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Put The Needle On The Record…

Does anyone remember a show on Radio 1 (in the 247 Medium Wave era) called ‘My Top Twelve’? It was kind of like Desert Island Discs but for pop musicians. Saturday mornings, hosted by (I think) Paul Gambaccini. It was the first place I ever heard Van Morrison (courtesy of Leo Sayer, believe it or not) and where I learned that Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon had fallen out. From Art Garfunkel. This was all news to a very young me. Anyway this blog is going to be a bit like that show – except it’s me, not Leo or Artie, choosing and chuntering about records and recordings, songs and singers, music and musicians of many flavours. As Brian Wilson said, well, well, you’re welcome…

Sock It To Me: The Monkees and ‘Goin’ Down’

This is one of my occasional posts of material left on the cutting room floor of my 2016 book The Monkees, Head and the 60’s. If you like it, check out my book here http://jawbonepress.com/the-monkees-head-and-the-60s/

What’s the connection between Mose Allison, Breaking Bad and The Monkees? We’ll get to the TV show but Allison was (and remains) like The Monkees in being an exception as well as an example in his particular field. He was a white man playing jazz piano,  effectively inventing a way of singing which has proved hugely influential in jazz, a kind of adaptation of the sound of a horn put through the human voice. Georgie Fame is the UK’s most famous Allison acolyte, and demonstrates the technique as he takes half the leads on the 1995 album he made with Van Morrison of Allison’s songs, Tell Me Something. A song which isn’t on that album but which is one of his most famous is – in the jazz tradition – an adaptation of someone else’s tune.

‘Parchman Farm’ began life as a blues written and sung by Booker T. Washington (aka Bukka White) as an autobiographical sketch – from 1937 Washington had served time in a  state penitentiary in Sunflower County, Mississippi called Parchman Farm for shooting a man in the leg in 1937.  His crimes were lesser than those of Huddie Ledbetter but like Leadbelly he was recorded by John Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1939 and he was released the following year.  Lomax’s magic touch when it came to securing the early release of his favoured blues singers from jail seems also to have worked in Washington’s favour and he was freed in early 1940.  A session in Chicago directly after his emancipation modernised his Delta Blues sound, and caught ths version of the song.

However, it wasn’t until the revival of interest in the early folk-blues recordings amongst the Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan generation that his songs began to be sung and heard by a wider, whiter audience. Dylan famously recorded his ‘Fixin’ To Die Blues’ for his 1962 debut album, a good five years after Mose Allison’s adaptation of his ‘Parchman Farm Blues’ had introduced the tune to the bloodstream of  white American music. It emerged on his 1957 album Local Color,  a sophomore effort following his dazzling debut of the same year, Back Country Suite. There’s no brass on ‘Parchman Farm’ but Allison is credited with piano, trumpet and vocal for this album and that’s a clue – the easy, highly musical flow of his singing style resembles the cascade of notes from a trumpet and in this regard he’s not unlike Chet Baker who made a similar connection between his horn playing and his vocalising. This new way of singing came from and still belongs to jazz – it may well better suit scat, from which it is partly derived, but when there’s a great lyric it lends a song a fluvial impetus which is hard to resist.

Bukka White’s 1940 recording is a tight little country blues which showcases his rough-edged baritone bleat. It’s powerful and a real palate-cleanser. It’s also  quite unlike the Allison adaptation, even more so than the difference between that version and the Monkees’ work on the theme.  So ‘Goin’ Down’ is just the next stage of music being handed from player to player, from age to age. White himself has been sampled by a number of hip hop and electronica acts. The circle remains unbroken. Whoever it was who suggested that the song was sufficiently unalike its apparent source for it to exist in its own right was correct – for example, Allison’s skipping piano triplet leads his 1957 vocal take, and there is actually no keyboard at all on ‘Goin Down’ (although, prior to writing this, I’d have sworn there was a mighty Hammond organ pumping away in the mix there somewhere – strange but true). Typically for jazz the voice sits in the arrangement as another texture, another element, the formal verse structures a lyric delivers simply a structure on which to drape the music.

When the song breaks down into a half-speed blues piano lament towards the close we think it’s going to end that way, but it provides a platform for the final bleak gag of the song ironically sung brightly over a final restatement of the nimble little piano riff: that last line is  ‘I’ll be sitting here the rest of my life/ And all I did was shoot my wife’.  For some reason that final twist reminds me of the last scene of Head – it’s a similar technique- take them to the edge of a resolution and then show them that the truth is something different. In truth when heard side by side, all the songs truly share is a spirit of openness and the use of an, insistent, busy little riff that serves all around it.

Just in case we are unclear about this song’s potency, here’s a clip from a BBC documentary which focusses in on the significance of ‘Parchman Farm’ for the musical peer group of The Monkees, including Georgie Fame and Pete Townsend.

Peter Tork will likely have learned the song from Allison’s Local Color and when the liberty of the studio sessions which produced Headquarters and Pisces Aquarius arrived they could explore any musical avenue that suited them, trying them out and trying them on for size. You only have to listen to the musical variety of the latter for proof of that. Chip Douglas told me that he recalled the idea to start playing around with ‘Parchman Farm’ came from Peter at a session in June ’67, no doubt because it’s a tough sounding, infectious little riff to play with, that sits up and begs for reinterpretation, to be remade as something new. Here’s an occasion where the newborn nature of The Monkees as a music making unit definitely worked in their favour – they took an idea and ran with it – and the groove that is ‘Goin’ Down’ developed from a jam at the ‘She Hangs Out’ session. At first just a funky little instrumental thing, with Tork and Nesmith on electric guitars, and the rhythm section of buddies Eddie Hoh on drums and Chip Douglas on bass. As is often the way when a little musical phrase is borrowed it is also developed – and this is why jamming between musicians around a riff you like is always better than sampling – and by the end they had decided that it didn’t really sound so much like ‘Parchman Farm’ any more, so why not make it one of their own?

The label to the UK version of ‘Daydream Believer’/ ‘Goin’ Down’

Diane Hilderbrand, who had already contributed to their catalogue notably by the stunning small-hours impressionism of ‘Early Morning Blues and Greens’ on Headquarters was sent the tapes and invited to come up with a lyric. So the tune has a five-person credit, tying it for ‘longest list’  with ‘No Time’, with which it shares some headlong energy yet in both cases the tunes never quite tip into simple speed – there’s control there, via the arrangement and the playing, and that’s what makes the variations in pace so satisfying.

The front cover of Diane Hilderbrand’s 1967 LP for Elektra, ‘Early Morning Blues and Greens’

The speed and ease of Hildebrand’s contribution only emphasises that ‘Goin’ Down’ was a genuinely spontaneous creation in the studio, the kind of thing that can only happen when people are getting into playing with each other as a unit. In a wider ranging interview for my book The Monkees Head and the 60’s Chip Douglas described Lester Sill to me as ‘initially there to make sure things didn’t get too far out but ended up contributing plenty to the songs.  Bless him, he was always right!’, and it was indeed Sill who suggested they work on the jam and draw a Monkees original out of it, securing Dolenz for the vocal and suggesting horns – unlike the TV show version of ‘She Hangs Out’ there are horns on the Pisces version arranged by Shorty Rogers and it was he who sorted the brass for ‘Goin’ Down’, which was added to the basic track nearly three months later  in mid September ’67.

There are a dozen players on there, some but not all also to be heard in more restrained mood on ‘Hard To Believe’, which received its dose of horns at the same session on the 15th of the month. LA jazz notables all, they were no doubt glad of the pop money the session provided but they blast the roof offa the sucker, notably the unidentified trumpet player who soars high over the closing sections, really giving Dolenz a satellite to bounce his vocal off. It’s an amazing sound, and the last thing one would expect to find on the b-side of ‘Daydream Believer’ – it must have been a turn off for many, but a musical education for plenty more.

‘Goin’ Down’, as you can hear above on the original 45, is in every sense a blast. Musically, rhythmically, lyrically. You can hear the freedom in the way it just goes and goes – more than once you think it must be through as the horns and drums reach a great tumult but then they settle back and the funky little guitar lick surfaces once more, propelling the tune along, and back comes Micky. Unlike ‘Parchman Farm’ this song is packed with words. Diane Hilderbrand’s lyric is a corker – in its literal sense it starts off as the story of a failed suicide but I see it more as an exploration of the possibilities of matching language to rhythm – the flow of the lyric as sung by Dolenz is concomitant with the flow of the music and both are perfectly matched to the theme of being carried downstream. Not in the ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ sense though because the character in this song is wide awake and, possibly for the first time in years, his mind is switched to full on. The starting point for the idea of ‘goin’ down’ is the jump into the river by the rejected lover, and what she will feel when she finds out what has happened:

‘And I bet she will regret it
When they find me in the morning
Wet and drowned
And the word gets ’round…
Goin’ down’

Yet the first word of the verse is ‘floatin’, as aopposed to  ‘drownin’ or even ‘sinkin’ – the buoyancy of the man and his saturated liver is reflected in the flow and forward motion of the music and the endless strem of words, keeping him from sinking into the silence of the waters.  The song is upholstered with dark humour –  when he does go under, he’s back pretty quick :

Comin’ up for air
It’s pretty stuffy under there
I’d like to say I didn’t care
But I forgot to leave a note

The narrator’s mood goes from desperate to struggling to survive to relaxed and finally resolved to dive back into life and live it more fully. So in that sense it’s almost like a little morality tale. But among the drama of its musical dynamics and the hitherto undisclosed evidence of Micky’s jazz singing skills you’d be forgiven for not noticing this at first.

We could read the river almost as the river of time, and the flow of the song a sketch of how you slowly recover from a moment of crisis. The subject sobers up as the song goes on in more ways than one. ‘Now the sky is getting light and everything is gonna be alright’ and there is a supernatant quality to the track. It’s all mouth music, all that blowing all those words, struggling for breath fighting for breath to keep breathing, struggling against its own form to keep going to keep afloat. When I listened to it as a kid it made me think of  suffocating – as a mild claustrophobic it’s still an uncomfortable listen at times for that very reason.

The song is ushered in – not inappropriately –  by a swiftly descending run on the bass, played by Chip Douglas, accompanied by full-fat jazz skitter on the kit by Eddie Hoh, over which Micky intro’s his vocal with a slightly self-conscious ‘Sock it to me!’ – poised midway between the simple act of singing in a certain style and more complex awareness of what it means to be singing in that same certain style. The phrase was certainly current in the 60’s, meaning ‘let me have it’ or ‘give me your best’ in personal or business contexts but also had a sexual connotation, an invitation to, well, give someone your best effort. It was also part of pop culture, travelling from jazz-speak into the mainstream via the hip talk that stetches right back to Slim Galliard, picked up for White Americans through the growing popularity of jazz in the 50’s and early 60’s and also the writings of the Beats in general and Jack Kerouac in particular.

Around the time Dolenz was recording this track Aretha Franklin’s mighty version of Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’ was a big hit and included the phrase ‘sock it to me’ as a kind of chant – showing how far it travelled it later became a worn-’til-it-was-thin catchphrase on the big TV show of the late 60’s, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In , which was fleetingly proposed by Davy Jones as a possible model for any third series of The Monkees. Indeed almost one of the last professional obligations the Tork-less trio fulfilled was an incongruous appearance on this show on the 6th of October 1969.

Micky’s mix of musical and actorly skills serve him well in ‘Goin’ Down’ as he takes on Hildebrand’s snaking, seemingly self-generating stream of words and turns them into one of his finest vocal performances.  he gets stuck right in, using a style which is effectively scat-singing with all the rhythmically responsive twists and turns that involves, only with actual lyrics to get his mouth around. That’s the most remarkable thing ; the song contains over 600 words delivered at a speed both excitingly rapid – something is happening here, so keep up! – but also measured enough to be heard and understood as they flash by. The studio version may well be a composite of a number of takes but live he does this song straight and, as a former singer in a former band myself, I can tell you that it’s no mean feat.

