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Posts from the ‘Pop music’ Category

Beach Boys: After ‘Smile’

Wild HoneyIf you wanted to isolate an individual moment that summed up the curious position of the Beach Boys vis à vis the changing modes of youth culture in 1967, you might come up with the one in “Darlin'”, a single released in that pivotal year, when Carl Wilson sings a phrase written by Mike Love which lands precisely in the space between a letterman’s sweater and a paisley kaftan, between the disappearing culture and the emerging one: “You’re so doggone outtasight…”

After reading his autobiography — Good Vibrations: My Life As a Beach Boy — last year, I had quite a lot more sympathy for Love, although I’m still not sure that I’d want to be in a band with him. While disclaiming responsibility for torpedoing the Smile project, he made an interesting point: “Brian … had tried to take the modular format that he used for ‘Good Vibrations’ and apply it to an entire album, creating a nearly infinite number of ways that it could be assembled. Everything was interchangeable with everything else…”

That was part of the appeal for those of us who were excited by the rapid evolution the Beach Boys underwent in 1965-67. Brian Wilson seemed to be rewriting the rules of pop songwriting, moving away from the standard AABA and 12- or 32-bar forms. There’s plenty of evidence on 1967: Sunshine Tomorrow, a new 2CD compilation of material centred around Wild Honey, the album released that year as a kind of recovery project from the controversy surrounding Smile and Smiley Smile, the latter being the album that emerged from the ashes of the former.

Intended as a kind of palate-cleanser for the band and their fans, Wild Honey was inspired by soul music. Most of the lead singing was done by Carl Wilson, whose voice turned out to have a kind of ardent purity that suited the material — particularly the two great singles: the title track and the wonderful “Darlin'”. The source of the inspiration is most clearly expressed in a better than respectable version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her”.

The compilation opens with a new stereo mix of the complete album by Mark Linett and Alan Boyd. The original stereo vinyl release was one of those fake affairs so common in the days when the mono version was the one that got priority and the stereo was an afterthought (the same thing happened with Sgt Pepper, of course).  The Wild Honey remix is interesting but, like hearing stereo remasters of Motown recordings, it isolates elements that were originally intended to be merged. “Darlin'” is a particularly good example: we were never supposed to hear the horn parts so clearly, and the track loses something of its focus and drive as a result.

Still, it’s great to be reminded of the sheer originality of tracks like the whimsical “I’d Love Just Once to See You” (with its brilliantly funny and unexpected pay-off), the dark, driving “Here Comes the Night” and the gorgeous “Country Air”. And there’s a lavish helping of out-takes and session fragments from all of the tracks, plus the odd reject, all of which illuminate Brian’s working method. “Darlin'” has always been a great track to sing along to, and here’s an exposed rhythm track so that you, too, can be the Beach Boys’ lead singer. There are also some Smiley Smile fragments and out-takes, including an alternative mix of “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter”, the loveliest of Brian’s miniature tone poems.

Most of the rest of the album consists of live recordings — including 14 tracks cut at Wally Heider’s Hollywood studio. The idea was to add canned audience applause before releasing the result under the title Lei’d in Hawaii, before someone thought better of it. Of course it’s interesting to hear them running through the hits and the covers of “The Game of Love”, “The Letter”  and “With a Little Help from My Friends” in such a setting, with live vocals and no overdubs. There are also three tracks from an actual concert in Honolulu, with Brian replacing Bruce Johnston, who had been recruited when he came off the road, and a terrifically impressive rehearsal take of “Heroes and Villains”, plus three tracks from their US tour later in the year, with Johnston restored and Brian out. (“If you have anything for nostalgia, you’d better take it now,” Love advises a Washington DC audience before they launch into the ineffably gloopy “Graduation Day”.)

The whole thing ends with two total treats. The first is a voice-and-piano recording of “Surf’s Up” made in November 1967, during the final Wild Honey sessions, with restarts and adjustments, lasting just over five minutes. It also exposes the special sound of the doctored grand piano in Brian and Marilyn Wilson’s house at 10452 Bellagio Road in Bel Air, where most of these tracks were recorded: a 9ft instrument made by the Chickering company of Boston, Massachusetts, which Brian had detuned in order to make it “ring more”. It’s the characteristic sound of all the Beach Boys’ 1967 music, which is virtually devoid of electric guitars but full of swimmy organs and that strangely resonant, half-submerged piano. And Brian sings beautifully, as he does on the final track, an acappella version of “Surfer Girl”. Who could ask for more?

‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’

 

Nick Broomfield’s documentary on the life and death of Whitney Houston is both profoundly affecting and rather disappointing. What Whitney: Can I Be Me does have to recommend it is a quantity of intimate backstage film shot (by Rudi Dolezal, who gets a co-director credit) during a tour of Germany in 1999, when the singer was on the brink of disaster: still in her ultimately catastrophic marriage to the singer Bobby Brown (with whom she shared addictions), bringing their small daughter on stage to perform in a gruesome cameo, and surrounded by laughing sycophants and worried-looking assistants in charge of make-up, hair, and so on. That daughter, Bobbi Kristina, would died of an overdose in 2015 at the age of 22, three years after her mother was found dead in her bath at the Beverly Hilton, and to read that information in a caption before the closing credits is to experience perhaps the most dismaying of the many sad moments punctuating the film’s 105 minutes.

Early on we are shown Houston as a 12-year-old prodigy singing a solo with a New Jersey gospel choir, encouraged by her mother, the session singer Cissy Houston, and then as the 19-year-old protégée of Clive Davis, the head of Arista Records, who — as one of his former employees attests — found in her the kind of malleable diva material that Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick had been simply too old and set in their styles and images to provide when he signed them in their middle years. The film holds up Davis’s decision to groom her as a black pop star for white people as a factor in her tragedy, which makes it odd that — during a Q&A session after a screening in London this week — the director said that he had chosen not to interview the  veteran executive because he had not wanted to make a controversial film. Those familiar with Broomfield’s previous output will find this a curious claim.

It’s clear, of course, that he can’t wait to get the short years of golden success — the hugely successful debut album, the starring role in Bodyguard, the worldwide smash with “I Will Always Love You” from that film’s soundtrack, the countless awards — out of the way in order to reach the stuff of tragedy, and there is certainly no shortage of that. Her mother’s desire that her daughter should fulfil her own thwarted ambitions is a subtext; Cissy appears in the film, as do the two older brothers with whom Whitney is said to have shared drugs during adolescence. We are told about her close relationship with her father — but when we learn towards the end that John Houston was suing his daughter for $100m shortly before he died, we are not told that he and Whitney’s mother had already gone through an unpleasant divorce.

It’s a classic story of success tearing a family apart, but the emotional heart of the film is its portrayal of Houston’s relationship with Robyn Crawford, the schoolfriend who became her companion and probably her lover until being removed from the picture during the Brown years. Again, Bloomfield claims that although he had Crawford’s number, and although she knew about the film, he declined to talk to her out of feelings of discretion.

The most dramatic testimony comes from David Roberts, a Welsh former policeman who was her bodyguard from 1988 to 1995 (we glimpse him in the background in several sequences), and who claims to have tried to get people to do something about her addictions, without success. Several of her musicians and backing singers, notably the saxophonist Kirk Whalum, speak movingly about her prodigious qualities as a singer and her warmth as a woman. All of them would like to have seen a different outcome but were powerless to intervene.

The music itself is barely discussed. I always found her voice technically impressive rather than emotionally moving, but that may have been a consequence of the decisions taken early on by Davis and his chosen studio operatives. It would have been interesting to know what an old-school soul/R&B producer like Jerry Wexler, Dave Crawford or Allen Toussaint would have made of her.

There are so many holes in the narrative that I began to think only an eight-hour multi-part treatment like the recent O. J.: Made in America would do proper justice to the many facets of Houston’s story. (There’s not a word, for instance, on what she did in the five years between her divorce from Brown and her death.) But I’m grateful to Bloomfield for unearthing — via the testimony of the record producer David Foster — that the decision to get her to sing the first verse of “I Will Always Love You” without accompaniment was made at the suggestion of The Bodyguard‘s other star, Kevin Costner. Maybe everyone else in the world already knew that, but I didn’t.

* Whitney: Can I Be Me is in UK cinemas from June 16.

The sound of Shel Talmy

Shel TalmyOf the handful of Americans who landed in the UK in the 1960s to try and reverse the tide of the British Invasion, none had a more profound impact than Shel Talmy. A 25-year-old studio engineer with virtually no experience as a record producer but with a handful of Beach Boys and Lou Rawls acetates given to him by his mentor, Nik Venet, in order to persuade prospective employers of his bona fides, Talmy arrived from California in the summer of 1962. Dick Rowe, Decca’s A&R chief, was impressed enough to assign him to work with the Bachelors. It wasn’t really his idea of pop music, but when “Charmaine” was a hit, he was on his way. And after that came a handful of sessions that changed the way British pop records sounded.

