Les Paul could do aggressive, but it sounded sweeter played clean, and seemed more versatile. I’d never really seen myself as a Les Paul guy, but there was no denying it. I liked the LP a lot more. I’ve never regretted the purchase. That said, I’m pretty sceptical of some of Gibson’s cost-cutting measures like mounting all of the wiring on a PCB, so I asked Andy Gibson (yes, him again) to pull all that out and rewire it by hand. Now I can clean the pots if I need to, and it’ll be easier to change pots and pickups down the line if I get the urge.

My third electric is an in-betweener, although I bought it before the Les Paul, in 2014. It’s an Epiphone Casino, in natural finish. You know the drill: P90s, no centre block, trapeze tailpiece. It’s pretty much stock, other than the bridge – the original unit buzzed annoyingly so I replaced it with a Tone Pros (once again, courtesy of Andy Gibson). Casinos are incredibly adaptable. They can chime like crazy if that’s what you need them to do. They can get jazzy. They can give you a gritty, bluesy lead tone, as Gary Clark could no doubt tell you. They even sound great with heavy distortion, though – being hollow – they’ll feed back at the drop of the hat if you’re playing above bedroom volume levels. But, whether playing clean or overdriven, I’ve seldom had a problem finding a spot in relation to the amp where I could control the feedback, and I frequently use my Casino to double-track distorted rhythm parts, as it gives a distinctly different sound to my Les Paul. Distorted P90s have a sparkle to them that’s undeniably single coil, but a more balanced sound than Fender-style singles, with greater low end and added volume. That’s what works so well about the Casino for me: occupying something of a tonal halfway house between Strat and Les Paul, it’s fantastic as “glue” within a mix, bridging two sounds that otherwise might be a little disparate. It’s in the mix on virtually every song I record that has electric guitars, often in such a way that you wouldn’t know it’s there.

Casino, in rehearsal at One Cat studio, 2015-ish

That’s mostly it. But there’s a bass to account for, and some miscellanea, in case anyone is still interested (Still? They didn’t care in the first place, says the voice in my head. Probably correctly.)

A Life in Guitars, part 1 – Acoustics

Here we go. The most self-indulgent series of I’ve ever written. Feel free to skip, unless you happen to be a connossieur of non-vintage, non-collectable guitars.

Over the course of more than 20 years of playing music, I’ve acquired a decent amount of gear, but it’s all workhorse-level stuff. Good quality, but modest in price. Nothing high end, nothing vintage.

For years, this was due to a lack of budget. I tried to make a living as a freelancer in my twenties, but with little financial reward. Later, it became more of a philosophical choice – two different less expensive guitars would give me more tonal options than one more expensive guitar, as long as those cheaper guitars sounded good in themselves and played well. None of which is to say I wouldn’t lay down big(gish) money for an instrument if one came along that I fell in love with, but it’s not something I’ve done up to now, and I think it would take something quite special to make it happen. A vintage Martin or Gibson acoustic – something like that.

I’ve written about my main acoustic before. A 1999 Takamine EN10, it’s been a constant companion for more than two decades, and is the instrument I’m referring to if I say “my guitar”. It’s the one I’d rush back into a burning building for, if Mel and our cat CJ were already safe. Cedar top, mahogany back and sides, rosewood fingerboard and that distinctive 1990s Takamine soundhole rosette that always looked smart and no-nonsense to me when I saw them on stage or in adverts, years before I got one. It’s nicely played in (it long ago “let go”, and acquired a woodier, mellower depth than it had when new), and is set up to accomodate heavy, low-tuned strings (I tune CGDEAD). I’ve written 99% of the songs I’ve ever written on it, and the idea of making music without it is close to inconceivable.

