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

The Darkest Part of the Night – Teenage Fanclub

It’s a bit of a cliche that an artist can be turning out excellent work – even their best work – long after everybody has stopped paying attention. An artist’s period as commercial or critical flavour of the month is short. Journalists are more or less obliged to keep finding new people and things to write about – to begin new cycles of hype generation, if you want to be a little cynical. Punters, meanwhile, find they’ve seen all the movies they want to starring this actor for a while, or they’ve heard all the songs they need by such and such an artist. Some artists may remain at the forefront of public consciousness longer than others, but they’re all subject to the same law of physics in the end. You can guess which.

This truism is just as true – perhaps more true – when dealing with the semi-popular, the quasi-obscure and the indie-famous as it is with genuine stars. Teenage Fanclub have never been a band my parents would have heard of, but they were – especially in the first half of the nineties – indie-famous in a way you probably have to have been there to properly appreciate now. Bandwagonesque in 1991 was cool, a fusion of the Byrds and My Bloody Valentine that no one else had put together in quite the same way, or pulled off quite as well.

Even by 1997, when I was began reading the UK’s music weeklies periodically, the critics and tastemakers had moved on. Before I ever heard the band, I had an impression of them as yesterday’s men – largely the result of one of David Stubbs’s Mr Agreeable columns in Melody Maker, in which he “reviewed” Ain’t that Enough, one of TF’s finest songs: “Ain’t that Enough? I’ll fucking say it is!” it began, and went on from there, accusing the band of making the same record over and over, while (gasp!) never having any proper hits.

Both of those last criticisms are true, but also irrelevant. Ain’t that Enough, heard without the performative cynicism of Mr Agreeable (which functioned as a sort of rock writer’s id, which Stubbs was surely intelligent enough to know as he was turning in his copy), is absolutely lovely, its sandblaster mastering job notwithstanding.*

That kind of critical response (not genuine hostility in truth, despite Stubbs’s column; more a sort of benign indifference) could have pretty much spelled the end for TF. Many bands would have decided that that was indeed enough, and gone on to solo careers at that point. But Teenage Fanclub never did stop, and as late as 2016’s Here, Gerard Love, Raymond McGinley and Norman Blake were still turning out tightly harmonised jangle pop as lovely as Blake’s The Darkest Part of the Night – for my money, the finest song any of the band’s members have so far written. No one knows when to the shift the harmony to the relative minor like Norman Blake.

All of which is to say that Teenage Fanclub’s new album, Endless Arcarde, has just come out. Gerard Love (author of Ain’t that Enough and many other minor classics) has now left the band, replaced by Dave McGowan (on bass, not as a writer), and former Gorkys Zygotic Mynci frontman Euros Childs is now TF’s keyboard player. But it’s heartening that they’re still out there, doing what they do. I’m looking forward to giving Endless Arcade a spin.

*Songs from Northern Britain came out on Creation the same year as Oasis’s Be Here Now. Label boss Alan McGee, deep in his cocaine megalomania phase, was not interested in subtlely at that point of his career, if indeed he had ever been.

#realnineties – Blue Jay and No More ‘I Love You’s

A couple of years ago, Mel and I watched a movie from 2016 called Blue Jay. It stars Mark Duplass and the always-excellent Sarah Paulson as Jim and Amanda, high-school sweethearts who run into each other after 20 years. It’s basically just a two-hander, following the characters for 24 hours, during which they get drunk at Jim’s mother’s house and relive their past together, while the unresolved issues between them force their way to the surface.

During the evening, they go through Jim’s collection of mementoes from their relationship. At one point, he puts on an Annie Lennox CD and they dance to No More ‘I Love You’s. At the start, they’re just goofing around, singing along in falsetto, but while the song does its Proustian work on them, they begin to share meaningful eye and bodily contact. As the song ends, the camera lingers for a second on the ring on Amanda’s finger.

It’s a great scene, but it absolutely works as well as it does because of the astute choice of song on the part of whoever was supervising the music (could have been Duplass; he wrote and produced the film, so it’s really his baby).

It would have been easy for the music supervisor to prove their hipster cred by putting something obscure and cool on the soundtrack and have Jim and Amanda dance to that. But that wouldn’t have been true to their characters. Jim and Amanda were evidently not the coolest kids in their school. On the evidence of the skits they recorded together on a cassette player as teenagers, they were probably theatre kids. No More ‘I Love You’s is exactly the kind of thing they would have had as their song: a little arty, a little camp and a little dramatic, but still ultimately a mainstream pop song.

Most importantly, the song pulls off a delicate high-wire act. The falsetto backing vocals and the grandiosity of the arrangement are knowingly (almost provocatively) absurd, but the emotions underpinning Lennox’s performance feel real, and even earnest; she sounds properly committed to the material. The song’s emotional state is complicated, and keeps shifting. This emotional instability is reflected in Jim and Amanda’s move from awkwardness at the beginning of the scene (which they attempt to disguise with humour) to vulnerability and connection at the end, undercut by the knowledge that they can’t recapture who they were as teenagers; the ring on Amanda’s is just one visible sign of this impossibility.

Before watching Blue Jay, I’d have told you I didn’t like No More ‘I Love You’s.

In explaining why, it’s worth pointing out that, in the UK, the song, and its singer, code a little differently than they do in the US. As far as I can tell from its chart positions, it was a middling hit in America, bigger on the dance and AC charts than on the Hot 100. In the UK, on the other hand, it reached number two on the singles chart and was absolutely played to death on commercial radio. It felt inescapable. It’s not a stretch to say that, along with people like Simply Red and Geoge Michael, Lennox was one of the artists who defined commercial radio in the first half in the nineties – Why and Walking on Broken Glass had been just as huge in 1992-3. By the time Essex FM and Capital Radio were done with No More ‘I Love You’s, I never wanted to hear it again.

Its use in Blue Jay, though, hit me hard enough to make me re-evaluate it, and go back to investigate the original recording by one-time Eurythmics support act The Lover Speaks. It’s pretty clear to me now that I got it wrong, and my judgement of the song was affected by its ubiquity on radio. It is, I hear now, a great song – off-kilter and idiosyncratic, but thoroughly pop in how those idiosyncrasies are manifested. The song’s greatness is absolutely present in the original recording, too, despite its rather ponderous rhythm track. David Freeman’s vocal has even more lunatic goth theatricality than Lennox’s, and it’s definitely worth hearing that version if you don’t know it.

So now, despite basically loathing the Eurythmics and my indifference to most of what I’ve heard of Lennox’s solo work, I’ve turned around on No More ‘I Love You’s. And honestly, that’s great. Sometimes it takes a piece of art to show you how you’d got another piece of art wrong.

Blue Jay, incidentally, is well worth seeing. I didn’t really care for the revelation in the final act, but the relationship between the two leads all the way up to that moment felt very real and true. And as I said, it’s the work of people who understand the era in which the characters grew up and how it shaped them.

Songs from the back of the cupboard

This was kind of fun, if a little self-indulgent. Maybe I’ll do it again.

The other night I was playing around with a slow minor-key chord sequence, and it reminded me of a song I wrote and recorded around eight years ago. It came out as the B-side of a single I did for a short-lived project called Board of Fun, run by my friend and Watertown Carps bandmate Yo Zushi.

Board of Fun was an old-school pen-and-ink zine, with specially commissioned articles and artwork, and it in turn spawned a website and the Board of Fun Singles Club. Every month, Yo released download-only single under the BoF banner. I was one of the people who put out a Board of Fun single before the project ran out of steam. It was a two-song release: a Fleetwood Mac-via-Jonathan Wilson kind of thing called Little Differences, and a slower, piano-led B-side called Can You Explain. The new piece I was working on the other night reminded me of the latter, so I dug the Cubase project out and had a listen.

