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Posts from the ‘Folk-rock’ Category

Those hard luck stories

Two sides to every story, right? In one of the essays accompanying the wonderful new eight-CD reissue of the collected works of Richard and Linda Thompson, Richard suggests that the indifferent commercial performance of I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight — the first of their six studio albums — in 1974 could be ascribed to Island’s A&R department, which didn’t know how to categorise them. “They didn’t understand Sandy (Denny), and they didn’t understand Nick Drake,” he says. “I think we were slightly marginalised — what genre is this? Where does it go in the record shop?” Here’s my side of the story.

After I joined Island as head of A&R in the autumn of 1973, one of the first things I did was ask around to find out what Richard was doing. I knew that Henry the Human Fly, his solo album, had been poorly received and sold badly. I also knew that I loved his guitar playing. In reply to my inquiries, I was told that Richard had since made another album, this one with his wife, Linda. The finished tapes had been played to my predecessor, who hadn’t been impressed. That had been some months ago.

My response was to get in touch with John Wood, who had engineered and co-produced the album with Richard at his Sound Techniques studio in Chelsea. John brought in the tapes for me to hear. I was hooked from the first skirl of the Stratocaster on the intro to “When I Get to the Border” , the opening track. The whole album sounded like a coherent and finished statement in a way that Henry hadn’t been, and it seemed obvious that it should be released as soon as possible.

The next step was to play it to the company, meaning the managing director, marketing director, promotion manager, sales manager and press officer. Their enthusiasm was unanimous. Richard was one of the group of Witchseason artists bequeathed to Island when Joe Boyd, who had nurtured them, left London to make movies in Los Angeles just before I joined. They were assets who inspired warmth (in the case of Sandy Denny, for instance) and respect (in the case of Nick Drake, who had already more or less withdrawn from the music world).

Vinyl was in short supply that winter as a result of the oil crisis, but Richard and Linda’s album was scheduled for release in April 1974 and its appearance was accompanied by the best efforts of all the relevant departments. Some people felt that the title track stood a chance of making a hit single, so it was duly released as a 45 and got some play. No one was discouraged when neither the album nor the single went double-platinum. The foundations of something worthwhile seemed to have been laid.

Then Richard came in and told me that he’d asked Jo Lustig to manage them. I knew Jo, who’d begun his career as a press agent on Broadway for Nat King Cole, the Weavers and the Newport Jazz Festival in the ’50s; he was old-school, and most relationships with him featured a phone-melting harangue at some stage. I was a bit surprised that Richard had approached him, but I knew that he got things done and that he’d done a good job for other folk crossover artists, including Julie Felix and Steeleye Span.

The problems began when Richard and Linda became affiliated to a Sufi community based in a squat on a stucco terrace in Maida Vale. Nothing wrong with that, of course. They delivered a second album, Hokey Pokey, which I didn’t care for as much as Bright Lights, but the same effort went into its release, and they were given a support slot on a Traffic tour, which was not small potatoes at the time. The third album, Pour Down Like Silver, was and remains an austere masterpiece: how many albums contain songs as great as “Beat the Retreat”, “Dimming of the Day” and “Night Comes In”? But it didn’t connect with a wider audience, perhaps because to new listeners that austerity would seem like dourness.

They went on the road with a band completed by the accordionist John Kirkpatrick, the bass guitarist Dave Pegg and the drummer Dave Mattacks: an ace line-up, and a perfectly integrated unit with its own sound. John Wood went to Oxford to record them live, and I used the epic versions of “Calvary Cross” and “Night Comes In” from that concert on a double album I compiled with John’s help and advice, rather eccentrically titled (guitar, vocal) and intended to refocus the public’s attention on Richard’s talents. For me, its other highlight was Linda’s delivery of a much stronger version of Richard’s great song “A Heart Needs a Home” than the one that had appeared on Hokey Pokey.

I left Island at that point, sometime in 1976, and a year or so later, after some seemingly unsuccessful attempts to incorporate Sufism into their music, Island dropped them. I don’t know the details of that, but I do know that they were so deeply into their faith that they’d moved to a community in East Anglia and Richard had given up playing the electric guitar, which I have to say didn’t seem like a very good idea. When they re-emerged, a year or so later, Lustig signed them to Chrysalis, where he’d had success with Steeleye, and the search a broader audience began again. The two albums they made for the label, First Light and Sunnyvista, now sound in parts like an attempt to turn them into Fleetwood Mac, which they were never going to be. But there are some good songs there — and in “Lonely Hearts”, on Sunnyvista, one of their greatest ballads, exquisitely delivered . What you can hear from the tracks included from the 1980 sessions produced by their friend Gerry Rafferty is that soft-focus AOR-style production did them no favours at all. Finally they returned to Joe Boyd, for whose Hannibal label they recorded the much crisper Shoot Out the Lights, which became — unintentionally, according to Richard — the soundtrack to their disintegrating marriage.

