Monthly Archives: October 2016

Left of the Dial – The Replacements

What’s this? Wasn’t I meant to be writing about British folk? Yes, I was. I’ve got half an entry on Bill Fay saved in my drafts folder. But this morning on my way to the office I listened to Left of the Dial and on my first day back at work after a holiday, low in mood and feeling unwell, it made me feel as energised as it did when I first heard it as a teenager. So that’s what we’re going to talk about tonight.

I’ve talked about my love of Tres Chicas here a couple of times before, even recently. They’re a little-known country-singing trio that made two records a decade ago. Even then they were all music-biz veterans. Lynn Blakey, the most prolific of the group’s three singer-songwriters, has been making records for over 30 years.

Blakey was a touring member of the Georgia indie band Let’s Active in 1983-4, and it was during that time that she met Paul Westerberg and inspired one of his greatest songs, Left of the Dial. Different sources tell the story differently, but this is what Westerberg had to say about it to Rolling Stone:

Left of the Dial is the story of this girl, a guitar player, Lynn Blakey, who toured with Mitch Easter’s Let’s Active. We got to be friends. She wanted me to write her a letter, but I never write letters. I figured the only way I’d hear her voice was with her band on the radio, left of the dial on a college station. And one night we did. We were passing through a town somewhere, and she was doing an interview on the radio, left of the dial. I heard her voice for the first time in six months for about a minute. Then the station faded out.

It’s pretty cool knowing the back story to the song, but if Left of the Dial were just a paean to Lynn Blakey, it wouldn’t quite be what it is, or mean so much to so many. It’s not even just a love letter to college radio. Above all, Left of the Dial seems to me to be about the endless movement of a young band on the road, the excitement, the hardships, the possibilities, the romance. It’s about the bittersweet feeling of knowing something probably won’t happen, but treasuring the possibility that it just might.

Westerberg’s great gift was to be able to harness that kind of romanticism to noisy, sloppy rock’n’roll (and then to let it show on the quiet acoustic songs – only Neil Young is Westerberg’s match at being able to switch from full-on rock to quiet acoustic and sound utterly himself when doing both), and for all that Left of the Dial’s parent album Tim was the most produced Replacements record to date, it’s still endearingly messy. After all, the Replacements were never about tightness or technique. They were about the excitement of a captured moment. While there’s a lot wrong in technical terms with the studio recording of Left of the Dial (the band always sounded slightly out of control, even at moderate tempos, but surely they didn’t want their guitar sound to be quite so tinny, or the drums quite as lacking in body?), in every important sense, Left of the Dial is perfect. Listening to it makes me feel like I’m twenty years younger, about to embark on all the adventures life in a rock’n’roll band can offer.

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The Replacements: l-r Paul Westerberg, Chris Mars, Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson

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Stormbringer – John & Beverley Martin

A repost of a piece I wrote three years ago, about a record I think is very special indeed. I listened to it today on my way home from work with my hood pulled up and the rain beating down on me, and it really did take me somewhere else.

In July 1969, John Martyn was a folkie who’d put out two records on Island – London Conversations and The Tumbler – neither of which were anything remarkable in an era where Fairport Convention and Bert Jansch had already done much of their best work, redefining the forms that British folk music was capable of taking in the process (some of The Tumbler is actively embarrassing compared to, say, Fairport’s Genesis Hall).

Beverley Martyn (nee Kutner), meanwhile, had fronted a jug band called the Levee Breakers, and put out a single written by Randy Newman (and featuring John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Nicky Hopkins and Andy White), with a Cat Stevens B-side. She’d played at Monterey Pop and been invited to the Bookends sessions by Paul Simon, where she contributed the immortal (spoken) words “Good morning, Mr Leitch, have you had a busy day?” to Fakin’ It. She was, in short, more of a “name” than her new husband and probably expected no more than yeoman musical support from John when they began work on what would become Stormbringer! in Woodstock in the summer of 1969 with engineer John Wood, drummers Levon Helm, Herbie Lovelle and Billy Mundi, bass player Harvey Brooks and pianist Paul Harris.

