Monday, 17 April 2017

Number 9
14 January 1978
The Sex Pistols reflect on the human race

Pop music and the Holocaust

At the end of the day, you have to admit that the ability of pop music to address the enormity and singularity of the Holocaust is somewhat limited. Thankfully, very few pop musicians have felt the need to address the Holocaust in song. Dylan's "With God on our Side" references the Germans murdering six million "in the ovens they fried". This is an unusually direct image for Dylan, is historically inaccurate in that not all the victims were cremated and is only there to provide a rhyme for "side". A weak verse in a weak song. Captain Beefheart's "Dachau Blues" is a slightly better reflection on the seismic event; "those poor jews...one mad man six million lose". "Zyklon B Zombie" by Throbbing Gristle is suitably grisly. There are few others worthy of note. The Sex Pistols' contribution is called "Belsen Was a Gas".

It may perhaps be expected that Sid Vicious would not produce a sensitive reflection on this terrible event. And he doesn't. Vicious wrote the music and probably the title for The Sex Pistols song "Belsen Was a Gas" while Johnny Rotten probably contributed the lyrics. The song most likely started as a joke, being a piss poor pun on the German's method of execution combined with the hippy expression for things being really great. See, for instance, Marc Bolan's song "Life's a Gas" from 1971 which may have provided the direct inspiration for Vicious' "joke".

One of the main aims of the original punks was to epater les hippies. The punks were angry that the hippy dream of the sixties had failed to deliver a world of bohemian excitement, adventure and venues that stayed open after 10.30. Throwing nihilism and negativity in the face of peace and love, the more spiteful and childish the punks could be, the better they liked it. Celebrating the nazis was as spiteful and childish as it could get. So, Siouxsie and the Banshees wore swastika armbands and sang "too many jews for my liking". Adam and the Ants sang about "Deutscher Girls". "Nazi Baby" sang The Vibrators. The Damned took their name from Visconti's film about the nazis. Warsaw (later Joy Division and then New Order, both nazi inspired names) said "you all forgot Rudolf Hess" and used nazi iconography on their first record. The Ramones in "Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World" declared they were a nazi schatze (sweetheart). Admittedly some of this was satirical in intent but it is also the case that many punk groups chose not to go down this route of cheap shock tactics.

Rotten lyrics

By 1978, most, if not all, of the punk groups had abandoned nazi references. The Sex Pistols appear to have introduced "Belsen Was a Gas" into their set list for their December 1977 British tour and retained it for their January 1978 US tour after other punks had abandoned such outrage. By this time, the Pistols' notoriety was established but perhaps they felt under pressure to continue being outrageous. Or perhaps Rotten was looking for a deeper meaning than mere outrage prompted by the lyrics.

After a simplistic expression of some elements of nazi offences ("in the open graves where the jews all lay") combined with an attempt to convey holiday camp style references ("wrote their postcards to those held dear"), it is the repeated refrain of "be a man, kill someone, be a man, kill yourself" that I think provides the song's ultimate meaning for Rotten and the justification for continuing to listen to otherwise puerile offence.

Winterland
 
The best performed and best recorded version of "Belsen Was a Gas" is that from the Winterland Ballroom on 14 January 1978. This was the final concert of The Sex Pistols 1978 US tour and their last concert as a group until 1996. It seems likely that Rotten knew he would be leaving the group and his performance during the concert seems to indicate as much. Perhaps this knowledge fired up his performance, seeking to emulate the last stand of Iggy and the Stooges as captured on the "Metallic KO" audio verite. Or perhaps he was inspired by playing at the Winterland Ballroom.
Winterland, yesterday
The Winterland Ballroom was a large venue in San Francisco famous for hosting concerts by almost all leading rock groups of the 1970s and particularly associated with American hippy groups coming out of the 1960s such as Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead. With their shows of excessive length incorporating drawn-out instrumental noodling, these sort of groups were most hated by the punks.
 
The Pistols US tour was directly targeted at the cities, venues and audiences most likely to be made up of fans of US 1970s rock in an act of deliberate provocation. Rather than play in the supposedly more cosmopolitan northern cities such as New York and Detroit (the very cities whose music had been so inspirational to the punks), the Pistols played in places like Baton Rouge, Dallas, Memphis and San Francisco (ironically mirroring their UK concerts where they often played in places like Cromer and Penzance rather than many big cities). 
Example of Pistols' US tour incongruity

As the tour progressed, the Pistols' "interaction" with their audience became steadily more antagonistic, as captured in Lech Kowalski's film "D.O.A.". At some venues, the group were almost face to face with the crowd resulting in physical assaults by the audience on the group and vice versa. At the larger Winterland venue, the band were relatively safe from punches, although plenty of objects were thrown at them. As a consequence, on a purely musical level, they were able to give their best performance of the tour.

The music

"Belsen Was a Gas" is a simple song with a three chord verse creating tension by starting with a perfect fifth (B) followed by a perfect fourth (A) then a minor sixth (C) before resolving into the root chord (E assuming one is playing it in E) and alternating with the fourth (A). This alternation will form the chorus and the chorus doubles as a repeated refrain to bring the song to a close. It is also what provides spring to the song.

