Millie Jackson became notorious for her dirty mouth, featured in albums with titles like Live and Uncensored and EST (Extra Sexual Persuasion), which was a shame because throughout the 1970s she also produced a series of compelling ballad performances that deserve a high place in the rankings of the sub-genre which the disc jockey and writer Dave Godin named Deep Soul. Jackson was born in Georgia, the daughter of a sharecropping family, and most of her recording for the Spring label was done in Muscle Shoals, Alabama; her music was steeped in the sound of the South.
Now Ace Records have compiled a selection of her finest Spring ballads into a single album, The Moods of Millie Jackson, which amply demonstrates what a powerful singer she could be. The best known tracks probably come from the two outstanding albums in which she explored the theme of infidelity: Caught Up (1974) and Still Caught Up (1975). Among the highlights of that pair is her version of Tom Jans’ “Loving Arms”, with its devastating line about “looking back and longing for the freedom of my chains”. Her early singles “A Child of God” and “It Hurts So Good” will also be familiar to many. But some of the lesser known tracks are equally cherishable: the beautiful “A Love of Your Own”, co-written by Hamish Stuart of the Average White Band with Ned Doheny, the aching “Solitary Love Affair” from the pens of Billy Kennedy and Gus McKinney, Sam Dees’ gorgeous “Special Occasion” and, maybe most of all, the slow-burning but ultimately volcanic “Making the Best of a Bad Situation”, by Richard Kerr and Gary Osborne, one of those songs that make you realise for the millionth time the huge role played by the emotional triggers of gospel music in the evolution of pop.
For all these things, it’s easy to forgive Millie her manifold trespasses across boundaries of taste and discretion, even the album cover for which she posed while seated on the lavatory. As far as I’m concerned, The Moods of Millie Jackson is an indispensable album.
The death of Richie Havens has just been announced, of a sudden heart attack at his home, aged 72. A lot of people will think fondly of “Freedom”, “High Flying Bird” and his Beatles and Dylan covers. The tracks I’ll remember him by are both from the double album titled Richard P Havens 1983, released on Verve Folkways in 1969: they are “Parable of Ramon” and “What More Can I Say, John?” — a pair of protest songs all the more effective for their sombre understatement. The former is about a dirt farmer, the latter about Vietnam, and they both deserve to be thought of as classics. They also feature Paul Williams, Havens’s superlative lead guitarist, whose filigree solos and accompaniments provided a perfect foil for the leader’s rough-hewn voice and guitar strumming. I haven’t a clue what happened to him, but whenever I went to see Richie play in those days I looked forward to Williams’s contribution as much as anything.
I interviewed Havens once, for the Melody Maker, and it gave me a good story to tell. It was at a hotel on Park Lane, in 1970 or 71. I went up to his room at the appointed time, knocked on the door, and was shown in. He greeted me with great warmth, and looked me straight in the eye. “Aquarius,” he declared. Er, sorry, I said, but no. Still that piercing look. “Sagittarius!” No, wrong again. “Capricorn!” Look, sorry about this, but… “Taurus!” You can guess the rest: he ran through the whole card before a process of elimination gave him the right answer. He didn’t appear at all embarrassed, and it certainly amused me. Then we got to talk. He seemed like one of the good guys.
All the way through the year of 1995, or so it seemed, I was stalked by a song. “Besame Mucho” was already quite familiar to me, particularly from the work of Art Pepper and Barney Wilen, two saxophonists for whom I’ve always had a special admiration, and who both played it frequently. But in 1995 it seemed to be coming at me from all over the place: a cocktail pianist in a Johannesburg hotel, a bandoneon-player busking by the ancient walls of Lucca, and most of all on an album called Marvellous by the French pianist Michel Petrucciani, who performed it in a spellbinding arrangement for the Graffiti String Quartet augmented by the bassist Dave Holland.
