Monthly Archives: June 2013

Last Dance – Neil Young

Last Dance is the highlight (but for some the nadir) of Time Fades Away, the out-of-print live album that began Young’s ‘Ditch’ trilogy. The story behind the live album is pretty well covered by Jimmy McDonough in Shakey, and has been covered in other places too, but here’s a quick version of it for the uninitiated.

After making Harvest, Young went on tour with the same band who’d featured on that record: Kenny Buttrey and Tim Drummond on drums and bass, Ben Keith on pedal steel and Jack Nitzsche on piano. Danny Whitten was supposed to play with them too, but his heroin use was out of control so Young sent him home. Whitten overdosed fatally shortly after, casting a pall over the tour and inspiring Young to write Don’t Be Denied.

Inevitably after such an event, the mood in the camp was dark, and it was immediately aggravated by haggling over money. Buttrey was a studio player from Nashville, and he informed Young that to drop his session work and hit the road he’d need $100,000, a figure which Drummond and Nitzsche then demanded too. Young matched Buttrey’s fee for all the band members, but was upset at the way Drummond and Nitzsche had handled the situation, confronting him during rehearsals rather than coming to speak to him privately. Nitzsche later said that the tour never recovered from this incident.

That wasn’t the last of Young’s problems. Buttrey, as a studio player, was unused to the physical demands of driving a rock band along every night on a stage (for 62 dates and with few nights off), and unprepared for the lifestyle or the craziness of touring; musicians as a general rule save their worst excesses for the road and tend to be more focused and together when recording, so this was quite a culture shock. Unhappy with Young’s behaviour and his constant demands that he play louder, Buttrey quit mid-tour, to be replaced by Johnny Barbata (of CSNY and the Turtles), who appears on all the full-band material on Time Fades Away. Nitzsche, meanwhile, one of the few people in Young’s circle prepared to go toe to toe with him, was drinking too much and had a bad attitude, chafing under Young’s heavy-handed leadership.

The stories that have come out about this tour, coupled with Young’s own comments (‘I had this band of all-star musicians who couldn’t even look at each other. It was a total joke’), had me prepared for a dismal, dirgey, tuneless assault from Time Fades Away. In fact, the music is both more delicate (three of the album’s eight songs feature Young alone at the piano – check out Love in Mind: it’s beautiful) and more upbeat than the record’s reputation suggests. The title track and Yonder Stands the Sinner, complete with Nitzsche’s pounding piano, are almost reminiscent of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s New Orleansy choogling, albeit with Young singing in his trashed Tonight’s the Night voice. I can understand why the crowd in 1972 who just knew After the Goldrush and Harvest might have been taken aback at the roughness of some of his vocals, but Young’s singing is no more off-key here than on Tonight’s the Night, and is certainly more tuneful than, say, Dylan backed by the Hawks in 1966, so there had been plenty of precedent in rock’n’roll for such non-bel-canto singing.

Most unexpected given its reputation was Last Dance. McDonough makes it sound like a self-nullifying, caterwauling death march of a song (a ‘grating headache’, he calls it). On Time Fades Away (perhaps the versions played at other shows on the tour were more extreme and negative in vibe – I haven’t heard them all), Last Dance actually strikes me as capturing a familiar mood in Young’s music: summoning the strength to begin again after something important has come to a shattering end.

Still, the Time Fades Away myth is a powerful one. Maybe, to be cynical for a moment, that’s why Young insists on keeping it out of print. It’s a good Neil Young record, and in places – Last Dance being one of them – it’s excellent, but the reality doesn’t really match the myth. If you’ve heard Rust Never Sleeps (and certainly if you’ve heard Eldorado, Arc or Weld) you’ll probably find it quite tame.

And Elliott Mazer mixing the snare in the left channel and the rest of the drums in the centre is just as distracting and eccentric as it is on Harvest.

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Neil Young and his infamous Gibson Flying V,  Time Fades Away tour.

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I Hope that You Get What You Want – Woodbine

Some folks adore going to gigs. I’ve never exactly been one of them, and over the last six or seven years the number I go to has dwindled considerably, but I’ve seen a good few bands play in my time. I still see friends’ bands play regularly – indeed I still play shows myself, backing other people or, very occasionally, on my own – but by and large I don’t see too many club gigs any more, stadium/arena gigs have never appealed, and with my medication regime to maintain and the fear of being isolated too far from proper medical care in case of a cardiac emergency, I’m unlikely ever to go to a real festival again.