It’s a weird thing to listen to your own work after enough time has passed that you can hear it more or less objectively, as if it were someone else’s doing. OK, while it was evidently a sincere piece of work, it wasn’t my finest melody in the verses; it starts high-ish but quickly drops down low in a way that’s tough to sing, and it has a few of my usual odd note choices. It was pretty clear, too, that I’d botched the tuning of the snare drum (all pingy and boxy – like a military snare. Not right for the song at all). But other than that, I was surprised by the production, in a good way.

The best decision I made in relation to the song was not to sing it. Instead, I asked my old schoolfriend Chris Martin to sing it. (This Chris Martin is not that Chris Martin; he can sing, for one thing.) Chris has a wider range than me, with more depth in the low end and more lung power; the slow tempo made hanging on to the end of some of the lines tricky for me, but it was no problem for Chris. I had enough sense to know when I was beaten and get a ringer in, and Chris sang it a hell of a lot better than I could have done, and he also added some lovely harmonies on the spot. Chris has lived in Qatar and now Texas for most of the years since; I really miss recording with him!

But there’s some other nice touches in there. Back in that period, I was recovering from a serious cardiac illness, living with my dad and working only part time. So I had a lot of time to write and record, and the space to leave gear set up in a spare bedroom that I didn’t have when I moved into a one-bed flat in London a few months later. Since I had two amps then, and the space to put them in, I developed a taste for stereo set-ups to record heavily tremolo rhythm parts: pan them hard left and right, and the effect is a little like a having a Leslie speaker that you’re in the middle of.

A stereo-tremolo guitar can fill out a recording on its own, but I used it more for density and texture. The song was mainly piano-led – unusual for me since my abilities are so limited, but it needed a piano as it was based on a chord that’s tough to capture on guitar. I think it’s kind of a G major (right hand) superimposed on D minor (left hand), but I don’t exactly recall at this point. I added guitar arpeggios in the choruses, harmonised left and right, using open strings to expand the chords a little: a trick I still love now, and thought I’d started doing later. The drums are quite interesting in their way, too – very slow half-time feel, but with an 8th/16th note hi-hat part that I played with two hands (snare was right hand).

All of which is to say, it’s far from a great song, but it’s got more going for it than I would have remembered at this remove. It’s easy to forget about a lot of what you do if you’ve been writing a while, as I have; you’re more excited by your recent material and while you hang on to your favourite older songs – the ones that you still play live – you forget about the rest, or assume they’re no good. And while I definitely don’t rate this among the best 20 or even 30 songs I’ve written, it’s not actually a bad one.

I polished up the mix slightly, using close-miked snare samples to improve the drum sound (it’s a recording of the same snare drum, but tuned better, and velocity matched as close as I could manage), and updated the file that’s on my Soundcloud. All being well, it’s embedded below for the curious.

I’ve Never Heard… Falling Into You by Celine Dion

We’re back! And no – this is not an April Fool. Here’s another one of my occasional posts on canonical and/or huge-selling records that I never got round to hearing in full. This time, we’re shunning the critical canon and going pop.

At one point, this was going to be a post on Garth Brooks – to really plug a gap in my knowledge of ultra-successful music. I mean, regarding Brooks I knew nothing at all other than: Stetson, stage shows, millions of records sold, Chris Gaines.

But Chris Molanphy on Hit Parade did a Brooks episode that filled those gaps in my knowledge, and frankly left me uninterested in hearing any more. So I decided to go with an ultra-successful pop record instead. Whitney I discounted – at least for the time being – on the basis of her having pretty widespread critical appreciation, especially now. So it was a toss-up between Shania and Céline. I went with Céline. Seemed like there’d be more to dig into. Let’s dig in, then.

*

Well known and widely read it may be, but Carl Wilson’s 2007 book Let’s Talk About Love, an examination of Celine Dion’s 1997 album of the same name, feels like a period piece these days.

As he says himself, Wilson is not a poptimist by instinct. Not, at least, when he first wrote his book as part of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of slim volumes on classic albums. Wilson grew up an indie kind of guy, and his dislike for Dion and her music was sharpened by the fact that he lived in Montreal – in Dion’s Francophone heartland – when the success of Titanic made her truly inescapable. His book, then, was a critique of his own tastes and that of self-declared indie hipsters as much it was as a critique of Dion’s music. It was an attempt to reach a poptimistic position on an artist that indie fans routinely held in contempt by a writer to whom it didn’t come naturally.

Now, to generalise hugely for a second, music fans who are younger than me – which is to say Millennials* and Zoomers – don’t have a rockist indoctrination to shake off that Wilson and I had (or have – it’s always a work in progress). They like what they like, and that’s frequently a bit of everything, from pop to progressive metal. Now they’re at an age where they have achieved media prominence and get to write books, books such as Wilson’s don’t need to be written anymore.

That Celine Dion’s music needs no aesthetic defence in 2021, then, is one of two starting points for this piece. The other is that – obviously – I’m not familiar with her music at album length, despite the album I’ve picked to write about, 1996’s Falling Into You, having sold somewhere around 22 million copies, including possibly one to my mum, if I’m not misremembering. It was certainly in the house.

Of course, saying something needs no critical defence doesn’t mean that I’m going to like all of it. Simply that, I won’t be discussing where pop sits in an aesthetic hierarchy compared to rock, jazz, folk or any other kind of music, because that whole idea is dumb. And in 2021, that much shouldn’t need saying.

So here goes. Let’s fall into Falling Into You.

*

It starts big. Really big. Jim Steinman big.

Chris Molanphy, the aforementioned writer and presenter of Slate’s Hit Parade podcast, recently did a deep dive on Steinman. He’s a braver man than I. Steinman’s songs are high-calorie confections, too rich to be enjoyed in quantity, in sequence or on repeat. Even getting through It’s All Coming Back to Me Now once for this piece was a bit of a slog for me, unused as I am to the Steinman diet. The unedited version that begins Falling Into You – seven and a half minutes long – is a minute or two more than I needed, and the five-minute radio edit is an improvement.

That said, there’s much to be admired here. Dion’s voice is a subject we’re going to return to again and again in this piece, but if you want to hear one song that shows off what she can do, pretty much her full range is here, and it’s incredibly impressive. Most importantly for an artist who’s often been accused of peddling fake emotion, I believe her: on this song, every howl and every whisper lands as sincere.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that I believe Dion has experienced such operatic emotions in her own relationships. It’s always a mistake to assume the artist necessarily writes or performs from personal experience (another subject we’ll come back to) or that the first person “I” in a song is the same as the singer’s own perspective. But while I’m listening to It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, I don’t experience a disconnect between text and performer. It never rings false to me. That is, I think, pretty key to selling a Steinman song, and it’s a real skill – one that Dion’s detractors have never really credited her with.

The production and playing are as impressive as Dion’s vocal. Obviously, everyone featured on a Celine Dion record is going to be a top-drawer musician, but it’s interesting listening to this so soon after doing one of these posts on Springsteen – one of Steinman’s all-consuming influences – to compare Bruce’s and Jim’s music.

Springsteen’s songs may be epic and stadium-sized, but they always sound like they’re being played by a bunch of doofy bar-band guys. Take Bruce’s pianist Roy Bittan out of the E Street Band, though, and give him Tim Pierce, Eddie Martinez, Jimmy Bralower and Kenny Aronoff to play with, and the effect is very different. From the opening basso-profundo chord, Bittan is here less doofy bar-band guy, more Wagnerian piano-forte overlord. Since they were recording in late 1995 and not, say, 1987, the drums and guitars commit no grave lapses of taste. But Martinez does do something rather adventurous and flashy with his whammy bar early on – it’s a detail, not featured loudly, but it’s a reminder that this is the guy who had widdly-widdly-widdled all over Run-DMC’s Rock Box, fifteen years before.

I’m not sure when the phenomenon of multiple producers on a single album became a thing, but it’s evidently something that began a little earlier than I’d imagined; Falling Into You lists eight different production teams. After It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, Bittan, Steinman and Steven Rinkoff (Steinman’s long-time recording engineer) exit the stage for a while, and David Foster takes over.

