Probably the best compliment I can pay to Todd Haynes’ Velvet Underground documentary is to say that it’s made in the spirit of the music. His switchblade editing, abundant use of split-screen and fantastic material from all sorts of archives creates a tone parallel to the sounds we’re hearing and to the lives we’re watching.
An important decision was not to include testimony from anyone who wasn’t actually a witness to the events the film records. Every voice you hear bears the glory and the wounds of what happened in that short time when Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and Nico rewrote the rulebook. Cale is wonderfully engaged with a story that, for him, ended badly. Tucker still sounds like the real glue of the band. The voices of the departed members are heard in archive interviews. Among others who shed light are the veteran avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas, the actress Mary Woronov, the superfan Jonathan Richman, the composer La Monte Young, the scenemaker Danny Fields, Merrill Reed Weiner, Lou’s sister, and Martha Morrison, Sterling’s wife. (No Gerard Malanga and only the briefest glimpses of Edie Sedgwick, which is a bit of a surprise.)
It’s quite a demure film, given the milieu; the sexual merryground is glimpsed but not explored. Neither is Haynes interested in deep musicology. He wants impressions rather than details, which keeps the film moving. He doesn’t try to analyse the divide in Reed’s personality between the brutal and the tender. But we do get a feeling for the characters, as when Cale sums up Nico quite beautifully: “She was a wanderer. She wandered in and she quietly wandered out again.” And we certainly get an idea of how the chemistry between Long Island doo-wop fan Reed and Welsh avant-gardist Cale turned 56 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side into such a potent musical laboratory. Haynes leaves us with a lovely colour clip of Reed and Cale performing “I’m Waiting for My Man” during their reunion at the Bataclan in Paris in 1972, with Nico waiting in the wings.
Throughout the film, the great songs — “Venus in Furs”, “Heroin”, “Sister Ray”, “White Light/White Heat”, “Pale Blue Eyes”, “Rock and Roll”, “Sweet Jane” — are allowed to emerge in the perfect setting. And as they issue from big cinema speakers, you may yourself experiencing once again the seismic effect they had when you first heard them, brand-new. There were times when I wanted to cheer.
Of course there’s nothing really new to be heard on the pair of live albums Donald Fagen has just released, one under his own name and the other under that of Steely Dan: Northeast Corridor, a selection of the Dan’s songs recorded at the Beacon Theatre in New York and Boston’s Orpheum Theatre, and a concert version of The Nightfly, Fagen’s 1982 solo masterpiece, pieced together from those and a couple of other venues across the US. Why would there be? The original recordings were pretty close to perfect in the first place, or as close as Fagen and his late partner, Walter Becker, could make them across days, weeks and months in state-of-the-art studios.
So what’s the point? Perhaps it’s to allow us to replicate the sensation of hearing them for the first time, which is what even the slightest shift of emphasis or ornament allows. The slightly adjusted harmonies of the chorus to “Kid Charlemagne”, the melodica on “Aja”, the drum coda to “Reelin’ in the Years”, the brand-new rhapsodic trombone intro to “Things I Miss the Most”, the ceding of the solo bridge passage of “Maxine” to a member of the close-harmony backing choir — they’re small changes, but they help us to see the bigger picture anew. Otherwise the proportions and trajectories are much as they were on the originals — although in the case of The Nightfly the overall feel is a little more, shall we say, fatback: fuller and funkier, but not so much as to change the tone.
Maybe the most significant change is to Fagen’s voice, and even that doesn’t really alter the listener’s response. Always the instrument of someone who had to be persuaded to to take the lead on his own songs, and the more authentic for that, age has cost it some of its strength but none of its capacity to beguile and engage. It was always a sidelong voice, and his delivery of the confessions of a graveyard-shift DJ on The Nightfly‘s title track seems even more affecting.
When Fagen made The Nightfly, he was looking back 20 years to the time immediately before the Kennedy assassination, when capitalism seemed ready to share its material abundance throughout the western world. Now, another 40 years later, in a period of disillusion and uncertainty, the evocation of that period’s Madison Avenue-inspired optimism carries extra weight.