It was Petrucciani’s version that made me realise what a truly remarkable song this is. Written by Consuelo Velazquez, the daughter of a Mexican army officer and poet (you can read more about her in an obituary here), it was inspired by the sight of a couple kissing in the street and the first of its countless recordings was made by the singer and actor Emilio Tuero, the Carlos Gardel of Mexico, in 1941 (listen to his version here). Tuero’s example was followed by countless singers, from Frank Sinatra to Diane Krall. As the obituary says, it is the only Mexican song most people know.
I love the contours of its melody. In common with many of my favourite songs from mid-century Broadway shows, such as “Here’s that Rainy Day” and “My One and Only Love”, it has a strongly chromatic tune containing shapes that seem, by themselves, to suggest the flow of powerful emotions. The main melody of “Besame Mucho” ascends in steps that portray an ardour bursting out of its conventional restraints before returning with a yearning elegance to the starting point. The bridge passage brings a decorous contrast, suggesting the dominant emotion recollected in tranquillity. Like many great love songs, it seems to contain an intimation of sadness to come.
And now there’s an outstanding new version, from an unexpected source. It comes from Reinventions, a ECM New Series album devoted to pieces chosen and rearranged by the Italian virtuoso double bassist and composer Stefano Scodanibbio and performed by the Quartetto Prometeo. Scodanibbio (pictured above) died last December of motor neurone disease, aged 55; he was previously known to me for his work with Terry Riley, but his other collaborators included Luigi Nono, Iannis Xenakis, Brian Ferneyhough, Markus Stockhausen and Vinko Globokar.
His work is founded on extended instrumental techniques making powerful use of string harmonics (the higher sounds produced by the bow when the fingers of the left hand touch the string lightly rather than pressing it down on to the fingerboard, if I remember rightly from childhood violin lessons). In the compositions selected for Reinventions, which was recorded two years before his death, three items from Bach’s The Art of Fugue are juxtaposed with sequences of guitar pieces from Spain and songs from Mexico, and in all cases the results are striking. The combination of the harmonics and the sounds produced by “normal” bowing and pizzicato techniques produces marvellous textures, at once ethereal and earthy, ancient and modern.
Inevitably, I suppose, it’s the seven-minute arrangement of “Besame Mucho” that keeps drawing me back to the record. There’s something magical about the way Scodanibbio seems to refract the theme, slowly and gently dismantling and reassembling it in a more complex form, like an image seen in mirrors set at different angles, new shades of emotion overlapping as you feel the the tectonic plates of its harmonies shift beneath you. Each freshly revealed facet is tested for weight, light and meaning. It’s something new, and unforgettable.
Scodanibbio clearly had a strong feeling for Mexico. He chose to die (like Charles Mingus, another great bassist and composer) in Cuernavaca, and he apparently believed “Besame Mucho” to be the most beautiful song ever written. I wouldn’t argue over that. With this recording he and his players took a lovely thing and made it even lovelier.
The last time I saw Jimi Hendrix, he was getting into a helicopter to take him away from the Isle of Wight, still wearing the stage clothes, flowing silks in orange and dark red, in which he’d performed in the early hours of August 31, 1970. It was a chilly, misty morning, not long after dawn. Eighteen days later he was dead, and the speculation began about what, in musical terms, he might have left undone.
None of the posthumous releases have given us much of a clue, and that’s certainly true of People, Hell and Angels, the Hendrix estate’s latest production, in which mostly familiar songs are presented in the guise of alternative takes or versions cleansed of the overdubs undertaken after his death. Hard-core obsessives will find more than enough to satisfy their appetites, but it’s foolish now to hope for revelations.
So what would he have gone on to accomplish? Could he really have moved on beyond the basic template laid down by “Hey Joe” and Are You Experienced soon after his arrival in London in 1966? What happened to truncate the arc of musical progression created when that first album was followed within the next two years by Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland?
