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  • Don McLean - American Pie

    4. Okt. 2011, 13:34



    Once upon a time one could watch a romantic comedy whose main attraction for men was the distant possibility of glimpsing Alyson Hannigan's flute being used inappropriately. (Although I freely admit that, as a heterosexual male, I am ill-placed to judge the frisson of Jason Biggs' culinary experiments). However since that particular film franchise has thundered on past the bounds of good taste, or even good bad taste, let us divert our attention from the films to the name.


    The phrase originates with a 1971 album and it's title song, American Pie. Prior to researching this journal, I had assumed that McLean was making an abbreviated allusion to the common American symbology of 'mom and apple pie', However it turns out that the characterisation of 'pie' as particularly American is very recent. Consequently, the coincidence of imagery may be just that:coincidence.



    Don McLean is an American singer-songwriter whose music does not sit comfortably in the genre structure. His voice and arrangements are too rich for 'folk'; his songs rock too much for 'easy listening' but are too gentle for 'rock'. And am I just imagining that there are hints of jazz in the mix?

    The album's title track is dirge: it mourns the plane crash in which Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens were killed. There are whole websites discussing the wider ramifications of the lyrics, for example Miss American Pie and Understanding American Pie. I won't attempt to compete; I will retreat to reminisce from my early teenage years.



    When I was a little boy, there was a purple exhibition catalogue on my parents' bookshelf. I remember looking at it and remembering going to the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. It is strange that I no longer remember the 1969 Van Goch show, but only have the memory of a memory. But nevertheless, the images, including The Potato Eaters (above), A Café Terrace at Night, and assorted Sunflowers made a big impression on me.

    A couple later, the music in the school assembly was from the current pop charts, and not some classical piece from centuries past. As if that wasn't sufficiently unusual, we were shown poster reproductions of the pictures I loved (the early works reproduced too glossy, the later ones too dull). The song was Vincent, of course. (Don't tell me you thought it was Pictures Of Matchstick Men about L.S.Lowry!)

    The song is constructed on the pentatonic scale formed from the black keys on the piano. In the list in wikipeda, Five black-key pentatonic scales of the piano, the melody of the opening phrase 'Now I understand' is labelled 'Blues Major, Ritusen'. So, mucking around with an out-of-tune upright at my Grandfather's flat, I was able to figure out how to play the tune. :)

    Another trick of memory afflicts this fine album. You can quite happily listen to the album and remember that each of the songs is good. However when you have finished listening and turned ones attention to other things, two songs have dazzled. The other songs have been eclipsed in the glare.

  • The Beatles - Revolver

    23. Sep. 2011, 12:00



    At time of writing, my album charts are broken, so that seems like a good excuse to write about a band who have no playable tracks on last.fm. I have decided to pick the undisputed greatest pop band of all time. Of course this presents me with a challenge as a writer. Since numerous writers have already documented every nuance of their career.

    I think my best bet is to document my personal contemporary memories, which although garbled, and necessarily childish, are at least unique to me. I can point out a few titbits of objective fact along the way, like a tour guide pointing through the windows of the bus at the rapidly passing scenery.

    My first Beatles memory is she loves you. My great uncle, Barney, worked for a firm that provided juke boxes and pinball machines to pubs. Consequently he had access to all the latest hit singles. However, since his taste in music was almost entirely classical, he often missed their significance. I remember him lambasting 'She Loves You' for it's lack of lyrical sophistication.

    Of course he was almost completely wrong. The early Beatles sound was based on the work of the Black American Rock'n'Roll artists like Little Richard and Chuck Berry. However, since they were untroubled by the sense of racial division permeated US sensibilities, the mixed it up with many other influences. (Andrea Levy's tragedy Small Island contrasts Nazi, American and British attitudes to race during the second world-war and the immediate aftermath).