The musicianship across both albums is, of course, immaculate. Keith Carlock’s drums and Freddie Washington’s bass make those mid-tempo rhythms as crisp as a brand-new button-down shirt. The two-brass, two-reeds front line swivels on a dime (with a special mention for Roger Rosenberg’s baritone solo on “Black Cow”, and no blame to tenorist Walt Weiskopf for not quite being Wayne Shorter on “Aja” or Michael Brecker on “Ruby Baby”). Guitarist Jon Herington produces a great Denny Dias tribute on the euphoric “Bhodisattva” and pianist Jim Beard romps through “Glamour Profession”.
As a coda to the Steely Dan album, Fagen and his superlative quartet of backing singers leave the stage to a single-chorus instrumental arrangement of “A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry”, a blues-ballad from a 1958 Joe Williams album. It’s a reminder of the depth of Fagen and Becker’s knowledge and love of music — as are these two albums as a whole. Which, come to think of it, is by itself a good enough reason for their existence.
* Steely Dan’s Northeast Corridor and Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly Live are out now on Universal Music. The photograph of Fagen is from the booklet with the Steely Dan album and was taken by Nick Antaya.
When John Coltrane died in the summer of 1967, aged 40, he left us engaged in a discussion that will go on for as long as people are still listening to his music. “Late Coltrane”, as the music of his last two years is known, provides an endless source of speculation over its intention and argument over its value.
With the original studio version of A Love Supreme, recorded in December 1964 and released a month later, he reached a pinnacle that marked the end of his middle period and signalled the beginning of something new. Formally, the album retained the by-then familiar and much admired approach of his classic quartet, with McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums). But its explicitly devotional message hinted at the direction he was about to take, towards a music in which the individual notes were less important than the feelings they expressed and the spiritual release they sought.
His subsequent music, often featuring expanded versions of the line-up, with more horn players and percussionists, tended to stir up trouble among those who didn’t appreciate his engagement with the newer forms of expression that freed him from the last vestiges of Western song-form. From Ascension, released in January 1966, to the benefit concert at the Olatunji Center of African Culture in New York in 1967, this last music inspired some and infuriated others, and continues to do so.
For those still searching for a key to unlock the apparent mstery of Late Coltrane, the release of a hitherto unknown live version of A Love Supreme, recorded in October 1965 on the last night of a week-long run at the Penthouse in Seattle, provides a perfect portal to his changed universe. The quartet had played the four-section masterwork at the Antibes jazz festival in the summer of 1965, sticking close to the studio blueprint. The Seattle version, although following the same scheme, is very different in approach. With the quartet augmented by Carlos Ward on alto, Pharoah Sanders on tenor and Donald Garrett on bass, the approach is far looser, with solo space for the guests and the individual movements separated (or linked) by interludes featuring solo passages by the bassists and the drummer.
Well over twice as long, at 75 minutes, as the original, this version allows the listener to hear the new initiatives in the context of a familiar, albeit flexible, structure, which may help some to make “sense” of it. Exalted moments abound. Following Coltrane’s opening solo, Sanders’ soft-edged buzzsaw lifts “Acknowledgment” to another level of energy, driven by Jones’s Latin-inflected barrage. In the first interlude, Garrett and Garrett play together, entwining their pizzicato lines. (In the third and fourth, they play consecutively.) Ward has a beautiful solo on “Resolution”, the Panamanian saxophonist — later a valued partner of Don Cherry and Abdullah Ibrahim — displaying his personal approach to Eric Dolphy’s angular phrasing. Jones’s interlude is a six-minute solo tour de force that sets up the bravura performance of “Pursuance”, on which Tyner plays what might be one of his mightiest solos, ideas flooding from the keyboard at a blistering 80 bars (or 320 beats, if you prefer) per minute. As for Coltrane himself, the beautifully controlled winding-down on the concluding “Psalm”, arco basses echoing the tenor, is as nakedly affecting as anything he ever played.
