Monthly Archives: May 2020

Lost in the Cosmos – Sons of Bill

Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos is the sound of a man coming apart but desperately trying to hold himself together. “Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos, I am the wind,” he croaks as the song begins. While we guess immediately from the sound of his voice that it’s not working well for him, Bell’s next line – “but that don’t get you back again” – is a particularly stark way of confirming it. You can be as vast and complex and unknowable as the cosmos, or as powerful and elemental as the wind, he’s saying, but it won’t mean you’re not alone.

All songwriters try to find ways to encapsulate and universalise feelings like this. The good ones do it now and then. Few can do it repeatedly. Bell was one who could, which is one of the reasons why, with only a small body of work to his name*, he remains an inspiration to musicians more than 40 years after his death.

Released in 2014 on the album Love and Logic, Lost in the Cosmos (Song for Chris Bell) by Sons of Bill is a meditation on Bell’s short, tragic life. Written mainly by the band’s keyboard player Abe Wilson, sung by his brother James Wilson and with a soaring guitar solo by Sam Wilson (the three brothers are, indeed, the sons of Bill – college professor and songwriter Bill Wilson), Lost in the Cosmos is a conscious attempt at myth-making on behalf of the overlooked driving force of Big Star in their early years. “James and I were listening to a lot of Big Star,” Abe Wilson told Rolling Stone, “and we decided that Chris Bell really needed a song of his own. The Replacements have already given Alex Chilton a song, but Chris needed some love, too.”

Slow and stately in 6/8 time, built on the simplest of chord changes and decorated with pedal steel and a melody that you swear you’ve heard before but can’t quite place, Lost in the Cosmos doesn’t sound like a Chris Bell song. It doesn’t share the quicksilver quality that Bell’s best tunes have; rather, it sounds like it’s been dug out of the earth. But it’s a moving tribute to the spirit of a songwriter who’s still sadly in the shadow of his former bandmate Chilton.

*Bell left behind half a dozen songs on the first Big Star album, #1 Record, and a solo record, I Am the Cosmos, that was released posthumously. His songs on #1 Record include In the Street (a cover of which was later used as the theme for That ’70s Show), the joyfully ebullient My Life is Right and the aching Try Again. Alex Chilton may have penned Thirteen and The Ballad of El Goodo, but Bell’s contributions – in terms of writing and arrangement – were critical to #1 Record.

The Last Dance

The title sequence of Netflix’s The Last Dance features 12 shots of Michael Jordan, compared to only two each of Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen, one of Steve Kerr, and five of coach Phil Jackson, which without saying anything, says a lot.

Nominally the story of the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 NBA Championship campaign, the Repeat Three-peat season, Netflix’s The Last Dance would have been better titled “The Life and Career of Michael Jordan, Superstar”. While the archive footage of His Airness in his prime is every bit as spectacular and life-affirming as you could hope, and makes a convincing case for Jordan as the greatest sports figure of all time, judged as a documentary The Last Dance isn’t quite what it could have been.

We’re not callow; we know how these things work. The price of Jordan’s participation and and those behind-the-scenes tapes was surely that the series be centred on the great man himself and that it paint an unambiguously positive picture of him. To the extent that he could, director Jason Hehir asks Jordan about his gambling and includes clips that show him to have been a domineering and imperious teammate, and Pippen, Rodman, Kerr, Jackson, owner Jerry Reinsdorf and GM Jerry Krause got their brief moments in the spotlight. Hehir’s chosen structure – roughly half of each episode dedicated to the 1997-1998 campaign and the rest flashing back to either key moments in Jordan’s career or one of the five previous victorious Bulls seasons – is an elegant solution to the problem of making it about the team while keeping it primarily about Jordan. The issue is more that for a documentary that does bill itself as the story of the Bulls and is named after Phil Jackson’s name for that final, valedictory campaign, its focus on its star player means there are stories within the main story that are not fully told.

Still, the research and clearance work by Hehir’s team results in a pretty glorious assemblage of archive footage. I was a young basketball fan in the early 1990s in the UK, with no way to see games live; those I did see were recorded by a friend of mine who had satellite TV, and lent to me to watch a few days after the fact. So while I did see Jordan play in his pomp, I didn’t get to see as much as I’d have liked, and I’d forgotten so much about how dominant he was. What I find striking now is the physicality of his game – how tough he had to be and much he bulked up to compensate for the roughhousing tactics of the Pistons, the Knicks et al – and his ability to guide the ball into the basket when all routes seemed blocked, often drawing fouls when doing so. With the shoes and the hangtime and all, its easy to forget that Jordan’s hands were where the points really came from. The behind-the-scenes stuff is likewise fascinating, and Jordan – usually the most guarded and wary of interviewees – is a little more voluble than you might expect.

