Category Archives: Uncategorized

Life update

Hi everyone. My apologies for not having posted in a while. Things have been happening.

Yep, Melanie and I got married! I proposed nearly two years ago and we set a date for last September (2020). Covid got in the way, of course, so we pushed everything a year down the road, as a late summer/early autumn wedding was still our first choice, not just as the time to have the ceremony but also as the best season for our honeymoon in northern Italy and the south of France. The latter didn’t really work out (we pushed it to next June and went on a UK mini-moon instead in the Peak District), but the wedding was able to go ahead as planned, and it was made all the more special that we were able to see so many friends and family members in one place, and in person, after the last 18 months.

Between planning the wedding, starting a new job back in June and rehearsing for the Watertown Carps album launch show this coming Wednesday, I’ve been super-busy all round, and haven’t really had the time or the mental bandwidth to blog very much for the last few months. That might begin to change now. In the meantime, I hope you and yours have all been well, and thank you for your patience.

Norman Lloyd RIP

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.

Lloyd, losing his grip on Lady Liberty in Saboteur

Thoughts on John and Beverley Martyn

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn by Graeme Thompson and Beverley Martyn’s Sweet Honesty: The Beverley Martyn Story. Here are some thoughts. I’m not really going into the music in depth here. I’ve written about John Martyn elsewhere on this blog several times if you’re looking for that. I’ve not gone into specifics about John Martyn’s abuse of Beverley; nonetheless, CW.

In 2001, thanks to James McKean playing me Fine Lines in the house we shared in Lewisham, I became a John Martyn fan, and picked up his entire seventies discography over the next two or three years.

It wasn’t until I saw Johnny Too Bad on BBC4 in around 2004 that I realised Martyn was not a nice guy, that his mellow-old-soak routine could turn on a dime into hostility and physical aggression. You could still see it and sense it, but his edge had by then been blunted by his health conditions; during the course of the documentary, he has his leg amputated, and over the next few years, largely wheelchair bound, he would grow hugely overweight and progressively more frail. At that point, he was mainly a danger to himself.

In the 1970s and 1980s, though, he was a danger to anyone who looked at him in a way he didn’t like, including, more than anyone, his first wife, Beverley.

The two had met in the late 1960s, when they were both up-and-coming singer-songwriters in the London folk scene. At the time, Beverley Kutner was the bigger name of the two. She had been in a fairly successful jug band called the Levee Breakers, released some singles on Deram Records (also home at the time to the still-obscure David Bowie), been offered a contract by EMI, which her boyfriend Bert Jansch advised her to turn down out (she believes out of professional jealousy), and been in a relationship with a visiting Paul Simon, which is how she ended up performing at Monterey Pop as the guest of Simon and Garfunkel and travelling all over the States, making contacts and meeting the great and the good.

John Martyn had not been at Monterey, he had not been out with famous folk stars, whether homegrown or international, nor had he hung out with Peter Fonda and David Crosby in LA. Mentored by Scottish singer-songwriter Hamish Imlach, a Rabelasian figure whom Martyn would increasingly resemble physically as he aged, Martyn moved to London in his late teens, scoring a deal with Island. Despite label boss Chris Blackwell’s belief in Martyn and his music, his first two albums were not successful, and didn’t really deserve to be. Martyn, unlike Jansch (a rival with whom Martyn more than once came to blows) or Nick Drake (a friend who seemed to bring out Martyn’s gentler, best side), did not arrive fully formed.

But for all her early successes, neither did Kutner. When she and Martyn pitched up in Woodstock, NY, to record what would become Stormbringer! in 1969, both were – being generous – improving singer-songwriters. Originally slated by Joe Boyd, her mentor, as a Beverley Martyn (the couple were newlyweds) solo album, it became instead a duo record, with John writing six of the album’s ten songs, and his fingerprints more evident on the finished product than hers.

Boyd didn’t like John Martyn all that much, as a man or a writer. There was no outright hostility between them at this point, but their relationship was edgy. Boyd came round to Stormbringer! during the course of production, and ended up thinking it was a decent album despite John’s involvement, but he’s expressed regret many times at how Beverley’s career became intertwined with John’s, to its detriment.

Released in February 1970, Stormbringer! is a record that’s promising and intermittently great rather than consistently accomplished. The band that Paul Harris (pianist and musical director for the sessions) assembled was superb, with Harvey Brooks on bass and top-tier drumming talent in the shape of the Mothers’ Billy Mundi, The Band’s Levon Helm and session great Herbie Lovell. But only a few of the songs are worthy of the stellar backing they received.

One of them, the title track, is magisterial – John Martyn’s greatest early song, with beautifully empathetic support from Harris’s piano and Lovell’s drums. Rollicking opener Go Out and Get It works well, as does John the Baptist. Both songs suggest a pretty heavy influence from The Band. But Traffic Light Lady and Woodstock are twee and forgettable, and Would You Believe Me fails to nail the heavy, spooky mood it shoots for. Kutner’s songs are, on the whole, less successful still, with static melodies and blue notes that don’t quite work. Sweet Honesty, arranged (presumably by Martyn and Harris) in a similar style to John the Baptist and Go Out and Get It, works best by placing more emphasis on groove, reducing the importance of lyric and tune. But at eight minutes, it overstays its welcome.

Stormbringer! is, then, almost certainly a better record as John and Beverley Martyn album than it would have been as a Beverley solo release. But knowing that Martyn elbowed his way into the picture then took over his wife’s artistic project is always there in the background, making listening to the record uncomfortable, as it appears this was an early manisfestation of the controlling and abusive behaviour he would exhibit for the rest of their marriage. Indeed, Beverley Martyn writes that it was during their time in Woodstock that Martyn was first violent towards her, after a party at which they met Bob Dylan.