By comparison with the unsuccessful sextet versions of two of the movements Coltrane recorded on the day after the original studio session, when he experimented with adding the tenor of Archie Shepp and the bass of Art Davis to the quartet, this is fully realised music, all its elements held in perfect balance. Not surprisingly, given the sustained intensity and unbroken beauty of what the Penthouse audience has been hearing, there’s a lengthy silence at the end before the applause begins.
The audio quality, restored from the original recording made at the club by the flautist Joe Brazil on a reel-to-reel machine, is far better than adequate. What little it might lack in perfect balance is outweighed by a clarity and an immediacy that bring us very close indeed to the first-hand experience of an historic occasion. For anyone who has ever been touched by Coltrane’s music, and perhaps wants to understand it better, this is essential listening.
* John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle is released on October 22 on the Impulse! label. The photograph of Coltrane in 1965 was taken by Chuck Stewart.
When she was 15 or so, the woman said, she’d dreamed about a certain boy, about walking down the street holding his hand. And now here she was, performing at the Royal Albert Hall for the first time, and she was going to sing one of his songs. And at the end of a most elegant version of “One Too Many Mornings”, Patti Smith said quietly: “Bob Dylan.”
The last time I’d seen Patti was in 1995 at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, when she and Dylan were touring together. She came on to sing “Dark Eyes” with him during his acoustic section, and then she joined him in the encores for “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. It was nice to be reminded last night of the history they share, and she honoured it beautifully on the very stage where, 55 years ago, he sang “One Too Many Mornings” with another band.
But that was just one highlight in a night crammed with them, starting with the lyric to “Piss Factory”, the B-side of her first single in 1974, which she declaimed unaccompanied to start the 90-minute set. That was electrifying, and at the end of the evening my only regret was that she hadn’t done more reading.
But would I have swapped that for the lovely “Grateful”, the driving Velvets drone of “Dancing Barefoot”, the collective exhilaration of “Beneath the Southern Cross”, a most surprising and tender mid-set version of Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It on the Sun”, Lenny Kaye’s dedication of the Stones’ “I’m Free” to Charlie Watts, the cathartic “People Have the Power”, which Patti wrote with her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, or the thunderous closing run through “Not Fade Away”, when the instruments cut after the last “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be”, allowing Patti, the band and the entire pan-generational audience to bellow “You’re gonna give your love to me”?
What I also admired was the way she and the band — Kaye and Jackson Smith (guitars), Jesse Paris Smith (piano), Tony Shanahan (bass guitar) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) — put on such a well calibrated show while keeping their garage-band rawness and honesty. Jackson Smith’s raga-rock solo on “Dancing Barefoot” was a beauty, as was Daugherty’s ability — probably learnt from reggae drumming — to leave spaces within a bar without losing power.
But I wasn’t really taking notes. I was on my feet, with everyone else.
The bassist Bob Moore, a member of Nashville’s legendary A-team of studio musicians, has died at the age of 88. He played on some of my favourite pop records of the 1960s, but to be honest I’m not sure that I ever noticed the bass on any of them. That’s how good he was.
As a boy he had a shoeshine stand on a street corner close to the rear entrance of the Ryman Suditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry, and he got his start after putting a regular five-cent polish on the cowboy boots of Ernest Tubb’s bassist, Jack Drake, who gave him informal lessons. His break came in his early teens when the great pianist and producer Owen Bradley called him in for his first session.
He wasn’t a James Jamerson or a Bootsy Collins, in the sense that he became famous for changing the role of the bass in popular music. But here are some of the hits on which he played: Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”, “Walkin’ After Midnight” and “I Fall to Pieces”. Elvis Presley’s “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame”, “All Shook Up” and “Return to Sender”. Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely”, “Running Scared” and “Dream Baby”. Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man”. Don Gibson’s “Sea of Heartbreak”. Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have to Go”. Leroy Van Dyke’s “Walk On By”. Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin On”. Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia”. Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date”. Marty Robbins’s “El Paso”. Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe”. Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothings”. Claude King’s “Wolverton Mountain”. George Jones’s “She Still Thinks I Care” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA”.
