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Mick Farren 1943-2013

Mick FarrenMick Farren collapsed and died on stage at the Borderline in London on Saturday night while singing with the latest version of his band, the Deviants. After three decades in New York and Los Angeles, he had spent the last few years back in Britain. Here’s a tribute by his old friend and NME colleague Charles Shaar Murray, and here’s my obituary, both from today’s Guardian.

I knew Mick at the end of the ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s, which was probably his best time, and I always enjoyed his company. I’d first clapped eyes on him in Nottingham in 1967, when an enterprising friend of mine organised the city’s first (and only) “happening” at the Rainbow Rooms, and booked the Social Deviants — as they were then called — along with a projector and a print of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, a bubble machine and the bits and pieces to make a rudimentary light show. How cool we were, suddenly transformed from mods into hippies! I bought a Tibetan love bell and gave my friend Paul Smith, then managing the men’s floor of a boutique called Birdcage, 25 shillings to get his tailor to make me a royal blue kaftan with floral braid. It looked fine until I tried to dance and discovered that the arm-holes had been made so small that I could barely move. So much for letting it all hang out. (Having some sense of history, I kept the garment; it made a second public appearance in True Brit, the exhibition devoted to Paul’s work at the Design Museum a few years ago.)

The photograph above is taken from the back of the dust jacket of Mick’s excellent memoir, Give the Anarchist a Cigarette, published by Jonathan Cape in 2001. It was taken by Barrie Wentzell, the Melody Maker‘s staff photographer, and it records a round-table discussion at the MM‘s old Fleet Street offices, probably in 1971. The discussion was being moderated by Michael Watts, who has his back to the photographer, and our much-missed colleague Roy Hollingworth, on Watts’s left. Neither of us can remember who the hippie on Hollingworth’s left is. That’s Farren next to the unknown person, with Sandy Denny opposite him at the top of the table (no, it’s not Sandy Denny: see Comments). On Sandy’s left, wearing a cap, is Robert Wyatt. On Robert’s left is another person whom neither of us can identify. We can’t remember what the subject of the discussion was, either. Maybe someone out there can help.

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Frances Ha

It’s not often I want to get up and dance in the aisles of a cinema, but that’s how I felt halfway through Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha the other night, when David Bowie’s “Modern Love” erupted out of the speakers. I’ve never been keen on Bowie (although I admire the stuff from his Berlin period), but “Modern Love” is one of those tracks — like Boffalongo’s “Dancing in the Moonlight”, Danny Wilson’s “Mary’s Prayer” or the New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” — that automatically quicken the heartbeat and turn the world’s colours up a shade. It doesn’t matter who it’s by. Listen without prejudice, as someone once suggested.

Frances Ha benefits from an excellent soundtrack, including a fine cello-led piece by Joan Jeanrenaud (the Kronos Quartet’s original cellist) and incidental music by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. You might or might not remember Wareham from the indie rock bands Galaxie 500 and Luna, in which he was joined by Phillips, to whom he is now married. They’ve also recorded as Dean and Britta, and they contributed music to Baumbach’s first film, The Squid and the Whale, in 2006.

I hadn’t expected to like Frances Ha as much as I did. It’s not nearly as cutesy as this trailer might make it seem. By the end, Greta Gerwig turns Frances into a character with real depth, someone you really care about.

Don’t forget the Motor City

Fox TheatreYou’ll have read that Detroit went bankrupt the other day, and you might have felt more than a twinge of sympathy for the city that gave us so much music. (The Independent‘s Ian Burrell did, and wrote about it very touchingly here.) You might also have seen The Ruins of Detroit, the 2010 book in which Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre photographed the abandoned hulks of factories and municipal buildings, lending them a terrible glamour. I’m currently reading Mark Binelli’s widely praised The Last Days of Detroit, in which a Rolling Stone journalist returns to examine the fate of his home town. It made me go and dig out a photograph I took in 1994, during the World Cup, when I was in Detroit to watch Brazil play Sweden in the Pontiac Silverdome.