Talmy had worked as a studio engineer in Hollywood, miking up the Wrecking Crew. He knew how to make records that didn’t sound as though the desks were being manned by men in lab coats who regarded distortion as a form of heresy. The results, when he was let loose on a new generation of English bands, included the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, “All Day and All of the Night” and “Tired of Waiting for You”, and the Who’s “I Can’t Explain”, “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere” and “My Generation”. He knew how to use session men like Jimmy Page and Nicky Hopkins while retaining the raw energy that characterised the young bands in their club appearances.

Making Time is the title of a new Ace Records compilation of his work in London’s recording studios. It’s full of riches and curiosities. My favourite — indeed, one of my favourite singles of the decade is “Jack O’Diamonds” by the American actor Ben Carruthers and the Deep. As I wrote in a piece on this blog three years ago, it’s based on a poem Bob Dylan gave to Carruthers at the Savoy Hotel in London in 1965, and on a snatch of a Blind Lemon Jefferson song of the same name, and it’s played by a band put together for the session with Page on guitar, Hopkins on piano, Ian Whiteman on Lowrey organ, Pete Hodgkinson on drums and a bass guitarist remembered only as “John”.

My second favourite is very different, although no less of a pure product of the mid-’60s: “Surrender”, by a teenage singer from Belfast called Perpetual Langley (real name: Mary Langley), is a record I’d never heard before. It’s an early Nik Ashford-Valerie Simpson-Joshie Armstead composition, and Talmy gives it a perfect New York girl-group treatment. That would be Bobby Graham, I think, doing the Gary Chester thing at the drums in IBC Studios on Portland Place, Talmy’s favourite location. It was released on Talmy’s own independent Planet label, which was also the home of the Creation track that gives the anthology its title.

Although Talmy made his reputation with guitar bands, Making Time is quite a varied collection, including tracks by Roy Harper (“Ageing Raver”), Pentangle (“Light Flight”, the theme from the TV series Take Three Girls), the Nashville Teens, Lee Hazlewood (singing one of Talmy’s own songs), David Bowie (as Davy Jones, with an unreleased mix of “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”), the Easybeats, Chad & Jeremy, Tim Rose, and the Rockin’ Vickers (with Lemmy). There’s also “Drowning in My Own Despair” by Oliver Norman, a halfway decent pastiche of the Four Tops “Seven Rooms of Gloom”.

One band Talmy didn’t record at IBC was Manfred Mann, whose manager, Gerry Bron, called him in after they’d been dropped by EMI — who had given the departing Paul Jones a solo contract — and signed with Philips/Fontana. He made two singles (“Just Like a Woman” and “Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James”) and one album with the band and their new singer, Mike D’Abo, at the Philips studios on the corner of Bayswater Road and Stanhope Place. Wondering what it was like to work with Talmy, and what made him special, I emailed D’Abo and Tom McGuinness, who told me first of all that EMI had turned down their request to let John Burgess, the staff producer who had supervised their early hits, continue his successful collaboration with them.

“My recollection of Shel is of a cool, hands-off producer,” Tom replied. “We weren’t easy to produce. We were all very opinionated. We were also insecure as to whether we could carry on successfully after Paul’s departure. And we missed the security blanket of John Burgess. I can’t honestly recall how much Shel contributed. I know I read an interview with him years ago where he said something like, ‘Manfred Mann weren’t that easy to produce. They would stop in the middle of a take to discuss the political situation in Nicaragua.’ We were also schizophrenic in direction. Fontana wanted pop hits, but bands like Traffic were showing that albums were the way forward. A divide we never bridged.”

A couple of years ago D’Abo visited Talmy in Los Angeles, to which the producer returned in 1979. “I think Shel found recording the band quite a frustrating experience, pointing out to me that during recording sessions Manfred seemed to be forever making or taking phone calls, invariably related to finding out the latest price for his stocks and shares! I don’t think he felt much of a musical common bond existed within the group, and that perhaps our approach to recording singles was a bit too formulaic. Also, being brought up with American culture, it probably made it harder for him to relate to our English character, outlook and idiosyncracies. As a producer, he knew what format a song should take and trusted his instincts as to what made a hit song. He was a basically shy man, but once he felt comfortable in people’s company, he could be most entertaining, amusing and charming. His track record makes him a bit of a ’60s legend, I’d say.”

That’s certainly true. London was a richer place in those days for the presence of Sheldon Talmy, a man who was never afraid to let the needles go into the red and who celebrates his 80th birthday on August 11.

* The photograph of Keith Moon, Shel Talmy and Pete Townshend is from the cover of Making Time: A Shel Talmy Production.

