Friday, 17 December 2010

Music for (your) pleasure, five

This one was the very last track on the first volume of Ace Records Theme Time Radio Hour compilations . . .


(Jonathan Richman)


Home Of The Hits LP HH 1910 76) 4.03

From Show 18 “Radio”

Roadrunner is one of the most intriguing songs in all pop history. It looks backwards, to the Velvet Underground's three-chord Sister Ray - the riff is the same, only minus one chord. It looks forward, to punk - the Sex Pistols played it, early on, and recorded it, late on.

It appears to be playing with irony - a hymn to 'the modern world' has to be a gag, right? But I don't think it's actually meant to be ironic. I think Jonathan Richman means every word of it, really does love Massachusetts and the modern world, if in a Jonathan Richman way.

It's a road song yet, of the many songs about specific roads - Route 66 etc - it is surely the only one about a by-pass. Not just any by-pass, though. Route 128, which loops around Boston, was 'the first limited access circumferential highway in the US'. It opened in 1951, the year Richman was born, in Natick, less than five miles to the west. Like London's M25, it's evolved, over time, to become half ring-road, half metaphor.

As home - and connecting ribbon - to generations of computer and software companies, it's developed a whole other imaginative life as an adjective, a synonym for 'hi-tech'. In other words, Route 128 really is the modern world. What sounded like - and still sounds like - a naïve projection was, in fact, a fairly accurate prediction of our future. Out of the mouths of babes and Jonathan Richman.

Next up A trip up river, to deepest Minnesota

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Music for (your) pleasure, four This is something I wrote for the first Theme Time Radio Hour compilation, back in 2008.

TOMMY GUN (Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Nicholas Headon)


CBS 6788 (1978) 3.15

From Show 25 “Guns”

I'm not sure if I was there when Tommy Gun was cut but I was there when the Give 'Em Enough Rope sessions were just starting, in a deconsecrated church in west London, with war films projected on the studio wall. And I was there when they were finishing, too, in an office block in mid-town Manhattan, with three studios running simultaneously - one each for recording, overdubbing and sequencing. New York and London, war and grandiosity: the story of the Clash. One of them anyway. Nostalgia is another.

The Thompson gun was the very first hand-held machine gun, developed in the aftermath of WWI. By 1978, it had long been a museum piece. Once upon a time, though, it was the the Depression era rum-runner's Chicago typewriter, the rat-tat-tat of the St Valentine's Day Massacre. It was John Dillinger's chosen weapon. Baby Face Nelson's and Pretty Boy Floyd's, too. That's why Joe Strummer wrote a song about it. It was a gun with history and meanings: romantic, sexy ones.

Like so much about the Clash, Tommy Gun seeks to have it both ways - and manages, it mostly, too. It's a violent song about the horrors of violence. It knows how much fun shooting and killing people is - in our secret thoughts anyway. But it also knows how terrible guns and death are in reality. Its power and meaning distills from the tension between those two tragically incompatible thoughts. Oh, and from Topper Headon's drumming, too.

Next up Jonathan Richman's journeys through the outskirts of Boston, Mass
Music for (your) pleasure, three For this third sample of my writing from Theme Time Radio Hour, I tackle the world's greatest dancer . . .


(Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields)

FRED ASTAIRE with the Oscar Peterson Group

Clef MGC 1002 (1952) 2.58

From Show 78 “Night”

To explain the exquisiteness of Fred Astaire's voice, best start with his legs. The clearest view is in The Barkleys of Broadway - he and Ginger Rogers dance in kilts. His legs are so, so thin - the stuff of chopsticks. They were that way for a reason, though: his exceptional physical balance and grace. You and I need muscles. He got by on air.
His singing was the same. Light to the point of non-existence, it was a speech-like expression of a deep, subtle understanding that the meaning of a great show tune is in the dance between tune and lyrics. And this is one of the greatest. Debuted, by Astaire, in the 1936 movie, Swing Time, it's become an untypically rueful wedding song standard. This version was cut in 1952 in Los Angeles, at loose, lengthy studio sessions with a cool jazz sextet led by Oscar Peterson. The music is by Jerome Kern, a German Jewish New Yorker who fell in love, one summer night in 1910, with the landlord's daughter at the Swan, Walton-on-Thames. They lived the happy-ever-after life of a Broadway hit. The words are by Dorothy Fields - Jewish, from New Jersey and not so lucky in real love. But an exceptional love song lyricist - notice the internal rhyme of 'warm' and 'for me'. When Kern first played her the melody, she left the room to cry. 'I couldn't stop, it was so beautiful.' Love, pain, tears. Death, too. Good or bad, every marriage ends in tears.