This is not a photograph of a ruin. Quite the reverse, in fact. It shows the Fox Theatre, a famous establishment on Woodward Avenue in the downtown area. Opened in 1928, with 5,000 seats, lavishly appointed and built at great expense, it became the world’s first cinema to install sound equipment for the screening of talkies. Live shows were also a part of its programme: Swing Era stars like Benny Goodman packed the place, Elvis Presley played there for three nights in 1956 (his first appearances in the city), and the Motortown Revue got into the habit of taking over the theatre for 10 days over the Christmas period in the ’60s. By the 1980s, however, “white flight” to the suburbs had changed the character of downtown and the heavily dilapidated Fox was showing kung-fu movies. Then along came the family who own the Little Caesars pizza chain, the Detroit Red Wings (ice hockey) and the Detroit Tigers (baseball), who bought and renovated it, re-opening in 1988 with a show starring Count Basie and Smokey Robinson.

The day I passed by with my camera, the marquee was still advertising an Aretha Franklin concert which had taken place a week earlier. (Detroit is also Aretha’s home town: it was where her father, the Rev C.L. Franklin, set up his New Bethel Church in 1946.) A check on the Fox’s website tells me that this year’s future attractions include Steely Dan, John Legend, Get Back: The Beatles Laser Experience, Sarah Brightman and the Moscow Ballet. Aretha sang there again last year.

Hope you like the picture. And good luck to Detroit, whatever its future holds.

New brushes and palette

DuryIan Dury may well have been the only pop artist who became his own subject. On the walls of a new exhibition of his paintings, drawings and graphic design at the Royal College of Art in London, where Dury studied in the early ’60s, hang a handful of interesting self-portraits. For his true self-portrait, however, you have to search YouTube for the remarkable official videos for “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and “Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3”, where you will find the artist who invented himself in the medium that best suited him. Nevertheless the RCA show, called More Than Fair, is well worth a visit for the glimpse it provides of a young man who grew up amid the benign ferment of British art colleges half a century ago.

Dury went to Walthamstow School of Art in 1959, studied with Peter Blake, and won a place at the RCA in 1963. This was a time when popular culture was becoming an acceptable subject for fine artists, thanks to the work of Blake, Richard Hamilton and others, and Dury welcomed the opportunity to take on a range of subjects including Hollywood stars, Sonny Liston, celebrity industrialists (Lord and Lady Docker, famous for their Daimler with gold door handles) and the soft-porn nudes who take up just about half the show.

The influence of Blake — who remained a friend — is evident in the presentation of such works as “Flo Diddley” and “Miranda Aureole: The Nipple Princess”, and in the work he did for the Sunday Times Magazine and London Look. Here from the ST Mag (which continually bylined him “Ian Drury”) are spreads devoted to features on “The Immortals” (Bogart, Gable, Harlow, etc) in 1966 and “Lost Heroes” (James Dean) the following year. Rainbow stripes are bursting everywhere, sometimes accessorised with sequins. Titles are roughly stencilled. The energy is unmistakeable, even in the representatives of his commercial work, such as the cover of World Record Club’s “The Wonderful Vera” (Lynn) and the box for EMI’s reel-to-reel tape version of Sinatra Sings of Love.

Four LivesThis didn’t turn out to be the work Dury was put on earth to do, but he was pretty good at it. Curated by Jemima Dury (the artist’s daughter), Julian Balme and Kosmo Vinyl, the show was assembled from the family collection and loans from friends and former colleagues, including Terry Day, the drummer of Kilburn and the High Roads (who contributes a Dury-decorated bass drum head), Davey Payne, the Blockheads’ saxophonist, Andrew King, Dury’s music publisher, and Laurie Lewis, the dance photographer.

I wish I’d known about the exhibition in advance. Then I’d have lent them my own bit of Duryana: a copy of the first UK edition of A.B.Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business, published in 1967, for which MacGibbon and Kee commissioned the artist to provide a new cover (above). His ink portraits of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Nichols and Jackie McLean, the subjects of Spellman’s classic quartet of encounters with modern jazz musicians, are perfect, as is the stencilled typography.

The show opened this morning and closes on September 1. Admission is free. Details are here. A new book of Dury’s lyrics, titled Hello Sausages, edited by Jemima Dury and published by Bloomsbury, is on sale in the gallery at a tenner off the £25 price. All in all, it’s worth the trip.