    For example several of the Beatles songs had Latin Influences. However they were already beginning to change all popular music. So much so that the Panamanian Salsa artist Rubén Blades returned the favour on Amor Y Control


    Time passes and I succeed in persuading Uncle Barney to let me have some of the used singles that he has removed from the juke boxes. Usually these are badly scratched and unplayable, but a few are still in reasonable shape. One of these flotsam was Eleanor Rigby from the album


    This is the mid-point of their glorious career: the seventh of fourteen UK studio albums. It is the first psychedelic rock album and it is full of social commentary. Taxman is the first major George Harrison composition. Paul Weller famously ripped off the riff for The Jam's Pretty Green.

    The weird thing is that, at the time, and for about one quarter of a century afterwards, the significance of this album was lost on me. I thought Help was significant because it showed showed their relationship to other movements in British cultural life: surrealist humour and British 'Kitchen Sink Realism' (and because there was a copy of the album in our household; I think my mother bought it,but I am not sure) . I thought Seargent Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band was significant because of it's florid hallucinogenic qualities (not to mention the hype surrounding that album). But I missed the turning point here. In part this may have been due to the band's decision to stop their music appearing on television, which I remember discussing with my grandmother when the bus passed Apple's offices in the West End of London. As my grandmother was fond of saying, life is a journey that we navigate equipped only with a rear view mirror.

  • Various Artists - Young, Gifted & Black

    11. Sep. 2011, 22:41



    I have picked a representative example of the compilations that Trojan frequently issues to show off their back catalogue. They also do box sets. I remember buying several about a dozen years ago when I was teaching myself Jamaican Creole. I was having to learn because I was smitten but my beloved was 'fresh off the boat' and we needed to communicate. (I married her about a year later and are still together...a bit of luck and it could be happily ever after).



    The distinctive logo shows a Greek warrior's helmet in silhouette. But the connection with the legendary Turkish city in Homer's Iliad is remote. At the time the label was formed, the Jamaican sound systems used to be mounted in vans so they could tour the island. One such sound system was operated by Duke Reid from a Trojan Van. The record label was in turn, named after the sound system.



    Trojan was a sister label to Island. Both labels existed to introduce Jamaican music to the British market. Island developed new artists, starting with Millie and culminating with Bob Marley (cf my journal Bob Marley & the Wailers - Live!). Trojan on the other hand brought the music of established Jamaican artists to British ears.



    The label was fairly successful; it had many UK hits and made a significant contribution to finding an international audience for Jamaican rhythms. It is surprising to me how many of these tunes invoke childhood memories; car journeys with the radio on or watching TV in the living room and Top of the Pops. :)

  • Elton John - Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

    23. Aug. 2011, 21:42



    This was the first album I ever bought with my own money. A couple of months earlier I had been treated by a great aunt to a trip to Harrods for my 13th birthday. I was allowed to choose one item from the store as a present and emerged with a copy of


    I had been seduced by the beautiful Roger Dean artwork and the memories of listening to, my friend, Adam's copy of The Yes Album. Unfortunately, when I got home and played it, I didn't like the music much. It was navel-gazing psychedelic and progressive - everything that punk would later rebel against.

    So when my own purchase, I was going to be more careful. I chose an artist that I had often enjoyed on top of the pops (Not to mention having heard Adam's Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player). The artist was short, plump and balding wearing flamboyant clothes, glasses and hats. He looked exactly like a Reginald Dwight desperately trying to be an Elton Hercules John (and that was indeed the case).

    I bought

    It was a perfect choice. The music was excellent piano based rock/pop while the subject matter included many forbidden subjects of interest to an adolescent: lesbianism (All The Young Girls Love Alice, prostitution (Sweet Painted Lady) and violence (Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting).

    Elton John's success had begun when he had met Bernie Taupin in the offices of DJM Records. They had started working together as composer and lyricist with immediate spectacular results such as Your Song and Border Song.



    Unlike many song writing partnerships , they work completely separately. First Bernie writes the lyrics, like poems. He passes them to Elton, who then composes the music at the piano. It is perhaps surprising, given the apparent lack of interact, that they seem to work better with each other than with other song writing partners.

    Interestingly this album opens with a rare instrumental, Funeral for a Friend.

