Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Pop music’ Category

Bill Frisell at Cadogan Hall

BillSolo_Adjusted

“If somebody makes a so-called mistake,” Bill Frisell says near the end of the promotional film for his new album, “that can be the most beautiful thing that happens all night, if everybody’s open to what that sound is and embraces it and makes it sound good. If everyone’s watching out for each other and everyone feels like they can take a risk, it gives the music a chance to keep going and evolving.”

Last night at Cadogan Hall it was his turn to flub an ending, the mistake quickly finessed by his three colleagues — the singer Petra Haden, the cellist Hank Roberts and the bass guitarist Luke Bergman — with grace and smiles. And right there was the humanity of any music in which Frisell has a hand.

His mission to demonstrate and explore the consanguinity of all forms of American vernacular music — from Charles Ives to Thelonious Monk, from Hank Williams to Henry Mancini, from Muddy Waters to the Beach Boys — was accomplished many years ago, but with Harmony, the title of his first album on the Blue Note label, it seems to have reached another peak. The empathy, flexibility and modesty of this quartet make it an ideal vehicle for another exercise in creative juxtaposition.

The concert began quietly, with Haden’s beautifully plain voice enunciating the wandering, wordless, childlike line of Frisell’s “Everywhere”. The first high point came with Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times”, on which Roberts and Bergman joined Haden in the sort of three-part Appalachian harmonies guaranteed to strike instantly at a special place in the emotions. There was a wholehearted ovation for that. “Lush Life”, fiendishly difficult to sing, was another highlight; also included in last year’s solo concert at the same venue and on Epistrophy, his recent live duo album with the bassist Thomas Morgan, Billy Strayhorn’s great ballad is clearly a preoccupation, and its intense chromaticism brought out the Jim Hall influence in Frisell’s work on his double-cutaway semi-acoustic instrument.

There was an interesting recasting of “On the Street Where You Live” (from My Fair Lady) and a lovely harmonised version of the traditional “Red River Valley”, interspersed with little instrumental pieces making sparing use of the guitarist’s loops and effects. The set ended with a segue from Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” into David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, rendered in full and apparently without ironic intent. For an encore, demanded with fervent enthusiasm, they returned to stand at the microphones and deliver “We Shall Overcome”, inviting us to join in; well, at least now they know what English hymn-singing sounds like.

It was a mystery that, for the latest project from this great musician, a hall which was packed for his solo appearance a year ago should be so thinly populated last night. Perhaps the concert was badly advertised. The album is not yet out, which probably didn’t help. But anyone who wasn’t there missed a quietly remarkable night.

* Harmony is out on November 1. Epistrophy was released by ECM earlier this year. The photograph of Bill Frisell is by Monica Frisell.

Seeing ‘Western Stars’

Western Stars

“This is my 19th album,” Bruce Springsteen says towards the beginning of the film Western Stars, “and I’m still writing songs about cars.” But then he excuses himself by explaining how cars can become a metaphor for all kinds of things, including travelling without getting anywhere.

Western Stars is a performance film, but much more than that. Recorded over two days in front of a small audience in the hayloft of the 19th century wooden barn on his property in New Jersey, it features the 13 songs from the recent album of the same name, played by around 30 musicians: a basic band of various guitars, keyboards, bass and drums, plus two trumpets, two French horns, a string orchestra of violins, violas and cellos, and four or five female backing singers, discreetly directed by the album’s orchestrator, Rob Mathes.

There are a few differences from the album versions, but the sound of Bob Clearmountain’s mix is so close to the lush Californian warmth of the original recordings that I found myself frequently checking for signs that the musicians were miming. An inability to spot anyone playing the glockenspiel part on “Drive Fast” provided the only evidence that post-production work had been undertaken.