The Brubeck/Bernstein dialogues

BrubeckIt wouldn’t surprise me if you’d never heard, or even heard of, Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Brubeck. It isn’t in any of the guides to recommended jazz recordings that I’ve read, and I don’t remember seeing any mention of it in the many excellent obituaries that appeared when Dave Brubeck died, aged 91, last December. Even in an era when his contribution has been handsomely reassessed, it remains a bit of a black sheep in his discography.

Yet it’s always been a record of which I’ve been extremely fond, and it’s a pleasure for me that it has finally made what I believe to be its first appearance on CD (** I’m wrong: see correction below). Even now, however, despite featuring two of Columbia Records’ biggest names of the early 1960s, it has been refused the seal of approval that a release on Sony Legacy represents, and has been shuffled intead down to the budget Hallmark label, which means that although the repackagers have used the original front cover design, today’s buyer isn’t deemed worthy of the sleeve information that came with the original 12-inch LP release.

No matter. The relevant details are to hand. The first side of the album consists of Howard Brubeck’s four-part Dialogues for Jazz Combo and Orchestra,  first performed by the New York Philharmonic and the Dave Brubeck Quartet under the baton of Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall in December 1959 — the month that Brubeck’s Time Out, containing “Take Five”, was released — and recorded the following January 30 at one of Columbia’s two New York studios, probably the deconsecrated Armenian Church on East 30th Street. The second side presents four of Bernstein’s Broadway theatre songs, three of them from West Side Story, recorded a fortnight later by the quartet alone: the classic line-up of Brubeck (piano), Paul Desmond (alto saxophone), Gene Wright (bass) and Joe Morello (drums).

Howard Brubeck was Dave’s older brother, preceding his sibling as a student of the French composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College, a liberal arts institution in the Bay Area (its alumni include Terry Riley, Phil Lesh and Steve Reich). He became Milhaud’s assistant, taught composition at San Diego State College and ended his career as dean of humanities at Palomar Junior College in San Marcos, California. Dialogues appears to be his only recorded composition.

The four movements are titled Allegro, Andante (Ballad), Adagio (Ballad) and Allegro (Blues). Inevitably, the critics of the day assumed that the two Brubecks and their superstar conductor were putting a toe into the waters of the Third Stream, the late-’50s movement created by the musicologist-composer Gunther Schuller, who wanted to find ways of combining jazz with classical music. Most of them criticised it for an absence of obvious musical ambition: what Howard Brubeck did was not to fuse the two forms in an attempt to discover a third, but simply juxtapose them. So for most of the time rather portentous orchestral passages reminiscent of Aaron Copland — stentorian brass, perky woodwind — are succeeded by bits that sound like conventional 1950s jazz-with-strings.

I don’t mind that at all, because the material always feels like it has substance and the players sound as though they’re having fun. I bought it on its release in 1961 and I’ve probably listened to the orchestral piece no more than two or three times in the last 40 years, but I found that I remembered every note. It isn’t profound, but it’s unfailingly intelligent and creative, and sometimes genuinely exciting, and it calls on the full resources of Brubeck and his musicians. Andante (Ballad) has a tune as pretty as brother Dave’s classic “In Your Own Sweet Way”, giving Morello a chance to demonstrate his immaculate brush-work, while Wright sounds pretty much the equal of more highly rated bass-players of the era. Adagio (Ballad) moves from an astringent passage for strings into full-blown romanticism behind Desmond, and the closing movement — although the mention of the blues in the title is a little misleading — finds the quartet achieving a genuine interaction with the orchestra as the intensity builds from a delicious conversation for trumpet and bassoon through angular string figures towards a beautiful moment when the orchestra detonates Desmond into the first of two short but very fine solos over the rhythm section at its swinging best. The closing ensemble climax is prefaced by a 32-bar solo which shows what an unassumingly adventurous pianist Brubeck could be. (It reminded me of a lovely self-deprecatory story he once told about bumping into the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor, who told him how much he admired his playing and proclaimed that he saw him as the missing link. “He didn’t say between what and what,” Brubeck said.)

What a pity whoever remastered the recording saw fit to cut off the final chord, leaving no hint of natural reverb — particularly since Columbia’s 30th Street studio was renowned for its inherent properties in that respect. But I suppose that’s what happens when you bang something out on a budget label and flog it for less than a fiver.

