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The Pop Group

The Pop GroupThe banner above the stage at the Islington Assembly Hall on Sunday night read “ARMS DEALERS HERE TODAY — THIS IS NOT OK”. No surprise, then, that this was a show by the Pop Group. This is, after all, a band whose first single included the immortal line: “Western values mean nothing to her.” And in the 36 years since I first saw them at a small gig in Bristol, where they were formed, few of their principles — musical or political — have been compromised.

A good crowd showed up in NW1 for the last show of a short tour marking the latest stage of a reunion that began a couple of years ago. They were rewarded by a a set of edgy, driving, passionate songs that blended funk licks with punk attitude, as the Pop Group always did, and included such old favourites as “We Are Time” and “Where There’s a Will”. Mark Stewart bestrode the front of the stage, bellowing the lyrics in a tone at once irate and genial. Another original member, the drummer Bruce Smith, kept the grooves boiling in collaboration with Dan Catsis, who replaced Simon Underwood on bass-guitar in time for their second album in 1980. Gareth Sager scrubbed out rhythm licks — dovetailing with a new second guitarist, Alexi Shrimpton — and delivered the occasional howling solo.

The good news is that they’re actually better at it than they used to be back in the day, when I loved their attitude — a garage band meets George Clinton, Sun Ra, Sonny Sharrock and Augustus Pablo at a Socialist Workers Party rally — but had the odd reservation about their competence. No such problems on Sunday.

On the way out I bought Cabinet of Curiosities, a new compilation of rarities and unreleased stuff from their early days. Its highlights include an August 1978 John Peel session, a terrific live version of “Karen’s Car” (about the cover-up scandal surrounding the death of the US nuclear activist Karen Silkwood) from Helsinki in 1980, and an unreleased studio version of “She Is Beyond Good and Evil”, that great debut single. If the CD was a reminder of the youthful spirit of one of the most important British bands of the 1970s, the gig provided evidence of their continuing relevance.

Jack Bruce 1943-2014

Jack BruceIt was around two o’clock in the morning, and a few minutes earlier the band called VSOP — Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams — had just finished playing to an audience of record industry folk in the ballroom of the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane. The occasion was the 1977 Columbia Records international sales convention, and the salesmen’s minds had been elsewhere, following their bodies out into the night as the performance went on. Few were left by the time the set ended.

The restroom door swung open. A short figure lurched out and stumbled straight into me. His eyes took a couple of seconds to focus before he recognised someone he had met a handful of times. “You used to be Richard Williams,” he said. “I used to be Jack Bruce.”

And now, following the announcement of his death today, at the age of 71, he really did used to be Jack Bruce. Here was a musician whose achievements now seems mind-boggling in their stylistic breadth. Who else spanned such a range of music — from Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo” to Carla Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill — in those years when a generation of young players, bursting with creative energy, were spending their lives venturing into uncharted territory?

The further out Jack got, the more compelling I found him. When I saw Cream on their first go-round of clubs, I couldn’t hear anything interesting. For me, that didn’t change. But the John Burch Octet of 1963: now that was a band, especially if you were fond of Blues & Roots-era Charles Mingus. They never released a record, but just before he died eight years ago Burch gave me a precious cassette of a couple of BBC broadcasts they made.

With Jack on double bass, Peter “Ginger” Baker on drums, Burch himself on piano, Mike Falana on trumpet, John Mumford on trombone, Graham Bond on alto saxophone, Stan Robinson on tenor (depping for Dick Heckstall-Smith) and “Miff” Moule on baritone, they played Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin'”, Oliver Nelson’s “Going Up North” (from Afro-American Sketches), Jimmy Heath’s “All Members”, Benny Golson’s “I Remember Clifford”, Sam Jones’s “Del Sasser”, Burch’s own “Nightwalk” and, best of all, Ginger’s wild arrangement of the prison work song “Early in the Mornin'”, first heard with the edition of Blues Incorporated in which most of the octet also appeared.

A couple of years later there was the amazing album by the pianist Mike Taylor, Trio, on which Bruce and Ron Rubin shared the bass duties: sometimes together, sometimes alternating. Taylor’s conception was that of an English Dick Twardzik, abstract and cerebral even on standards like “All the Things You Are” and “The End of a Love Affair”, and Jack was the perfect fit.