The song begins with a squeal of feedback as Steve Jones turns his guitar up and a crack on the snare drum before the whole group crash into the music. Vicious' bass playing is both present and relatively in tune and in time (a rarity) and there is a disciplined intensity to the playing ("disciplined intensity" might be a good descriptor for Steve Jones and Paul Cook's playing throughout The Sex Pistols' live career). Jones does stray from the correct chords quite often but the dissonance this creates actually adds to the tension and the violence of the performance. One of the verses is played muted allowing the focus to be on Rotten venting his spleen. Jones allows himself occasional flourishes early on but as the song races to its conclusion he concentrates on his chord work. Because of Vicious' unpredictable bass playing, it is Paul Cook's job to keep the band in time, something he excels at, steering the group to a sudden finish.

The recording

The recording from Winterland crackles with electricity. The notes ring out and the space is filled with sound. It is a two minute assault with silence at the beginning and end. The crowd noise that follows is there to prove that this actually happened, in front of an audience. It is crucial to the recording as otherwise the band are just attacking a mirror or an empty room. This assault has a target and the target is the audience.

 
Johnny Rotten vs the human race

There are three verses (actually only two sets of lyrics as Rotten repeats the first verse as the third). Rotten mangles the lyrics which begin to make no sense. Following the first "be a man" lyric, he resorts to a demented laugh which he pursues throughout the verse becoming more deranged as it goes on before repeating "be a man". His tone of delivery is mocking and sarcastic. He sings the title of the song before casting his eyes out over the audience, steadying himself, and then delivers the coup de grace.

Here in the belly of the beast, the origin and HQ of the despised hippies, those sixties idealists who failed to deliver on any of their promises, this is Rotten's chance to give the metaphorical V-sign. In the home of peace and love, singing his silly song about the nazis and the jews, offending refined sensibilities and taste, mocking the sorts of laidback dudes that listened to The Band and The Eagles, letting off a stink bomb in class, the Greatest Living Englishman raises his game and elects to go after a bigger and broader target. Culturally and historically aware, Rotten understands that the crimes of the nazis, while specific to them, are also resonant of humanity's wider inhumanity. The Catholic within him looks at failed promises, disappointed hope, cruelty, lack of empathy, neglect, opposition, contempt, fear, hatred, dehumanisation and ultimately genocide and concludes that the judgment is death, and self-annihilation the solution. The generations that failed him at school, that delivered a lack of opportunities and hope, the hippies that did not deliver a better world, the monsters that seek to exterminate an entire race. Into the dustbin of history with them.

This scared and confused young boy articulates his frustration in a refrain of beautiful, improvised economy and directness. Other recordings show Rotten varying the order in which his commands are given, and diverting into asides such as "join our army" and "a real man", suggesting that this is not a strict written order but a variety of things he shouts depending on each performance. At Winterland, as his group is coming to an end and while thousands are listening, Rotten nails it perfectly and succinctly.

What response is appropriate in the face of the Holocaust? None? Any? Who knows. Certainly we are each accountable for our own reaction to this watershed event. For his part, Rotten demands the apocalypse, delivering nothing less than the end of the self.

                        "Be a man
                        Kill someone
                        Kill yourself
                        Be a man
                        Be someone
                        Kill someone
                        Be a man                  
                        Kill yourself"

The arrogance of the 70s Me Generation, the assertion that I exist, pay attention to me. The self-actualisation inherent in doing your own thing. Masculine vanity exhibiting itself in violence. Do you think you are a real man? Check out those nazis. They knew how to get things done. Think you are a real man? Prove it by the ultimate act. Kill someone. Want to go one better than that? Be a man, kill yourself.

The End

So extreme, so final is this song and performance that recorded music should have ended here. In fact, even the Pistols concert did not end at this point, continuing for another 8 songs. One wonders how they felt they had to keep going after they achieved perfection. But of course, they did not have the opportunity to listen back to the recording. Because what recordings, and great recordings in particular, give us is that capturing of a moment that can be relived and repeated and the emotions experienced anew again (if you can repeat a new experience). Whether it happened in an upstairs room in 1927 or in front of thousands in 1978, the recordings preserve the spirit, the atmosphere, the intent and the skill of the participants.

I have written about 9 recordings in this sequence. There is space for a tenth. What would you put there?

Hear Rotten vs the World here
 
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Saturday, 18 March 2017

Number 8
28 December 1976
Howard Devoto goes ba-dum ba-dum and saves punk rock from itself

Humour in music

Two words. Noel Coward. There was a time when music could be both clever and humourous. Blues, jazz and folk musicians knew the benefit of adding humour to their music if they wanted to keep an audience entertained rather than scratching their chins. The classic lyricists of Broadway and Hollywood wrote songs that combined cleverness and wit in equal measure. From the 1960s onwards there came a separation into serious and humourous artists. The serious musicians sometimes attempted humour with disastrous results (witness "Yellow Submarine" or Cream's "A Mother's Lament"). Humourous musicians were not taken seriously (tragically so in the case of the Bonzo Dog Band's "The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse"). Popular music and its fans became increasingly po-faced. As always, there are exceptions to this but let's focus on earnest young men with beards and flares rather than Ian Anderson in a codpiece and Rick Wakeman in a cape performing on ice.

Music had to be heavy (to achieve heaviosity as Woody Allen had it). Either in its sound or in its meaning. Artists were either heavy or pop. Led Zeppelin were heavy. Dylan was heavy. Neil Young was heavy. Mud and The Sweet were pop. The new groups that came in the wake of The Sex Pistols were to replace this artificial divide with music that was both serious and fun. But at the outset it was not apparent that this would be the case. The initial punk groups out of London like the Pistols, The Damned and The Clash were deadly serious and earnest. The good-time groups, Ramones copyists and bandwagon jumpers like The Vibrators, The Lurkers and The Stranglers, even when they were pretending to be dumb, were not funny just stupid. UK punk rock was angry and raw but nothing more than that.