The Road to Ruin was recorded and released in 1970, marking a busy 12 months for the Martyns. This time, they recorded at home base for many of the artists signed to Island and/or Joe Boyd’s Witchseason production company, Sound Techniques in Chelsea, with a band once again led by Harris and featuring Fairport’s Dave Pegg, Mike Kowalski, Alan Spenner and saxophonists Ray Warleigh and Dudu Pukwana.

It’s decidedly less of a rock album than Stormbringer! The drums are mixed lower, and the vibe generally – enhanced by the presence of saxophonists on the songs – is more jazzy, but Auntie Aviator at least (co-credited to John and Beverley, but claimed by Beverley as mainly her work) recreates the Stormbringer! template of pensive piano, woodily downtuned acoustic guitar and rock rhythm section.

In the end, the album’s most crucial tracks in John Martyn’s career were the acoustic Parcels (in which he sang low in his range, with a backing of his guitar, Harris’s piano and congas) and New Day, which features on double bass Danny Thompson, who would go on to be Martyn’s great musical partner throughout the seventies. Beverley, meanwhile, contributed her finest original song – Primrose Hill, a lovely evocation of early-seventies bohemian north London, which has been sampled by Norman Cook for North West Three, a track from 2004 Fatboy Slim album Palookaville. (Auntie Aviator, meanwhile, has been sampled by Bristolian hip-hop group Aspects.)

After The Road to Ruin, the Martyns largely stopped recording and gigging together, not that they’d ever done a lot of that. A full-band launch gig for Stormbringer! with Nick Drake in support at the Queen Elizabeth Hall had gone so badly, in John’s view at least, that he called it the most humiliating moment of his career, and blamed it on the lack of interplay between himself and other musicians.

The inescapable conclusion is that he was never much interested in being in a duo with his wife as any kind of permanent arrangement. Perhaps he muscled in simply not wanting to be overshadowed by Beverley or miss out on any opportunities Joe Boyd offered her. Once it became clear that it wasn’t going to give him what he wanted, he moved on. Coincidentally or not, it was then that he found the relationship with Danny Thompson and the improvisatory style melding jazz, folk and rock that would power his albums from Bless the Weather through to Live at Leeds, after which he would record One World and largely leave folk guitar picking behind*.

As ever with John Martyn, we have to somehow reconcile the often extraordinary music he made with his terrible personal behaviour. Reading Beverley Martyn’s book, or even Graeme Thompson’s Small Hours, is often harrowing. Martyn’s physical abuse of Beverley steadily escalated until she left him in 1979. Even after that, the abuse continued in the form of bare-legal-minimum maintenance payments that left her and their children broke in a dilapidated house in Heathfield, sometimes depending on charity from friends, including a visiting Art Garfunkel. Perhaps related to her treatment by John, Beverley Martyn has been through periods where she’s struggled with her mental health.

Some will, no doubt, use that as a means to dismiss her testimony regarding Martyn’s abuses. For me, the central charges all stick – Graeme Thompson includes them in his book without questioning their veracity, with more than enough corroborating witnesses who saw their relationship at close hand.

Which brings us circling back round again to this question that keeps coming up these days – what to do, as a longtime fan of Martyn’s work, about the fact that he behaved in ways that were both criminal and appalling?

Artistic legacies are not value neutral. Who gets remembered, whose work is preserved and made available for future generations, is not merely about whose work is the best, or the most morally pure, even. It is mediated by commerce: does it make financial sense to continue to preserve this digital archive?

Clearly, it will continue to be profitable to preserve John Martyn’s music. The fact that his songs have been covered by other, bigger-name, artists (most notably, Clapton’s version of May You Never) means that there will always be a stream of people coming to Martyn’s music through that connection. Others will hear of him having first become fans of Nick Drake, or perhaps Fairport Convention.

Martyn’s music will live on. He will not, no matter what some of his more neanderthal fans say, be cancelled by woke warriors and SJWs. They – we, if you want to hang those labels on me – don’t have that power. Never have, never will.

One could, in the truest sense of the word, cancel him (that is, one could choose to exclude his work from one’s personal canon, not listen to it, and endeavour not to give him brain space either – to live as though he never existed), but his work will be preserved by the industry for others to listen to. And others will, and they will be influenced by and copy what they hear; his Solid Air-era acoustic guitar style, that percussive slap on the strings, is already part of guitarist’s lexicon, as it’s such a useful halfway house between picking and strumming.

For me, my reaction to Martyn and his music is in a state of flux. I find myself thinking again and again of the wise conclusion from Ann Powers’s essay, What it’s Like Listening to Michael Jackson Now, written shortly after Leaving Neverland aired:

As I write now, my critic’s impulse to draw neat conclusions nearly overcomes me: I want to provide closure for you, the reader, and maybe even more so for myself. But if I’m going to genuinely represent what it’s like to listen to Michael Jackson after Leaving Neverland, I have to ask you to stay with me in an uncomfortable place. In some way, this is what criticism, what engaging with culture as a thinking person, always strives to do. Yet it’s so easy to stop short. To revel in the boldly stated conclusion. To indulge in the flush of strong positive feelings. To rest in the perceived authority of the self-appointed jurist and turn away from the role that a deeper engagement with culture, in all its imperfections and even moral shortcomings, can offer: the chance to be a trustworthy witness. If culture builds itself through revelations, explorations, secrets and lies, any response that doesn’t claim the contradictions gets it wrong.

https://www.npr.org/2019/05/11/722198385/before-and-after-listening-to-michael-jackson-and-accusers?t=1613551586694

As Powers says elsewhere in her essay, the challenge is to stay present while listening, if listening is what we choose to do. And, as I argued a couple of weeks ago in re Phil Spector, not to delude yourself into thinking that the art absolves the artist in any way. It can’t and it doesn’t. We must hold on to the fact that the artist’s art and his crimes are both irreduceable, ineradicable. They don’t separate neatly, and they are equal facets of the person. You can play death-of-the-author mind tricks with yourself if you want, but the simple fact is that John Martyn’s career depended on his wife’s support and domestic labour. His art – itself often domestic in scale and subject – resists any attempt to prise it free of the circumstances of its making. Listening to it is uncomfortable, even – perhaps especially – when it’s the art that he and Beverley created together.