Now, Foster has had a hand in some great records. As great as Boz Scaggs’s Jojo. As great as Earth, Wind & Fire’s After the Love Has Gone. But on the whole, Foster’s discography, especially as a producer, is a dispiriting list. This is a guy who worked with Michael Bolton multiple times.

On Falling Into You, his first production vehicle is a Diane Warren song. My cup runneth over.

Because You Loved Me, from the film Up Close and Personal with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer, is the sort of song that gives Celine Dion a bad name. She agreed to record it, I suppose, and so is author of her own misfortune, but still. Of course, I knew the song – have heard it hundreds of times, in fact – but it’s even more oppressive when listened to closely than it is heard on the radio in the background.

This record does not have a hair out of place. The sheer amount of industrial effort that goes into making a record like this is evident in every note, and you can’t help but think: all that expertise, all that time, all that work, for this? There is, as with every Warren love song, no reality here. No musical jagged edges, no lyric that suggests a genuinely human point of view – nothing personal or idiosyncratic. No sentiments that haven’t been worn smooth like a shiny pebble. Dion does a professional job with it, as you’d expect, but the overall effect is emetic. Let’s move swiftly on. We’ll have to deal with Foster again later, so I’ll keep my powder dry for now.

Falling Into You, the title track, is one I had mixed feelings about at the time. On the one hand, it sounded very, very different – in a good way – to the rest of pop radio in 1996, with its Latin American percussion, martial snare rolls and prominent cavaquinho, and I appreciated the fact that Dion was willing to undersing for an entire song if the moment called for it (those who criticise her for oversinging – which she is guilty of at times – seldom praise her when she doesn’t).

On the other hand, its intimacy was bound to make a 14-year-old boy go “urgh”, and the fact that this was Celine Dion – only in her twenties, but clearly not an artist aimed at teenagers – getting all sensual and breathy made it all the more uncomfortable. That the song featured a Careless Whisper-style saxophone solo just added to the problems.

Today, saxophone apart, I think the song is really quite lovely. The backing track is, apparently, the same one as the Marie Claire D’Ubaldo original, including her backing vocals. There’s not a lot to choose between the two recordings. Dion’s vocal is, as you’d expect, smoother and more virtuosic; D’Ubaldo is a little more fragile, occasionally just slightly flat. What a contrast, though, to the vacuous Because You Loved Me. Wilson talks a couple of times in his book about how much more comfortable Dion seems when singing in French – how much better a singer she sounds – and we’ll put the hypothesis to the test later. But listening to Falling Into You, I wonder if it’s not as much to do with having a text she relates to as it is simply a French/English thing. Dion’s said herself how much she loved these lyrics, and you can tell that from her performance of them.

Make You Happy is by Andy Marvel [insert Andrew Marvell/To His Coy Mistress joke for the Eng Lit majors], who’d scored a big hit a year before as producer and co-writer of Diana King’s Shy Guy. It starts with a florid piano fakeout, but Make You Happy is, like Shy Guy, a reggae song, or a species of it. It’s reggae as understood by groups like Ace of Base: programmed R&B-ish drums, an offbeat guitar skank and just enough syncopated movement in the bass to suggest Jamaican music, while remaining at heart a Euro-pop record. Dion sounds like she’s having quite a good time singing it, particularly the verses, during which she gets to stay low in her range, where her rather pointy voice is at its fullest and warmest.

It’s hard to feel strongly about this kind of thing one way or another. It could do with a middle eight, or losing a minute of its length, but perhaps what this kind of record really needs is the blank affect of a Linn Berggren vocal; Dion’s effervescence gets a little wearying after four and a half minutes, which include a chunky 30-second fadeout.

Seduces Me, all sincerity and Spanish guitar, finds Dion back in breathy mode. Written by John Sheard and Dan “Sometimes When We Touch” Hill (I know. We won’t go there), its main problem seems to me a mismatch between performance and text. Halfway through the song, the softly picked guitars are joined by drums and bass. They’re not ’80s-style enormo-drums, as you may have expected, but they still act as a cue for Dion to ramp up in volume and intensity.

The thing that can make much of Dion’s music predictable and a bit samey (and this is true of many artists’ music, in all honesty) is the predictable shape of the recordings in terms of arrangement and vocal delivery. It doesn’t matter how hushed the opening is when you know that three minutes later, Dion will be projecting at full volume, drums will be crashing and reverberating, and politely distorted guitars will be chugging away in the background, while strings saw portentously on top. I like Falling Into You (the title track) precisely because it rejects this template for something less generic. The arrangement of Falling Into You (for which Marie Claire D’Ubaldo and her production team deserve most of the credit, in fairness) grows organically from and is thematically appropriate to the song, both musically and lyrically. Perhaps Seduces Me was intended to play to the Think Twice audience. The difference is that, while Think Twice is a breakup song where a degree of melodrama is natural, or even welcome, Seduces Me is a come-on. It’s rarely a good idea to get your partner in the mood by screeching at them about how hot they make you. Frankly, that’s red-flag behaviour.

Next up, a cover of Eric Carmen’s All By Myself – one of the ur power ballads. The Carpenters’ Goodbye to Love was released three years before All By Myself, granted, but where the Carpenters’ record married sentimental ballad and distorted rock guitar solo (for which inclusion Richard Carpenter received hate mail), Carmen brought together sentimental ballad, big drums and solid, four-square weight. It’s a slow and stately trudge of a song. Bring all those elements together, and you have the power ballad as we know it today.

By the time Dion recorded her cover of All By Myself, the form had long since been codified. The key to a successful power ballad in the 1990s was to strip back some of the excesses the form had been subjected to in the 1980s: underplay the “power” aspect a little – dial back the reverb and processing on the instrument sounds, and keep it a little more raw and organic. In other words, to blur the distinction a little between power ballad and plain old ballad.

Unfortately, that’s not what happened here. Instead, producer David Foster (sigh) empties his bag of studio goo all over the song, mixing together sounds and techniques that had long since become cliches through overuse. There are some ghastly choices here: synth sounds that were dated when the record was released and are laughable now, drums that are cavernous but too undermixed to support Dion’s skyscraping vocal, choirs (or god help us choir pads) that are wholly extraneous and do nothing but signpost their own unreality. It’s bewildering this record got made this way in 1995.

When evaluating a commercially successful but artistically disappointing record, there will always be some whose rebuttal is: well, it sold a gajillion copies, you can’t argue with success. And that’s true up to a point. But I’m sorry, this is Celine Dion singing All By Myself. Any producer – I really do mean any producer – could have paired this artist with this song and had a massive hit with it. Some would also have made a decent record at the same time. Foster didn’t.

What he did do was to go for the iconic. To which end, he challenged Dion to hit that note. And what a note it is: a throat-shredding half-tone climb from E5 to F5 on the “more” of “anymore”, as the key rises from A to Db. Her voice clearly suffers under the strain, and she has always dropped the key substantially in live performance to avoid damaging her vocal cords, but as a once-and-once-only moment, it’s certainly impressive. Perhaps other producers wouldn’t have dared her to go there (Carmen’s original stays in the same key for the outro) and we wouldn’t have that moment, but one note doesn’t redeem an entire track, and ultimately Foster made a barely passable record out of a great song, despite having a singer of fearsome technical ability to work with.

We move on from that dissapointment to probably the album’s nadir. Declaration of Love sounds like someone called in Paul Schaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band to play the backing track. Ric Wake, who produced Make You Happy, is back as producer and, boy, does he have a stinker. The R&B-flavoured horn-rock sound of imperial-phase Phil Collins seems to be the template here, with the brass credited to “George Whitty & the G.W. Horn Machine”.

Fantastic name apart, these people (if people they be, not synth patches – I’m not wholly convinced they are real, so plastic and tame do the horns sound) are not the Phenix Horns by a long chalk, and the production choices betray no indication that Wake had listened to any new music since 1990 at the latest. The bass tone is that horrid, super-hyped mega-deep but annoyingly clicky active tone you used to get on Sting and Seal records in the nineties, while the lead guitar sounds like a bad Clapton impression.