In the Summer of Love

Counter culture 2I’m looking at some 50-year-old cuttings from a morning newspaper called the Nottingham Guardian Journal. The first of them is dated Saturday, May 13, 1967. It’s from a page called The Younger Set, containing pieces on fashion and music. The reviews include Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” (“magnificent… the most creative musician in Britain today”) and Percy Sledge’s “Out of Left Field” (“reaffirms my faith in soul music”). A week later we have the Doors’ debut album (“a very cool, tight sound”), Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” (“a very mind-blowing cut from from one of the leading new-wave groups”) and, er, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich (“completely moronic”).

The Guardian Journal died in 1973 and is remembered only for having been the place where Graham Greene learned the craft of sub-editing before leaving for London to join The Times. And in 1967 it carried these reviews, along with others of The Velvet Underground and Nico, Pet Sounds, Are You Experienced and Vanilla Fudge’s first album. The editor and his senior staff didn’t know much about pop music, and didn’t much like what little they knew, but they knew they had to have some of it and that there was someone in the office who was known to take an interest. That would be me, aged 20.

It was quite a year — although not, in my view, the equal of 1965 or even 1966 in terms of quality. But I wouldn’t argue with those making the case for its historic value, and now along come Harvey Kubernik and Jon Savage — two colleagues of mine from the Melody Maker in the ’70s, as it happens — to sum it up very nicely: the former in 1967 — A Complete Rock Music History of the Summer of Love , a coffee-table book containing nice photographs and a quantity of first-hand testimony, and the latter in Jon Savage’s 1967: The Year Pop Divided, a two-CD compilation of some of the year’s more interesting tracks.

Summer of LoveHarvey’s book moves mostly between San Francisco and Los Angeles on its journey from January to December, with detours to Monterey and London. Some of the oral history — from backroom people like Andrew Loog Oldham, Shel Talmy and Bones Howe as well as stars such as Jerry Garcia, Al Kooper and Carlos Santana — is of rich in opinion and anecdote, despite being mostly divided into bite-sized chunks and arranged around the visual material. There are some real gems, as when the actress Peggy Lipton, one of the great beauties of the time, tells Kubernik about her Monterey Pop Festival experience: “There was a light drizzle and we went to hear Ravi Shankar. I remember I left my body.”

It makes a nice companion to two other oral histories, Jonathon Green’s epic Days in the Life and Barry Miles’s In the Sixties, which tell the story of the era from the British perspective. (The Roy Lichtenstein pastiche at the top of this piece accompanied the publication of an extract from Days in the Life in The Times on the book’s original appearance as a hard-back in 1988; it was commissioned jointly by me and the paper’s then art director, David Driver.)

Among the 48 tracks on Jon Savage’s meticulously compiled and annotated CDs are some unexpected psychedelic gems and curios, such as the Marmalade’s “I See the Rain”, Tintern Abbey’s “Vacuum Cleaner” and the Third Bardo’s “I’m Five Years Ahead of My Time”. The more obvious choices include the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”, Captain Beefheart’s “Yellow Brick Road”, Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” and the Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr Soul”. There are several fine examples of soul music fighting back with Joe Tex’s “Show Me”, James Brown’s “Cold Sweat Pt 1”, the Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger”, the Four Tops’ “You Keep Running Away” and Aretha’s “Respect” and “Chain of Fools”.

So there was certainly plenty going on in 1967, and not just in the obvious places. A very minor example: in Nottingham, a friend of mine organised a Freak Out at the Co-operative Arts Centre, with the Social Deviants on stage, Scorpio Rising projected on the wall, and a bubble machine. The young Paul Smith accepted 25 shillings to make me a blue kaftan for the occasion, with floral trim and armholes so tight that I couldn’t move my upper limbs; not much good for letting it all hang out, never mind leaving your body.

In this morning’s Observer magazine, five participants in San Francisco’s Summer of Love were invited to reflect on its significance. Peter Coyote, a co-founder of the “anarchist gang” (his phrase) known as the Diggers, comes up with an interesting verdict: “The counter-culture may have lost every political battle — we didn’t end racism, we didn’t end war, we didn’t end capitalism, we didn’t end imperialism. But on a cultural level, we won every single battle. There’s no place today in the western world where there’s not an organic food movement, a women’s movement, and environmental movement.”

I’m pretty sure that I never left my body at all during 1967, but then I never got to listen to Ravi Shankar in a light drizzle with Peggy Lipton.

* Jon Savage’s 1967: The Year that Pop Divided is out now on Ace Records. Harvey Kubernik’s 1967: A Complete Rock Music History of the Summer of Love is published by Sterling Books.