The year 1969 was the one in which he seemed to hint at future directions. Not just the staggering Woodstock version of “Star Spangled Banner” — a Guernica for the Vietnam era — but the jams that took place whenever he was in New York, often involving musicians associated with Miles Davis. In March of that year the guitarist John McLaughlin took a night off from playing with Tony Williams’ Lifetime to jam at the Record Plant with Hendrix, the bassist Dave Holland (then a member of Davis’s quintet) and Buddy Miles. In May there was a much bootlegged session with Hendrix, the organist Larry Young (another member of Lifetime), Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell. Later that summer a session was booked at the Hit Factory for Hendrix and Miles Davis, at Miles’s behest, but was aborted half an hour before the scheduled start time when the trumpeter demanded $50,000. And there were rumours that Hendrix and Gil Evans, the arranger of Davis’s Sketches of Spain and other classics, were planning to make an album together.
None of this resulted in anything of consequence and Hendrix never found himself with those musicians in a structured environment where serious work might have occurred. For all his sublime talent, would he have been technically capable of taking McLaughlin’s place in Lifetime, the most adventurous jazz-rock group of its time? (“He wasn’t very schooled; he had a limited knowledge as far as harmony is concerned,” McLaughlin later reflected. “But he had such an imagination that he made up for it.”) How would he have sounded with a group of post-Coltrane free improvisers? Could a meeting of Hendrix and Albert Ayler have worked out? But these weren’t the sort of projects in which his managers were interested, and Hendrix’s own way of life probably militated against any more rigorous pursuit of musical adventure.
There’s an interesting quote from Carlos Santana, who was present at the Record Plant during a session in November that year: “This was a real shocker to me. He said, ‘OK, roll it,’ and started recording and it was incredible. But, within 15 or 20 seconds into the song, he just went out. All of a sudden, the music that was coming out of the speakers was way beyond the song, like he was freaking out, having a gigantic battle in the sky with somebody. It just didn’t make sense with the song any more, so the roadies looked at each other, the producer looked at him and they said, ‘Go get him.’ I’m not making this up. They separated him from the amplifier and the guitar and it was like he was having an epileptic attack… When they separated him, his eyes were red. He was gone.”
The following summer, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull was surprised by what he saw when his band shared the bill with Hendrix at the Randall’s Island festival in New York. He seemed like a different person, Anderson said, from the one he had known a year earlier. “I wanted to go and talk to him, but I couldn’t get anywhere near him because he was surrounded by a phalanx of very sinister people. I saw him briefly as he made his way to the stage and he looked very out of it.”
It all reminds me of Charlie Parker, who had a similar revolutionary effect on the way music is played before meeting a similarly premature demise in 1955 (Hendrix was 27 when he died; Parker was 34). The tinest scraps of Parker’s output are preserved and cherished, and we know that he remained capable of great improvisation all the way to his death. But, like Hendrix, Parker died leaving questions about what would have happened next. Was his work already done, or might he have found a new context to stimulate and nourish further artistic growth? In both cases, the odds seemed to have been stacked against it. But, of course, we’ll never know.
* The photograph of Hendrix is by Gered Mankowitz and is taken from the cover of People, Hell and Angels, just released by Sony Legacy. The quotes are from Eyewitness Hendrix by Johnny Black, published by Carlton (1999).
It was only a couple of hours after buying her new CD in Paris the other day that I picked up an English newspaper and read an interview in which Françoise Hardy was characterised as a “muse” to leading male artists of her era: Dylan, Jagger, and so on. The writer may have intended it as a compliment to one of the great 60s beauties but it seemed more like an insult because the term usually suggests a passive supplier of inspiration, and Hardy was never that. What’s often forgotten is that she wrote her first hit, “Tous les garçons et les filles”, herself in 1962, when she was a mere 18 years old, and over the years she has turned into a singer and writer whose albums are seldom less than compelling.
Since the excellent Decalages arrived in 1988 I’ve bought pretty well all of them as a matter of course, with Clair-obscur (2000), Tant de belles choses (2004) and La Pluie sans parapluie (2010) being particularly worth the trouble. And in 2008 there was her autobiography, Le Desespoir des singes et autres bagatelles (The Monkeys’ Despair and Other Trifles), in which she recounted the tale of a rather extraordinary life with clarity, honesty, humour and the sort of style you’d expect from someone who, albeit briefly, studied literature at the Sorbonne. (And there’s a particularly good passage about spending time with Dylan in Paris in 1965: he was more impressed than she was.)
