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Alone and palely strumming…

There they were, half a century ago, alone and palely loitering, with their long dark hair and their flares and their Martin guitars and their debut albums on Transatlantic, regulars at Les Cousins or the Troubadour, peering up from bottom of the bill at Implosion or next weekend’s rain-drenched festival, finding slots on Sounds of the ’70s and the Whistle Test, maybe even Top of the Pops if they struck lucky with the right song — a “Catch the Wind”, a “Baker Street”, a “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?”, a “Streets of London” or an “Alone Again (Naturally)”.

British male singer-songwriters mostly came out of the local folk scene, which seemed to imbue them with a leaning towards the wistfully romantic. Their American counterparts, springing from close exposure to the blues and bluegrass traditions, seemed more robust in temperament. The exception would be Paul Simon, who shared the British tendency to what it would be unkind to call feyness — but then he’d spent time playing the London folk clubs as part of his formative experience, soaking up the vibe.

There was more to them than that archetype, of course, and the whole genre is interestingly captured in Separate Paths Together, a new three-CD box subtitled “An Anthology of British Male Singer-Songwriters 1965-75”. Compiled and annotated by David Wells, it parades an extraordinary range of artists in solo guise. Most of the usual suspects are here: Al Stewart, Ralph McTell, John Martyn, Donovan. Others — Kevin Ayers, Peter Hammill, Richard Thompson, Jim Capaldi, Mike Heron, Gary Farr, Dave Cousins — had made their initial reputations as members of bands. Free-standing solo artists range from Pete Atkin, who came out of the Cambridge Footlights putting melodies to Clive James’s effortfully intricate lyrics (maybe the nearest thing ever devised to an English version of French chanson), to Peter Skellern, whose deceptively artless “Hold On To Love” still sounds like a great pop record,

Among my favourites are David McWilliams’s “Days of Pearly Spencer”, as enduringly perfect an evocation of 1967 and the days of pirate radio as could be imagined; Bert Jansch’s brief, unadorned “Tell Me What Is True Love”; Mike Cooper’s “Paper and Smoke”, with its fine horn arrangement; Andy Roberts’s warmly nostalgic “All Around My Grandfather’s Floor”, from a poem by his Liverpool Scene bandmate Mike Evans; and Murray Head’s “Say It Ain’t So, Joe” — a record that everyone at Island in 1975 expected to be a huge hit, but mystifyingly wasn’t.

The alone-and-palely-loitering archetype is particularly well represented by Keith Christmas’s diaphanous “The Fawn”, Dave Cartwright’s poised “Song to Susan” and Duncan Browne’s lovely “Journey”, which kicks off the whole collection and makes me regret a crudely dismissive review I gave him when he supported Lou Reed at the Sundown in Edmonton in 1972 (not the happiest of juxtapositions, it must be said, and I wasn’t much kinder to Lou). I’d offer an apology, but he died of cancer in 1993, aged 46.

The tracks I’ve mentioned are on the first two discs, where the genre is stretched to include something like the heavily arranged “Jesus Christ Junior” by Patrick Campbell-Lyons, a member of the original Nirvana. The third disc is largely devoted to also-rans (Bill Fay, Chris Baker, Paul Brett) and anomalies (Steve Gibbons, Jona Lewie, Crispian St Peters), including Mike Hart’s “Disbelief Blues”, a “Subterranean Homesick Blues” homage, and Al Jones’s extremely creepy “Jeffrey Don’t You Touch”, a clumsy portrayal of a sex abuser that wouldn’t get anywhere near the radio today.

The two most obvious omissions from the set’s 66 tracks represent the genre’s opposite poles: the introspection of Nick Drake and the extroversion of Elton John. I guess their absence is explained by permission issues. Cat Stevens isn’t represented, either. But you already know what they sounded like.

* Separate Paths Together is out now on Cherry Red’s Grapefruit Records label. The photograph is of Duncan Browne; perhaps someone out there can tell me who took it.

