Saturday, December 22, 2018

A kind of seasonal playlist

Songs that, for me, conjure up Christmas, past and present. That’s Christmas, not Kissmass, Christingle, or Xmas. Not John Lewis, not the worship of babies or the family, but the festival that’s been marked in Britain ever since the 4th century when a pagan winter nosh-up and piss-up was superseded by a, well, pagan winter nosh-up and piss-up, coupled, in the last half century or so, with a commercial orgy.

Anyway, back to the music.

Every Grain of Sand - Bob Dylan (This is a good version but the original from 'Shot of Love' is by far the best)
Driving Home for Christmas – Chris Rea
A Soapbox Opera – Supertramp 
In the Ether – The Who (No online versions available; original is on 'Endless Wire')

I don’t know why I feel the need to list or write about this stuff. The reasons for my affection for these are intensely personal and therefore often hard to explain. I mean, Chris Rea? There’s a very Christian line in it that I find moving. ‘In The Ether’ has an extraordinary vocal (not by the Who’s lead singer). It's not an obviously Christian song, but it has emotional vulnerability and a strong sense of abandonment that recalls a certain story involving human frailty. ‘Every Grain of Sand’ is one of the greatest hymns ever written.

Mavis gets in twice with two overtly religious numbers; one is Gospel, the other is gospel truth. ‘A Soapbox Opera’ is by Supertramp's Roger Hodgson, who, like me, wanted gospel truths not Christian convenience. (Only Hodgson's live solo versions are available online; they seem clinical, cynical, less than emotional, by comparison to the Supertramp original on 'Crisis? What Crisis?').

Judy Garland has long been part of my Christmas consciousness because ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was first shown on British TV on Christmas Day circa 1974 when I was only 10. This phenomenal live version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ from a famous 1961 concert isn’t about looking for Oz either, just peace. That is supposedly the heart of the Christmas message, and it’s a connection that Laura Nyro sings of her struggle to find. 

The version of ‘Both Sides Now’ Joni Mitchell recorded when she was much older makes much more emotional sense in its sad meditation on love than her youthful original (For better or worse it was used, poignantly, in a Christmas-related film too).

Curtis Mayfield so desperately wanted to communicate about those for whom a new world order is sorely needed that he recorded it one line at a time whilst lying in dire pain on the floor of the studio after a totally disabling accident a decade earlier. 

Any version of ‘One World’ by John Martyn is wonderful. However on this particular version his call for mutual help in a 'cold and lonely world' is performed with such power, beauty and, at times, pleading that it’s arguably the greatest love song of all time.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Who's 'It's Hard' - reassessed after 36 years

Designed by Richard Evans; released by Polydor/Warner Bros
Why is one of The Who’s most diverse, most accomplished albums, so unknown and so often disregarded? Perhaps because it wasn’t understood in the time it was released in. Townshend was decidedly out of favour with rock’s self-appointed literati who saw the band as a middle-aged rock stadia irrelevance. Yet listening without prejudice reveals some of their best ever songs; songs with relevance then and arguably even more now. Who, in the realm of popular music at least, has ever tried to take on the subject of manhood (‘A Man is a Man’) and successfully captured the absurd expectations, contradictions and, sometimes, quiet bravery that it can encompass? ‘It’s so hard’, as a line in the title track notes, to be true to yourself, to be honest, to be consistent. 

Perhaps if men (and this is a man’s record) could adopt Townshend’s advice in the song ‘Cry If You Want To’, then failure could really be success. This track is part male rock bombast (check out the sonic guitar solo) and part emotional advocacy. Cry, because your childhood illusions have been destroyed – as we now know Townsend’s were – and the sloganising political simplicities of adolescence cannot capture global complexities. In a further example of the song-writing thread running through this album, ‘I’ve Known No War’ contrasts the then (and still) very topical abhorrence of nuclear weapons with experiencing war, and in whose wake The Who and others railed against the very notion of gratitude for past sacrifice. This song (and ‘The Green Fields of France’) should have found a place amongst the war memorialisation that recently marshalled the masses in an echo of 1930s regimes but with even less historical or political context. There are a few non-classics too, though the danceable 'Eminence Front gets close while ‘Cooks’ County’, ‘Dangerous’, etc. ain't filler. One of the most extraordinary tracks is the short but overwhelming ‘One Life is Enough’. It could have been an imagined Townsend/Lloyd-Webber partnership in its stagey-ness, but is almost operatic in the lyrical and vocal ambition that Townshend-Daltrey bring to bear.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