Hard Luck Stories is the title of the box set, and I suppose it reflects the feeling that some mysterious twist of fate prevented Richard and Linda from finding the audience they deserved. The six albums are all there, with various outtakes and demos and live versions, nicely packed with extensive (albeit poorly copy-edited) background essays. Two discs are devoted entirely to other material: the first to pre-R&LT tracks, such as the rock and roll revivals of the Bunch (with Linda and Sandy singing “When Will I Be Loved”) and a collaboration with the poet Brian Patten, the second to live material from the mid-’70s. It’s on the second that I found the biggest surprise: five long tracks recorded live at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane for a Capital Radio broadcast in 1977, featuring Richard and Linda with a band of mostly Sufi friends: Abdul Latif (Ian) Whiteman and Haj Amin (Mike) Evans, both formerly of Mighty Baby, on electric piano and and bass guitar respectively, and Abdul-Jabbar (Paul) Pickstock on percussion, plus Preston Hayman, a useful drummer whom I remember joining the Brand X sessions alongside Phil Collins at Island at the start of his long career as a session musician.

What these tracks show is that Richard was on to something when he tried to blend folk-rock with Sufism, locating common ground between the two in the drones and modal structures that underpin the lengthy explorations of songs like “Layla” and “The Madness of Love”, and an excellent version of “Night Comes In” with Linda taking the lead vocal. “A Bird in God’s Garden” has a lyric adapted from the poet Rumi, delivered in beautifully layered three-part harmony by Linda, Richard and Whiteman, developing into a extended but never self-indulgent jam and coming back to the song before finding its resolution with a perfect sense of architecture. Richard later re-recorded it with Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser and John French, but the nine-minute version here is one of the loveliest things I’ve heard this year, almost worth the price of the box set by itself. It certainly makes you wonder what might have been, and in my case it makes me wonder what I might have done better.

* Richard and Linda Thompson’s Hard Luck Stories 1972-1982 was compiled by Andrew Batt and is released by Universal Music. The photograph is from an early Island Records publicity shoot.

** The original version of this post had Richard re-recording “A Bird in God’s Garden” with a group including Mayo Thompson. For some reason I’d included his name instead of that of John “Drumbo” French. Thanks to those who pointed out this episode of brain-fade.

‘Echo in the Canyon’

Laurel_Canyon-3

There’s a lot to like about Echo in the Canyon, a new 90-minute documentary about the Laurel Canyon music scene in the mid- to late-’60s, directed by Andrew Slater. One asset is the constant presence of Jakob Dylan, who has been silent as a recording artist for several years but here proves to be a sensitive interviewer and performer. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that someone who’s grown up as the son of Bob Dylan isn’t sycophantic towards his celebrated interviewees, but his thoughtful silences are often expressive — they give us, too, the chance to think.

It’s an unusual film in that its framing device is the assembling of a group of musicians, led by Dylan, to perform in concert the songs of the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, and Buffalo Springfield. Dylan’s on-stage guests include Regina Spektor, Beck and Fiona Apple — and, I guess, the members of his band, the Wallflowers. Those he interviews include Roger McGuinn, Brian Wilson, Michelle Phillips, Lou Adler, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, John Sebastian, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. There are lots of archive clips, many of them cherishable.

The real focus is very specific. It’s the moment folk music and rock music merged in the Byrds’ version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man”. Specifically, it’s the moment Roger (then known as Jim) McGuinn got hold of a 12-string Rickenbacker — the second to be produced, we learn — and constructed that famous introduction, which echoed the “jingle-jangle” of the lyric and became a genre in itself, working its way through Tom Petty and ending up as power-pop.

A lot is made of the influence of the Beatles on this movement, quite correctly, and also of the way the Byrds’ early records influenced George Harrison to write “If I Needed Someone”. Personally I think they should have given considerable credit to the Searchers’ versions of Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono’s “Needles and Pins” and Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk in the Room”, which came out in 1964 and predicted the jingle-jangle sound with great precision. Also, given Nash’s presence, some mention should have been made of the Hollies’ influence.