Having seen the trailer, I worried in advance that the film — directed by Springsteen with his long-term collaborator Thom Zimny — would include too much footage of wild ponies cantering in slow-motion through desert landscapes beneath spectacular open skies, close-ups of silver and turquoise jewellery on weathered hands, and El Camino pick-ups raising dust on long, lonesome dirt roads. There’s some of that, particularly in the early sequences, but the visual clichés recede as more serious matters come to the fore in what Springsteen calls “interstitial material”, the snatches of home movies and found footage with voiceovers in which he introduces the songs and reflects on their themes of life, love, loss and longing.

On the face of it, the songs on Western Stars aren’t about Springsteen. One protagonist is a stuntman, another a fading movie actor. But, as he said during a Q&A session that followed the screening I attended this morning, “When I write a song in character, it’s a way of exploring your own life and struggles.”

After feeling initially indifferent towards much of the album, it came as a surprise to discover how rewardingly the film illuminates their qualities, both via Springsteen’s commentary and the performances. “Sleepy Joe’s Café” was a song I quite disliked until seeing it contextualised in a social setting. “Somewhere North of Nashville” acquires greater depth. “Stones”, sung as a duet with Patti Scialfa, his wife of 30 years, is now almost unbearably moving in its evocation of the undercurrents of a long marriage. (“I should have had Patti on the record,” Springsteen said during the Q&A.)

The songs I already liked gain a new lustre. “Moonlight Motel” adds a couple more shades of gorgeous soul-weariness. The soaring “There Goes My Miracle” is introduced with a rumination on “losing the best thing you ever had — the perfect formula for a pop song.” Or maybe it was “the formula for a perfect pop song”, which it is. Watching the string players tear into it with such joy, I thought of how I’ve always believed the special E Street secret is making every person in the audience feel as though they’re up on stage, playing in the band, sharing that special exhilaration; this lot made me wish I’d carried on with violin lessons.

* This weekend’s London Film Festival screenings of Western Stars are sold out. It will be in cinemas around the UK on October 28, three days after the release of the soundtrack album.

Mark Lewisohn’s ‘Hornsey Road’

Abbey Road

When the Guardian ran my interview with Mark Lewisohn about his Abbey Road stage show last week, the piece got 800,000 page views in 24 hours: more than that day’s Brexit coverage, they said. I don’t know what this means, except that the Beatles are still pretty popular. More popular than Brexit, anyway.

Mark had a lot of interesting things to say. What I didn’t have room to discuss in the piece was the use made in the show — which is actually titled Hornsey Road — of the original multitrack tapes, downloadable (astonishing as it may seem) from the video game called Beatles Rock Band, released in 2009. This allows anyone with the necessary equipment to make their own remixes: a dangerous opportunity, but one that Mark has used with care and sensitivity to form part of his two-hour show, which had its first night in Northampton this week and is touring around the country until early December.

I went to a run-through last week, and learnt a lot from his remixes of the original eight-tracks from Olympic, Trident and EMI’s Abbey Road studios between February and August 1969. He brought out a single bar of absolutely sublime McCartney bass-playing on “Because” that I’d never noticed before, ditto the cowbell on “Polythene Pam”. Thanks to him, I was paying closer attention and therefore better able to enjoy the sequence of guitar solos from McCartney, Harrison and Lennon on “The End”: two bars each, then repeat twice. Eighteen quite revealing bars — particularly Lennon’s — in a track that was the last thing they recorded together.

Revisiting Abbey Road was funny for me because it was 50 years ago to the week — on September 10, 1969, in fact — that I’d tipped up at the ICA in the Mall for a screening of several films by John & Yoko, including Two Virgins and Rape. It was a long and gruelling evening, during which an unidentified male and female in a white canvas bag led us all in a chant of “Hare Krishna” that lasted the entire 52 minutes of Yoko’s Film No 5. Was it the Lennons inside the bag? At first we assumed it was. Then we thought, almost certainly not. But it was Bag-ism in action, for sure.

The unexpected treat was a preview of Abbey Road, a couple of weeks ahead of its release. Side one was played in the interval, followed by side two as an accompaniment to John’s film Self Portrait, a 20-minute study of his penis rising and falling. By the time the evening ended, only a handful of the invited audience remained in the theatre.