*Interestingly, Beverley claims she wrote the hook of one of his greatest songs, Don’t Wanna Know from Solid Air, for which she never recieved credit or royalties. My tendency when reading her book is always to trust her testimony, but I struggle with this one a little, because in both tune and sentiment it seems so typical of John’s style. But if true, it was disgraceful behaviour by him.

Murderer, record producer dies

Whatever we may think of Phil Spector’s productions, however much we may either hate the man for his crimes or look for mitigating factors, it’s impossible to tell the story of pop music without him – which is why I’m writing this now. He sold too many records and influenced too many talented people to not acknowledge his death at least briefly, whatever our feelings about his work or whether one should be able to separate the art from the artist.

What Spector’s art can’t do – what armchair diagnoses of mental illness or trauma can’t do; no such professional diagnosis was ever made – is in any way mitigate his crimes and abuses: murdering Lana Clarkson, beating and terrorising Ronnie Spector and keeping her a prisoner in her own home, and pulling guns on numerous other artists who hired him. Penance and remorse could have perhaps have done that, maybe; Be My Baby cannot.

It’s possible that, like tragic Jim Gordon – the session drummer who killed his mother during a psychotic episode in 1983, was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and remains in a psychiatric hospital today – Spector was genuinely mentally ill and we should feel compassion for him as well as his victims. But since, as I say, no professional diagnosis was ever made, it’s more likely that he was just a louse.

From what I’ve seen, no one who’s been paid to report or comment on Spector’s death is trying to whitewash his crimes. Yes, there have been some crassly worded headlines and tweets, and in the Daily Mail some horrendously misogynistic imagery choices, but all the articles I’ve seen deal with Clarkson’s murder in as much depth as his professional successes. The coverage has mostly gotten it right but can’t resolve in us the question of how to feel about Spector, his music or his death.

I could go around in circles all day on this. Regular readers will have seen me grapple with issues like this before, and will know that I don’t have a coherent and consistent philosophical approach to dealing with art by abusers and criminals. Perhaps if I’m making my way towards one, it’s this: I don’t think art made by bad people should be off limits, but we should always remember their victims, and we should never think that the art somehow absolves the crimes.

I’ll have to leave it somewhere, so I’ll leave it there: Phil Spector’s dead, but so is Lana Clarkson, and that matters more.

Hatherley, Koram and Lemmey on Morrissey

Not too long after the fantastic Bad Gays podcast on Morrissey (an audio essay by writer Huw Lemmey) comes a Politics, Theory, Other podcast featuring Kojo Koram and Owen Hatherley. Hatherley also wrote an excellent essay a few months ago on Morrissey’s journey from a figure on the anti-Thatcher left (a complicated, small-c conservative left) to – well, how far can I go without risking being sued? – what he is today.

I was only five when the Smiths broke up, so obviously I didn’t grow up with them, and I never got into them as a teenager, either. My loyalty was to indie music from the US. The Smiths to me lacked muscle and aggression – their music didn’t provoke that physical rush in me that, for whatever reason, I needed as a younger teen – and by the time I was seventeen or eighteen I’d formed the opinion that Morrissey was too arch, too fey, to speak either to me or for me. I liked musicians who said what they meant and meant what they said, even if as a result their lyrics were either hopelessly obscure at the one extreme or completely artless at the other. Morrissey always seemed to be hiding something behind a persona several layers deep, which he was constantly drawing attention to, inviting listeners to peel him like an onion. That was a game I was uninterested in playing.

As such, I didn’t really hear the fascination with violence in Morrissey’s lyrics that Hatherley keys in on in his essay, and neither did I hear how Morrissey’s romantic longings derived their effect – for fans at least – from the way he masked his sexuality while leaving in enough queer coding for those who knew where to look for it. I wasn’t among those who were looking, and anyway, nothing in my own childhood experience had taught me to pick up those clues. I simply didn’t need Morrissey in the way other kids did.

It was the intense identification from the fans who did need him that allowed Morrissey to shrug off the accusations of racism made against him in the early nineties by musicians including Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh and some writers in the press, most particularly the late Dele Fadele. (These – and the circumstances behind them – are well documented, so I won’t go over them again here.) Many (I would guess most) Smiths fans were (and are) instinctively anti-racist, even if not always in a considered, conscious way, and found it hard to reconcile the uncomfortable treatment of British Asians in Morrissey’s early-1990s solo material with his eighties work with the Smiths, and so took refuge in the idea that, like a British Randy Newman, Morrissey was merely adopting a character, depicting racism to critique it and satirise it.

His behaviour in the years since – his comments about the Chinese, his support for For Britain, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and Nigel Farage, his derogatory remarks about politicians including Diane Abbott and Sadie Khan, his statement that “everyone ultimately prefers their own race” – has put him well past the point where that level of self-deception is tenable for his anti-racist fans. Peel the Morrissey onion enough and what’s revealed is just another tedious expat Little Englander, parrotting all the usual far-right talking points. The only distinguishing thing about this particular tedious Little Englander is that this one has a home in Los Angeles rather than the Costa del Sol. Lemmey, Koram and Hatherley have his number.

Spirited Away – James McKean and the Blueberry Moon

Over the last few years, the majority of live shows I’ve played have been as a guitar player in James McKean and the Blueberry Moon.