Did I say something about the quartet swinging? But isn’t what they were supposed not to do? What rubbish. I saw them at the De Montfort Hall in Leicester during their UK tour in 1962, at the height of their popular success. It was my first direct exposure to American jazz musicians, and they proved that no group including Wright and Morello could fail to swing like the clappers on demand, whatever the material or the environment. And that’s what we find on the tracks minus the orchestra, where their playing is unfailingly excellent, particularly on a luminous version of “Maria”, where — if I’ve got it right — Desmond plays the theme in 4/4 while the rhythm section are playing in three. It’s the sort of rhythmic game for which they became famous with “Take Five”, “Unsquare Dance” and so on, and as usual they settle into a regular four for the solos. The delicacy of Brubeck’s solos throughout these sides is exceptional. He really was a remarkable musician. And Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein doesn’t deserve its obscurity.

* The photograph of the quartet — left to right: Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Gene Wright, Joe Morello — is from the cover of the album.

** Philip Clark (@MusicClerk) kindly points out that Dialogues was reissued in a series of CDs called Bernstein Century, and the whole thing came out in January 2011 via Essential Jazz Classics. I’m afraid I don’t know whether either of those versions preserved a little reverb at the end of the suite.

Catch A Fire redux

Catch A FireLondon felt like an oven as I made my way to the South Bank to watch Gary Crosby’s augmented Jazz Jamaica celebrate the 40th anniversary of Catch A Fire last night. It reminded me of the evening of September 20, 1972, when I landed at Palisadoes Airport in Kingston, Jamaica and experienced Caribbean heat for the first time, about to discover the way it transports you into a different reality.

Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, whom I had not met before, picked me up at the terminal in a Mini Moke, which also contained the American photographer Lynn Goldsmith. We drove along the Palisadoes, the long spit of land than encloses Kingston Harbour, to Port Royal, the old pirate headquarters — or what was left of it by the earthquakes of 1692 and 1907. It was quiet, and it was hot, and we got out of the Moke by the seafront, where goats were settling down for the night and men were selling fish from glass-fronted wooden cases. Blackwell bought us each a piece of fried snapper and a can of cold Red Stripe from a bar made out of corrugated iron sheets. It seemed like heaven

The following day we went to Dynamic Sound studios, where Toots and the Maytals were trying to record “Tumbling Dice”, a task only marginally impeded by the fact that Toots didn’t know the words and was making them up as he went along. This gave me the chance to witness one of the great rhythm sections at work: Hucks Brown (guitar), Gladstone Anderson (piano), Winston Wright (organ), Jackie Jackson (bass) and Winston Grennan (drums), each of them doing exactly what you hoped he’d do. Particularly Hucks Brown, playing those unique little stuttering, flickering single-string fills that had distinguished Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” a few months earlier.

I was shown around Trenchtown the next morning by Joe Higgs, the singer who had mentored the young Wailers, teaching them how to sing harmony. Joe was an older man, a calm, charming, deep-voiced Rasta. He gave me a copy of his new 45, “Let Us Do Something”, and took me to Bob’s Tuff Gong record shack at 127 King Street, one block across from Orange Street, where I bought copies of the Wailers’ “Trenchtown Rock” and their latest release, “Satisfy My Soul Jah Jah”. That afternoon Blackwell and I went to Half Way Tree, where he had an appointment at the Aquarius record store with Herman Chin Loy, a young producer, who played us some pretty wild acetates on which he wanted to make a deal; they may have been the ones that surfaced the following year on the first of his Aquarian Dub LPs.

That evening we met up with Harry Johnson — the famous Harry J — who removed a Smith & Wesson from the glove compartment of his Oldsmobile and placed it in a shoulder holster concealed by his lightweight jacket before ushering took us to his studio on Roosevelt Avenue. I remember it as a bungalow surrounded by lawn and trees. Inside, amid a thick fug of ganja, were Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingstone, Aston Barrett and Carlton Barrett, laying down the track of “Slave Driver”, whose lyric would provide the title for Catch A Fire.