Takamine EN10 on stage at the Oasthouse Theatre, Rainham, Kent. October 2019

Its partner in acoustical crime is my 2001 Seagull S12+, bought from Rose Morris in Denmark Street in 2001, with some of the proceeds of a summer spent doing manual labour in the maintenance department at Westminster Cathedral. Unlike my EN10, this model has not not been discontinued and you can still buy something very similar today. It’s £150 more today than I paid twenty years ago, but still, it’s a damn fine guitar at the price. Mine’s got a lot of wear on it – for years it was my main live acoustic guitar in two separate bands – but it still sounds great, and it’s not all that hard to play for an acoustic 12. The string spacing is wide enough to accommodate fingerpicking, but the neck is not so wide that getting your hand around it is an insurmountable challenge. I tune it DGCFAD to avoid breaking too many high Gs.

Seagull 12-string. With James McKean, Dan McKean and Matt Lloyd (hidden) at the much-missed Gladstone Arms

A final flat-top spends most of its time in a cupboard. It’s a Jasmine TS70S from the late 1990s. Jasmines were – and I believe still are – beginners’ guitars made by Takamine. This one’s a dreadnought, laminate top, back and sides but not bad-sounding for all that. I often use it for Nashville-tuned parts, or occasionally for a contrasting tone in a mix that contains several tracks of acoustic. It has a somewhat honky, nasal type of tone that cuts through when paired with more mellow, woodier acoustic tones. It’s not much to look at, but it’s a useful instrument to have around, and it finds its way on to a surprising number of recordings. I also use it live sometimes if I’m playing a gig that, for whatever reason, I don’t want to take my Takamine to.

Jasmine dreadnought, pictured at the foot of the bed. The rug is grey, but looks rather blue here, oddly.

Next time, electrics.

Bad Times Good – Crowded House

A couple of weeks ago, Crowded House released a new album, Dreamers Are Waiting, the band’s first since 2010’s Intriguer. Basic tracks were recorded in LA before the pandemic started, with the rest being finished remotely last year during the pandemic.* The album features a new line-up of the band: founding members Neil Finn and Nick Seymour (vocals/guitar and bass/vocals respectively), along with Finn’s sons Liam and Elroy (guitar/vocals/drums, and drums/vocals/guitar/keyboards) and producer Mitchell Froom (keyboards).

Neil Finn is, of course, the band’s main songwriter, but this record is notably collaborative, with only six songs being credited solely to him. Liam Finn has one sole writing credit, and the other five feature the band members writing in various combinations. With Tim Finn also co-writing one of the songs, it’s a proper family affair.

My favourite, album opener Bad Times Good, is credited to Neil, Liam and Elroy Finn and Nick Seymour. That’s interesting, as there are elements here that feel new to the band’s music and two credited songwriters who’ve not written for the band before. I’ve not been able to find any articles or interviews that shed light on who was responsible for which parts, so at this stage we can but speculate on who contributed what, but it’s still worth having a poke around under the bonnet, so to speak, to see what makes the song go.

First up, it begins in 5/4 time. The chords are (essentially) F and G, with three beats on the F and two on G, but the voicings on acoustic guitar are extended to something that sounds closer to Fmaj7sus2 and G6, with a single note melody line on electric guitar that bubbles away throughout the verse, pattering toms (sounding as if they’re being played with mallets), and touches of keys and piano from Froom.

Frankly, this is not how you write a song if you’re going for mainstream radio play in 2021. The non-standard time signature means that the melody feels weightless and strange the first few times you hear it; emphases seem to be in strange places, and there’s an unresolved quality to it. The extended chords add to the dreamy atmosphere.

Eventually we move to an unstable-sounding E7 before shifting to C (perhaps revealing that we’ve been in C all along, and F and G are the IV and V chords, with E7 as a substitute for Em) and waltz time for the chorus. Still, though, the melody seems to be playing tricks. We’ve just established our key and a stable-feeling rhythm, but Finn answers the short line “Before we choose a path” with a much longer one “(Let’s spend the night at Los Campeneros, please” – a metrical pattern that doesn’t recur outside this line, with a rhyme that isn’t answered at the end of the chorus. The melody is gorgeous, but in a evanescent kind of way. It feels like it might disappear, or slide out of your hands if you try to grab it.

