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Posts from the ‘Pop music’ Category

Peter Hammill in lockdown

Some time in the future, academics will pore over the ways people found to make music despite the restrictions imposed during the various lockdowns. But there are things that don’t need the benefit of time to provide perspective. The knowledge that Peter Hammill’s In Translation was created in cruel and unusual circumstances may increase his listeners’ admiration, but its quality transcends such considerations.

Coming 50 years after the release of his first solo release, Fool’s Mate, in the summer of 1971, this is Hammill’s covers album, with a difference. Only three of the songs — “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”, “This Nearly Was Mine” and “I (Who Have Nothing)” — are likely to be well known to the Anglophone audience. The remainder are either Italian pop songs or melodies by classical composers with lyrics translated by Hammill. It’s the measure of the strength of his artistic character that the whole thing has the unity of a song cycle.

Working in his Wiltshire studio, he weaves his own guitars and keyboards together with samples to create orchestrations that are full of interesting textures — complementary and contrasting — while retaining a sense of economy and intimacy, finding common ground between material plucked from seemingly divergent sources. Perhaps the best way of putting it is that he creates a emotional microclimate within which songs as different as “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and Gustav Mahler’s “Lost to the World” can thrive together.

Hammill’s vocal style, with its clear diction, complete absence of blues inflections and occasional use of a pronounced vibrato, has always emphasised the closeness of his music’s spirit to that of European art song, from the Weimar cabaret music of Kurt Weill to the chanson of Jacques Brel, filtered through the sensibility of British musicians who served their apprenticeships in the second half of the 1960s. You can hear this tendency at its most declamatory on “Ballad for My Death”, whose melody is by the tango master Astor Piazzolla but could easily be by Brel. Hammill dials back the drama on other songs, such as Fabrizio de Andre’s “Hotel Supramonte” and Gabriel Fauré’s “After a Dream”, that might have been submerged by similar treatment.

“The Folks” and “This Nearly” are songs he grew up with, so he’s not going to poke fun at their 1950s sentiments. He takes them seriously, delivering them in his ardent English semi-croon, relishing their shapely contours and allowing listeners to make up their own minds about what the lyrics represent. “I (Who Have Nothing)” comes with drama built in: you either sing it that way or you don’t sing it at all, and Hammill’s version adds a shadow second vocal to emphasise what he calls the song’s “somewhat creepy nature”, as well as the hallucinatory sound of a mellotron (I think) and a paranoid electric guitar.

Perhaps the most striking arrangement of all is provided for Piero Ciampi’s “Il Vino”, a late-night drinking song that sways to synthesised strings, a cheap organ and glockenspiel. Its finale reminded Hammill of Nino Rota and thus of a “Fellini-esque aesthetic” which, he thinks, suffuses the whole project.

In Translation is an exceptional album: warm, approachable, and betraying no sense of the isolation in which it was created. Rather the reverse, as Hammill suggests when, in his notes, he remarks that, as well as the coronovirus, he had Brexit on his mind while he was making it. “Now the free travel around Europe which has been such a feature, pleasure and education in my adult life has ended,” he writes, “and all the benefits of cultural exchange are gone with it. I wouldn’t have been able to approach or understand many of these songs without that experience and to lose it is piteous.” It’s hard to believe that one day, when our corner of the world has come to its senses, those borders will not be open again.

* Peter Hammill’s In Translation is released today on the Fie! label: http://www.sofasound.com. The photograph is from the album cover and was taken by James Sharrock.

The arts of Bob Crewe

Perhaps the greatest week of Bob Crewe’s life was the one in 1975 when Frankie Valli’s “My Eyes Adored You”, which he had produced and co-composed with Kenny Nolan, fell from the No 1 position in the Billboard Hot 100 and was immediately replaced by Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade”, which he and Nolan had also written together.

Or perhaps it wasn’t. Maybe it was the one in 1994 when the first retrospective show of his paintings and mixed-media artworks opened at a gallery in West Hollywood, after he had left the music business behind and climbed out of the valley into which his addictions had led him.