It was a time when the Beatles — and the Lennons in particular — were in the headlines almost every day. Fleet Street was obsessed with their relationships, their business affairs, their eccentricities. It was also a time when Lennon was happy to sit and talk in the Beatles’ room at Apple HQ at 3 Savile Row, as he did a couple of days later. The following day he was in Toronto for the Live Peace Festival, with Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann and Alan White. On the Monday morning he called me up at the Melody Maker offices to give me the story, and specifically to deny the reports that he and Yoko had been booed off.

“That’s a load of rubbish,” he said. “It was a fantastic show — really unbelievable. It was magical. The band was so funky and we really blew some minds. We only had time to rehearse on the plane going over, and we did things like ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘Money’, ‘Dizzy [Miss Lizzy]’, and a new song I’d never played before.” That would have been “Cold Turkey”, which the Beatles were about to turn down as their next single. “Then Yoko joined us,” he continued, “and sang one number [“Don’t Worry Kyoko”] before doing things like our Life with the Lions album. It was incredible because the crowd was howling along with us and they all joined in for ‘Give Peace a Chance’. Everyone was singing — it was like a great big mantra.”

My impression of Lewisohn’s show was that Hornsey Road tells the story in rewarding detail and with a nicely judged sense of how wonderfully absurd the events surrounding the Beatles sometimes were, half a century ago.

* The photograph of the Beatles was taken on the Thames at Twickenham on April 9, 1969 and is from the booklet accompanying the 2009 remastered version of Abbey Road. It is © Apple Corps Ltd.

RIP Genevieve Waite

0520-john-phillips-and-genevieve-waite-2

When it appeared in 1974, Genevieve Waite’s Romance is on the Rise was part of a reaction to the hippie hegemony, taking its place in a movement that included Roxy Music’s first album and Bette Midler, Studio 54 and Big Biba, Andy Warhol’s Interview and its UK counterpart, Ritz. Out went denim and bucksin fringes, in came satin and tat. The irony was that Romance is on the Rise, with its nostalgic evocations of a gilded age, was produced and mostly written by John Phillips, the composer of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” and “California Dreamin'”.

This antidote to the prevailing counter-culture was bracing and fun, even though nobody bought it. “They say that love is coming back / They say romance is on the rise,” Waite announced in the album’s opening lines, before offering advice on how to cope with a volte-face in sexual manners: “Open that door, light her cigarette / Say she looks nice and see what you get.” In “White Cadillac” she deployed her little-girl voice to serenade a wealthy admirer with an amusing cynicism: “You were born rich but not so smart / I was born poor but with a great big wonderful heart…” In “Girls”, a song that might have become a standard, she crooned: “Girls’ll run around in your head / Till you wish you liked boys instead / Girls’ll make you feel so bad / That you’ll wish you’d never been had.” It was not a record you’d want to listen to every day, but the strength of Phillips’s songwriting and the very sparing use of period pastiche in the arrangements add durability to its air of throwaway sophistication.

Two years later Waite and Phillips were living in London, where Phillips was working on the soundtrack for Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. They came to see me at Island Records, looking for a contract. Genevieve had recorded the title song, but her version wasn’t included in the film, although John’s demo turned up a few years ago in an expanded reissue of the soundtrack. (There’s an excellent piece on the background to the story by Chris Campion, Phillips’ authorised biographer, here.)

They were married, not uneventfully, from 1972 to 1988. John died in 2001, aged 65, of a heart attack. Genevieve died this week, aged 71, of undisclosed causes; here’s an LA Times obituary, describing her life in the celebrity zoo. Apart from a couple of film appearances (Joanna in 1968 and Move in 1970), Romance is on the Rise is what she leaves behind.

* Originally released on the Paramour label, Romance is on the Rise was reissued on CD in an expanded version by Chrome Records in 2004. The cover of Interview featuring Phillips and Waite is from the issue of September 1974.