Via another unstable-sounding chord, this time a D major, we go back into the verse, which mirrors the first in form. The next time the chorus comes round, though, it will be extended and get really cool harmonically:

E7 | C | A7 | Dm | E7 | C | D | Dm | Em | Am | A | A7

These are the type of “songwriter’s” chords that anyone who learned guitar by playing Beatles songs will recognise. E7 and A7 as substitute iii and vi chords in the key of C crop up in numerous Lennon and McCartney songs, as well as in those by their conscious inheritors: the likes of Alex Chilton, Aimee Mann, Elliott Smith, and Neil Finn himself. What I particularly like, though, is the emotional journey you get taken on by the shifts from major to parallel minor, and minor to parallel major. Everytime you think you know where you stand harmonically, the ground shifts beneath your feet.

Major/minor games continue in the middle eight, with its twice-repeated Dm | E7 | C | D sequence. This is the section of the song that will sound most like Crowded House to the majority of listeners, with Finn singing up in his Not the Girl You Think You Are range (that is, his most Lennon-esque range), while the close harmony vocals take full advantage of the possibilties inherent in that D to Dm change halfway through the sequence.

It’s lovely, but the band don’t overplay it. It’s over before it outstays its welcome, and is genuinely only eight bars long (not all middle eights are). From there, it’s back into the verse, and a slow, atmospheric winding down of the song.

5/4 time signature apart, all the elements of the song – the clever chord sequences, the unshowy but intelligently written lyrics, the dreamy atmosphere – are frequently present in Neil Finn’s songwriting, whether for his main band, solo albums or side projects. But still, the song does feel like a subtle evolution for the band, and the shared writing credits may have something to do with it. The rest of the album is good too, if perhaps not quite at the level of Bad Times Good. Some of the more uptempo songs remind me a little of the Go Betweens, while the gentle, predominantly acoustic Show Me the Way (not a Peter Frampton cover) and Too Good for this World (co-written by Neil and Tim Finn) are both lovely.

*In all probability, the band always intended to work this way. A two-part tracking process – full-band basic tracks being recorded in a studio, overdubs recorded remotely by band members using home-recording equipment – is how most rock, indie and singer-songwriter records that feature live drums are recorded these days. Much cheaper than doing the whole thing in the studio.

Before they were famous…

Who’s the biggest artist you saw before they were famous, asked Drowned in Sound on Twitter the other day.

My answer would have to be Muse in 1999, I think. I saw them playing what was then called the New Tent on, if memory serves, the Friday morning of my first (and so far only) Glastonbury.

I try not to be negative in my blogs, only criticising elements in a thing that overall I do like. But, I suppose, some circumstances demand honesty. I didn’t like Muse then, and I don’t like them now. A cross between Nirvana, Radiohead and Queen sounds like a good idea on paper, but something about Muse repelled me and continues to do so. Matt Bellamy’s vibrato-laden voice sounds to me the way that I imagine Thom Yorke sounds to other people. Nails on a blackboard. And being a rather humourless young man (and I was young. Somehow I convinced my parents to let me go to Glastonbury aged 17), I found his wannabe-rock-star stage presence contemptible. The ambition just poured out of him. Urgh. So uncool.

My friends liked them, which just made it worse.

At the same festival, I also saw a similarly not-famous-yet Doves and, because no one else was on so early in the day, Toploader. For my American readers, who I assume escaped them, Toploader went on to release a ubiquitous and absolutely disgraceful cover of King Harvest’s Dancing in the Moonlight. Radio stations then took this ghastly, badly sung recording of what was already an annoyingly repetitive song and absolutely pounded it into the ground by playing it eleventy billion times in the next two years. Toploader remain, by some distance, the worst professional band I’ve ever seen live.