Howard Devoto

In 1976, Brian Eno-lookalike and Bolton Institute of Technology student, Howard Trafford (who was to rename himself Howard Devoto), wrote some songs together with fellow student and krautrock fan Peter McNeish (who renamed himself Pete Shelley). They had arranged for The Sex Pistols to play in Manchester and Trafford and McNeish wanted to form a band so that they too could play at The Sex Pistols concert. And obviously they needed some songs to play.

Trafford and McNeish had already travelled to London to see some of the punk groups play so they were familiar with the short, sharp nature of the music. It would have been easy for McNeish to produce facsimile copies of the London music as so many other groups were later to do. However, McNeish was a fan of experimental music and managed to produce tunes that were compositionally and melodically interesting. In particular, one song was based on a recurring riff combined with a two note guitar interlude that sounded like something the German experimentalists Faust were producing two or three years earlier. All it needed was for Trafford to sling a few angry phrases together to shout over the top and, presto, another song.

Boredom

Nowhere. Boredom. By the time Jamie Reid used these as destinations for the buses on the back sleeve of The Sex Pistols "Pretty Vacant" single in July 1977 they were already signifiers of punk cliche (although Reid had first used them in 1972 and the Pistols in December 1976). The punks were bored. The Adverts sang about "Bored Teenagers". The Clash said that London was burning with boredom. Punk dilettantes Snatch sang "When I'm Bored". "How Much Longer" moaned Alternative TV like bored kids in the back of the car. Boredom became a pose. Punk bands adopted being bored as a pose, like The Saints on the cover of "(I'm) Stranded".
The (bored) Saints, yesterday
When Howard Trafford wrote a song about boredom his lyric satirised this pose. The scene is hum-drum. London groups complained of being bored yet they lived in London. Imagine studying at Bolton Tech in 1976 if you want to experience real tedium: "I just came from nowhere, and I'm going straight back there".

The one thing punks craved to alleviate their boredom was excitement. Specifically excitement in music. And they were not above adopting rock cliches if they thought this would help. McNeish's music for the song that would become "Boredom" by Buzzcocks contained natural pauses after each refrain. McNeish had a plan for a thrilling, imaginative guitar solo in the middle of the song. Trafford filled the early pauses in the tune by calling out the title of the song. When it came time for McNeish's guitar solo, Trafford had the chance to up the ante and come up with a thrilling rock style statement.

Trafford was an Iggy Pop fan and Iggy had put forth his own thoughts on boredom some years earlier in "No Fun" and "1969" by The Stooges. Imagine what Iggy would have done with a space in the music to be filled by something. A strangulated yelp like in "Down on the Street". A gutteral howl like in "TV Eye". Or that weird cut-off "shdumd" sound he makes into the microphone at the end of "1970". Or all three.

Instead, Trafford makes the crucial move of intoning "Ba-dum ba-dum" in place of "boredom" and introduces wit and humour into punk. It is humorous because it is unexpected. It is playful, substituting a soundalike for the title of the song, for the meaning of the song. It cuts through the expected angst that one anticipates from bored, disaffected youths and harks back to the "Hey-ho" insouciance of childhood. The power to accept the things that you cannot change, la-di-da, fiddle-de-dee, ba-dum ba-dum.

The impact was immediate. The audience understood the ramifications of what Trafford had done. He had greatly expanded the emotional palette of the music. It could be simultaneously angry and funny, clever and dumb. It could pinprick pomposity and posing and other stupidities. It could draw on older and more varied inspirations. Like Noel Coward.

            "The Grand Duke was dancing a foxtrot with me
            When suddenly Cyril screamed "Fiddle-de-dee"
            And ripped off his trousers and jumped in the sea,
            I couldn't have liked it more."

Get bored with The Buzzcocks here.
 
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Saturday, 11 March 2017

Number 7
1967
Bob Marley and the Wailers record "Selassie is the Chapel"

Mortimer Planno

Haile Selassie and Planno 1966
Mortimer Planno was a key figure in developing the rasta faith as a sophisticated response to the situation that the African diaspora, particularly those in Jamaica, found themselves. A preacher, teacher and social activist, he led the establishment of a rasta commune in Kingston separate from that already developed in the hills at Wareika. Planno seems to represent something of an intermediary between the Jamaican establishment and the rasta rebels in the hills. As an outsider himself, originally from Cuba, he may have been better suited to get along with the establishment. Either way, Planno got himself included on an official delegation to visit Ethiopia in 1961 and was part of the reception committee when Emperor Haile Selassie visited Jamaica in 1966, helping to calm the huge crowds that had gathered at the airport.

I do wonder whether Planno, an intelligent man, ever thought to himself what this faith needs is a charismatic, young advocate to take the message to a greater audience. Did he recognise such a prospect when Robert Nesta Marley knocked on his door later that year? Or did he think, here's another chancer looking for a distraction. Either way, Planno sent Marley away with the distinct impression that he did not think Marley had what it took to join the faith.

Bob Marley


Bob and Rita 1966
 Bob Marley had begun recording in 1962 before forming a vocal trio
 with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. His early recordings dealt with 
 matters like cups of coffee and not judging others, before having a
 huge hit with "Simmer Down" in 1964. In 1966, Marley moved to the
 United States for a short period to be near his mother. When he
 returned to Jamaica later that year he was searching for a more
 spiritual purpose to his life, one that he could align with the
 revolutionary fervour that was rising up inside of him. The rasta faith seemed to provide that combination of spirituality and revolution.