Saddled with a lemon of a song and a pudding of an arrangement, Dion falls back on her worst instinct as a singer: if the material isn’t there, go big in the performance. From her opening “Come on, wooooh!” to her adlibs during another long fadeout, the effect is punishing. It’s the inverse of her work on It’s All Coming Back to Me Now: she completely fails to sell the lyric or the emotion of the song. Granted, she was given lines like “Just like Juliet belonged to Romeo/You can stay prepared that I won’t be letting you go” to work with, but still. I’m amazed this one got through preproduction with no one binning it.

At the halfway stage, then, we’re not doing so well. Despite my best efforts to be generous in my assessment, we’ve seen Dion and her team hit the mark squarely only with It’s All Coming Back to Me Now and Falling Into You, and score a glancing blow with Make You Happy, while notching up a lot of misses. How will we get on with Side B?

A promotional single in Mexico and Germany, Dreamin’ of You leads off side B. It’s an adult-contemporary love song, written and produced by Canadian guitarist, songwriter and producer Aldo Nova. With Nova programming the drums and playing much of the arrangement himself, it’s a little airless and lacking in interaction, but the song is a solid construction that gets a lot out of its parade of E major chords. Again, it’s a little dated in 1995, but it pretty much nails what it’s going for.

Another Aldo Nova song, this time produced by David Foster, I Love You is a doo-wop pastiche that might have fit on one of Mariah Carey’s early records. Foster’s production is once again a disgrace: what would otherwise be a sweet little retro album track is pumped up with steroids and made pretty tough to take.

Nova’s song is knowingly silly; in 1996, no one wrote a chorus like “I love you, please say you love me too” without their tongue at least a little bit in their cheek. It’s practically Paul McCartney’s Silly Love Songs. A small-band arrangement of this song to complete the old-school vibe would have worked fine. It could have been done a cappella, even. But Foster won’t do subtle and he won’t do small, so all the sounds are huge and fake and airless, with nothing organic in the mix save for Dion’s vocal and some electric guitar by Michael Thompson. Even all the harmonies are Dion’s, so there’s no human interaction in the arrangement at all. Nova throws a key change into the middle eight, and another one going into the final repeat choruses, but it’s not enough to stop the song feeling hugely over-extended at five and a half minutes long, and the mismatch between form and content sinks the song entirely.

If That’s What it Takes allows us the opportunity to test Wilson’s hypothesis about Dion being a better singer in French, as it’s an English-language remake of her song Pour que tu m’aimes encore (So that You’ll Love Me Again), which was released on her 1995 Francophone album D’Eux (About Them – I’m learning French at the moment. Can you tell?).

There is a difference. Her singer is gentler, more lyrical, more legato. And yes, I prefer the French version. It’s not even close. But, how much of that is ascribable to the differences between how the two languages must be sung and how much is specific to Dion herself, I can’t untangle. An expert in Francophone pop may be able to tell you more.

(Surprisingly, the song was a hit in its French version in the UK; as a rule, UK record buyers haven’t always been that receptive to non-Anglophone songs until recent years. I suppose, being fair, a lot of Jamaican music with lyrics that aren’t immediately intelligible to most white British listeners have been successful in the UK, going back at least as far as Desmond Dekker. But the only other hit I can think of in the 1990s with lyrics in French is one verse of Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry’s 7 Seconds, unless you count Encore Une Fois by Sash, which I wouldn’t.)

Anyway, to get back to If That’s What It Takes, it’s fine. Its melody is perhaps a little nursery-rhymeish (which I find much less of a problem in French), but it’s undeniably hooky, and writer Jean-Jacques Goldman’s production – a sort of adult-contemporary dance pop – works a lot better than David Foster’s attempts to pass off his programmed backing tracks as the work of a band.

I Don’t Know is another song from D’Eux translated into English. This is one of the most musically interesting pieces on the record. It’s in 12/8 time, but with a percussion track from a drum machine that suggests 4/4 and a simple synth pad providing the only harmonic backing, the chord changes seem to fall at odd moments when you first hear the song. It takes until the chorus comes along to get used to what’s happening and or the entry of a guitar playing arpeggios in the second verse to properly orient the ear.

From there, it gets ever more stadium-epic, sounding oddly like Wall-era Pink Floyd; Dion’s evocation of “Brutal machines, unbending laws” even sounds like a Roger Waters line. It’s way over the top, but Dion sings it with customary full-bore commitment and pretty much gets away with it. She’s never averse to going big, in French or English, and whether it succeeds or fails seems to rest so often on whether she feels a personal investment in what she’s singing. As with It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, the litmus test is whether you believe her – and I do.

It’s followed by another cover. A biggie. River Deep, Mountain High.

Unlike, I suspect, a lot of people, I don’t regard covering River Deep, Mountain High as sacrilege. Far from it. I’ve never been a fan of the Phil Spector wall of sound, and always felt that the song was a comparative trifle, completely buried under Spector’s murk, the whole enterprise only partially redeemed by the ferocity of Tina Turner’s vocal. A Céline Dion version produced and arranged by Jim Steinman sounded, actually, like quite a good idea; a smart marriage of singer, song and production sensibility.

Better, unfortunately, in theory than reality. The whole thing has an unpleasantly synthetic unreality; despite the presence of human musicians Tim Pierce on guitar, Kasim Sutton on bass and Jimmy Bralower on drums, it sounds like it was all done on MIDI keyboards. The horn stabs and sound effects are a very bad idea. Once again, you have to give Dion credit for a full-tilt vocal, especially in the last minute or so of the track, but this is not the version to make me finally get this song. It still seems to me to be held in unwarrantedly high regard.

Another Jim Steinman production, this time in partnership with Jeff Bova, Call the Man was written by Andy Hill and Pete Sinfield, the team behind Dion’s English-language breakthrough Think Twice. Hill and Sinfield are an interesting pair. Sinfield had been King Crimson’s lyricist (and occasional synth player) in the early seventies, but tacked towards pop in the early 1980s after hooking up with Hill. As a partnership, they then wrote songs for such non-avant-garde pop acts as Cliff Richard, Leo Sayer, Dollar and Bucks Fizz, gaining a number-one single with the latter’s covertly anti-Thatcher Land of Make Believe.

There’s not much that’s subtle about Call the Man, however. The “man” seems pretty plainly Jesus, a point underscored by Dion’s performance of the song at the 1997 World Music Awards with a 30-piece gospel choir. As big gospel-pop songs go, it’s definitely not a bad one; Sinfield and Hill write their pop with a certain level of intelligence, and Sinfield’s opening verse contains the striking image, “across the floor, dreams and shadows play like wind-blown refugees”, so he was at least trying. The guitar solo by Ottmar Liebert is rather nice too. Another decent effort.

And so, with Celine at 6-6-1 for the album, we come to Fly, the closing track. This is another translation of a song (Vole) from D’Eux. Halfway between a Disney ballad and chanson, with a very late-1980s bell-like synth piano sound, this one also sounds better in French. That said, the sheer range of Dion’s vocal here is impressive, and the arrangement and vocal sensibility are in harmony with each other in a way that’s not always the case elsewhere on Falling Into You. I’m feeling in a good mood, so reckon Dion finishes the album 7-6-1 – a winning season, if only just. She’s not making the play-offs with that kind of record.

*

Why did I pick Falling Into You rather than Let’s Talk About Love? Not because Falling Into You celebrated its 25th birthday a week or so back. I hadn’t looked closely enough at the release dates when I picked the record to write about to notice that it was shortly to hit that landmark. It was purely a coincidence.

There were, instead, three reasons, really. First, there’s already a discourse around Let’s Talk About Love, thanks to Carl Wilson’s book. He concentrates on the record as a cultural artefact rather than a musical one, but nonetheless I couldn’t come to it completely fresh having read his work on the album. The other reason is that, as big as Falling Into You and its singles were, they don’t have the continuing cultural omnipresence of My Heart Will Go On and, by extension, Let’s Talk About Love. I didn’t want to deal with all that baggage: Titanic. The Oscars. Elliott Smith. Falling Into You represents a period where Céline Dion had already become one of the most successful musicians on the planet and so was in something akin to a business-as-usual phase of her career, as much as sales of 20 million can be considered “usual”. That phenomenon was interesting to me. Finally, and this may be a suprise, it’s her biggest-selling studio album, in terms of both verified units and estimated total sales.

