Monthly Archives: May 2019

Plastic Factory – Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band

Don Van Vliet (or maybe Don Glen Vliet – wikipedia says the latter was his given name) spent his teens and early twenties collaborating with Frank Zappa, and their volatile friendship would endure long enough for Zappa to sign Beefheart to his own label in 1969. Both difficult and ornery men, their careers have obvious parallels, not least their need to stand out from the crowd, to run hard and deliberately in the opposite direction to the way everyone else was going.

So it was, then, that in 1967, during the Summer of Love – the height of the hippie era – while his contemporaries were ready to float off into the ether, Beefheart released his first album, a fractured but only lightly psychedelic take on Delta blues and gritty R&B. While everyone else wore their hair long, with robes and beads, the Captain and his bandmates dressed more like 1930s gangsters or British toffs gone to the bad; on the sleeve of Safe as Milk, guitarist Alex Snouffer resembled the aristocratic murderer Lord Lucan enjoying a second life as a James Bond villain.

Captain Beefheart’s records have a forbidding reputation, especially Trout Mask Replica. I own TMR, and I’ve never made it all the way through in one sitting. It’s as hard-going as people say. Guitarists play seemingly in different time signatures and at varying tempos. The drums seem chaotic and at odds with the guitars. The bass is in another world again. And Beefheart bellows over the top of it all, again seeming to pay little heed to the band. Throughout the album, whatever his instrumentalists are playing, Beefheart always seems to sing in the same key.

However difficult Trout Mask Replica is, though, not all Beefheart’s music is so forbidding. His debut album, Safe as Milk, is a delight, and positively accessible in comparison, a surreal take on Delta Blues with occasional stylistic diversions into doo-wop (I’m Glad) and even children’s music (Yellow Brick Road). Nevertheless, despite being easily the most conventional of Beefheart’s classic works, Safe as Milk, and the song Electricity in particular, horrified his label A&M, whose boss Jerry Moss heard a demo of Electricity and decided that he wouldn’t want his daughter listening to this kind of negative music. Such was the way of things for Beefheart. He instead released his debut on Buddah (sic), subsidiary of Kama Sutra.

Plastic Factory, written by Beefheart, the enigmatic Herb Brennan and bassist Jerry Handley, shows off Beefheart’s dead-on Howling Wolf impression, and was improbably released as a single. It didn’t fly out of record stores, but it did help to build the good Captain a cult audience that would follow him down even his most elliptical paths.

Like Safe as Milk generally, Plastic Factory is very portable: you could listen to it and get a lot from it without knowing anything about Beefheart’s wider career, just purely on its own terms. If you’re into electric blues generally or Delta blues particularly (or you want an overview of late-1960s California music), then you definitely should hear it. I’ve listened to it a lot down the years, even while my lack of success extracting much pleasure from Trout Mask Replica has led me to conclude that Beefheart fandom was not for me. Safe as Milk stands well on its own.

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Twyford Down – Galliano

Before American rock music became my musical obsession, I mainly bought and listened to compilations of contemporary music, some of which was rock and some of which decidedly wasn’t.

One of the records I listened to most, which I loved wholeheartedly, was called Groovin’. It was woven together from a few different musical threads: contemporary West Coast hip hop (nothing too hard, though), slightly older East Coast hip hop, soulful R&B-flavoured pop, some very late new jack swing, and miscellaneous British tracks, most of which you could broadly call acid jazz.

The most famous group that ever got tagged with that label was of course Jamiroquai, whose Stevie Wonder-fetishising music is, if I’m forced to be polite, not to my taste at all. But if you’re not familiar with the term and want to know what the style sounded like, early Jamiroquai singles like Too Young to Die and Blow Your Mind encapsulate it pretty well: soul- and funk-derived music, led by bass and keyboards, with live drums and often lots of additional percussion.