But then David Crosby doesn’t think much of the pop music that came before… well, before David Crosby. It was, he says, all “moon-and-june and baby-I-love-you”. Oh, right. “I close my eyes for a second and pretend it’s me you want / Meanwhile I try to act so nonchalant.” That’s not poetry, huh? Sure, “To dance beneath the diamond sky / With one hand waving free / Silhouetted by the sea” is poetry, too. Ah well. Tutto fa brodo, as they say.

Having read two biographies of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young for a Guardian review last year, my appetite for stories of internecine warfare in the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield is pretty well sated, and nothing uttered here adds interesting detail or insight. It’s nice to see Brian Wilson and to hear Michelle Phillips, and Petty’s conversation with Dylan in a guitar shop is apparently the last interview he gave before his death in 2017. But anyone expecting this to be the story of the Laurel Canyon of Joni Mitchell and James Taylor will be disappointed, which makes the presence of Jackson Browne puzzling: he talks well, of course, but really had nothing to do with what the film is talking about.

Apparently Slater was inspired to make the documentary by seeing Jacques Demy’s 1968 film Model Shop, set in Hollywood and starring Anouk Aimée and Gary Lockwood, with a soundtrack by Spirit (who, like Love and the Doors, are never mentioned). I’ve never seen it, but the clips we’re shown certainly make me want to rectify that omission. The director tries to recreate that lost vibe as Dylan cruises the boulevards and wanders from one legendary studio to another: United and Western (now merged), Capitol… not Gold Star, of course, demolished many years ago. The use of Laurel Canyon itself is disappointing: I wanted get more of a sense of the topography and to see the houses where these people lived and (in every sense) played.

Some of the newly performed music is enjoyable, although the chopped-up editing can be frustrating, and having Stills and Clapton perform a guitar duel in studios on different continents wasn’t really a very good idea at all. The best comes at the end: a sensitive version of “Expecting to Fly” is the finale, preceded by Dylan and Beck duetting quite beautifully in front of their band on the Byrds’ arrangement of Goffin and King’s “Goin’ Back”. “A little bit of courage is all we lack / So catch me if you can / …” It made me stand up, grab the nearest air guitar, and find a harmony to sing. And that doesn’t happen every day, I can tell you.

* Echo in the Canyon is on Amazon Prime. The photograph is taken from the Laurel Canyon Radio website: http://www.laurelcanyonradio.com/view-from-laurel-canyon/

The Weather Station in Islington

The Weather Station in IslingtonA few hours ahead of her gig with her band, the Weather Station, at the Lexington pub in Islington last night, the Canadian singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman tweeted a photograph she’d taken during a walk along the nearby Regent’s Canal. “Sandy Denny in headphones,” she added. Sandy would have been pleased by the compliment and intrigued by her admirer’s performance, and in particular by the way Lindeman managed to make the 50-year-old concept of folk-rock sound brand new.

The Weather Station’s new self-titled album embraces electric guitars in a characteristically modest and subtle way. Lindeman took the stage at a sold-out Lexington with the lead guitarist (and occasional organist) Will Kidman, the bass guitarist Ben Whiteley, and the drummer Erik Heestermans, and made the relatively new approach sound like the most natural thing in the world.

Perhaps the key was her rhythm guitar playing, the core of the sound, the central strum and the enunciator of chord patterns that move between the comfortingly familiar and the ear-teasingly sophisticated, unpushy but generating real momentum behind melodies that are liable to soar at unexpected moments. The other instruments arranged themselves around her with discreet sensitivity, leaving plenty of space for us to appreciate the care with which she modulates her tone and enunciates her extraordinary lines.

There were lots of songs from her last two albums, among them “Way It Is, Way It Could Be”, “I Mined”, “Floodplain”, “Tapes”, “I Could Only Stand By” and “Impossible” (with organ drone and galloping tom-toms) from Loyalty and “Free”, “Thirty”, “Kept It All to Myself”, “Black Flies” and “You and I (On the Other Side of the World)” from the new one. A short central solo acoustic segment expanded to a duo when she was joined for one song by Will Stratton, the American singer-songwriter who had provided a pleasant support set.

What was interesting about seeing her live was the way her lyrics were given, if anything, even greater value. Some of these songs are like the deepest conversations you ever had with someone you care about — and very often they’re like things that were formulated but somehow never got said. On the faster songs she piles lines on top of each other to create a river of thought and feeling. And none of the nuances are lost when she sings them with a band in front of an audience.