Here’s a crazy thing, though. Muse didn’t end up the biggest act who played the New Tent that year. At least if the poster is accurate,* there were bigger stars in the making at Glastonbury 1999 who I didn’t see. Briefly, the crown looked like it might go to David Gray, who sold five million copies of White Ladder in the UK and seven million worldwide over the first few years of the millennium. But longer term, the winner was Coldplay. I don’t need to tell you what they’ve gone to do. I’m not sure who I was watching while they were playing. If my memory is correct, 1999 was pre-Yellow, pre-Parachutes, so it’s probable I’d never heard any of their music.

I’ve hardly seen any band at a club or theatre gig who went on to great success. I’ve seen some good support bands who went nowhere, and some great ones who were already as big as they were ever going to be. But almost none who became famous. The closest might be Scottish rock band Biffy Clyro, who already seemed a band out of time. I’m pretty sure it was at the Garage at Highbury Corner, and unless I’m conflating two gigs (definitely a possibility!) they were supporting Echobelly. My college friend Ru had recently been drafted in on bass to replace Debbie Smith. I actually thought they were OK; certainly preferable to Matt Bellamy.

I’m unsure what this says about how frequently bands progress from support slots to mega stardom. It may simply be that the sorts of bands I go to see don’t get paired with young up-and-comers who have a genuine shot at a sustained career. Perhaps that’s because most of the musicians I go to see are at least my age if not older. People who go to gigs at the Barbican are not the sort of market that record companies and managers are trying to court for their hot new artists.

*The three artists I most wanted to see R.E.M., Elliott Smith and Sebadoh. The latter two both pulled out. Sigh. I did get to see Smith a couple of times before he died. Sebadoh I didn’t get to see until 2014.

Once Were Brothers – Robbie Robertson & The Band

A songwriter and guitarist of uncommon skill who networked well and has spent most of the last fifty years burnishing his legend when he’s not been composing/supervising movie soundtracks for Martin Scorsese, Robbie Robertson makes an easy figure to mock*. Even the title of his film, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson & The Band, betrays his self-importance and his penchant for self-mythologising.

But even for those of us find some of Robertson’s pronouncements self-regarding and pompous (this is a man who once promoted a solo album by proclaiming in all seriousness “I am the storyteller of the shadowlands”), the urge to prick his balloon has to be tempered by recognition of his accomplishments: his guitar playing and the three-dozen or so fantastic songs he wrote between 1968 and 1975.**

All of which is to say, I went into watching Once Were Brothers with a sense of what the film’s line would be, particularly on why The Band broke up in 1976, how The Last Waltz came to happen, and the rights and wrongs of Levon Helm’s subsequent bitterness regarding songwriting royalties and credits. While the film invited contributions from a couple of Levon’s friends and collaborators, it only brought in people who agreed with Robertson’s version of the story, so it ended up as a film with only one voice.

But that’s what I was expecting, so I found it an enjoyable watch, with those caveats. The best thing about the film is the extensive use of candid photos and home videos of Robertson and his bandmates in Woodstock, but also welcome was the testimony of Robertson’s former wife Dominique, who shared her husband’s mix of love for his colleagues, and exasperation towards the drug and alcohol abuse of Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm.*** Originally a journalist, in the mid-1980s, Dominique qualified as a pyschotherapist, specialising in addiction. This combination of professional pursuits makes her better qualified to tell The Band’s story than anyone, including her former husband, and her input was among the film’s strengths.

If you don’t go into this expecting a balanced account of The Band’s story, it’s hard to be disappointed by Once Were Brothers. As I say, I’m more amused than angered by Robertson’s tendency to self-promotion and practiced humble-bragging; as Katie Erbland observed in a savage IndieWire review, “He’s the kind of guy who thought “The Band” was an “unpretentious” name for the group.” Robertson’s had basically the same shtick since at least the time Scorsese interviewed him for The Last Waltz. Nonethless, it’s a bit of a shame that a more balanced film wasn’t made while Danko and Helm, at least, were still alive to tell their sides of the story.

Incidentally, still the best way to learn about The Band is to read Barney Hoskyns’s Across the Great Divide, which taught me a long time ago that one should love the group’s music while not taking their guitar player at his own estimation.