Included on Groovin’ was a song by a band called Galliano, an early progenitor of the sound, but commercial also-rans compared to Jamiroquai, Incognito and the Brand New Heavies. I had no idea until around ten years later that the Galliano song on Groovin’, Long Time Gone, was actually a Crosby, Stills & Nash cover (and a David Crosby song at that). At the time, I liked it well enough, I suppose. But it seemed a bit earnest, in comparison to the more nihilistic gangsta stuff elsewhere on the CD or the more whimsical likes of De La Soul.

The following year, Polygram brought out a rather inferior sequel, The Essential Groove, containing tracks by many of the same artists who featured on Groovin’. Galliano were among the returnees, with another track from their 1994 record, The Plot Thickens.

This one, Twyford Down, made little impression on me, clearly, because I barely remembered it until I revisited the compilation last year. But, actually, it’s a bit of a belter.

In the early to mid-1990s, a spate of major road building under the Thatcher and Major Tory governments met with heavy, justified, resistance from protesters appalled at the disregard being shown to areas of sensitive environmental importance. The most famous of these protests was probably the one against the Newbury bypass, but Twyford Down was possibly even more significant, as the proposal to cut through the down (a Site of Special Scientific Interest) to make the M3 a continuous road drew a wide coalition of protestors, many of whom were solidly middle-class (conservative in every sense of the world) professionals of the sort the government and the right-wing media couldn’t simply dismiss as troublemakers, anarchists and hippies.

I didn’t know much of this at the time. Nor did I clock, aged 13, the references that Galliano were playing with in Twyford Down the song. OK, I got the opening quote from The Teddy Bear’s Picnic, but the resemblance of the fuzzed-out guitar riff to the style of Ernie Isley went straight over my head. As did the fact that the chorus – “Maybe it’s the time of year, or maybe the time of man, I don’t know” – is a more-or-less direct quote from Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock. Nor did I get the similarity of the massed backing vocals at the end of the song to the chant-like incantations you hear on, for example, Roy Ayers tracks like Everybody Loves the Sunshine. All these reference points were way beyond me. When I heard Twyford Down again last year and realised quite how much Galliano owed to Laurel Canyon rock as well as black soul music, I was surprised but also delighted.

The battle for Twyford Down was lost, of course, as these battles usually are in the end. But the protesters gave the government enough of a bloody nose to contribute to the  change in road-building policy in the UK. If you build more roads, you encourage more traffic, on and on, without end, until there won’t be any more green spaces to build roads through. The policy of building of yet more trunk roads, and the egregious proposal to carve another motorway through the Pennines, were dropped by John Major’s weakened government, and has not yet reappeared.

Galliano’s song stands as a monument to a time when the environmental battles we faced, or read about in the news, were localised, small scale and did seem winnable. Would that it were so now. As such, Twyford Down may seem almost quaint today. But we’d do well to listen, recognise its mix of cold anger and warm communitarianism, and learn from it. We need such songs more than ever.

 

Mama Roux – Dr John

Dr John’s latter-day reputation as an avuncular ivory-tinkling presence on the margins of pop culture, liable to pop up on TV every so often to sing a good-humoured rendition of Iko-Iko, before disappearing back to Louisiana to play ragtime piano in a bar, is at serious odds with his early music.

Dr John was born Malcolm John Rebennack in, of course, New Orleans in 1941. He was a promising guitar player, beginning to make his way in the local music industry, until an accident with a gun (he was trying to disarm someone holding up his friend and the gun went off) left him with a damaged ring finger on his fretting hand. Unable to regain the feeling and movement needed to play guitar as he had previously, he switched to piano, and developed a style indebted to Professor Longhair.

During a couple of years of session playing in LA, he cooked up an idea. What could you do by mixing up jazz and R&B and rock with voodoo mythology and a theatrical, Screaming Jay Hawkins-style stage show? He decided, after pondering a while, that you could do quite a lot, and his old friend Harold Battiste (who was an oboe player and arranger for Phil Spector) agreed.