But in my peak gig-going years, from around 1998 to 2004, I saw a decent number of shows. Probably eight or ten a year for six or seven years (not counting gigs my friends’ bands played), plus festivals. I soon came to develop a fondness for certain venues. My friends all seemed to like the Brixton Academy and the Astoria on Charing Cross Road. I didn’t dig Brixton at all really (too big, and with a sloping floor, which was fine if you wanted to stand at the back, but pretty hazardous if you were jumping around). I liked more intimate venues. I liked to be able to see the band up close. My favourite small venue for rock shows was the Garage on Holloway Road, just a five-minute walk from my other favourite venue, the Union Chapel (which is just wonderful for sit-and-listen shows). There is, I should point out, nothing particularly special about the Garage as a building. It’s just a smallish room with a lowish ceiling, but a low stage and no big separation between band and crowd, which is how I like it. Large-room shows have always seemed too impersonal to me compared to that.

In, I would guess, early 2000 I went to the Garage one weekday evening to see Cinerama supported by Woodbine (it is, I should point out, possible that I’m conflating two different gigs, but I think I saw those two there on the same bill). The friend I went with was a regular John Peel listener at the time, and kept much more abreast of contemporary indie than I did. He played me Woodbine’s first album (a band signed to Domino and featuring a former member of Cornershop). I found it interesting and it fit with a developing fondness I had for lo-fi music (indie that really spoke of its indieness by being obviously low-budget and rough around the edges). So I was up for going to see them live, supporting a band who at the time I hadn’t heard and knew only a couple of things about: they’d recorded with Steve Albini, and their singer and songwriter David Gedge had been in the Wedding Present, who were some kind of big deal in the eighties. Me and my friend were, I guess, by some measure the youngest there. Woodbine hadn’t really drawn their own crowd, and the Cinerama audience skewed towards Gedge’s own age, which was a good decade older than we were.

So Woodbine had a hell of a job making themselves heard. They remain the quietest band I’ve ever heard on stage. It didn’t help that they were drunk (their drummer was really drunk) and I doubt they’d have been particularly together even if they’d have been sober. Essentially they weren’t a band suited to a club gig. Not particularly skilled or confident as performing musicians, insisting on playing as quietly as possible, then getting hammered before going on – these are not the ingredients of onstage greatness. Frankly, it was a bit of a trainwreck. As a support act at the Union Chapel down the road, it might have worked, just about. But at the Garage, in front of a crowd who were enjoying a pint or two and having a chat before their old indie hero came on, not a hope.

This was a wake-up call of sorts: being lo-fi and pure and real and putting your emphasis on songs rather than fancy arrangements and showmanship and instrumental prowess was all very well. Avoiding rock-show clichés was unarguably a good thing, too. But it was obvious to me even then that Woodbine were making something essentially pretty easy look hard. I saw them upstairs at the Garage later that year, they were much more together and it was a much better show. I talked to Susan Dillane afterwards and she seemed mildly embarrassed about the Cinerama show, so maybe it was a bit of a turning point for them too.

For all their weaknesses live, their first, self-titled, album (I haven’t heard the second and so far only other Woodbine record) remains an appealingly wonky listen. It’s a vibe record – the songs come and go without seeming to leave much of an imprint on you, but together they create a hazy narcoleptic mood which is quite specific to them; I’ve never heard another record that feels like it’s coming from quite the same place as this. The songs’ sleepiness is accentuated by the weird mix, by Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema from Royal Trux, which places the (frequently mumbled) vocals about as far back as is workable and then saturates them in reverb. Occasionally, out of the murk, will leap a guitar part (as on Neskwik) or a manually-ridden delay (as on Mound of Venus).