The lyric maps out moments when one’s life flashes before one’s eyes : the jump (‘Floatin’ in the river with a saturated liver’), the struggle to survive overcoming the emotional upset, with instinct overpowering reason  (‘Comin’ up for air, it’s pretty stuffy under there’) the moment of reflection after the crisis has passed (‘I should have taken time to think’)  which gives way to realisation (‘And now I see the life I led, I slept it all away in bed, I should’ve learned to swim instead’) and finally resolve to make things different (‘If I could find my way to shore I’d never, never do this any more’) and even plans an escape route (‘I’m floatin’ on down to New Orleans, and pick up on some swingin’ scenes’). That mention of New Orleans is of course the musical clincher – he’s headed for the spiritual home of jazz music – that’s where this rhythmic river has led him.

Shot from the famous clip for ‘Goin’ Down’

The breaks between each verse help build a dramatic sense of, well, goin’ down. The verse are busy and chug along very smartly driven by guitar bass and drum but also benefit from punches of brass on each beat which both soften and toughen the rhythmic steps of the tune. On the last two lines of the first four verses ( that is, ‘drowned/round’, ‘shoes/news’, ‘shore/more’ and ‘town/brown’) the instruments drop back leaving Dolenz’s voice – surfacing to catch its breath, perhaps – accompanied by staccato punches from the ensemble before all tumble back into the rolling waters once again. As the song’s momentum builds, rising and falling toward the climax these distinctions disappear as the song’s narrator starts to feel comfortable in this environment (‘just floatin’ and lazin’ on my back’); this new sense of freedom is expressed through a more unified rhythmic structure.

The sax solos at 0.40 and 1.25 allow some breathing space and over them Dolenz intuitively scats in a more orthodox manner ‘ Hep hep, hep hep !’, the kind of rhythmic jazz-speak you’ll hear in any performance of old-time jazz. He had the vocab to hand. He’d already proved his chops at r’n’b and soul shout singing in the little James Brown skits on and around ‘Mary Mary’ in the live shows as well as some great studio performances up to this point and this humour leaven’d approach to his craft can sometimes obscure how good he was at this. The instrumental mid-section (1.25-1.40) flows straight into the lengthy fifth verse (‘I wish I looked before I leaped…’), and I love how the band pulls back for the lines where he changes his mind about what’s best for him

The song has a curious place in the band’s catalogue – it was an incongruous marketplace partner to ‘Daydream Believer’, for one. (Daydream Believer’ would get another odd bedfellow on The Birds The Bees and The Monkees of course, being pursued by the wig-flipping ‘Writing Wrongs’)

It also pops up in odd places in the TV shows, being heard in five episodes, twice as ‘romp’ music, then as one of four in the song-heavy ‘Monkees In Paris’ episode verite,  and once, in the opening moments of ‘The Monkees Paw’,  we get a brief glimpse of them ‘finishing off’ a ‘live’ version (which is simply playback) as an audition for a club owner – Micky raking the tambourine high , Peter thrumming the bass as well he might. Here’s the whole ‘Monkees in Paris’ episode, a particular favourite of mine, for its views of Paris a la 67 as much as our favourite chaps. ‘Goin Down’ comes and goes in the musical montage.

It’s impossible to write about this song without mentioning the clip of Dolenz performing the song which appeared in two episodes. As soon as you start researching the band’s story you realise how complex it is, and how quickly things happened, which can be confusing for the cultural scholar or historian trying to make sense of it all. This clip is a good example, featuring a live vocal from Dolenz over the backing track frontloaded onto the tenth episode of the second series (and number 42 in all) ‘The Wild Monkees’ and Finally, the performance clip we can find on Youtube is the track as heard on vinyl simply matched to Dolenz’s performance as seen in ‘The Wild Monkees’. Still with me? Good.

Episode ‘The Wild Monkees’ (Series Two, Episode 10)opens with the live vocal version of ‘Goin’ Down’
‘Standalone clip of ‘Goin’ Down’, with studio vocal dubbed over the live original

That performance clip is interesting to us in several ways – it features Dolenz only, soft-shoeing around on a darkened stage in cream trousers and a dark, high-round-necked silk shirt we might more readily expect to see Jones or Tork wearing. There is however much to see – the camera goes to town, using reproduction to split Micky into five, and gives us an early look at the solarisation that would be more fully and spectacularly realised in the opening and closing sequences of Head the following year. An almost hidden feature of the clip – certainly hard to see on our small British TV in the early 70’s, is a sax and a bass guitar, apparently ‘playing themselves’ but on closer inspection (unavailable to viewers pre- video recorder of course) they are being held and played by black clad, black-gloved musicians, a standard technique in the theatre of course but new for pop which is supposed to be all about the visibility of the musicians, as the four Monkees knew all too well.  This visual playfulness also has a high-art gloss to it, and the ‘black on black’ method was a key part  of European theatre of the age of Aquarius. There’s no effort to reveal the musicianship, yet the vocal is live live live. It’s a beguiling mixture.

‘Goin Down’ is a song which has been a beneficiary of the reappraisal of the Monkees song catalogue, providing a showcase for Micky Dolenz in concert for many years now, allowing him to demonstrate how much of that Satchmo gravy he has in his voice for real now and as such proved a highlight of 2019’s live album.

The song’s cult reputation led to it cropping up unexpectedly (especially to Micky) in the hit TV series Breaking Bad; the show made a habit of matching music incongruously to scenes and so it was with ‘Goin’ Down’ accompanying scenes of meth ‘cooking’. It featured in ‘Say My Name’,  the seventh episode of the fifth and final series, broadcast in August 2012. Micky confessed to being a ‘little torn’ about the musical use, but was clear on what he gained from it : ‘I didn’t make a penny’.

Finally an observation about Micky’s performance on this track – he could very easily been out of his depth with material like this and his success in the task is at this distance perhaps easy to underestimate – but think, could Jones, Nesmith or Tork have done this? Not for me, no. For that matter could Jagger, McCartney? Hmmm…unlikely.  Stevie Winwood, Van Morrison? Maybe. But Micky did do it and even taking into account his own modest self-appraisals, we shouldn’t gloss over a performance of this calibre.

Now the sky is gettin’ light, and everything will be all right…

Vinyl Fetishes…

In the last year or so I’ve had the chance to do some interesting little side projects for the BBC (Time Travellers for Radio 3) and for a magazine or two – one of which was writing a few small things for Record Collector magazine, a monthly which appeals to me because, well, y’know, I collect records. A couple of the ‘Vinyl Fetish’ pieces – 300 word shorts on favourite albums that need more love – didn’t get in before lockdown (and the attendant curtailment of contributions) so here they are. With a couple of my favourites that did get in !

JOHN LE MESURIER

WHAT IS GOING TO BECOME OF US ALL?

(REPRISE  K54080/RS5360  UK  1976)

‘Do you think that’s wise, Sir?’. So said Sgt Arthur Wilson, as he bore witness to another ill-advised decision by Captain George Mainwaring (pronounced Mannering) in Dad’s Army. Wilson was played with consummate ease by John Le Mesurier who, like many of the cast, enjoyed a late bloom in his already lengthy career via the show. Dad’s Army proved so popular that a stage version arrived in 1975, playing the West End and touring the UK. Le Mesurier’s solo ‘musical’ contribution was a recitation of  Manning Sherwin and Eric Maschwitz’s ‘A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square’. Derek Taylor – yes, that one – was involved in the recording of the show’s cast album (originally for Taylor’s employer Warners, last in print via Rhino), loved his performance, and the pair began a lifelong friendship via a shared enthusiasm for American humourist Stephen Leacock.

This led to Taylor suggesting Le Mesurier record a whole album; et voilà, What Is Going To Become Of Us All? (1976). It’s a shared endeavour with vocalist Annie Ross and pianist Alan Clare, both doyens of the British jazz scene, of which the actor was enamoured. Taylor wrote a charming sleevenote. Le Mesurier takes nine of the thirteen tracks reciting Leacock, Laurie Lee, and (naturellement) Noel Coward and Cole Porter. That Nightingale reappears too. I was crestfallen to discover that the cover of Paul Simon’s ‘So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright’ was taken by Ross and Clare – imagine John’s voice on that! – but it’s all part of a very definite civilised mood. Gently stroked late-afternoon piano, subtle orchestrations; one can almost hear the fine china tea-cups softly rattle. Add John’s laconic tones and it’s all perfectly, perfectly lovely – and probably the oddest (and certainly the most English) record ever to emerge on Reprise. Turns out it was rather wise, Sir.

COWBOYS INTERNATIONAL

THE ORIGINAL SIN

VIRGIN V 2136

Sometimes you see a band and think, they’ll make it. That’s what I thought when I saw Dire Straits and Simple Minds at our local music pub in the late 70’s; it was obvious. I was equally sure Cowboys International, who I saw several times in 1979/80, would make the breakthrough.

Signed by Virgin in the busy post-punk era, they were effectively Newcastle-born Ken Lockie and a constantly changing line-up behind him. Illustrious names passed through the ranks, such as ex-Clash drummer Terry Chimes and future Ant Marco Pirroni while PiL guitar hero Keith Levene guested. Their first single ‘Aftermath’ caused a splash and not only because of its orange vinyl; its post-punk edge and vigour crossed with an unforgettable pop melody and distinctive vocal saw them rocket out of the blocks. Virgin put plenty of their Pistolian filthy lucre into the band and The Original Sin debuted in October 1979. It was well-received, placing at number 11 in the Melody Maker end-of-year-list.

In the creative-design spirit of the age, it was issued not with a conventional jacket but in a Lucozade-orange clear plastic cover, album details visible on the inner sleeve. Every song was a winner, brilliantly blending tradition and innovation: electropop vanguard meeting flat-out great pop songwriting. Dig ‘Pointy Shoes’, ‘Wish’ and a fabulous re-record of ‘Aftermath’, which you can hear below. ‘Thrash’ became a single, and was recently – somewhat unexpectedly – lauded in print by Moby, who included it in a list of his five favourite records.

Back in late ’79, radio responded with plenty of plays, and a slot on the rejuvenated Whistle Test was secured – again, as you can see (in black and white!) below. Stardom surely beckoned. Yet it didn’t happen. Bad luck?  Right place, wrong time? If I knew the answer to such questions, I’d be living in a huge house by the sea in New South Wales, right now. Regardless, Cowboys International left this album and several 45’s  for us to enjoy. Ken Lockie made a solo album, The Impossible (1981) then seemed to just…disappear. Low-key reissues and a comeback album in 2004 (The Backwards Life Of Romeo) were welcome but I’d have loved to hear more of Mr. Lockie’s uncommon musical stylings.

VIRGINIA ASTLEY

From Gardens Where We Feel Secure

(Happy Valley/Rough Trade 1983)

I first encountered  Virginia Astley as one third of The Ravishing Beauties at The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Club Zoo’ in Liverpool, Autumn 1981 – three girls in smocks playing instruments I’d rarely seen since the school orchestra and songs like I’d never heard. I was smitten by the smocks, but also the sound, poised between pastorale and pop.  After the group split (fellow Beauties Kate St John going on to hit records with The Dream Academy and a stellar career as writer, player and arranger, Nicky Holland to Tears For Fears and Hollywood scores) I spied Virginia Astley’s name again in 1985, browsing through albums about to be discarded by a Liverpool radio station: ‘it’s just a promo, you can have it.’  So that’s how I acquired my copy of From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, two years late, virtually unplayed, complete with 10×8 of Virginia in a chunky knit jumper and photocopied bio.

Daughter of 60’s TV theme-meister Edwin Astley, sister of producer Jon, her credentials were impeccable, but her tender, bucolic music had little in common with anything they’d created. Recorded just after the demise of The Ravishing Beauties, the album takes its title from a line in a W.H.Auden poem; it shares a conceit with XTC’s later Skylarking, tracks marking the passing hours of a summer’s day, but presents an unmistakably English classical shape, being a kind of tone poem with nine piano-led pieces of slowly sensual chamber-folk, voices heard la-la-ing on one track only. Yet it also feels pioneering in its use of ambient sound – looped analogue field recordings of creaking garden gates, birdsong, braying donkeys – linking forward to Teardrops boss Bill Drummond’s Chill Out  with The KLF. For music so relaxing , it was wide awake: very delicate but very free, unafraid of the world. Nowadays she writes poetry and takes photographs in the same spirit.