So it was that in 1966 Marley called upon the Ras Tafari encampment in Trenchtown set up by Mortimer Planno and enquired about learning more about the rasta faith. By all accounts, Planno had his doubts about Marley's commitment. In order to prove otherwise, Marley determined to record a devotional song to demonstrate his seriousness.

Selassie is the Chapel

"Selassie is the Chapel" was written by Mortimer Planno. It is an adaptation of "Crying in the Chapel" recorded originally by Darrell Glenn in 1953 and then covered by a wide range of other artists including the best known version recorded by Elvis Presley in 1960 and released as a single in 1965. Prior to Elvis, one of the biggest selling versions of the song was by The Orioles in 1953 and a rerecorded version in 1959.

Planno's rewrite of the song explicitly affirms the divinity of Haile Selassie. It is a clear challenge to those who would seek to portray Selassie as a representative figure, as standing for the divine. It asserts Selassie's place in the Trinity as the born-again Christ. A more direct affirmation of faith by Marley would be difficult to imagine.

The recording

The recording is very basic. Unlike Marley's previous releases, it eschews a band accompaniment. Just Marley's guitar and some rasta drums accompany the vocals. The echo on Marley's voice indicates that a professional studio was used but otherwise it sounds like it could have been recorded in a church hall or a living room. The arrangement is considerably slower than many other versions giving it a hymn-like quality.

The Wailers' usual harmony vocals are different on this recording. Bunny Wailer was in prison at the time so it is Rita Marley who joins with Peter Tosh on harmonies. This gives a different, higher sound, almost keening, happily in keeping with the subject matter.

Marley's lead vocal follows the path laid out by Sonny Til of the Orioles. He delivers a sweet and tender invocation of the words free from any strident proselytising. There is a deeper quality to some of his notes not replicated in other parts of his work. He engages briefly in some melisma but otherwise appears to be singing within himself. In fact, he is taking care to make sure that the focus is on the beauty of the melody and the meaning of the words rather than on himself as the performer. It is an act of devotion, of supplication, both to Selassie himself and, by implication, to Planno.

"All the world should know". Marley would take the rasta faith around the world, to Europe, Africa and America. This small sect of Jamaican dissenters and contrarians would see their faith acquire widespread adoption and acceptance. But Marley and Planno's challenge remains. Rasta is not just a cultural signifier or a philosophical system but a set of religious beliefs focussed on a black saviour. And as such, it demands devotion and supplication from its followers as Marley and Planno demonstrate here.
 
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Sunday, 29 January 2017

Number 6
1965
Maureen Craik records "A U Me Hinny Bird"

In 1860, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville recorded himself singing "Au Clair de la lune". After that point, all music could be recorded and played back. What did music sound like before it could be recorded? In 1665, a young girl sings a song about the things and places she knows. 300 years later it gets released.

Why no-one listens to folk music

Fair Isle sweaters, finger in ear singing, beards, real ale, hey nonny, fol de rol, The Spinners, morris men, this...
 
Folk fans
Alexei Sayle used to do a folk song parody beginning "I'm a computer programmer". It's another world and you have to accept some stylistic peculiarities, a bit like reading a 19th century novel or Elizabethan poetry.   

For a music which is supposedly the voice of the people, very few of the people want to listen to it or to sing it themselves. The folk revival created a larger audience for this music. For a brief period in the '60s and '70s it became trendy to sing about being an old plowhand or washer woman or whatever. The Spinners got their own BBC TV show as did Julie Felix. Its decline matched the arrival on the scene of comedy folk artists such as Billy Connolly, Mike Harding and Jasper Carrott and gradually the comedy took over from the songs.

At the same time as becoming all round entertainers, folk singers began writing their own material and turning into singer-songwriters. The line blurs between material that is traditional and that which is composed. "Flower of Scotland" is not a traditional song but was written by Roy Williamson of The Corries in 1967. "Lord of the Dance" was written by Sydney Carter in 1963. It is a truism, of course, that all songs get composed at some point. What makes songs traditional is that there is no identified composer.

A U Me Hinny Bird

Sandgate yesterday
"A U Me Hinny Bird" was first published as a tune in 1812 with the words written down later. It uses Newcastle dialect to describe defining characteristics of certain areas in and around Newcastle. So we learn that Sandgate is the place for old rags and Gallowgate is where you can get your trolly bags (which means intestines, either in the form of tripe or black pudding). South Shields, meanwhile, is the place for soot. The song has no deeper meaning. There is a slight journey down the river Tyne in the list of places described. The song starts in the west of the city in Benwell before going through the Quayside, Castle Garth and Sandgate. It then travels out to the coast via the descriptive names, rather than place names, of the north shore and the Gateshead hills and arriving at Cullercoats, Tynemouth and North Shields on the north side of the river and then Westoe and South Shields to the south. It then travels back north up to Holywell, Seaton Delaval and Hartley Pans, which is an old name for Seaton Sluice. Unfortunately, this smooth flow is interrupted by diversions to the west and north to Denton, Kenton and Longbenton before ending up in Bedlington. This assumes that these names refer to places in their present situation, of course.

To complicate things further, the above is the route as set out in the verses contained in Conrad Bladey's "A Beuk o' Newcassel Sangs" published in 1888. But Maureen Craik transposes the third and fourth verses to make Sandgate come after Tynemouth etc which cannot be right.