When I interviewed him a few years later, he’d made his fortune and there was a very nice Ferrari Daytona parked outside his manager’s office. But nothing could stop him joining Tony Williams’ Lifetime, a band who were never going to fill stadiums, even though they played two of the loudest (in terms of decibels per cubic foot) and most powerful gigs I’ve ever heard. The first, before Bruce joined, was in the early weeks of 1970 at a club called Ungano’s in New York. As Williams, John McLaughlin and Larry Young shook the walls, Miles Davis slouched elegantly at the bar, checking out his protégés.

In October of that year, with Bruce on board, Lifetime played a British tour. I went to see them at the Marquee with Robert Fripp, and we spent the evening glancing at each other in wonderment as the storm raged through the club, threatening to strip the black paint from the walls. I don’t believe the sheer ferocity of it, the unstoppable outpouring, the brutal intensity and sometimes ecstatic interplay, could ever be recreated. Sadly, their records didn’t even begin to tell the story.

The Berlin variations

Dylan Howe 2Dylan Howe and his band wrapped up their short tour in front of a full house at Warwick University’s Arts Centre last night, performing the versions of David Bowie’s Berlin-era instrumentals heard on the drummer’s excellent new CD, Subterranean. Only the pianist Ross Stanley remained from the recording line-up; for the tour, he and Howe were joined by Andy Sheppard (soprano and tenor saxophones), Steve Lodder (synthesiser) and Dave Whitford (double bass), creating a compact line-up fully capable of the subtlety and range of gesture demanded by the project. And the timing could hardly have been better, given that Bowie himself has just revealed an intriguing and vaguely jazzical track called “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)”, the result of a collaboration with Maria Schneider’s big band.

The instrumentals adapted for Subterranean from Low and Heroes — among them “Neuköln”, “Warszawa” and “Moss Garden” — happen to represent the Bowie I like best, and Howe’s arrangements work with the original moods through careful use of texture (often via the restrained employment of Lodder’s Korg) while opening them up to thoughtful improvisation. Sheppard responded like the master he now is, never straining for a climax as he unfurled his variations, and Stanley’s solos displayed a lovely open-hearted lyricism. Whitford, a member of the new generation of bassists who decline to show off, made a telling contribution both in support and as a soloist.

Above and behind the players, a screen showed evocative Cold War-era documentary footage of West and East Berlin. The visual counterpoint slightly lost its freshness in the second half, when the same sequences were reshuffled, but at the end of two hour-long sets the audience responded with great — and, for the drummer-leader, surely very gratifying — enthusiasm.

* Dylan Howe’s Subterraneans at Warwick Arts Centre (left to right): Steve Lodder, Ross Stanley, Dave Whitford, Andy Sheppard, Howe.

 

Remembering Laura Nyro

Laura Nyro 1Laura Nyro had missed her intended flight from New York to London, forcing her to take a plane that arrived at six o’clock in the morning. Now here she was, barely 12 hours later, warming up before recording a performance before an invited audience in a small auditorium at the BBC’s Television Centre, for a series called In Concert.

This was in May 1971, three months after she had made her British debut at the Royal Festival Hall, giving a solo concert in which the first set was performed by her then boyfriend, Jackson Browne, who was also appearing in the UK for the first time. It had been a wonderful recital: she started with “Stoney End”, included “Timer”, “Been on a Train”, “Emmie”, “Map to the Treasure” and “Christmas in My Soul”, read a poem called “Coal Truck”, and finished with a lovely medley of “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and “Spanish Harlem”. Such range, such composure, such deep connection with her audience seemed exceptional in one who was still only 23 years old.

She readied herself for the BBC’s cameras in a voluptuously flowing mauve and lilac dress with lace half-sleeves: a typically dramatic costume. As she sat at the piano, I was struck by the way that she could turn her head to look like at one moment like a exquisitely soulful contessa from a Velasquez painting and at the next like a lusty young maid from one of Chaucer’s tales.

As well as her manager of the time, Richard Chiaro, there was a new boyfriend along for the ride. “You’ve got to sit somewhere I can see you,” she told him. But a few minutes later she was scolding him for singing along while she ran through some of her numbers.

In such an intimate setting, the evening was unforgettable: opening with a medley in which “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” sandwiched “Natural Woman”, she sang “Buy and Sell”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, the then-unrecorded “I Am the Blues”, “Christmas in My Soul”, a medley of “Timer”, “Ooo Child” and “Up on the Roof”, and “Mother Earth”; she delivered “Stoney End” as an encore. It was transmitted on BBC2, but in the intervening years it seems to have vanished. Long ago I asked Alan Yentob, a senior arts person at the corporation, to see if he could unearth it, but there was no trace.