I’ve written about James before, but to save you reading an old piece, we met at university some 20 years ago, and we’ve been playing music together more or less ever since. After his old band, the ‘A’ Train, broke up, James began making solo albums, and I’ve been helping him to do it: recording, mixing, playing instruments, co-producing and generally lending a hand wherever I could.

The last James McKean and the Blueberry Moon album was recorded over a number of separate sessions at my flat, James’s flat, my dad’s house and One Cat studio in London (operated by Jon Clayton of Hurtling), with the personnel different on every song. It hangs together remarkably well as an album, but this time, James wanted to record all the basic tracks live at One Cat as a five-piece live band, with Jon engineering, and keep overdubbing to a minimum. The idea was that we’d then have a unified sound throughout the whole record (mission successful), which could be more or less replicated live (mission successful), and get the whole thing done quickly (mission less successful).

The band was/is a really good one (even though I was in it). On drums we had Jono Bell (formerly of the Ligers) and on bass Matt Lloyd (Southern Tenant Folk Union), while ace singer-songwriter Chris Brambley and I played electric guitar, and James played acoustic and sang.

On most songs, that’s the entire instrumental palette, but we also had Basia Bartz of Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band playing violin on two songs, while Nick Frater helped us out with some brass sounds on another couple of songs. James and I handled most of the backing vocals on the record, but we also had extensive contributions from my partner Melanie, as well as Matt and Chris from the band, James’s brother Dan McKean and north London singer-songwriter Jamie Whelligan. Despite being a five-piece band with two lead electric guitarists and a fair amount of harmonies, the results don’t sound very much at all like the Eagles, which given that band’s critical and cultural standing these days, most will take as good news.

While the basic tracks all sounded good and James and I slowly worked on getting lead vocals, harmonies and extra things like synth and violin parts recorded, progress on final mixes was slow until the coronavirus crisis. After I was furloughed by my company, I had more time to work on musical projects than I’d had in the seven years or so since I started my job. I was really able to focus, cranking out a mix or two per day and sending them to James for notes.

The album is now completely mixed, and is being mastered as we speak. Before it comes out, though, James is releasing a four-song EP based around one of its tracks, Spirited Away.

Spirited Away is one of my favourites on the album. I felt at the time we recorded it that it had the best basic track of all the songs on the album. Given the relative complexity of the song (it’s in the guitar-unfriendly key of Bb and has a fair number of changes), I was very happy with how we played it. It had good feel and good tempo.

James sang an excellent lead vocal and worked up a great backing vocal arrangement (I added some voices to his to make the backing vox thicker and wider), and Basia’s violin, largely scored by James, adds a huge amount to it. We recorded her parts at my house on the morning after Super Bowl LIII, and it was somewhat challenging. Not because I was hungover, you understand; I’d been poorly all week and was feverish during the game itself, sitting under a blanket and shivering uncontrollably while drinking coffee. The next morning, sleep deprived and generally feeling terrible, I was not at the top of my game, but the tracking went well, luckily!

The EP’s three other tracks are largely James’s work, recorded and mixed by himself at his home. Don’t Have Far to Go has had a long life, having originally been recorded by the ‘A’ Train. In this incarnation, it’s a Dylan-esque acoustic strummer with a verse/refrain structure. I think I like this version better than any previous take on the song, and a line James wrote somewhere around twelve years ago – “In this age of documentary are there stories left to tell?” – seems so appropriate to our times it’s as if he wrote it yesterday.

The Falls is, I think, a super-charming old-timey song inspired by the film Up, sung from the point of view of the elderly Carl. Matt plays double bass on this one, and James’s finger-picking acoustic part with all the right jazzy passing chords is great. The final track is James’s version of one of my songs, Nothing Means More, for which he reused and remixed my backing track, adding his own lead and backing vocals. At the time I wrote it, I thought it sounded more like one of his songs than the kind of thing I usually do, and I was really honoured he wanted to record it. He’s done a cracking job with it, and it’s great to hear a proper singer have a go at something I wrote for my little voice to sing.

Spirited Away is available to stream and download from Bandcamp, along with James’s other releases.

More news on the release date for the full album soon.

 

 

 

 

So here we are

Silence means consent. Silence is complicity. Silence is violence. These words ring in my ears, castigating me, every day. I imagine many of us have felt that way this week.

It may sound trite, or just a cop out, but this week I’ve not wanted to post anything here. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, with protests and riots still happening across the US, and with solidarity protests also taking place in Europe, writing about old music – or even offering my own take on what’s going on, like anyone needs a lecture on race from a white British guy – has seemed utterly inappropriate. I’ve rather preferred to read, learn and reflect on what is happening (the protests, the riots and the responses to them both), but without drawing attention to myself.

I understand the wish to demonstrate which side you’re on – and I’m most assuredly on the side of the protesters – but much of what I’ve seen on social media this week, from both white individials and corporations looking to score PR points, has a performativity to it that could be dismissed as merely silly if it weren’t actively unhelpful. These are serious times; we can’t afford silliness. When hundreds of thousands of people are willing to risk congregating and protesting together in public during the middle of a pandemic that’s so far claimed 380,000 lives globally because this racist police murder is just one damn murder too many, when news coverage is filled with police battering peaceful protesters and leaving them bleeding on the ground; ramming SUVs into barriers behind which stand unarmed, innocent people; and marching through city streets like Imperial Stormtroopers while the president agitates to deploy the armed forces against the citizens they exist to protect, the times could scarcely be more serious.

The response we have seen from the police, elected officials and above all from the White House is deeply concerning. That peaceful protesters have too often been met with violently disproportionate policing tactics is not deniable, unless you believe that any level of protest automatically warrants being beaten with sticks or violently shoved to the ground and left there to bleed. If that is your view, I doubt anything I can say can change your mind or that there’s anything we ever could agree on – including, I should say, the worth of the music I usually write about here.