Behind the Curtain of Sound

“Too much reporting on the Wall of Sound this morning — #RememberTheVictim,” a Radio 4 listener tweeted today while Emma Barnett, the presenter of Woman’s Hour, was interviewing Mick Brown, one of Phil Spector’s biographers. The interview was, in any case, mostly about Lana Clarkson, the victim of the fatal shooting in the Pyrenees Castle in Los Angeles on February 3, 2003, and the darker sides of Spector’s character.

Fair enough. In the end, Clarkson’s death was why Spector made headlines throughout the last 18 years of his life. Whatever actually occurred in his mansion that night, the gun was his and if he had not persuaded her to go home with him then she would have woken up the next morning as usual. Probably she would still be alive today, approaching her 60th birthday.

There’s no shortage of figures in every branch of the arts whose private lives would be considered deplorable by a majority of people. Their admirers are left with the problem of how to deal with it. I can understand why some now find it impossible to listen to Spector’s records, although I don’t feel that way myself.

I met him four or five times in the early ’70s, mostly for interviews and once in New York for the three days in late 1971 during which he, John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” at the Record Plant. The most curious of those occasions was an evening in London at the Inn on the Park, a hotel at the bottom of Park Lane, where my friend Penny Valentine, then of Disc & Music Echo, and I were scheduled to share an hour of interview time with him. Two days earlier I’d interviewed his wife, Ronnie, at the same location; she was promoting the release of a single, “Try Some, Buy Some”, on the Apple label, written by George Harrison and produced by her husband.

The interview with Phil began in the late afternoon of an April day, at about five o’clock. We were met in the lobby and shown up to his suite by his long-serving bodyguard, George Brand, a large, dark-suited, near-silent former cop. If the curtains in the suite weren’t already closed, that’s certainly how it felt. Penny and I sat down and Phil began to talk: an almost unbroken monologue in which he told stories and boasted about the number of hits in which he’d played a vital but unacknowledged role. They included Richie Valens’s “Donna” and practically everything Elvis recorded after leaving the army. These claims were clearly baseless, although he did have a tenuous connection with both, just enough to make you wonder. “Donna” was recorded at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, where Spector refined his signature sound and recorded most of his hits. Elvis’s post-army recordings often involved input from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, to whom Spector was apprenticed when he moved to New York in 1960.

So…? But no. He had to have been fibbing, even though he had an acoustic guitar in his lap and every now and then played a snatch of a song he said he’d written. Why on earth would you need to do that, if you’d been responsible for “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, “Da Doo Ron Ron”, “Be My Baby”, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin'” and “River Deep — Mountain High”? Every now and then Penny and I glanced at each other in the near-darkness, silently registering a mutual astonishment.

But that wasn’t the strangest aspect of the encounter. The scheduled hour of our time together bled into a second hour, and then a third, entirely at Spector’s behest. He needed company, or so it seemed. At one stage he broke off to take a transatlantic call from Bundini Brown, Muhammad Ali’s cornerman. Then he went back to telling his tales.

I’ve no idea of exactly what time we managed to get away, but it was certainly late. Nothing remotely untoward happened — he was courteous and amusing and in most discernible respects it was a very civilised evening — but I got the impression that although Penny was as mesmerised as I was by his performance, she was grateful that we could leave together.

In later years I heard several such stories from people who had visited his LA mansion: descriptions of the darkness, of the obsessive need for company, of the increasing presence of bodyguards and the sense of paranoia it all conveyed. Some people thought he was an arrogant jerk. But I also spoke to people in the music business who’d known him for many years and liked him enormously despite all that. They were people like the veteran music publisher Paul Case, who befriended him on his arrival in New York and later told me the important story of how, when the teenaged Spector was doing a show with the Teddy Bears right at the beginning of his career, he was cornered in a restroom by four young toughs who urinated on him. Lou Adler met him in those days and thought him “obnoxious”; later they established a good rapport. He could be enormously sentimental, which is not always a good sign. And of course we eventually learnt from Ronnie’s autobiography what was going on behind the façade of his marriage, and what it was like being married to him.