It was 23 years later, in November 1994, that Laura made her final British appearance, accompanied by her three backing singers in the ideal 19th century Gothic environment of the Union Chapel in Islington. The set finished with her lovely version of “Walk on By”. And then she was gone, to be carried away by ovarian cancer in 1997 at the age of 49.

She remains a powerful and enduring presence among those who fell under the spell of her extraordinary talent. One of those fans is Billy Childs, an American jazz pianist — known for his work with Freddie Hubbard and Dianne Reeves, among others — who has just released an album called Map to the Treasure, on Sony’s Masterworks label, in which his arrangements of 10 Nyro songs are delivered by different singers.

It’s a risky undertaking. Nyro’s first success came with other people’s versions of her songs (the Fifth Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Wedding Bell Blues”, Blood Sweat & Tears’ “And When I Die”, Barbra Streisand’s “Stoney End”, Three Dog Night’s “Eli’s Coming”), but it didn’t take long for her listeners to realise that the composer’s own versions far outstripped those of her interpreters. Nyro’s full-strength personality suffused her writing, as became apparent in her two masterpiece albums, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968) and New York Tendaberry (1969), and their successors. Only she could properly explore the duality of the Madonna/streetchild persona (which she encouraged through her choice of jacket photos for those two albums). So to attempt cover versions at this stage of the game might seem otiose. Who, after all, can add anything new to such cherished pieces as “The Confession” and “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp”?

Amazingly, Childs manages it — not by attempting to match or emulate the raw, romantic power of the originals, but by looking for facets of the songs to which he can apply his considerable resources, and by recruiting a group of singers who do not set out to sound like Nyro but bring their own voices, along with an unmistakeable admiration for the source of the material.

A string quartet appears on every track, with guests soloists featured alongside the singers: Wayne Shorter’s soprano saxophone with Esperanza Spalding on “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp”, Chris Botti’s trumpet with Shawn Colvin on “Save the Country”, Steve Wilson’s alto saxophone with Susan Tedeschi on “Gibsom Street”, and Jerry Douglas’s dobro with Alison Krauss on “And When I Die”. Childs is the pianist throughout, supported by the impeccable rhythm team of Scott Colley (double bass) and Brian Blade (drums).

Childs jumps in straight at the deep end by opening the album with “New York Tendaberry”, one of Nyro’s most personal songs, delivered by the operatic soprano Renée Fleming and the cellist Yo Yo Ma. So right away you know we’re not in for a set of mere recreations. The beauty of Fleming’s tone and the sensitive formality of her phrasing takes the piece away from Nyro’s uptown-soul sensibility and into a different dimension.

That’s one of the highlights. Another comes straight afterwards, with Becca Stevens’s equally poised but comparatively uncorseted tilt at “The Confession”. At the centre of the whole thing, in structural and emotional terms, is Rickie Lee Jones: out of all the singers in the project, she is the one who most resembles Nyro in style and delivery (and, as she has often said, is most influenced by her), making her perfectly suited to bring out the tragedy of “Been on a Train”, helped by a most imaginative arrangement for the string quartet. Her presence makes me wish Childs had also called upon Mary Margaret O’Hara, the other singer I think of as an heir to Nyro’s legacy.

But once you get the measure of what Childs is up to, there isn’t a bad track here. What he gives us is a beautifully conceived and meticulously executed song cycle, a fitting tribute to one of the most original and gifted artists of our time. Yes, it’s polished thing, far more polished than Nyro’s own records ever were, but that polish is no superficial gloss: it’s the patina of a profound respect. And beneath it beats the heart of an extraordinary woman.

Laura Nyro BBC ticket

* The photograph of Laura Nyro comes from the cover of her 1984 album Mother’s Spiritual and was taken by Irene Young. The ticket for the 1971 BBC TV concert is mine. Anyone who loves Nyro’s music and hasn’t already read Michele Kort’s excellent biography — Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro, published by Thomas Dunne Books in the US in 2002 — should do so. And here, for free, is a link to an interesting piece by an academic, Patricia S. Rudden, from a 2006 edition of the newsletter of the Emily Dickinson Society (you’ll need to scroll down to the third page). Clips of Nyro on YouTube tend to get taken down quickly, but here’s a beauty: her performance of “Poverty Train” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, giving the lie (despite a lame band of session men) to the myth that it was a total disaster. And here’s a real oddity from 1969.