At last, Eurovision finds a song

Salvador Sobral 2A rather extraordinary thing happened at the Eurovision Song Contest in Kyiv last night. Amid the overheated cavalcade of stadium-rock effects and terrible English lyrics, a young man in a shapeless black suit and a dark shirt, his long hair tied up in an untidy top-knot, stood along on an unadorned stage and just sang a song in Portuguese, accompanied by a piano and a small group of strings. A very lovely song, a graceful ballad with a shapely tune, delivered in a high and gentle voice that managed to convey the ardour of the lyric without pushing the buttons that tend to fall automatically under a singer’s fingers on such occasions. And the song won the contest, carrying the votes both of the juries around Europe and of the audience at home.

Salvador Sobral’s song was called “Amor Pelos Dois” (“Love for Both of Us”) and was written by his sister, Luísa. When invited up to receive the award, Salvador said this: “We live in a world of disposable music. Music is not fireworks. Music is feeling.” Quite brave, that, to deliver a rebuke to the contest you have just won. Then, when he performed the song again, he invited his sister to share the microphone, and they alternated lines.

This was the first time Portugal had won the contest in 53 years of trying. How marvellous that they should do it with a song and a performance true to the finest traditions of the country’s popular music. Next year, when Lisbon hosts the event, some of the contestants might find the time to visit not only the fado bars in the Bairro Alto but also the exceptionally fine Museo do Fado in Alfama, where they will learn a lot about the value of music that reaches the heart without the use of fireworks.

Sgt Pepper at 50

Sgt Pepper at Abbey RoadThey’ve kept Studio 2 at Abbey Road looking much the way it did in 1967. The walls and movable screens are still covered with the sort of perforated acoustic pasteboard once found in record-shop listening booths. If you look up, you’ll see the window high in the wall through which George Martin looked down from the control room on “the boys”, as he always called them. Behind the cupboard doors you might even find random things to scrape or shake, as the need arises. There are scuffs and stains; like the interior of a vintage car, it has a patina.

It’s a tourist attraction now, of course; apparently you can have your wedding there, which is useful for EMI since the demand for big recording studios is no longer what it was. But there can’t be a better place in the world to listen to the 50th anniversary edition of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was almost entirely recorded there before being sent out into the world on June 1, 1967.

Last Monday, half a century later, about 100 people gathered in Studio 2 to listen to Giles Martin, son of George and inheritor of the mantle of sonic curator of the Beatles’ legacy, as he talked about remixing Sgt Pepper and then played the 96kHz/24bit result over a rather lavish sound system.

Some of those to whom the record always sounded pretty decent in any circumstances will inevitably harbour reservations about such a project. On the other hand, it sounded fantastic — as it was almost bound to do, given the emotional resonance of the setting. But there’s no doubt that the ministrations of Martin fils have exposed elements of the music inevitably obscured in the original mixdown from the four-track tape, and by the perfunctory way the original stereo mix was achieved at a time when only the mono version really mattered.

As often happens when you listen really closely to the Beatles, the most striking thing is what a great band they were, irrespective of all the trappings. “They really dug in,” Martin observed. “They didn’t play quietly ever.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the vicious guitars on the introduction, the wonderful swing-time bass on “With a Little Help From My Friends”, the fabulous tangle of sitars, tamburas and dilrubas on “Within You, Without You”, and the great drumming on “Lovely Rita” and the Lennon sections of “A Day in the Life” are all brought to the fore or otherwise enhanced by the subtle rebalancing of individual levels. An album so rich in incidental detail — to a degree arguably beyond the capacity of the technology then available — can certainly benefit from such restoration, if handled with care and sensitivity.

I remember being in a record shop on the morning that Sgt Pepper arrived. I’d once had a Saturday job there, so I was allowed to take the first copy out of EMI’s brown cardboard box, put it on the shop turntable, and listen while examining the lavish packaging. I found it impressive, of course, but nowhere near as engaging as Rubber Soul, Revolver, Help! or With the Beatles. I still feel that way. Giles Martin calls these sessions “the pinnacle of their collaboration — the happiest time they ever had in the studio”, and presumably he had his father’s word for that. The songs and the approach to presenting them were certainly a product of what he calls “the accelerative universe” in which they were living at the time. But, while admiring the artistry and the breadth of imagination that went into “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite” or “When I’m Sixty-four”, I wouldn’t care if I never heard half Sgt Pepper‘s songs again.

“A Day in the Life” and “She’s Leaving Home” are masterpieces, of course (and it took Monday’s playback to make me realise what a great line “Leaving the note that she hoped would say more” is). As, it goes without saying, are “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”, recorded at the start of the album sessions in November 1966 and included in the various formats in which the 50th anniversary edition will appear in the last week of May (full details here) — although Martin dismissed the notion that those two tracks should now be inserted into some kind of revisionist running order. That was just one of the “spiritual and technical challenges” he talked about having faced, and on this one he made the right call.