So – Vaughan Williams or The KLF?  Hard to say. This is probably a good thing, for in its quietly reflective way it defies genre altogether. What I can promise is that listening to this record will make your life better.

GARY SHEARSTON

Dingo   

(Charisma CAS 1091   LP  UK 1974)

In the Autumn of 1974 a  song called  ‘I Get A Kick Out Of You’ reached the UK Top 10. I liked the ‘My Sweet Lord’ strum, folksy fiddle and steady pop beat but most of all the voice singing the song. “Aui git  noew  keeck  frorm  sham-paiiyne”.  What sort of accent was that? Turned out the voice belonged to Gary Shearston, an Australian who, via a recommendation from John Peel, had signed to the genially freaky Charisma label. While new to the UK, Shearston was already well into his career, dubbed the ‘Aussie Dylan’ in the mid 60’s; it was ironic  that his only international hit was a cover as he wrote hundreds of songs, including those on his two Charisma albums, Dingo (1974 , home of  ‘Kick’) and The Greatest Stone On Earth (1975).

Dingo, with its startling Hipgnosis-designed sleeve featuring  Shearston staring straight back atcha, is a treasure; literate lyrics , country-rock-folk-prog  (is that a thing?) melodies, head-spinning arrangements. Check the title tune: Aussie country-rock, pedal steel tracking the heels of the wild dogs and what we’d now call a sample of the high, lonesome cry of the dingo (they can’t bark) folded in to the mix. Add the warm Outback twang of  Shearston’s voice to his sleeve note that “this album rolls along something akin to the time of the ancient bushrangers” and it’s clear that this is fearlessly Australian music.

While the supporting cast has serious pedigree –  Hugh ‘Baker Street’ Murphy produces, Jim Parker (John Betjeman, Midsomer Murders theme) arranges – it’s Shearston’s show as his strong melodic sense meets equally potent lyricism. As a kid I was amazed to hear such words in a song – wasn’t it all ‘Shang-a-Lang’?  Rather wonderfully I became a pen pal of Gary Shearston in his later years, after he helped me with my book about Van Morrison, Hymns To The Silence. We would discuss music at length via email and he modestly fielded my enthusiasm for the album thus: ‘I’m glad the old Dingo still howls on for you’. It might howl for you too; try it.

Going, Going, Gone…Pop, Museums and Auctions

‘Going, Going, Gone’ is one of Bob Dylan’s less well known tunes. It’s on Planet Waves, his one and only studio album not to appear under the bright tangerine colours of Columbia/CBS.  It came out on Chris Blackwell’s Island label in the UK and David Geffen’s Asylum in the US, a substantial coup for both men. This oddity has created a brace of collector’s items in the process – the UK edition is coveted in by American Dylan nuts, the Asylum edition by their British cousins. This idea of the collectable item associated with pop is absolutely germane to this instalment of Pete Sounds.

Label from the UK version of Bob Dylan’s 1973 album Planet Waves
Label from the US version of Bob Dylan’s 1973 album Planet Waves

Here’s a question for you: what connects David Bowie, The Jam, Pink Floyd and Abba?

My answer (there may be others…) is that they’ve all been the subject of huge, commercially successful exhibitions in long established, ‘serious’ museum spaces in the past decade. In a generation pop has gone from being seen as a wearisome fad for young people that eventually had to be grown out of to being a touchstone of national identity, a key weave in the fabric of global culture in itself. Think of the role pop played in the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the optimism of which now seems as remote as the stars, alas.  It’s not just in the UK that this changed assessment of the value of pop music has arisen– a few years ago I saw a great exhibition about the Belter label, the de facto label of Spanish pop in the Franco era, in Cadiz and stumbled upon a dazzling digital display on the history of Japanese pop in Tokyo in the summer of 2019.

EP by Los 3 Sudamericanos one of the biggest groups of the 60’s in Spain, and one of Belter’s most successful acts.

The rise of the pop heritage industry goes back a bit of course.  Probably the earliest formalised acknowledgement of pop’s enduring cultural significance was the ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’ which was established in Cleveland, Ohio in 1986, funded in part by Ahmet Ertegun, indisputably an important figure in the story of post-war pop himself. Though the organisation was founded in 1986, the actual Museum was not opened to the public until 1995. Every year since ’86 a number of acts have been ‘inducted’ into this pantheon of pop: the first inductee was Elvis Presley, the most recent Marc Bolan and T.Rex. Being selected for inclusion is characterized by the RRHOF as ‘Rock’s Highest Honor’ and the choices of inductees reflect a certain range of tastes and perceptions of ‘value’, primarily reflecting those of head of the selection panel Jann Wenner, hippie entrepreneur and founder of Rolling Stone magazine in 1967.

So far, so slick. It pleases me to report , however, that not everyone is delighted by the idea of a museum for pop being a monument to the orthodoxies of business driven good taste – for example Steve Miller used his press conference at the 2016 ceremony (where he had been inducted) to attack the whole organisation as a commercial enterprise. Check it out here.

In a similar mood, anyone who knows me or has read Pete Sounds before knows that The Monkees are going to pop up sooner or later – they are everywhere –and here they come, walkin’ down the street. It turns out that there is a substantial number of pro-Monkee agitators  lobbying for their inclusion in the RRHOF.  I don’t really care either way – their work and enduring popularity is their vindication – but it bugged Peter Tork, who told the New York Post in 2007 that:

“Wenner doesn’t care what the rules are and just operates how he sees fit. It is an abuse of power. I don’t know whether The Monkees belong in the Hall of Fame, but it’s pretty clear that we’re not in there because of a personal whim.” Tork believes Wenner doesn’t like the fact that The Monkees, who were originally cast as actors for a TV sitcom, didn’t play their own instruments on their first two records. “Jann seems to have taken it harder than everyone else, and now, 40 years later, everybody says, ‘What’s the big deal? Everybody else does it.’ Nobody cares now except him. He feels his moral judgment in 1967 and 1968 is supposed to serve in 2007.”

Michael Nesmith commented on the debate in 2012 via his Videoranch Facebook page, and was more sanguine:

“I can see the HOF (Hall of Fame) is a private enterprise. It seems to operate as a business, and the inductees are there by some action of the owners of the Enterprise. The inductees appear to be chosen at the owner’s pleasure. This seems proper to me. It is their business in any case. It does not seem to me that the HOF carries a public mandate, nor should it be compelled to conform to one”.

Nesmith and Tork  were very different people, of course, and Michael was financially stable and ‘career secure’ in a way that Peter was not but both make essentially the same point – it was up to Wenner.

Jann Wenner 1968
First issue of Rolling Stone, rock’s ‘journal of record’, November 9th 1967

That notion of ‘gatekeeping’ is key to the sense of who is understood as ‘important’ to a received version of a history. Sometimes popular culture can force a change upon these accepted narratives of value – this is seen clearly in the example of Hidden Figures (2016), a film shining a light on a group of actual ‘hidden figures’, in the movie’s depiction of the black women scientists and mathematicians who contributed to the NASA programme in the USA in the 50’s and 60’s.

Poster for Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi 2016)

That ‘untold true story’ becomes a way of navigating value and significance in historical contexts. In terms of the museum, or should we say the ‘heritage sector’, this action comes dressed as curation. Who is important to the story of, say, the colonisation of Australia, or the building of the Forth Road bridge, or the roots of the New York punk scene? We might think we know the names and the stories, but if we do it’s because we’ve seen or heard them in books and documentaries. The curator, or gatekeeper,  shapes the narrative, attributes the value. In a museum, that value is an abstract notion:  to speculate upon the actual cash value of, say, Syd Barrett’s notebooks seems almost a vulgarity, somehow. Their value lies elsewhere, in a more aesthetic realm.

Page (1966) from Syd Barrett’s notebooks as displayed in ‘Their Mortal Remains’ V& A 2017

An attempt to instigate a similar permanent home for pop history in the UK met with less success. Part of the upsurge of cultural optimism and decentralisation of resources which accompanied the 1997 election of Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’, the National Centre for Popular Music (slogan: ‘Where Music Lives’) opened in Sheffield in March 1999. It followed Cleveland’s example of creating a pop related tourist attraction in a northern post-industrial city short on obvious ones . Swerving London and Liverpool was commendable, but the project barely made it over the line into the new century, closing in June 2000. It fell foul of not being quite sure what it was – exhibits in cases sat alongside hands-on features where you could remix a track or attempt some choreography. Was it for musicians, fans, or kids? No-one had long to find out as it closed within 15 months and is now the student union of Sheffield Hallam University.

Sheffield Hallam University SU, formerly the National Centre for Popular Music

What seems to work better is a temporary set-up in a pre-existing space and in some ways this is closer to the troubadour spirit of music and musicians anyway: we’re here, but soon we’ll be gone. The June-November 2018 exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, ‘Rip It Up:The Story Of Scottish Pop’, was a splendid example of this working very successfully. The visitors comments in this clip are instructive listening for anyone wondering what to include in such an exhibition.

Clearly, theming is important – a hook to catch the attention of as large an audience as possible. There’s a generational dimension here that we shouldn’t ignore, as the demographics of it all are significant – the visitors in Edinburgh are all of a certain age and talk about how ‘their life is in there’. Similarly, the 60’s pop kids are now retired, well-off if they are lucky, and still interested in the ‘mortal remains’ of their youth. So the David Bowie or Pink Floyd story and the story of one’s own life could intersect substantially. One major difference , and perhaps a key to why  pop exhibitions at  ‘serious’ museums have succeeded where the Sheffield project did not is because the skills and curatorship of the extant staff have been very carefully applied to the surviving fragments of popular music, act by act. Thus the flyer for that gig in Dunstable is treated just as carefully as if it were a piece of pottery from Pompeii.  

The Pink Floyd exhibition at the V & A had it right by calling itself ‘Their Mortal Remains’, acknowledging both the passage of time and the undiminished persistence of the music with a parallel stream of surviving ephemera. There was nothing to disturb the establishing of an authoritative narrative – proceeding from Syd’s notebooks, the gig schedules, invoices and picture sleeves from Japan, the posters for a hundred gigs out ‘on the road’, the rush and anguish of their global success in the mid-70’s, on to the evidence of their subsequent, more corporate incarnation, in the anonymous, monolithic PA stacks of the late 80’s. Behold, ‘The Pink Floyd Story’ : presence and absence in languid synergy. Check this fascinating piece via the NME on the exhibition.

Turning to indicators of monetary rather than cultural value, I recently maintained a ghostly virtual presence in  two online sales of music-related materials by an ambitious Auction House, who seem to focus strongly on material related to popular music. As they seem to do on a monthly basis, they ran one sale of memorabilia, one of actual recorded material – vinyl and CD’s. The latter resembled a massive online car boot sale, albeit with super-inflated prices, but it was the former that really caught my attention.

It comprised nearly a thousand lots,  covering  a host of musical forms – excepting classical, interestingly – across half a century, from the 1940’s to the 90’s. The star sellers were ephemera , perhaps most notably a combination of poster and ticket for a Sex Pistols show at Cromer Links Pavilion on Christmas Eve  1977. As Marty Di Bergi says of the ‘Electric Banana’ club in This Is Spinal Tap, don’t look for it, it isn’t there anymore, but the gig  proved to be their final public live show in the UK.  The survival of these items is in itself newsworthy – local papers picked the story up and ran lengthy features on the topic. Ticket price was £1.75 – not cheap for the era – and the stub and poster wore a £600-800 estimate but to no-one’s real surprise the pair went for £2,200 – not forgetting  the Buyers Premium: “23.34% + VAT (28% inclusive).” So someone has made a real investment there. This is surely above and beyond the notion of a fan’s indulgence: it’s almost pushing these items into the realm of an art object, with the provenance of it being the band’s last public UK appearance and the ephemeral nature of the objects ladelling added value to the ideas swirling around these two slips of paper.