Nico, Eno and John Cale in Berlin, 1974

Nico, Cale, EnoFrom the look on their faces, the Grepos guarding the East German side of Checkpoint Charlie had never seen anything like Brian Eno. This was October 5, 1974, and I seem to remember that Eno had dyed his long hair green. They looked askance at John Cale, too. But somehow they let the three of us through the barriers and barbed wire and past the lookout towers that marked the official crossing point in the Wall, enabling us to stroll up the Friedrichstrasse and turn right on to the Unter den Linden for a taste of the Cold War from the other side.

Nico couldn’t come with us. It was something to do with having a West German passport, but I don’t think she was at all upset. To her, Berlin was the city in which she had lived with her mother between 1940, when she was two years old, and 1954. The young Christa Päffgen had worked as a seamstress and a salesgirl in the famous KaDeWe department store before leaving for a new life in Paris, and a new name, at 16.

We were there because the three of them were performing that night in the Neue Nationalgalerie as part of the Meta Musik-Festival. This was month-long event which also featured Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Musicians, the Philip Glass Ensemble (performing “Music in 12 Parts”), Tangerine Dream, Alvin Curran, Musica Elettronica Viva, Tony and Beverly Conrad, a group of Tibetan monks exiled in Switzerland, Ustad Vilayat Khan, and various others. Quite a line-up.

The festival’s director, Walter Bachauer, had taken note of the well publicised event at the Rainbow in London four months earlier, when Nico, Cale and Eno shared the bill with Kevin Ayers. At Island, to whom all four were all contracted, we got our fingers out and got a live album titled June 1, 1974 in the shops within three weeks of the concert. They repeated the event in Manchester and Birmingham, if I remember correctly. When the West Berlin date came up, Ayers wasn’t available. But Bachauer was happy to take the other three, presented under the heading British Rock of the Avant-Garde.

The Neue Nationalgalerie is a classic piece of Bauhaus design by Mies van der Rohe, a low steel and dark glass building erected in 1968 in the middle of what was then a wasteland just south of the Tiergarten (the physical scars of Berlin’s wartime devastation had yet to heal completely). The audience, mainly students, sat on the floor, on white expanded-polystyrene cushions supplied by the museum.

The room was darkened, with three spotlights picking out the performers. Nico had her usual harmonium, Cale had a beautiful grand piano, and Eno had his VCS3 synthesiser plus a card table on which he placed a couple of dozen wine glasses, filled with water to varying heights, all miked up.

The idea was to split the evening between the songs of Cale and Nico. She sang “Frozen Warnings” and “No One Is There” from The Marble Index, “Janitor of Lunacy”, “The Falconer”, “Mutterlein” and “Abschied” from Desertshore, and three tracks from her new album: “You Forgot to Answer”, “Innocent and Vain” and the title track, the Doors’ “The End”. He performed “Guts”, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, “Buffalo Ballet”, Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Fear”, the title track of his new album.

For me, “Fear” was the real first high-point, not least because the point of the card table and the amplified water-filled wine glasses became apparent. Eno tapped on the glasses to make tintinnabulatory noises and then, as Cale’s dramatic song neared the point of explosion, he started to smash them. Fluxus had come to the Bauhaus.

But that was just a start. A certain amount of restiveness had been apparent in the audience from the start, in the form of mild heckling and booing. Back then Berlin audiences had a marked tendency to make their feelings known, and — given that 1974 was the time of the Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhoff and the Red Army Fraction — this lot probably spent as much time at political demonstrations as at concerts.

What really set them off was Nico’s decision to sing “Das Lied der Deutschen”, the old national anthem, with its tune by Haydn and its triumphalist words by August Hoffman von Fallersleben. It had been readopted by the Bonn government in 1952, using only the third verse: a hymn to peaceful unification. The verses about “Germany above all in the world” and “German women, Germany loyalty, German wine and German song” were omitted. Nico, inevitably, ploughed her way through the lot, seemingly oblivious to the gathering crescendo of disapproval. Cale responded as one knew he would, by hammering Rachmaninoff-style arpeggios up and down the keyboard, while Eno gamely produced a variety of lurid war noises from his little synthesiser. The booing and the heckling became shouting and chanting, and dozens of the white polystyrene cushions were hurled (quite harmlessly) towards the stage.

As the cushions flew through the spotlights in the darkened space amid that anarchic din, with Nico imperturbable at the centre of the storm, you could not help but think of the events of 30 years earlier, and what she must have witnessed as a small child. I never knew what her motivation for performing that song was, and I never felt like asking.