Anyway, Gold Star may have been razed many years ago — the site on Santa Monica Blvd is now a parking lot for a mini-mall — but the Wall of Sound still stands, and despite it all I found myself listening to my favourite Spector productions after hearing of his death today. Here are five of them:

1 The Righteous Brothers: “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin'” (1964) Unmatchable, of course. Gene Page’s arrangement, Earl Palmer’s drums, the basses of Ray Pohlman (acoustic) and Carole Kaye (electric), the guitars of Barney Kessel and Tommy Tedesco, probably Julius Wechter on vibes, the Blossoms and Cher on backing vocals, and Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield tearing the heart out of the song Spector wrote with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and holding it up for our inspection. (It’s worth pointing out that Spector never just added his name to the songwriting credits to grab some extra cash; among his contributions to this one was the addition of the section based on the I-IV-V “La Bamba” chords.)

2 The Ronettes: “Born to Be Together” (1965) Maybe the most perfect representation of the Spector sound, its expression of romantic ecstasy enhanced by his favourite trick of recording the echo of the strings on a separate track and then using that instead of the primary signal, providing an ethereal effect above the boiling, pounding rhythm section and the chanting voices. This arrangement on this Spector-Mann-Weil song is by Jack “Specs” Nitzsche. The drums are by Hal Blaine.

3 The Crystals: “Oh Yeah Maybe Baby” (1961) The B-side of the first Crystals single, Philles 100, the glorious almost pure gospel “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)”. Recorded at Mirasound in New York, “Oh Yeah Maybe Baby” is a lovely slice of Brill Building teenage pop, set to the baion rhythm — bom bom-bom — loved by Mike Stoller, Bert Berns and others: “Got the heebie jeebies, got the shakes / And I’ve got a funny feeling that you’ve got just what it takes…” Co-written by Hank Hunter, with whom Phil also composed “Second Hand Love” for Connie Francis. Laura Nyro loved this one enough to include it in her solo shows.

4 Ike & Tina Turner: “I’ll Never Need More Than This” (1967) The last but one Philles single, co-written with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, given only a limited US release after the failure of “River Deep”. Arranged by Jack Nitzsche and perhaps the most tumultuous of all Spector’s recordings: the sound of thunderbolts, crashing ocean waves, cliffs crumbling into valleys, with Tina as the lone figure in this Caspar David Friedrich landscape.

5 Darlene Love: “Lord, If You’re a Woman” (1977) A short-lived comeback with his new label — Warner-Spector in the US, Phil Spector International in the UK — and two classic 45s, both calling on the Almighty for assistance: Dion’s “Make the Woman Love Me” and this astonishing thing, an extraordinary concatention of noise arranged by Nino Tempo. A song that could almost be mistaken for a feminist anthem is credited on the UK 45 to “Spector”. The US version credits it to “Mann-Weil”. The riff on the bridge, from “Then He Kissed Me”, has only one author. And Love, who had provided the uncredited lead vocal on the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” in 1963, returned as a star in her own right. (In 1993 she sued Spector for unpaid royalties and was awarded a quarter of a million dollars; did she think fondly of him every time she was invited to perform “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” for David Letterman on TV, or revived it at her own annual holiday-time show? Mixed feelings, I expect, like most of us.)

* My biography of Phil Spector, titled Out of His Head and first published in 1972, was revised, updated and republished in paperback in 2003 by Omnibus Press.

A record shop life

 

Going for a Song

The history of the British music scene from the 1950s onwards can be told through the story of the nation’s record shops, which is exactly what Garth Cartwright does in Going for a Song, his newly published survey of the retail outlets that drew fans and musicians to their specialist stock and thereby shaped the evolution of the music in all its forms.

Whether it was John Mayall buying blues 78s at a shop in Manchester’s Marsden Square, David Bowie buying Bob Dylan’s first album in the folk department of Dobell’s on Charing Cross Road, Mick Taylor buying B. B. King’s Live at the Regal at Transat Imports in a basement on Lisle Street, or Joe Strummer hearing Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac” at Ted Carroll’s original Rock On stall in the Golborne Road market, these were the places where enthusiasms were incubated and encouraged.