This president has always sought to govern by division, by portraying any criticism of him as evidence of a conspiracy, and any critic of him as undemocratic – un-American, even. He revels in creating division, then whipping his side up with inflammatory rhetoric. To have a president behave that way may be offensive and indecorous, but it’s not on its own enough to make his governance illegitimate and incompatible with American democracy.

But by tear-gassing peaceful protesters to clear the way for a photo op in which he posed with a Bible he hasn’t read in front of a church he doesn’t attend; by hiding in a bunker at the first sign of trouble; by fortifying the White House so it resembles the palace of a dictator; by threatening to have the army shoot looters on sight; by allowing – encouraging – police chiefs to double down on violent suppression of peaceful protest, Trump has crossed several lines. These tactics have been used many times before, and when deployed elsewhere, we wouldn’t hesitate to call them fascist. The US has gone to war with other nations because their leaders have treated their citizens thus.

Fascism is of course not a word to use lightly, but I think we’re at the point now where it’s becoming undeniable. Trump’s racial prejudices are visceral and well documented, but whether they are evidence of genuinely fascist leanings would only truly be seen in how he reacted to having his authority challenged by a significant number of people. In the last week, we’ve seen his reaction: restricting press freedoms, pressuring politicians at state level to restrict the rights of people to peacefully assemble, and signalling a willingness to use the army against the people. In so doing, he has shown what he truly is. In Trump’s world, black lives do not matter. But really, in Trump’s world nothing matters except for whatever benefits him.

Who knows where this will end now – with the army marching down the streets of Manhattan and Minneapolis? Will the wall around the White House stay there permanently? If Trump loses in November, would he even leave office without a protracted, ugly battle played out in the courts, on Twitter, in the right-wing media and, God forbid, on the streets? These are unprecedented times, and nothing seems impossible.

All of this is is why posting about music this week has seemed inappropriate. I had thought I’d wait until the moment was less febrile, but that’s not going to happen any time soon. So I guess I’ll be back with something musical in a couple of days. In the meantime, I do recommend this podcast about police funding. It gave me a lot to think about. Stay safe, everyone.

Tenderness – Jay Som

Of course lo-fi yacht rock is a thing.

It’s not the only style that Melina Duterte essays on Anak Ko, her most recent album as Jay Som, but in the shape of the second single Tenderness, it is perhaps the most striking.

Duterte started uploading home-recorded bedroom indie rock to Myspace in 2006 at the age of 12, progressing to uploading bedroom shoegaze to Bandcamp in 2012. Her previous albums – 2016 debut Turn Into and Everybody Works from 2017, both entirely self-played and self-recorded – are charming enough, and promising from a young artist. Duterte is a fine multi-instrumentalist and a creative producer, and writes appealing, slightly Juliana Hatfield-ish melodies. And if her drum tracks are sometimes a little wonky compared to her assured guitar playing, that’s all part of the records’ DIY vibe and feel.

On Anak Ko, though, Duterte’s gets her self-recording methods down to a fine art, and widens her songwriting palette so that, while everything still sounds a little bit like the Sundays or the Cocteau Twins, a wider array of influences creep in from outside the dream pop universe: the huge, J Mascis-like solo at the end of Superbike, for example, or the Steely Dan chords of the aforementioned yacht rock jam Tenderness.

Anak Ko features a wide cast of musicians on a Jay Som record for the first time, including members of her live band. On Tenderness, the contributions of drummer Zachary Elsasser are key. As I said, Duterte’s own rhythm tracks on her first two albums are integral to the vibe, but even lo-fi yacht rock has to be impeccably smooth or it’s not yacht rock but something else entirely; Elsasser’s hi-hat patterns, triplet figures gesturing towards a shuffle without quite coming out and playing one, is straight out of the Jeff Porcaro playbook. Duterte’s own bass and guitars are similarly smooth.

Tenderness isn’t the only impressive track on Anak Ko. I’m hugely fond of Superbike, (which I heard for the first time while Mel and I were having coffee in KEXP’s gathering space during a trip to Seattle last September) and Devotion’s intricate tapestry of chorused guitars and almost gamelan-like keyboards; the latter is also an example of how to successfully use heavily reverberant vocal tracks in the context of a generally drier overall mix.

Duterte’s work is still perhaps stronger on texture and atmosphere than it is on melodies that stick (the best part of the title track is the 90-second instrumental section in the middle; the vocal sections either side are slight in comparison), but each Jay Som record  seems to me to be getting stronger and more focused. Duterte is an artist to keep an eye on.

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.

Strange days

Well, these are interesting times to be living through. If by “interesting” we mean, scary and totally bizarre.

I’m not afraid of getting sick. Maybe I should be. I have a heart condition, after all. But I’m in good health – better than before my condition was diagnosed probably. The odds would be in my favour. And anyway, I’ve been sick. I know what it’s like to be hospitalised, to receive a life-changing diagnosis, to confront the possibilty of dying. None of that scares me.

What scares me is, what if Mel got sick, or a member of my family? What if my company can’t afford to keep going, or lays me off in the attempt to? What if this takes 18 months to subside? What if the economy is so broken by this that everything just keeps getting worse for everybody, and there’s no money left to even attempt something radical like a universal basic income? It’s the uncertainty that scares me.

The speed at which everything has changed is dizzying. Last Thursday I went on a day-long training course in Russell Square, met Mel for dinner then went to the Electric Ballroom to see Nada Surf and John Vanderslice. It didn’t feel like the world’s most sensible idea, but it was a first chance to see Vanderslice since I became familiar with his music seven years ago, and probably the last chance we’d have to see anyone play live for some months at least. As it turns out, none of us have gotten sick yet, and I assume we’re past the incubation point now, nine days on. If we were to get ill now, it wouldn’t be because we caught it in Camden.

