Tag Archives: Laura Nyro

The People’s Music – Ian MacDonald

Writing about Marcello Carlin’s new blog the other day got me thinking about music writing in general. Here’s a piece about a book I read when I was fresh out of university, 15 years ago.

Ian MacDonald’s The People’s Music was published a couple of months before its author’s suicide in August 2003. It’s a collection of articles previously published in Mojo and Uncut in the late nighties and early noughties, after MacDonald’s rep had been re-established by the success of Revolution in the Head, his song-by-song analysis of the Beatles’ recorded works.

I admire Revolution in the Head hugely, but trouble brews in certain entries, and especially in the postscript essay, in which MacDonald compares the work of the Beatles to that of contemporary artists, and finds all of it lacking by comparison. He argues that the soul went out of pop music some time in the late sixties, or certainly by the mid-seventies*, and is disparaging and dismissive of the eighties almost totally, and not just in terms of its music.

Awed by his erudition and the breadth of his knowledge, I absorbed his criticism of post-Beatles pop without challenging it as a 20-year-old. Now, I disagree strongly with much of what he says, and (if it’s not to impertinent to engage in armchair psychoanalysis of a man whose depression was all-encompassing to the point that he hanged himself) I feel like his comments probably said as much about his own psychological state as they did about the music he was writing about.

This undercurrent of horror at what he sees in the world around him is not as prevalent in The People’s Music as it is in Revolution in the Head. The industry’s reissue mania began in earnest in the late 1990s**, and MacDonald was an ideal figure to write articles about, or reviews of, these remastered and/or expanded editions of classic records by the Band, the Beach Boys, Steely Dan, Bob Marley, Laura Nyro and so on. He loved the records, but not uncritically. He was there at the time, and so was well placed to gauge their importance and influence. And above all he had the analytical chops equal to the task; MacDonald had been assistant editor at the NME in its seventies pomp – the era of figures such as Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray. You couldn’t have gotten that gig in that period if you couldn’t bring it. Crucially, writing about artists from the sixties and seventies allowed MacDonald to write about music that made him happy, which is definitely when he was at his best, and the short word counts kept him concentrated on the music, and didn’t allow him to move sideways into the music’s place in the broader culture. The essays and reviews are consequently sharp and laser focused.

I owe my interest in half a dozen different artists to the reviews and articles in The People’s Music, particularly the pieces on David Bowie’s Station to Station, Laura Nyro’s New York trilogy, Steely Dan’s Gaucho and Randy Newman’s debut album. I bought my first records by Laura Nyro and Steely Dan on the same day having devoured those articles, and fell hard for them both. They were every bit as wonderful as MacDonald had made them sound.

That’s the highest goal music writing can achieve, and so The People’s Music  furthered my musical education hugely. I seldom look at MacDonald’s books now (I know them too well, for one thing, but moreover I find the pessimism that hangs over them puts me off a little), but I can’t deny the influence they had.

If you’re not familiar with Ian MacDonald,  I’d recommend The People’s Music over Revolution in the Head (unless you are a big Beatles fan), which is ultimately a downbeat, elegiac book. MacDonald’s magisterial essay on Nick Drake from The People’s Music is at times as despondent about the world as his Beatles postscript, but at other times he’s combative (Minimalism and the Corporate Age), clear-headed about the faults of weak records (Not a Revolution: Jefferson Airplane From Play Power to Power Play) and vigorous in his praise of great music (almost everything else). It’s well worth seeking out.

 

*To give you an idea of the position MacDonald takes in this postscript essay, here’s its concluding paragraph in full:

There is a great deal more to be said about the catastrophic decline of pop (and rock criticism) – but not here. All that matters is that, when examining the following Chronology of Sixties pop, readers are aware that they are looking at something on a higher scale of achievement than today’s music, which no contemporary artist can claim to match in feeling, variety, formal invention, and sheer out-of-the-blue inspiration. That the same can be said of other musical forms – most obviously classical and jazz – confirms that something in the soul of Western culture began to die during the late Sixties. Arguably pop music, as measured by the singles charts, peaked in 1966, thereafter beginning a shallow decline in overall quality which was already steepening by 1970. While some may date this tail-off to a little later, only the soulless or tone-deaf will refuse to admit any decline at all. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.