Crewe must have had a lot of great weeks in his life, as the man whose credits as a co-writer and/or producer, running all the way from doo-wop to disco, included the Rays’ “Silhouettes”, Diane Renay’s “Navy Blue”, Freddy Cannon’s “Tallahassie Lassie”, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels’ “Jenny Take a Ride/See See Rider”, Norma Tanega’s “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog” and Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes’ “I Wanna Dance Wit’ Choo”. And, of course, towering above everything, that fabulous string of hits he produced and co-wrote with Bob Gaudio for the Four Seasons and Frankie Valli, including “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Walk Like a Man”, “Rag Doll”, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Any More)”, “You’re Ready Now”, “The Proud One” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”.

Born in 1930 in Newark, New Jersey, Crewe was a blond Adonis in the Tab Hunter mould. He looked like a star, custom-built for American Bandstand, and he had a decent voice, as Jerry Wexler recognised when he persuaded him to record a solo album in Muscle Shoals in 1977. But the studio was where he expressed himself. He couldn’t read a note of music but he had well tuned ears and an instinct for a great hook, musical or lyrical, and he knew how to hire the best arrangers, men like Charlie Calello and Hutch Davie. The idiom didn’t matter. As Andrew Loog Oldham put it: “No one spoke more dialects of ‘hit’ than Bob Crewe.”

But there was another side to his talent, and it was one he seemed to have abandoned after ending his studies at the Parsons School of Design in Greenwich Village after only a year. Mentored by two older gay men, Austin Avery Mitchell, who showed him the art galleries of New York, Paris and Rome, and the photographer Otto Fenn, an early Warhol collaborator, he had begun painting and had his first show in 1950. Soon, however, music took over and ruled his life for the next quarter of a century, first as a crooner and then as a writer-producer. But a love of the visual media was merely dormant, and after being knocked over by a car in Los Angeles in 1977 he began to rededicate himself to art.

Influenced by Jean Dubuffet, Antoni Tàpies, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, he made abstract pieces out of a variety of materials, characterised by a love of texture acquired from Dubuffet and a feeling for outline and repetition that may have come from Johns. Leafing through Bob Crewe: Sight and Sound, a new book about his artworks, it’s easy to respond to his instinct for shape and surface. Here’s one of his pieces, Excavation 8/3/96, juxtaposed with one of the hit singles for which he’s remembered:

I chose that painting because, like many of his pieces, it contains the motif of a perfect circle — in this case three of them, half-hidden within the complex surface markings inscribed on three wooden panels, 7ft tall by 9ft wide. Whether those circles reminded him of all the hits he’d helped to make, I have no idea. I’m not a psychologist. And I am not, of course, an art critic; that side of things is explored by the painter Peter Plagens in one of the book’s three essays. But I do like much of what I see here, and it would be interesting to be able to examine it in a gallery one day.

Crewe’s role in the Four Seasons story was brought back to public attention in Jersey Boys, the musical that opened its run on Broadway in 2005 before enjoying success around the world. He died in 2014, in the retirement home where he had lived after receiving serious injuries from a fall down a flight of stairs in the home of his younger brother Dan, who had been his business partner in the 1960s.

In the first of the book’s essays, Andrew Loog Oldham locates Crewe within the rapid evolution of post-war American popular culture, alongside such figures as Hugh Hefner, Lenny Bruce and James Dean. Oldham knew him in the hit-making days and watched him at work, making and selling his music in the days when he could start a song with lines like “Loneliness is the cloak you wear / A deep shade of blue is always there.” And, linking Crewe’s two artistic preoccupations, he observes: “He liked to think of music in terms of colour and challenged his musicians to think that way along with him.” Alone with his paints and his brushes and his palette knives, he challenged himself.

* Bob Crewe: Sight and Sound: Compositions in Art and Music, edited by Dan Crewe, is published in the US by Rizzoli Electa ($55). The photograph of Crewe in the studio in 1966 is from the book. The 45 is “Music to Watch Girls By” by the Bob Crewe Generation (DynoVoice, 1967).