That was the last semi-normal day. The next day, I worked from home. It was going to be a trial thing: we’d all work from home for two days either side of the weekend to see how it would work, whether we had the IT in place and so on. But things started spiralling, most of the businesses in central London sent their employees home, the panic buying started and socialising began to stop.

Yesterday I had to go into my office. Mel and I had ordered wedding invitations weeks ago, before any of this seriously kicked off. We don’t have a porch or anything, so we usually have parcels delivered to my office. I’d got a message that they’d arrived, and with rumours rife online that London was going to be put in Paris-style lockdown, with the army and armed police ensuring that no one could leave home except to buy food, I figured that it might be the only chance I’d have to pick them up for literally months.

Central London was quiet, but not a ghost town. The restaurants were mostly dead, but the bars and pubs were worryingly crowded. Some of the owners were obviously caught in a terrible dilemma: open up and maybe make money to pay staff, but encourage the virus to spread, or close and lose money, and bring forward the moment where you can’t pay staff anymore. I don’t envy them having to make that choice. But of course, some of the pubs that were crowded with beered-up lads practising no kind of social distancing whatsoever were chain pubs that were open because Tim Martin or some goon from Greene King said so. May history judge them them as harshly as they deserve. The news today that pubs, bars, cafes, restaurants and gyms must all close tonight is inevitable and several days too late.

I don’t really know where I’m going with all this. It feels weird to be living through something so unprecedented in my lifetime, and I’ve not written anything about it all week, or anything about anything at all, truth be told. At the end of each day, I’ve been a bit wrung out, shattered. Bad things are happening to people I know (bad things economically; I don’t believe anyone I know has fallen ill yet), and there’s so little anyone can do to help. Everything feels… provisional. Planning ahead beyond the next day seems naive. I hope for the best, of course. But I’ve got zero confidence in the political decisions being made, so I’m braced for more restrictions, increasingly serious food shortages and a pile-up of bodies as our wonderful but dreadfully underfunded health service gets overwhelmed.

At times like these, music helps, of course. But so much of what it is to play music is about freedom, and freedom is of course what we have to sacrifice in order to beat this thing.

I hope you’re all doing OK, wherever you are. Isolation is the hardest thing of all. If you need someone to talk to and for whatever reason read my blatherings, you can email me. Use the contact form. Say hi. I’ll reply.

If a 10-minute distraction would help, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently.

More Live Gonzos, part 2: Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert – Bob Dylan & the Hawks

So much about our reactions to this record – or, at least, my reaction to it, but I suspect yours, too – comes down to its place in the history, the mythology, of rock ‘n’ roll. This is one of those albums where not knowing anything about the circumstances in which it was recorded really does put you at a disadvantage when trying to understand what you’re hearing. So I need to begin by going over some of the context in which Dylan and the Hawks toured. Many of you will know this all already. My apologies. I’ll try to be brief.

At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan played a short acoustic set on the Saturday night and decided that he wanted to play electric the next night, with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Alan Lomax – festival organiser, esteemed song collector and son of the even more esteemed song collector John Lomax – had been disparaging about them when introducing them*, angering Dylan and many younger musicians present. Perhaps Dylan just wanted to be provocative. He was certainly that. Dylan and his pick-up band played primitive, barely rehearsed versions of Maggie’s Farm, Like a Rolling Stone and Phantom Engineer. Some cheered, some booed. Lomax was enraged, Pete Seeger said he wanted to cut the power cable with an axe, and Dylan left the stage after three songs, only returning to play It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue after he was practically begged to by Peter Yarrow.

See? So much mythology already, and we’ve not even got to England yet.

Mary Martin was assistant to Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager. She was born in Toronto, and on her trips back home would head to Yonge Street to watch matinee performances by her favourite band, Levon & the Hawks. They’d previous backed up rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins but had struck out on their own, looking to extend themselves. When she heard that Dylan was looking for a band, she recommended the Hawks. Duly impressed, Dylan invited Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm to play with him, bassist Harvey Brooks and organist Al Kooper, and they did a couple of shows together at Forest Hills and the Hollywood Bowl before embarking on a full tour. Soon, Bob got to know the rest of the Hawks, taking them all on the road when Kooper and Brooks dropped out of the tour after two shows citing safety concerns.

The gigs were stressful, with Dylan’s electric music not always going down well with audiences. Helm was soon out, too. He later said it was the only time he found he couldn’t follow his own maxim and whistle while he worked. It was one thing to be booed at home, he told Richard Manuel. Quite another to go thousands of miles from home just to be booed there, too. He was replaced by Bobby Gregg, then Sandy Konikoff, and then Mickey Jones.

Jones was an interesting fit for Dylan. Formerly Trini Lopez’s drummer, Jones had a degree in business administration, and was pudgy and not all that hip: a slightly oafish guy with a slightly oafish style behind the drum kit. Compared to the graceful Levon Helm, Jones played like a caveman. Yet, for the increasingly cantankerous Dylan, fed up with booing crowds and keen to just drown them out with sheer noise, Jones was perfect. So what if he only had two drum fills in his locker? He hit hard and played those fills with authority. Dylan and a band that was no longer really the Hawks (and certainly wasn’t yet The Band) went to Europe.

The gigs there were a mixed bag. Some towns seemed more receptive to Dylan’s electric music than others. Legend long had it – a legend kept alive for decades by bootleggers – that everything came to a head on the final night of the tour at London’s Royal Albert Hall, where, near the close of a particularly spirited and aggressive electric set, someone in the audience called Dylan “Judas”, and Dylan responded with a furious Like a Rolling Stone – the last song of the last night of the tour. Mic drop.

As I keep saying, so much myth. The “Judas” incident did happen, but earlier in the tour, in Manchester, at the Free Trade Hall. (Audio of the Royal Albert Hall show does exist; by then, Dylan and the Hawks sound tired. Some of the aggression has gone from the music, and Dylan struggles vocally).