Poster for Sex Pistols show in Cromer, Norfolk, Christmas Eve 1977 (front)
Poster for Sex Pistols show in Cromer, Norfolk, Christmas Eve 1977 (back)
Ticket for Sex Pistols show in Cromer, Norfolk, Christmas Eve 1977

How to bring these two types of value together? It’s hard.

To mark the 40th anniversary of the UK punk scene the British Library mounted an exhibition, ‘Punk 1976-78’ in March 2016, based upon a mix of its own archival holdings and donated materials. This sat neatly between the two V & A examples of a growing inventory of pop’s incursions into the heritage sector: ‘David Bowie Is’ in 2013 and as we have observed Pink Floyd’s ‘Their Mortal Remains’ in 2017. It’s worth noting that the V & A have also curated a 60’s pop subculture display, ‘So You Say You Want A Revolution’ (2016-17), while ‘About The Young Idea’, an exhibition of memorabilia associated with The Jam, toured the country in 2019 like a band simultaneously promoting their debut and Greatest Hits albums. If lockdown ever ends, and if cultural life ever recovers, we might expect – and probably now tightly embrace – further examples of this kind of cultural curation of pop histories.

Poster for British Library Punk 1976-78 touring exhibition visit to Liverpool (2018)
Poster for ‘About The Young Idea’ touring exhibition 2019

However, not everyone was simply thrilled, honey.  Former Slit Viv Albertine amended/defaced a list of bands in the British Library Punk exhibition as a protest against the marginalisation of female musicians in the narrative as displayed by the chosen exhibits – and she was right. One of the defining features of punk was the sudden appearance of female musicians and singers on stage and record who were not Dusty, Joni or The Supremes – all of whom I love, but who embodied the generally accepted ‘job descriptions’ for female musicians in pop up to that point. Albertine’s act of protest was a shout against the settling in of an orthodox narrative that inevitably flows from exhibitions such as this.

A more grandiose rebuke came in  November 2016 when Joe Corre (multimillionaire son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood) caused a furore which bleakly echoed the fuss caused by the group itself in 1977 by taking to the Thames and destroying a huge archive of Sex Pistols related memorabilia. Many criticised Corre, observing that the objects could have been sold to raise money for charity or that such material ‘should be in a museum’. Corre claimed to be objecting to the commodification of punk on its 40th anniversary, perhaps embodied by events like the British Library’s Punk exhibition, saying it had ‘become a brand, like McDonald’s’. He was of course a little late arriving at this conclusion, as the BL’s dates of 76-78 suggest, and his troubled relationship with his father may have had something to do with his attitude to the mortal remains of the Sex Pistols. This act has however  certainly enhanced the desirability to collectors of material that survives, such as the Cromer poster and ticket.

Pop is certainly culturally embedded now in a way which seems to lead directly to the archive and the curated exhibition; but was Corre a fool, a rich kid who could afford to carry out such a ‘punk’ assault on the collective memory? Probably. Yet why be so upset about a burning t-shirt, for that matter one that says ‘Destroy’ on it, almost as an instruction? Maybe it is because the shared body of knowledge, the shared set of responses and memories associated with music, and pop in particular, are more important than might have been anticipated:  pop belongs to everyone so when those posters, photographs and acetates burned it felt to some like an attack on our collective cultural past, just as surely as if Dominic Cummings decided to demolish the British Library  (and please don’t  think this isn’t on his To Do list). These are our mortal remains.

So what do we think about this? The museum or the funeral pyre? This seems a particularly acute issue for punk and its ideological burdens it has to be said; probably less so for, say, Abba or Kate Bush – both far more popular in the strictly commercial sense than any ‘punk’ act of course. Tellingly the former are market leaders in the field of keeping their ‘brand’ lively and innovative, from inescapable musicals to interactive exhibitions worldwide, and my feeling is that under normal circumstances La Bush would have been high on the shortlist for the next subject of a Bowie/Pink Floyd style exhibition.

What struck me while watching the virtual hammer falling in the online auction was that it is indeed in the ephemera that fans, collectors, investors are placing most faith: while £160 would have bought you the first dozen Neil Young albums in ‘first press vinyl’ – one of the terms which have been uneasily esperanto’d from the established lexicon of bookselling to the relatively new market of vintage records – it barely covered your costs if you wanted a poster for a Slaughter & The Dogs gig in Coventry, 1977.

I am currently researching the history of concerts at Higher Education institutions in Leeds so my attention was caught by a poster in the sale, for a show at the Leeds University Union  on Saturday 16th of November 1968, the bill topped by Bruce Chanel (‘Hey, Baby’) and among the supports an appearance by a lowly Yes, eight months short of the release of their debut album and probably arranged with the help of their former (and future) drummer Bill Bruford who had quit the band to study in Leeds just weeks before in September ’68. So, a very early show, with that interesting local connection. But still, it’s a folded, creased black and green swirl of ink on paper. It sold for £1500 (plus the hefty Buyer’s Premium…).

Poster for early gig by Yes at Leeds University November 16th 1968

Dozens of Smiths posters – albeit with the added provenance of being from the personal collection of Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis- sold for around £900 each. By God I wish I’d kept my poster from their gig at the Mountford Hall, University of Liverpool, February 8th 1984! And there’s the rub: it is precisely the unlikely nature of these artefacts surviving that puts a premium upon their perceived – make that manifestly real – commercial value.

Pop may still be at its most potent when it celebrates transience and trash, but its mortal remains are junk culture no more.

ps turns out I’ve still got my ticket stub from that Smiths gig so the next blog may well arrive from Sardinia….ciao bella!

Different Drum: the adventures of a song

In 2016 my book The Monkees, Head and the 60s was published by Jawbone Books. It’s been a great success, which pleases me no end. It’s long enough, but as is my wont, I wrote at least twice as much material as ended up in the final version. So every now and then I will put extracts from the unpublished material on this blog. This little investigation into the life of Michael Nesmith’s ‘Different Drum’ is one such piece, for your pleasure and interest.

If you like it, check my book out here: http://jawbonepress.com/the-monkees-head-and-the-60s/

The Beat of a ‘Different Drum’

In episode 15 of The Monkees TV show  ‘Too Many Girls’, struggling aspiring song writer Mike Nesmith gets his chance to shine on an ‘amateur hour’ show on TV station KXIU-TV as part of a production line of auditions.  Under the guise of ‘folk singer, Billy Roy Hodstetter’  he and his cream suit scramble through a speedy 45 second version of part of a song. The host  ‘Mr. Hack’ played by Jeff DeBenning moves from encouraging optimism to mild confusion to welcoming the times-up moment, but – typically – Mike decides when the tune is over, not waiting to be dismissed from the stage. The performance is part of a plot by Mike, Micky and Peter to sabotage the chances of Davy and Fern – that episode’s girlfriend – winning the contest. Fern’s mother is A Manipulative Baddie who wishes to launch her daughter’s career by teaming her up with Davy, thus splitting him away from his gang. Only the most attentive viewer/listener in December 1966 would have noticed the lyrics to Mike’s song, or that there was even a real song there at all. If you can catch the rapid, mumbled delivery,  the opening line is ‘You and I travel to the beat of a different drum’. The performance is brief, deliberately cack-handed and goofy but the song is, indeed, ‘Different Drum’. 

Yet this wasn’t the song’s debut in public – in Nesmith’s previous life as stalwart of the folk scene’s Hootenanies after his arrival in LA in early July 1964 he had recorded and performed live and on TV shows not a million miles away from this imaginary amateur hour, but had also had his songs lodged with a publisher, Randy Sparks, who evidently had some success placing the songs. It was through this route that the first version of ‘Different Drum’ emerged blinking into the sunshine – folk quartet The Greenbriars recorded it for their 1966 album Better Late Than Never issued on the renowned Vanguard label – the group had several illustrious alumni, including mandolin player Ralph Rinzler who left the band to work at the Smithsonian Folk Institute, Eric Weissberg  who played half of the banjo duet famed in the movie Deliverance, and the legendary mandolin player Frank Wakefield. The band could pick and choose their material and to have his song covered by such an established roots outfit would certainly have been a feather in the young songwriter’s cap – that they chose the song also shows  how close to the tap root of American music Nesmith’s abilities as a writer could take him.

Better Late Than Never proved a rich resource for an LA based country pop group, The Stone Poneys, as they covered two of the dozen tunes on there the following year.  The plaintive, even pleading catch-in-the-throat vocal tone of John Herald, a real high plainsman country voice, really connects the song to the tradition from which it sprang, and the image of the reins being pulled in on someone suddenly makes perfect Cowboy-sense.  The lyric still feels quirky and young  – ‘it’s not that I knock it’ – but the maturity and sage-like reason in relation to matters of  the heart is particularly notable here too.  Herald’s vocal is clearly the model for Linda Ronstadt’s take the following year. In comparing the two versions we sense how the pop field which had already absorbed Nesmith was also drawing in the way pop music could, or needed to sound – the back beat, the bright melody line foregrounded, the neat transitions from verse to chorus – and how for the foreseeable future acts like the Greenbriar  Boys would have to give way to the music that would both shape and come to represent the era.

Only 20 seconds longer than the Stone Poneys version but taken at about two thirds of the pace, it feels like a much older, backwoodsy tune, and – sung by a young man – seems a much more typical voice – the young coltish male trying to be kind as he heads out on the road. Its female counterpoint might be something like Joni Mitchell’s ‘Urge For Going’, with the ‘gal’ left at home while the boy seeks adventure beyond the blue horizon.

The Stone Poneys, 1967: Linda Ronstadt, Robert Kimmel, Kenny Edwards. LOOK AT HER. Oh my God.

All this is spun on its head, of course, when sung by a girl, and especially one as striking and talented as Linda Ronstadt – here, in every sense, was a new voice for changed times. The earlier version has none of the melodic hooks with which the Stone Poneys’ version bristles.  Initially Ronstadt worked with her bandmates Bobby Kimmel and Kenny Edwards on a version of the song that was closer kin to the Greenbriar Boys take on it: in this live clip, we hear their original arrangement of of the tune.

In her 2013 memoir Simple Dreams Linda Ronstadt recalled how the hit version of the song came to be.

“I found a song called “Different Drum” on a bluegrass record sung by John Herald of the Greenbriar Boys and written by Mike Nesmith before he joined The Monkees. I told  [manager Nik] Venet I thought it was a hit. We went into the studio and recorded an arrangement for acoustic instruments, with Kenny playing mandolin. Venet wasn’t happy with it and said he wanted to hire and outside arranger, Jimmy Bond, and recut it.”

In scenes which feel similar to those experienced in the Monkees’ tale  the singer turned up for another session to be met with a curious sight:

“A few days later I walked into the studio and was surprised to see it filled with musicians I had never met. They were all good players: Don Randi on harpsichord, Jimmy Gordon on the drums , and [arranger Jimmy] Bond playing bass. There was an acoustic guitar and some strings. the arrangement was completely different from the way I had rehearsed it. I tried as hard as I could to sing it, but we went through it only twice, and I hadn’t had time to learn the new arrangement . I told Venet I didn’t think we could use it because it was so different from the way I imagined it. Also it didn’t include Bobby or Ken. He ignored me. It was a hit.”

Linda aside, the Stone Poneys had been cut out of their own hit record. Unsurprisingly, as she notes of the success of ‘Different Drum’, ‘it was the beginning of the end for the Stone Poneys’.

Classic ‘spiral’ Capitol label 45 of ‘Different Drum’

A hit it was, making a lucky 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, on January 27th 1968 but  the song proved to be very much a mixed blessing for the group. They didn’t really survive its success , substantially because not having played on the record they had difficulty recreating the song live – further evidence that the great ‘crime’ of The Monkees (session players workng on hit records) was in fact standard practise in the industry  –  and Ronstadt’s musical gifts and considerable charms were winning her the right to try and fly alone. Her first backing band included Bernie Leadon, Glenn Frey and Don Henley who, of course, later founded the Eagles.

Linda in what she recalled in her memoir as her favourite dress of the three she owned in 1967.