(Not) leaving on a jet plane

Lynda Laurence, Jimmy Webb, Mary Wilson, Jean Terrell (photo:Jim Britt)

Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard the album the Supremes made with the songwriter and producer Jimmy Webb for Motown in 1972. The 26th of their 29 studio albums, the collaboration represented a pretty lateral move for the group. Commercially, it wasn’t a success. Its leaden title — The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb — was a bit of a charisma-killer. Only one single was issued: its A-side was the one track on the album in which Webb had no hand. “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man”, a nondescript cover of a song from the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin, produced by Motown regulars Sherlie Matthews and Deke Richards, made it to No. 85 on the Billboard Hot 100: a long way from their long run of chart-toppers in the mid-’60s.

It was in 1965 that the Supremes first sang a Jimmy Webb song. That was “My Christmas Tree”, produced by Harvey Fuqua for the group’s Christmas album. Webb was 18 years old and had signed his first publishing deal with the Motown-affiliated Jobete Music, and this was the first of his songs to be recorded by a major artist. By the time he joined the group in the studio seven years later, his track record included “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Up, Up and Away”, “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park”. With the Fifth Dimension’s Magic Garden, he’d shown that his songs and arrangements could shape the sound of a sophisticated vocal group.

At no point does the Supremes’ Jimmy Webb album sound like a Motown production. No Funk Brothers, that’s for sure. It’s a typical product of early-’70s Hollywood, applying standard-issue studio polish to modish concerns represented by the presence of a Joni Mitchell song (“All I Want” from Blue) and Webb’s own “When Can Brown Begin?”, which he wrote after hearing Sammy Davis Jr use that phrase. There’s not much inspiration to be found in “Silent Voices”, a pleasant cover of Mina’s “La Voce del Silenzio”, and any comparison between this version of Harry Nilsson’s “Paradise” and the Ronettes’ original provides only irrefutable evidence of Phil Spector’s genius.

But there are two memorable moments. One is Webb’s “I Keep It Hid”, the only track on which the excellent Jean Terrell doesn’t take the lead. This one is sung by Mary Wilson, and it was her recent death that made me go back and listen to it again. The Supremes’ greatest team player — the only one who was there from start to finish — had a lovely voice, if not a wildly distinctive one. Here she handles a very nice pop ballad with poise and confidence.

The other moment is one I’d put up alongside any of Webb’s early classics. It’s called “5:30 Plane” and it’s one of those marvellous songs in which he captured all the subtleties and nuances of an entire relationship through snatches of thought and circumstantial detail. The singer is in the throes of a break-up. Both parties have been unfaithful and things have become desperate. “I don’t want to know about the whole affair,” she sings, “and you don’t want to know about his pretty hair.” So she’s decided to go. She doesn’t want any more talking. She’s bought a ticket to another town. But here she still is.

What makes you want to play this mid-tempo song over and over again is the glorious melody over beautiful changes, with a hook in the chorus that represents Webb at his best as a pop-music craftsman. But what makes it a great song is the detail of the flight time. “I didn’t want to be here, baby, when you got home, sitting alone,” Terrell sings, her voice soaring and swelling with sadness over the supporting choir, “but the 5:30 plane has already gone.” You’re in the room with her as she sits there, thinking of that plane heading through the evening sky towards Houston or Phoenix or Albuquerque, waiting for what comes next.

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.

Happy birthday, Dionne Warwick

Dionne Warwick was spotted by Burt Bacharach while she was singing background on the Drifters’ “Mexican Divorce” with her sister Dee Dee, her aunt Cissy Houston and their friend Doris Troy in the summer of 1961. She was 20 years old. A year later she recorded “Don’t Make Me Over”, the first of her string of hits written by Bacharach and his lyricist, Hal David.

She had grown up singing gospel music alongside members of her family in the Drinkard Singers and the Gospelairs before studying music at a college in West Hartford, Connecticut. Her musicianship enabled her to cope with the unusual interval leaps and mixed time signatures that Bacharach introduced to the pop music of the early 1960s, blending R&B with Broadway; her poise, her control, her distinctive timbre and her avoidance of gospel gestures such as extravagant melisma and roughened texture made her voice the perfect instrument for this unique purpose.