*My friend Nick Elvin and I have made a sport out of coming up with parody Robbie Robertson song titles for his solo albums. My favourites, all Nick’s, are Fellowship of the Road, Can’t Love for Love nor Money, and No Cards Left to Play, which all capture Robertson in his Somewhere Down the Crazy River mode.

**Not all the best material on Music from Big Pink is Robertson’s, of course, as Manuel figured more as a songwriter on that record, and there are three Dylan co-writes and a cover of Long Black Veil. But The Band is mostly Robertson, Northern Lights – Southern Cross is all Robertson, and other than Manuel’s lovely Sleeping, so are Stage Fright and Cahoots, though the latter has little to recommend it for me.

***Garth Hudson is frequently mentioned as a musical driving force but only heard from directly once, in a 25-year-old interview clip. Presumably he declined to be involved).

Stay (Faraway, So Close) – U2

U2: a punchline for a couple of decades now, reviled for their singer’s messianism and (more pertinently) tax affairs. And truth to tell, never favourites of mine. I always preferred Michael Stipe’s enigmatic mumbling to Bono’s chest-beating. But you don’t get to their level of success without writing a good song or two along the way. Here’s a piece about one of their best.

Not every band that has a good year or two can turn that into sustained success, in which they plough on for a two or three decades, outlasting all challengers while the music scene changes endlessly around them.

It’s really hard. Even U2 – who did put it off – had their difficulties for a few years in the mid-1990s.

Over the course of their career, it’s probably fair to say U2 have been more of a people’s band than a critic’s darling, but for a few years at their peak they managed to pump out records that were both critical hits and a wildly popular with the public – chief among them 1987’s The Joshua Tree and 1991’s Achtung Baby. When the band released the latter, punters fell hard for One, Even Better than the Real Thing, and Mysterious Ways*, while critics responded positively to the band’s embrace of irony and European-style Po-Mo. After Rattle and Hum, on which Bono’s fetishising of all things American and rootsy and “authentic” had run out of control, Achtung Baby‘s hyperreality and gleeful inauthenticity was the absolute best way to repair their dented critical rep.

The band’s Zoo TV tour continued this new obsession with spectacle and knowing self-parody. The shows were elaborately staged to satirise television and media oversaturation. Bono made prank phone calls to local and national politicians. Giant screens showed constantly shifting images: video confessionals, a belly dancer and live satellite footage from Sarajevo, then under siege.

Conceptual and arty and maybe a little pretentious? Sure, but U2 leavened it with a level of self-deprecation they’d seldom seemed capable of up till that point. Bono played down his rock ‘n’ roll messiah act to portray a literal devil instead, singing a portion of the set in character as “MacPhisto”, complete with devil horns and a gold lamé suit, possibly borrowed from ABC’s Martin Fry.

Zooropa, the 1993 follow-up album to Achtung Baby, played with thematically similar material to its predecessor and the Zoo TV tour. But despite this, it was received more coolly by the public, selling only half as many copies as Achtung Baby. In hindsight, it set the stage for 1997’s even more disappointing Pop, which saw U2 encase their music within so many quotation marks it was hard to know how to take them or their songs. After which, the band dropped the flirtation with irony, costume and surface, and went back to foregrounding reliable old passion and authenticity (cue Beautiful Day, and their best sales figures in 10 years).

A shame, as Zooropa at least still contained good music. In fact, Stay (Faraway, So Close) – written for Frank Sinatra, and featuring in the Wim Wenders movie Faraway, So Close! – may just be the band’s best song. It’s certainly in the conversation, and it definitely has one of Bono’s best lyrics. He’s not a lyricist I’ve ever cared for particularly, but I remember being really struck by the line “a vampire or a victim, it depends on who’s around” when I first heard the song in 1993; it sounded very adult and complex that a person could be neither a goodie nor a baddie, but sometimes one thing and sometimes the other. The best part of 30 years on, I still think it’s a good line. As I got older, I found other lines well observed too, particularly: “Dressed up like a car crash, your wheels are turning but you’re upside down”. We’ve all, I’m sure, seen people go through rough periods when they insist they’re absolutely fine, but everything they do seems like a cry for help they’re unaware of.