In 1998, the Manchester gig – long bootlegged – was released officially by EMI as Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert. And that, finally, is what we’ll be talking about today.

Like all the shows on the tour, the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig was split into two sets. The first was played by Dylan alone, just guitar, voice and harmonica. For the second, he was joined by the Hawks: Robbie Robertson on lead guitar, Garth Hudson on organ, Richard Manuel on piano, Rick Danko on bass and Mickey Jones on drums.

Two albums and five singles since Dylan started incorporating electric instruments and full-band arrangements into his recorded music, it seems unlikely that audience members would have expected The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Oxford Town or even something like It’s a Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, which while fitting in to Dylan’s protest-song oeurve is full of subjective, poetic imagery. But, if anyone had been expecting those songs, they’d have been disappointed – even by his acoustic set. Dylan played seven songs, of which three were from the still-to-be-released Blonde on Blonde. Most were solo renditions of songs whose studio recordings featured a band. All were deeply personal, gnomic and surreal – songs that defied any imposition on them of a narrative. As much as he would during the electric set, Dylan pleased himself when playing acoustic.

There’s an uncanny quality to Dylan’s performances throughout the acoustic set: his voice is slurred, thick, tired, as if in slow motion compared to his guitar. His harmonica playing is something else again: riveting, filled with tension and melodic surprises. It’s consistently the best thing about the acoustic set in Manchester. He does a creditable job on all the songs (the idea, raised by Robert Christgau and some other critics that, in Christgau’s words, “the folk set stinks” is nonsense on two fronts; it’s not folk, and it doesn’t stink), but inevitably songs like Visions of Johanna feel like preparatory sketches compared to the oil-painting masterpieces that are the recorded versions.

So the folk purists (we’ll come back to them) wouldn’t have gotten what they wanted from either half of the show. At no point in any of these songs does Dylan make any political point other than assert his right to perceive his world his way. What, then, was different about the acoustic set, other than the method of presentation gesturing at folk/protest? Why was that half of the gig received equitably enough, but not the second? And anyway, isn’t asserting the validity of your own perception a form of protest?

Dylan reappeared for the second half of the concert with the Hawks, and after tuning up, the band kicked into Tell Me, Momma – a song that Dylan never recorded in the studio and that never reappeared in his set after the 1966 tour.

On this song, Mickey Jones could almost pass as Levon Helm – all cantering kick drum and triplet fills. Dylan sounds like a different person to the world-weary soul who’d trudged through the acoustic set: listen to him deliver the “ohhhh” that begins the third verse: he sounds ready to helicopter off into the rafters. Robertson’s lead lines are, of course, to the fore, but Hudson, Danko and Manuel are doing great support work, too (a note for fans of Manuel’s underrated soul- and R&B-inflected piano: this is one of the few songs where he’s particularly audible).

The audience don’t sound delighted by the performance, but there’s no booing or slow handclaps either. Which makes Dylan’s drawled – and clearly pre-rehearsed – intro to the next song (“This is called I Don’t Believe You. It used to be like that, and now it goes like this”) sound like a provocation. If he had been aggrieved at the response his new music drew from some quarters, he didn’t always help himself with his on-stage demeanour.

Originally one of my favourites, this performance is one I’ve come to feel differently about over the years. Yeah, there’s a power to Dylan’s vocal (this is the Dylan of a thousand parodies: hitting the last word of every line ludicrously hard, seemingly making his mind up about which note to go for at the very last second), and the band, particularly Danko, rock viciously hard. But nowadays, even given the undeniable vigour, I find that Dylan’s squalling harmonica gets wearying, particularly as he plays over Robertson constantly. And something about the song has paled for me. Perhaps it’s just not that strong as a piece of writing. As theatre, though, it’s quite something, and Dylan’s delivery is incredibly intense. He was clearly working through something with the song: with one obvious exception that we’ll come to, no other song in the set has the same level of spit and vitriol.

The first wave of slow handclaps break out after this song, so perhaps the audience could feel Dylan’s hostility and decided to feed it back to him. While the set was likely preplanned, Dylan’s electric adaptation of Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, the traditional song he’d recorded on his first album, once again seemed to be making a point. It’s pretty great, though. Robertson gets to do something other than claw angular noise out of his guitar, and Manuel’s solo (his only one of the whole gig) has some very cool R&B licks in it.

An excellent Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues follows. Danko is, again, crucial and his rumbling bass underpins the whole thing as Dylan’s at-the-end-of-my-rope vocal (the shudder he injects into “I don’t have the strength to get up and take another shot” is goosebump stuff) and turns the R&B-flavoured Highway 61 Revisited cut into something desperate and sick-sounding.

Afterwards, someone in the audience shouts something as Dylan begins to introduce the next song, and a slow handclap breaks out but just as quickly dies away again, but there’s clearly some disquiet: hecklers call things out (none of which I can hear quite clearly enough to identify) and others seem to answer them in disagreement. Eventually someone says something that raises a large cheer and a fast handclap, but Dylan and the Hawks just roll over them with what must surely be the best version ever of Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat; so alive, so powerful, so funny – it makes the Blonde on Blonde recording sound like it was played on toy instruments by a group of matchstick men.

On One Too Many Mornings, I find myself wishing for a subtler drummer than Mickey Jones, but it’s nice to hear Danko harmonising with Dylan on the word “behind” at the end of each chorus (the only backing vocal in the whole gig, I think, unless I’ve missed one). Ultimately, though, One Too Many Mornings sounds a bit insubstantial in the company of the Tom Thumb’s Blues, Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat, et al. Many have speculated that Dylan included it because the line “you’re right from your side and I’m right from mine” could be repurposed as another comment on his going-electric controversy. Could well be, but speculating on the motivations of someone as mercurial (and, it should be said, as drug addled) as mid-1960s Bob Dylan is a fool’s game.