Most of her music has been made in association with others, from Michel Berger and Gabriel Yared to her husband Jacques Dutronc, and her new album, L’amour fou, finds her working with a selection of collaborators. Names unlikely to be familiar to most British listeners are sprinkled among the songwriting credits, including those of Thierry Stremler, Calogero, Pascal Colomb, Alain Lanty and Benoit Carre, but at no cost to the unity of mood found throughout this sequence of the 10 songs.
These are modern chansons, blue-hour ballads of loss and regret elegantly cloaked in discreet arrangements — piano and strings, mostly — that accentuate the mood and never get in the way of a voice that is very slightly (and appropriately) deeper and richer but still recognisably that of the woman who, in her young days, sang “La fin de l’ete” and “Comment te dire adieu?”: the girl on the cover of Salut les copains and Mademoiselle Age Tendre, of course, but always much more than that.
There doesn’t seem to be a promo clip of my favourite track, “Mal au coeur”, but here’s one of the title song:
Whatever your opinion of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Theorem, which is showing at the BFI South Bank in London over the next few weeks as part of a season devoted to the director’s work, there’s no denying the quality of its soundtrack. Mozart and Morricone are the names on the credits, and both play significant roles in Pasolini’s 1968 drama of a family whose bourgeois lives are torn apart by the passage through their household of a mysterious stranger (played by Terence Stamp).
But the first music you hear, after the newsreel-style prologue set outside the gates of a factory and over a credit sequence shot on the dusty slopes near the crater of a volcano, is actually “Tears for Dolphy”, a beautiful ballad written by the American trumpeter Ted Curson in 1964 to mourn the passing of his friend and sometime bandmate (in Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop), Eric Dolphy. Mystifyingly, it’s uncredited, leading the viewer to assume that it’s by Ennio Morricone, which it certainly isn’t. It was recorded by Curson with Bill Barron (tenor saxophone), Herb Bushler (bass) and Dick Berk (drums) in the year of Dolphy’s death, and initially released a year later in Dutch Fontana’s memorable series of New Thing albums before being reissued first on Arista/Freedom label 10 years later and then by Black Lion in the mid-1990s. (It’s out of print again now, but you can hear it here.) Curson died last November, aged 77; let’s hope he saw some benefit from the use of his piece in a much studied film.
It was certainly a great choice. As I listened to it while the credits rolled last night, it brought to mind the creative use of post-bop jazz in the scores for several important European art movies in the early 1960s, such as Antonioni’s La Notte (Giorgio Gaslini) and Blow Up (Herbie Hancock) and Polanski’s Knife in the Water (Krzysztof Komeda) and Repulsion (Chico Hamilton). Elsewhere in the film, excerpts from Mozart’s Requiem are used effectively to underscore the anti-clerical aspect of Pasolini’s message, while Morricone earns his fee — and reminds us that from the age of 12 he studied composition at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome — by providing jagged post-serialist pieces for string orchestra to accompany scenes of psychological turmoil. But it’s Ted Curson’s piece that carries the greatest emotional weight, its spare contours providing the perfect evocation of the discontents that accompanied Italy’s post-war reconstruction.
When I went in to see A Late Quartet, a new film by Yaron Silberman that includes a wonderful performance by Christopher Walken as an ageing cellist, I was already thinking about string quartets, and cellists in particular. A friend had just sent me a link to the YouTube clip of an event that took place 40 years ago this summer and which represented probably the first successful introduction of a string quartet into rock music: the 1973 tour by Van Morrison’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra.
That tour was commemorated in the classic double-album It’s Too Late to Stop Now, some of which was taped at the Rainbow Theatre in North London. I was there that July night, along with just about everyone I knew. It was the gig of the year, not least because Morrison was returning to the UK for the first time since his days with Them, and it was no surprise to me when it turned out to be an absolutely perfect night because I’d seen them a week or so earlier, at Birmingham City Hall, and that had been spectacular enough. In the meantime I’d talked to Van and some of the musicians in order to write a combined review/interview/preview of the London shows for the Melody Maker (the piece is archived, if you’re interested, at the subscription-based library http://www.rocksbackpages.com).