** At that time, the reissue of classic records on CD (often in expanded editions) did often serve a useful purpose for the fan and consumer.

The original CD releases of many artists’ catalogues were of very poor sound quality, and were often based on transfers from sources other than the original masters -the industry cutting corners to get product to market as quickly as possible. Consequently they were frequently very quiet and lacking in low end. A tasteful remaster job from the late 1990s or early noughties improves vastly on the 1st-generation CDs, a consequence of improved AD converters and digital mastering software.

That same technology, alas, made possible the loudeness war, and so the only sonic gains that could be made by releasing a remaster of a record from the last 15-20 years would come from backing down the levels to where they were in the first half of the 1990s.

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When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag – Laura Nyro

Hi all. I’m in the middle of a busy 2-week period with a lot of work and other things. I can’t imagine posting anything before Sunday night unless I dip into the archive. So here you are.

Laura Nryo is the last word in pop prodigies. I can’t think of anyone whose songs – and ability to deliver them – were so perfectly formed and mature at such a young age. She wrote Wedding Bell Blues at 18, and it, along with And When I Die, Billy’s Blues and Stoney End all appeared on her first album, More Than A New Discovery, released when she was 19. When I think back to what I wrote at 18…

That debut album, released on Verve Folkways, brought her to the attention of David Geffen, then a young wannabe agent on the make. He convinced her to take him on, got her out of her previous business arrangements, set up a publishing company with her and got her signed to Columbia. This was a good place for her to be. Columbia had great studios, some of the best producers and engineers (Charlie Calello, Roy Halee and Arif Mardin), and access to the kind of funds needed to hire the best musicians in town to play her idiosyncratic, irregular music: Chuck Rainey, Hugh McCracken, Richard Davis, Alice Coltrane and even Duane Allman are just a few of the musicians who played on her trio of classic albums from the late sixties and early seventies, Eli & the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry and Christmas & the Beads of Sweat.

All of these albums are essential. My favourite is probably New York Tendaberry, which has fewer famous songs than the other two, but is a richer, more elusive and ultimately more rewarding album qua album. Eli is where you go for standout songs and, truth to tell, a little filler (but those highlights include Emmie, Lu, Eli’s Coming, Stoned Soul Picnic so who’s grousing?).

Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, the last of her three great albums, is something else again. The most diverse and in some ways the most difficult of the classic trio, lacking as it does the unifying themes and mood of New York Tendaberry and the sheer volume of transcendent melodies on Eli, Christmas wrong-foots you by throwing in songs like When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag and her transcendent version of Up on the Roof in among all the difficult stuff. Songs like Map to the Treasure are commendably ambitious in musical form, but lack the assuredness of the similarly complex material on New York Tendaberry (Gibsom Street, say) or the lightness of touch present on Eli.

But When I Was a Freeport is a no-arguments career highlight. It’s a slight return to the style of her debut album, albeit one with a wiser, more adult lyrical sensibility. Lines don’t come much better than “I’ve got a lot of patience, baby, and that’s a lot of patience to lose”, and I never fail to smile at the “Whew” she inserts before the last (very Dylanesqe) “drag-uh”. It’s a mystery to me why she didn’t end the album with this song – no ending to the first stage of her career could have been more fitting.