Meta Musik 2

Soft tissues

Artchipel Orchestra 3If you happen to be in Italy, and you get a move on, you can probably still buy the September issue of the monthly magazine Musica Jazz, which has a cover-mounted CD: Ferdinando Faraò & Artchipel Orchestra Play Soft Machine. For several reasons, this is a good thing to own.

Faraò set up the orchestra four years ago, with an unusual mission: to reinterpret the work of British jazz and jazz-rock composers of the late 1960s and early 1970s. After making a start on Mike Westbrook, Fred Frith, Dave Stewart and Alan Gowen, he moved on to the Soft Machine. Most recently, in June, the orchestra’s guests at the Fasano festival were Keith and Julie Tippetts. Their leader obviously sees something he likes in the music being made in London during an all too brief era when young rock and jazz musicians worked freely together and anything seemed possible.

The CD that comes with Musica Jazz concentrates in particular on the compositions of the late Hugh Hopper, the Softs’ bass guitarist from 1968 to 1973. Five of Hopper’s tunes — “Facelift”, “Kings and Queens”, “Noisette”, “Dedicated to You But You Weren’t Listening” and “Moustrap” — are among the seven tracks on the 55-minute CD, which was recorded in a Milan studio last December. The other two are Faraò’s “Facelift: Prelude”, an atmospheric introduction to the set , and Robert Wyatt’s classic “Moon in June”, concluding the album in a loose but well organised interpretation featuring Filippo Pascuzzi and Serena Ferrara, two of the ensemble’s four singers.

Faraò and his fellow arranger, Beppe Barbera, aren’t making carbon copies of the originals here. They’re devising revisions that bring unusual resources to bear on the material, exposing facets of beauty that we might not have imagined to be present, even in embryo. To “Kings and Queens”, first heard on Soft Machine’s 4 in 1971, they bring the vocal quartet, a bass riff doubled by Simone Mauri’s bass clarinet, and colouristic interventions by Flavio Minardo’s sitar, Eloisa Manera’s violin and Paolo Botti’s viola. “Dedicated to You…”, which dates from 1969, is successfully rearranged for acapella voices in a treatment inspired by the Delta Saxophone Quartet’s version.

This band has improvisers of substance, too, as we learn from the thoughtful contributions of Germano Zenga’s tenor saxophone, Felice Clemente’s soprano and in particular Massimo Falascone’s unaccompanied alto on an expansive reading of “Noisette”, which Hopper wrote in 1969 and which first appeared on the Softs’ Third in 1970.

I’ve been listening recently listening to Hopper’s solo album, 1984 (released in 1973), and to Canterburied Sounds, the four-CD set of archive material recorded between 1962 and 1972 in mostly informal situations by the various early members of the Softs, and released in full last on the Floating World label. The Artchipel Orchestra’s album presents another perspective on the work of a fascinating musician, and deserves a proper commercial release.

(Addendum: See Alessandro’s reply for information on how to get hold of the relevant issue of Musica Jazz.)

* The photograph of Ferdinando Faraò and the Artchipel Orchestra was taken by Angela Bartolo at the Ah Um festival in Milan in 2011 and is taken from the band’s website: https://sites.google.com/site/artchipelorchestra/

 

 

The art school dance

Deaf SchoolA very good piece on Nina Simone by Claudia Roth Pierpont in the current New Yorker, prompted by the controversial casting of a light-skinned actress to play the singer in a new biopic, reminded me of a piece I wish I’d never written: a review of Simone some time in the 1980s, in which I brusquely criticised her lateness on stage and outbursts of extreme rudeness directed at an adoring audience. The facts as I reported them were all true, but the scathing tone makes it impossible for me to read it today with a clear conscience. If I’d had a greater understanding of her problems, I’d have been a bit more sympathetic.

I mention this because I’ve been thinking about another piece I regret having written: a column in the Melody Maker in 1976, about the launch of a Liverpool band called Deaf School. I’d met them a year earlier, when I was running the A&R department at Island Records in London. They were recommended to me by another Liverpool band, called Nasty Pop, whom I’d just signed and who were part of the same art-school nexus. I went up to see them, enjoyed their show, liked them as people, and briefly showed an interest.

There were about 10 of them, and they were a troupe rather than a band. If you can imagine a cross between Roxy Music (the ’50s futurism) and the Bonzo Dog Band (the ’20s whimsy), with a bit of Sha Na Na and the Shangri-Las thrown in, that’s what they were: exuberantly and amusingly theatrical, in a dressing-up-box kind of way. I liked that, as I liked it in the Magnificent Moodies, the performance art troupe of a year or so earlier. But I didn’t think the songs were great and it wasn’t a disappointment when Warner Brothers, in the person of the great Derek Taylor (the former Beatles/Byrds PR, turned managing director of WB UK), won a brief but fierce bidding war with Virgin, on whose behalf Richard Branson turned up at several of the band’s gigs.