This willingness to be surprising, to be untidy, is integral to the feel of the record. The same arrangements, recorded to hard disk and mixed in a DAW, with all the possibilities they provide for editing, compression, equalisation and automation, and the songs wouldn’t feel the same at all. Woodbine are undoubtedly a minor act, all but forgotten. But if you’re curious about (and I can’t believe I’m going to use this word) slowcore, late-nineties indie or lo-fi music from the analogue era, Woodbine is a record worth hearing. It should really be listened to as a whole, but if you want to just track down a few songs, Mound of Venus, Neskwik, I Hope That You Get What You Want or Tricity Tiara* will do you.

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*Readers from outside Britain should note that this is a Tricity Tiara. Anyone who’s ever rented a flat in Britain will be familiar with them.

On the canon

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a little aside on the idea of a canon in popular music:

By this term I mean all those ‘classic albums’ made by ‘classic artists’, the sort of music lionised and covered in depth by BBC Four and Mojo. For a guide to who’s considered canonical, just look at the cover stars of Mojo over the last few months (Dylan, Pink Floyd, Johnny Marr, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, the Jam, the Smiths – from which we conclude that someone at Mojo really likes Johnny Marr). The worth of the idea of a ‘canon’ in pop music has long been a contentious issue. For me, it’s an inevitability. It’s simply there. There’s a canon, more or less, in every art form. Of course one would emerge from popular music. However, that’s not to say we shouldn’t interrogate it, or that we shouldn’t be aware of the processes by which a record/artist becomes canonical, the distortions created by this process, and the nature of the gatekeepers to ‘canonicity’, from the print press to the record companies that reissue some records and not others – after all, if no one can hear a record, it’s rather less likely to become part of the canon.

When I was eighteen I went off to university to read English at UCL. At UCL, all first-year undergads (at least in the English department) follow the same programme of study, no choice in the matter. You do a module of Old/Middle English (that is, you read Dream of the Rood and The Wanderer in the original Anglo Saxon, but a translated Beowulf – because even a certain academic in UCL’s English department isn’t that cruel – and then stuff like Gawain & the Green Knight, written in a Middle English dialect that makes Geoffrey Chaucer’s writing seem as easily comprehensible as Dan Brown’s). You do a module of foundation texts in English: Paradise Lost, The Rape of the Lock, The Prelude, Gulliver’s Travels, Bleak House, The Waste Land (there were a couple more but I forget – maybe Tristram Shandy or Boswell’s Life of Johnson). You do a module on critical terms and theory.

And you take a module called, imposingly, Intellectual & Cultural Sources. Which could carry the alternative title: ‘Squeezing As Much About the History of European Literature and Thought Into a Student’s Head As We Possibly Can In Twenty Weeks’. This is a whistle-stop tour through: Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles, St Augustine, Boethius, Dante, More, Montaigne, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Marx & Engels, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Woolf and Barthes. Whew. That’s a lot of knowledge to drop on an eighteen-year-old, an awful lot of DWMs (or DWEMs, if you prefer).

And it is. It was, and still is, since the course has scarcely changed since I was there 13 years ago. The Western Canon doesn’t change much in 13 years, and the list of works that UCL’s big kahunas think are absolutely essential to read before you go on to study anything else hasn’t changed much either. I don’t think we studied Epistemology of the Closet in 2000, which they do now (and it’s a welcome addition to the list in that it may alert some of the more addled students to the DWM-ness of the programme of study they’ve just gone through).

All of which would seem sensible enough. No one can read everything, and it’s not a controversial opinion to state that Shakespeare is more important than Kyd, even if you like Kyd more.

The problem comes when we don’t interrogate this canon at all, when we just blindly accept it, and particularly when we don’t move beyond it. These writers and their works are important. But every time we focus on them and put everything else to one side, we engage in a process that makes those few chosen works a little bit bigger and more important, and everything else a little more marginalised. If you marginalise something enough, it gets forgotten, and then no one reads it. The canon in pop music doesn’t have the same status as the Western Canon does in art, literature, philosophy, classical music and so on, but it seems pretty unarguable that it exists. It’s reinforced in radio playlists, in the type of music books that publishers will touch (‘Another book on Dylan? Sure! A book on Judee Sill? Well, we just don’t think there’s a market out there’); in the broadsheets and rock monthlies (as I noted a couple of weeks ago re: Mojo and Uncut); in the major online music sites (all of which regularly publish top-100 lists which hardly vary from Mojo‘s or Rolling Stone‘s).