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Nearly up on the roof – Laura Nyro, poet of New York

She’s Gone – Hall & Oates

Hall & Oates always seemed to view popular music as a playground for them to have fun in. Many white soul singers and groups have suffered from a purism born of a desire to be taken seriously. Daryl Hall was taken seriously – by Thom Bell, by Gamble & Huff, by Smokey Robinson (who tried to get him signed to Motown), by the Stylistics and the Delfonics, whose members Hall knew when he was a kid (he’s 69 years old – the band have been going since the very early seventies), and by the Temptations, with whom he and Oates struck up an easy friendship.

Knowing that he had the respect of these guys seems to have freed Hall to be whatever he’s wanted to be in the moment, and so his music has ranged far and wide. In the late seventies, it acquired new wave synths. He moved to New York and made a punk-infused art-rock solo album with Robert Fripp, king of gonzoid guitar, before casually returning to pop to become an icon of the early MTV age. In the 1980s, Hall, with his huge mullet, and Oates, with his bubble perm and porn-star moustache, were almost like a cartoon of themselves, and always looked like they were having a hell of a lot of fun.

But at heart, Hall and Oates are soul brothers, and their most enduring and emotionally affecting songs tend to be soul ballads, records like Everytime You Go Away (made famous by Paul Young, but recorded in a bravely minimal gospel style by H&O), Sara Smile and, above any other, She’s Gone.

She’s Gone is one of my favourite records of all time, no question. Top 10, easily. Right up there with Native New Yorker, Wedding Bell Blues (Laura Nyro’s recording, obvs), I Need Your Lovin’, What You Won’t Do For Love and the rest. It’s a masterpiece, and I love everything about it: the A/B to B chord change that 10CC nicked for the intro to I’m Not in Love a couple of years later; the way Hall doubles Oates’s melody in the verses an octave higher before stepping out at the end of each verse, letting the words pour out of him, as if from some from unhealable wound; the masterful string and brass arrangement; the bluesy guitar in the intro; Bernard Purdie’s patient shuffle on the drums. It’s all wonderful.

That’s before we get to what’s probably the finest key change in popular music. Unearned within their songs, most key changes fall flat. They signify no emotional release, only the idea that a raising of pitch might have been connected in some way to a raising of the emotional stakes in some other song in the past, and so might work again here, in some Pavlovian fashion. This “X Factor” key change has given them a deserved bad name. When I noticed Lou Barlow incorporating key changes into a couple of songs on his recent record, I had to stand up and applaud his bravery.- few serious songwriters risk it these days.

The key change in She’s Gone is the opposite of the lazy key change. For a start it happens late in a song filled with patient build-up and intelligent lyrical detail. Moreover it comes about in semi-tonal increments, with the listener unsure what key the song’s going to land in. It becomes a dare: when we arrive, finally, at whatever key we’re going to be in, are the singers going to be able to hit the high notes still? It’s like Hall & Oates are setting themselves a challenge, egging the band on to keep raising the bar, always confident they’ll be able to clear it. But the actual key change is accompanied by a kind of emotional key change too, from grief to something very close to joy – the journey taken by so much of the best soul music. So much of the best music, full stop.

If you only know Hall & Oates as the group that did Maneater, or Private Eyes, or even Rich Girl, She’s Gone is the song to make you permanently re-evaluate them.

Hall-Oates

It Wouldn’t Have Made any Difference – Todd Rundgren

I hoped that Todd Rundgren was going to be one of my guys. I absolutely loved I Saw the Light from the first time I heard it, years before I knew who’d made it or what else he’d done, so eventually I purchased Something/Anything? thinking it was going to be the place to get started on Todd properly, confident that he was going to become one of my very favourite songwriters.

Unfortunately, Something/Anything? wasn’t the front-to-back Laura Nyro/Carole King tribute I hoped it’d be. Something/Anything? is a bit of a mess, and if you go into it looking for a double album of 20 or so songs like I Saw the Light – the early girl group sound filtered through The Beatles (Rundgren’s slide playing is pure George Harrison) – you’ll be disppointed. It hops all over the place, from bizarre Gilbert & Sullivan spoofs to ill-advised cock rock.

