The great Roger Hawkins has passed away at the age of 75 after a long illness.
A member of the famous Swampers rhythm section that made their name at FAME studios, becoming so sought-after that they went on to cofound their own place – Muscle Shoals Sound Studio – Hawkins was one of the very greatest studio drummers. Mustang Sally, Chain of Fools, Land of 1000 Dances, Respect, When a Man Loves a Woman – all Roger Hawkins. Ditto Paul Simon’s Kodachrome, the Staples’ I’ll Take You There and Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock & Roll.
The thing that set Hawkins apart was feel, judgement and discipline. Don’t play a tom fill while the singer is singing, said Hawkins in an interview when asked about what it takes to be a studio drummer. It sounds a simple enough maxim to live by, but few enough do. Even fewer can pair that taste and restraint with a backbeat that simply compels you to move.
Hawkins was inimitable, and like many of the truly great musicians, he was incredibly modest. When asked what made him a successful studio drummer, he always said that he was a better listener than he was a technician. But really, listening is the whole thing. In a small-group context, whether it’s folk, jazz, metal or R&B, there’s no great musician who isn’t first and foremost a great listener. Hawkins’s ability to listen and feel, to channel emotion through a musical performance, was rare and unbelievably special. He was one of the best there ever has been, or ever will be.
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.
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.