Rebennack wanted another friend, Robbie Barron, to assume the Dr John persona, but Barron’s manager convinced him it would be a bad career move. So Rebennack, clad in a headdress that would never go over these days, took on the role of Dr John himself. His creation, Dr John Creaux, was a sort of witch doctor/voodoo priest, presiding over a band made up of LA session pros, some of whom were fellow NOLA transplants.

Gris Gris, Dr John’s debut album, was recorded at Gold Star in Los Angeles, where Spector and the Beach Boys did much of their work, but it could scarcely be further away in sound or mood from sunny LA pop. With its sound world of mandolin, bass clarinet, multitudinous percussion instruments, snaky bass grooves and sparing use of keyboards and electric guitars, the songs on Gris Gris sound like the accompaniment to a sinister ritual taking place deep in the Bayou Sauvage. Backing singers chant incantations and Rebennack slips in and out of English and Cajun French, as he wheedles you into trying his potions and gris gris, warning you all the time not to cross him. Three of the album’s seven tracks are eerie quasi-instrumentals with vocal chants.

Mama Roux is one of the album’s two relatively traditional songs – the tracks with the most connection to what Rebennack has done since his fifth album, Dr John’s Gumbo, remade his image and sound and cast him as a more cuddly, good-time kind of figure (I’d love it if he’d gone back to his voodoo-doctor roots when asked to provide the theme to the TV show Blossom, but alas no). The rhythm track isn’t straight two-and-four stuff on a drum kit (like the other songs on the record, it puts equal weight on shakers, congas, timbales, talking drums and other assorted percussion), and the ridiculously deep bass comes from organ pedals rather than a bass guitar, but it’s essentially an R&B tune at heart. If you like the weird edge it has, check out the whole album. It’s one of a kind.

Spurs reach the Champions League final

Please forgive me one of my very infrequent football-related blogs.

To say that I’ve been waiting a long time for my team, Tottenham Hotspur, to reach the Champions League Final (the European football equivalent of the Super Bowl) is at once a vast understatement and an enormous untruth. Yes, I’ve dreamed about Spurs reaching the final of the major European cup competition it since I began following football 29 years ago, the season English teams were allowed back into European competition after the five-year ban. But saying that I’ve “waited for it” implies that I thought it might actually happen.

I didn’t.

For most of the 29 years I’ve followed Spurs, we’ve been a punchline for a certain type of football supporter (usually the type who support Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal or – for different reasons they’d not want to admit to – West Ham). Not because we were terrible, but because we were either mediocre or good but not quite good enough. We had a habit of losing games that were winnable, and of being just threatening enough to consistently provoke good performances from the teams above us in the league but not good enough to ever actually beat them.

Rival fans have had a lot of fun at our expense down the years when we’ve lost big games, crowing about St Totteringham’s Day and Spursiness, and quoting Alex Ferguson’s “Lads, it’s Tottenham” team talk. I’m sure many will find the joy of Tottenham fans today laughable, and mock us for not acting like we’ve been there.

But we haven’t.

Under Chairman Daniel Levy, Spurs (while wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of lower-league football teams), have operated on a much lower budget than the Liverpools and Uniteds of this world, refusing to change our wage structure, scrapping hard to keep our best players but knowing that ultimately they’d move on to a club that would pay them more and offer them a chance to compete for the league and Europe’s big prize. As well as losing our best players because they wanted to get paid and win things, we seldom attracted top managerial talent, for the exact same reasons; as recently as five years ago we were managed by “Tactical” Tim Sherwood, who had no more qualification to be coaching Spurs than I did.

So for any passing Chelsea, Arsenal or United fan, this is why it means something to those of us who’ve been following Spurs for more than the last few years. Because we remember when Spurs Monthly ran the cover story “The Big Catch!” because we’d signed Newcastle winger Ruel Fox. Because for a couple of years we played Gary Doherty every week. Because we always knew we’d one day lose Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Carrick, Sol Campbell and Gareth Bale to teams with more money and more on-the-field prospects than us.