England doesn't deserve to win

For those who insist that sportspeople just want to practise a profession that has nothing to do with politics, and that politics should be kept entirely separate from sport, consider this. As “England”, the football team, exited the World Cup last night, one of the many overpaid football gobshites who substitute verbal diarrhoea for clarity of speech, told 37 million ITV viewers that, despite losing, they had done “the nation” proud and that “the nation” will honour their achievement etc etc. Be in no doubt that the main match commentator, Clive Tyldesley, was being archly political in his propagandist nonsense, whether he quite realised it or not.

There is no nation called England. The nation that he was mixing it up with was one that rejoices under the internationally recognised, legal, title of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. That’s the UK, for short, not Britain and most certainly not England. Only the spatch-cock nation that is the UK could concoct a situation where it doesn’t have a national football team. Instead three constituent countries and one “province” (Northern Ireland) compete against each other on the international football stage as if they are nations.

Of course nations are subjective things, some exist only in the fact that some people feel an affinity to them, whether a “nation” has national independence, statehood, or not e.g. Palestine, Kurdistan etc. In the same sense Scotland is arguably a nation: there are enough Scots who profess to be Scottish (whether they actually want their country to leave the UK or not). The Welsh ditto, most of whom most definitely do not want to leave the bosom of the UK family. Northern Ireland is most definitely not a nation, nor can you give the term 'country' to an artificially concocted place that nearly a century ago was carved out of Ireland to appease a then overwhelming majority who wanted to continue to politically identify with the British state against the wishes of a minority who identified with a nation called Ireland.

That leaves us with the “nation” that the ITV football commentator may have thought he was referring to:  England. England has no political or governmental status, within the UK or internationally. Unlike Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, it has no government, no formal national apparatus. There are laws that apply only to the territory of England, and there is definitely a legal corpus known as English law. But that’s it.

At the start of the match you could hear the Russian stadium commentator, whose serial verbosity periodically interrupted every live World Cup game, say “and now the English national anthem”. The England football team almost sung along as they once again appropriated the UK’s turgid national paen to political quiescence and anti-democratic sentiment. There is no English national anthem. How could there be? ‘English nation’ is an oxymoron. Despite the proliferating born-again Cross of St George enthusiasts, whose empty-headed embrace of the ultimate imagined nation has boomed since England’s second greatest World Cup performance (1990), and a little thing called Brexit (2019?), there aren’t many English men and women who have a clear idea of what their nation actually is. There was no national ambiguity in Zagreb last night though among the fans going ape-shit in a nation of 4m born out of sectarian horror just two and a half decades ago.

If you cannot unavowedly name your nation, then it doesn’t exist (yes, it’s true, a tree falling in a forest doesn’t make a sound if nobody is there to hear it). If, like Tyldesley, your nation is a confusion of England, Britain and, I suspect, some half-cocked rewriting of wartime history, and the role of a few German royals and a half-American half English toff called Churchill in it, then maybe this doesn’t matter. But the reason why people get killed in your name without anybody you elect having any constitutional authority over it, and why the tiresome parade of unelected aristocrats propping up the head of state and her church, continues is because the “English” can’t tell their national arse from Rice Krispies. God Save Us indeed.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Prisonaires Live at the Electric Palace, Hastings

“Is this a supergroup?” asked a friend of mine as we took our places last night in the third row of this tiny, historic, yet barely half-full Hastings cinema. If about 250 years of combined experience playing with some of the most important western musicians of the 20th Century fits the bill, then The Prisonaires are definitely a supergroup. While not household names, any blues, jazz-rock, folk, or rock enthusiast will understand that these gentlemen were pivotal to some of the most ground-breaking music of the 1960s and '70s. Yet there were plenty of empty seats in a venue that only has 48 of them.