There are a couple of major difference between popular music and literature. It takes dozens or hundreds of hours to read a book. It takes four minutes to listen to a song. If you’re the kind of person that wants to find out about music, a relatively small investment of time is needed to do it. Set aside an hour and you can listen to a few songs each by, say, the big four thrash bands. If you like it, you can go further. If not, then you can stop there. But it’s so much easier to fit that kind of listening into a busy life than it is to read outside of the canon or mass-market contemporary popular fiction, just because of the difference in the time it takes to consume the art: you may, like me, frequently hear a voice in your head saying, ‘How can you justify spending your time reading [for the sake of argument] Shakey again when you’ve still never made it all the way through Finnegans Wake?’ (and I haven’t). But the ease and speed with which you can listen to music you’ve never heard before means that the judgmental voice inside you is liable to keep its opinions to itself.

Secondly, writing a novel is a major job of work. It takes a long time. Way, way longer than it does to read that novel. It is exceedingly unusual for an average workaday writer to tap into something greater than themselves or to push themselves to the edge of their talent every day for six months or a year or more to produce something truly timelessly classic if they themselves are not that order of talent. It just doesn’t happen. In pop music, musicians, producers and songwriters do it all the time. There are thousands of wonderful songs by acts whose only real consequence is that they made that one great record. And that’s part of what makes popular music what it is, is how democratic it is. Three minutes of greatness is possible for just about anyone.

My only real objection to the formation of a rock/pop music canon is that it tends to focus on those acts that consistently made strong albums and marginalises the makers of classic pop singles or individual songs (since not all get released as singles), especially if they only made one or two. Sure, if you want to know about the most widely agreed-upon great works in post-rock’n’roll pop music, if you feel like that’s an important and worthwhile thing to do, you need to know about Revolver, and Pet Sounds, and What’s Going On and Blue. That’s fine. They’re all fantastic records and I wouldn’t want to be without them. But it’s worth taking the time out of your day – worth moving outside of the canon – to hear Mouse & the Traps’ Sometimes You Just Can’t Win. If you really dig that song and want to hear more by them, there’s more out there. You may conclude that the genius of Mr Mouse and His Traps doesn’t extend beyond that one record. But just hearing that one song will, I guarantee you, improve your life a small amount. The Beatles and Beach Boys and Joni and Marvin will still be there tomorrow.

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St Michael Overcoming Satan, John Flaxman, UCL library

Slain by Elf – Urusei Yatsura

I guess you could say that in the late nineties, with releases by Urusei Yatsura, Idlewild, the Delgados, Mogwai and Snow Patrol, US-influenced lo-fi Scottish indie was definitely a ‘thing’. But what kind of thing was it?

For Idlewild, the Delgados and Snow Patrol, it was the kind of thing one does in one’s teens or early twenties before discovering R.E.M. or Brian Wilson or (in the case of Snow Patrol) Lou Barlow, turning down the distortion, hiring orchestras and getting a little more expansive, a little more ‘mature’ and aiming to create big ‘A’ art. For Mogwai, it was a largely instrumental thing, a Slint kind of thing, and that was more or less how it stayed.

In the case of Urusei Yatsura, it was a Pavement kind of thing. Slightly more aggressive and slightly less shambling than Pavement, but just as bratty and smart-alec. I hadn’t heard Pavement when I first heard Slain by Elf (on, I guess, either early XFM or the Evening Session), so its resemblance to the work of Stephen Malkmus and his cheery band of underachievers didn’t scream at me like it would have done to more worldly (or older) listeners. I liked the brattiness, the rough edges, how they seemingly couldn’t be bothered to write a proper chorus and simply settled for sneering the title phrase several times. It seemed cool.

It seemed, and maybe this was what I liked most about it, like something I could do: get a band together, a few simple chord progresssions, some squonky guitar noise (I never could play fast but had a decent sideline in squonk, as befitted any teenage fan of Jonny Greenwood in 1998) and some surreal lyrics – a Peel session and indie cultdom were surely there for the taking! (It didn’t happen, obviously. I set noise-pop aspirations aside, went to university with an acoustic guitar and fingerpicked my way through my twenties.)