Doris Day 1922-2019

Doris Day died today, aged 97, leaving behind her the guiltiest of pleasures. I imagine that back in 1963 I was not the only teenaged boy to be stirred by “Move Over Darling”, a “girl group” record sung by a 41-year-old woman, co-written and produced by her 21-year-old son. Did Terry Melcher feel weird as he sat in the control booth of a Hollywood studio in 1963, listening to his mother wrap up the song he had written with one of the sexier fades ever delivered by a middle-aged woman famous for starring in frothy comedies: “You’ve captured my heart and now that I’m no longer free, make love to me…”?

Commissioned as the theme tune for a movie in which Day starred with James Garner and Polly Bergen, the song was co-written by Melcher with Hal Kanter, a showbiz veteran who had worked on Blue Hawaii, and London-born Joe Lubin, who had written for Danny Kaye and cleaned up the lyric of “Tutti Frutti” for Pat Boone. The arranger was Jack Nitzsche, then spending most of his time writing charts for Phil Spector. Nitzsche did a typically great job, particularly in the way the backing vocals overlap the lead at the start of the middle eight, intensifying the song’s graceful flow. And that has to be Hal Blaine knocking out the Spector-lite version of the baion beat — bom / bom-bom — that underpinned so many hits. The strings and voices give the whole thing a lovely texture.

I suppose it’s one of those records, like Louise Cordet’s “I’m Just a Baby” and Connie Stevens’ “The Greenwood Tree”, that lurk in the collection and aren’t brought into polite conversation. But what the hell. Once a welcome aid to growing up, now it’s nothing more or less than two and a half minutes of prelapsarian California pop perfection. RIP, Miss Day.

The Beatles in Twickenham

Beatlemania 1

Ailsa Avenue is an ordinary street in suburban Twickenham, remarkable only for having been the setting for a memorable scene in one of the Beatles’ films. It’s where the girls in the photograph are waiting for a glimpse of John, Paul , George and/or Ringo. This is 1964, Beatlemania is at its height, and the group are in the middle of filming their second feature film.

There was a time when the members of the Beatles spent more time in Twickenham than at their own homes. Twickenham Studios were the headquarters for A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, for some of their early promotional videos, for the promos for “Hey Jude” and “Revolution”, and for the early sessions for Let It Be. Ailsa Avenue was where, under Dick Lester’s direction, they shot the exteriors for the scene in which the Beatles enter four adjacent terraced houses, only for the next shot to reveal that, in a nice little piece of self-satire, the interiors have been knocked together and fitted with a sunken bed, a mighty Wurlitzer organ, a sandwich automat and other pop-star necessities. They hadn’t, of course. That bit was built at the studios. forever disappointing those Beatlemaniacs who turn up and knock hopefully on the doors of numbers 5, 7, 9 or 11.

The dark-haired girl with the duffel coat and the serious expression in the middle of the photograph is called Susan Kilby. She was about 14 years old then, and such a fan that she and her friends would get up at three o’clock in the morning to walk to Heathrow airport in order to welcome the group back from one of their foreign tours. She is one of those who have contributed their memories to an exhibition called The Beatles in Twickenham, which opened last week at the Exchange theatre, part of St Mary’s University, a few hundred yards from Ailsa Avenue and the film studios

The exhibition is mostly photographs and posters, plus a couple of pages from the shooting schedule for Help!, and some interesting testimony from witnesses to the events in question. But at the opening the other night there were film clips on show, including an amazing sequence from Let It Be in which Yoko does some free-form yowling while John plays the “Watch Your Step” riff and Ringo thunders away like the world’s greatest heavy metal drummer, and the “Revolution” promo, from which I learnt — very belatedly — that it was John who played the scorching Chuck Berry lead on his Epiphone Casino while George took the rhythm part. The 1965 promo films shot at Twickenham Studios included “I Feel Fine” and “Help!”, which broke barriers by having Ringo pedalling an exercise bike or holding a parasol instead of miming the drum part. I suspect they were the first clips of their kind in which the pretence of miming was completely undermined; no doubt someone will put me straight.