Benwell lasses
Although it starts off with a description of the canny lass of Benwell, it does not go anywhere with this. Possibly this is a result of its composition by the addition of verses by unknown singers actively adding to its creation. Perhaps natives of each of the places described added their own tribute to their local area. It is a song for singing rather than taking apart, sung perhaps as the accompaniment to work activities. The Benwell lass herself sounds like an ideal woman in combining physical appeal with nurturing qualities, being both long-legged and mother-like. Perhaps this is a song she could have sung while raking up the dyke (meaning a hedge).

The title of the song is a mystery. Possibly the singer is singing to an actual bird, one that could fly over the areas described on its journey to the sea. Or maybe hinny bird is the singer's pet name for a lover. Or maybe it is a lullaby sung to a sleeping bairn like "Dance to Your Daddy".
The People
Maureen Craik

As far as I can tell, Maureen Craik only recorded six songs at the age of around 20 or 21. She sounds timeless and artless. Her recordings were made when the Beatles and the Stones were all the rage but she could be a 17th century girl singing to herself. Singing to yourself - surely that is the very definition of folk music.      

Westoe lies iv a neuk here
 
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Monday, 16 January 2017


Number 5
13 October 1965
The Who have a fifth go at detonating the atom bomb

Excitement in music

There were exciting records before The Who recorded "My Generation". Records whose sole purpose is to generate excitement. Earlier I discussed "Roll 'Em Pete". Jazz musicians have for a long time experimented with atonality and squeeks and squonks in pursuit of a rising fever. The early recordings of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis are based on beat and enthusiasm. Not to mention Elvis and his "let's get real gone for a change". "Crawdaddy Simone" by The Syndicats is a meaningless song rescued by a raucous finale sounding like the band are attacking their instruments with hammers and throwing them down the stairs (The Syndicats were Steve Howe's first group and I was happy under the delusion that it was this most gifted and precise of players who took part in this aural destruction but unfortunately it was recorded after he had left the group). What was needed now was a group that would literally attack their instruments and throw them down the stairs.

The song

"My Generation" is a clean break with the past because, in my view, it is a song which only has meaning in its performance, in its deployment of electricity. Earlier songs had used electricity to enhance them, to give them additional power and impact, to embellish and emphasise or merely to give additional novelty. The Beatles put feedback at the start of "I Feel Fine" because they could. "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks generates much (though not all) of its thrill from the sound of the guitar - the actual thrill comes from the key changes creating tension leading to a final resolution. "My Generation" has key changes but they are an adornment rather than an intrinsic part of the song. The song would work just as well without them. In fact, I am not sure that I altogether like them. I cannot think of any song before "My Generation" which could not reasonably be performed solely on acoustic instruments. "My Generation" is a song that is created for electric performance.

I do not know but I imagine that Pete Townshend created "My Generation" out of his longstanding fascination with the works of Mose Allison. Allison was a stylist, creating laidback piano jazz alongside the projection of a cool, detached demeanor.
Mose Allison, yesterday
The Who were later to cover his "Young Man Blues" in a decidedly non-detached manner. It is typical of Townshend to want to ape Allison's style. A lot of Townshend's art comes from his expression of his desire to be something he is not and of the ensuing frustration at the realisation that his desires exceed his personality. He wants to be the smooth hipster who comments on the world but is not a part of it. It is hard to think of a more engaged artist than Townshend operating in music. He is passionate and excitable. He wants to be the hard man who lives an unexamined life and responds intuitively to his experiences and who is attractive to women (or is what he perceives as attractive to women). Yet he is conscious of the fact that he is not even the hardest man in his own band and that he cannot stop himself from examining his own experiences and is beset with doubts and questioning. He wants to win admiration with his fists but realises that he is too intelligent. He is an intellectual who wants to slum it with the hoi polloi. He wants to be the ace face but lacks the requisite charisma.

Part of Townshend's genius lies in realising his own shortcomings in achieving his desires and also in recognising that, through his fellow musicians, he can give expression to exactly these sentiments. He cannot be Daltrey, the hard-case sheet metal worker with the confidence and the swagger, but he can put his words into Daltrey's mouth and undercut the hard man swagger with otherwise unexpressed uncertainties and conflicts. He was also to come to realise that Daltrey was a far more sensitive soul than others recognised, Daltrey included. Daltrey's beautiful delivery of Townshend's later material prove this. Like "Being John Malkovich", Townshend enters into the hard man's head and makes the hard man consider the world he is in and his responses to it.

Initially, that response was of frustration that the character lacks the means to give expression to his thoughts and feelings. Delightfully, Townshend's first fully fledged artistic work was called "I Can't Explain" and the themes of inarticulateness and confusion have remained the cornerstones of Townshend's art. Inarticulation is most famously expressed through the speech impediment built into the lyrics of "My Generation". The voice of the song is in a rage, he is furious about something which remains unexpressed (unlike, say, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" where Jagger proceeds to list things that he is dissatisfied with before revealing that ultimately it is because he cannot get a shag). The rage in "My Generation", although ostensibly aimed at older people, is in fact directionless, purposeless. It is an existential rage aimed at the condition of being young and powerless. It is purposelessness itself that the rage is directed at.

This purposeless rage is suitably mirrored by the music. The band take a fairly standard blues form and amp it up to the ninth. The slow menace of blues, the mature threat of hoping some schoolboy wants to start a fight, is replaced by the adrenaline excitement of the schoolboy wanting to fight. The riff is hammered out as fast and as loud and as aggressively as they can manage. The variations are subtle and slight and add to, rather than detract from, the main thrust of the backing track.