Urusei Yatsura disbanded after Everybody Loves Urusei Yatsura in 2000 and so they didn’t move into folk music, orchestral chamber pop or the sort of rock that seems designed to soundtrack big moments on unimaginative TV shows, like their peers did. There is little information about the band online. Google ‘Slain by Elf’ and you get a link to the song on YouTube, a couple of pages of links to lyrics websites, some links to dodgy MP3 websites, then an awful lot of Tolkien fanfic. When three members of the band regrouped as Projekt A-ko in 2007, they hadn’t changed a great deal. In line with fashion, the guitars were a little cleaner (but not by that much), but otherwise all was pretty much as it had been ten years previously. Which suggests that a love of lo-fi, Pavement-esque indie ran more deeply in them than it might have seemed to more cynical observers in the late nineties, who could have been forgiven for suspecting mere bandwagon-jumping.

On a slow morning in June, 15 years after it came out, Slain by Elf seems refreshing bracing and unpretentious. A product of modest ambitions, sure, but one that hit the mark squarely.

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Everybody loved Urusei Yatsura

Grapefruit Moon – Tom Waits

If you’re a Tom Waits fan who discovered the man’s work on any album from The Heart of Saturday Night onwards, chances are you don’t think much of Closing Time, Tom’s 1973 debut. Where’s the burlesque beat poetry? Where’s the grotesque carnival barker? Where’s the junkyard orchestra? Dammit, where’s the jazz?

The extent to which Closing Time represents the album Waits wanted to make remains debated. Producer Jerry Yester (alumnus of the New Christy Minstrels, the Modern Folk Quartet and the Lovin’ Spoonful, producer of Goodbye and Hello and Happy Sad) maintains that Waits got what he wanted and that it was not his job to impose a sound on the artist; Barney Hoskyns wrote in his Waits book that Yester’s vision of a fairly conventional acoustic singer-songwriter record was at odds with Waits’ desire for something jazzier and looser. The striking change from Closing Time to Saturday Night, achieved in just a year, suggests that Yester’s memories aren’t wholly accurate, but he wouldn’t be the first producer who’s been disingenuous about the extent to which he shaped a record.

Yet there are elements of Closing Time that are predictive of Waits’ later work. The muted trumpet on Midnight Lullaby, Little Trip to Heaven and Closing Time (the song); the chord structures (in the 1970s Tom Waits never met a ii-V-I he didn’t like); the general after-hours vibe; all of these point towards his early classic run of Saturday Night, Nighthawks at the Diner and Small Change.

As does one song above any other on Closing Time. No, it’s not Martha (I find Martha a little overpraised – the problem of a song that’s one side of a conversation is that the singer has to tell and can’t ever show, which only draws attention to the artifice of the device, as well as forcing lines into the singer’s mouth that would never be said in a real conversation). For me, the real classic Waits song on this record is Grapefruit Moon.

It’s the first song that really feels like a proper Tom Waits ballad, with the strings, the double bass and the sozzled sentimentality to prove it (and of course that ubiquitous ii-V-I turnaround). The tune feels like a Waits tune – ‘authentic’ is a problematic word to use in the context of Waits and his career so I won’t got that far. Let’s just say that he’s playing to his strengths with this song. He sounds more comfortable here than elsewhere.

The lyric’s a little too gauche and the vocal a little too unsure and unsteady to really qualify it as an out-and-out classic Waits ballad, but it’s reason enough that fans who may be put off Closing Time by the general Asylum-ness of Ol’ 55 and I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You should hear it. And it’d be a boring world if artists always got it right first time. We wouldn’t be able to go on a journey with them.

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Tom Waits, with cigarette and piano. Whiskey presumably somewhere nearby.

Halo of Ashes – Screaming Trees

‘What did you think?’

‘They were screaming!’

‘Yeah. They were great!’

‘They were screaming!’

‘They’re from Seattle—’

‘Yeah! [Feigns deafness] What?’

‘But I’ll be honest with you – I was kinda scared.’

So ran the conversation between David Letterman and his bandleader Paul Shaffer in 1992 after the Screaming Trees performed an intense, and apparently rather loud, version of Nearly Lost You, live on late-night network television.