Some people, Moore once said, can play a hundred notes a second without making a contribution. Another person can play the one note that makes a better record. It’s not hard to guess in which category he belonged.
Fans of the The Sopranos will watch The Many Saints of Newark, the new movie prequel to the six-season TV series, expecting to hear some good stuff on the sound track. They won’t be disappointed by a selection that runs from the Marvelettes’ “Danger Heartbreak Ahead” to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”. (And don’t leave before the final song overlaying the closing credits: the exquisite “Calling All Angels” by Jane Siberry with k. d. lang.)
But there was one choice that surprised and even shocked me. I hadn’t read anything about film in advance, entirely on purpose, so I wasn’t aware of the key role played in the narrative by the four days of rioting in Newark, New Jersey during the long hot summer of 1967, when the city’s black population rose upin protest against the beating of a black cab driver by two white police officers.
The sequences depicting the uprising are brilliantly staged and powerfully affecting. They are also subtly accompanied by the strains of John Coltrane’s “Alabama”, the five-minute studio recording made on November 18, 1963 and included the following year on the album Live at Birdland. My spine tingled when I heard it, but it also made me uncomfortable.
The piece is believed to have been composed by Coltrane in response to the bombing by white racists of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 16, 1963, in which four black schoolgirls died as they were changing into choir robes in the church basement. (Say their names: Carole Denise McNair, aged 11, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14.) It’s necessary only to mention Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders to evoke Alabama’s previous role as a key location in the civil rights struggle, but it’s fair to assume that, given the eight-week gap between the church bombing and the recording, Coltrane had that particularly tragedy on his mind.
The result was a piece of music that occupies a special place in the saxophonist’s history. The starkest and most distilled example of what might be called his hymnal mode, it reached his public at a time when the spiritual content of his music was beginning to make itself apparent. A couple of years later A Love Supreme would leave no doubt about his intentions (and after his death, a group of followers in San Francisco would set up the Church of St John Coltrane).
But in addition to its aura of spirituality, “Alabama” had a specific meaning. Ben Ratliff, the author of an excellent Coltrane biography, called it “an accurate psychological portrait of a time, a complicated mood that nobody else could render so well.” If anyone wanted to understand how Coltrane could begin to inspire awe, Ratcliff added, they needed to look no further than this track.
So was it legitimate for Alan Taylor, the director of The Many Saints of Newark, to co-opt this much revered musical prayer, divorcing it from its original meaning in order to underscore the drama of a cinematically rendered scene from a riot three years later in a different city, exploiting the piece’s authentic emotional depth in what is, for all its layers, essentially a Mob movie?
Of course it’s nice to know that it will now be heard for the first time by many of those who go to see the film. Some of them may wonder about the musician behind those few seconds of sound, and might pursue their interest further. And of course you could say that since “Alabama” was inspired by an episode from the civil rights struggle, it has hardly been wrenched out of its context. If I can’t help feeling a little uneasy, then perhaps I’m wrong.
Almost 30 years after collaborating with Miles Davis on the historic soundtrack to Louis Malle’s 1958 film Lift to the Scaffold, Barney Wilen had disappeared from view. Then he discovered that he’d become the subject of a popular strip cartoon in the French magazine À Suivre. Written by Philippe Paringaux, the editor in chief of Rock & Folk magazine, and drawn by Jacques de Loustal, the bande dessinée titled “Barney et la Note Bleue” told the story of a French tenor saxophonist — young, white, gifted, bespectacled — as he made his way through a jazz life, all the way to a fatal overdose.
To begin with, Wilen was upset. For a start, he told Paringaux and Loustal, he was still alive. But the episode turned out well. Encouraged by Paringaux (who confessed that the inclusion of a doomed love affair had been based on an incident from his own life), Wilen returned to the recording studio and made an album titled after the strip, following its narrative and using Loustal’s distinctive artwork for the cover. A season at a Paris jazz club drew a new young audience who had followed the fictionalised story in À Suivre. Released in 1987, the album won the French jazz album of the year award, the Grand Prix of the Académie Charles Cros.