* The Beatles in Twickenham is at the Exchange theatre until August 16 (exchangetwickenham.co.uk). The Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn will be speaking on May 17, and there will be a screening of the tour documentary Eight Days a Week on May 21.

Scott Walker 1943-2019

Scott Walker’s death was announced today. As a small tribute, this is the introduction to a piece I wrote a couple of decades ago about the events of the year 1965. 

In 1965, things changed fast. It just happened. You didn’t even have to try. Here’s a little story from one day in the spring of that year. Perhaps it says something about what things were like, and how special it felt, even then, even in the margins.

It’s a Friday evening. In a house in the Midlands, an 18-year-old boy is waiting to take a 17-year-old girl to the opening night of Bob Dylan’s first British tour. He has two tickets in his pocket. Sheffield City Hall, grand circle, front row, seven shillings and sixpence each.

The television is on as they prepare to leave her parents’ house. It’s Ready Steady Go!, live from London, the weekly hotline to the heart of whatever’s hip. One of the presenters — either the dolly-bird Cathy McGowan or the incongruously avuncular Keith Fordyce — announces the appearance of a new group. They’re from America, they’re called the Walker Brothers, and this is their first time on British TV. Their song is called “Love Her”.

On the small black and white screen, the face of a fallen angel appears. The boy and the girl are already cutting things fine for Dylan, but still the girl freezes in the act of putting on her coat and, as if in slow motion, sits down to watch the 21-year-old Scott Engel, clutching the microphone as though it were a crucifix, delivering the straining, heavily orchestrated teen ballad in a dark brown voice borrowed from the romantic hero of a picture strip in Romeo or Valentine.

As the song ends and the image fades, the girl shakes herself lightly, refocuses on her surroundings, pulls on her brown suede jacket. OK, she says. Ready to go.

Joe Osborn 1937-2018

150px-Joe_Osborn_for_Wikipedia

As a first-call bass guitarist in Los Angeles in the second half of the 1960s, Joe Osborn played on some of the era’s most memorable hits, including “California Dreamin'”, “Windy” and “MacArthur Park”. Osborn, who died at his home in Lousiana on December 14, aged 81, formed a particularly strong partnership in the Hollywood studios with the pianist Larry Knechtel and the drummer Hal Blaine.

Born in Mound, Louisiana, Osborn started life as a guitarist and spent two years playing with Bob Luman in Las Vegas before joining Ricky Nelson’s band in 1960 and moving to LA. Since the guitarist was James Burton, Osborn switched to bass and played on such Nelson hits as “Travellin’ Man”. In 1964 his studio career had already begun when he became part of the minimalist rhythm section on the Lou Adler-produced Johnny Rivers at the Whisky A Go Go, whose party vibe, captured by the engineer Bones Howe, made it — and the single taken from it, Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” — a giant hit. Osborn went on to play on many more of Rivers’ (now underrated) albums, right up to LA Reggae and Blue Suede Shoes in the early ’70s, and on many of Howe’s subsequent productions, usually alongside Blaine. “Hal and Joe had the lock and the feel,” Howe said in Harvey Kubernik’s book Turn Up the Radio!

He played a Fender Jazz Bass, whose narrow neck suited his fingers, mostly with a pick. Apparently he didn’t change his flat-wound strings for 20 years. There was plenty of competition on his instrument in the Hollywood studios — from Carol Kaye, Ray Pohlman, Lyle Ritz, the multi-talented Knechtel and others, some of them with jazz training — but he was valued for his southern rock ‘n’ roll chops. His later work included Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (with Knechtel on piano) and all the 5th Dimension’s hits, including “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Let the Sunshine In/Aquarius” and the sublime “One Less Bell to Answer”.

Here is a very nice little two-minute tribute, and here is a short interview. As with a lot of great session musicians, the true extent of his contribution will probably never be adequately measured.