So, as a business-as-usual mega-selling Céline Dion record, how does it hold up?

It’s not a wholly satisfying, cohesive listening experience. It’s too long, for a start; 14 songs and 67 minutes long, in the version I heard, with eight out of the 14 songs lasting more than four and a half minutes. This kind of bloat was common in the second half of the 1990s, once the record-making habits instilled by the limitations of vinyl had been shrugged off and forgotten by the industry.**

The inclusion of so many songs in so many different styles that contributes to that bloat was presumably a deliberate attempt to appeal to as many people as possible. Those who liked their Dion big and epic got the Jim Steinman tracks; those who liked her singing adult-contemporary ballads got the David Foster songs; those who liked Ace of Base-style Swedish reggae got Make You Happy.

The record is at its best, though, when there’s less sense that the songs are going for a precisely defined target market, and are instead a little more idiosyncratic: the title track and the English translations If That’s What it Takes and I Don’t Know. These are good enough, particularly Falling Into You, to bump the overall score up a mark or two, to slightly more than five out 10.

What’s a shame is that it’s always evident, when listening to Falling Into You, how a sympathetic producer could have made a really good record with Céline Dion. Not by forcing her into a non-pop box, excising the silliness, goofiness and occasional lapses of taste that make her who she is, or by making her ultra-contemporary and cool, but by being more selective with material, more ruthless with editing, and avoiding the kind of sickly arrangements favoured by David Foster.

Falling Into You is not, I suspect, a record to convince the non-fan. It didn’t convince this non-fan, at least. But it did show me that Dion’s music has more aspects to it than I’d realised.

Still from the Falling Into You video

*Millennials are getting on a bit now. The oldest millenials – hi! – will soon hit forty.

**Running times of records were for many years circumscribed by the physical limitations of the medium when releasing albums on vinyl. You couldn’t fit more than around 23 minutes on one side of a record without sacrificing an excessive amount of low end. As a consequence, most classic rock-era double albums fit comfortably on one CD and are only a few minutes longer than 1990s “single album” releases like Falling Into You.

Back in Miraval

Hi all. I’m sorry for the extremely sporadic posting of late. Since the new year, I’ve been taking on some freelance work, and I’ve often had to do it at weekends, so it’s been eating into my blogging time. I’m working on a long I’ve Never Heard post, and was hoping to have it ready for this weekend, to coincide with a landmark anniversary for the album, as well as the eighth birthday of the blog itself. It’ll probably surprise you. I hope it’s worth the wait. I haven’t quite managed to finish it, but in view of it being Songs from So Deep’s eighth anniversary, I did want to post something, even if it’s quick and off the cuff. So here goes:

Chris O’Leary’s 64 Quartets is a fantastic occasional blog series on four-piece bands. Proper analytical, long-read, deep-dive stuff. Before this week, he’d covered Booker T and the MG’s, the Jamies, the Benny Goodman Quartet, Queen and the Boston/4AD diaspora: Pixies, Throwing Muses, Belly and the Breeders. This week, he turned his attention to the Bangles.

The Bangles are one of those bands that I always meant to check out at full album length, but I’ve never quite got round to it. I do know a fair amount of their material, and really like much of it. After reading O’Leary’s piece, I’m determined to put that right, while already knowing that some of what I’m going to hear is, um, unrepresentative of the band as it was in real life, for reasons O’Leary makes clear with the aid of quotes from the band members:

“We would go in as a band, all four of us in a room, and lay down the song,” Vicki [Peterson] told Vintage Guitar. “Then, in classic ’80s style, with the guidance and decisions of Kahne, we would systematically replace everything we’d just done! Every guitar line was replaced with various schmutz. Even Susanna [Hoff]’s rhythm tracks.” To Craig Rosen, she said “we’d isolate the drums, and we’d sound like the Rolling Stones, and then we’d come back out and every single note on that record is replaced with a trigger—snares that Debbi hit are now triggered by another sound.”

“He made us more aware of what our flaws were then the things we were good at,” Hoffs recalled to DeYoung. Then Kahne started bringing in “ringer guitar players to do certain things,” Vicki said. “At one point, I’d had to leave the studio for an emergency, and I came back, and he’d had his guy show up and do a solo. It was the backwards thing on ‘September Gurls.’ I hate to burst your bubble, I didn’t play that.”

Reading this put me in mind of passages from Robert Forster’s Grant & I, his memoir of his life in the Go-Betweens, in which he talks about making Spring Hill Fair at Studio Miraval in France with producer John Brand (Aztec Camera, the Cult), who was on a mission to make a “proper record” with them:

What constituted such a record in John’s eyes became apparent when, instead of miking the band’s instruments and starting to record, we spent three days getting a bass drum sound. Then started the dreaded discussion of live verses programmed drums and suddenly we were face to face with eighties recording hell. Little was getting done as John manouvered Lindy [Morrison, the band’s drummer] into accepting the use of drum machines. The rest of the band were trapped, literally, in Miraval as the clock ticked and things nosedived into disaster.

The era of the obsession with timekeeping was upon us, automated recording and mixing desks and synthesisers forcing the requirement of absolute accuracy in the drums; no “feel” was allowed.

Later in the book, you can almost hear Forster groan despondently as he describes recording Tallulah‘s Right Here and Cut it Out with Craig Leon and Cassell Webb as like being “back at Miraval”.

Now, as any fan of either band knows, both the Bangles and the Go Betweens could play live just fine. No, neither of them contained any members that could have hung in there on a Steely Dan session, but that’s not the only measure of a musician’s worth. In fact, there’s only one meaningful measure for anyone in a band (as opposed to someone looking to make a career playing sessions): can they execute their own music? It’s pretty clear they all could, not least Lindy Morrison, whose 11/8 beat on Grant McLennan’s Cattle and Cane I wrote about here, and Debbi Peterson, who on the clip I linked to above of the Bangles on Saturday Night Live lays down one of the biggest, meanest backbeats you’re ever likely to hear.

So why did they have it harder than, say, R.E.M. or any other serviceable but not virtuosic 1980s indie rock band? OK, so the Bangles were operating at a higher level of fame and success than the Go-Betweens ever attained, or even R.E.M. at that stage in their careers, and mainstream record-making has always been more exacting and technically focused than indie production. But the answer is surely in part because both bands featured women in key instrumental roles (Go-Betweens) or all the instrumental roles (the Bangles, obvs). Forster doesn’t mention sexism from producers in his book, but it’s possible he just didn’t fully notice it. Nonethless, it’s striking that a band like R.E.M. were allowed to play their own music by a big-name, big-time producer like Don Gehman while the presence of Morrison was deemed surplus to requirements by John Brand, and later by Craig Leon, and the Bangles were all but kept off their own records by David Kahne.

So, there’s not really a thesis statement here, other than the fact that musicians, and female musicians especially, have historically been treated disrespectfully by a lot of producers. But I think it’s unarguable if you listen to early Bangs/Bangles recordings like Getting Out of Hand, and then to, say, Manic Monday, that something was lost by Kahne’s not allowing them to play their own music. As for the Go-Betweens, Spring Hill Fair‘s accomodations with mainstream pop record-making don’t harm the songs unduly (Bachelor Kisses, agonised over and re-recorded as it was, is magnificent), but Right Here, off Tallulah, is a wonderful song disfugured by its lumpen, ugly drum programming – contrast the studio cut with this urgent, energetic live performance). O’Leary’s Bangles piece is well worth checking out particularly because he allows the band, particularly Vicki and Debbi Peterson, to tell their own story eloquently.

Multiverse, save me: Love Story (Taylor’s Version) – Taylor Swift

In multiverse posts, I examine alternate recordings of songs. Yes, I know I’m a nerd.