  • Joan Armatrading - Joan Armatrading

    11. Aug. 2011, 14:09



    When I was 15 or 16 years old, I had a friend called Hazel. She was descended from the Irish Ashkenazi Jewish community, and we were both volunteer youth leaders for Dror, a Socialist Zionist youth club.

    Hazel was tall and willowy with no breasts to speak of. She had a vivacious 'bubbly' personality and curly brown 'jewfro' hair. She was also Bobby's Girl, Bobby being the most senior youth leader in the club at the time. We managed to be good friends in spite of the havoc that this situation wreaked on my adolescent thought processes.

    Every week, we would meet at her parents house in Hendon to plan activities at the club for the following weekend. It was here that I would listen to what I believed to be Joan Armatrading's eponymous debut album, although it was actually her debut with A & M; she had released two earlier albums on a smaller label with less success.



    Joan is a black woman, and part of the British Afro-Carribean community; her roots are in St. Kitts. She started off as folk-rock singer-songwriter in the tradition of Woody Guthrie via Bob Dylan. (She was not a folk singer in the British tradition, nor a calypsonian, which would be the appropriate folk tradition for St Kitts). Her later work was more pop-ish.

    Of course Hazel and I didn't know or notice any of this; we just listened and enjoyed in that peculiar 'colour-blind' way that is available only to middle-class pale-skinned groups. However, in retrospect I can see Ms Armour-Plating, as we humorously dubbed her, as a path-finding pioneer. I doubt if, for example, Tracy Chapman could have succeeded so well without such a predecessor.

    It is interesting to compare her story with that of the great Jimi Hendrix. Jimi was also a black man who wanted to work in a 'white' rock genre. He was unable to achieve success in the USA by staying there; but he was able to achieve it by relocating to England, and then coming back as an international star. (The story of Josephine Baker is also similar: she had to go to France to achieve recognition in the US).

    I don't pretend to understand these varying attitudes to race. British society in the second half of the twentieth century was certainly racist. The best theory I can come up with is that the English perceived that there racism was impolite, and sought to moderate it accordingly. This is a view I took from Small Island by Andrea Levy. This book is a tragedy describing the relations between black Jamaicans and white English in London in the forties and fifties.

    I certainly find it interesting that whereas in my youth I was very active in political racism, I had negligible first hand experience of it. Now, having had a black Jamaican wife, I encounter it as an everyday experience (And not just simplistic white-on-black racism. There are conflicts, for example, between black African and black Caribbean communities in London). However nowadays, my response is not political but social - I prefer to help individuals overcome their own stereotypes by drawing their attention to their direct experiences.

  • Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin IV

    26. Jul. 2011, 20:02



    We lost another female blues singer to the demons that she dredged from her soul so that she could sing them to us. Magnified and Sanctified is God's great name. Amy Winehouse followed in the tradition of Bessie Smith and Janis Joplin, but male blues greats mostly have better longevity.

    In the 1950s recordings by the early blues greats were seen as almost worthless by white America. Consequently they arrived in British ports as ballast on returning cargo ships, where they reached a new audience in the British youth and gave rise to great bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. (This is almost an exact mirror of the way that the unwanted old prints by artists like, Hiroshige, Utamoro and Hokusai, were similarly used as ballast, and in the ports of France reached the eyes of many young artists, including Gaugin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec).

    The British blend of blues and pop became the 'British Invasion' of the US charts. However, there were also great British bands that stayed true to their Blues roots. One such band was The Yardbirds. When it finally broke up in 1968, Jimmy Page got left with the contractual obligations to play gigs and make recordings. Led Zepellin were the band that he assembled to fill that obligation.



    Many bands have an eponymous début album. The Pretenders managed two. But only Peter Gabriel and Led Zeppelin had the presumption to release four. This was the only one that I bought for myself as a teenager (although I bought it shortly before the release of The Song Remains The Same). It was hugely influential; I have heard so many bad amateur covers. In Rod Argent's music shop in Denmark Strret anyone attempting Stairway to Heaven would be fined!