Enrico Cadillac Jnr (Steve Allen), Bette Bright (Anne Martin) and Eric Shark (Sam Davis) were the singers; they lost a second Bright Sister, Sandy (Sandra Harris), soon after signing their record deal, along with a couple of other members. Most of them had stage names: the keyboard player — an art teacher, as opposed to a student, called John Wood — was known as the Rev Max Ripple, and the bassist, Steve Lindsey, called himself Mr Average. The one I talked to most was the lead guitarist, Clive Langer (known as Cliff Hanger), who was effectively their musical director and the one who focused their ambitions. Clive knew a lot about music and we had some interesting conversations.

By the time that the debut album, titled 2nd Honeymoon, came out, I’d left Island and was writing a weekly column for the MM. The piece I wrote about Deaf School attempted to explore the notion that, however good they were, the timing of their appearance meant they were fated to find themselves trying to catch a ship that had already sailed. Something else was about to happen, something new, and groups of that kind weren’t going to be a part of it. So I said so, although not unkindly. But it had an effect. In Deaf School: The Non Stop Pop Art Punk Rock Party, published last year by Liverpool University Press, Paul Du Noyer writes: “To this day it’s the single piece of media coverage that bothers Deaf School most.”

Warner Brothers spent a lot of money on the band, fronting up for three albums and a tour of America. The forces of history and changing taste, perhaps as reflected in one newspaper column, conspired against their chances of making the kind of breakthrough achieved by Roxy Music, their early idols.

They broke up in 1978 and I didn’t see any of them again until last year, when Clive Langer got in touch. Over a cup of coffee in Soho he told me about his years spent successfully producing Madness’s hits. He also gave me a copy of Paul Du Noyer’s book, in which I read for the first time of the damage that column had done to their morale. But Clive didn’t bear a grudge, and the other day he invited me to one of the reunion gigs they’ve been doing from time to time over the past 25 years. This one, on Friday night, was the first of two at the Islington pub near the Angel, arranged as a warm-up for the Rebellion Festival in Blackpool on Sunday and a short tour in November, including four nights at the Borderline in London.

Two of the original band, the drummer Tim Whittaker and Sam Davis, are dead. Gregg Braden has been the drummer since last year, but the rest are as they were on 2nd Honeymoon. Clive is a record producer (and co-wrote “Shipbuilding” with Elvis Costello), Anne Martin is married to Suggs and is the mother of their two daughters, Steve Allen has been a solo artist and an A&R man for Warner Brothers, Ian Ritchie is a composer and session player, Steve Lindsey became a successful publisher with Island Music, and John Wood taught various YBAs and Blur’s Graham Coxon at Goldsmiths College before retiring in 2010.

The gig, on a hot night in a tiny room, and in front of a cheerful audience, was a blast: just the way I remembered them back in Liverpool almost 40 years ago, albeit with greater instrumental proficiency. The set was built up of material from throughout their history, including their most recent stuff, a rather good five-song CD released as Enrico & Bette in 2011, all delivered with verve and humour. One song really stood out: “Taxi”, not the J Blackfoot soul ballad of the same name but a composition by Langer and Allen, the band’s chief composers, and originally released as a single to promote their second album, Don’t Stop the World. Today it sounds like a lost classic of intelligent pure pop; goodness knows how it didn’t do for Deaf School what “Johnny Don’t Do It” and “Rubber Bullets” had done for 10cc, or what “Little Does She Know” did for the Kursaal Flyers. Here it is, in its original form, from Granada TV’s Manchester studios in 1977.

A lot of bands missed the same boat in the mid-70s: others whose demos dropped on my desk were Burlesque, City Boy and Bebop Deluxe. But at least most of the members of Deaf School have survived and prospered, with enthusiasm intact. For wiping a bit of the gloss off an early moment of joy, I apologise. And if they’re around your way, they’re worth a trip in order to confirm that, as Pete Brown once wrote, the art school dance goes on for ever.

* The photograph of Bette Bright, Enrico Cadillac Jr and Ian Ritchie, with Cliff Hanger and Mr Average just visible in the background, was taken at the Islington pub on August 8, 2014.