Somehow or other – and opinions and recollections vary – the project morphed into a duo record, with John’s songs as well as Beverley’s being recorded. In no time, by sheer force of personality and pushiness, John’s voice became the dominant one; he wrote and sang six of the album’s ten tracks, and the album, when it came out, was credited to John and Beverley Martyn.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy with Beverley for having been elbowed aside by her husband in this way, and the record’s producer, Joe Boyd, probably viewed the path that the record took with some regret, too; he seems not massively enamoured with John Martyn as a person, and not terribly impressed with him as a musician – “When John started living with Beverley Kutner, I was stuck with him”, he recalled in his 2006 memoir, White Bicycles. But by any reasonable assessment, John was much the greater talent (at least at that time – we can’t know what Beverley might have been capable of later in her career had she continued with it into the seventies), and Stormbringer! is a far greater record than a Beverley Martyn solo album with a bit of John’s guitar would have been.

When I first heard this album, I was hugely excited to hear the coming-together of two of my very favourite players: Levon Helm, drummer/singer with the Band, and John Martyn himself, whose guitar playing I can honestly call life-changing. Yet Levon, magisterial as he is on John the Baptist, does not play on the album’s most indelible track, on which John’s guitar takes a backseat to the piano of Paul Harris, the sessions’ musical director.

Stormbringer, the title track, features New York jazz player Herbie Lovelle on drums (who also played on another favourite of mine: Dylan’s version of Corrina Corrina from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), and Lovelle could easily double for Helm here: same swinging semi-quaver bass drum, same easy but authoritative tom fills, same woody depth of sound.

But Harris’s piano owns the song. His 16-bar solo, sounding like a more pastoral Richard Wright, may be the most beautiful passage on any John Martyn record; playing this graceful and empathetic is rare in any form of music. John Martyn would build a remarkable understanding with double bassist Danny Thompson over the course of half a dozen albums and many live gigs – and anyone who’s heard Fine Lines or Head and Heart knows what Thompson and Martyn could do together – but listening to Stormbringer, you can’t help but think wistfully of what Martyn and Harris might have done in a longer partnership, with perhaps Brooks and Lovelle as their permanent rhythm section. Any songwriter would kill to have a musician with them who so understands their songs that they can play with that kind of empathy.

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A quick digression on Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

Let’s briefly interrupt our discussion of British folk-rock to talk about Bob Dylan…

Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature this week.

There have been some entertainingly huffy responses to this (at least in the British press), as well as plenty of defences of Dylan as a poet.

All as wrong-headed as each other. The wisest and most informed response came from my friend Yo Zushi, writing for the New Statesman.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that what Yo Zushi doesn’t know about Bob Dylan isn’t worth knowing, but we’ve often found ourselves on different sides of the argument when discussing Dylan. Yo is a big fan of recent Bob, whereas I checked out around the time of ‘Love and Theft’ and only retain interest in Dylan’s career from, roughly, 1963-67 and 1973-78, with a couple of records here and there (Oh Mercy, Slow Train Coming, Time Out of Mind) that fall outside those windows. We rarely agree on what the best songs are on even the records we both think are great.

But on this we agree:

I suspect that many of those who fixate on his words scour his songs as texts, looking for poetry in conventional terms at the expense of the performance. (I won’t name names, but you know who you are.) I wonder whether they hear the music at all, and the voice at the centre of it. The irony is that what poetry exists on Dylan’s records is largely to be found in the sound of the words, not their meaning. Music – no, Dylan’s version of music – alchemises those lyrics into great art. He’s a great singer. His genius is in that sand and glue.

Not long ago, while receiving another award, Dylan spoke of how the King of Soul, Sam Cooke, would swat away praise for the beauty of his singing by reminding listeners that voices “ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead, they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” Cooke had a point. When I hear him sing “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha”, I believe for those three minutes that everybody loves to cha cha cha, and that I love to cha cha cha, too.

Literature is simply a written work of superior or lasting artistic merit, so Dylan’s songs, in as much as they contain texts, must count as such, and his being awarded a literary prize presents no problem except for those who cling to artificial boundaries between high art and low art.* Yet, songs must also be counted as a special kind of literature, as they are written to be sung, not merely read off the page. Any proper appreciation of the art of songwriting must also take into account the effect of the words’ marriage to a melody to be sung, and further, what the singer does with them in performance.

Dylan is, if not the greatest of his kind, so obviously pre-eminent that it makes no difference. It’s him and McCartney, and basically no one else in Western pop. So, how about a Nobel Prize for Literature for Paul McCartney, then? That’ll really piss off the snobs.

The 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards - Show

Dylan, song & dance man, Nobel Laureate

*It’s a cliche to point out that Shakespeare’s plays were performed and written for the mass, uneducated audience, but still, cliches often get at truths, so let’s point it out one more time.