The success may have spelled doom for the band but it has left us with a timelessly enjoyable pop record of the highest sort.  The curlicues of acoustic guitar, the zeitgeisty harpsichord and the barefoot, dark-eyed flower child singer all making a challenge to the rules of the Boy’s World right at the dawning of the Summer of Love. It has it all going on. The gorgeous riff on the acoustic spirals down to silence yet feels like it just keeps spinning on, forever, beyond the fade. It reminds me of what, say, Manfred Mann did with loose Dylan tunes like ‘The Mighty Quinn’, pulling elements as yet unheard  out of the way the notes in the melody speak to each other in order to remake the song into a tight, bright pop artefact, something that sounds like a dream on a car radio or a jukebox. Ronstadt’s assured yet pleading vocal adds just the right touch of vulnerability to the certitudes of the lyric.

The Stone Poneys – enjoying a Hit, but about to Quit…

The Stone Poneys’ hit not only became a staple of  the new pop radio but spread the song far beyond its natural constituency,  entering the canon of authenticating pop tunes – it has been returned to many times by a number of artists wishing to tip their hats to the enduring cult status of the tune but also to the spirit of the times that allowed such a curious little tune to climb the hit parade so nimbly.

Perhaps the most bizarre performance was given by none other than Raquel Welch, flown into Vietnam in 1967 to entertain a massed gathering of troops there. Pure Apocalypse Now – if Francis Ford Coppola hadn’t seen this clip and taken inspiration from it for the Playboy Bunny/Suzie Q concert sequence scene in the 1979 movie, well he should have done. Ms. Welch looked fabulous and sounded terrible but it’s unlikely anyone cared about the latter. 

The song’s composer Michael Nesmith took his time to return to the song, eventually turning in a concise and urbane version on the sardonically titled 1973 album And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’. It’s a performance as neat as his outfit on the album’s gatefold, where he sits having raised his eyes to the camera from the copy of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s alternative history of the American West, which rests on his lap. Four beautiful and elegant women, all of whom look as if they are suffering to a greater or a lesser degree from the grand ennui detailed so well on Nevada Fighter, surround him.  Two of them look as if they are about to attend to his hair. It’s a strange, strong and enigmatic image which has always intrigued me ; it’s like a portrait of a Renaissance prince. This was the first version of ‘Different Drum’ that I heard, as the Stone Poneys 45 had not been a UK hit and it would be some years before oldies radio made it a familiar tune to a younger generation in the UK.

That enigmatic gatefold. My own copy! (see below…)

Couldn’t find a satisfactory image online so took snaps of my own copy, bought for £1.59 (pricy then!) in 1976 from Project Records, Roundhay Road, Leeds 8. Pardon my dust.

Nesmith performs it on acoustic guitar in the vocal style he favoured at that time – narratorial, resisting untrammelled pop melodicism in the delivery, and with a clipped, even professorial tone to the voice, typified by his habit of pronouncing the definite article as ‘thee‘ regardless of context. He is accompanied on the track – as he is throughout 11 of the album’s 12 tracks – by his constant comrade in the post-Monkees years, pedal steel player  Orville OJ ‘Red’ Rhodes, who gets a namecheck (‘Oh, go Red’) before his solo. His vocal is very direct and conversational, best heard on the line ‘settle down with him and I know that you’ll be happy’. It is a much more reflective and personal piece in this form, designed to travel a short distance from one person’s mind to another’s heart – a conversation piece. It restores the gender dynamic upturned by the Stone Poneys version – the boy tells the girl that he’s not saying she ain’t pretty – and the irresistible logic of the lyric is given a quieter and more focussed setting, an atmosphere as calm yet as troubling as the album’s curio of a gatefold sleeve picture.

The song is revealed as Dylanesque in its lyrical flow and its musical progressions, and also connects up with something Nesmith said much later about ‘St Matthew’, a song that lay unissued for many years, recorded in late 1967 and again in 1968. He commented that the song was an attempt to write like Dylan and it pulls the gender reversal trick that was working nicely for the Stone Poneys version of ‘Different Drum’ at exactly that time – late ‘67 going into ‘68. Coincidence?  Probably, but an instructive and intriguing one – ‘she calls herself  St Matthew and she is on the run’.  The female , masquerading as  male,  is helping herself to the freedoms afforded to the man and this echoes  the shock of hearing the doe-eyed Ronstadt say she is out of the door – ‘so goodbye, I’m a-leavin’ ‘. It’s a song for a man brought to life by a woman.

Live, Nesmith has tended to retain the Hits solo arrangement,  solo sans the pedal steel. However we have a souvenir of a late blossoming of the relationship between Nesmith and Rhodes on the beautifully recorded appearance at the Britt Festival,  Jacksonville, Oregon on the 19th of June 1992. The show eventually emerged on double CD and DVD in 1999 and 2001 respectively. This was his last in concert performance with Red Rhodes who passed away in August 1995 aged 64. Ironically Rhodes did not play on the version of ‘Different Drum’ which provided the evening’s closing song, but Nesmith acknowledged the debt to Ms Ronstadt, tipping his hat to her by saying  ‘With apologies and special thanks to Linda, and a  fond goodnight to y’all’ .

The song was not given a concert airing again until his 2012 UK tour debuted a rather fetching Parisienne-street cafe style arrangement, 3/4 time and an accordion-style keyboard part. This is the arrangement you can hear on his 2014 live album Movies Of The Mind . Sitting in the third row at the show at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester on October 29th 2012, it was clear that this version exercised his attention – carefully coaxing the chords from his acoustic 12-string, concentratedly focussed on the lyric, the vocal line observing the beat of a different rhythm now.  The wistful melancholy of the song is somehow foregrounded ;  it may be something we hear in the singer’s voice, or the fin-de-siecle arrangement, but the couple in the movie of the mind this version shoots somehow feel much older.

As is often the case nowadays, someone filmed this very show and put it on the internet. So now you can sit next to me, all those years ago, and hear what I heard, see what I saw.

Covers? Well now.

The song went underground for some years after Nesmith’s version appeared until the generation of younger musicians who had heard the hit version as children started to take to the stage and draw upon the influential  songs of their youth – so we had indie darlings like The Lemonheads turning in a sterling 1990 cover,  cranked up really high and deliberately scorching the edges but keeping the Stone Poneys structure and country-pop heart intact, to the extent of slyly keeping the song addressed to a boy. 

In 2006 Matthew Sweet and Susannah Hoffs of The Bangles brought the song some Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra action in their guise as ‘Sid ‘n’ Susie’ on the first of their series of Under The Covers  albums, bespoke collections of their covers of classic pop songs – by then ‘Different Drum’ really had joined the canon, undoubtedly thanks to Ronstadt’s performance in 1967, one which the song’s composer said in 2013 “infused it with a new level of passion and sensuality”.

Finally, when Linda Ronstadt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2014  the citation came courtesy of her old guitar player Glenn  Frey but she was ‘sung in’ by Carrie Underwood who sang ‘Different Drum’, note for plangent note. She was welcomed in not via the easy rhythms of her famous and era-defining 70’s material for Asylum. No; it was to the beat of that old different drum. Nesmith was right to tip his hat at the Britt Festival; it’s her song now.

The Monkees: The Mike and Micky Show (Rhino 2020)

Front cover of The Mike & Micky Show

In a recent chat on Facebook Michael Nesmith said that he was happy that the new Monkees live album The Mike and Micky Show had come out because it captured ‘something temporary’. This is true of everything, really: it’s all temporary. All things must pass. However with specific reference to The Monkees it is particularly apposite as despite their enduring and, I’d say (licks finger and sticks it in the wind), still growing popularity, the fragile infrastructure of the group has meant that no configuration has lasted for long. Yes, we have them immortalised via audio and visual media, but in reality the ground has always shifted under their feet, and those of their followers. So to have this record of events is something of a ‘stabilising’ element in the overall chain reaction that is The Monkees.

When I was a kid, live albums for pop and rock acts had a patchy reputation – jazz is another story altogether of course, where the live recording is quintessential. There was no Beatles live album where we could hear them as a performing band (the Hollywood Bowl record is a document of a phenomenon rather than a working group) and my adolescent favourites either spurned the form altogether (Elvis Costello, XTC) or treated them as archival exercises (Talking Heads, The Jam). The high water mark of the form was the 1970’s, when a successful live album could really make an act: Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late To Stop Now  (1973) proved a big breakthrough for him while albums like Frampton Comes Alive, issued in January  1976, eventually sold 16 million albums worldwide (6 million in the US alone)  and Cheap Trick’s At The Budokan (1979) similarly propelled them into another league.

Sometimes it was a souvenir of an already established act’s latest incarnation: from 1976’s Wings Over America on, Paul McCartney  released a lavishly packaged live album of virtually every tour up until  2009. Since around that date, however,  the whole market for live recordings has changed as acts try, in the digital era, to claw back their rights and revenue from bootleggers and often present whole concerts in pristine audio clarity for a knockdown price via their websites: case in point, last week I bought  what amounts to a three CD set of Bruce Springsteen’s 2013 show at my local arena for 10 dollars (about £8 sterling) from his own website.  Whatever the reason for their existence though, the arrival of a live album has never stirred the soul like a set of new songs can. 

As with much else The Monkees are a different proposition. In some ways, Monkees concerts didn’t really start to address the full richness of their back catalogue until many years after their initial success. Sure, the reunions and get-backs were brilliant and made everyone happy and a bit of money but if we are talking about the songs then what goes into a Monkees set in 2020 – represented by this new release – is remarkable in that much of it was never played live at all in the original era. In fact some of the most anticipated tunes were not even released until a decade or so after the band’s initial dissolution. As I say, in this, as in many other ways, The Monkees are a most unusual exception to the rule. Which rule? Well, maybe all of them, really.

So, as both souvenir and documentation of something temporary,  the arrival of The Mike and Micky Show is a cause for great celebration, round our way.

It is the only contemporary live album the group has ever released; Rhino got the archival ball rolling with Live 1967, issued in 1987 on vinyl, CD and tape. The groundbreaking deep-dive four CD box set Summer 1967 (2001) followed nearly fifteen years later. These recordings were taken from their tour on which, famously or infamously (I am never sure quite which it is), the support act was The Jimi Hendrix Experience – he had been chosen by the band, we should note. Producer Chip Douglas told me in an interview for my book The Monkees, Head and the 60’s that ‘We recorded for a live album but the tapes were hardly useable; they’ve cleaned them up since of course but back then there was no way we could have put them out’. http://jawbonepress.com/the-monkees-head-and-the-60s/

Cover of single album Live 1967 issued by Rhino in 1987
Front cover of 4 CD box set Summer 1967 (2001)
Cover of Summer 1967 box set booklet
Jimi Hendrix entertains…Nesmith, Tork and a host of others pay attention. Micky Dolenz is the photographer.

Looking at this album I see 25 tracks; not the full set as far as I know – opener ‘Good Clean Fun’ and some Nesmith solo material was routinely performed but are missing, as is – sobs gently – ‘Porpoise Song’ – but this is still a hefty chunk of goodness for a single compact disc. The vinyl equivalent, which I haven’t actually handled, is a luxurious looking double, another first for a new, non-compilation album by the band. Produced by Andrew Sandoval and mixed by Christian Nesmith, it is a real pleasure to behold and be heard, rich and deep in detail.

It opens very logically with what Micky has, since 1967, been calling ‘the one that started it all off’, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart’s ‘Last Train To Clarksville’. Many years ago I remember hearing Paul Simon say that when he played  ‘The Sound Of Silence’ for the thousandth time in concert his heart didn’t necessarily leap up with joy. Perhaps he has changed his view a little since, understanding as he does how the songs that must have seemed professional obligations in the mid-70’s are now woven into the story of the age, and the lives of millions of people. If Micky is tired of singing about this last train, it doesn’t show: he approaches it with great verve and attack – listen for that jazzy ‘Last train! Last train !’  toward the close.