    The band form a kind of pinch point in popular culture, bringing together a heretofore disparate rang of influences, which I will discuss below. They then influenced a huge range of rock and folk genres; in particular heavy metal and hard rock arose by changing the proportions of these musical ingredients.

    As noted above the first ingredient is the blues. Reverence for the blues is not only evident in the music but is alluded to in Lyrics and titles. For example Black Dog (top) is the euphemism that President Lincoln used to describe his depression. The track is instructive because the voice and instruments follow the traditional call and return pattern of, eg, Muddy Waters Mannish Boy



    However, the Black Dog riffs are much more complex and melodic than Muddy Waters' simple rhythm. They take other influences from classical music also, so they are of harmonic as well as melodic influence. It is a song of contrasts contrasting the relative quiet of unaccompanied voice against frenetic instrumentation from bass drum to high hat.

    Not all the albums themes appear in this one song. Another influence is Tolkein (as filtered through the hippy sensibilities of the time). This gives rise to folk music and Eastern musical influences. It gives rise to earnest album art featuring four pseudo-mystical logos. But it also gives rise to a literacy in the lyrics- the use of allusion and other poetic devices,

    Unfortunately none of it streams on last.fm :(

  • Paul Simon - Graceland

    5. Jul. 2011, 21:54



    It was the dying years of the Apartheid regime in South Africa; after the release of Free Nelson Mandela, but before de Klerk had opened negotiations with him.

    Paul Simon was already a famous singer-songwriter. He had made his name with Simon & Garfunkel. But he had made some classic songs after his split with Art Garfunkel. He went to South Africa and made a number of 'joint-venture' songs with Black South African artists.



    It was hugely controversial at the time: should it be treated as a breach of the cultural embargo? To make matters worse, Paul Simon, simply didn't agree with the boycott, arguing that by exposing Black South African artists to global acclaim would erode white separatist culture better than leaving them in isolation.

    Of course, for ordinary mortals, Simon's arguments would be spurious. The problem was that bot the man and the work were so obviously great!

    Another argument advanced was that Simon was in effect plagiarising the artists with whom he collaborated. Although I can sympathise; I remember how let down I felt when I started noticing how much Roy Lichenstein's work derived, uncredited, from Simon & Kirby. However Paul Simon gave his collaborators full credit. Indeed, one of his achievements was to find a large international audience for Ladysmith Black Mambazo




    In fact, the big shame in the controversy and debate was that hardly anyone noticed that two of the tracks had nothing to do (directly) with Africa, Instead these represented a musical style that had grown up among the French-speaking former slaves in the South Western US states: . This music has a blues base, and is instrumented with accordion and washboard; it reminds me of the British but rowdier and, usually sung in Louisiana French.

    It was several more years before I was to come across Clifton Chenier and to learn that the word 'Zydeco' was a corruption of 'Les Haricots, the beans. Of course the connection of the music to leguminous vegetables is lost in the mists of history (although some claim that one of the first zydeco songs, toward the end of the nineteenth century, was called les haricots verts (green beans). However since the song, if it existed, has long been lost, this is not verifiable.

    Now, the arguments have dispersed, hot air blowing in the wind, but the songs remain (the same)

  • The Troggs - Greatest Hits (Dutch)

    28. Jun. 2011, 21:29



    The Troggs were a British band at the time of the britpop phenomenon. Led by a great singer-songwriter, Reg Presley, they produced strong, blues-based pop. There songs were huge hits ... for other people.

    For example, who can forget Wet, Wet, Wet's seemingly endless sojourn in the charts with love is in the air. And Wild Thing has been successful for everyone from Jimi Hendrix to the goodies.



    So how can we explain their lack of commercial success? Perhaps it is in the name. At first you might think, "What is wrong with the name 'Presley'?" (see Elvis Presley – Elvis: 30 #1 Hits). However there have been other successful Elvisses: Elvis Costello and Elvis Crespo spring to mind.




    No, it is 'Reg' to which I laughingly attribute the relative failure. After all, whoever heard of a mega-star called Reg?