 

Lady Margaret – Trees

The observant will note that we’ve slipped into our annual series of posts on folk-rock. Every autumn, folk gets me. It’s the most autumn-appropriate music I know.

“This station is King’s Cross-St Pancras. Change here for Circle & Hammersmith, Metropolitan, Piccadilly and Victoria lines, and mainline, intercity, suburban and international rail services. This train terminates at High Barnet.”

Aficionados of the London Underground will be able to tell you that the voice of the Northern line – the woman whose voice has been used to create station announcements like the above – is Celia Drummond. Aficonados of British folk-rock, meanwhile, will be able to tell you that the lead singer of Trees, a band that welded post-Grateful Dead psychedelic guitar to post-Fairport Convention electric folk over two albums made in 1970, was Celia Humphris.

Both Celias are the same Celia. Acid-folk singer Celia Humphris of the obviously stoned-out-of-their-minds Trees can be heard giving station announcements all over the country. She also, her online advert says, provides a convincing Marge or Lisa Simpson.

All this was several decades in the future when Trees main man Bias Boshell hit upon an idea. It was a strong one. Fairport Convention’s A Sailor’s Life (from Unhalfbricking, released in 1969) had set a template for how long, strophic folk ballads could be played by rock bands: begin gently, then slowly raise the tension until at some point the thing explodes – this being the moment the drummer stops playing patterns on the tom-toms and gives the snare drum what for instead.

With that formula established, the next step was simply to turn up the volume of the guitars. After all, rock was getting louder by the minute (Led Zeppelin’s first two albums were released in 1969, Black Sabbath’s debut in early 1970), so why not crank the guitars up? Why not use them to dramatise and comment upon the tale being told? Why not let them be as violent as songs being sung?

On Lady Margaret, from The Garden of Jane Delawney, Trees adhered to the Sailor’s Life formula, up to a point. There’s a stoned looseness to the opening few minutes, drummer Unwin Brown seeming a bit unsure whether to take the song in Levon Helm-esque half time or match the busy tempo of the guitars (mixed hard left and right). Celia Humprhis is no Sandy Denny, but she does her job well enough as the calm eye of the gathering storm, her voice cut-glass and her diction precise.

The way Trees approach the song’s heavy section is the chief difference between their style and the Sailor’s Life model.

Even as personnel changed, Fairport in their early years consistently had one of the finest rhythm sections in the land. Rock music is ultimately about drums (which is why Zeppelin rocked harder than Sabbath – sorry, they just did), and Martin Lamble was a very fine drummer indeed, managing a rare combination of power, authority and swing. Fairport in their Unhalfbricking era, before Lamble died in a terrible accident on the M1, are vastly underrated as a rock band. (Go listen to Lamble on A Sailor’s Life and Genesis Hall, then come back here. I’ll wait.)

Unwin Brown doesn’t come to Lady Margaret with the intention of playing two and four hard, throwing in some fills and letting the lead players do their thing, as Lamble does on A Sailor’s Life. Brown’s feel is looser, Moon-like; the cymbals are prominent, the snare is a more quicksilver presence, and Barry Clarke’s thickly distorted guitar gets the spotlight. Listen to A Sailor’s Life when walking, running, driving, or doing anything at all, and your pace will increase. Listen to Trees doing Lady Margaret and you’ll slow down, stop even, and nod your head. It’s head music.

Trees only made the two records, The Garden of Jane Delawney (the title track – written by Bias Boshell – is stunning) and On the Shore (check out Murdoch for a representative track), but became a cool reference point during the mid-noughties among freak-folk acts. Betwen 2008 and 2011, I played guitar in folk-rock band called Carterhaugh that was consciously looking to blend folk song with heavy and psychedelic rock, and we adopted Lady Margaret to that end. It never stopped being fun or challenging; what do you play when a song is seven minutes long with no chord changes, just a droney modal melody? Fortunately I had Trees’ example to follow – step on the wah pedal and wail.

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Bert Jansch

In Nottamun Town – and on the road to it – nothing makes literal sense. Grey mares have grey manes and tails but green stripes down the back and are somehow entirely black; you have to stifle the dust even as it rains all day; you sit on hot cold frozen stones.

Nottamun Town is a confounding song to a modern listener, used to songs that tell linear stories or that are composed of generalities that hint at meaning but never insist on being read in any one way. When I first heard Bert Jansch’s reading of Nottamun Town at the age of 19 – my friend James gave me Jansch’s Jack Orion as a 19th birthday present – it seemed strange and forbidding. Like most of Jack Orion, it had a desperate, even apocalyptic, edge to it. Jansch strains to hit the notes from the first stanza. He doesn’t pick his guitar strings; he claws at them, wrestles with them.