PS If you want to hear this song (or any of the others I've posted about), either post a comment or email and I'll send you a link.
Next up The Clash and their Chicago piano
Music for (your) pleasure, number two

So, for the second of my writings for the Theme Time Radio Hour compilation, we move from the modern Manhattan of 14th St to the eternal hope springs of gospel . . .

16. THE BLOOD (LC Cohen)


Dooto 602 (1960) 2.06 From Show 80 “Blood”

Pressed for my religious affiliation, I tend to reply 'North London Jewish-ish (through marriage) Catholic atheist' - and, to steal an old Nik Cohn line, not untypical of the sort. As such, I feel as qualified to comment on matters sacred as the merely worshipful - more so, perhaps, not being distracted by faith*.

Founded in Los Angeles in 1944, the Zion Travelers worked steadily but never made the headlines. Though The Blood sounds like it could easily predate Hymns Ancient and Modern, it was actually made in 1962, for Dootone - the label that Earth Angel built. LC Cohen, manager and lead tenor, sings/shouts/wails/testifies: 'Weeeell, bloood, running warm, aaaargh-uh-h, o Lord, in your veins, wooh.' What's he on about? And what is it that a non-Bible-basher like me can find so moving - irrefutable, even - in such unchecked sky pilotry?

My guess is it's because it's a kind of Rothko painting for the ears. An essentially abstract piece of work that floats on the boundary of consciousness - where the inchoate begins to be represented as language. Such expressions of a universally shared sense of the ineffable are pop's half-secret core: from Clyde McPhatter's opening cries on Billy Ward and His Dominoes' The Bells to Lorraine Ellison's despair between 2:42 and 2:54 of Stay With Me to the piano sound at 1:06 (and again at 2:09) on Abba's Mamma Mia.

* Not that I have anything against the religious. I have a cousin -a successful lawyer - who believes in fairies but I still let her drive my car.

Next up Fred Astaire's wedding song.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Music for (your) pleasure, number one

One of the other things in my life . . . I help out (a little) on the Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour compilations put out by Ace Records — and my old friend Roger Armstrong. Among other things, this time round, for the third volume, it involved such burdensomeness as dinner at Moro. It also involves my writing about music — something I don't do that often these days.

Each album is a double with forty or fifty songs that Dylan played on his show. There is no Dylan voice on there. (Actually, there is one tiny, tiny snatch of him and I'll provide a reward to anyone who can tell me where it is.) There is a really extensive booklet for each album — and now a cardboard slipcase to hold all three albums. If I didn't already have it, I'd command you to buy it for me this Christmas. (So buy it for someone else instead. You won't regret it. The range and quality of the music is astonishing. The latest one has Jerry Lee Lewis singing as Iago in Othello. Can pop get any better than that?)

I've written a few bits for the sleevenotes etc now and thought you might be interested in them. I'll be posting one a day till I've finished them (then get back to Lacan's con). First up is Laura Cantrell's version of 14th St. If you don't know the tune, post a comment or email me with your address and I will send you a link to my dropbox which will enable you to fetch it etc. So . . .


Taken from the album “Humming By The Flowered Vine” Matador LP OLE 651 (2005) 3.16

From Show 83 “Street Map”

A song about boundaries and borderlines - crossed, uncrossed and uncrossable - sung by Laura Cantrell, a Nashville emigrant to New York whose biggest champion was an Englishman, John Peel. It's a pinhole view, she said, of 'the moment when you see someone you're obsessed with - and decide whether it's worth it to say hello or stay safely in the background.'

Love and not-love, desire and rejection: they couldn't have a more evocative setting than the broad crosstown street which is not just the unofficial divide between uptown and downtown Manhattan but an interzone between the ancient and modern worlds. It's where the city's rigid street grid plan begins. It's where they put the barricades on 9/11. Originally, it was - as Bob Dylan put it on Theme Time Radio Hour - 'the old artery of Manhattan'. By the 1970s, it was meat-packing joints, gimcrack shops and dangerously louche gay sex clubs - The Anvil, The Toilet, The Manhole. These days, it's upscale fashiony.

The song's writer, Emily Spray, lived on its eastern reaches in its crack low-day of the late 1980s/early 1990s. 'It's quite literal. I had a crush on a guy who was unavailable and I used to run into him on 14th street and have this emotional experience. I could tell he enjoyed my attraction to him and played with my feelings a little. From there came the song.' With, at its core, a borderline never crossed. And a heart-rending shard of psychogeographical word-play - 'not counting the blocks between you and me'.

Next up The Zion Travelers' ecstastic religiosity