I love almost everything Dionne ever did, from the early Bacharach masterpieces of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Walk On By” right up to “I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face” with Jerry Ragovoy and “His House and Me” with Thom Bell. But there’s a special place in my affections for an album called Here I Am, released in 1965, in which the Bacharach/David/Warwick combination reaches a series of peaks.

A couple of those peaks are ballads, written, arranged and performed with exquisite delicacy: “In Between the Heartaches” and “If I Ever Make You Cry”. But even more remarkable to my ear is “(Here I Go Again) Looking With My Eyes (Seeing With My Heart)”, an epic of orchestra pop remarkable not just for the double set of brackets in its title but for an astonishing swirling momentum driven not so much by a conventional rhythm section as by the strings, the choir and periodic fusillades of percussion: tympani, tubular bells, boo-bams. And on top of it all, Dionne is doing as she always has done, negotiating Bacharach’s melodic twists, inhabiting Hal David’s words, singing like a real person who happens to be in possession of a divine gift.

Today, it’s exactly 80 years since Marie Dionne Warrick was born in Orange, New Jersey. A very happy birthday to her, with deepest gratitude.

(Not quite) almost like being in love

One evening in the late ’70s I was at home watching The Shirley Bassey Show on BBC1 — not such a terrible idea, since she presented some interesting guests, from Mel Tormé and Janis Ian to Stan Getz and Johnny Nash — when something Bassey herself was singing stopped me in my tracks.

“Almost Like Being in Love” was written by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner for their musical Brigadoon in 1947. It was a hit for Frank Sinatra, and became a standard. Shirley Bassey has sung it throughout her career, and on YouTube you’ll find several versions in conventional upbeat, ring-a-ding-ding arrangements celebrating the singer’s delight at half-concealing the rapture of love.

On this occasion, however, she and her musical director, Arthur Greenslade, did something different. They recast the song in a minor key, with slightly modified melodic and harmonic contours, setting it to a languid, understated Latin rhythm. I hadn’t heard it from then until now, more than 40 years later, but it always stayed in my head as the way the song ought to be sung.

So here it is, miraculously preserved, with its chiming vibes and pattering congas, hovering strings and 12 bars of beautiful Getzian tenor saxophone (Tony Coe, maybe?), and a bitter-sweet vocal performance that hints at layers of emotional complexity beneath Mr Lerner’s words. It sounds just as exquisite and ambiguous as I remembered. Imagine how cool it would be if Sade, Tracey Thorn or Paula Morelenbaum took this arrangement and recorded it today. Cool, yes, but no cooler than Ms Bassey.

Living for the weekend

To understand the full impact of Ready Steady Go!, you really had to live through the succession of British TV pop shows that preceded it: 6.5 Special (BBC, Jan 57-Dec 58, 96 episodes), Oh Boy (ITV, Sept 58-May 59, 38 episodes), Drumbeat (BBC, April-Aug 59, 22 episodes), Boy Meets Girls (ITV, Sept 59-Feb 60, 26 episodes), and Thank Your Lucky Stars (ITV, April 1961-June 1966, 250 episodes). Each of those series had something to offer the pop-starved teenager, but all of them — even the ones created by the great Jack Good — felt essentially as though they were made by grown-ups. That’s where Ready Steady Go! was different.

From its debut on the ITV network on 9 August 1963, it made a direct connection with its audience. Its creator, Elkan Allan, was smart enough to trust the creative instincts of the people around him — particularly those of the young Vicki Wickham, who started as Allan’s secretary but whose instinctive love of black music, absorbed from friends such as Dusty Springfield and Madeline Bell, became the show’s guiding spirit. Without Wickham’s enthusiasm and energy there would have been no Motown special, no James Brown special, no Otis Redding special to go alongside the regular appearances by the Who, the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks and the Yardbirds. In essence, you knew that the people who made this programme believed, as you did, that Cilla Black’s cover version of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” was not a patch on Dionne Warwick’s original.

