Tag Archives: strumming

You’re Not the Only One I Know – The Sundays

It’s spring. Springtime means jangle.

I do a lot of my music listening on the way to and from other places (work, chiefly), on an iPod. Certain times of year tend to push me in the direction of specific artists and styles of music. I always seem to have a period of intense British-folk-revival listening in the autumn (see here, here, here, here, here, and here); shorter days, colder nights, crisper mornings and teeming rain just seem to suggest jazzy folk-rock to me and then only double basses, fingerpicked guitars and woody low-tuned drums will do.

In the spring, I tend to find myself listening to lighter, airier music – no coincidence, that, I’m sure – and so I always seem to end up spending a couple of weeks revisiting the Sundays. This year is no exception. They’ve scarcely been off my iPod all week.

Partly it’s a matter of the sound fitting the moment. Brisk tempos, jangly guitars, melodic bass, near constant 16th notes on the hi-hat from drummer Patch Hannon – I feel like I’ve needed this airiness and forward momentum to get me through the week. But there’s more to it than that. Most characteristic of the Sundays’ music – particularly on their debut, Reading, Writing & Arithmetic (which is, among many other things, a pun on their hometown of Reading) – is a sense of potential, and spring is all about potential, rebirth, what might happen.

The Sundays were a young band, recent graduates, in 1990 when R, W & A was released. Harriet Wheeler and guitarist David Gavurin had met at university, and written many of their early songs there. It shows. I Won is about the politics of flatsharing. The now-famous chorus of Here’s Where the Story Ends (‘It’s that little souvenir of a terrible year which makes my eyes feel sore/And I never should have said the books that you read were all I loved you for’) is archetypal student-in-love stuff. You’re Not the Only One I Know will for ever sound to me like the song of a slightly lost undergraduate, too proud to ask for attention from someone they like or admit that they might be floundering, if only a little, in this new and unfamiliar world.

My own university years were pretty trouble-free, and while I had friends who went through the mill a good bit more, no matter how rough times may seem when you’re going through this stuff the key thing about being 20 is that you’ve got nothing but time ahead of you. Basically nothing you can do at that age is irrevocable; nothing can’t be fixed in the nearish future. That knowledge – and I think we all do know it even as we go through it – lends a different character to our experiences, and if we happen to write songs, a different character to our writing too. A woman in her late forties singing, ‘It’s perfectly fine to sleep in a chair from Monday till Saturday, and what is so wrong with talking out loud when I’m on my own?’ would come off very differently to the way it does when Wheeler sang it on You’re Not the Only One I Know in 1990. The song recognises this, plays on it. It’s aware that, left unchecked for too long, this kind of willed isolation could lead to a life that is no life at all, but just for now, it is perfectly fine.

It’s a lovely song, the saddest, most doubt-filled moment on a record that is otherwise confident and animated by the promise of tomorrow. The Sundays were not particularly sonically adventurous and their early music doesn’t seem to have too many reference points other than the Smiths and the Cocteau Twins, but this song adds another element to the usual sound: a melodic bassline from the Peter Hook school, played with a pick and a lot of chorus in Hookian fashion. It’s this sound – brightly strummed guitars, subtly addictive 16th-note drums*, sinuous basslines – that brings me back to the Sundays whenever the days get longer and brighter, but its the quality of their songs and the idiosyncratic moods they create that keep me listening over and over again.


The Sundays, early 1990s

*I can never decide how much of the drumming was programmed. I suspect at least a few songs were: the drums on I Won sound a lot more live than the ones on, for example, Can’t Be Sure. But Here’s Where the Story Ends and You’re Not the Only One I Know? Still can’t decide. Hannon could play these songs live, no sweat, so could have been live, but they are remarkably consistent, and a little hemmed in, in a way that could easily be programmed.


