Archive for March, 2016

“We did him in up country”

28 March 2016

Since it’s Easter Monday, it seems appropriate to share the lyric of “Search and Destroy“, words by Clive James, music by Pete Atkin, in which the Easter story is reimagined as a laconic report about the end of a successful 20th century counter-terrorist operation.

James, who is an outstanding lyric writer, has written better songs than this, but there’s something to admire about the way the final stanza locates the story conclusively and then punctures it decisively:

The faithful talk some wishful-thinking cock/ About a spook who rolls away the rock/
At which point golden boy walks out alive/ We’re bumping them all off as they arrive.

One can imagine the likes of Brigadier Richard Clutterbuck being delighted about the way things turned out here.

Search and destroy

I'm glad to say we're mopping up up here
I'm sending you today's report in clear
Security's no problem now at all
You just pick up the phone and make a call

     We should have done all this back at the beginning
     And never let the clowns think they were winning

We took a month to crack their second man
But when he talked the strudel hit the fan
He named eleven leaders who we shot
And then the top guy's girl who we've still got
The chick was tough and held out for a week
But spilled a bibful when we made her speak
We picked his mother up and worked on her
He came in on his own and there you were

     We should have nailed the first ones when we found them
     Before all the mystique built up around them

We never gave the local heat a chance
To get him on their own and make him dance
We did him in up-country, bombed the cave
And made the whole damn mountainside his grave
The faithful talk some wishful-thinking cock
About a spook who rolls away the rock
At which point golden boy walks out alive
We're bumping them all off as they arrive

     And that winds up this dreary exhibition
     A total waste of time and ammunition

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‘The Cavalry incident’

Of course, Clive James is in good company here. The radical journalist Claud Cockburn recalled in his memoir I Claud rewriting the Easter story in the early 1930s as a parody of The Times’ Berlin reporter Pugge, who tended to see the streetfighting going on in Berlin in somewhat simple terms. This is how Cockburn described it in the book:

It was a level-headed estimate studded with well-tried Times’ phrases. ‘Small disposition here,’ cabled this correspondent, ‘attach undue importance protests raised certain quarters result recent arrest and trial leading revolutionary agitator followed by what is known locally as “the Cavalry incident”.’ The despatch was obviously based on an off-the-record interview with Pontius Pilate. It took the view that, so far from acting harshly, the Government had behaved with what in some quarters was criticized as ‘undue clemency’. It pointed out that firm Government action had definitely eliminated this small band of extremists, whose doctines might otherwise have represented a serious threat for the future.

The youtube clip at the top shows Atkin—who is currently, thankfully, recovering after being hit by a bus in Bristol—performing “Search and Destory” solo in Sheffield.

The recorded version is on the Pete Atkin reord Lakeside Sessions Vol. 2, which is available as a CD online or via iTunes. Or if you want to play it yourself, the chords are here.

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Listening to McCartney

27 March 2016

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When the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, died recently, Richard Williams posted a note on his blog about the recording of ‘A Day In The Life’, based on a long interview he’d done with Martin for Melody Maker in the early ’70s. Martin explained:

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.” … 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.”

After some toing and froing, Martin booked a 41-piece orchestra, and wrote some structure for the orchestra, but also got them, in effect, to improvise around a long glissando. There’s more detail in William’s post, but the video on Vevo gives some sense of the atmosphere on the recording.

Anyway, youtube being youtube, that led me into a couple of more recent videos with Paul McCartney which were useful reminders that he has always been smart and curious, and despite his fame and wealth remains a human being.

Writing

There’s a long interview at Rollins College in the US with the American poet, and former US Laureate – Billy Collins in which he talks among many other things  about writing the three hundred songs he co-wrote with Lennon, sitting down for writing sessions of three hours or so, sessions which always produced a song. In the interview he talks about one session where they got stuck on a lyric involving “golden rings.”. The clip starts at the right place in the interview.

One of the students has a question about what it takes to succeed in songwriting, and McCartney talks about doing a lot of writing—getting better through practice, which is fair enough. But several of the stories he tells are actually about keeping your ears open, about the importance of listening.

Presley

The other video was a one man show he did in front of an invited audience at Abbey Road Studios, where he displays a gift for telling stories, even some comic timing.

This moment, where he does a solo version of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ on the standup bass played by Presley’s first bassist, Bill Black, has some magic in it. Again, it starts at about the right place:

Beatle

And actually, it’s worth letting it run on a bit for this reason. After McCartney plays ‘Heartbreak Hotel” he wonders over to a Mellotron and does a nightclub style number, before talking about what the Beatles did with the Mellotron. He plays a few bars of the start of a fifty-year old song and the audience breaks into the applause of recognition.  (I’m not going to spoil the effect by saying which song it is.)

Billy Collins – who’s about the same age as McCartney – starts his interview by saying, “You were a Beatle weren’t you? That’s amazing to me,” and the students in the audience clap. Oddly, it’s only when the question gets put in that “Martian” way that you realise what a huge cultural space the Beatles still fill, half a century on.

Ryley Walker at Bush Hall

5 March 2016

ryley-walker-and-danny-thompson-at-bush-hall-london-206x266 I’ve been finding writing a bit slow going recently, so thought I’d try some tricks to get going again. Trick 1: write a list. So here’s a list of some things I noticed at Ryley Walker‘s gig at Bush Hall this week, his last appearance before flying back to the States. The concert had been added to his schedule after an early gig at Bush Hall sold out.

The two support acts felt like they were from a timewarp. The Hummingbirds had been cryogenically frozen in early 1964 and recently reheated. Like listening to the Merseybeats: very nice, but why. Meg Baird, singing solo, with soprano voice and good technical guitar, was more late 60s, think Joni Mitchell or Vashti Bunyan. I kind of wish she’d made more of her voice by singing something traditional, like Barbara Allen.

Ryley Walker, on the other hand, has a pretty distinctive sound, with declamatory voice and vocals over full jazz/blues infected guitar. Earlier in his career he’d obviously been influenced by John Martyn, but I think he’s moving away from that now. There were times when I heard some sense of mid-period Van Morrison in there.

Danny Thompson, the fabulous British bass player, was supposed to be accompanying Ryley, but was ill. He’s of an age when you worry about this, since several of his collaborators have died in the past few years: Bert Jansch, John Martyn, John Renbourn. Get well soon.

Walker’s technically a good guitarist. He’s obviously done his 10,000 hours, and he gets a rich sound from his 12-string guitar, even when he has to play solo at short notice

He also has an engaging manner onstage (and in interview). He tells stories, he thanks the audience, he talks about what he’s doing. When first tuning up he made a joke about the free jazz guitarist Derek Bailey. (“This is just me tuning up, it’s not my Derek Bailey cover.”) I wondered how many 26-year olds from Illinois, even if they were guitar players, would know who Derek Bailey was. Anyway, he thanks the audience for turning out and treats them like long-lost friends at the same time. Towards the end of his set, he tod us he was about to play his last song, meaning, of course, the last one before the encore. “Then I’ll have a piss and a beer and play a couple more,” he said: he knows that we know that he knows.

Meg Baird, in contrast, said almost nothing to the audience, clearly wanting her music to speak for itself. When she did speak towards the end of her set, she said she found it hard to speak about her songs, but garbled it, kind of proving her point. But one consequence was that while she was re-tuning in the middle of the set she lost the audience. The Hummingbirds, on the other hand, got chattier and chattier as the set went on. On one song they got so animated about the story of how it came to be written (or not) they almost forgot to play the song.