I knew about the Wailers. Back in 1966 I’d bought two of their early singles, “Put It On” and “He Who Feels It Knows It”, on the old Island white label. I loved the songs, the rhythms and, most of all, the harmonies. But this was a quite different sort of experience: thanks to the Barrett brothers (my second great rhythm section in two days), the music had a dark churn of a kind I’d never heard before, somehow lazy and energised at the same time. The vocals were equally stunning: Marley’s lead was mesmerising, the harmony work piercingly gorgeous.

Blackwell had done something unprecedented in the annals of Jamaican music. At a time when musicians sold the rights to their singles for 25 Jamaican dollars, he had advanced the Wailers several thousand pounds in order to make an album, bringing the economics of production and promotion developed in rock music to the world of reggae. And this was his first exposure to the result of what most people in the Jamaican music business saw as an outrageous and hopeless gamble. But Blackwell was always a talented gambler, and almost as soon as he walked through the studio door he knew that this one had come off.

The quickest and simplest way of explaining the effect of all this on me is to say that when I got home, a couple of days later, I sat down to write a piece suggesting that in Bob Marley, Jamaica had a musician whose effect might one day be comparable to that of Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield. Not wrong there. Catch A Fire came out six months later, in its strikingly ingenious (and expensive) Zippo cover, beginning the process that, within three years, turned Marley into an international superstar and cultural symbol and made reggae into an wordwide lingua franca.

That’s a long way of getting round to talking about last night’s gig at the Festival Hall, but it might help to explain why I found it so moving when the 21-member Jazz Jamaica All Stars, the 12-piece Urban Soul string ensemble, the 240-person Voicelab choir, the conductor Kevin Robinson, the choirmaster Mark De Lisser and the singer-guitarist Brinsley Forde launched into “No More Trouble”. In that moment, in that song’s combination of baleful cadences and stare-down optimism, the summoning of musical and spiritual powers was at its most intense: spine-tingling at the start, overwhelming by the finish.

They played the album all the way through, Jason Yarde’s arrangements making use of all the available resources: the strings on Tosh’s “Stop That Train”, an acapella coda for the three female backing singers (Zara MacFarlane, Keisha Downie and Rasiyah) on “Baby, Baby We’ve Got a Date”, the best guitar solo I’ve heard this year from Robin Banerjee on “Concrete Jungle”, a fine Latin piano solo from Ben Burrell on “Midnight Ravers”, a rousing violin duel between Stephen Hussey and Miles Brett on “Stir It Up”, the tenor saxophone of Denys Baptiste and the trumpet of Yazz Ahmed swapping phrases on another Tosh song, “400 Years”. And the other great solo of the night, by the tenorist Patrick Clahar, on “No More Trouble”.

They finished with three songs from Marley’s later repertoire: “One Love”, “Redemption Song” — sung by Brinsley Forde with just the strings for company — and “Lively Up Yourself”. Brinsley deserves the highest praise for a performance in which he evoked the spirit of the great man without exaggeration and without pushing himself forward, becoming just another member of a unique and hugely life-affirming organism. Quite a night.

131 Prince Street

Ornette in SoHoWhen I visited Ornette Coleman’s SoHo loft in early 1973, the threat of eviction was already hanging over him. The great saxophonist and composer had lived at 131 Prince Street since the late ’60s, when the district’s historic buildings had been under threat of demolition to make way for the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. Now the expressway scheme had been abandoned, and the neighbours were getting restless. They didn’t like the idea of jazz musician living in their midst, it was said. Particularly one who had turned his ground floor into a performance space, which he called Artists House. And real-estate agents were looking for a way of freeing up properties in a district whose beautiful but semi-derelict five-storey cast-iron buildings were about to make the transition from light industry to highly desirable residences and retail spaces.

The next SoHo loft I visited, on Greene Street in 1981, was occupied by David Byrne and Twyla Tharp, who had just collaborated on The Catherine Wheel, and the metamorphosis didn’t stop there. In 1999, Rupert Murdoch and his new wife, Wendi Deng, paid £6.5m for a triplex apartment at 141 Prince Street, five doors from Ornette’s old pad; six years later they sold it for almost $25m. For the last 20 years the streets have been lined with high-end clothes shops and expensive restaurants, and the sidewalks thronged with tourists. Like a lot of places into which developers and exploiters follow artists, SoHo lost its character on the path to prosperity.