Merry Go Round – Fred Neil

‘Nik [Venet, record prodcer],’ says Fred, ‘this is very short. And there’s no reason to stretch it, ’cause it says it, and you know…’

By the standards of Sessions (1967), the nearly 6-minute-long Merry Go Round is a short track. Fred Neil’s music had travelled a long way from the straightforward, very white, trad folk of Tear Down the Walls, the record he’d made in the early sixties with singing partner Vince Martin (in case that sounds dismissive, let me say quickly that it’s a record I greatly enjoy for the most part, and that Martin and Neil sounded wonderful together). Neil’s progress continued through Bleecker & McDougal, which felt its way towards folk-rock (with the presence of an electric lead guitarist), as well as back to jug-band music and the blues (John Sebastian’s harmonica playing, which is all over the album), and even down south of the border (Felix Pappalardi’s guitarrón). It was one of the three great Fred Neil records.

Better yet – maybe best of all, and certainly the one I’d recommend to anyone looking to hear him for the first time – was 1966’s Fred Neil, an album of full-on, deep-as-an-ocean folk-rock, from one of its finest writers (Everbody’s Talkin’, The Dolphins) and singers (his interpretations of Shake Sugaree, retitled I’ve Got a Secret, and Fare Thee Well, which is credited to Neil, but frankly, that’s bobbins). It’s a world away from what was brewing in a certain North London studio in 1966, but it’s one of that year’s finest records.

Its clipped discipline was succeeded by the extraordinarily loose Sessions. Which is an apt name. As an album, it doesn’t cohere: it’s just a bunch of songs, recorded at a bunch of sessions. But what songs, and what sessions! The extended, improvisatory nature of Sessions owed a greater debt to jazz than New York folk; Neil hung out with jazz musicians, and their influence on him was evident in his demeanour and his syncopated strumming style (Neil is one of the truly great rhythm guitarists). But exploring these musical territories suited Neil vocally, too. His baritone had always been at home with the blues and his willingness to explore a vocal melody seemed constrained by the confines of the strophic story song and continuous two-part harmony. Rejecting a linear, narrative approach to lyrics, instead beginning with a dark joke about not being able to find the back of a merry-go-round and then repurposing the lyrics to In the Pines (also known as Where Did you Sleep Last Night?, made famous to younger generations by Nirvana’s version during their MTV Unplugged performance), Neil is working at something dreamier, deeper, more allusive, than anything he had cut previously.

The album’s influence has percolated down through the years, as the great works have a tendency to: Sessions was a key record for Tim Buckley, as he made his journey away from the laughable earnestness of his early work to the far cooler jazz-folk of Happy/Sad and through to the experimental Lorca and Starsailor, and, being more widely heard than Fred Neil, Tim Buckley’s music passed the loose, risk-taking spirit and elongated song structures down to contemporary songwriters innumerable.


Richie Havens – RIP

Been doing far, far too many of these lately.

Richie Havens was a singer and a guitarist, a much better singer than most guitarists and a much better guitarist than most singers. His propulsive, ultra-percussive, heavily syncopated approach to guitar playing is instantly recognisable once you’ve heard it, and his voice just ached with passion and sincerity. Listening to him sing today, his lack of pretence, his lack of a front, brings you up short. Richie Havens was just himself; he wasn’t playing at being anything or anyone else. Although he strikes me as the kind of man who was probably not big on judging others, it serves as something of a rebuke to a generation of singers who are either unwilling to commit to any genuine emotion or can only emote in primary colours.

His guitar playing – in which his acoustic guitar was usually open-tuned, and held at such an angle that he could fret bar chords with his thumb over the top of the neck – came from the same folk-jazz school as that of Fred Neil and Tim Buckley, but even more than those guys he turned the seemingly mundane act of strumming with a pick into an art form. Watching the footage of his set at Woodstock reminds us once again of how intricate his guitar playing was, how free he was within the beat. For those of us who maybe haven’t given enough thought to our strumming technique (and I count myself amongst them), watching him play is inspiring, if a little intimidating.

Farewell to another one-off.


Richie Havens. Note the left-hand thumb