After a decade bathed in the light cast by his second coming, and many more concerts and recordings, Wilen died of cancer in 1996, aged 59. Now the Note Bleue album has been reissued, in a version remastered by the original engineer, Hervé Le Guil, and with added outtakes plus a second disc devoted to a set from a Paris nightclub, Le Petit Opportun, in 1989.
Wilen is one of my favourite European jazz musicians of the post-war era, a beautifully balanced post-bop soloist with an inquiring mind that took him into adventurous engagements with free jazz, rock and African music before he found his way back to his original idiom. This celebrated album found him delivering concise versions of some of his favourite vehicles — Consuelo Velázquez’s “Besame Mucho”, Duke Pearson’s “No Problem”, Monk’s “Round Midnight”, a legato rephrasing of Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not” — plus several originals, Earle Hagen’s “Harlem Nocturne” and a gorgeous, near-definitive reading of Gordon Jenkins’s ballad “Good-Bye”, which he had never heard before it was suggested to him at the session. There’s also an amusing nod to the episode of the strip in which Barney plays a Twist number with a rock and roll band. The other members of his fine quintet are the guitarist Philippe Petit, the pianist Alain Jean-Marie, the bassist Riccardo Del Fra and the drummer Sangoma Everett. The outtakes include a spellbinding unaccompanied reprise of “Besame Mucho”.
The live session features most of the same tunes, performed in stretched-out versions with the brilliant pianist Jacky Terrasson, then 24 years old, Gilles Naturel (bass) and Peter Gritz (drums). The mood is looser, the playing more fiery. Wilen plays soprano on a couple of the tunes, and there are interesting interjections by the compère, Claude Carrière (in French, naturally).
With the two discs comes a booklet including many images captured during the original studio session by the Magnum photographer Guy Le Querrec and English texts from many of the original participants, including Paringaux, Loustal, Jean-Marie, Del Fra, Everett, Le Guil and Patrick Wilen, Barney’s son, who supervised the project with his wife, Satomi Wilen.
It’s great to have this wonderful record available again, enhanced by the improved sound and the inclusion of additional music that is not merely tacked on but feels wholly integral, expanding our understanding of the life and work of a great musician.
* Released on the Elemental label, Barney et la Note Bleue is available as a boxed set including a vinyl version of the original album and a paperback edition of the original strip, or as a set of two CDs. The illustration is taken from one of Jacques de Loustal’s preliminary sketches.
In a quiet, almost sidelong way, the new album by the British saxophonist and composer James Mainwaring is a meditation on the damage inflicted by the Anthropocene epoch on the ecosystems of its host planet. Its title, Mycorrhiza, refers to the interaction between fungi and trees, a scientifically observed phenomenon that allows trees to communicate with each other in order to aid their individual and collective survival in the face of threats.
This might not be an obvious topic for a composer whose work is rooted in jazz, but it’s a good one. Charlie Haden and Carla Bley reflected similar environmental concerns on Time/Life, the last album they made with the Liberation Music Orchestra, but Mycorrhiza finds its own tone and trajectory, largely through the discreet use of field recordings and of the possibility of occasionally and subtly using the organic sounds of free jazz to evoke — but not imitate — the noises of the natural world.
Apart from Mainwaring, who doubles on flutes and keyboards and also sings briefly on several of tracks, the players are Aby Vulliamy (viola, voice), Michael Bardon (cello), Fergus Quill (double bass), Steve Hanley (drums) and, on four of the 13 tracks, Chris Sharkey on electronics.
Mycorrhiza is a programmatic piece with a message, but the narrative content never feels didactic or overbearing. The first section is not even a minute long: a mood-setting hustle of free bass and drums under held notes from saxophone and viola. There’s a sharp cut to the rustlings, scrapings and chirpings of post-SME improvisation, followed by a sort of chamber chorale for bowed strings and saxophone, like a gentle English pastoral version of the Sauter/Getz Focus suite. A piece called “Roots” uses harmonics to suggest organisms communicating and growing together. “Machines”, 28 seconds long, introduces staccato syncopations from strings and horn. “Statues” is full of melody before Mainwaring and Vulliamy intone a lyric — “Did you hear the latest news / Shaking hands in marble rooms…” — in bleached-out unison tones that would fit nicely on to Robert Wyatt record. Against the restrained, finely phrased urgency of Quill’s bass and Hanley’s drums, the composer takes the first real solo of the piece, a rhythm-hurdling saxophone improvisation carefully blended into the ensemble architecture.