What can safely be said is that Giles Martin has done Sgt Pepper no harm. He hasn’t sprinkled some kind of artificial digital fairydust on the masters, and he hasn’t distorted the internal workings of the music. And anyone who would rather listen to a mono vinyl copy on a Dansette is still quite at liberty to do so.

Little Jimmy & Little Joe

jimmy-scott-joe-pesciWhen the great ballad singer Jimmy Scott returned to action in the early ’90s, in a rediscovery primed by appearances on Lou Reed’s Magic & Loss and in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the surge of interest resulted in his recordings becoming widely available. They ranged from carefully curated collections of his work for Decca and Savoy in the 1950s (when he was known as Little Jimmy Scott) to new albums produced for Sire and Milestone by Tommy LiPuma, Mitchell Froom, Todd Barkan and others. There was also, finally, the reappearance of two legendary albums from the 1960s suppressed when Herman Lubinsky, the notoriously vindictive owner of Savoy, claimed that Scott had recorded them in breach of an existing contract: Falling in Love is Wonderful, produced in 1962 by Ray Charles for his own Tangerine label, and The Source, supervised by Joel Dorn for Atlantic in 1969.

Lubinsky’s action cost the singer what should have been the prime years of his career, but we were lucky to have him for the last 20 years of his life, until his death in 2014 at the age of 88. In that final phase, hardly surprisingly, his pipes were not what they had once been, but it wasn’t mawkish to feel that the signs of ageing added an extra poignancy to his interpretations. His marvellous phrasing was certainly unimpaired, and the wide vibrato still touched the heart.

Now, three years after his death, comes an album called I Go Back Home, the fruit of his final recording sessions, held in 2009, in which the German producer Ralf Kemper surrounded him with sympathetic musicians, arrangements, and guests. Sometimes, as in “Poor Butterfly”, Scott speaks the lyric, allowing the French harmonica player Grégoire Maret to add melodic decoration. Elsewhere, as on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “How Deep is the Ocean”, his singing has a surprising strength. There are duets with Dee Dee Bridgewater on “For Once in My Life”, with Oscar Castro Neves on “Love Letters”, and with Renee Olstead on “Someone to Watch over Me”. There are tracks featuring other distinguished instrumentalists: the pianist Kenny Barron, the organist Joey DeFrancesco, the tenorist James Moody, and the trumpeter Till Brönner (who displays a delicate lyricism on “If I Ever Lost You”). There are gentle and wholly appropriate string and woodwind arrangements by Mark Joggerst. There is a beautifully warm and clear mix by Phil Ramone.

The big surprise, however, comes in one of the two songs that do not feature Scott at all but are billed as “tributes” by other singers. It’s a version of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”, the Kern/Hammerstein song that Scott recorded — featuring the seldom-sung introduction — during a 1972 Dorn-produced session which remained unheard until the release of a Rhino/Atlantic album titled Lost and Found in 1993. But this time the singer, paying tribute to his old friend and influence, is the actor Joe Pesci.

We know that Pesci grew up in New Jersey alongside Frankie Valli, and that he had early ambitions as a singer. In 1968 he released an album under the name Joe Ritchie titled Little Joe Sure Can Sing! on the Brunswick label, produced by Artie Schroeck (who arranged Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”), featuring covers of things like the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody”. When it didn’t make waves he switched first to stand-up comedy and then to an acting career that took him to the heights of Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino.

His dead-slow version of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” — one of my very favourite ballads — is good enough to make you wonder what might have happened had he stuck with the singing thing. His delivery is very much in Scott’s pleading high-tenor register, with subtle echoes of that distinctive vibrato, and occasional manipulations of timbre that seemed to echo the muted-trumpet obligato provided on the track by DeFrancesco, switching to his second instrument. Joggerst’s arrangement exudes a glowing serenity, particularly when the rhythm section lays out for a rubato statement of the six-bar bridge before Barron’s piano, the bass of Michael Valerio and Peter Erskine’s brushes pick it up for the final 12 bars.

I never thought I’d hear a treatment of this song to rival the enchanting version recorded by Peggy Lee with Nelson Riddle in 1957. This one does. I’ve been playing it for friends, without divulging the identity of the singer. They’ve all been amazed.

Pesci also appears in a duet with Scott on “The Nearness of You”, and if you’re only half-listening you might not even notice where one begins and the other ends. So that’s an unexpected reason for investigating I Go Back Home, which stitches the final notes of a fabulously gifted and original singer, one matched as an interpreter of torch songs only by Billie Holiday and Shirley Horn, with tender care into a loving hour-long tapestry of sound.

