Friday, 28 November 2014


Sometimes I think that we who grew up in the 60's and 70's are a cursed generation. Cursed and blessed, in that we grew up in the most amazing period of creativity in popular music, ever, and nothing that has come after has ever been quite as good.

Now maybe it's true that every generation thinks the same, that it was the growing up that was so fantastic, and whatever music would have been around at the time would have been imprinted on impressionable adolescents.

Maybe any generation is predisposed to think that whatever they discover for themselves is going to be better than anything that came before, and better than whatever comes after. When we become immersed in work and family matters, maybe we no longer pay so much attention to the music around us.

Fair point, but still ... but still, has there ever been such time of eruption of popular music as we grew up in?

Take just one year, 1972:  Jazz was not really on my horizon, Prog Rock very much was ...  And of course this was pre-punk, which was again an explosion, and led to many good things, some of which I came to value, but it never really gripped me. So maybe this is a just a personal, biased, self-indulgent perspective of what was sinking into my brain when I was aged 14.   

Or maybe, just maybe, this was an utterly fantastic year for rock music.  See what you think ...

To pick just a few, it was the year of :
(links more or less randomly chosen)

(What, no Led Zeppelin?!  No, LedZep IV was released in Nov 1971, and Houses of the Holy, March 1973, so, sadly, no.  Similarly, The Who were between Who's Next and Quadrophenia.)

Folk/Soft Rock
  • Neil Young: Harvest
  • Joni Mitchell: For the Roses
  • Moody Blues: Seventh Sojourn
  • Steven Stills: Manassas
  • Eagles: Eagles
  • Carly Simon: No Secrets
  • Cat Stevens: Catch Bull At Four
  • Don MacLean: American Pie
  • John Denver: Rocky Mountain High
  • Neil Diamond: Hot August Night

Glam Rock
  • Bowie: Ziggy Stardust
  • Elton John: Honky Chateau
  • Roxy Music: Roxy Music
  • T Rex: The Slider
  • Alice Cooper: School's Out
  • Slade: Slayed?

Prog Rock
  • Genesis: Foxtrot
  • Pink Floyd: Obscured By Clouds and the movie Live at Pompeii
  • Yes: Close to The Edge
  • Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Trilogy
  • Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick and Living in the Past
  • Wishbone Ash: Argus
  • Uriah Heep: Demons and Wizards and Magician's Birthday
  • Focus: Focus III

AND ...

It wasn't a bad year for pop in general either ... hits that year included these memorable tracks (not always memorable for good reasons, but memorable nonetheless) ...

- Horse With No Name - Amazing Grace - Puppy Love - I'd Like to Teach The World To Sing - Mouldy Old Dough - My Ding-a-Ling - American Pie - Vincent (Starry Starry Night) - School's Out - Mama Weer All Crazee Now - You Wear It Well - Sylvia's Mother - Rockin' Robin  - Brand New Key - All the Young Dudes - Mother and Child Reunion - Long Haired Lover from Liverpool - Meet Me on the Corner - Layla (rerelease as single) - You're So Vain - Morning Has Broken - The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face -    

All of that in ONE year! (And these lists barely scratch the surface.)  Is it any wonder we grew up obsessed with rock and pop?  It was a full time job just keeping up.

And now I come to think of it, 1973 wasn't too shabby either ... Dark Side of the Moon, Houses of the Holy, Quadrophenia, Tubular Bells, Band on The Run, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (I shouldn't have started).

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Tea for Two

A little preamble: Vocalist Kiki Ebsen recently released an album "The Scarecrow Sessions", funded by a Kickstarter project. There's a lot of interesting stuff around that: you can find all the details here.  I'll just say that it's an album of songs for her father, Buddy Ebsen, who was an actor and song-and-dance man.  His story too is a very interesting one (he would have been the Tin Man in the movie of the Wizard of Oz, but for an allergic reaction to the makeup.  Nonetheless his voice appears in some songs).

Here's Buddy Ebsen with Shirley Temple.  All eyes are on the tiny Miss Temple, of course, but look at the how the lanky Buddy partners her with wit and grace, and (it seems to me), great kindness.  You can't but like him:

So Buddy's daughter, Kiki, 10 years after her dad's death, records an album of deliciously jazzy tunes for him (including Codfish Ball of course).  Park that thought, click on that link and have a listen while I take you in a different direction.