If you lived the the provinces, as I did, RSG! was an essential guide to what was happening in inaccessible London clubs like the Scene, the Ad Lib and the Scotch of St James. The show’s directors, from Bill Turner through Daphne Shadwell, Robert Fleming and Rollo Gamble to the brilliantly innovative Michael Lindsay-Hogg, allowed the members of the audience to crowd around the stage as if they were in a club and took the radical step of treating the cameras as part of the set. Graphics by Clive Arrowsmith and Arnold Schwartzman set the tone in the title sequences, which made use of fast-cutting images from popular culture. Responsible for shaping the whole package was the programme’s editor, Francis Hitching.

The story of RSG! has been told many times before, most recently in a fine documentary shown on BBC4 earlier thus year, but never so thoroughly, informatively and entertainingly as in Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here, a large-format (12″x12″) history by Andy Neill, who has been everywhere one could possibly go to unearth every scrap of information on the show’s birth, life and death.

You want a list of the precise contents of every episode? It’s here. You want a fantastic assembly of ephemera, such as tickets for the recordings at the original Associated Rediffusion studios in Kingsway and the later venue in Wembley, and hundreds of newspaper clippings? Also here. You want the memories of dozens of participants, from Mick Jagger to the dancers Patrick Kerr and Sandy Serjeant to Barbara Hulanicki, the founder of Biba and a regular at Kingsway? You want to know more about the presenters Cathy McGowan and Michael Aldred and the members of the production staff? You want the stories behind Ready Steady Goes Live, Ready Steady Win (the talent competition won by the Bo Street Runners), the Mod Ball and Ready Steady Allez!, the show broadcast live from the Locomotive in Paris in March 1966, with the Yardbirds, the Who, Hugues Aufray, Mireille Mathieu and Eddy Mitchell? You want an informed history of British TV’s treatment of pop music, along with Dennis Potter’s Daily Herald review of an early Beatles appearance on RSG!? You want a detailed history of its ratings, as well as the stories about Françoise Hardy’s refusal to sit down while wearing her new trouser suit and the letters from viewers disgusted by James Brown’s show? All here, in a volume with a great anecdote on practically every page, along with a fantastic selection of photographs.

Jagger talks about how he used to go along even when the Stones weren’t on, just to be there. “RSG! wasn’t safe, it took risks,” he tells Neill. “It waded right into the wonderful chaos of the times. You always thought you were slightly on the edge there.” Pete Townshend agrees: “It reflected the colour and vivacity of the times better than almost any other medium.” He remembers how, for the first of the Who’s 16 appearances, performing “I Can’t Explain” in 1965, they were allowed to bring along their own fans from the Goldhawk Club in Shepherds Bush. Wickham and Lindsay-Hogg, he says, “conveyed the sense that we were, all of us, breaking every rule of television. I felt they were breaking societal rules as well.”

My old friend Keith Altham, then a journalist on Fabulous magazine, remembers it as a meeting place for young people starting out in the music business. “It was like a glorified youth club where your mates played guitars or drums or were in the business of reporting on the beat phenomenon. The writers and musicians were all contemporaries.” And afterwards there would be parties for the in-crowd, maybe at Tony Hall’s flat in Mayfair, with a Beatle and a Ronette and a Stone in attendance.

The programme was killed in December 1966 after 173 episodes. Jimi Hendrix and Marc Bolan were featured in the penultimate show and Chris Farlowe duetted with Jagger on “Out of Time” and “Satisfaction” in the final episode, two days before Christmas. Times and tastes were changing, and the sense of novelty and excitement had dulled. The mainstream audience was getting its fix of chart music from Top of the Pops (BBC, January 1964-July 2006, 2,267 episodes) while the mods were turning into hippies and no longer looked for guidance from television programmes. But it would be a long time before anything came along to replace it.

I can’t think of anything I’d want this book to have that it doesn’t include. As a thoroughly comprehensive and endlessly entertaining time-capsule, put together in exactly the spirit that the show was made, it’s something to cherish. The story of what Elkan Allan, Vicki Wickham and their friends and colleagues created will never be better told.