For any artist, power – and money-making potential – lies in owning your masters. If you own your master recordings, you can fully control what is done with your work. If you don’t want it licensed for use in this film or in that advert, you can say no. Moreover, the revenue earned by your records goes to you, not to a company that then pays you a small percentage of what they’re making.

Under the terms of her record deal with Big Machine, Taylor Swift did not own her masters. This was not in any way exceptional; few artists actually do. Young musicians, signing their first contract, are negotiating from a position in which they have no power; granting ownership of master recordings to a label is almost always a necessary price of signing a record deal.

In 2019, Scooter Braun, manager of Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato and others, bought Big Machine. The deal to buy the label included Swift’s masters, which the label owned. Braun subsequently sold them to a private equity firm called Shamrock Holdings, owned by the estate of Roy E. Disney, for a sum said to be in the region of $300 million dollars. Under the terms of the deal, Braun continues to derive a percentage of the earnings from the masters. He is, we can presume, a very rich man.

Swift had, by her own account, been trying to buy her masters for a while, and she was furious at the deal. Coverage of the story made the mainstream press, with lots of ink spilled over what it all signified, who was the goodie, who was the baddie, etc.*

Early on in the dispute, Swift signalled her intent to rerecord her old catalogue, or at least part of it, so that she could own the masters to her old songs at last, derive fair value from them, and control how and when they’re used. And so, two years later, we have this: a re-recorded version of Love Story (parenthetically titled Taylor’s Version – that is, not Shamrock’s version). A new version of Fearless, her second album and pop breakthrough, will follow next month.

Love Story in its original form is only 13 years old, and pop music mix topologies haven’t changed as much as you’d think in that time.** Even so, the two versions of Love Story are appreciably different, despite sharing an identical arrangement. This is because the new version of Love Story is, to my ears at least, rather less pop than the original, and significantly more indie.

Over the last year, Swift has worked extensively with the National’s guitarist Aaron Dessner, and from him she appears to have developed a taste for reverb, which the National slather all over their recordings to give an air of profundity to their lugubriousness.

A reverb haze on everything is ubiquitous in indie, but is seldom to be heard in pop music. The density of the mix topologies works against it. OG Love Story is, as these things go, relatively organic, but the wall of sound in the choruses (nine acoustic guitars, according to producer Nathan Chapman, plus nearly as many electrics, as well as fiddle, pedal steel, splashy hi-hats and backing vocals) renders long reverb tails an unwelcome distraction, if a creative mix engineer were actually able to make them audible above the wall of sound in the first place.

Taylor’s Version of Love Story, then, is most noticeably different from the original in its treatment of the vocal. There is audible reverb throughout, which is especially prominent in the first verse. The harmony vocals are downplayed throughout in favour of the lead, and that lead vocal is heavily Auto-Tuned, in a way the original lead vocal surprisingly wasn’t. We’ll get back to that.

The results are, if you’ll pardon the pun, mixed. There are things I prefer about the new version. I like that it sounds more like it was recorded in a shared physical space; the disjunct between the dry vocal and wet drums in the original recording is unpleasant and jarring to my ears. I think Dessner has overdone it with the reverb, as usual, but there’s been an attempt to make the mix coherent in terms of space, and it does work better than the 2008 recording.

However, the praise Swift has received for the greater level of control*** of the new vocal in many reviews strikes me as pretty clueless. Love Story was written when Swift was 16, and her youth is always apparent in the original recording – both in the song’s sentiment and the sound of Swift’s voice. The breathless, barely-in-control quality of the original vocal works in the song’s favour by getting it over some of the awkward turns of phrase: the lines that don’t have enough syllables to fit the metre, the lines that have too many, and the lines where an unnatural word or syllabel is stressed to fit the rhythm. The new Auto Tuned vocal is bland – the robotic sound of it doesn’t match the lyric or emotion of the song. It could have been delivered by any early-rounds American Idol contestant, and would have been subjected to the same brutal processing.

Whether Taylor’s Version of Love Story or any of the other songs from Fearless will supplant the originals – on radio or in the hearts of the fans – only time will tell. Early signs from fans are encouraging, but radio may be a tougher nut to crack in the long term. The Nathan Chapman-produced original was machine-tooled to work on radio, and it does work. The National’s sound – bigger low end, less mid-range info, lots of reverb – is more of a headphones/home-stereo kind of sound, so is less attractive to radio stations whose primary concern is being audible on a small stereo in the corner of a shop or office, or in a car. And those original versions are not like the original cuts of Star Wars that George Lucas pulled when he released his Special Editions. They’ll still be out there, winking at radio programmers who’ve loved them all this time.

Then there’s simple attachment and inertia. Despite Jeff Lynne’s best efforts, DJs are still playing the ELO recordings from the 1970s and ’80s, not the versions he’s recreated at home by himself, despite them being more or less identical. If anyone has the fan power to buck this trend, it’s Taylor Swift, but I remain sceptical that it can be done.

*My own take (simple version): the baddie is clearly Scooter Braun, who comes over as a complete prick.

But here’s the more complex version. Record deals with most labels are profoundly weighted in favour of the label in a way that would be judged illegal in almost any other industry. She’s been shafted, no doubt, and maybe a really sharp manager might have been able to do a better job for her when she was a kid, but probably not. As I said, all young artists get shafted.

However, old school label deals did pay off handsomely for a small percentage of artists, and Swift was one of those. She has an aboslutely gargantuan reported income and a considerable fortune that increases every year. If she wants to play the long game, she’ll have more than enough stashed away in five years to buy the masters from Shamrock, pretty much whatever their price. The only question will be, is she willing to pay it. But there’s a price for everything. The masters may increase in value, but they can’t go on tour, they can’t sell merchandise, and they have no claim on the money Swift makes from her post-Big Machine records, which it’s safe to assume will earn her tonnes more cash.

Re-recording your old songs is one way for Swift to try to regain control of her work, but it’s a very time-intensive way and, long term, there’s no guarantee it would be successful in terms of supplanting the old recordings, especially as she gets to songs released relatively recently, where the differences between an old and new versions would be minimal and the new recordings would benefit less from the curiosity factor that is undoubtedly helping Taylor’s Version of Love Story.

There’s also the opportunity-cost element: what writing and recording work isn’t Swift doing while she’s doing this? Surely cracking on with that will be more fulfiling, and with every radio play and Spotify stream, she’ll be closer to buying back her old masters in future, too.

**There are differences, of course, but a 2008 recording and 2021 recording have a lot more in common than a recording from, say, 1963 and 1976, 1982 and 1995, or 2000 and 2013.

***Her much the “control” comes from the singer’s performance and how much from the mixer is – literally – impossible for the listener to judge. The vocal is Auto-Tuned to within an inch of its life – that much will be apparent to basically every listener. But when mixing in the box, you can do almost anything to almost any musical element in the mix. That includes shortening the length of a given syllable by hundredths of seconds to make it tighter if you choose to. If you’re good at it, you can do it without notable artefacts, too. It’s simply not possible to tell, as the listener, exactly what editing and processing has been employed during the mix, and any critic who makes confident claims on behalf of Swift here is overstepping the limits of what they can know.

Thoughts on John and Beverley Martyn

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn by Graeme Thompson and Beverley Martyn’s Sweet Honesty: The Beverley Martyn Story. Here are some thoughts. I’m not really going into the music in depth here. I’ve written about John Martyn elsewhere on this blog several times if you’re looking for that. I’ve not gone into specifics about John Martyn’s abuse of Beverley; nonetheless, CW.

In 2001, thanks to James McKean playing me Fine Lines in the house we shared in Lewisham, I became a John Martyn fan, and picked up his entire seventies discography over the next two or three years.

It wasn’t until I saw Johnny Too Bad on BBC4 in around 2004 that I realised Martyn was not a nice guy, that his mellow-old-soak routine could turn on a dime into hostility and physical aggression. You could still see it and sense it, but his edge had by then been blunted by his health conditions; during the course of the documentary, he has his leg amputated, and over the next few years, largely wheelchair bound, he would grow hugely overweight and progressively more frail. At that point, he was mainly a danger to himself.