Sinatra for sale

An American Classic (Frank Sinatra)

Norman Rockwell’s “An American Classic (Portrait of Frank Sinatra)” is among the headline items in a series of sales in New York next month, at which Sotheby’s will auction off the possessions of Sinatra and his fourth wife, Barbara Marx, who died last year. Commissioned by Frank in 1973, the painting hung on the wall of Barbara’s Los Angeles apartment after his death and has an estimate of $80-120,000. Rockwell, who created so many memorable magazine covers for the Saturday Evening Post, was in his 80th year when he painted a work that, for all its superficial suburban blandness, catches an interesting light in the eye and turn of the mouth.

Other objects for sale, besides a great quantity of the last Mrs Sinatra’s jewellery, include some of Frank’s own modernist abstract paintings; a leather-bound final script of From Here to Eternity, in which Sinatra used the part of Private Angelo Maggio to turn his career around; a pair of AKG microphones that he carried on the road; a monogrammed orange jacket that he wore on his private jet; a personalised yarmulke; and letters from every US president from Truman to Clinton.

There is also a poster from his two-week run at the London Palladium in July 1950, his first dates outside America, in which he shared the bill with Max Wall, the Skyrockets Orchestra, the Tiller Girls, Krista & Kristel, Pierre Bel (“continental juggler”), and Wilson, Keppel & Betty. The Daily Graphic talked to him in the aftermath of the opening night, from which he was lucky to escape with his clothes on. “Two tall redheaded girls nearly got my tie,” he told the paper. “One was actually pulling it off my neck. I pulled back.” Ava Gardner, with whom he was in the middle of a torrid affair, was in the audience as he opened with “Bewitched”, “Embraceable You” and “I Fall in Love Too Easily”, during which the pandemonium in the stalls began.

* You can find details of the auction here: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2018/lady-blue-eyes-property-barbara-frank-sinatra-n09963.html?locale=en

Spector / Hopper

 

Phil Spector noir

These days, nobody talks about him. I hardly ever listen to the string of epic records he made in the 1960s, and I once wrote a book about him. He’s nine years into a 19-year sentence for second-degree murder, and currently being held at a prison hospital in Stockton, California. He’ll be 88 when he comes out.

So there he was this afternoon, hanging on a wall in Somerset House at this year’s Photo London exhibition, immortalised by his friend Dennis Hopper in 1965.

Back in the days when Phil Spector was making his classic records at the Gold Star studio in Los Angeles, Hopper, who had acted with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, was one of those who sometimes dropped by. Spector always liked an audience.

“We hit it off right from the beginning, hanging out at Canter’s, chasing girls,” Hopper told Mick Brown, the author of Tearing Down the Wall of Sound, the definitive Spector biography. Hopper was also pursuing a side-career as a photographer, and after attending the sessions for “River Deep — Mountain High” he shot the cover photo for Ike and Tina Turner’s only Philles album.

In 1967 Spector became involved in a Hopper film project, The Last Movie, which collapsed the following year (and was revived and completed in 1970). In 1968 he played a coke dealer in the era-defining Easy Rider, written by Hopper, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern, produced by Fonda and directed by Hopper. The Christmas following the movie’s release, Spector sent his friends a card featuring a still from his scene and the motto “A little snow at Christmas never hurt anyone…”

Hopper’s photograph of Spector laughing maniacally — blurred so that it looks oddly like one of Francis Bacon’s screaming Popes — catches him at his peak. Or just after it, actually. 1965 was the year of the Ronettes’ “Born to be Together”, the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” and Tom Wolfe’s essay for the Sunday magazine of the New York Herald Tribune, “The First Tycoon of Teen”. It was the year after the matchless triumph of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”, the year before the crippling debacle of “River Deep”.

The framed gelatin silver print is being offered by the Johannes Faber gallery of Vienna. It’s yours for £16,000.

* Photo London ends on Sunday, May 20.