The form

The song follows the form of a two note riff combined with a blues shuffle on the "talkin' 'bout my generation" refrain and with pauses to give impact to the lyrics. Following a repetition of the riff, the first stanza of the lyrics is accompanied by a repeat of the riff by the bass guitar only along with syncopated handclaps. The rhythm is slightly different between the band playing the riff and the solo bass part. The band play the riff in 4/4 time while the bass is in (I think) 5/4. The second stanza is sung over just the handclaps and without the bass. The remaining stanzas are sung without any accompaniment. After the pause while the lyrics are sung, the instruments are reintroduced usually preceded by a single beat of the snare drum. Occasionally, there are two skipping beats played on the snare; and after the final section of the bass solo and the third stanza of the verses after the first key change the drums crash in with no metre or rhythm at all before they are rejoined by the rest of the instruments. As noted above, there are three key changes during the song ending with a coda comprising a free-form noise section over the top of two chord changes and then a reiteration of the "talkin' 'bout my generation" refrain.

The instrumentation

The bass carries the weight of the song supplying both the rhythm and a good part of the melody. It is also the reason for the four previous failed attempts to record this song. Apparently, John Entwistle wanted to use a Danelectro bass
Danelectro bass
for this recording as this guitar used thinner strings and enabled the player to move around the neck more easily. Clearly, Entwistle was aiming for a really flashy solo. However, the combination of thin strings and Entwistle's aggressive playing style proved incompatible and he kept breaking the strings. Spare strings for this instrument were apparently difficult to source and Entwistle found it easier to just buy another guitar. After three failed attempts (and three Danelectro bass purchases) Entwistle opted to use a Fender Jazz bass.
 
Fender Jazz bass
The bass plays the main riff with the band and the syncopated parts identified above. The exception is the bass solo and also one point where the bass mimics the blues shuffle part. I assume that during the coda part of the song the bass maintains the two note riff but it is difficult to tell what the bass is playing during this part of the song.
 
 

The lead and rhythm guitar parts blur into each other. Initially, the guitar plays the riff and blues shuffle parts but then moves to playing lead lines over these elements using standard blues phrasing. Sometimes the guitar plays the riff by descending two frets and sometimes by ascending two frets moving from G to F, the first time using E shape chords, the second using an E shape and then a D shape for the F chord. This gives variation to the riff and added excitement to the music.

It is the drums that are the lead instrument in this recording. They are not tethered to any set metre or rhythm beyond stopping and starting in the right places. Unlike many other drummers, Keith Moon tends not often to use cymbals as emphasis but rather as part of the overall sound. The ringing of the cymbals at the end of each riff and being faded by Moon's hands is part of the overall ambience of the recording. During the coda he plays quick, repetitive rounds of all the drums for the duration providing a rolling undertone to the electronic score.

The vocal performance is not one of my favourites by Daltrey. The initial impassioned yelp of "People" in the "People try to put us down" line is effective but the delivery of some of the other lines are overly shouty for my taste. The most important parts of the delivery are in the stutter and in the pauses. Both of these are well judged and well delivered. There is speculation about what led to the decision to include a stutter - whether it was a conscious artistic decision, a spur of the moment affectation by Daltrey, or simply a trick effect to make old folks think the "Why don't you all f-f-f-f" line was going to end in something other than "fade away". In fact, Townshend's demo recordings show the stutter was always an intrinsic part of the song. It serves to heighten the tension of the performance by cutting against the otherwise steamroller rhythm of the rest of the band.

The lyrics

I do not want to spend too long on the lyrics as this is a piece about performances rather than songwriting. But it is noticeable, as implied above, that the target of the singer's ire is never given specific form. Although apparently the song was inspired by the Queen Mother demanding that Townshend's car be towed away, there is nothing quite so specific in the song, giving it an everyman appeal. Significantly, the other major contemporary UK youth protest song "Satisfaction" (recorded a few months before "My Generation") identifies the dissatisfaction with a sole individual ("I can't get no satisfaction") as befits the arch-individualist and egotist Jagger, whereas the collectivist Townshend from the off identifies his experience with that of his peers ("People try to put us down"). It is only with the song's most famous line that Townshend introduces the first person in order to give impact to the singer's conclusion after having testified to the bad experiences of his generation ("I hope I die before I get old").

The rest of the lyric I find somewhat prosaic. The singer complains that people put us down just because we get around. This is songwriting by numbers and is surprising coming from this most unusual and surprising of lyricists. Compare the by-rote stanzas of "My Generation" ("things they do look awful cold" is not how British people speak) with the more inventive, specific and colloquial lyrics of "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" and "Substitute" - the singles that respectively preceded and succeeded "My Generation". In these songs Townshend comes up with original descriptions of the condition of British youth. But that is, I think, part of the point. Townshend deliberately uses hackneyed, archaic blues cliches to tie in with the blues musical stylings of the song but he deploys them archly. Whereas such lyrics would usually be accompanied by a stylised, musically accomplished performance highlighting the performers' skill in deploying blues variations, Townshend has the band play a manic, simplistic two chord thrash.

The Atom Bomb

That is why this recording is the musical equivalent of the detonation of the atom bomb. The combination of old styles and aggressive performance changes everything and says away with the old and welcome to the brave new world. Townshend wants to destroy everything - not just cold, old people but anyone who is not engaged, anyone who wants merely to watch in a cool, detached manner. The sort of people who want to observe the world instead of trying to change it.   