At that point Morrison had been living in Northern California for a couple of years, and to the regular line-up of his excellent six-piece band he’d added two violins, viola and cello. Playing arrangements written by the keyboard player Jeff Labes, the string quartet added depth and texture to favourites such as “Into the Mystic” and “Listen to the Lion”. As the concert neared its end, they were featured at length on a magnificent version of “Caravan”, in a passage representing a wonderful moment of baroque and roll.
But I know exactly why my friend sent me the clip of that performance of “Caravan”. It was to remind me that this was the night we all fell in love with the blonde cellist.
When those who were at the Rainbow that night gather to reminisce, the name of Terry Adams invariably finds its way into the conversation, accompanied by swooning gestures. It’s like the face you glimpse through the window of a bus and never forget.
Along with Nate Rubin and Tim Kovatch (violins) and Nancy Ellis (viola), she was a member of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra. Forty years later she is still active in the Bay Area, playing in musicals in San Francisco theatres and performing with the recording orchestra at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch film studio. She also runs something called the Nob Hill String Ensemble: “Whatever you’re planning — a wedding and reception, private party, or company convention — Terry will work with you personally to help create a mix of elegant classical, light-classical and popular music to help brighten your special event.” When Morrison put together the band to play Astral Weeks live in 2009, she and Nancy Ellis were recalled; they can be heard on the album recorded at the Hollywood Bowl concert.
That warm July night in 1973, anyway, Teressa “Terry” Adams took her place in rock and roll history. In the clip, you’ll see her responding to Van’s introduction with a smile that some of us swear we can still see hanging in the sky above Finsbury Park.
Hugh McCracken, the great New York session guitarist who contributed to recordings by Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Laura Nyro, Aretha Franklin, the Monkees and countless others, including all four Beatles, died on March 28, aged 70. Most of the obituaries, including this one in the New York Times, carried the anecdote about John Lennon meeting McCracken for the first time at the “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” session in October 1971 and, on learning that he’d played on Paul McCartney’s Ram earlier that year, telling him: “You know that was just an audition to get to play with me.”
The quote came directly from an interview with McCracken himself, but he didn’t get it exactly right. What happened that evening at the Record Plant was that Lennon was introduced to the group of guitarists who, playing acoustic instruments, were going to lay down the basic track for the song, according to the formula required by Phil Spector. All but one of them were young and inexperienced.
He asked them for their names. “Chris.” “Stu.” “Teddy.” “Hugh.” Lennon turned to Yoko Ono and said, “Hey, Yoko, doesn’t Hugh look just like Ivan?” Yoko didn’t respond. “Hugh, you look just like a mate of mine from school. A cross between him and Paul.”
He was referring to Ivan Vaughan, the friend who played bass guitar with the Quarrymen and introduced Lennon to McCartney at Woolton village fete that famous July day in 1957. Vaughan had known Lennon since childhood and had gone to school with McCartney, with whom he shared a birthdate. He studied classics at university, became a teacher, and was later engaged by the Beatles to develop an education project on Apple’s behalf. He was diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s disease in 1977 and died in 1993.
A little later, during a break, someone told Lennon about McCracken’s impressive record as a session man, including his contribution to McCartney’s second solo album a few months earlier.
“Oh,” Lennon responded. “So you were just auditioning on Ram, were you?”
If you think I’m splitting hairs here, you’re probably correct. But we might as well get the verbatim right for posterity’s benefit, if there’s going to be a posterity.
McCracken was a first-choice session man who could nevertheless often be found playing the less glamorous rhythm parts behind guitarists with bigger reputations. But if I had to pick a highlight from his career in the studio, it would probably be Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen”, a track from Gaucho (1980), to which he contributes a startling intro and a discreet but beautifully shaped short solo.