Ben Carruthers and the Deep

Ben Carruthers2The other day I went to hear some tracks from the new album created by T Bone Burnett from a set of lyrics abandoned by Bob Dylan in 1967. Invited to do whatever he wanted with Dylan’s words, Burnett got together a group of songwriters — Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Marcus Mumford and Elvis Costello — and asked them to turn the lyrics into songs. You can read what I thought of the results here, on the Guardian‘s music blog.

It reminded me of another time someone turned a Dylan lyric into a song, to very good effect. One of my favourite records of the summer of 1965 was “Jack o’ Diamonds” by Ben Carruthers and the Deep, produced by Shel Talmy and released that June on Parlophone. The songwriting credit on the label read “Dylan-Carruthers”. This is it.

It’s a terrific piece of work, perfectly pitched between the exhilarating modernist Anglo-R&B sound of the early Animals, Kinks and Who and Dylan’s intense, inventive folk-rock. Great guitars — heavily reverbed arpeggios, slashing rhythm — with watery organ fills and solo, no nonsense from the bass and drums, and an urgent post-Dylan vocal. A beautifully constructed two minutes and 50 seconds. And a wonderful final chord.

The story is that Carruthers, an American actor who had appeared six years earlier in John Cassavetes’ great Shadows, was in London that summer to appear in a BBC-TV Wednesday Play, Troy Kennedy Martin’s A Man Without Papers, playing the lead opposite Geraldine McEwan. He visited Dylan at the Savoy hotel (a sojourn immortalised, of course, in D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back), and when he asked him for  a lyric he was rewarded with a piece of paper on which Dylan scrawled a version of the poem that had appeared the previous year on the sleeve of Another Side of Bob Dylan, where it began: “jack o’ diamonds / jack o’ diamonds / one eyed knave / on the move / hits the street / sneaks, leaps / between pillars of chips / springs on them like samson / thumps thumps / strikes / is on the prowl / you’ll only lose / shouldn’t stay / jack o’ diamonds / is a hard card t play.”

No wonder the backing track is so sharp: the band, created by Talmy for the session at IBC Studios in Portland Place, included two of the sharpest 21-year-old session musicians in London, Jimmy Page on guitar and Nicky Hopkins on piano, along with a bunch of students from the Architectural Association: Benny Kern on guitar, Ian Whiteman on Lowrey organ, Pete Hodgkinson on drums and a bass player remember only as John. Whiteman later joined the Action, who became Mighty Baby. According to him (on the 45cat website here), it was Kern as much as Carruthers who put the music to Dylan’s lyrics. They also cut a B-side, a Carruthers song called “Right Behind You”, which sounds like Mose Allison taking a stroll down Carnaby Street: here it is.

Benito Carruthers (which is how he was credited on some of his early films) was born in Illinois in 1936, so he was already 29 when he made “Jack o’ Diamonds”. He didn’t make any more records, but there were several further appearances on TV and in movies, including The Dirty Dozen in 1967. He came to see me at the Melody Maker‘s Fleet Street office one day in the early ’70s, and we went to the pub for a conversation of which, regrettably, I kept no record. He died of liver failure in Los Angeles in 1983, aged 47.

I’m biased towards 1965, which I think of as a year of wonders without compare. If you weren’t around then but wanted to know what it felt like, you could do a lot worse than put on “Jack o’ Diamonds”.

* The photograph of Ben Carruthers is a still from Shadows.

The eye (and ear) of Dennis Hopper

EASYRIDER-SPTI-14.tifWhat I remember about hearing “The Weight” for the first time in 1968 was how timeless it sounded, how completely beyond all normal ideas of pop-music chronology. Although it was only just over four and a half minutes long, it somehow appeared to occupy a much more extended time-frame: longer, in a strange but true way, than the extended jams that were all the rage in the parallel universe of blues-rock and psychedelia. And in terms of style, it sounded as though the Band might have begun playing it in the previous century, and could very well continue into the next one.

Taking its place in The Lost Album, an exhibition of Dennis Hopper’s photographs currently on show at the Royal Academy in London, it becomes literally timeless. Hopper’s 400 black and white images — original prints on board, uniform in their modest size, with the tonal warmth and small marks of age that make looking at them like listening to vinyl — are divided between several large rooms, and in the middle comes a change of pace: the spectator stands on what amounts to a balcony, looking across a space on a lower floor at a projection of scenes from Hopper’s Easy Rider on the opposite wall. The accompanying music, configured in an endless loop, is Jaime Robbie Robertson’s masterpiece, seamlessly repeating without end, at least until the exhibition closes.