That description gets us halfway through a set of pieces that continue through a further variety of dovetailed moods and approaches, gathering in intensity through the scrabbling of “Web”, the etherised tintinnabulation of”Our Lungs” (its lyric a haiku-like four lines) and the baleful agitation of “Globe” until it reaches the finale, “Woken by Dogs”, the longest track at six and a half minutes. After a lyrical piano opening, Mainwaring sings: “Woke up by dogs / Barking in my ears / And just as I feared / The men in black and white are here / Road full of signs / Warpaint ’round my eyes / As they cuffed my hands / Ripping the Superglue began…” Short, fast saxophone-led unison figures are undercut by jolting drums and slowly rising string glissandi until all sounds evaporates into silence.
The warning is not new, but such a creative restatement as Mainwaring achieves in Mycorrhiza is welcome and necessary. You could, I suppose, mentally switch off the message and just enjoy the sounds for their own sake. But since those sounds in this form are driven by a belief in the necessity of repairing the damage done by the human race during its time on earth, and thereby extending the lease a little longer, that would seem foolish.
* James Mainwaring’s Mycorrhiza is out now on the Discus Music label.
When the Wailers visited the US for the first time in October 1973, they were already changing shape from the group that had made the beginnings of a breakthrough to the rock audience earlier in the year with Catch a Fire. Peter Tosh was still alongside Bob Marley, but Bunny Livingston had opted out of the tour in protest against the lure of Babylon. His replacement, for this short expedition only, was Joe Higgs, an older singer who had mentored the group in their earliest days. In fact it was said to have been in Higgs’s Trenchtown yard that Bob, Tosh and Bunny had first met.
Once they’d been relieved of their slot as support act to Sly and the Family Stone, they found themselves in Los Angeles, where the producer Denny Cordell persuaded his friend Chris Blackwell of Island Records, the Wailers’ producer, to allow him to film the group in the studios of Capitol Records on Hollywood and Vine, in front of a small invited audience. Forty-eight years later, the results have finally seen the light of day in a DVD and an album titled Bob Marley and the Wailers:The CapitolSession ’73.
It’s a fascinating document for a number of reasons. The 88-minute film shows what is really a semi-public rehearsal, with lots of stops and starts to make minor adjustments of tempos and feels. Amid clouds of ganja smoke, the grooves are allowed to settle and flourish, permitting a clear sight of the contribution of Earl Lindo on keys, Aston Barrett on bass guitar and Carlton Barrett on drums, with Tosh’s guitar fills spicing Marley’s steady ska-derived strumming. Higgs is a discreet presence in the front line, singing high and low harmonies and adding percussion touches on timbales, cowbell and hand-drum.
Marley, once a member of an equally balanced triumvirate, is clearly moving to centre-stage. Of the dozen songs they play, Tosh sings lead on only two, his own “Can’t Blame the Youth” and “Stop that Train”. The rest, apart from the co-written “Get Up, Stand Up”, are all Bob’s. For me the strongest groove is on “Rastaman Chant”, which drifts and surges like some piece of funk-sodden minimalism from Sly’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, with Tosh, Marley and Higgs all on Rastafarian hand drums, and there’s a stinging poignancy in hearing Bob singing “One bright morning, when my work is over, man will fly away home…”
With a year Tosh would have followed Bunny and the group would be billed as Bob Marley and the Wailers on the cover of Natty Dread. The following year’s Live at the Lyceum would establish once and for all Marley’s position as the sole focal point. The Wailers were now the rhythm section and the harmonies were supplied by three women, the I-Threes. Fans of their earliest music — the mid-’60s singles like “Put It On” and “Sunday Morning” — believed that something had been lost, but there can be no doubt that the emphasis on promoting the charismatic Marley gave reggae its push towards international recognition and success. Watch the DVD and you can see it starting to happen.