One day in 1970, Ornette invited an audience of acquaintances and colleagues to attend a recording by his then-current quartet: Dewey Redman (tenor), Charlie Haden (bass) and Ed Blackwell (drums). The result was issued a couple of years later as an album called Friends and Neighbors on Flying Dutchman, a short-lived label run by the producer Bob Thiele, who had recorded Coleman (and John Coltrane and Albert Ayler) on Impulse in the ’60s. Now Ace Records in the UK has acquired the rights to Thiele’s catalogue, and Friends and Neighbors — which has always been hard to find, although I have a CD of the album reissued by BMG France a dozen years ago — is among the first releases. The photograph above, by Ray Ross, is from the cover.

The album starts in a rather eccentric fashion with the two short parts of the title piece, originally released — unlikely as it may seem — as a 45rpm single. On the first part, the audience chants a simple lyric based on the title, “Give Peace a Chance”-style, over a bouncy Blackwell second-line backbeat, either side of solos from Ornette’s screechy violin and Redman’s saxophone. The second part has no singing, and Ornette switches to alto saxophone; the groove persists, with Haden outstanding despite the murky sound.

The aural fog clears entirely for the remaining four pieces,all devoted to the quartet, among which the two extended tracks, “Long Time, No See” and “Tomorrow”, deserve to occupy an important place in Coleman’s discography. The intimacy of the interplay between alto and drums during Ornette’s six-minute solo on the former track is outstanding even by the standards of these particular players, with Blackwell giving a lesson in medium-up tempo swing. Ornette’s trumpet appears on the brief “Let’s Play” but he returns to the alto for “Forgotten Songs” and for “Tomorrow”, where the always underrated Redman leads off with a striking solo employing multiphonics and Ornette contributes another outstanding improvisation in collaboration with the endlessly stimulating rhythm team.

My visit to 131 Prince Street three years later yielded one of the most singular and intense musical experiences of my life. A group of  half a dozen jazz writers from around the world were paying a visit to Coleman, who responded by inviting his house guest, the great pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, to play for them. If you’ll indulge me, here’s how I described it from memory a few years later, in the introduction to a book called Jazz: A Photographic Documentary:

The South African seated himself at the grand piano in the middle of the light, spacious loft while the visitors drew up their chairs in a semi-circle around him. He placed his hands together, bowed his head for a moment, and then he began. Perhaps he played for 10 minutes, perhaps for half an hour. Nobody in that room would have been able to say which.

He began with a hymn tune tune direct from the African Methodist Episcopal Church in which he worshipped and sang as a child; a slow, wise tune, its melody moving with a graceful inevitability, supported by simple harmonies that resonated with the richness of entire choirs. Then he changed gear, into a dance tune that moved to a swaying, sinuous beat and gathered momentum until it sounded like a whole township stepping out. Changing up again, his hands began to hammer great tremolos at both ends of the keyboard, the air in the room seeming to shimmer and the floor to shudder as his big fingers rolled harder and harder in a gigantic crescendo until suddenly bright treble splashes fell across the dark patterns like bursts of sunlight piercing a storm. Now pure energy took over, the melodies broken into abstract angular figures which leaped and tumbled and fought with a ferocious energy, bypassing the logic centres of the brain to reach some place that responds only to kinetic stimuli. 

Just when it seemed that the intensity might burst the windows, Ibrahim backed off, returned to the double-handed tremolos, rewound slowly and with infinite care through the dance tune and the hymn, and deposited us back where he had found us, in silence — except that the silence now sounded completely different.

Soon after that Ornette was obliged to close Artists House. Around 1975, he was finally evicted altogether.