* Andy Neill’s Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here is published by BMG (£39.99). Recommended listening: The ‘Sound’ of the R&B Hits, the first anthology of Motown tracks released in Britain back in 1964, now expanded from 14 to 28 tracks and released by Ace Records. For more about pop and rock on the small and large screen, there’s Docs That Rock, Music That Matters by Harvey Kubernik, published in the US by Otherworld Cottage (about £35), including chapters on American Bandstand, D. A. Pennebaker, Peter Whitehead’s Charlie Is My Darling, Concert for Bangladesh and many other subjects. The sequence of images at the top of this piece was created by Clive Arrowsmith for RSG!‘s title sequence in December 1964.

Listening to Lucio Battisti

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For no particular reason that I can pin down, I’ve spent a lot of this lockdown listening to the Italian singer Lucio Battisti. Well, maybe I just wanted music to remind me of being on holiday in Italy. The taste of a decent espresso. Traffic chaos in Naples. Olive groves on a Sicilian hillside. All of the stuff that seems so unreachable at the moment. Anyway, he’s been providing good company, as he has since I stumbled across his music almost 45 years ago. By that time he was already established as one of Italy’s biggest stars, with many hit singles and albums behind him.

The thing that first caught my ear in 1976 was a song called “Ancora tu”, on which he veered away from the singer-songwriter mode into an engagement with disco music. It’s an infernally catchy piece of music, but what also struck me were the words. Even with my rudimentary Italian, it was obvious that he was using dance music as a setting for one side of a conversation between two former lovers who’ve just bumped into each other again: “You again! How are you? Pointless question. You’re like me.” “Have you eaten, or not? Yes, I’m hungry, too.” “You look lovely. Younger than ever. Or maybe just nicer.” He tells her he’s given up smoking. At some point in your life, you may have had that kind of conversation. I liked the way the singer’s tone, conveying a mixture of fondness and concealed wounds, worked beautifully over the lightly pumping rhythm.

I was doing A&R at Island back then, so I called up some of Battisti’s earlier work and lost myself for a while in albums like Il mio canto libero, Il nostro caro angelo and Anima latina, each of which showed a willingness to absorb and adapt a variety of approaches, from English progressive rock to Brazilian new samba. “Ancora tu” was the lead track of an album whose title — Lucio Battisti, la batteria, il contrabasso, eccetera — itself highlighted his new interest in disco. I also found out that while Battisti was responsible for the music, he hadn’t written those interesting words. The lyrics to all his songs were by a man named Giulio Rapetti, who called himself Mogol.

The more I listened, the more I liked the way Battisti made records that sounded thoroughly modern while retaining some quality of traditional Italian pop music. He’d got his start through things like the San Remo Song Festival, and just enough of that flavour survived in his music to set it apart from his Anglo-American influences.

What I didn’t know was his string of hit singles — like Mi ritorni in mente (1969) and I giardini di marzo (1972) — had persuaded a generation of Italian kids that, as well as worshipping the Beatles and the Stones, they could have a pop music of their very own, speaking in their voice. It secured him a special and enduring place in their hearts. “He has been a sort of musical background to our lives,” the writer Giorgio Terruzzi told me the other day, “when we were passing between childhood and adolescence.” But that wasn’t what I heard, because I was listening to it in a different place at a different time. And by then he was becoming something different, too.

At some point, somewhere or other, I met both him and Mogol. Then in London I took Battisti to lunch at the Trattoo, a very nice Italian restaurant just off Kensington High Street. I wanted to try and work out a way to get his records — none of which had been released in the UK or the US — to an Anglophone audience. I liked him: he was a reserved but thoughtful person, and he was very happy discuss the fortunes of his football team, Juventus. Sadly, the idea didn’t come to anything. (The following year, in Los Angeles, he did make an album for RCA called Io tu noi tutti, with Hollywood session men, which gave him a couple more hits at home, although an English-language version titled Images didn’t work at all.) So, as a fan, I just carried on buying his Italian albums.