Even in 1992, when some pretty uncommercial prospects had major-label record deals and all the TV appearances they could hope for, Screaming Trees were an odd fit for the world of talk shows and smart-alec comedians with house bands. It’s worth remembering that by and large the frontmen of the really big bands from that era, Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain and so on, were photogenic dudes, and that Vedder and Cornell were never above taking to the stage shirtless. Even Layne Staley was OK-looking before he got too cadaverous. Mark Lanegan, on the other hand, just looked permanently angry, and as for the rest of the Trees, well, as Van Connor so memorably put it in Hype!, there may have been tons of bands in Seattle, but the Screaming Trees were a ton of band. The Connor brothers were two enormous guys, so big they made their guitars look like toys, windmilling, thrashing around, rolling on the floor and beating each other up.

That sense of barely restrained chaos still animated their live shows – with Lanegan the calm, motionless eye of the storm – but by the time that Nearly Lost You hit, the band’s recorded output was getting more controlled and focused, and was all the better for it. Screaming Trees are that rare band whose work got consistently stronger as they went along, and their last album Dust, from 1996, is their finest. (With some folk preferring their early SST records there’s inevitably some debate about this, but not in my house.)

Of all the records I listened to in my teens, Dust (along with Murmur) is the one where my relationship with it has most slowly evolved. With other records, I’d leave such long gaps between listens that from one listen to the next the record would seem completely different. WIth Dust, though, I’ve never stopped listening to it, even as I put heavy rock aside for a few years while I took the time to get educated in the canon*, so as I changed and developed, so did Dust seem to. I heard the reflections of so much music from the 1960s and 1970s in it, I came to understand more about the musical traditions the Screaming Trees worked in and rather than making the record seem shallower or retrograde, it brought it even more to life.

But it’s the energy of it, the renewed vigour, that gets me most now. Four years had passed since their last album by the time the Trees released Dust in 1996, and much had happened in that time, little of it beneficial. The group, originally intending to follow up Sweet Oblivion quickly, had recorded an album’s worth of material, but their hearts weren’t in it and the music wasn’t strong enough, so they junked the lot. They were sick of each other (a perennial Screaming Trees problem – they’d been going since 1985, so they’d put in some years already) and needed time apart. Lanegan had seen several close friends die, including Cobain, and come close to dying himself. Crack, heroin and alcohol were just the symptoms of an illness that had dogged him long before Dust and would continue to long after it.

But the album was written and recorded in the middle of a sober period (he would relapse hard in 1997) and it shows. The energy level is higher on Dust than on any other Screaming Trees album. On record, energy is a most intangible, evanescent thing, not at all related to how loud or fast the band’s playing (similar to how ‘heaviness’ has nothing to do with volume or amount of guitar distortion). It’s more the case that on some records the songs seem somehow animated from within. From the intro of Halo of Ashes all the way through to Gospel Plow, Dust just barrels out of the speakers. To my ears this energy comes partly from the physicality of drummer Barrett Martin, an upbeat, music-for-music’s-sake, jam-till-the-early-hours kind of guy, much needed in a band whose other members tended towards the depressive and argumentative, but mainly from Lanegan, who sounds uncharacteristically thrilled to be alive: ‘I’ve been a long, long time away, one foot in the grave,’ he sings, and his performance carries the fervour of someone who knows how damn lucky he is to still be here.

The second half of the nineties was short on records as life-affirming as this, and in retrospect much of that period’s pre-millennial tension, so hip in 1997 and 1998, looks a little ridiculous, mere juvenile posturing. Dust, on the other hand, looks bigger and grander every year, a little-anticipated album by a band of perennial also-rans that has ended up outlasting the work most of their contemporaries and leaving it in the, well, dust.

Oh, and it should go without saying that electric sitars are cool. Tablas, too.

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Screaming Trees in 1993, l-r Gary Lee Connor, Barrett Martin, Mark Lanegan, Van Connor

*Just a side note on ‘the canon’. By this term I mean all those ‘classic albums’ made by ‘classic artists’, the sort of music lionised and covered in depth by BBC Four and Mojo. For a guide to who’s considered canonical, just look at the cover stars of Mojo over the last few months (Dylan, Pink Floyd, Johnny Marr, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, the Jam, the Smiths – from which we conclude that someone at Mojo really likes Johnny Marr). The worth of the idea of a ‘canon’ in pop music has long been a contentious issue. For me, it’s an inevitability. It’s simply there. There’s a canon, more or less, in every art form. Of course one would emerge from popular music.