The album’s track listing is divided pretty much down the middle, featuring twelve Nesmith originals and a baker’s dozen by other writers, including Dolenz (‘Alternate Title’), Tork (‘For Pete’s Sake’) and Davy Jones (co-writer of ‘Goin’ Down’). The Nesmith material is drawn from all but one of the albums issued from their 1966 debut up to The Monkees Present in 1969 and, in the unheard until 1990 track ‘St.Matthew’, we have a fine example of the impact of Rhino’s guardianship of the band’s archive. That’s an impressive spread. The remaining songs are a mix of the familiar (Boyce & Hart, Carole King, John Stewart, Neil Diamond)  and, in a hard-won luxury not granted to many of their still-working peers, first class contemporary material, taken from 2016’s Good Times! .

Peter Tork, who passed between the time of this album’s recording and its release, is namechecked after a great version of his best loved Monkees tune, ‘For Pete’s Sake’, track one side two of Headquarters and closing theme of the second series of their TV show. In a beautiful touch, the album is dedicated to Tork and Jones.

This emphasis on Nesmith’s catalogue is both a guarantee of class and a truthful representation of how it was, as Micky says in his good natured intro to ‘Papa Gene’s Blues’:

“We used to sit around the campfire, as we used to call it, in between shooting scenes for the show, and invariably we would end up playing Nez tunes because he was the only one writing these songs”

The Headquarters material is fabulous to hear, and prompted me to wonder, how often did Nesmith actually sing and play these songs between 1970 and 2013? Maybe not so often. It must have been strange to go back to them, and he occasionally applies his quirky pronunication of the word ‘the’ as ‘thee’ which I associate with thee, sorry, the albums he recorded for RCA after leaving The Monkees. It’s curious to hear that sound on these songs, on ‘You Told Me’, rather than, say, ‘Roll With The Flow’ from And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’. I don’t mean I don’t like it; I just mean I noticed it.

I am a sucker for these songs, ringing as they are with what I call in my book their chimes of freedom, a kind of invincible lightness of being. Hearing Peter’s lovely banjo line on ‘You Told Me’ rising live courtesy of Probyn Gregory is a joy. Yet the hefty band caught on this  album – eleven contributors get a picture credit in the CD booklet – functions more forcefully on the Pisces era tracks than on the garage band, ev’ry stinkin’ little note leanness of Headquarters : the version of  Chip Douglas and Bill Martin’s ‘The Door Into Summer’ is so fully realised that it sounds almost as  good as the version on Pisces Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd., notably Nesmith’s lead vocal, half a century after he first sang it. This goes right down to the immaculate call and response vocals between Mike and Micky at the song’s close, aided very beautifully by Coco Dolenz and Circe Link. It’s superb.

Which isn’t to say the ensemble doesn’t prevail on some of the earlier tunes – their first freedom song ‘The Girl I Knew Somewhere’  (read my book!) is mighty, while ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’, never a big favourite of mine, also develops something approaching a sharp bite in these circumstances. The clip featuring ‘The Girl I Knew Somewhere’ from the TV show featuring THE FABULOUS Julie Newmar as Miss April Conquest is possibly my favourite bit from the whole series so by golly here it is.

‘Sweet Young Thing’ is a dead ringer for the First National Band and really brings home the fact that Nesmith was yoking pop, r’nb, folk and country dynamics long before it became a thing to do: that is, via his first two songs on The Monkees’ debut LP in 1966. ‘Who invented country rock?’ is possibly one of the more redundant questions you could ask about the changes music went though in the 1960’s but, even if it is, we know the answer. Just in case you missed it, the point is forcefully made here by ‘Sweet Young Thing’ ‘s  blend of piledriving rhythm and sinewy fiddle lines. Here’s the ’66 version.

Its twin on that debut album, ‘Papa Gene’s Blues’ ushers in what is probably my favourite part of this programme, the five song acoustic set-within-a-set. This segment of the show provides the image for the album’s back cover.

Back cover of my copy of The Mike & Micky Show

Papa Gene is joined by a jugband ‘Alternate Title’, a languid, lazy jazz’d ‘Tapioca Tundra’, which is a quiet revelation, giving way gently to an equally rapturous ‘Me & Magdalena’. The transition between the 1968 and 2016 tunes is seamless. Show me another act of this vintage who can connect work at such a distance of time and space. No, don’t bother, you can’t, there isn’t one. It’s incredible, really. I love how Mike and Micky’s voices sound together, and this version of Ben Gibbard’s song really showcases this blend. On the sleeve of the new album, Micky calls their sound ‘The Everly Monkees’ and he’s not far off – it’s demonstrated beautifully here. “Everything lost will be recovered”.

On first hearing this album, my day was made even better by the arrival of perhaps my favourite non-Head Monkees track, ‘Auntie’s Municipal Court’ from 1968’s  The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees.  When I was a kid I used to think, if I were in a band I’d want it to sound like this song. Later on I was in a band, and we did sound quite like this song, so don’t give up on your dreams, kids etc etc…but back in the late 70’s, pre-internet, pre-CD, pre fanzines, pre-EVERYTHING , I felt like I was the only living boy in the UK who knew and loved this song. I may well have been right. But now here it is, in the set. I can honestly say I never thought I would hear this song, this very deepest of deep cuts, performed live. Its inclusion  justifies the whole enterprise, if you ask me. Which you didn’t. But that’s my view. Never mind the furthermore, I had spent four decades digging on this track and never realised that in the delirious head spinning outro Micky is singing ‘Here we go again’, round and round. These songs are such deep wells. Here is the stereo 1968 version which is the one I grew up loving; there is a much rarer mono version – don’t get me started! – but this is my top pick.

Elsewhere on The Mike & Micky Show Micky’s vocal showpiece ‘Goin’ Down’ – the only Monkees song to credit all four of them as writers, based on a riff offa Mose Allison’s ‘Parchman Farm’ – shows he has some of that Satchmo gravy in his voice for real now. Monkee set ever-presents such as ‘Steppin’ Stone’, (complete with staggered finale which allows Micky to work in some of his James Brown stop-start moves as seen in Monkees On Tour)  ‘Mary Mary’ (now trailing its HipHop afterlife behind it) and Micky’s favourite ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ all hit the spot very sweetly indeed. The two tracks from Head, ‘Circle Sky’ and ‘As We Go Along’, provide a beautiful exercise in contrast, and the latter gets a particularly rapturous reception from the crowd, to which Micky reacts with delight. These little moments of truth, passing and temporary for the crowd at the show, become revealing and enduring records of connection once committed to tape, and I really like it that they are included here. Here’s ‘As We Go Along’ from Head.

The closing trio of songs seal the deal; Peter Tork’s unmistakable, indefatigable piano motif for ‘Daydream Believer’ starts up but instead of the cheers you might expect a hush falls, as if the audience are wondering what is going to happen in Davy’s absence. Micky would laugh at this perhaps but I swear he comes in just a beat behind where Davy always started the song, as if to acknowledge with that beat of silence that this is his song, and that this version is ‘after’ him, in every sense. As ever the song becomes a mass singalong, a celebration of  Davy, everyone’s love for the song, the communality music offers us, a testament of life itself. Cheer up, Sleepy Jean.

‘Listen To The Band’ surprises us by starting out a la the Jack Good TV special, Nesmith on his own, bluesy and slow, the band coming in around 0.35, blasting through like the Nashville cats on the 1969 original. It’s a great and brave choice for this moment in the show and places the emphasis fully on the music – listen to the band!  I think at this point I should shine a spotlight on the first Monkees album I ever owned, a 70’s ‘budget’ compilation via EMI which featured ‘Listen To The Band’, tucked away on side one between the hits, educating all of us with young and open ears.

Yes! It’s my actual first Monkees LP in my actual study with my actual other records.

It makes perfect symmetrical sense that an album which opens with ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ closes with ‘I’m A Believer’. Which this one does, to everyone’s joy. It also reminds us that this is a show for everybody, no matter which version of The Monkees they like, whether it’s a lifetime of love or simply a fond remembrance from their youth. There are songs for the Nezheads, the Head freaks, the box set connoisseurs, sure, but plenty also for those who remember their TV show and recall the brief flash of their days as the biggest selling act in the world.

It’s that kind of duality in the minds of their audience that is so special about The Monkees, and relates back to Nesmith’s idea of this being a record of something temporary – just as the gathering of people who constitute the audience at a particular show on a particular night in a particular town is a temporary community.

To paraphrase ‘Tapioca Tundra’, it was part of them, but now it’s part of you. This album speaks to every part of that community: temporary, but also permanent.

Covers #3: Hej, Jude

Together at last! The 1990 single of the songs which concern us today

You know that idea of ‘rabbit holes’? Often applied to Youtube watching; you start looking at one clip, next thing you know you’ve been gazing at ‘related videos’ for about three hours.  Well my current rabbit hole is (or are) translations of hit songs from English into other languages. Now, for better or for worse, English is indeed the, erm, lingua franca of popular music. This is changing somewhat with the rise of K-Pop (BTS, PSY), and the incursion of Latin American musics (Gloria Estefan – strange but true! – Shakira, ‘Desposito’) but certainly historically it’s been the case that if you want a hit, English is the loving tongue.  Hits would come out of New York and London, achieve success and then be translated into the local brogue. These recordings would then complement rather than compete with the Anglophone originals in the charts of their respective countries.

Sometimes songs would start life in other languages and an English translation would deliver the global hit: think of ‘My Way’, ‘That’s Amore’, ‘The Girl From Ipanema’. Very, very occasionally, a song would become a hit in the UK in its original form: ‘Je t’Aime’, ‘Vado Via’, ‘Ca Plan Pour Moi’, ‘Joe Le Taxi’. More usually a band would translate their own song into English in order to reach the Anglophone market: Kraftwerk were the masters of this, as of much else, and there were German and English language versions of all their albums from Autobahn (1973)  up to and including Electric Cafe (1986). ‘Pocket Calculator’ really came in for the treatment with versions in German, English, French, Spanish, Japanese, Italian and for all I know Inuit. Have I got them all? You bet I have matey! What a sucker.

Enjoy the very rare Italian version here: “Sono l’operatore del mini-calcolatore”, doncha know.

So the commercial imperative for translating and covering, to and from English, has a sound market-based rationale. But what if there were other reasons? What if a song itself had a kind of cultural power beyond its real or perceived commercial value?

If you are a former student of mine, much of what follows will seem strangely familiar, so sit back and enjoy the sentimental journey. Everyone else, eyes and ears front.

In 1987, I was in Bristol visiting a friend. Being free as birds, we spent a sunny afternoon in a pub  near the University and found a flyer for the Watershed, an arts centre by the river. It was showing Philip Kaufman’s’s film of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, an adaptation of Czech exile Milan Kundera’s novel, which had a complex publishing history. You can look that up. Anyway by ’87 it had been turned into a  quite high profile film, starring Daniel Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche, both superheiss at the time, alongside the unforgettable Lena Olin. All quite an eyeful. So yes we went to see the film and several things happened as a consequence: firstly, I went out the next day to get me a black rollneck sweater. Secondly I took careful note of the credits to find out who had been singing a version of ‘Hey Jude’ which appears at a key moment in the film. I’m not telling you the third thing.

Poster for the 1987 film of Kundera’s novel
My long suffering paperback of Kundera’s novel. It had a pint of Brakspears knocked over it in 1990 at a pub in Reading and still smells of it.

The film, like the novel, was set during the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968. What was that, you cry? Well, it was the brief flowering of cultural freedom under the stewardship of Alexander Dubček . He was appointed First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party on January the 5th 1968 and was effectively removed when the Soviets invaded on the 21st of August that same year. As it was a Leap Year, that was 229 days: the Prague Spring and his leadership of the country were effectively the same thing. He famously advocated, and briefly delivered, ‘socialism with a human face’.