By the end of the ’70s he’d acquired the habit  of recording in London, with English producers, arrangers and musicians. For a while the records got lusher and more dependent on electric keyboards and synths, as you can hear in “Donna selvaggia donna” from the album Una donna per amico (1978) and “Il monolocale” from Una giornata uggiosa (1980), both produced by Geoff Westley with musicians like the guitarists Pip Williams, Phil Palmer and Ray Russell, the bassists Paul Westwood and John Giblin and the drummers Gerry Conway and Stuart Elliott.

Then it all changed. After so many years of success, Battisti and Mogol parted company, for reasons that have never really been explained. On the singer’s next album, E già (1982), the lyrics were credited to his wife, Grazia Letizia Veronese, and the music was stripped right back to a sound bed of electronics, created in the studio by Battisti and his new producer, Greg Walsh. I found it very adventurous and striking, and a track called “Straniero” made a deep and lasting impression. Then, four years later, came an album called Don Giovanni: more conventional in its arrangements, richer in texture, with words by the poet Pasquale Panella, and featuring several classics, like the irresistible “Fatti un pianto”, with its beautiful tenor saxophone work by Phil Todd on the intro and coda.

By this time Battisti had removed himself from the public eye. He stopped giving interviews and simply released an album every couple of years, all on the Numero Uno label, which he and Mogol had founded in the early ’70s after Ricordi had been reluctant to release their extraordinary concept album, Amore non amore. Each of these new albums had a standard look — very minimal white covers featuring simple black line drawings and no photographs — and each, sadly, was increasingly unsuccessful with the public.

L’apparenza (1988), La sposa occidentale (1990), Cosa succederà alla ragazza (1992) and Hegel (1994) had different producers — Robyn Smith, Greg Walsh, and, for the last two, Andy Duncan — but I think of them as a continuous work: an extended suite of electro-dance music made by a singer-songwriter, the innate vulnerability of Battisti’s voice ensuring that it never lost its human warmth. Sometimes, at their most driving and joyous, as in “Cosa succederà alla ragazza” or “La voce del viso”, these late tracks make me think of the Pet Shop Boys holidaying on that stretch of the Tyrrhenian coast around Viareggio, warmed by the Tuscan sun. But it’s all pure Battisti, really.

Hegel turned out to be his last word. Four years after its release, in 1998, he died in a Milan hospital, apparently of cancer, aged 55. Although in recent years there has been some controversy over the ferocity with which his widow guards his legacy, his music is available to be discovered by anyone who, like me, came to it a little late and found a friend.

* Many of Lucio Battisti’s recordings, including the final quartet of “white albums”, were reissued two years ago by Sony Legacy / Numero Uno in limited editions of CDs replicating the original album artwork. They seem to be still available.

Happy birthday, Mr Isley

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Ronald Isley is 79 today. Not a round number, but never mind. A happy birthday to him anyway. Perhaps it’s because he’s been a member of a group for his entire career that he isn’t generally mentioned in lists of the greatest male soul singers. For he certainly is one, up there with Sam, Smokey, Marvin, Otis, Levi, Al, Bobby, Philippé, Teddy, Luther and whoever else you want to include. Listen to the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”, “Hello, It’s Me”, or “Harvest for the World”: no much doubt, is there? And if 3 + 3 isn’t in your collection, I beg you to do something about it.

My subject here, however, is an album I’ve been playing a lot in recent weeks: Ron Isley’s collaboration with Burt Bacharach, which dates from 2003 and is nothing short of a masterpiece.

The circumstances of the recording were, by modern standards, exceptional. At the behest of DreamWorks Records’ John McClain, the two men prepared for sessions which took place over a handful of days in Capitol Records’ Hollywood studios: an orchestra of more than 40 pieces with Bacharach at the conductor’s podium and Isley at the microphone. Thirteen songs: 11 Bacharach and David classics plus two new Bacharach songs with lyrics by Tonio K.