It's fascinating to me how tunes can be malleable in the hands of different performers, and before the age of singer-songwriters, this was the norm:  that the songwriting was one thing, the performance another.  Since the 1960's we strongly identify tunes with the original performers.  We talk of originals and cover versions. Go back a bit though and it wasn't like that.

Take the tune Tea for Two.  I was a very small boy when I first came across it.  This version: a track on an album of my big sister's: Cliff Richard ("Britain's answer to Elvis") - "21 Today" (1961). How odd  it seems to me now, that a pop album like that would include songs written, well almost 4 decades earlier.  Because by that time, Tea for Two already had lived many lives.

Written in 1924 for the musical No No Nanette this is an early recording: pleasant enough, but really I won't blame you for not listening all the way through.  Who would have thought it promising material?

But then this tune started getting a life of its own.  From Wikipedia "In October 1927, the conductor Nikolai Malko challenged Dmitri Shostakovich to do an arrangement of a piece in 45 minutes. His "Tea for Two" arrangement, Opus 16, was first performed on 25 November 1928". Here's what he came up with: Shostakovich version.

Then the jazz crowd got hold of it, most famously Art Tatum, in this performance.  And he wasn't the only one.  Here is bopper Thelonious Monk's version.  And Tommy Dorsey's somewhat heavy handed cha cha cha ...  Smoothly from Lester Young (Nat King Cole on piano).  And swingingly from Mr Thomas "Fats" Waller.  And for fans of Gypsy Jazz, the incomparable Django Reinhardt had his go at it too.  It almost feels that you could structure a history of jazz around just this tune.

And ... It was a hit for Doris Day ... And if the obsession takes you (and it took me), you can even find a recording by Harpo Marx (sadly not on youtube).

I suppose what strikes me most is that none of these is a pastiche or a perversion of some perfect "original" performance - indeed the original seems almost the weakest.  And no one would say that the tune itself is any sort of masterpiece.  But artist after artist has chosen it as a theme, an inspiration. And each of these versions seems to me equally valid, and in each performance the tune is both entirely and recognisably itself, and still, entirely and recognisably the artist's.  I find this a wonderful thing.

But if you click on just one link here, choose this one.  A more recent recording, which I find utterly charming: Cuban father and son, Bebo and Chucho Valdes, a piano duet.

And what about father and daughter, Buddy and Kiki Ebsen?

Well of course on her album, Scarecrow Sessions, she includes this song.  Here is a link.

And why would this be on an album for her father?  Well here is Buddy in later years, but still just as light on his feet:

Made me smile ....

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Great Intoxication

Picture the scene:
2001, me aged 43, doing the washing up, new David Byrne CD, paying a little more attention than usual to the lyrics ....

He sings: "Who Disco? / Who Techno? / Who Hip-Hop? / Who Be Bop? / Who's been playing records in his bedroom?"

Those words suddenly draw a visceral reaction: "who's been playing records in his bedroom?" and I sharply remember the intensity of my younger self, the way I would listen to records, obsessively poring over album artwork and lyric sheets, absorbing, responding, trying to make sense of it all, and all the while the music is shaping me.


1996, age 38, driving a 2-hour commute, revisiting old C90 cassettes, among them King Crimson's "Larks Tongues in Aspic". Listening with profound attention, the sheer power of the music coupled to an equally powerful wave of memory. Understanding for the first time how this one, almost forgotten piece has all unknowingly shaped my musical tastes: the rawness, the invention, the minimalism, the discordance, the slow build - this album left those doors wide open.


2013, again driving to a work meeting, again revisiting 70's prog rock.  This time Golden Earring - Eight Miles High.  Again that tug, the music that drags you back to who you once were, back to boarding school with a clapped out old woofer speaker that we attached a 15 foot length of string to and saw how the bass notes made standing waves in the string.


Walking through London, my Android phone playing Jethro Tull's "Thick as a Brick" in my ears, and, fully forty years after first hearing I still marvel at the tightness and polish of the performance, and even though I know the lyrics are a pretentious spoof of an epic poem by a fictional pretentious eight-year-old, still I am moved by them.