It was during the sessions for Catch A Fire in September 1972 that Joe Higgs took me to Trenchtown, at Chris Blackwell’s behest. With Dickie Jobson at the wheel of Blackwell’s Mini Moke, Higgs showed me the shacks for which families paid a government-controlled rent amounting to 60p a week, talked about the iniquities of the Jamaican music business and told me how he was having to work as a dental assistant to supplement his meagre earnings from music. As we stopped and talked, he was mildly berated by a passer-by for bringing a white man into the neighbourhood.
Born in Kingston in 1940, Higgs had made his first records as a teenager in a duo with Roy Wilson, known as Higgs and Wilson. He had spent a little time in the US and when I met him he had just released a fine single, “Let Us Do Something”, on his own Elevation label. As with the Wailers, Blackwell was paying for him to make an album, which eventually came out three years later, not on Island but on Adrian Sherwood’s Pressure Sounds label, which also released a follow-up, Unity Is Power, in 1979. Probably Blackwell felt he had enough on his hands with the Wailers and Burning Spear; maybe, too, he concluded that Higgs, already in his thirties, was unlikely to make a crossover to a wider audience.
Higgs gave me a copy of ‘Let Us Do Something”, which I’ve always cherished for its unusual out of tempo intro — acoustic guitar and bowed double bass — and his lead vocal, which sounds like Richie Havens transported from Washington Square to the government yard on First Street, infused by a characteristic sense of wisdom imparted without rhetorical flourishes. He died of cancer in Los Angeles in 1999, mentioned in all the histories of Marley and the Wailers but with his own work still mostly unrecognised. Apart from the film’s more obvious value as a historical document, it’s nice to have it as a memento of his significance.
* The Capitol Sessions ’73 is released on DVD, CD and vinyl by Universal Music.
Abba’s decision to release an album of new songs and to prepare a new live show for London next spring led me straight into a row with an old friend who thinks the idea of turning themselves into “avatars” via motion-capture and de-ageing technology is pathetic. I disagree. While nothing would persuade me to attend a show featuring a hologram of a dead artist — Elvis, Amy, Roy Orbison, Michael Jackson — I’m fine with Abba doing it. That’s for two reasons. First, they’re still alive: the decision is entirely theirs. Second, I’m guessing that they’re not attracted by the idea of taking the stage 40 years after their last shows and doing versions of the routines they performed when they were in their twenties and thirties. They want to give us something that is both themselves and true to our memories of them.
This isn’t like Bob Dylan performing into his eighties, unafraid of showing his signs of age. Abba are a pop band, almost a cartoon of the genre, as the Monkees were 10 years before them. What made them different was the self-generated outpouring of great songs that captured a worldwide audience who responded not just to the glittery surface but to the real feelings inside “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “The Name of the Game”. Perhaps I’m being too generous, but it seems to me that the avatar business is a way of respecting their audience’s vision of them. With career sales of 400 million records, it can’t be about the money.
I saw them at the Albert Hall in 1977, when they were, I suppose, in their prime. Afterwards I drove from Knightsbridge back to the office of The Times on Gray’s Inn Road to tap out a review that appeared in the next morning’s paper. I’m amused to see that I mentioned the influence of Phil Spector, many years before I discovered — via a biography of the band — that something their studio engineer had read in my 1972 book on Spector had influenced the way they made their records, right from the beginning. (If you think I’ve written about this before, you’re right. But I’m not going to let it go…)
Anyway, amid this morning’s lavish coverage of their announcement is a piece in The Times purporting to list their top 20 greatest singles. It excludes “The Day Before You Came”, which might just be their masterpiece. Honestly, I don’t know where they find them these days.
The title of this blog is taken from my book The Blue Moment, published by Faber & Faber in 2009, in which I tried to look at how Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue had influenced half a century of modern music, from La Monte Young and Terry Riley through James Brown, John Cale and Brian Eno to Arve Henriksen and the Necks.