Lindeman doesn’t do stage dramatics or ingratiation. When a song ends (and her endings, whether abrupt or lingering, are always worth attention), she tends to make no acknowledgment of applause but goes straight into adjusting her tuning for the next song. Yet there’s no distance between her and her listeners. Although her spoken comments tend to be restricted to dry asides, she radiates a warm intelligence; her fleeting changes of expression — a grimace at a fluffed entrance, a small and mysterious smile now and then — say most of what she needs to convey. By the end of the evening I don’t suppose there was a man or a woman in the place who wasn’t a bit in love with her.

* The Weather Station play tonight (October 24) in the Eagle Inn, Salford and tomorrow at the Music’s Not Dead record shop in Bexhill on Sea (free, 7pm). They’ll be back for another UK tour in January and February. The new album is on the Paradise of Bachelors label.

The Judas thing

Bob Dylan 1966I suppose I’ve always thought of the man who shouted “Judas!” at Bob Dylan in Manchester in 1966 as a dull-witted denier of truth and progress. To my astonishment, however, after spending the last couple of months listening, on and off, to the 36-disc box of the surviving music from that tour, I’ve come to see things a little differently.

According to researches by Andy Kershaw and C. P. Lee, the Judas man was a Manchester law student named John Cordwell. His interjection was the most prominent and celebrated of the many voiced in disapproval of Dylan’s alliance with Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Mickey Jones during the second half of each show, most of which featured a between-songs commentary of grumbles and shouts and whistles, occasionally luring the singer into responses that ranged from the wry to the exasperated.

Of course, the music they played after the interval was head-spinning, earth-shaking and world-changing, fuelled to a greater and greater extent as the tour went on by anger at the pincer attack from a combative Fleet Street on the one hand and outraged folk purists on the other. But after listening to many of these concerts, it’s hard to avoid the somewhat heretical conclusion that the finest and most enduring music came in the first half.

If he was feeling impatient to get to the second half and the revolutionary music he’d been concocting with his new friends, it never shows. The seven songs making up the basic acoustic set — “She Belongs to Me”, “Fourth Time Around”, “Visions of Johanna”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Desolation Row”, “Just Like a Woman” and “Mr Tambourine Man” — receive a high degree of care and attention. The approach each night depends on the condition in which Dylan takes the stage, but the performances are never less than nuanced and fascinatingly varied. I could listen to every one of these versions of “Visions of Johanna” end to end without wearying of the experience. And apart from the voice, there’s the harmonica: which, in 1965/66, he was playing with a much underrated inventiveness and a powerful interest in developing the architecture of a solo.

Some of these concerts — like those at the Sheffield Gaumont and Birmingham Odeon, or the first Albert Hall show — find him in pristine form, honouring these songs with great concentration and spellbinding delicacy. Elsewhere his altered consciousness, shall we say, makes itself evident in a looser approach to the songs’ contours and details, producing results sometimes even more compelling than the more faithful treatments. The Olympia music hall in Paris and the second Albert Hall concert are particularly striking examples.

By no coincidence at all, these are the shows on which he spends most time responding to the audience. When he’s whistled for taking forever to tune his guitar before “Desolation Row” in Paris, for instance: “I’m doing this (tuning up) for you. I don’t care. If you want to hear it that way, I’ll play it that way.” And, as the noises of restlessness continue: “You just can’t wait. You have to go to work at 10 o’clock? Oh, it’s a drag for me, too, y’know. But that’s folk music for you. Folk music, it does this all the time.” And then: “Oh, come on now, I wouldn’t behave like this if I came to see you…” (It’s his 25th birthday, and Françoise Hardy is in the audience.)

It seems to me that the record company has made a mistake by issuing the first Albert Hall show as a stand-alone two-CD set. It’s beautiful, of course, and relatively unblemished by the sounds of a disputatious audience. But the second London concert was what the legend of this tour was all about: full-on music, full-on conflict, everything on the brink of falling apart, Dylan stoned to the gills and taking a last chance to harangue the dissenters during the final date of a psychologically gruelling tour, During a four-minute monologue between “Tell Me Momma” and “I Don’t Believe You”, he says this:

I love England, I like it a lot (sniggers), but we did all this in the States from September on, and we’ve all been playing this music since we were 10 years old, and folk music just happens to be a thing which interrupted … which was very useful, you know … but frankly the rock and roll thing in the United States was (sniggers) … forgive me … forgive me … Anything I sing now, don’t hold against me … I realise it’s loud music and all that kind of thing, but if you don’t like it, that’s fine. If you’ve got some improvements you could make on it, that’s great. But the thing is, it is not English music you’re listening to. It’s a shame that we’re here now and it might sound like English music to you, if you haven’t really heard American music before, but the music is-a, is-a, is-a … (laughter) … I would never venture to say what it is. 