Alexander Dubcek (centre) strove to introduce ‘socialism with a human face’ into Czechoslovakia in the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968

During that time an extraordinary cultural and social transformation took place: music and film was ‘allowed’ before and after this period but the freedom of expression Dubček encouraged unleashed an energy and a surge of creativity which rocked the boat enough to present the possibility of real social change through artworks. Part of this was amazing cinema, via the already established likes of Miloš Forman (The Fireman’s Ball) and Jiří Menzel (Closely Observed Trains) and Věra Chytilová (the psychedelic bliss-out that is Daisies), the fine arts and, especially, music. Pop was particularly well-suited as a vehicle for self-expression as it was fast, bright and modern it was (or is) a celebration of the now, the present instant, as well as a connecting point to the past and ideas about the future. That means pleasure, sadness, reflection…singing the blues…the cry of love…do you wanna dance? It does all this without needing a supporting dialectic. It just is. That’s why it makes censors and lawmakers nervous.

Anyway that brief period saw visits to Czechoslovakia from a number of formerly verboten Western acts, most famously and Americanly The Beach Boys  who gave concerts in Prague and Bratislava; during their Prague show they dedicated ‘Breakaway’ to Mr. Dubček This fabulous picture of the band standing by the Danube in Bratislava on that visit recently came to my notice via the Beach Boys World website.

Allen Ginsberg visited too, not for the first time, but definitely to great excitement and acclaim. Not only but also there was a rapid expansion of the Czechoslovak music scene with a huge variety of singers and bands springing up; some reflected the mood of the times, like the legendary Plastic People Of The Universe (name borrowed from a line in a Frank Zappa song) and Karel Kryl, both of whom had a definite revolutionary edge. Other acts such as Olympic and Karel Gott sat more toward the middle of the road and both had successful careers well into the 1970’s on account of this, but somewhat at the cost of their subsequent reputations.

The true voice of the Prague Spring however belonged to a girl from České Budějovice (home of the original Budweiser beer –no, really!), Marta Kubišová . She was 25 years old in Spring 1968 and had come to Prague after winning provincial and national singing competitions, ending up working in various theatre companies in the city.

These two pictures of Marta nicely contrast the ‘early’ well-behaved Czech pop with the freedoms offered by the ‘Prague Spring’: the first shot is from 1965, the second from 1968.

Cover of a 1965 single


1968 publicity shot at the Petřínská Rozhledna, the Petrin Lookout Tower above Prague, known as Prague’s Eiffel Tower

Contrary to what we might expect there was a lot of home-made pop music in the countries behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ in the 1960’s, and in 1964 she was signed up by the state-owned label Supraphon , still one of the world’s great record companies. She recorded solo, having hits on her own and as a duo with Helena Vondráčková : ‘Oh, Baby, Baby’ is still a much loved tune.

However it was two songs she recorded toward the end of the decade that made a massive impact : ‘Modlitbu pro Martu’ (‘Prayer For Marta’) was first recorded for a TV show, Píseň pro Rudolfa III. (A Song For Rudolf III) , a somewhat Reggie Perrin-esque series about a serial daydreamer which was popular on Czech TV at the time. It was written quickly by Petr Rada who was an old hand at knocking out songs for film and shows: the show was not political, and the song wasn’t particularly meant to be taken that way either. Yet when the episode was screened in early 1969 it very quickly became adopted as a song of resistance and defiance: a protest song. Looking at the lyric, we can see how the accidental fit seemed a resonant one:

“Let peace continue with this country. 
Let wrath, envy, hate, fear and struggle vanish. 
Now, when the lost reign over your affairs will return to you, people, it will return.”

Watch the original performance from Píseň pro Rudolfa III. Marta also appeared in the episode : she was an accomplished actress.

Around the time ‘Modlitba pro Martu’ was becoming the retrospective anthem of the Prague Spring, she also recorded a version of The Beatles ‘Hey Jude’. The two songs were originally released on separate singles but have forever been associated with each other. That’s one reason why Philip Kaufman used her Czech language version of the song in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being.

The sleeve of the original 45 of ‘Hej, Jude’

Back cover of the above 45

Label of the first issue of ‘Hej, Jude’: note the credit for ‘Orchestr Golden Kids’ a name that would be used again the following year. Note also the mysterious absence of ‘P. McCartney’ from the writing credits…

We must also bear in mind that The Beatles’ 45 of the song wasn’t released until the 26th of August 1968, less than a week after the Soviets invaded. Marta’s version followed quickly, so they had got the record, translated the lyric, worked up the arrangement, recorded and issued it very quickly. Both songs became symbolic of the spirit of the Prague Spring and the enduring resistance to the repressive regime the people were forced to live under.

Her one album, Songy a Balady (you can translate it yourself) emerged in early 1969 containing both songs and owning the album became an act of defiance. Its initial pressing was recalled as the authorities wished to remove two songs, ‘Modlitba Pro Martu’ and the anti-authoritarian ‘Ne!’ (‘No!’); it was reissued with two more conventional pop songs in their place.

Original 1969 sleeve of Songy a Balady

1990 reissue of Songy a Balady. It restored the censored songs. Subsequent reissues went back to the original cover

So, it’s time to hear it! ‘Hej, Jude’ with a very evocative film clip from 1968/9

The song was done in a flash, yet has lasted for over 50 years. That’s to do with the social context, certainly, but also the qualities of the record itself. It’s very faithful to the instrumentation and sound of the so-familiar Beatles recording – listen to that piano, a pretty good facsimile. The vocal arrangement too – solo voice carries it for the most part, mass singalong toward the end. Duration – Beatles around 7 minutes, Marta around 5.30. But wait a moment: what about those lyrics? How do you translate ‘The movement you need is on your shoulder’ into Czech? The answer is, of course, you don’t. Instead you find a lyric that is meaningful in the individual language with its own idiomatic phrasings, rhymes and scanning. That’s what happened in the case of ‘Hej, Jude’: translator Zdeněk Rytíř (part of the Orchestr Golden Kids, her de facto backing band) quickly created a Czech version of the song which wasn’t simply a straight translation but an as we say in 2020 ‘re-imagining’ of the lyric for the local conditions.

Zdeněk Rytíř, who wrote the Czech lyric to ‘Hej, Jude’

I asked my friend Marek about the Czech lyric Marta sings and he very kindly revisited the record, telling me this:

“The Czech version is sung by woman and you can hear the man’s betrayal of her. Zdeněk Rytíř used poetry images and lots of idioms to express this. Regarding idioms – let me explain some of them: 1. “Svět je krásnej, svět je zlej! Hey Jude, věř v něj!” – the world is beautiful, the world is cruel, hey Jude, believe in it 2. “A do těch ran ti sype sůl a láme hůl” – and to these wounds the world is dropping salt and breaking stick – it’s a Czech saying to make pain worse, to put salt in the wound. Breaking sticks means – to give-up some person, to lose faith in the person. But for Czech people it was even more important because of Soviet tanks. Our “closest brothers” betrayed us and brought tanks and army to our country instead and even more – they took all freedom from us. So this song by Marta Kubišová was taken more as protest song even though Zdeněk didn’t necessarily intend the tone to be one of a protest song”

Hence what might feel like a novelty for the Anglophone ear had real meaning for the Czech speaker. Rytíř was the go-to guy in Czech pop for a strong translation of Western pop hits, having already ‘done’ plenty, Dylan, Lovin’ Spoonful and Manfred Mann among multiple other hits. And of course the famous slow-fade (which this version does not shirk) needs no translating! Soon the song became part of the songbook of resistance, and as the regime became more and more hardline singing it in public risked arrest and everything that could and would follow from that.

Here is the sequence from Kaufman’s film of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (1987) that uses ‘Hej, Jude’. You’ll see that he skilfully mixes actual footage from August 1968 with artfully recreated sequences which feature his stars Daniel Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche, whose character, as a photographer, was well-placed to document events.

Marta went on the be one-third of Czech supergroup Golden Kids (one of my favourite band names ever) with Václav Neckář (already a singer and actor: you might have seen him in Closely Observed Trains, which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1968) and old friend and established pop star Helena Vondráčková. They were very groovy: happy, bright and Eurovision cheerful making two albums of , well, bright and cheerful pop including Czech versions of Dylan’s ‘The Mighty Quinn’ and Lennon & McCartney’s ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’ on their debut, Micro Magic Circus (1970).

Golden Kids Micro Magic Circus (1970)





Czech ‘supergroup’ Golden Kids: Marta Kubišová, Václav Neckář, Helena Vondráčková 1970

Golden Kids achieved great success while Marta continued to record singles under her own name. Her solo songs became more overtly socio-political: ‘Tajga Blues’ was openly critical of the USSR’s treatment of protestors. Eventually the regime of Gustav Husák (who replaced Dubček in April 1969) could no longer tolerate her popularity and the social platform that gave her. They literally couldn’t stand the sound of her voice; it was the sound of defiance, onstage and on disc. So what we’d now call a ‘smear campaign’ was launched against her, false claims were made about her to damage her reputation as a person, and her music was banned from sale or broadcast. Her last gig was a Golden Kids show in Ostrava in 1972.  Neckář and Vondráčková carried on with their careers with her blessing but she didn’t sing in public again for nearly two decades.

Instead she , like many other artists and dissidents – in fact, to be an artist was to be a dissident so the distinction is tautologous – subsisted and resisted as best she could. Alongside Vaclav Havel, she was one of the leading lights and main signatories to the famous Charta 77 (Charter 77), a document accusing the Czechoslovak government of ignoring and denying human rights to the country’s citizens in accordance to international agreements they had signed up to. The articulacy and accuracy of this document made it very powerful and distribution of Charta 77 became a crime in Czechoslovakia – which, of course, made the arguments it contained even more pertinent. Marta’s involvement cast her even further into internal exile and drew ever closer scrutiny from the security forces. She was never sent to prison – as were Havel and several others who worked on Charta 77- but life was made very difficult.

Marta with Vaclav Havel drafting what became Charta 77, 1976.

Everything changed in November 1989, when the ‘Velvet Revolution’ propelled Vaclav Havel into the role of President of Czechoslovakia. On the 22nd of that month, Marta sang in public for the first time since 1972. She sang, at Havel’s request, ‘Modlitba pro Martu’ along with the Czechoslovak national anthem ‘Kde domov můj’ (‘Where My Home Is’) alongside Havel and the returned Dubček, from a balcony in the Melantrich Palace on Wenceslas Square to an estimated 250,000 people gathered to celebrate their freedom. By that time her voice and her songs were deeply embedded as symbolic of a nation’s spirit of resistance, and she sang the country into freedom. Imagine how great that must have been for them all, for the whole country. My God. Why don’t the British go in for revolutions? We need one.

Marta on the balcony of Melantrich Palace, Wenceslas Square in Prague, November 22nd 1989
With Alexander Dubček and Vaclav Havel November 22nd 1989

 After this Songy a Balady was the first album to be reissued by Supraphon, in March 1990, shortly followed by an album of unissued material from the late 60’s called Lampa : the sleeve showed a copy of Charta 77 prominently placed on the table next to her. I saw her sing in the free Old Town Square concert of June 1990, to celebrate the country’s first democratic elections of that month. She shared top billing with Paul Simon, one of many musicians who would pay court to President Havel in the coming years. She also began recording again releasing new albums throughout the 90’s and 00’s. Now she is in her late 70’s and, occasionally, still singing! Someone was smart enough to make a film about her; here’s the trailer.

To conclude where we began – Bristol, 1987, glass of Budweiser Budvar in hand – it’s worth remembering that in mid-80’s, Czech artists/dissidents like Havel and the Plastic People had become a cause celebre in the West – Samuel Beckett dedicated his 1984 play Catastrophe to Havel, Frank Zappa namechecked the Plastic People whose music was released in the West, Jan Svankmajer’s animations were hits on the Art House cinema circuit – and there was a definite appetite for work with a Czech connection. Consequently, although Kundera supposedly hated Kaufman’s adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it was a very successful film in its time and (for what it’s worth) hugely influential on my peer group. So when the Berlin Wall fell in ’89, we already had our dreams and ideas of what it was like on the other side from sources such as this book, film, and song.

Maybe art really can change the world. The movement you need is on your shoulder!

Thanks to Marek Kraus for his help with this piece.