Tandyn Almer: sunshine and psychodramas

Tandyn AlmerAs far as I’m concerned, Tandyn Almer deserves a place in the history of rock and roll simply on the basis of “Along Comes Mary”, the song he wrote for the Association in 1966. Together with Norma Tanega’s “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog”, the Mamas and Papas’ “California Dreamin'” and a couple of others, it was one of a small group of unmistakeably white pop records that managed to infiltrate themselves between the latest from Motown and Stax in the clubs I was attending at the time. This was music that hinted at the psychedelic revolution to come, while still working within the disciplines of conventional pop music. “Along Comes Mary” had a lovely light and highly danceable groove created by an acoustic guitar and what sounds like an electric harpsichord, intelligent bass playing, pushing drums and party handclaps on the backbeat, with fine group vocals, a baritone saxophone almost buried in the background, the flute/recorder/ocarina solo that seemed to be obligatory that season (e.g. “California Dreamin'” and the Troggs’ “Wild Thing”), a half-hidden reference to marijuana in the title and a tumbling, bewildering lyric: “And when the morning / Of the warning’s past / The gassed and flaccid kids / Are flung across the stars / The psychodramas and the traumas gone / The songs have all been sung/And hung upon the scars.” It was, I believe, the first time I had encountered the term “psychodrama”.

Tandyn Almer was born in Minneapolis in 1942, studied music there, spent his teenage years listening to John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, harboured ambitions to become a jazz pianist, and moved to California in the early 1960s, attending Los Angeles City College before striking out as a songwriter and record producer. He smoked dope, took acid, and became a member of the interesting clique that included Curt Boettcher (who arranged “Along Comes Mary”), Mason Williams, Van Dyke Parks, John Phillips and Brian Wilson, with whom he co-wrote “Marcella” for the Beach Boys’ Carl & The Passions — So Tough in 1972 and “Sail On, Sailor” for Holland the following year. He was a regular scenemaker at Doug Weston’s Troubadour club in West Hollywood and wrote and/or produced records with obscure outfits such as the Paper Fortress, the Garden Club and Pleasure.

Around the time of “Along Comes Mary” he was signed to a small LA publishing company, Davon Music, whose owner had demos of his compositions made by studio singers and musicians (a common practice in those days: remember those demos of songs by Nick Drake, John Martyn and Mike Heron made by the pre-fame Elton John at his publisher’s studio in 1968?). A number of the resulting tracks were compiled into an album to be sent to artists and producers who might have been interested in recording them. The output from that period has now been lovingly reassembled by Parke Puterbaugh, a former Rolling Stone journalist, and released by the Sundazed label, specialists in the “sunshine pop” of the middle and late ’60s. And the 15 songs on Along Comes Tandyn are enough to prompt a serious reassessment of the composer’s talent.

I don’t want to overrate Almer’s music by proclaiming it to be the fruit of genius, but it’s full of interest. His tunes are ingenious yet memorable, their structures quite intricate, and the lyrics are always literate and sometimes amusing in the rather fey manner of the time, frequently demonstrating an urge to break away from traditional pop themes: “psychodramas and traumas” indeed. The tumble of words in “Anything You Want” is strongly reminiscent of Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma”. “Victims of Chance” could have been recorded by Harpers Bizarre. “Where Will They Go” is a protest song in an style that might be called sunshine punk. At times there’s some sort of a coincidental affinity with the very early Pink Floyd, perhaps most obviously in the coyly titled “Alice Designs” (try saying it in an LA drawl). Even the inevitably anonymous — although generally adequate — contributions of the hired singers and backing musicians cannot dim the songs’ merits, although the one truly committed performance comes in the only non-demo, a version of the driving “Bring Your Own Self Down” released on the MGM label by the Purple Gang, an LA band. The most adventurous song of the set is the cool, jazzy “I Get High”, which is not unlike the Doors in “Riders on the Storm” mode and reverses Almer’s normal practice by using druggy terms to describe conventional emotions. The most ambitious is “Sunset Strip Soliloquy”, a Hollywood protest song in the form of a mid-tempo narrative ballad occupying the space between Dylan’s “Desolation Row”, P.F. Sloan’s “The Sins of the Family” and Sonny Bono’s “I Just Sit There”: not a bad place to be.

He left Los Angeles in the mid-’70s and disappeared to northern Virginia, where he seems to have spent the rest of his life. (Puterbaugh fills in as many biographical gaps as possible in his very comprehensive sleeve essay.) I followed an internet lead a few years ago — prompted, I think, by the Spectropop website — and found some very strange pages. His Wikipedia entry says that he invented a high-tech bong called the Slave-Master. At any rate, having given permission for these tracks to be assembled and released, and after a period of poor health, he died last January, aged 70. Maybe “Along Comes Mary”, “Marcella” and “Sail On, Sailor” — three exceptionally beautiful songs — will be enough for most people to remember him by. But the demos show that they were no accidents.