The Last Dance is, then, best enjoyed as a series-length highlight reel of a player of almost boundless creativity and energy, but which also has some interesting sidebars on his most noteworthy teammates and the dynamic between them.

 

 

 

Tell It Like It Is – Aaron Neville

It may sound illogical, but the million-selling Tell It Like It Is – still Aaron Neville’s signature song, 50 years after he recorded – bankrupted the company that manufactured and distributed it.

In 1966, Aaron Neville was approached by writer and arranger George Davis, part-time session saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler and teacher Warren Parker, who were partners in a new production company called Par-Lo Enterprises. Davis was friends with a musician called Wilbert Smith, who wrote and performed as Lee Diamond. Diamond had the beginnings of a new song called Tell It Like It Is. Davis loved the hook and the title, and thought it sounded like a hit, but Diamond was in trouble with the law and was sent to prison before he could write any lyrics, so Davis was left to finish the song.

Neville agreed to cut it, so went into the studio with a band that included Davis on baritone sax, Emory Thomas on trumpet, Deacon John on guitar, Tyler on tenor, Willie Tee on piano and Gentleman June Gardner (born plain Albert Gardner, but Gentleman June Gardner is such a wonderful name) behind the drums.

Delighted with the recording, Davis and Parker took it to New York and were frustrated to find no one willing to release it. So they decided to turn Par-Lo Enterprises into a for-real record label and put it out themselves. They pressed 2000 singles and signed a distribution deal with Dover Records. To ensure local airplay, and hence local sales, Par-Lo made the ill-advised decision to give WYLD’s Larry McKinley – then the most popular DJ in New Orleans – 50% of the record’s publishing.

The bribe did its job. McKinley played the hell out of Tell It Like It Is. Wouldn’t you if you had a 50% financial stake in its success? Soon other stations across Louisiana were doing the same. Dover Records reported selling 40,000 singles in a single week, just in New Orleans. Gradually the song broke across the country, topping the national R&B charts for five weeks and reaching number two in the pop charts early in 1966. All told, the single sold about two million, so Par-Lo rushed out an album, also called Tell It Like It Is.

Neville should have been set up from all this success. Unfortunately, Par-Lo and Dover were inexperienced, small-time players, trying to do business like the big boys but not quite knowing what they were doing. Dover kept plying distributors with freebies long after it stopped being necessary, giving away 300 free copies for every 1000 actually sold. Soon, wth Dover making only two-thirds of the income they should have been making and Par-Lo only making half, as they’d given McKinley 50% of the publishing royalties, neither record company Par-Lo nor distributor Dover could pay the bills they’d amassed for pressing, shipping and promotion, and they had no money left to pay the taxman, either.

With all of Dover’s and Par-Lo’s assets seized by the IRS, Neville was left, again, without a label or all the money due to him. Perhaps that’s why he’s rerecorded Tell It Like It Is several times (a decent version from the 1970s, with Neville backed by the Meters, was the first one I ever heard; my mum picked up a cheapie Aaron Neville compilation that included it), but the original, the one he cut at 25 that saved him from a life spent drifting between longshoreman jobs and petty-criminal scams, is still the finest. Indeed, it’s a classic, a belter, one of the very best.

I’m indebted to an OffBeat Magazine article for the backstory to this wonderful song. For fans of New Orleans music, OffBeat is a treasure trove.

If a 10-minute distraction would help right now, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.

True – Operators

I first became aware of Dan Boeckner on hearing the album he made in 2012 with Spoon’s Britt Daniel under the band name Divine Fits (A Thing Called Divine Fits). By that time, Boeckner had already been a member of Atlas Strategic, Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs, but since I’d been essentially divorced from and uninterested in indie rock in the noughties, he was a new name to me. The hook for me with Divine Fits, who I caught up with a couple of years after the release of their sole album, was the presence of Britt Daniel, as I was a new convert to Spoon, with a zealot’s devotion.

Daniel’s work on A Thing Called Divine Fits was good, but Boeckner’s was better. Spoon are the ideal vehicle for Daniel’s songs and voice; there’s something alchemical that happens when he sings over Jim Eno’s drumming, and Eno wasn’t involved with Divine Fits. Boeckner is a very different vocal presence to Daniel. Daniel has a wiry, edgy intensity, his nasal vocals always a little ragged, as if he may blow out his voice any moment. Boeckner has more of a conventional rock star thing going on vocally; my friend Sara, who’s responsible for my Spoon fandom, called Boeckner “that Bono guy”, and there’s something in that, something of the same messianic fervour.