That’s what’s great about Stay (Faraway, So Close). For all that he’s spent the bulk of his career dealing in grand gestures, Bono is good – perhaps better – when he’s working at a small scale and not reaching for the cheap seats.** In 1993, they felt brave enough to write a small song, keep it (fairly) small in recording and arrangement, and then release it as a single. But the relative failure of their Zooropa singles set the stage for a few years of declining sales and relevance. Few bands reascend to the top of the heap after losing their way like that; I don’t think it’s been done since.

*The first single from Achtung Baby, The Fly, was a huge hit in Europe, but stalled at 61 in the US. Possibly the American audience didn’t see the need for a U2 that sounded like Jesus Jones fronted by a chipmunk on helium. The American audience got that one right.

** Another U2 song I’ll go into bat for is The Joshua Tree‘s stark Running to Stand Still, for the same reasons that I like Stay (Faraway So Close).

Roger Hawkins RIP

The great Roger Hawkins has passed away at the age of 75 after a long illness.

A member of the famous Swampers rhythm section that made their name at FAME studios, becoming so sought-after that they went on to cofound their own place – Muscle Shoals Sound Studio – Hawkins was one of the very greatest studio drummers. Mustang Sally, Chain of Fools, Land of 1000 Dances, Respect, When a Man Loves a Woman – all Roger Hawkins. Ditto Paul Simon’s Kodachrome, the Staples’ I’ll Take You There and Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock & Roll.

The thing that set Hawkins apart was feel, judgement and discipline. Don’t play a tom fill while the singer is singing, said Hawkins in an interview when asked about what it takes to be a studio drummer. It sounds a simple enough maxim to live by, but few enough do. Even fewer can pair that taste and restraint with a backbeat that simply compels you to move.

Hawkins was inimitable, and like many of the truly great musicians, he was incredibly modest. When asked what made him a successful studio drummer, he always said that he was a better listener than he was a technician. But really, listening is the whole thing. In a small-group context, whether it’s folk, jazz, metal or R&B, there’s no great musician who isn’t first and foremost a great listener. Hawkins’s ability to listen and feel, to channel emotion through a musical performance, was rare and unbelievably special. He was one of the best there ever has been, or ever will be.

Norman Lloyd RIP

The great Norman Lloyd has died at the age of 106.

You may know him as Frank Fry, the Nazi agent who falls to his death from the top of the Statue of Liberty in Hitchcock’s Saboteur. Or as Mr Nolan, the headmaster – and boo-hiss villain – in Dead Poet’s Society. Or as wise, cancer-ridden Dr Auschlander in St Elsewhere, the calm centre around which the hospital revolved.

These are just a few obvious highlights of a career that lasted from 1932 until well into this century. Lloyd was one of Orson Welles’s Mercury Players, playing Cinna the Poet in Welles’s legendary production of Caesar. He worked with Hitchcock for years in film and TV, directing many of the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He played tennis with Charlie Chaplin and Joseph Cotten, invariably beating the former because he refused to wear his glasses and would stubbornly rush the net. He guest starred in innumerable TV series; I first saw him as Professor Galen, Captain Picard’s former archaeology teacher in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, disappointed in his pupil for abandoning what he considered his true calling to serve in Starfleet. He still worked past his hundredth birthday. He played tennis into his nineties, or perhaps into his hundreds, depending on which source you read.

This is a cliche, but Lloyd’s passing really does mark the end of an era. Who else was directed by Welles, Chaplin, Hitchcock and Judd Apatow? Who else starred with Ingrid Bergman and Amy Schumer? There will in all probability never be anyone who has a Hollywood career even remotely comparable in breadth, scope and sheer longevity to the late, wonderful Norman Lloyd. Take a bow, sir.

Lloyd, losing his grip on Lady Liberty in Saboteur