Again, the slow handclaps break out after the song finishes, and what sure sounds like abuse and invective is hurled at the stage. Which is when Dylan sat down at the piano to play Ballad of a Thin Man – his “furious, sneering, dressing-down of a hapless bourgeois intruder into the hipster world of freaks and weirdoes” (to borrow Andy Gill’s useful phrase).

It is, as studio drummer Bobby Gregg commented to Dylan, a nasty song, and this is a particularly nasty version of it, especially as Dylan’s piano mike is, for whatever reason, a lot quieter than his front-of-stage mike, especially in the opening verse. But somehow the half-submerged vocal only seems to make it more vicious. Mickey Jones gives the drums a ferocious pounding – those snare flams before the start of the second verse just leap out of the speakers – and Garth Hudson provides creepy-as-hell organ commentaries on Dylan’s bizarre scenarios. It’s possible that Hudson never played better; this is lightning-in-a-bottle stuff.

Then somebody shouts “Judas” at Dylan.

This moment, one heckle near the end of the gig, is as much as anything the reason why we’re still listening to it nearly 55 years after it happened: one insult from an angry, disillusioned fan that hit Dylan particularly hard.

Obvious things first. Bob Dylan is Jewish. The majority of his fans presumably knew that. His real name – Robert Zimmerman – was common knowledge. Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus has been used for centuries by antisemitic Christians to justify their bigotry. It still is; Mel Gibson, unforgiveably rehabilitated by Hollywood, provides only the most famous recent example of Catholic anti-Jewish bigotry.

To have called Dylan a traitor would have been one thing; to call him a traitor in such a racially aggravated fashion was something else again, and Dylan’s hurt and anger is palpable. If we assume the best of the man in question – that he was thoughtless and not actually trying to be racist – it was still a colossally stupid thing to say, and the fury of the following version of Like a Rolling Stone is completely understandable, and to the extent that Dylan’s ire is aimed at this one man, it’s deserved.**

Anyhow, Dylan is so stung that after replying “I don’t believe you” (the amount of time he spends delivering the word “believe” suggests he really doesn’t; this isn’t Dylan going for rhetorical effect), it takes him another 10 seconds or so to deliver a riposte. All he can manage – this man, so famously quick and biting in his wit – is “You’re a liar”. After which, he tells the Hawks to “play fucking loud”, and they do.

Probably no rock group had played louder at that point, in Britain at least. One of the men who has claimed responsibility for the “Judas” insult, John Cordwell, argued years later that the volume was what bothered him. Dylan and the Hawks were so loud you couldn’t hear the words, and for a folkie, that was a major transgression. He also contended that the sound in the room was nothing like as clear as the recording taken from the mixing desk. Both assertions are plausible, not that that excuses the language he used to express his displeasure.

If Dylan did break the fragile covenant that exists between folk musician and audience (musician is not a performer or a star; musician is not separate to or more important than the audience; musician is merely servant of the song, etc.) by plugging in and turning up, this is the moment where there was no going back.

Righteously furious, the version of Like a Rolling Stone that follows the “Judas” incident threatens to come apart all the way through. Dylan doesn’t so much sing as yell. Mickey Jones plays the same violent eight-stroke (or sometimes 16-stroke) snare fill at the end of nearly every line of the song and hits his cymbals so hard it’s a miracle they survived the assault. It has none of the R&B underpinnings of the studio cut. It’s just a solid block of force; heavy metal avant la lettre. If you’re not into it, it’s completely intolerable. It’s magnificent, it’s righteous but it’s also a line being crossed.

When I first heard this record, I was completely gobsmacked by it. I’d heard nothing as intense. I listened to it over and over for months. But of course, the music derives a large part of its power from the context – the myth – that surrounds it, and once that’s familiar and taken for granted, some of that power does dissipate, and it’s a hard recording to fit into your life unless you go to it wanting to engage in the mythology surrounding it. Really, part of the reason I chose it for this series was to see if writing about it made me engage with all the extra-musical stuff the way I did when I first heard it.

To my surprise, it did. It made me recall how I felt hearing it at 21, a budding Dylan fanatic, eagerly on the side of questing, visionary Dylan against those unimaginative dullard folkies. Later I became a dullard folkie myself, and began to understand the reservations that some of them had about his electric music and the sinister aspect of crushing resistance to it with sheer brute volume.

While it’s obviously an important record – much more so than many of his studio albums – it’s not one about which I feel unambiguously positive. It doesn’t showcase the best of the Hawks, it’s not subtle, warm, friendly or communitarian. There’s always a nihilistic edge to Dylan’s absurdity that’s juvenile when it’s not just silly. But for all that, its power is undeniable. The effect of Dylan’s collapsing the walls between pop and folk echoes down the decades, and can still be felt today.

bob_dylan_free_trade_hall_electric_judas_manchester_0
Dylan on stage in Manchester (l-r Rick Danko, Dylan, Mickey Jones, Robbie Robertson)

*In Maria Muldaur’s telling, Lomax “introduced the Butterfield band as a group that was purely imitative, asking ‘would we put up with it anyway?’ or something to that effect”. Others, including Joe Boyd, who was working the festival as a sound engineer, said Lomax referenced the great blues music that the audience had already heard that day, then said something like “let’s see if these boys can play this hardware at all”, referencing the amplification that was anathema to him and many other folk-blues purists.

**Who was the man? The likeliest subject appears to be John Cordwell, then a trainee teacher living in Manchester, but Keith Butler also claimed to have been the heckler. Butler was shown in Eat the Document, having walked out of the gig, telling a reporter: “Any pop group could do this rubbish. It were a bloody disgrace. He wants shooting. He’s a traitor.”