* The photograph of Tandyn Almer is taken from the cover of Along Comes Tandyn.

Bert Stern: an eye on jazz

Six weeks before Marilyn Monroe died in the summer of 1962, Bert Stern spent three days in a Los Angeles hotel room taking the photographs that will forever make it difficult to believe that the actress took her own life. Not surprisingly, it was the story of the Monroe sessions that led the obituaries marking his death last week, at the age of 83, such as this one in the New York Times and this one in the Guardian. And here I am, falling for the same temptation.

Four years earlier, however, Stern, then a top advertising photographer, had earned the permanent gratitude of jazz fans when he travelled to Rhode Island to record the Newport Jazz Festival for a feature film titled Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Thanks to him, and his co-director and editor Aram Avakian, we have a beautifully shot first-hand record of how Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Giuffre, Thelonious Monk, Mahalia Jackson and many others looked as well as sounded in performance at that point in their careers.

Most of the famous sequences from the film were shot during the hours of daylight, capturing the garden-party atmosphere of the early Newport festivals. That’s certainly what you get in the clip of Anita O’Day above. Look a bit harder on YouTube, however, and you’ll find a night-time sequence of the magnificent Big Maybelle, dressed as if for her own wedding, singing “I Ain’t Mad at You”, with a band led by Buck Clayton, who takes the trumpet solo. For some technical reason I can’t share it with you here, but a simple search should lead you to it. Better still, buy the whole thing on DVD, and say a little thank-you to the late Mr Stern.

La vida tombola

Manu ChaoDespite the urging of various friends, I came late to Manu Chao, and I’ve been trying to make up for it ever since. If I were my kids’ age, I probably wouldn’t have been listening to much else for the past decade. La Radiolina (2007) is one of my very favourite albums of recent years, songs such as “13 Dias” and “Besoin de la Lune” forming an endless source of energy-renewal. So I’m pleased to have been reading Peter Culshaw’s Clandestino, a biography of the singer who, more than anyone, accepted the responsibility of carrying the spirit of Bob Marley into a new century. It’s been telling me most of what I needed to know about the creator of a music that blends first world languages, third world rhythms, and a rebel soul also heavily influenced by the British punk movement of the late 70s.

Subtitled “In Search of Manu Chao”, the book (published by Serpent’s Tail) incorporates a full account of the subject’s life and career from his birth in a Paris suburb in 1961 as the son of Basque and Galician parents and his early life as a street kid through his early success with the band Manu Negra to his solo superstardom. The focus often shifts, however, to become the story of the author’s engagement with the artist and his music, which takes him around the world, from Algeria to Brazil to New York to Brixton, and through many encounters and conversations.

Culshaw never bothers to hide the fact that he is awestruck by Manu Chao, and I can’t find it in me to criticise him for that. His enthusiasm is so transparently genuine that it’s impossible to get too exasperated by paragraphs that begin like this: “I ring up Manu’s management in Paris to try and find out where Manu might be. No word. So I hole up on the beach for a few days, in a fishing village called Prea, a really tranquil place. It’s so beautiful that I feel the urge to express my gratitude to someone, and who better than the deities? Signs and portents seem to be everywhere…” He’s taking a gamble that this discursive approach will match the unstructured existence it describes, and he just about brings it off.

I’m not absolutely certain that Manu Chao’s “La Vida Tombola” (also from La Radiolina) is the best song ever written about a footballer, but I’d suggest that its only rival is Jorge Ben’s “Filho Maravilha”. Maybe that’s just another version of the endless Maradona v Pele debate: Argentina versus Brazil. One day I’ll have more to say about the great Jorge Ben. But here’s Manu Chao serenading the great albiceleste No 10 in person with the song he dedicated to him, in the poignant final scene from Emir Kusturica’s superb film titled Maradona, released in 2008. “If I were Maradona,” the lyric goes, “I’d live like him / A thousand fireworks, a thousand friends, and whatever happens at a thousand per cent / Life is a game of chance…” The subject of the song looks on, the hint of a smile on his lips giving no clue to the thoughts hidden behind his shades.

* The photograph of Manu Chao is taken from the cover of Proxima Estacion: Esperanza, his second solo album, released in 2001.