Acoustic guitarist and leader of the band, Alan King commented wryly that scheduling a gig during an international football tournament is always a disaster. But can it be that south-coast music buffs preferred staying at home to watch telly in the hope that Argentina would defeat the French, than attending a gig of this quality? When The Prisonaires finished their set a member of the audience stood up and shouted that it was the finest gig he’d seen in Hastings in years. It was one of the finest gigs I’ve seen anywhere in years.

Alan (left) with Bobby Valentino (fiddle), Les Morgan (drums) and Tony Reeves (right,bass)

Musical impresario, Alan King was a doyen of the famed 12 Bar Club, the ‘60s Soho music venue that gives the name to Dr King’s ‘12 Bar Music’, the platform for this and for some forthcoming Electric Palace gigs. King told me outside the Gents – the Electric Palace is so small that the toilets are never far away – that he is lucky enough to have played with his favourite guitarists, Davy Graham and Bert Jansch, and his favourite singer, Miller Anderson. For many years King also played with his favourite songwriter, Alan Hull (of Lindisfarne).

The aura of Graham and Jansch hung over proceedings as King opened the set riffing on the rite of passage folk guitar tune, ‘Anji’. What the advance publicity promised would be a hybrid of The Pentangle and Can, “with a touch of Miles Davis’” jazz-rock-funk fusion, was underway. ‘Anji’ went from sounding like The Pentangle were performing it, to something with a lot more attitude. Almost like Fairport Convention’s ‘A Sailor’s Life’, but lifted beyond even that wonderfully free-flowing, folk-jazz hybrid  However I couldn’t detect the influence of Can on this or on any of the other tunes The Prisonaires performed last night. It was undoubtedly an eclectic set though, and The Prisonaires have certainly embraced Can’s determination to kick against the musical pricks.

What happened on ‘Anji’, and throughout the gig, was a superannuated jam session without the tedium that that would normally imply. Each number, often only loosely based on professed connections to an original tune, has a distinct concept behind it that’s usually conceived of and initially worked up by Alan King. It might be a radical reworking of a known tune or the fusing of diverse tunes and elements together – the second number was inspired by ‘Sketches of Spain’ era Miles but went all over the place. King communicates with some band members via SoundCloud (“or just by text”, grinned guitarist Paul Baverstock). Rehearsals are live. Some band members, like the audience, may be hearing a number for the first time. To carry this off you need musicians of a very high calibre and, as importantly, imagination.

Alongside King in this endeavour last night were virtuoso fiddle player Bobby Valentino, who at 64 is one of the youngest in the band. Valentino was in The Fabulous Poodles, worked extensively with The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and has played with Dylan, Knopfler and Petty. He is part Stephane Grappelli, part Jean-Luc Ponty, but is mostly just himself. 

Bobby Valentino

On electric lead guitar was Paul Baverstock. Paul, who also spoke to me outside the Gents, said that he was in the celebrated London band that nearly made it big in the early ‘80s, A Bigger Splash. Their first single, ‘I Don’t Believe A Word’, was produced by Sting who also, with Eddie Reader, sung harmonies on it. It made it to the influential BBC Radio 1 review programme, ‘Roundtable’, but had the misfortune of being followed by Prince’s ‘Kiss’ which, Alan said, blew everything else out of the water that week (or pretty much that decade). Last night Paul’s impressive pedal affects assisted him in alternating between a blues-inflected rock guitar sound that often echoed Dave Gilmour, and being a Hammond organ virtuoso. Paul was loud for a small venue but was darned good. 