In the 1970s and 1980s, though, he was a danger to anyone who looked at him in a way he didn’t like, including, more than anyone, his first wife, Beverley.

The two had met in the late 1960s, when they were both up-and-coming singer-songwriters in the London folk scene. At the time, Beverley Kutner was the bigger name of the two. She had been in a fairly successful jug band called the Levee Breakers, released some singles on Deram Records (also home at the time to the still-obscure David Bowie), been offered a contract by EMI, which her boyfriend Bert Jansch advised her to turn down out (she believes out of professional jealousy), and been in a relationship with a visiting Paul Simon, which is how she ended up performing at Monterey Pop as the guest of Simon and Garfunkel and travelling all over the States, making contacts and meeting the great and the good.

John Martyn had not been at Monterey, he had not been out with famous folk stars, whether homegrown or international, nor had he hung out with Peter Fonda and David Crosby in LA. Mentored by Scottish singer-songwriter Hamish Imlach, a Rabelasian figure whom Martyn would increasingly resemble physically as he aged, Martyn moved to London in his late teens, scoring a deal with Island. Despite label boss Chris Blackwell’s belief in Martyn and his music, his first two albums were not successful, and didn’t really deserve to be. Martyn, unlike Jansch (a rival with whom Martyn more than once came to blows) or Nick Drake (a friend who seemed to bring out Martyn’s gentler, best side), did not arrive fully formed.

But for all her early successes, neither did Kutner. When she and Martyn pitched up in Woodstock, NY, to record what would become Stormbringer! in 1969, both were – being generous – improving singer-songwriters. Originally slated by Joe Boyd, her mentor, as a Beverley Martyn (the couple were newlyweds) solo album, it became instead a duo record, with John writing six of the album’s ten songs, and his fingerprints more evident on the finished product than hers.

Boyd didn’t like John Martyn all that much, as a man or a writer. There was no outright hostility between them at this point, but their relationship was edgy. Boyd came round to Stormbringer! during the course of production, and ended up thinking it was a decent album despite John’s involvement, but he’s expressed regret many times at how Beverley’s career became intertwined with John’s, to its detriment.

Released in February 1970, Stormbringer! is a record that’s promising and intermittently great rather than consistently accomplished. The band that Paul Harris (pianist and musical director for the sessions) assembled was superb, with Harvey Brooks on bass and top-tier drumming talent in the shape of the Mothers’ Billy Mundi, The Band’s Levon Helm and session great Herbie Lovell. But only a few of the songs are worthy of the stellar backing they received.

One of them, the title track, is magisterial – John Martyn’s greatest early song, with beautifully empathetic support from Harris’s piano and Lovell’s drums. Rollicking opener Go Out and Get It works well, as does John the Baptist. Both songs suggest a pretty heavy influence from The Band. But Traffic Light Lady and Woodstock are twee and forgettable, and Would You Believe Me fails to nail the heavy, spooky mood it shoots for. Kutner’s songs are, on the whole, less successful still, with static melodies and blue notes that don’t quite work. Sweet Honesty, arranged (presumably by Martyn and Harris) in a similar style to John the Baptist and Go Out and Get It, works best by placing more emphasis on groove, reducing the importance of lyric and tune. But at eight minutes, it overstays its welcome.

Stormbringer! is, then, almost certainly a better record as John and Beverley Martyn album than it would have been as a Beverley solo release. But knowing that Martyn elbowed his way into the picture then took over his wife’s artistic project is always there in the background, making listening to the record uncomfortable, as it appears this was an early manisfestation of the controlling and abusive behaviour he would exhibit for the rest of their marriage. Indeed, Beverley Martyn writes that it was during their time in Woodstock that Martyn was first violent towards her, after a party at which they met Bob Dylan.

The Road to Ruin was recorded and released in 1970, marking a busy 12 months for the Martyns. This time, they recorded at home base for many of the artists signed to Island and/or Joe Boyd’s Witchseason production company, Sound Techniques in Chelsea, with a band once again led by Harris and featuring Fairport’s Dave Pegg, Mike Kowalski, Alan Spenner and saxophonists Ray Warleigh and Dudu Pukwana.

It’s decidedly less of a rock album than Stormbringer! The drums are mixed lower, and the vibe generally – enhanced by the presence of saxophonists on the songs – is more jazzy, but Auntie Aviator at least (co-credited to John and Beverley, but claimed by Beverley as mainly her work) recreates the Stormbringer! template of pensive piano, woodily downtuned acoustic guitar and rock rhythm section.

In the end, the album’s most crucial tracks in John Martyn’s career were the acoustic Parcels (in which he sang low in his range, with a backing of his guitar, Harris’s piano and congas) and New Day, which features on double bass Danny Thompson, who would go on to be Martyn’s great musical partner throughout the seventies. Beverley, meanwhile, contributed her finest original song – Primrose Hill, a lovely evocation of early-seventies bohemian north London, which has been sampled by Norman Cook for North West Three, a track from 2004 Fatboy Slim album Palookaville. (Auntie Aviator, meanwhile, has been sampled by Bristolian hip-hop group Aspects.)

After The Road to Ruin, the Martyns largely stopped recording and gigging together, not that they’d ever done a lot of that. A full-band launch gig for Stormbringer! with Nick Drake in support at the Queen Elizabeth Hall had gone so badly, in John’s view at least, that he called it the most humiliating moment of his career, and blamed it on the lack of interplay between himself and other musicians.

The inescapable conclusion is that he was never much interested in being in a duo with his wife as any kind of permanent arrangement. Perhaps he muscled in simply not wanting to be overshadowed by Beverley or miss out on any opportunities Joe Boyd offered her. Once it became clear that it wasn’t going to give him what he wanted, he moved on. Coincidentally or not, it was then that he found the relationship with Danny Thompson and the improvisatory style melding jazz, folk and rock that would power his albums from Bless the Weather through to Live at Leeds, after which he would record One World and largely leave folk guitar picking behind*.

As ever with John Martyn, we have to somehow reconcile the often extraordinary music he made with his terrible personal behaviour. Reading Beverley Martyn’s book, or even Graeme Thompson’s Small Hours, is often harrowing. Martyn’s physical abuse of Beverley steadily escalated until she left him in 1979. Even after that, the abuse continued in the form of bare-legal-minimum maintenance payments that left her and their children broke in a dilapidated house in Heathfield, sometimes depending on charity from friends, including a visiting Art Garfunkel. Perhaps related to her treatment by John, Beverley Martyn has been through periods where she’s struggled with her mental health.

Some will, no doubt, use that as a means to dismiss her testimony regarding Martyn’s abuses. For me, the central charges all stick – Graeme Thompson includes them in his book without questioning their veracity, with more than enough corroborating witnesses who saw their relationship at close hand.

Which brings us circling back round again to this question that keeps coming up these days – what to do, as a longtime fan of Martyn’s work, about the fact that he behaved in ways that were both criminal and appalling?

Artistic legacies are not value neutral. Who gets remembered, whose work is preserved and made available for future generations, is not merely about whose work is the best, or the most morally pure, even. It is mediated by commerce: does it make financial sense to continue to preserve this digital archive?

Clearly, it will continue to be profitable to preserve John Martyn’s music. The fact that his songs have been covered by other, bigger-name, artists (most notably, Clapton’s version of May You Never) means that there will always be a stream of people coming to Martyn’s music through that connection. Others will hear of him having first become fans of Nick Drake, or perhaps Fairport Convention.

Martyn’s music will live on. He will not, no matter what some of his more neanderthal fans say, be cancelled by woke warriors and SJWs. They – we, if you want to hang those labels on me – don’t have that power. Never have, never will.

One could, in the truest sense of the word, cancel him (that is, one could choose to exclude his work from one’s personal canon, not listen to it, and endeavour not to give him brain space either – to live as though he never existed), but his work will be preserved by the industry for others to listen to. And others will, and they will be influenced by and copy what they hear; his Solid Air-era acoustic guitar style, that percussive slap on the strings, is already part of guitarist’s lexicon, as it’s such a useful halfway house between picking and strumming.