Quite. But I find myself thinking about people listening to Bob Dylan in, say, 50 years’ time, and wondering what it is they’ll be listening to, which of the many Dylans will have survived the years. The one who sang “Like a Rolling Stone”, no doubt. But maybe the acoustic songs, where his wisdom and subtlety as a writer and performer are most in evidence, are the ones that will turn out to have the real staying power: “Johanna”, “Tambourine Man”, “Baby Blue”, “Don’t Think Twice”, “Desolation Row”, “It’s Alright, Ma”, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and the rest (among which we’d have to include “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Shelter From the Storm”).

The tumultuous music he made with the Hawks in 1966 enriched the culture and was perfect for its historical moment. But perhaps that shout of “Judas!” was not quite as wrong-headed as it seemed.

* Please don’t mistake this for a review of Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings. Somebody else can take that on. The photograph is a still from the unreleased film of the tour shot by D. A. Pennebaker.

P.F. Sloan 1945-2015

P.F. Sloan 2The songwriter P.F. Sloan died this week, aged 70. More than 40 years ago, the record producer Lou Adler told me a story about him that still makes me smile, even though it had the polish of a tale that had been told many times and perhaps enhanced by the process of repetition.

It was in 1964 that Adler had signed the teenaged Sloan to his publishing company, along with his writing partner, Steve Barri. The duo’s early pop hits included “Secret Agent Man” for Johnny Rivers, “Summer Means Fun” for Bruce (Johnson) and Terry (Melcher), and “A Must to Avoid” for Herman’s Hermits.

But Adler had a new idea. He’d noted Bob Dylan’s growing celebrity and thought that Sloan might have potential in that direction. One day in 1965, he told me, he gave the 19-year-old a corduroy cap, an acoustic guitar and a copy of Dylan’s most recent album, shut him in a room — it might even have been a bungalow at the Beverly Hills hotel — for a weekend, and told him to write some songs. When Sloan emerged, it was with “Eve of Destruction”. After Barri had added a couple of lines (to be precise: “You may leave here for four days in space / But when you return it’s the same old place,” he told the New York Times‘s obituaries writer this week), it was ready for its destiny as a worldwide hit for Barry McGuire.

Sloan quickly came up with other soft-protest folk-rock songs, including “The Sins of a Family”, which became his own single, “Leave Me Be” for the Turtles, and “Take Me For What I’m Worth” for the Searchers. But after he returned from a trip to London with McGuire, during which they both appeared on Top of the Pops, Barri noted a change. “When he came back he was never really the same person,” he told Richard Cromelin of the LA Times. “There was no more joking around. Everything was very serious, and he was angry. After a while he just broke off all relationships with everybody and we lost contact for many, many years.”

Those lost years, which included addiction and mental illness, prompted Jimmy Webb to write “P.F. Sloan” in 1970. Sloan had re-emerged long before Rumer covered Webb’s song a couple of years ago, and in 2006 he re-recorded the biggest hit from his catalogue as part of an album for the Hightone label, produced by Jon Tiven. It’s a wonderful version, making “Eve of Destruction” sound like the serious song the 19-year-old composer had probably intended it to be. Here he is that year, performing the song in a Los Angeles club.

His original demo is on an album called Here’s Where I Belong, a selection of his recordings for Adler’s Dunhill label between 1965 and 1967, compiled by Tim Forster for Ace’s Big Beat label. As well as the better known songs, it reveals gems — previously unknown to me — like “From a Distance” and “I Can’t Help But Wonder, Elizabeth”, which he released under the name Philip Sloan. There’s also an album in Ace’s songwriters series devoted to the songs of Sloan and Barri. It’s called You Baby and it features, among many other goodies, the Mamas and the Papas’ version of the title track. Sloan had played one of the two acoustic guitars on intro to their “California Dreamin'”: another decent claim to immortality.

* The photograph of P.F Sloan is from the cover of Here’s Where I Belong, released in 2008.