To his right in the all-star line-up was Tony Reeves. Tony has a strong jazz feel to his impressive electric bass playing; hardly surprising given that he was founder member of fusion band Colosseum and later joined Curved Air. Like Alan, Tony started out on the folk circuit. He’s on Davy Graham’s first two albums. A few years later he joined John Mayall’s celebrated Bluesbreakers, along with Mick Taylor who a few months later replaced Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones. Reeves has also played with, and produced, John Martyn and is the bassist on a Sandy Denny LP. By contrast, as a Pye Records’ plugger in the mid-60s, Tony promoted, and then played on, Tony Hatch’s ‘Sounds Orchestral’.

Les (drums), Tony (bass) and Paul (guitar)
In the centre of the stage, and often, my friend observed, making sure that the whole thing held together, was drummer Les Morgan (who’s performed with leading UK blues artists Alexis Korner and Jo-Anne Kelly, and with singer Chris Farlow). Les isn’t musically ostentatious like Paul, but, as good drummers often do, provides backbone (and flair) when some of the showmen occasionally threatened to take proceedings off on too conflicting a set of tangents. Alan King told me that the band also normally features Mike Paice (a Jools Holland sparring partner) on sax and harmonica, who, to King’s surprise given the unusual combination of instruments, gels successfully with violinist Valentino.

Among the most interesting musical adventures of the night was a number influenced by Miles Davis’ darker funk-fusion phase that also informed its title, ‘It’s About That Movie Time’; and a latin jazz excursion based on a number by jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell. In something of a preview of his own forthcoming set at The Electric Palace on 21 September, King took the band on a further musical diversion: ragas. He found suitable accompaniment from Valentino, before Reeves and Baverstock somehow worked out their place in the evolving mix. The Prisonaires' ‘raga rock’ is wholly its own thing, and has been a decade-long musical preoccupation for King. No easy nod here to George Harrison, The Byrds or even L. Shankar. The September gig by Dr King, possibly accompanied by some other members of The Prisonaires, will be well worth seeing.

Getting in tune? Les, Alan & Paul

The closing number was introduced by Alan as a fusion of two pivotal Jimmy Webb songs: - “the greatest anti-war song ever written”, ‘Galveston’, and the “greatest love song ever written”, ‘By The Time I Get to Phoenix’ – but without the words! This was an extraordinary musical idea successfully realised: you could hear the trace elements of both Webb classics in the heady mix.  

On a sweaty night out in Hastings some thirty odd people had experienced a real treat, and they rightly gave the band a rapturous response. Cries for an encore were understandably resisted though as the band, tired and thirsty, had done what they set out to do – whether Can were in the house or not.   

Friday, February 9, 2018

Labour's forgotten the 100th anniversary of working class men getting the vote

The Labour Party has forgotten that it's also the 100th anniversary of working class men getting the vote, all of them. In 2018 Labour is saying that the fight for women's equality still goes on, but has a problem saying that the fight for class equality must continue too. 

Yet ironically today's Labour Party, under a pro-Brexit, left-wing leadership, has no problem getting liberal middle class support. It's the (white) working class (who are often pro-Brexit) that Labour is still struggling to reconnect with. Without them Labour won't win the next General Election. 

Unless Labour can somehow rediscover its class credentials throughout Britain without alienating the metropolitan middle class, the Tories will win again. This requires being progressive on tax and social justice, tough on getting British workers into employment and reducing immigration, and asserting a UK identity that’s inclusive in terms of class as well as gender, sexuality and ethnicity. 

Building a broad class base is good democratic politics. For most of its history Labour has understood that this, rather than narrow sectarian interests, are what brings it power. It can’t, and shouldn’t be expected to, propose class war. However Labour didn’t lose elections because it talked about and tackled class inequality. 

Addressing this subject now could bring back some of the badly needed white working class voters who didn’t back Labour at the 2017 General Election, despite Jeremy Corbyn having long been a Brexiteer.