Bert Jansch was, as I suspect he was for many, my gateway to the world of traditional British song. Not Jansch alone, but Jansch first. Compared to his peers in the world of British folk, Jansch was cool: a guitar virtuoso with an image closer to that of a rock star than even the most boho of his folk contemporaries. For anyone who grew up as an fan of rock music, Jansch was an understandable figure, akin to Dylan, to Neil Young, Hendrix, Cobain even, and provided an easy path in for a kid like me who’d grown up on pop and rock, and knew nothing about folk.

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Bert Jansch, cool

I bought his first two albums on one CD from the vast HMV on Oxford Street and lapped them up, especially his debut, Bert Jansch, which contained two of his best-loved songs, Strollin’ Down the Highway and Needle of Death, and the immortal fingerpicking odyssey Angie – Jansch’s take on Davey Graham’s Anji. For these three tracks alone, Bert Jansch is a classic, but there’s more to the album than just its showstoppers: the gorgeous, Mingus-inspired Alice’s Wonderland; the courtly Dreams of Love; Do You Hear Me Now?, the anti-war protest song turned into a hit single by Donovan; short guitar instrumentals like the hopping-and-skipping Finches and the pensive, mysterious Veronica.

Bert Jansch was recorded by Bill Leader in a flat above a Denmark Street shop on a reel-to-reel recorder, with Jansch singing and playing live. His breathing is audible on the instrumentals and his mistakes (such as they were – Jansch operated on a level most of us can’t dream of) were left in, as were the cracks in his voice on I Have No Time, Needle of Death and Do You Hear Me Now. Possibly this was why Jansch seemed a little embarrased by all the attention his debut continued to receive decades after he recorded it. The guitar playing was OK, he said, but the voice sounded like that of a little boy.

Artists aren’t always the best judges of their own work – Jansch’s early vocal performances were the the most pleasing he would ever record. By the time of It Don’t Bother Me, he was singing more forcefully, but without quite the same gently conspiratorial intimacy. There was an audience listening now, and his vocals sounded as if he was conscious of it. There was a weirdly plummy quality on his delivery of, say, My Lover, like he was taking pains to enunciate correctly. He doesn’t sound quite himself, even as his playing (in tandem with a guesting John Renbourn) is riveting. It Don’t Bother Me is a fine album, but it’s a step down from predecessor Bert Jansch and follow-up Jack Orion.

Jack Orion remains a singular album in British folk: inventive, uncompromising, tightly compressed. Just eight songs long, it contains worlds within it. Blackwater Side remains, justly, its most famous moment, to which the only possible response, particular for guitarists, is awe.* At once violent and intricate, Jansch’s guitar playing on Blackwater Side is the high point of the whole folk-baroque style; his vocal is likewise tender and angry, as he reproaches his lover (“the Irish lad” – Jansch was brave enough not to switch the narrator’s sex) for using and deserting him. Nottamun Town, as we touched upon earlier, is a confounding piece of folk surrealism, and Jansch portrays the narrator’s panicky confusion masterfully. The 10-minute title track (an adaptation by Bert Lloyd of Glasgerion) is a vehicle for some of Jansch’s and Renbourn’s finest playing, and returned a song to prominence that had fallen out of general repertoire**. Jack Orion is a heavy listen, mesmeric in its starkness.

If you like Jansch with a lighter touch, the debut and LA Turnaround are probably the records for you. The latter was cut after the Pentangle disbanded and marries Jansch’s usual bluesy folk picking to gentle country rock; it was produced by Monkees vet Mike Nesmith and had great LA-based players like Byron Berline, Red Rhodes, Jesse Ed Davis and Klaus Voorman sitting in; One for Jo might just be the prettiest thing the man ever did.

Bert Jansch died five years ago today, on 5 October 2011. God rest him.

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*Jimmy Page’s was an improper response: he stole Jansch’s guitar arrangement and presented it whole, scarcely changed at all, as Black Mountain Side on Led Zeppelin’s first record. Jansch couldn’t afford the legal representation he’d have needed to get fair recompense. Zeppelin had a habit of passing others’ work as their own, but Black Mountain Side is particularly egregious because of how little they added to the source material, not something you could always accuse them of

**Within a few years, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, Jansch and Renbourn’s Pentangle and Trees had all cut versions of Glasgerion or the Lloyd adaptation.