So I never found it an album I could fall in love with in its entirety. But we’re talking about Todd Rundgren, and Rundgren is some species of genius, even if its not a consistent species. So as well as I Saw the Light, Something/Anything? gives us Sweeter Memories, Marlene, Torch Song, Hello It’s Me and, more than anything else, It Wouldn’t Have Made any Difference, a song so beautiful and aching in its sadness it goes a long way beyond melancholy, stopping short of desolate and ending up in striking a note that’s comforting. It’s a warm kind of sadness, regretful but not bitter, illuminated by some of the most gorgeous chord changes this side of Laura Nyro herself (those unexpected changes under the line “But those days are through” absolutely make the song).

Rundgren famously recorded the bulk of Something/Anything? on his own, playing all the instruments on sides 1 to 3 himself. His resourcefulness is impressive, and goodness knows he can sing, play guitar and write as well as anyone in pop music, but some of the songs suffer for not having been placed in the hands of really capable players; Couldn’t I Just Tell You, for example, is ill served by its author in its Something/Anything? incarnation, with its numerous feel and tempo changes utterly defeating Rundgren-the-drummer.

It Wouldn’t Have Made any Difference hits that sweet spot, common to so much successful lo-fi/one-man-band records, where the tension between the quality of the writing and the just-slightly-amateurish execution of it is charming and endearing. It makes you invest more in the song’s feelings and emotions somehow. It Wouldn’t Have Made any Difference just wouldn’t be the same if without its slightly unsteady rhythm track (drums centre, congas and tambourine on the left, chimes and other percussion on the right). The charm is how it plays against the lush backing vocals (again, all Rundgren) and Todd’s effortless lead vocal. Rundgren really was an exceptional singer in his youth.

It’s a shame that the rest of Something/Anything? doesn’t really match up to its first two songs, but when those songs are I Saw the Light and It Wouldn’t Have Made any Difference, to expect it to would be asking for the damn near impossible.

Todd Rundgren in 1973
Todd Rundgren, 1973

Todd’s not the only guy who’s ever done the one-man-band thing:

Stormy Weather/Nobody Knew Her – Nina Nastasia

Nina Nastasia’s Dogs is a record so simultaneously unassuming and grandiose that I can’t really describe it, except in terms that would make it (and me) sound silly. Of the couple thousand records I’ve been involved with, this is one of my favourites, and one that I’m proud to be associated with.

Steve Albini

 

A really great debut, the arrival of a talent already fully formed but with the potential to grow in any one of a number of directions, happens seldom, and with vanishing rarity by singer-songwriters. Bands, if the fragile chemistry is properly captured and they’re able to write a good tune or two, are more likely to do their best work early. Singer-songwriters take longer: few would argue that Tim Buckley, Bob Dylan, Song to a Seagull, Neil Young, Closing Time, London Conversation, or More Than a New Discovery were their authors’ best works, or even among them. You could make a case for Leonard Cohen’s and Randy Newman’s debuts (I would). Plastic Ono Band is Lennon’s best. Sweet Baby James is Taylor’s best, but it’s a low bar. Judee Sill is better than everything else ever, including her second and posthumous third. But the thesis holds, I think.

Nina Nastasia’s Dogs, though, is one of the great debut albums. I first heard it after becoming intrigued by two things that happened very close together: firstly, I read the above quote from Steve Albini, who engineered Dogs and all of Nastasia’s subsequent records. Second, I read an issue of Mojo in a hospital waiting room where Laura Marling nominated Nastasia’s work as a major influence. I’d heard nothing but good things about Marling but remained unconvinced by her songs or singing, and so was interested to hear an influence on her that maybe contained the things I did like about Marling in a more concentrated or developed form.

I certainly got that.

On first listen, Dogs sounded like a very good chamber-folk kind of record: sparse, vibey, atmospheric, beautifully arranged and recorded, and with really strong songs with surprising twists and little moments of dissonance. The more I listened, the better it sounded. Certain songs (All Your Life, Underground, A Love Song, the peerless Stormy Weather) bore their way into me.

