Tag Archives: great records

Their Back Pages

So it seems we’ve slid out of talking about harmonies and back to regular programming. Sorry about that, if you were enjoying the series. When doing those 10-part series, I rely a lot on momentum to keep me thinking about music from whatever specific angle it happens to be. It’s been busy enough that I haven’t been able to post that regularly and I’m afraid I couldn’t keep my mind on that one long enough to crank out the usual 10 posts. My apologies.

What I have been thinking about, once again, is David Bowie. And other artists of his stature and with his breadth of work.

In the Times, Caitlin Moran asked readers to imagine Bowie without a past, that Bowie was a Beckenham primary school teacher who’d recorded Earthling in his shed. “Do we really believe that record companies would eagerly sign up a 50-year-old man with no new ideas, wonky eyes, manky hair, LA teeth and a tartan suit, who talks like an animatronic statue in Picadilly’s Rock Circus?

From Chris O’Leary’s piece on Little Wonder at Pushing Ahead of the Dame

I liked Caitlin Moran as a music writer, but I confess to not remembering the piece that Chris O’Leary is quoting from. The answer to Moran’s question is fairly obvious (of course they wouldn’t!) and not hugely interesting unless considered in a larger context. I’m sure Moran was asking the question rhetorically, on the way to telling us why that question wasn’t relevant.

But we’ll return to Mr Bowie in a second. Let’s talk about fans instead.

Let’s assume there’s two extreme versions of the extreme music fan. On the one hand, consider the Deadhead, shelves collapsing under the weight of box sets that document every show on every tour the band ever played, waiting for Deadnet to send out the new 30 Trips Around the Sun 80-disc box set, whose life is dedicated to the elliptical paths taken by Jerry and the guys. On the other, the blogger who keeps abreast of every new development in every micro trend, who considers marginal commercial forces like Grimes lost to the mainstream, who’s always in search of the latest thing, never stopping to look back. Who has a track or two by tens of thousands of artists on a series of groaning hard drives.

These are the extreme figures. Most of us are somewhere along the continuum between the two. At various times I’ve felt a bit like both. Ultimately, though, I have my favourites – those artists I come back to again and again. I wouldn’t call myself a completist fan of anyone, but there are people whose every record I’ve heard, and whose artistic failures are just as fascinating to me as their masterpieces, in terms of what they add to the overall story.

Bowie is the kind of artist who rewards that kind of listening. Much of Earthling was, as O’Leary put it, dated the second it was released – the last time Bowie would try hard to stay abreast of contemporary underground pop music and bend it to his purposes. No one has been talking about what a seminal moment Earthling was in Bowie’s career this last week, but the record remains, for what it says about Bowie-the-songwriter and Bowie-the-pop-star, a fascinating partial failure.

Let’s talk about some other records that would never have got their authors signed by a record company but which are as compelling in their weird and various ways as the ones that did.

Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog, a record bringing together the diverse and thirterto uncombined talents of Rod Steiger, Thomas Dolby and Wayne Shorter, is similarly compelling, in a slightly more car-crash fashion. What was going on here? Boredom with tried-and-trusted methods of composition? A desperate attempt to stay au courant?*

John Martyn’s Sunday’s Child is 40 very pleasant minutes of Martyn spinning his wheels, unable to push himself anywhere close to the peaks of his classic trilogy (Bless the Weather, Solid Air, Inside Out), and not yet finding his way to the dub- and soul-inflected work of his suit-wearing years. His readings of Spencer the Rover and Satisfied Mind – that is, the songs he didn’t write – are easily the best things on the album. I’d not be without them.

Neil Young’s Hawks & Doves is a “better” album than, say, Old Ways. But there’s nothing on it you’ve not heard him do better on After the Gold Rush or Zuma. Old Ways – a straightforward countrypolitan record – is a headscratcher from first note till last, even more so given it came hard on the heels of rockabilly-reviving Everybody’s Rockin’ and the Tron-isms of Trans. I love Trans. I think it has some of Young’s very best writing on it, but even when the writing isn’t there, it’s a brave record and I hear him pushing himself hard.

In fact, Young’s Geffen period, with each record being such an extreme reaction to the one before it, is kind of an Exhibit A in how rewarding it can be to spend time with the minor records in a major artist’s discography. Not one of those albums is close to being as strong a set of songs as After the Gold Rush, On the Beach or Everybody Knows this is Nowhere (insert your own favourite Neil Young record here). But, to travesty Rudyard Kipling**, what do they know of classic Neil Young who only classic Neil Young know?

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This is classic Neil Young. I promise.

*A phenomenon I’ve referred to elsewhere as dropping the pilot and charming that snake. **Who deserves no better.

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Let’s Stay Together – Al Green

Let’s get right to the point. Let’s Stay Together by Al Green is one of the most glorious records in popular music. If you drew a Venn diagram of all the different kinds of soul music, from the roughest Southern cut to the most sophisticated and classy Philly soul ballad, Let’s Stay Together would be in the middle. It’s raw without being rough, sweet without being cloying, smooth without being bland. If you like deep soul with a small-band feel, the core of Let’s Stay Together is the rhythm section, organ and one guitar. If you like horns and strings, you’ve got them too: a couple of horns on the right, playing the iconic off-beat lick that opens the song, and a small string section on the left.

The guys who made Let’s Stay Together knew how to put together a hit record. The song was written by producer Willie Mitchell and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. Jackson still played on Hi Records sessions as a favour to Mitchell, even though he had enough work on his plate to keep him busy every day of every week, and it was he came up with the rolling beat that defines the song’s rhythmic feel. It was presumably played by him on traps kit and Howard Grimes (who was Green’s drummer when Jackson wasn’t around) on, I’d guess, congas. It’s one of the greatest drum tracks in pop music, instantly addictive and endless satisfying. Mitchell could have put that out with just Green’s vocal on top and it would have got to number one just the same.

But the record has so much else to offer, Green’s vocal being a key part of its charm. Green was somewhat unsure about singing softly and making such prominent use of falsetto. He’s grown up as a something of a shouter with bluesy, Otis Redding inflections. Mitchell coached him to tone it down, to speak softer and mean more. The result was a career-defining performance, and turned ‘Al Green’ into a sort of shorthand when describing male soul ballad singers.

There’s a sort of alchemy present in Let’s Stay Together: the warm and inviting instrument sounds; the sense of vocal power held in reserve; the extreme discipline of the musicians (listen to every instrument in turn: no one’s playing much). There’s a couple of dozen live versions of this song on YouTube if you want to spend an hour or so going through them. None of them is a patch on the studio version. It was a once in a lifetime moment for Green. And he didn’t know it at the time, fighting Mitchell over the song for days before finally giving in and recording it. Sometimes musicians are the worst judges of their own work.

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