"In the clear white circles of morning wonder / I take my place with the lord of the hills /
And the blue-eyed soldiers stand slightly discoloured / (in neat little rows) sporting canvas frills."
Listen here:

Spoof it may be, but with Ian Anderson you are never sure - he has a way of finding the profound in the banal, and then slyly teasing himself for his pretension, and you for buying into it.  Just look at the way in which he sets up this mythic feel in the first two lines, and then punctures that with the gently mocking second two lines.  I take delight from every time I hear this, and I want to point it out to someone, to share it.  I don't expect you to get it - I know it's just me, but still I want to share it.


As a father to two young boys, wanting to share with them something of my childhood, finally finding this Burl Ives tune, and hearing it, becoming a very small boy again.

"In San Francisco town there lived a whale / She ate porkchops by the pail / By the pillbox, by the suitcase / By the bathtub, by the schooner.

Her name was Sarah and she's a peach / But you can't leave food within her reach / Nor nursemaids, nor airedales / Nor chocolate ice-cream sodas

She eats a lot, but when she smiles / You can see her teeth for miles and miles / And her adenoids, and her spareribs / And things too fierce to mention.

So what can you do in a case like that? / What can you do but sit on your hat / Or your toothbrush, or your grandmother / Or anything else that's helpless?"


What's going on here?  These are none of them peerless masterpieces, but every one of these pieces feels somehow integral to my being.  I don't think I could fully explain to any one person exactly why each of these pieces of music (or any of a hundred others I could have chosen) key into some deep part of me, and bring out such strong feelings. But they do: somehow this is important.

I know that this reaction to music like this is intensely personal.  I have a deep desire to explain to someone what is so insanely great about each one, but actually I know they will never get it, not the way I get it.  Because I know that what makes these special is that the original experiences of listening over and over to these actually changed me, and in some small or not so small way, made me who I am.

And now ...

My musical tastes have grown and matured, and new pieces and new discoveries come along and in their own way, they continue to influence and shape me, but perhaps not quite so much.  And I still want to share with others these discoveries, and what makes them seem special to me.  And I want to understand why music can do that ...

Indeed, a Great Intoxication.

David Byrne continues:

"The great intoxication / Mental generation / Sound effects & laughter / Stupid ever after
Hopin' it was cranked up loud enough for you to hear"

Spot on ... I am still that teenager (stupid ever after), and I am still hoping this is cranked up loud enough for you to hear.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Gimme a Muskrat!

For a bunch of boarding school boys in South Africa in the early '70's, the showing of the movie "Woodstock" in the school hall was unmissable.  The projectionist was also a hi-fi nut, so we had great (and loud) sound.  And of course one of the most memorable performances (well maybe second to Joe Cocker's With a Little Help From My Friends) in that movie was Country Joe McDonald singing the "Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die Blues". He introduced the tune by inciting the crowd to "Gimme an F, Gimme a U, Gimme a ..." well, you get the message.  How deliciously wicked that seemed!

Well, many years later in 2003 Country Joe was taken to court for copyright infringement by Babbette Ory, daughter of Kid Ory, who claimed it owed an awful lot to her father's tune "Muskrat Ramble".  In fairness, she had a point: the first strain is pretty similar, the second is unmistakeable.  Here is the original recording, Kid Ory playing in Louis' Hot Five.

Sadly for her, she lost the case: the court ruled that she had waited over 30 years to sue, and that was too long.

But who'd'a thunk it? Woodstock, the musical event that defined a generation, included a 54-year old tune!  You really can't keep a good tune down, and it pops up in so many different styles and manifestations.  Here are a few:

and for sheer joy:

Whoever wrote it, that's a song with some staying power. And in the end who did write it? Looking deeper we learn that Louis claimed "I wrote Muskrat Ramble. Ory named it. He gets the royalties. I don't talk about it.".  Who knows? There are even suggestions that it's based anyway on a Buddy Bolden tune called "The Old Cow Died and the Old Man Cried".   So maybe justice would not have been served by Babbette Ory winning her case after all.


It seems the original "Gimme an F" chant was a little more innocuous: take a peek here.