I’m a recording geek, as regular readers will know, so Dogs is a pleasure from the first note to last. Among Albini’s stellar work, it’s a particularly great-sounding record. Listen to the strings on Stormy Weather and you’re in the room with the players, every nuance, every scrape, every creak, every change in bow direction audible. On their own, listening to these strings would be a compelling experience, but they are just the backing for Nastasia’s beguiling, winding melody and elliptical lyrics. Stormy Weather (not the jazz standard, by the way, if you don’t know the record) is a moment of perfection that makes the world stop.

Nobody Knew Her lets it all back in, noisily. I know nothing about Nastasia’s personal life, but in interviews she has alluded to a friend killed in an accident on Pacific Coast Highway, and Nobody Knew Her seems like it deals with these events, initially being sung as if by a schoolgirl (‘He won’t go out with me/I don’t care if I never see his face’), before with two hard strums and the line ‘Everyone’s talking about you’, the band slam in; and in the context of such a hushed album, they do slam.

It’s not a mawkish or maudlin song, and it doesn’t hit you over the head with its meaning – I listened to the song a dozen times, probably, before the significance of the chorus (‘Bradley, Bradley, I think you got away’) actually hit me, even as the second verse makes it plain we’re dealing with a car wreck – but the significance of having the band play hardest and loudest on a song about a friend’s early death (and his passenger – a girl nobody knew) is clear.

After Nastasia sings, ‘This desk says you were here’, there’s a pause of a few seconds before the band come back in. What could have been a very cheesy moment is instead the song’s most powerful; as the last line of the song sinks in and the chord decays, we hear the guitar amp hum and some very audible handling noise. If they’d have gone for silence before the band re-entered, that might have been cheesy. Nastasia and Albini allow even this consciously big moment retain its humanity and rough edges.

Guitarist Gerry Leonard then plays one of my favourite guitar solos, a messy, passion-filled 24 bars that function as a sort of boozy, rowdy wake after a sombre funeral. It’s a performance of proper catharsis, a real cleansing. It’s not typical of her later work – instead, it’s the most ‘indie rock’ her music’s ever been – but it’s the record’s key passage, the deepest moment in a record full of them. If you like either Stormy Weather or Nobody Knew Her, you need to hear the album in full. It’s a classic.

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Nina Nastasia

When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag – Laura Nyro

Laura Nryo is the last word in pop prodigies. I can’t think of anyone whose songs – and ability to deliver them – were so perfectly formed and mature at such a young age. She wrote Wedding Bell Blues at 18, and it, along with And When I Die, Billy’s Blues and Stoney End all appeared on her first album, More Than A New Discovery, released when she was 19. When I think back to what I wrote at 18…

That first album, on Verve Folkways, brought her to the attention of David Geffen, then a young wannabe agent on the make. He convinced her to take him on, got her out of her previous business arrangements, set up a publishing company with her and got her signed to Columbia. This was a good place for her to be. Great studios, some of the best producers and engineers (Charlie Calello, Roy Halee and Arif Mardin), and access to the kind of funds needed to hire the best musicians in town to play her idiosyncratic, irregular music: Chuck Rainey, Hugh McCracken, Richard Davis, Alice Coltrane and even Duane Allman are just a few of the musicians who played on her trio of classic albums from the late sixties and early seventies, Eli & the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry and Christmas & the Beads of Sweat.

All of these albums are essential. My favourite is probably New York Tendaberry, which has fewer famous songs than the other two, but is a richer, more elusive and ultimately more rewarding album qua album. Eli is the one to get for great standouts and, truth to tell, a little filler (but those highlights include Emmie, Lu, Eli’s Coming, Stoned Soul Picnic so who’s grousing?).

Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, the last of her three great albums, is something else again. The most diverse and in some ways the most difficult of the classic trio, lacking as it does the unifying themes and mood of New York Tendaberry and the sheer volume of transcendent melodies on Eli, Christmas wrong-foots you by throwing in songs like When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag and her transcendent version of Up on the Roof amongst all the difficult stuff. Songs like Map to the Treasure are commendably ambitious in musical form, but lack the assuredness of the knotty, emotionally complex material on, say, Gibsom Street, from New York Tendaberry, or the lightness of touch present on Eli.

But When I Was a Freeport is a no-arguments career highlight. You’ve got to love her vocal on this, and lines don’t come much better than ‘I’ve got a lot of patience, baby, and that’s a lot of patience to lose’ and I never fail to smile at the ‘whew’ she inserts before the last (very Dylanesqe) ‘drag-uh’. It’s a mystery to me why she didn’t end the album with this song – no ending to the first stage of her career could have been more fitting.

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Not quite up on the roof – Laura Nyro, poet of New York

More Than This – Roxy Music

I want to talk about this song’s drum track. When the Great Paul Thompson (as his fans called him) left Roxy Music in 1980, Bryan Ferry, possibly at the suggestion of producer Rhett Davies, did what most musicians in his position would have done: he called in a session player or two to fill the gap. On 1980s Flesh & Blood, one of those players was Andy Newmark. On Avalon, two years later, Newmark would drum on eight out of the album’s ten songs.

It’s hard to go wrong with Andy Newmark. If a drummer’s good enough for Sly Stone (Fresh), John Martyn (One World), John Lennon (Double Fantasy), Laura Nyro (Season of Lights) and Randy Newman (Good Old Boys), he’s good enough for you.

He’s a magnificent player, but seldom a showy one, and his work on More Than This is as unshowy as it gets. A mid-tempo groove, slightly on the brisk side, two and four, bass drum in quavers, no big fills – this is a drummer playing for the song, with just a few interjections (mainly on tom-toms, and short press rolls going into choruses), to make the track his own. Newmark’s judgement about how much to play is perfect, although it’s worth noting that his gig was to come in when the songs had been all but finished, with full arrangements built up over programmed Linn Drum patterns, and either augment or replace the Linn groove. Although playing to pre-recorded songs necessarily puts the drummer in a different position than most are used to – partly because the amount of available space in the arrangement is decided for you, but also because as in this situation the drummer isn’t the song’s engine, as the tempo is locked – it does provide unusual challenges, foremost among them being the insertion of a feel, something other than completely rigid, mechanically perfect eighth notes of unvarying velocity. How much you can swing against the track (a full arrangement, remember) and have the whole thing still work, well, that’s a big part of the game. And Newmark is a master at it.

Of course, session drummers had existed almost as long as there’d been a recording industry (and certainly since rock’n’roll bands started showing up whose songs and/or star quality ran ahead of their musical chops), but in the studio environment of the 1980s, the session drummer suddenly had this whole new avenue of work open up for them (it started with disco really, as consistency of tempo was a big deal in that style) – it wasn’t just about solo artists calling a drummer up to play on their record because they didn’t have a regular band.

The successful ones, like Newmark, adapted themselves brilliantly to this new environment. But evolution was forced on all musicians in the brave new world of automated consoles, polyphonic synths, drum machines, samplers and sequencers. This is a Roxy Music track where Bryan Ferry is dominant almost to point of elbowing out his bandmates completely. Phil Manzanera is present in the intro but is almost immediately pulled right back in the mix, and thereafter pops up now and then to play little variations around his main riff, and only returms in the long fade. Andy MacKay, meanwhile, plays all of seven notes throughout the whole song, all sustained, all easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. Whether it was his choice, Ferry’s or Rhett Davies’s, it’s another admirably disciplined and selfless performance on what for my money is the finest song Ferry ever wrote and the best record Roxy ever made.

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Andy Newmark, one of the very, very best