And everything done live. On the spot. Rhythm section, string section, horns, and lead and backing singers. Together. Breathing the same air, feeling the same vibrations, responding to the same cues in real time. The way it used to be done. (I’d be surprised if there weren’t some touch-ups, but the principle is the thing.)

From the moment strings and harp usher in the first words of “Alfie”, the opening track, you realise that something special is happening. The exquisite delicacy of the singer’s delivery at the dead-slow tempo and the exacting control of his emotions bring something new to what might very well be the greatest of all the Bacharach/David songs. It’s hard to spoil lines like “If only fools are kind, Alfie / Then I guess it is wise to be cruel,” but Isley brings them a new poignancy. Bacharach’s arrangement manages to be both majestic and somehow weightless.

And the set goes on from there, Bacharach constantly inventing new way of reinvigorating familiar songs — the flugelhorn figures introducing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and “The Look of Love”, for example. (Flugel and trumpet, a Bacharach trademark in his heyday, are used throughout as a counterpoint to the lead voice.) And the latter track has a light bossa/funk groove that you might feel you’d like to have running through the rest of your life. A solo alto flute introduces “Anyone Who Had a Heart”. Alone at the piano, Bacharach sings the opening lines of “The Windows of the World” in his husky tones before giving way to Isley’s polished virtuosity, like a weathered hand sliding into a fine kid glove.

The inclusion of the new songs might have been a quid pro quo for Bacharach’s agreement to participate in the project, but they pull their weight. “Count on Me” benefits from a lovely melody and “Love’s (Still) the Answer” has the qualities of a very good Sondheim song.

Most of all, though, there’s “In Between the Heartaches”, a great song hidden away on Dionne Warwick’s Here I Am album in 1965. Isley, who once dated Warwick, requested its inclusion; its composer had forgotten all about it. Neil Stubenhaus’s softly purring bass-guitar reminds me of Marcus Miller’s contribution to Vandross’s “Second Time Around”: there’s no higher praise. And when, on “Here I Am” itself, Ronald Isley adds flourishes of melisma, it’s never gratuitous: this is how it should be done.

Of course you’re not going to experience again the shock and the thrill of hearing Bacharach’s melodies and arrangements for the first time in the ’60s: a twangy guitar in the middle of silken strings, a fusillade of boo-bams, a sudden chromatic twist, a song whose first 11 words are all on the same note. But all I can say is that they’ve never sounded more gorgeous than this.

* The photograph is by the late, great William Claxton. Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach is on the DreamWorks label. Several songs from a PBS Soundstage concert in July 2004 are up on YouTube, including “Close to You” and “Here I Am”. There’s also a promo — with slightly compromised sound quality — for “The Look of Love”

‘Mercy’

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I’d imagine that a large number of people, on reading Duffy’s Instagrammed description of her recent problems, will have reminded themselves of what a great record “Mercy” was, and still is. When it came out in 2008, I must have heard it dozens of times before the penny dropped: it’s actually a 12-bar blues.

Well, not quite. The verse is a 12-bar which stays on the tonic in bars 5 and 6 and is extended to 16 by repeating bars 9-12. The chorus is a straight 12-bar. And I love that the tune, the singing, the weird hard-rubber bass, the cheap organ sound and the guitars — including that devastating bent double-stop against silence after the breakdown — are all drenched in the blues, an updated version of the Thames Delta sound of the early ’60s.

OK, have a guess: how many times has a 12-bar blues topped the UK pop chart? Off the top of my head, I could think of only the Stones’ “Little Red Rooster” — straight from the Thames Delta! — in 1964. So I looked through all the UK No 1s from 1952-1999, and I could find only Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” and “Baby Jump” and T. Rex’s “Hot Love” that fit the spec (before you ask, “Hound Dog” only made it to No 2 for Elvis in 1956). Curious, isn’t it, that the basic foundational template of so much popular music should be so thinly represented?  If someone else wants to check through the last 20 years, be my guest — and please let me know if you find anything.

Anyway, all best wishes to Duffy. That “Mercy” link has been clicked almost 80 million times. And maybe, to paraphrase Ornette Coleman, this is when the blues leave.