* The photograph of Joe Pesci and Jimmy Scott together in the studio is from the booklet accompanying I Go Back Home, which is released on January 27 on the Eden River label.

A Christmas No 1

Some strange magic makes Davitt Sigerson’s “It’s a Big Country” my favourite Christmas record, narrowly ahead of Booker T and the MGs’ “Winter Wonderland”, Elvis’s “Merry Christmas Baby”, Leon Russell’s “Slipping Into Christmas” and James Brown’s “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto”.

I met Davitt in 1977, when he was a charming 20-year-old New Yorker just down from Oxford University and deeply immersed in soul music, and I was editing Time Out. He suggesting contributing a weekly column of disco listings: a great idea, although there was stern resistance from a majority of the rest of the editorial staff, who were basically into pub-rock and a bit of punk. Anyway, we went ahead. The following year I moved to the Melody Maker and he wrote pieces for me there, too, including a terrific early piece on Chic, for whom we shared a great admiration.

In 1980 he started making records himself, for Michael Zilkha’s Ze label. His first single, “I Never Fall in Love”, seemed bound to be a hit, and I’m not the only one who still finds himself humming it, savouring the witty lyric, and wondering why the hell it wasn’t. (And somewhere I think I’ve still got a box of the 45s, just in case its time comes around.)

What neither “I Never Fall in Love” nor “It’s a Big Country” — which was featured (alongside the Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping”, Alan Vega’s “No More Christmas Blues” and Cristina’s “Things Fall Apart) on The Ze Christmas Record in 1981 — shows is that he had a great feel for a white-boy version of street-funk. When he didn’t get a hit he moved on to writing songs for other artists and to producing, his credits including the Bangles’ third album, Everything, which included the hit “Eternal Flame”. In the ’90s he served briefly as president of Polydor and EMI/Chrysalis, and as chairman of Island in the US.

At some point I remember him telling me that he was writing speeches for politicians, and in 2004 he published a novel called Faithful, which was probably intended to make him the successor to Jay McInerney and Brett Easton Ellis. That was the last I heard of him.

So what is it that I like so much about “It’s a Big Country”? It’s the way the writer, like Chuck Berry and Hal David, uses American place-names to signpost the narrative, which is then guided by a very nice jangling rhythm track at a tempo that is not exactly hurried but suggests that the protagonist might still have more cards to write and calls to make. It’s the conversational tone, and the mention of “me and Ann” (I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the years trying to decide whether she should have an e, like L. M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley, or not, like Ann Sevier in Hans Koningsberger’s An American Romance). And it’s the fact that whenever I hear “Got an uncle in Los Angeles / Beverly Hills, to be precise,” it makes me smile.

If you’re out there, Davitt, merry Christmas. And to everyone else, as well.

Bob Dylan’s ‘Fallen Angels’

Bob Dylan walking stickWhen the Great Director pulls back to frame the ultimate long shot of Bob Dylan’s career from start to finish, it will be interesting to see what the perspective tells us about his two albums of standards associated with Frank Sinatra. My suspicion is that last year’s Shadows in the Night and the new Fallen Angels will be seen as parallel works to the pair of albums, Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, with which, in the early 1990s, he revisited the blues.

Those sessions, recorded in the simple solo acoustic format of his first four albums, seemed to declutter his mind. They were followed by Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times, which contained some of his most creative post-’60s work. And I was struck, listening to him at the Albert Hall last October, by how the decision to deal with songs written by the likes of Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin appeared to have influenced his attitude to the business of singing itself.

You don’t mess around with “Autumn Leaves” or “I’m a Fool to Want You”. You sing them properly or you don’t sing them at all. Dylan seemed to accept that imperative, and to be using it to refine his own delivery. His phrasing has always been exceptionally inventive, but he took the opportunity offered by these old songs to concentrate equally on tonal inflection and the meaning of the lyrics. The effect could be heard in concert when he included a handful of his own songs: “Blowing in the Wind”, “She Belongs to Me” and “Tangled Up in Blue” were treated by their author with a new respect for their original characteristics.

Fallen Angels follows the format of Shadows in the Night, employing his regular small band to create a gentle matrix of guitars and double bass plus brushes. With echoes of Western Swing, the Hot Club of France and Hollywood noir, the format allows Dylan to present these songs from an original point of view. If the new album doesn’t quite match the impact of its predecessor, if it feels a little lacklustre by comparison, that may be something to do with the loss of the element of surprise. But in the greater scheme of things, its significance may not be apparent until we see what he does next.