    ... and do you think not wearing spectacles may be an added disadvantage?

  • Leftfield - Rhythm and Stealth

    23. Jun. 2011, 14:08



    I vaguely remember that, when I was small, there was a situation comedy called Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width'. By the standard implied in that phrase, Leftfield are poor value. In a career spanning 14 years (with an 8 year gap from 2002-2008) they have produced a grand total of two studio albums, each of which took about four years to make.

    However, each of those albums has been a masterpiece!

    The first thing you notice about them is the distinctiveness of the cover art.


    Leftism features a shark's jaw in front of a speaker cone.


    Rhythm and Stealth features a samurai's suit of armour.

    I can still remember my bitter disappointment when Rhythm and Stealth failed to win the 2000 Mercury Prize :(

    The next thing you notice is the music. Every track is very distinct and yet each of the albums has a unity of 'feel' about it. The rhythms are complex but compelling. The textures are synthetic but organic. And while there are strong influences from punk, dub, dancehall and rock,



    Leftfield are a pair of white, male, Londoners (I have heard rumours that they frequent the area between St John's Wood and Kentish Town). They do not sing. Some of their tracks are instrumental, but they often work with guest vocalists, who contribute distinctive traits to the tracks. However there is a unifying theme to the lyrics; there concern is poverty rather than wealth; the oppressed not the oppressor.

    The use of guest vocalists is now commonplace in electronic music, but they pioneered the practice. Indeed pioneering is perhaps the characteristic of their work. In spite of their albums' long gestation, they were ever so slightly ahead of their time on release.

    They still sound fresh to me every time I listen.

  • The Specials - Specials

    14. Jun. 2011, 18:56



    James Callaghan's term as prime minister was a disastrous period for the UK economy. The postwar economic prescription of Keynes was that governments should borrow in times of recession and repay in times of boom, to adjust their economies to the desired level of employment. However treasuries had been much better at borrowing than at repaying, and now the prospects rising unemployment, falling growth and high inflation.

    In Britain, the economic strains were compounded by the need for social attitudes and institutions to adjust to the loss of empire. This was generating racial tensions, which were cleverly exploited by a rising star in the Political firmament. Maggie Thatcher came to power in 1979



    As the youth of Jamaican and British origin came together in the impoverished streets not all the reactions were conflicts between black and white. Firstly there were several mixed-race racist Afro/Caribbean and European gangs which attacked people of South Asian descent. (These gangs were known at the time as 'Paki-bashers', There were also several White-supremacist gangs engaged in similar activity). Secondly there were many actively anti-racist youth, who, fortunately, outnumbered the racists.

    Among the latter group were those influenced by the mutual respect between punk and reggae music, Mixed race groups sprang up in working class areas exploring Jamaica's musical past: specifically . In Coventry, one particularly radical musician, Jerry Dammers, started to organise the nascent movement, both politically and economically through his record label. The label donated its name to the new variant genre, .



    At the time, I was starting University. I cannot remember which of two tracks first alerted me to the new music; thirty two years later it feels simultaneous. They were One Step Beyond by the local (to me) band, Madness, and Too Much Too Young by Dammers' band, The Specials.

    Both bands were mixed-race, producing extremely dance-friendly music showing reverence for the early Jamaican musicians like Prince Buster. They both demonstrated that in England, it was now acceptable for intelligent people to retain a working-class identity. However, the London band were about fun and frivolity, while the lads from Coventry had more serious purpose. (They also had continuity with the original Jamaican ska in the person of Rico Rodriguez, formerly of the The Skatalites.)



    This was the album that alerted me to Dandy Livingstone and Toots and The Maytals. And once I was shown that there was something to be explored, I learned on my own.

    At the heart of what made The Specials special was a dynamic tension between the musical and political imperatives. When the music won outright, they were just another ska band. When the politics won outright, they were preachy and dull. Sometimes, as on Doesn't Make It Alright the hit a perfect balance. And even more rarely, they made the two sides pull in the same direction instead of against each other (Free Nelson Mandela, Ghost Town)