The song can stand it. You hear it first in the distance, and you want to get closer. When you’ve watched the film montage a couple of times, you move on — and although the music recedes, it won’t go away. To begin with, you wonder why the curator didn’t add a few more songs featured on the Easy Rider soundtrack. Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher”, perhaps, or the Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow”. But it’s a clever way of encouraging you to stay long enough to absorb what the exhibition wants you to see, while discouraging you from taking root. (On a second visit, I noticed that the volume had been turned down.)

Hopper was at his best as a photographer when making portraits of artists and art-world people in the early ’60s: there is something assured and definitive about the beautifully composed studies of Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others. His pictures from civil rights demonstrations lack the dynamism other photohgraphers brought to the same subject, or that of his own images from the celebrated Sunset Strip riots of 1967. His abstract images, too, are unexceptional, but there are some nice photographs of hippies in Los Angeles and San Francisco, of Hell’s Angels, of bull fights in Mexico, and of bands: the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane. And it’s always nice to hear “The Weight” again, and again, and again.

* Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is at the Royal Academy, Burlington Gardens, London W1 until October 19. Easy Rider and The Last Movie are regularly screened in full as part of the exhibition.

 

Looking into Jackson Browne

Jackson BrowneIt’s not really worth a special trip, but anyone visiting London’s South Bank arts complex between now and June 14 will find an exhibition of photographs by Henry Diltz and Chuck Pulin, titled Both Sides Now: Moments in American Music, in the foyer of the National Theatre, organised by the Corbis picture agency. Diltz, a former member of the Modern Folk Quartet, took mellow colour photos of Laurel Canyon aristocracy in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Pulin took raw black and white snaps of the new-wavers and no-wavers of downtown New York City in the late ’70s. The contrast speaks for itself.

Among Diltz’s contributions are a couple of pictures of Jackson Browne, one of which you can see above. The first time I saw Browne on stage was at the South Bank’s Royal Festival Hall in February 1971, when he and his guitar supported Laura Nyro and her piano. He was aged 22 and his first album was awaited, containing songs of astonishing maturity that he’d written when in his mid-teens; he performed them impressively. Now there’s a new 2CD set called Looking into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne, on the Music Road label, which features a couple of dozen people interpreting his songs, and I enjoyed it enough to set aside the wariness with which one has grown used to approaching such projects.

It starts with Don Henley treating “These Days” very well and continues with Bonnie Raitt and David Lindley doing “Everywhere I Go” beautifully before moving on to some names less familiar to me, including Bob Schneider (“Running on Empty”), Paul Thorn (“Doctor My Eyes”), Griffin House (“Barricades of Heaven”) and Venice (“For a Dancer”). Jimmy LaFave’s version of “For Everyman” is good enough to have made me order his latest album (Depending on the Distance) straight away.

You also get Lucinda Williams (a wild-eyed “The Pretender”), Lyle Lovett (“Our Lady of the Well” and “Rosie”), Ben Harper (“Jamaica Say You Will”), Bruce Hornsby (“I’m Alive”), Keb’ Mo’ with “Rock Me on the Water”, the wonderful Karla Bonoff with “Something Fine”, the unlikely pairing of the underrated Marc Cohn and Joan as Police Woman with “Too Many Angels”, another Joan — Osborne — with “Late for the Sky”, J.D. Souther with “My Opening Farewell”, Shawn Colvin with “Call It a Loan”, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa with a sensual “Linda Paloma”, and the Indigo Girls’ lovely version  of “Fountain of Sorrow”, which contains some of my favourite Browne lines, about coming across a photograph of an old lover: You were turning ’round to see who was behind you / And I took your childish laughter by surprise / And at the moment that my camera happened to find you / There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes.

Many excellent musicians make their appearance in the various backing bands — the guitarist Marc Ribot with Springsteen and Scialfa, the bassist Victor Krauss with Souther, the Parks/Sklar/Kunkel rhythm section with Lovett, the pianist Chuck Leavell with the Indigo Girls — and I can’t imagine anyone who likes Browne not enjoying this. I was left wondering that no one chose “The Naked Ride Home”, “In the Shape of a Heart” or “Sky Blue and Black”, which only goes to show how many fine songs he’s written.

Eliza Gilkyson sings another of his best, and I like what she has to say about it: “I don’t think anyone has ever told the story of our generation — our ideals, illusions and spectacular fall from grace — better than Jackson does in ‘Before the Deluge’. It is forgiving and tender, sad and hopeful, and ultimately prophetic as we now face the very future he predicted when he wrote it in 1974. I wish he had gotten it wrong.”