For me, my reaction to Martyn and his music is in a state of flux. I find myself thinking again and again of the wise conclusion from Ann Powers’s essay, What it’s Like Listening to Michael Jackson Now, written shortly after Leaving Neverland aired:

As I write now, my critic’s impulse to draw neat conclusions nearly overcomes me: I want to provide closure for you, the reader, and maybe even more so for myself. But if I’m going to genuinely represent what it’s like to listen to Michael Jackson after Leaving Neverland, I have to ask you to stay with me in an uncomfortable place. In some way, this is what criticism, what engaging with culture as a thinking person, always strives to do. Yet it’s so easy to stop short. To revel in the boldly stated conclusion. To indulge in the flush of strong positive feelings. To rest in the perceived authority of the self-appointed jurist and turn away from the role that a deeper engagement with culture, in all its imperfections and even moral shortcomings, can offer: the chance to be a trustworthy witness. If culture builds itself through revelations, explorations, secrets and lies, any response that doesn’t claim the contradictions gets it wrong.

https://www.npr.org/2019/05/11/722198385/before-and-after-listening-to-michael-jackson-and-accusers?t=1613551586694

As Powers says elsewhere in her essay, the challenge is to stay present while listening, if listening is what we choose to do. And, as I argued a couple of weeks ago in re Phil Spector, not to delude yourself into thinking that the art absolves the artist in any way. It can’t and it doesn’t. We must hold on to the fact that the artist’s art and his crimes are both irreduceable, ineradicable. They don’t separate neatly, and they are equal facets of the person. You can play death-of-the-author mind tricks with yourself if you want, but the simple fact is that John Martyn’s career depended on his wife’s support and domestic labour. His art – itself often domestic in scale and subject – resists any attempt to prise it free of the circumstances of its making. Listening to it is uncomfortable, even – perhaps especially – when it’s the art that he and Beverley created together.

*Interestingly, Beverley claims she wrote the hook of one of his greatest songs, Don’t Wanna Know from Solid Air, for which she never recieved credit or royalties. My tendency when reading her book is always to trust her testimony, but I struggle with this one a little, because in both tune and sentiment it seems so typical of John’s style. But if true, it was disgraceful behaviour by him.

Borders (Cruel Expectations) – James McKean and the Blueberry Moon

Six months ago, I wrote about the Spirited Away EP by James McKean and the Blueberry Moon, in which I play guitar.

Since that EP’s release in June, we’ve also released an album, Borders (Cruel Expectations), but I didn’t post about it at the time. At this remove, I can’t remember exactly why, but I suspect I felt like I’d been plugging my stuff too frequently, as I’d also put out a single and an EP with Mel during lockdown. But Borders deserves a plug or two, and it’s way overdue, so here goes.

It’s the third James McKean and the Blueberry Moon record, and it’s quite unlike the others. Previously, the band had been James, me and whoever we could rope in to help for live shows and recording. The songs on the first two albums were tracked at my dad’s house, my flat, James’s flat or One Cat studio, with a revolving cast of musicians. James and I were pretty creative with production; arrangements feature violins, double bass, pedal steel and touches of keyboard, as well as guitars, drums and electric bass. The downside was, though, it was hard to replicate some of the arrangements in a live setting and there was a noticeably different feel from song to song – inevitable when some of the tracks were recorded one instrument at a time by James and me, while others were tracked by a full band playing live in a studio. It’s amazing, frankly, the records are as coherent as they are, much of which is due to James’s talent for sequencing (and an excellent mastering job from Ben Zushi Rhodes on No Peace for the Wicked).

For his third album, James wanted to do something a bit different. These time, we set out to record all the songs live, with all the interaction between musicians that entails, and to retain the same band on everything. Jon Clayton, from the band Hurtling, was the recording engineer. The rhythm section was Jono Bell (formerly of the Ligers) on drums and Matt Lloyd (Southern Tenant Folk Union) on bass. Singer-songwriter Chris Brambley and I played electric guitar, and James played acoustic.

James’s vocals were overdubbed, as were occasional keyboard parts. Chris, Jono, Matt and I all pitched in with harmonies, as did Mel and singer/songwriter Jamie Whelligan. Basia Bartz from Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band played violin on two songs. But basically, it’s more of a rock album than a singer-songwriter record, especially compared to the previous two.

As I’ve written previously, progress on final mixes was slow until I was furloughed last April. Borders was the first project I finished during that period, and we released the record at the end of July last year.

I’m really proud of it, as I am of every album I’ve worked on with James. He’s an excellent singer and writer, and he covers a pretty wide stylistic territory. This album has hints of country, gospel and soul, as is usual for James. But there are also songs that suggest the Clash (on Home on High, there’s some of that London Calling swagger in Jono’s drumming), Haircut 100 (In the Twinkling of an Eye has Heywardian major sevenths and brass) and the Smiths (some Marr-esque jangle on Wine Dark Seas).

Borders has some of James’s best songs, and it was so cool getting to mix the songs and become really familiar with all the details in the other guys’ playing – stuff that you don’t quite get to hear in reheasal. They’re all really fine musicians, and I miss playing with them so much. I’m hoping we’ll get to reconvene in the summer when, hopefully, the worst of the pandemic is over and music venues (the ones that survive lockdown) are able to reopen.

Things are pretty worrying here right now. Transmission, hospitalisation and fatality rates got scarily high just after Christmas, and while they’ve receded a bit, they’ve not gone down all that much. Not enough. Mel and I are fortunate – we both work from home, so we just leave the house to buy food and to go for walks a few times a week. And happily, my mum and my dad have both had a first dose of the vaccine now. But life still feels on hold, plans are all provisional.

In the meantime, working on music (writing music, recording music, making plans about what do to do with the music I’ve recorded) is one of the things keeping me sane. There are a few things going on, which I’ll be able to say more about soon, I hope. Borders is out now, though, available on Spotify and Bandcamp, and it’s a fine piece of work, if I say so myself.

Murderer, record producer dies

Whatever we may think of Phil Spector’s productions, however much we may either hate the man for his crimes or look for mitigating factors, it’s impossible to tell the story of pop music without him – which is why I’m writing this now. He sold too many records and influenced too many talented people to not acknowledge his death at least briefly, whatever our feelings about his work or whether one should be able to separate the art from the artist.

What Spector’s art can’t do – what armchair diagnoses of mental illness or trauma can’t do; no such professional diagnosis was ever made – is in any way mitigate his crimes and abuses: murdering Lana Clarkson, beating and terrorising Ronnie Spector and keeping her a prisoner in her own home, and pulling guns on numerous other artists who hired him. Penance and remorse could have perhaps have done that, maybe; Be My Baby cannot.

It’s possible that, like tragic Jim Gordon – the session drummer who killed his mother during a psychotic episode in 1983, was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and remains in a psychiatric hospital today – Spector was genuinely mentally ill and we should feel compassion for him as well as his victims. But since, as I say, no professional diagnosis was ever made, it’s more likely that he was just a louse.

From what I’ve seen, no one who’s been paid to report or comment on Spector’s death is trying to whitewash his crimes. Yes, there have been some crassly worded headlines and tweets, and in the Daily Mail some horrendously misogynistic imagery choices, but all the articles I’ve seen deal with Clarkson’s murder in as much depth as his professional successes. The coverage has mostly gotten it right but can’t resolve in us the question of how to feel about Spector, his music or his death.

I could go around in circles all day on this. Regular readers will have seen me grapple with issues like this before, and will know that I don’t have a coherent and consistent philosophical approach to dealing with art by abusers and criminals. Perhaps if I’m making my way towards one, it’s this: I don’t think art made by bad people should be off limits, but we should always remember their victims, and we should never think that the art somehow absolves the crimes.

I’ll have to leave it somewhere, so I’ll leave it there: Phil Spector’s dead, but so is Lana Clarkson, and that matters more.