Getting Spurs to this point has taken roughly 15 years, since the start of the Martin Jol era, with many setbacks along the way (the aforementioned Tim Sherwood). It would be disingenuous to say we’ve done it on no money, but our rise has been a very different story to Chelsea’s and Manchester City’s. It’s been a gradual process, one that involved making Spurs European regulars via the UEFA Cup/Europa League, then top-four contenders, then Champions League regulars. Slow and steady, a little more every year. As such, you have to credit not just Daniel Levy and the brilliant Mauricio Pochettino, but also Jol and Harry Redknapp, and players such as Ledley King and Jermain Defoe, who endured the ups and downs along with the fans.

Right now – a brand-new stadium and a Champions League final – this might be as good as it ever gets for Spurs. We might lose the final, our brilliant manager Mauricio Pochettino might go elsewhere, Christian Eriksen might refuse a new contract, Harry Kane might one day snap his ankle ligaments beyond repair. You have to enjoy the moment while you’re in it. So that’s what we’ll do. And those of us who recall 1991-2004 will enjoy it all the more.

Come on you Spurs!

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It means this much.

Sunday – Sonic Youth

I was 15 in 1998, and with a morning paper round and a summer-holiday lifting-and-shifting job at Westminster Cathedral (that’s the Byzantine-looking Roman Catholic one near Victoria station, not the Gothic Abbey at Parliament Square) I had money to spend on records. For whatever reason, I concentrated my spending on contemporary albums, some by bands whose music I already knew, others who I’d just read about and thought sounded cool. To this day, I probably have more records from 1998 than any other year.

The most forbidding of these albums (if I don’t count the 1986 Throwing Muses debut, reissued as part of the In a Doghouse double-CD set that autumn) was Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves. Sonic Youth were an acknowledged influence on some of the bands I loved most, so when they brought out a new major-label record out after a 3-year gap – enjoying the single Sunday and eager to pay my respects – I picked up a copy.

It wasn’t what I’d been expecting. It wasn’t quite the squonkfest I’d been readying myself for; and anyway, at this point, I could deal with noise. What made it forbidding to a youngish kid was the sheer length of the thing: 73 minutes, with three songs clocking over nine minutes each. I had heard a lot of noisy and agressive music, but songs that distended or abandoned conventional verse-chorus structures were a new territory. Consequently, I got on much better with the relatively concise Sunday than anything else on the record.

Sonic Youth had released shortish “pop” songs before (their early-1990s singles: Kool Thing, Dirty Boots, 100%, and so on), but Sunday was different in its autumnal melancholy. In their long career, Sonic Youth had been provocative, gleeful, mischievous, silly, funny, angry, flirty, all kinds of things. For the first time, on A Thousand Leaves in general and on Sunday in particular, Sonic Youth sounded sad, and old (less so on Kim Gordon’s songs, to be fair).

Partly this is due to man-of-the-match Lee Ranaldo’s guitar, which sighs during the verses and screams in the obligatory mid-song freakout, and partly it comes down to the mix, which (typically for them) places much more weight on guitars than drums; the energy of Steve Shelley’s Krautrock-ish drumming – the song is suprisingly brisk – is obscured (negated, even) by Thurston Moore’s draggy Jazzmaster strums.

In the context of the thoughtful lyric and resigned delivery, what does a mid-song guitar freakout mean, anyway? It’s pretty short, lasting only 30 seconds or so, and avoids the more challenging harmonic territory they explored elsewhere, but it feels integral to the song to me as a sort of internal commentary on the ennui professed by Moore’s vocal; this is what’s really going on, it seems to say. This is how it really feels.

Sunday, fittingly, avoids coming to any kind of strong conclusion, and doesn’t even fade out. It just sort of stops, with no resolution reached and nothing likely to change. Sunday never ends, indeed.