* The photograph of McCracken is taken from http://www.jimmyvivino.com — the website of the guitarist who leads the house band on Conan O’Brien’s late-night chat show on TBS, the US cable channel.
If I’d known they were going to end up in a frame on an art gallery wall, I would have hung on to a few of the bags holding the albums I carried away from Dobell’s Jazz, Folk & Blues record shop in the 60s and 70s. In design terms, they were classics of their era: cool, clean-lined, high-contrast graphics for a cool, clean-lined, high-contrast time. And there they were on Tuesday evening at CHELSEA Space, a small gallery inside the Chelsea College of Art and Design, at the private view of an exhibition devoted to the history of Doug Dobell’s shops, in particular the one he ran at 77 Charing Cross Road.
A good crowd of hipsters turned up for the launch, including the photographer Val Wilmer, whose work lined one of the walls, the poet Hugo Williams, and lots of faces familiar from jazz clubs down the decades. Put together by Donald Smith, the gallery’s director of exhibitions, and Leon Parker of the British Record Shop Archive, the show features dozens of fascinating images, some of the old shop signs and fittings, posters and memorabilia, and even one of the original record players from the listening booths.
The premises at 77 Charing Cross Road had been opened by Dobell’s grandfather as an antiquarian bookshop in 1887. When Doug came out of the army at the end of the Second World War he asked his father if he could sell jazz 78s from a corner of the premises, and before long the discs had taken over from the second-hand books. He started a small record label, 77 Records, and everyone knows the story of how Bob Dylan recorded in the basement there with Richard Farina and Eric von Schmidt in January 1963 under the nom de disque of Blind Boy Grunt. In 1965 Doug took over the next-door premises, No 75, and turned it into a folk and blues department.
The shop survived until 1980, when the developers moved in: the entire west side of Charing Cross Road was demolished, to be replaced by a hideous piece of architecture housing fast-food joints and tourist souvenir shops. I cannot walk down it today without glancing across at the opposite side, where the original buildings survive along with some of the bookshops that gave the street its unique character, and cursing such wanton destruction. Eventually Dobell’s found a new home a couple of minutes away, in Tower Street, which lasted from 1981 until 1992, three years after Doug’s death.
My own experience of Dobell’s began in 1963, on a day trip to London, and it was not an entirely happy one. I was in search of two recent releases from members of the early-60s avant-garde: My Name is Albert Ayler (including an incomparable version of “Summertime”, which you can hear here) and Ken McIntyre’s Year of the Iron Sheep. The rather intimidating bearded man behind the counter was able to put his hands on both albums, but while taking the money from his schoolboy customer he couldn’t resist adding a word of appraisal: “McIntyre’s all right,” he said, “but that bloke Ayler can’t play at all.”
I’m afraid it coloured my view of the place a little, and in the years that followed I was more likely to be found a few minutes away buying records from Ray Smith at Collett’s, first in New Oxford Street and later at the junction of Shaftesbury Avenue and Monmouth Street. But the exhibition is highly enjoyable, conveying a real sense of time and place. I’ve still got that treasured copy of My Name is Albert Ayler, the object of such lofty scorn 50 years ago. I think I’ll play it now.
* The exhibition runs until May 18 at CHELSEA space, 16 John Islip Street, London SW1, just down the road from Tate Britain. There are talks on April 17 and May 15 and a special event on April 20, which is Record Store Day UK. Details: http://www.chelseaspace.org
By the time Brian Eno and I pitched up in New York to make a set of demos with Television in mid-December 1974, Richard Hell was on his way out of the band. I didn’t know that at the time, although it was apparent from his demeanour that he was already somewhat semi-detached from the other three. And perhaps I should have recognised the significance of the fact that none of the five songs we recorded during a three-day stay was written by Richard. They were all the work of Tom Verlaine, which meant no room for “Blank Generation” or “Love Comes in Spurts”, two of the Hell-composed songs that had been performed when I saw the band a couple of months earlier and would become, after Richard had moved on to the Heartbreakers and the Voidoids, anthems of the New Wave.