Like the big bang, "My Generation" starts and then immediately accelerates producing an impactful and accessible rise of excitement. The lingering patina across the whole sound is the buzz of electricity. The instruments breathe and moan and creak and crash under the attack of the musicians. At the end of one of the riffs Entwistle lets his hand slide down the bass strings to produce a sighing, moaning, dying effect. The sound becomes a composite, blending all elements into one. At one point, during a key change, the combination of instruments and vocals produce a cocktail party effect where I can hear my name being called. So clear is this that in the past I have turned the track off at this point and shouted out to whoever I thought was calling me. There is a gorgeous accumulated sustained feedback over part of the coda that never comes fully to the fore.

The lyrics have no sophistication, they are a raw howl from the bowels of the earth and the accompanying barely controlled racket stays just the ordered side of chaos. This is important. The song never lapses into the complete breakdown that is the end of "Crawdaddy Simone" nor does it effort the free-form instrumental break in The Who's own "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere". It is the potential for chaos that sustains the excitement to the end. An abandonment of form would not last. Instead the hammer hits the nail.  
 
Hear the bomb go off here.

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Friday, 16 September 2016

Number 4
October 1962
Otis Redding records "These Arms of Mine"

Johnny Jenkins was a sparsely recorded blues musician who played left handed and was said to be an early influence on Jimi Hendrix. Jenkins had a group called the Pinetoppers, which sometime included the extraordinary Wayne Cochran playing bass guitar. 
 
Wayne Cochran, yesterday.
Coming out of Macon, Georgia, the Pinetoppers had a moderate hit with an instrumental called "Love Twist" and had acquired a new manager, Phil Walden, who suggested that the group record a follow up at the Stax studios in Memphis accompanied by the session musicians that comprised Booker T and the MGs. As Jenkins could not drive, he used a chauffeur to drive him to the session.

Steve Cropper, the guitarist with the MGs, later recalled how he noticed the big guy who was driving Jenkins, get out from behind the wheel and go to the back of the truck and start unloading equipment. The Pinetoppers' session proceded in an unremarkable fashion and finished some forty minutes early. At this point, the big guy driving the truck asked if he could sing a song. The keyboard player for the MGs had already left the session, so Cropper sat down at the piano, which he normally only played for purposes of composition. He asked what should he play and the truck driver said "Just those church things". Cropper then established that he meant triplets. "What key?" said Cropper. "It don't matter" came the response. The truck driver then took a breath, opened his mouth and began.

According to Cropper "man, my hair stood on end. Jim [Stewart, co-owner of Stax] came running out and said, 'That's it! That's it! Where is everybody? We gotta get this on tape!' So I grabbed all the musicians who hadn't left already for their night gigs, and we recorded it right there. When you hear something that's better than anything you ever heard, you know it, and it was unanimous. We almost wore out the tape playing it afterwards."

The truck driver was Otis Ray Redding and those first few notes sung unaccompanied are the birth of modern soul music. The sound of the Georgia pines let loose and untrammelled. Years later, in the duet "Tramp", Carla Thomas would tell Redding that "you straight from the Georgia woods", to which he would answer "that's good". Although Ray Charles and Solomon Burke had a strong early influence on singing that was affected and emotional, that made use of call and response, repetition and exultations to generate an impact, Redding's singing here was a new style of intimacy, of fragility that teetered on the brink of emotional instability, that could shatter into a breakdown, yet was also controlled. Far from the "sock it to me" shouter he later became, Redding's style here is nearer to the close-miked intimacy of Bing Crosby. However, Redding was not a smooth technician in the style of Sam Cooke. The feeling is conveyed almost entirely through the sound of the vocal rather than the meaning of the words.

The image of the burly truck driver stepping forward to deliver a seminal recording finds its modern counterpart in the You Got Talent showcase of a shambolic looking imbecile delivering a blistering vocal performance while Simon Cowell stares open mouthed. With accompanying You Tube video strapline of the "They thought he was an idiot but you will not believe it when he starts to sing" variety. These modern myrmidons of mellifuousness are sometimes desribed as giving a soulful performance but their belting over-vocalisations lack the balance, subtlety and control of Redding's performance.

Typically, of course, the story of Redding's recording here is only partially true. Redding had already made records in the belting Little Richard style such as "Shout Bamalama" and was, in fact, the featured vocalist with the Pinetoppers. although they were primarily an instrumental group. He had won talent contests (another parallel with the world of You Got Talent) and even replaced Little Richard for a period when that latter singer got one of his periodic doses of religion.
 
Jenkins, Redding and the Pinetoppers
 
"These Arms of Mine" was not even the first song recorded at that session. They had already recorded "Hey Hey Baby", a more typical Little Richard impersonation with Redding stretching a rasping vocal to emulate that earlier stylist. Nevertheless, it is impressive that Redding was able to transition into the more sympatico style of the ballad. In fact, his exertions on the previous song add to the slightly breathless, almost rubbing quality of his vocal sound.

Further, "These Arms of Mine", has an arrangement, albeit simple in structure. They cannot have launched straight into the song. Probably, Redding ran through the song and a head arrangement was sketched out before they began recording. Additionally, although Cropper claims he played piano other accounts state that Jenkins played piano. After the first verse, a guitar appears that sounds very much like Cropper's style of playing. It is possible he overdubbed this, of course, but why bother if Jenkins could play piano.