* A note on the packaging: Ever since Columbia’s art department stopped being in charge of the way Dylan’s new releases look, his albums have been characterised by their shoddy appearance and careless annotation (by contrast with the fastidious approach to the Bootleg Series, of course). Fallen Angels is typical in that respect. It’s all very well being a law unto yourself, but it’s impossible to forgive the failure to credit the composers of such jewels as “Come Rain or Come Shine” (Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer), “All or Nothing at All” (Arthur Altman and Jack Lawrence),  or “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” (Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke).

George Martin’s Day in the Life

George MartinForty five summers ago, George Martin granted me a long interview for the Melody Maker. It was a very enjoyable experience: he was most courteous of men, and his answers were full of fascinating detail, with the occasional gentle indiscretion. He spoke in some depth about his experience of working with the Beatles, all the way from “Love Me Do” to Abbey Road, and the result was published in three parts, on August 21 and 28 and September 4, 1971. Lennon and McCartney were at war with each other that year, and some of what he said got up John’s sensitive nose, provoking a couple of letters from New York, the first of which you can see above. But when I asked Martin about the making of “A Day in the Life”, he responded with a very thorough and interesting description, giving a vivid snapshot of the creative relationship between the producer and the four young men he always referred to as “the boys”, a partnership based on his willingness to entertain their interest in taking risks and their respect for his experience and integrity. Had he, I asked, been responsible — as rumour then had it — for sweeping up several seemingly disconnected musical episodes from the studio floor and sticking them together to create a masterpiece?

No, let’s explain that. John had this song, which started off with his observation, and his part was the beginning and the end, and Paul’s was the middle bit. We started recording it with Paul on piano and John on guitar, and we decided we needed another riff in it, and Paul said, “Well, I’ve got this other song — ‘Got up, got out of bed…'” — and he was going to make that a separate song. He said, “You can use it if you like, put it in your one. Will it fit?” They thought about it for a bit and decided it would work, and they wanted something different in it but they didn’t know what.

They decided that they were going to put a lot of just rhythm in it, and add something later. So I said, “Let’s make it a definite number of bars, let’s have 24 bars of just rhythm in two places, and we’ll decide what to do with them later.” They said, “How are we going to know it’s 24 bars, because it’s a long time?” So we had Mal (Evans) standing by the piano, counting “One… two… three…” and in fact he had an alarm clock, because he was timing the thing as well, and it actually went off. On the record you can hear Mal saying, “Twenty one… twenty two…” if you listen.

When they’d done it, I asked them what they were going to do with those bloody great gaps. Paul said he wanted a symphony orchestra, and I said, “Don’t be silly, Paul — it’s all right having 98 men, but you can do it just as well with a smaller amount.” He said, “I want a symphony orchestra to freak out.” So I said, “If you really want one, let me write something for it.” He said, “No, I don’t want you to. If you write it, it’ll be all you. Let’s have just something freaking out.” I said, “Let’s be practical. You can’t get an orchestra in there and say, ‘Freak out, fellers,’ because nothing would happen. They’d just look embarrassed and make a few funny noises.”

So I booked a 41-piece orchestra, half the normal symphony orchestra, and I spent some time with Paul and John. I wrote out the obvious underlying harmonies, and during the main 24-bar sections John and Paul suggested that we should have a tremendous shriek, starting out quietly and finishing up with a tremendous noise. So I took each instrument in the orchestra and at the beginning of the 24 bars I wrote down their lowest note, whatever it was, so that the cello, for instance, had a bottom C, and at the end of the 24 bars I gave them their highest note related to the chord of E. And throughout the 24 bars I just wrote “poco a poco gliss(ando)”, and when it came to the session I told the musicians that they had to slide very gradually up and those people in the woodwind who needed breaths should take them at random. It was just a general slither.

But when we came to do it, the boys said they wanted to make a real event of it. So they got all their friends to come along and dress up and at that time Mick (Jagger) and Marianne Faithfull came along and all their Apple shop friends — the Dutch people — and there must have been about 40 of them, all freaking out with joss sticks. Paul said, “We’re going to be in our flowers but we don’t expect you to do that because you’re not that kind of person.” I said, “Thank you very much.” He said, “But I want you to wear evening dress, and the orchestra, too.” So I booked the orchestra in evening dress, and when it came to the point Paul had brought a lot of carnival gear — funny hats and false noses — and I distributed them among the orchestra. I wore a Cyrano de Bergerac nose myself. Eddie Gruneberg, who is a great fiddle player, selected a gorilla’s paw for his bow-hand, which was lovely. It was great fun.