I suppose that if anyone is entitled to boast of having invented the punk movement of the late 1970s, it’s him. And he does make that claim, quietly but firmly, at various points throughout his new autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. Published in the US by Ecco, it tells the story of his life from his birth in 1949 up to the point at which he abandoned his career in music, in 1984. Since then Richard has become a novelist (Go Now, Hot and Cold, Godlike, etc), so he knows how to write and his book is an entertaining, informative and mostly unvarnished — although inevitably subjective — story of sex and drugs, garnished with a little rock and roll. Set mostly in the streets of the Lower East Side, its cast of characters includes Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Dee Dee Ramone, the poet-turned-agent Andrew Wylie, Malcolm McLaren, Seymour Stein, a number of drug dealers and many girlfriends, including the wife of the artist Claes Oldenburg, immortalised in a picture caption that sums up the book’s tone: “At the beginning, she was just a funny rich chick who liked my company and took good care of me and loved having sex.” And, of course, Tom Verlaine, with whom Richard ran away from school in Delaware (they were called Tom Miller and Richard Meyer then) and with whom he was reunited as they created their new identities in New York City in the late Sixties.
No band can exist for long with two leaders, which is how Television started. Especially not when their ambitions are so divergent, as Hell’s and Verlaine’s became. Both were poets, and they collaborated happily on a small poetry magazine during their early years in New York, but only one of them was really interested in music per se. When I talked to Verlaine, our conversations ranged from Booker T and the MGs (later he sent me a copy of their rare Christmas album that he’d found, still shrink-wrapped, in a Chicago thrift shop) to Eric Dolphy and Booker Little, and the way he played and wanted the band to sound reflected his obsessions. Hell was far more interested in what music could achieve on a social plane: not just as a way of getting girls into bed, although that was clearly the priority, but as a vehicle for what became the DIY philosophy of punk. His dandyish deployment of ripped and safety-pinned clothes and his spiky hair certainly made him a pioneer, and there is a certain disdain in his attitude to the way the English new wave appropriated his notions (although he admired McLaren and approved of the Sex Pistols). Not that Verlaine was unaware of the aesthetic dimension: no one ever brought the fugitive-poet look to rock and roll more effectively.
It was in 1972 that Verlaine found a second-hand Danelectro bass guitar for $50 and told Hell that he could teach him enough technique for the kind of music they were going to make together with a drummer, Billy Ficca, in a trio calling itself the Neon Boys. Verlaine himself was on his way to become an expert and highly original guitarist, and a couple of years later he found a fourth member, Richard Lloyd, to help him create the intricate two-guitar filigree that was in his head. Now they were called Television, a name chosen by Hell and approved by Verlaine (“Much later I noticed that ‘TV’ was his initials,” Hell notes drily).
That was the line-up when I was taken by my friends Richard and Lisa Robinson to see them at the Truck and Warehouse Theatre on East 4th Street (now the home of the New York Theatre Workshop) in October 1974. The newly formed Blondie opened the show, replacing the Ramones at short notice and performing a set that, beyond Debbie’s looks, betrayed little of their potential. Television’s set was tense, sometimes rickety, but spellbinding even when a song like the never-recorded ballad “Bluebirds” threatened to fall apart. The one that really made an impact had an unforgettable chorus: “I fell… (Did you feel low?) Not at all.. (Huh?) I fell… right into the arms… of Venus de Milo.” And Verlaine’s stage presence, with its sense of suppressed anguish, was as compelling as his laconic, sidelong delivery. Hell sang “Blank Generation” and “Love Comes in Spurts”, but I’m afraid he and his songs didn’t make much of an impression. I took away a poster for the band’s forthcoming appearances at Club 82, Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs, with approving quotes from from David Bowie, Nick Ray, Lenny Kaye and Patti Smith, plus a list of the 30-odd songs in their repertoire scribbled by Hell in ballpoint pen on the reverse side.