For a few months in 1964-65 I had a Saturday job in the basement record department of a TV rental shop in central Nottingham, using the shop’s main deck to listen to imported Blue Note albums which I’d been allowed to order but no one wanted to buy (that Christmas, Jim Reeves was outselling Eric Dolphy by about 1,000 to one). But the places I haunted as a customer were a second-hand stall in the covered market, where I bought my first jazz LPs from a rather doleful man who travelled in each day from Grantham, and a West Indian record shop near the bus station, where the sleeve of Jimmy McGriff’s I Got a Woman hung in the window and they stocked Prince Buster 45s on the Blue Beat label.

Those are the things that stay with you. On trips to London I bought an imported Mar-Keys 45 on Stax at Transat, My Name Is Albert Ayler at Dobell’s and an album by Shinichi Yuize, the koto master, at the achingly cool One Stop on South Molton Street. After I’d moved to London I spent more hours at Collet’s on New Oxford Street (run by Ray Smith and Gill Cook) than anywhere else, with occasional trips to Golborne Road and to Peckings’ tiny Studio 1 ska shop in Askew Road, Shepherds Bush. Nowadays it’s mostly the excellent Ray’s Jazz Shop in Foyle’s, sometimes Sister Ray in Berwick Street and Sounds of the Universe on Broadwick Street, and occasionally — not often enough — Honest Jon’s on Portobello Road.

I miss the little independent soul and oldies shops clustered in Hanway Street, a doglegged alley off Oxford Street, and, at the other end of the scale, Tower Records on Piccadilly Circus, with its amazing stock: the primary haunt of what David Hepworth named “the 50 quid man”, the sort of consumer who — growing into middle age with a bit of disposable income — would drop in for a new CD and pick up a couple more that filled gaps in his collection. I miss Dobell’s and James Asman’s on New Row for their sometimes cranky character. In New York I miss Village Oldies, later Bleecker Bob’s; the fabulous Colony Records on the corner of Broadway and West 52nd Street, which closed in 2012 after 64 years; and a more recent casualty, the adventurous Other Music on East 4th Street.

A great record shop sometimes requires a form of negotiation that doesn’t apply widely in the world of retail: the need for customers to prove themselves worthy of making a purchase. The first time I encountered that phenomenon was in Dobell’s, when I bought the Ayler album and was brusquely informed by a tall man with a beard that “the guy can’t play”. That was 50-odd years ago. The most recent time was last year, in House of Oldies on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village, where I kept my head down while the owner frightened off a customer who had bothered him with requests that revealed what he clearly saw as an unacceptable ignorance of doo-wop music.

One of the most memorable record-store visits, back in 1970, was to the great R&B producer Bobby Robinson’s shop at its original location on 125th Street and 8th Avenue in Harlem, opposite the Apollo Theatre. Charlie Gillett and I spotted the dust-covered boxes of 78s on high shelves, undisturbed for more than a decade. Another was to buy Northern Soul singles at Selectadisc on Arkwright Street in Nottingham — a street of vibrant working-class character since completed obliterated by urban development — and being transfixed by the beauty of the proprietor’s wife while handing over the cash for bootlegged copies of the Fuller Brothers’ “Time’s A Wasting” and Moses Smith’s “The Girl Across the Street” at the urging of my pal Dave Milton, who ran his own shop in Derby.

I could go on. Couldn’t we all, when it comes to record shops? More to the point, Garth Cartwright’s book is a wonderful guide to many of the places I’ve mentioned, and to the the people who brought them to life, from such well known figures as Doug Dobell, Ted Carroll and Geoff Travis to the more obscure characters like the Levy family of Whitechapel, Lee Gopthal of Musicland, Rita and Benny Isen of R&B Records in Stamford Hill, Laurie Krieger of Harlequin, Barry Class of the Disci chain and the mysterious Brian Abrams, whom I first encountered at his original Record & Tape Exchange in the Goldhawk Road in 1970, when he was on his way to creating a little empire based on eccentric employment policies and journalists’ review copies.