After Divine Fits, Boeckner began a new project called Operators. The band released their first EP, imaginatively titled EP1, in 2014. Opening track True seemed to get the push to radio; at any rate, it was the song I heard on KEXP, and it’s one I still come back to now. The band’s mix of vintage synths, sequenced and acoustic rhythms, and passionate vocals is not especially unique – there are echoes especially of sundry DFA* productions, but also early Depeche Mode and, on EP1’s other tracks, OMD – but it’s hard to deny once everything falls into lock step, 40 seconds or so into True.

There are lots of cool production and arrangement touches, courtesy of the band’s programmer and synth player Devojka, who’s also a vocal presence in the choruses (most of the high-pitched vocals comes from Boeckner’s voice run through an octaver, an effect they duplicate in live performance) – Operators are definitely a band, with the contributions of Devojka and drummer Sam Brown crucial to the effect.

Anthemic electronic pop,  worth your time.

 

*Although in one interview Dan Boeckner contrasted his band’s relatively stripped-down approach to LCD Soundsystem: “You don’t have to be James Murphy with $50k worth of vintage gear onstage to make something that sounds interesting.”

**Not that Sam Brown, Another one.

Indian Queens – Nick Lowe

I’ve come up dry this week. I’ve been busy doing mixes for James McKean’s next record, as well as stuff by Yo Zushi, Mel and myself, and I’ve hardly listened to music other than the stuff I’m working on. I’ve pulled this one out of my archives. It’s about a record I’ve written about before, but you’ll forgive me, I hope. Stay safe and well.

The study of place names is a means of studying history and topography. The place-name element “ford”, as you would imagine, means a shallow a river crossing. Catford is the place where cattle crossed the river; Oxford, the place where oxen did likewise. “Ham” means a village or dwelling. Lewisham (the “Lewis” bit deriving from “læsew”, meaning meadow) means a village, or house, in the meadow. Birmingham is the dwelling place of the Beormingas, the followers of a leader called Beorma. A “hurst” is a wooded hill; Chislehurst means literally “gravel hill”. The ubiquitous place-name elements “chester”, “caster” and “cester” all derive from “castrum”, the Roman word for a fort.

Know a bit about place names, and already you know whether the place is built by a river or on a hill, whether it’s inland or coastal, wooded or farmed, and even how long it’s been there.

What are we to make, then, of Indian Queens in Cornwall?

By all accounts, the village was named for its inn, called at various points The Indian Queen and The Indian Queens. The pub had a small porch and displayed as a sign the portrait of an “Indian” queen. An inscription on the porch told the story of a Portuguese princess who landed at Falmouth and slept one night at the inn on her way to London. Her Mediterranean appearance gave the locals, who had little context for any skin tone other than the three basic British types (milky white, ruddy red for those who work outside, and midday beetroot for heavy drinkers) the impression that she was Indian. Whether they meant by that a West Indian, a Native American or South Asian is, again, debated. Some fanciful types even like to imagine the woman in question was not Portuguese but was, in fact, Pocahontas on her way to be shown off to London society.

Indian Queens is the title of a song by Nick Lowe, from his 2001 album, The Convincer. At the time, Lowe was only 52, but in the cover image, as he sat cigarette in hand, resplendent in silver quiff, blue blazer, cufflinks, pinstriped shirt and pale tie, he looked closer to the age he is now (70). Thanks to his tobacco-thickened voice, he sounded older, too, which is appropriate for Indian Queens, as a younger singer would have trouble selling this story of an itinerant sailor who’s been all around the world, making mistakes everywhere, and now longing for the village of his youth.

Indian Queens, evocative and intriguing though the name is, plays little part in the song itself. Lowe could have chosen anything that fit the metre. But character sketches like this song live or die on the little details, and the fact that our narrator comes from a small village in Cornwall with a somewhat improbable name is a exactly the kind of thing that brings both character and song to life.

I love Lowe’s work on The Convincer. It’s a low-stakes record, but in paring his sound and lyrical approach down to their barest essentials (the economy of language in Indian Queens is massively impressive – he sketches situations and characters in just a line or two of simple, mainly one-syllable words), Lowe made what might be the best album of his career sound like something he just dashed off in a couple of evenings with his mates. The man’s a damn genius.

If a 10-minute distraction would help right now, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.