I was running the A&R department at Island Records in London then, and looking for something new, preferably something that wasn’t wearing denim, and when I got home I made arrangements to return as soon as possible and make demos with Television. They were keen, and no other company was interested at the time. I contacted Eno, who readily agreed to help out at the sessions; his presence, I felt, might help to influence my bosses at Island, and he might even get his management company, EG, interested in taking them on.
The studio we used, Good Vibrations at 1440 Broadway, a 25-story office building a block down from Times Square, was not an obvious choice. I booked it because I’d been doing some work with Fania Records, the salsa label, whose records Island released in the UK, and that was where they recorded Ray Barretto, Johnny Pacheco and the rest of their stable, so I’d get a good rate and the use of an experienced engineer, Jon Fausty. And it was only going to be a demo session, so we didn’t really need Electric Lady or the Record Plant.
The five tracks we recorded over the course of two days, and mixed down on the third, have been endlessly bootlegged, often with inaccurate information attached. The tracks were “Prove It”, “Venus de Milo”, “Marquee Moon”, “Friction” and “Double Exposure” — the last of those being the only one that didn’t make it on to their debut album when they finally signed with Elektra two years later. The piano on “Marquee Moon” was played by Tom. Eno played no keyboards and did not sing on the tracks. And the location was not “Fairland Studios, Hollywood”.
Tom didn’t like the way things turned out, and later he blamed Eno. “The whole thing sounded like the Ventures,” he told Viv Goldman in a Sounds interview. “It sounded so bad. I kept on saying, why does it sound so bad? And he’d say, ‘Whaddya mean? It sounds pretty good to me.'” Tom might equally have blamed me or Fausty, but he and Eno didn’t get on, although there was no overt falling out. That still seems a shame. I didn’t realise at the time what a perfectionist Tom was, and that he wanted perfection even on his demos. But did we make those songs sound like the Ventures? I don’t think so. If you know the bootlegs, you judge.
Anyway, I took the tapes home with me and played them to my bosses, crossing my fingers that they’d get the point. Sadly, no one else was greatly impressed, and at the time Island’s success as a small independent label was based on the whole company getting enthusiastic about an artist or a band. In retrospect it would have been good to try and bring them to London, so that people could see them, but it might have been a year or two too early even for that. Tom was disappointed, I was disappointed, and gradually we lost touch. Before long he had squeezed Hell out of the band — they were also divided by their attitude to heroin — and brought in Fred Smith to play bass on their debut single, “Little Johnny Jewel”, released on a label set up by their manager/chief fan Terry Ork, and eventually on Marquee Moon, which deservedly became a classic.
Hell and Verlaine didn’t speak for a long time. “Tom was highly protected, well defended,” Richard writes in a shrewd but hardly impartial assessment of his erstwhile partner’s temperament. “There are good things and bad things about that. It gave him a certain kind of integrity — he wasn’t going to be blown around by fashion, he was discreet and reliable, but it made him really difficult to work with or be friends with. He was afraid of infection and robbery, so he lived in this high, remote, walled-in place, which enabled him to look down on everybody else… I respected his abilities and valued his friendship, but his coldness and egotism came more and more to the fore as he began to get more public attention. He was a lot easier to get along with before strangers started admiring him.”
Maybe Hell saw me as one of those strangers. I didn’t keep up with him because his side of the new wave didn’t interest me greatly, but I listen to everything Verlaine does in order to see if he’s still trying to get closer to the ideal version of what Hell calls his “crystal-clear crisp sweet-guitar suites”. In my view he came nearest to such perfection in Television’s 1992 reunion album, in great songs such as “Shane, She Wrote This”, “1880 or So”, “No Glamour for Willi” and “Call Mr Lee”. So here’s the promo video for “Call Mr Lee”, with wonderful lead work from Richard Lloyd:
and a TV performance of “1880 Or So”:
and, on the basis of equal time, here’s Hell with the Voidoids (including Robert Quine on guitar) in 1979 doing one of his contributions to the early Television repertoire, “Love Comes in Spurts”:
Finally, here’s “Blank Generation”, also filmed at CBGBs the same year, making me think that it’s a pretty good song, after all:
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.