Cartwright goes right back to 1894 and the opening in Cardiff of Spillers, which survives today as the world’s oldest record shop, and tells the stories of projects that had a significant lifespan, like HMV and Virgin, and those that didn’t, like the Vogue label’s record shop on Charing Cross Road and the Chelsea Drugstore on the King’s Road. He goes outside London to include much-loved places such as the Epstein family’s NEMS emporium in Liverpool, Birmingham’s Diskery, Pete Russell’s Hot Record Store in Plymouth, Barry’s Record Rendezvous in Manchester and Eric Rose’s Music Inn in Nottingham, which hopes to celebrate its centenary next year. He’s done his research and talked to lots of people, both surviving proprietors and their customers (which makes me wish the book had an index).

At the end of Cartwright’s engrossing and hugely valuable survey we arrive at the rather less optimistic era of the vinyl revival and the annual Record Store Day, which the author views with a degree of scepticism. As he points out, the number of independent record shops in Britain tumbled from 948 to 408 between 2003 and 2007, and the recovery is struggling to stabilise itself. But as long as recorded music is available in a physical form there will be successors to those who helped so many of us to follow our ears wherever they led. They deserve this fine book.

* Going for a Song is published by Flood Gallery (£12.99).

R&B in Chinatown

Mar-Keys 1The next piece of central London to be threatened by homogenisation and/or development, according to last Sunday’s Observer, is Chinatown. It’s a small area bounded by Gerrard Street to the north, a short section of Wardour Street to the west (including the bit that once housed the Flamingo), Lisle Street to the south and Newport Place to the east. The original Ronnie Scott’s Club was housed from 1959 to 1965 in the basement of 39 Gerrard Street; after the move to Wardour Street, it was kept open for a while as the Old Place.

My fondest memory of Chinatown comes from the time when Lisle Street still mostly consisted of shops selling electrical equipment. In the 1970s it would become — and still is — the location of restaurants favoured by those who were really knowledgeable about Chinese food and followed the best chefs from kitchen to kitchen. But in the mid-’60s the basement of No 27 opened on Saturday mornings to sell American soul and R&B records.

The shop was called Transat Imports, and there are some nice reminiscences of it here on the British Record Shop Archive. You have to remember that back then British fans of black American popular music still felt like members of a secret society. On a visit in 1964, during a day trip down to London, I remember seeing boxes full of stuff I wanted so badly that I could hardly breathe. I could only afford one 45, so I bought the Mar-Keys’ “Bush Bash”.

Following their huge success with “Last Night” in 1961, the Mar-Keys had stopped having hits, which meant that “Bush Bash” was unlikely to get a British release. That’s almost certainly why I chose it. It’s a minor but nevertheless snappy example of how good the Stax rhythm section (the MGs) and their friends sounded, with a particularly crisp Latin beat from Al Jackson Jr’s drums. There’s a short but pungently soulful tenor saxophone solo — probably by Gilbert Caple, who is listed as a co-writer, along with Booker T. Jones and Floyd Newman, who more usually played tenor but is probably on baritone on this tune.

(Three years earlier Caple and Newman, who were friends, had come up with the riff for “Last Night”, Stax’s first big hit and one of the all-time great instrumentals, but found themselves sharing the publishing with three others, including the producer and the record company owner’s son. When a band called the Mar-Keys went out on the road to promote it, neither of them was included. “I never thought that fair, not at all,” Newman said in Respect Yourself, Robert Gordon’s history of Stax, “because Gilbert and I was a part of that group, but we were black.”)

Maybe “Bush Bash” wasn’t the best record I bought in 1964, which was, after all, a very good year. But I liked it enough — and the memory of visiting Transat Imports — to have kept it with me all these years, in its original brown paper sleeve, just the way it came from the US.