The song itself is a near perfect example of a soul ballad in that it is built around those classic soul elements of tension and release. The acapella intro walks the notes from fifth to first typical of country music songs (as exemplified by Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line") only slowing it way down to make the listener wait for that resolution which one knows is coming in the commencement of the instruments at the word "mine". After this rising melody, Redding makes the melody descend on the word "yearning" before it rises again. Yearning is the key theme of the song and the musical structure reflects this. The way Redding lets the note fall away at the end of words, his choice of phrasing is impeccable and unique in how he selects which words to emphasise and which to elongate. It is both natural and highly contrived - the model of the soul style. The introduction of the staccato guitar lines emphasise the tension as does the frequent repetition of key phrases and words, chiefly the title of the song. Tension and release, rise and fall, these would become the very building blocks of the soul ballad.

Phil Walden ditched the Pinetoppers and took over managing Redding who would record many other classic ballads, accompanied by Booker T and the MGs. Some 18 months after recording "These Arms of Mine", he recorded "Come to Me" during which he sings the phrase "Days are getting so lonely, nights are getting so blue" and he elongates the second "so" to make the greatest rising note in the history of sound. Seriously. Now that's soul.

Hear Otis yearning here.

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Wednesday, 24 August 2016


Number 3
30 December 1938
Pete Johnson and Joe Turner record "Roll 'em Pete"

Boogie Woogie

From North East to West Texas, from lumber and turpentine camps to train yards, the sound of boogie woogie was a long time in gestation with a brief flowering of popularity. Mimicking the movement and the revolution of the trains that took the music north across America, reaching Chicago and then New York. Adopted then abandoned by urban sophisticates in favour of more sophisticated (read, more tamed) piano styles. At its zenith, in the playing of Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson, it was fast, rhythmic, propulsive, almost manic in its intensity but allowing for significant variation in both left and right hand patterns. Even more than its ragtime predecessor (which seems to share some characteristics with European piano music of the likes of Debussy and Satie), boogie woogie was a uniquely American, uniquely black form. 

Now seen more as a style or technique than a genuine form of piano music, no-one, to my mind, has carried it further than the three great stylists of the thirties and forties. Possibly only Jerry Lee Lewis perpetuated the form, albeit by combining it with western swing and hillbilly boogie piano styles of the likes of Moon Mullican. Boogie woogie fell victim to its perception as a novelty music, with technicians using it to demonstrate prowess rather than invention, and with an increasing reliance on formula and automation. It came to smell too much of working men and roughhouse Saturday nights for the highball nightclub crowd.

From Spirituals to Swing

For a while, though, boogie woogie possessed all the shock of the new as it tore out of Texas on the rails heading north. In 1938, John Hammond asked the pianist Pete Johnson and vocalist Joe Turner to perform at Hammond's seminal From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall alongside Lux Lewis and Ammons as well as Count Basie, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and others. The idea was to showcase black American musical forms going from choral spirituals through to big swing bands. Because it featured black performers appearing before a non-segregated audience, finance was difficult to access until the American Communist Party stepped in. Their appearance at this concert earned Johnson and Turner a recording session for the Vocalion record company in New York in December 1938.

Johnson and Turner

Pete Johnson and Joe Turner were from Kansas City and began appearing together in the 1920s. It is easy to imagine their raucous style being developed to make sure they could be heard in the less than sedate clubs of the time. Turner worked as a barman and chucker-outer and would occasionally vocalise to Johnson's accompaniment. The other masters of boogie woogie tended to work more as soloists than Johnson.

Success for Johnson only lasted until the end of the 1940s when boogie woogie fell out of fashion. Turner was to have more success, going on to record a hit version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in 1954.

Roll 'em Pete

The recording of "Roll 'em Pete" (note: there is no comma after 'em, rendering the title grammatically incorrect, and it is described as a fast blues on the record label - it was not described as boogie woogie until its later reissue on Columbia) is an engine designed to generate and to communicate excitement. It is its raison d'etre. Johnson sets off at a furious pace which he maintains for the 2 minutes plus duration. Witnesses recall Johnson and Turner performing this song for up to half an hour at a time but this could be an exaggerated memory. Certainly the piece does lend itself to improvisation for as long as the performers' imagination and endurance last. The recorded version truncates any extended improvisation and condenses the piece so that it is over before one has a chance to work out properly what is going on.

It is an instrumental with vocal accompaniment rather the other way round. As its title indicates, the point of the song is to demonstrate Johnson's speed, power and dexterity of both performance and imagination. He produces a succession of accompanying phrases that vary with each verse before unleashing a solo of demented perspicacity. The repetition and the variation within repetition are sublime. Johnson, and Lux Lewis and Ammons, had achieved peak boogie. The only way to go beyond their playing was, as Conlon Nancarrow found out, to have a machine do it (a player piano in Nancarrow's case).

Turner meanwhile performs his supporting role well. The lyrics are effectively meaningless being a succession of blues phrases from other songs, chosen for their rhythmic cadence and their fit for Turner's staccato delivery. The standardness of their form means that they do not detract from the purpose of the piece: the focus on Johnson. Lots of people like to imbue art with meaning, especially painting and music. In order to enjoy and appreciate a work of art fully it is felt necessary to understand the work's meaning. "Roll 'em Pete" is a work without meaning. It defies meaning. It is the thing itself and has no meaning beyond this. It has no repercussions once it finishes playing and seeks neither to elevate not improve. By the end, Turner has given up on words and has resorted to syllables and parts of words, which he could just as effectively have done from the start. The Italian futurists from the early 1910s praised the modern age with its rapid forms of transport. Marinetti's free-word poetry sought to liberate words from the constraints of typography and syntax. Just like Big Joe Turner does here. Russolo used acoustic noise generators to control dynamics and pitch of sound. Twenty years later, Johnson and Turner give us the real art of noise.

Hear the art of noise here.

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