However, that’s not to say we shouldn’t interrogate it, or that we shouldn’t be aware of the processes by which a record/artist becomes canonical, the distortions created by this process, and the nature of the gatekeepers to ‘canonicity’, from the print press to the record companies that reissue some records and not others – after all, if no one can hear a record, it;s rather less likely to become part of the canon (it does happen though: witness Tim Buckley’s Starsailor, its reputed ‘difficultly’ and unavailability on CD becoming a bigger claim to fame than the music it contains).

It’s interesting to note how artists rise and fall in esteem over time, how opinions are transmitted and received from one generation to the next. I wait to see, for example, if the death of Ray Manzarek prompts a revival of interest in the Doors, whose stock seemed to me to drop in the nineties and noughties. And will the new film about Ginger Baker, accompanied by a feature in Uncut last month (‘probably the best musical group ever to come out of Europe,’ says Baker; I’ll refrain from comment in line with my declaration of positivity the other day), rehabilitate a band whose critical standing has been in the toilet for a couple of decades.

Gramming – The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Gram Parsons

There are sound reasons why the Eagles are a favourite punching bag for a certain type of music fan. But watching the first two hours of a three-hour (!) documentary film about them last night, I started imagining an alternate reality in which they’d put off making Desperado for a year and instead looked up their old hero Gram Parsons, backing him up they way they’d backed Linda Ronstadt.

Of course, that version of the Eagles contained a former Burrito Brother in Bernie Leadon, the guy who put the most country into the Eagles’ early sound, which may or may not have made that series of happenings more likely. But it’s interesting to imagine what music Parsons might have made with a slick country-rock band. For he never really worked with such an outfit: the Burrito Brothers were anything but slick on their debut album, and dispensing with their roster of little-known session drummers for full-time Michael Clarke for Burrito Deluxe didn’t exactly help them to tighten up. The TCB band on GP and Grievous Angel, meanwhile, well they sure were slick and they sure were country, but rock was quite beyond them.

Which was the point when Parsons hired them, but I’m afraid I’ve never found their work on those two Parsons records completely satisfying. I’m too seldom surprised by anything they do. In contrast, I’m constantly surprised by the Burritos. They throw every idea they have into their arrangements. They lurch through their songs, with spirit and feel prized more highly than precision. Mistakes are made and left in (my favourite is the little cough on Parsons’ (?) vocal in the left channel during the third chorus when he blows the high note (‘she’s telling dirty lies’) and the audible grin with which he sings the rest of the song.

This may sound like corny indie fetishising of the lo-tech and amateurish, but I assure you it goes deeper than that (that’s not really my style nowadays anyhow – I’m a Steely Dan fan). For all that Parsons wanted to make pure country music in 1973, he was a more interesting musician to my mind when he was mixing country up with other forms of music. The R&B influences (present in the song choices, sure, but also in the performances) on Gilded Palace, the Dylanisms, the psychedelic pedal steel guitar (played through Leslie speakers and fuzzboxes) – you add it all up and you get that thing Parsons called ‘Cosmic American Music’. On GP and Grievous Angel you get country music, with slightly chintzy Vegas trimmings, and somehow the band just don’t sound as invested in the songs as they do on Emmylou Harris’s early records, on which their playing is superb: tasteful, but empathetic and soulful too.

I guess I value Gilded Palace more because of it’s staggering/swaggering joie de vivre. It’s full of spirit and the excitement of experimentation, which makes his later work feel a little ossified by comparison. There’s great songs on those two solo records. No one with ears that work could deny Gram and Emmylou harmonising on Love Hurts, I totally understand why people get so excited by $1000 Wedding, and Streets of Baltimore is a great song, well sung. But if I was going to recommend one record to fully convey the Gram Parsons experience to someone who’d never heard him, I’d unhesitatingly point that person in the direction of The Gilded Palace of Sin by the Flying Burrito Brothers.

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Flying Burrito Brothers, 1968