Covers #2: I Will

Who remembers Borders? An outbreak of civilisation, it always seemed to me: books, music, movies, coffee shop. Joy! The Leeds branch was actually in the same premises as Virgin Records had occupied when I worked there. So it was amusing to sit in the first floor cafe and sip my large Americano while looking out of the window, down onto busy Briggate, in what used to be the (always chaotically untidy) stock room of the record shop.

Borders, Briggate, Leeds. Much missed!

Anyway about twenty years ago I was sitting in the basement at Borders on a boiling hot Saturday afternoon; ostensibly so my then-infant son could play in the little ball pool they had down there, and then choose him a new book. However I lingered because the air conditioning was such a divine relief. In this semi-stoned state I sat on one of the little chairs next to the play area and over the sound system came a beautiful noise. Bit of slide guitar, very sweet, then a faintly familiar melody cleanly picked out on a banjo. What was that toon? I was sure it was an instrumental piece and then all of a sudden, a high, dulcet voice came in. Of course! It’s ‘I Will’ one of Paul McCartney’s bucolic acoustic tunes from 1968’s The Beatles double LP aka ‘The White Album’. But who is singing it? Sounds a bit like Dolly Parton from the early 70’s – maybe it’s an oldie? So I go and ask the girl on the till; she doesn’t know, as the music is controlled from upstairs. This is before the days of streaming of course but there’s an in-store playlist; it’s ‘I Will’ by Alison Krauss. By now my investment of time and energy had reached a certain pitch of engagement from which there was no return: is it on an album? Yes, it’s a compilation called Now That I’ve Found You. You know how this story ends. That’ll be £11.99, sir, thank you.

Turns out this was already a very popular album, a combination of recordings from her career as a solo country and bluegrass singer, tracks with the band Union Station, and a few oddities and one-off collaborations, the category into which ‘I Will’ fits snugly. Of course if you are a ‘genre’ act looking to broaden your appeal and break into a mainstream, poppier market then covering a Beatles tune is a very smart move. As we noted in the previous Pete Sounds on covers, the song is doing a great deal of work for you and it will likely be widely heard and recognised in a way an original tune would rarely be. It’s a tried and tested technique, going right back to the 60’s, when people would have hits with Beatle album tracks that didn’t make it onto 45’s (off the bat I’m thinking of The Overlanders, Marmalade, Apple hopefuls Trash, and many more). The ‘White Album’ has a number of these well-covered tunes on it – ‘Blackbird’ seems a particular favourite, especially in more recent times: again just sitting here I am thinking of Zac Brown, Julie Fowlis (who recorded the song translated into Scots Gallic) and Jacob Collier who, as ever with him, took it off into jazz-pop-prog-superspace. I recently discovered a cache of Czech language covers of White Album era tracks from 1968 which of course coincides exactly with the Dubcek era, the brief and beautiful ‘Prague Spring’ that ended on August 20th 1968 with the Soviet invasion. (More on this in our next Covers blog.) So it’s a gesture of aspiration, defiance, as well as being business savvy and – lest we forget! – an opportunity to try on a great song for size.

The Overlanders hit version of Rubber Soul album track ‘Michelle’ 1966
The Marmalade made Number One with their cover of ‘Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da’ from the ‘White Album’ in late 1968
Trash were one of Apple’s early signings and their debut was a cover of these two tracks from Abbey Road

So, the Alison Krauss album Now That I’ve Found You proved an unlikely hit partly due (in the UK anyway) to the title tune becoming a favourite with the country’s most-listened to DJ at the time, Terry Wogan, who played it frequently on his BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show– the song fits into our cover-as-calling-card model too, being a slowed, modulated remake of the hit by The Foundations from the Summer of Love 1967.

The album also contained the original of ‘When You Say Nothing At All’, itself covered by Ronan Keating as the theme to the hugely successful Richard Curtis film Notting Hill in 1999. All in all this was a sleeper of an album which, by accident as well as design, delivered slap-bang-centre mainstream presence to La Krauss. It accomplished this while also carefully remaining true to her roots: most of it is at the Bluegrass end of Country, and all of it is blessed with her fabulous voice.

Sticking with her A1 superfine band Union Station she ambitiously embarked on a ‘dual career’, recording more traditional material with Union Station on albums like New Favorite (American spelling) but also venturing deeper into pop with her 1999 album Forget About It, assembled to prise open the market further in the wake of this success: its title track was a near-hit single and she covers Todd Rundgren and Michael McDonald. She and Union Station were also involved in the zillion-selling soundtrack to Joel Coen’s O Brother Where Art Thou (2000), put together under the auspices of T. Bone Burnett. You can hear Alison on ‘Down To The River To Pray’ and ‘I’ll Fly Away’ with Gillian Welch. Union Station guitar player Dan Tyminski sang and played on ‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’, lip-synched by George Clooney in the film, the song which provides the plot’s impetus by becoming a hit record for the escaped prisoners.

1997’s immaculate New Favorite with Union Station
1999’s pop-friendly Forget About It
The surprise huge seller in the early 21st century US market: the soundtrack to Joel Coen’s O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)

Her most successful record in the mainstream market under her own name was the 2007 collaboration with Robert Plant on Raising Sand. Massive sales worldwide and global touring of the album really introduced her to a wider audience and led to the stellar success she has now – there is certainly no other Nashville-approved act who hasn’t flipped completely to pop (such as the blessed Taylor Swift)  who can fill venues in the UK like Alison Krauss.

2007’s phenomenally successful collaboration with Robert Plant, Raising Sand

Now: if you know me, you’ll know I have never been a fan of Led Zeppelin. As a kid they seemed to represent everything I didn’t like about ‘rock’ pre-punk, with all that strutting, private plane trashing, curly mane tossing carry on. And I was made (by my pal and his Elder Brother who scoffed at my Lovin’ Spoonful and Monkees records) to sit through the film The Song Remains The Same at a special screening at the old ABC cinema in Leeds (North Street end of Vicar Lane, cinema demolished years ago, site still ugly and undeveloped). Awful. Turned me right on to The Damned. Anyway despite this impediment I really adore and recommend that album. Here’s my favourite track, ‘Please Read The Letter’, which was actually written by Messrs. Plant and Page, so fair do’s.

Back to ‘I Will’. The ‘White Album’ version is deceptively simple: it is actually a ‘Threetles’ recording with McCartney on vocal and guitar, Lennon and Ringo on assorted percussive tik-toks. It is a light acoustic number, almost childlike in its apparent directness – the lyric is very sweet and matches the melody perfectly. It’s the sort of song people who want to criticise him point to:

Love you forever and forever

Love you with all my heart

Love you whenever we’re together

Love you when we’re apart

Yet this is to miss the point entirely: it’s a song about what Thomas Hardy called ‘The Well-Beloved’, the person we have not met yet but that we somehow sense is out there, living and moving and slowly, surely, making their way toward us.

Who knows how long I’ve loved you

You know I love you still

Will I wait a lonely lifetime

If you want me to, I will

So far from being a saccharine love song, I’d say this song is tapping into something very primal and humane, something which makes people feel connected and better about their lives . Maybe only love and music can do this.

Retrospectively we can hear that Paul is discovering his early 70’s, immediately post-Beatle voice: try this next to ‘The Lovely Linda’ or (yes!) ‘Ram On’.  See? It is also of course a brilliant example of his way with a tune, so simple it feel-flows as natural as a fish in a stream. Yet labour had gone into it, as with all effortless sounding creation: begun in Rishikesh where the band had gone to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in February 1968, it apparently started out with some help from Donovan which I can just about buy. Returned to now and then in the intervening months it was recorded at Abbey Road in September ’68 , five months after they had come home, somewhat disillusioned, from India : check Lennon’s ‘Sexy Sadie’, a put down of the Mia-Farrow-fancying Guru.

The gang’s all here: Paul, George, John, Donovan, Mike Love, Mia and Prudence Farrow, Patti Boyd, Jane Asher. Oh and Sexy Sadie himself, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Rishikesh, March 1968

Mark Lewisohn tells me that ‘I Will’ took 67 takes and who am I to say otherwise: that’s a lot of takes for something that sounds like it simply dropped from McCartney’s tree. What a craftsman he is! Here you go.

So we finally get to our cover version! It may have been on Krauss’s breakthrough album but actually the source of the song is more obscure– it was a vocal guest spot on an album called Within Reach by ace Californian guitar and banjo player Tony Furtado (no relation to Nelly as far as I know) which was issued in 1992, a whole eight years before I heard it on that boiling hot summer’s afternoon in downtown LS1.

Tony Furtado’s 1992 album Within Reach, source of the cover of ‘I Will’

This may be a heresy – in fact, I am certain it is – but I’d place this in a very select subset of covers that I like more than the ‘originals’. Where the ‘White Album’ version is 1.45 (and what a world is there in those 105 seconds!) the Furtado/Krauss version allows the song 4.05 to stretch out. Now clearly the longer version isn’t necessarily the better version but the extra space lets the melody really blossom and surround the listener; it is taken at a slower pace too, and there is none of the clippity-clop pantomime horse percussion that somewhat striates the Beatles version, just a relaxed marking of the beat. Curiously there is a bit of steelpan which sneaks unexpectedly into the arrangement and then ghosts away again; it gently sails alongside the melody for a while, like a pod of dolphins swimming alongside a schooner just for the pleasure of it.

The opening 95 seconds of the track are instrumental; Furtado’s dobro opens with a mellifluous noodle around the home notes and then at 0.17 the banjo ushers in the unmistakable melody, picked clearly and cleanly, note by note – no flash, frailing or fistfuls of chords here, just exquisite melodicism. You’d swear this was going to be a highly agreeable mellow bluegrass instrumental take on the song well into the second minute of the recording: it’s not until 1.35 (a mere ten seconds short of the entire duration of the original) that the vocal begins.

I’ll tell you something; the moment Alison Krauss begins to sing is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. In fact, I’m not sure I have in fact ever heard the exact moment; her voice seems to gently push forward out of the melody as if it were simply another part of the natural growth of this delicate blossom. This may be perfect pitch or somesuch; I just feel the effect of it. Have a listen for yourself; I can never quite distinguish where she starts. Maybe I just refuse to notice. It wouldn’t be the first time. Funnily enough there are a couple of flaws in the vocal – it’s clearly not a single take (check the Impossible Overlap at 1.52 making an edit plain) and toward the close, where Furtado joins her for a very low level harmony, she nearly tips over into the almost-shrill.

But this is like saying Van Gogh could have used less yellow.

At a time where we need music to provide a free and clear space to bask in and nourish our souls, here’s one that can do it for you.

Covers #1: a Fab Four

What do you think about cover versions? A few years ago, when I first started really being able to develop dedicated music modules for the degree I teach on I took an idea that had occurred to me on a course I’d taught at a university in Hungary. The module’s topic was recording technologies, and I’d sort of stumbled across the realisation (obvious once you think about it) that the idea of a ‘cover version’ is related to technology and there being what is accepted as a ‘definitive’ or ‘original’ recorded version of a song, one which is circulated so widely that the song becomes very strongly associated with one voice, or one artist. This notion of primary originality might be attributed to songs sung by their composers, or songs closely connected with a single performer, even if they didn’t write them: think  ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ or ‘Marquee Moon’ for the first category, ‘’Heartbreak Hotel’ or ‘My Way’ for the second.

Authorship, ownership: original sheet music editions for ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and ‘My Way’

But this doesn’t mean the cover is always a secondary or even a redundant exercise. The oft-repeated platitude of the Saturday evening talent shows is ‘You made that your own’ after some future cruise ship singer has merely duplicated Stevie Wonder’s ad libs, but sometimes a cover can change or at least temporarily destabilise the certainties of a familiar original. After all songs have been shared and sung by people long before recording technologies emerged that could catch or even create  a ‘definitive’ version. So, I like a cover. I even like a karaoke cover sometimes: see the famous scene in Lost In Translation. Just brilliant.

So I thought it was time to do something here on cover versions. Now I’m not saying The Beatles are where you MUST start when discussing covers but it was hearing George Benson’s ‘full album’ cover of Abbey Road recently that put this idea into my head as a topic for Pete Sounds and, now we are housebound, I thought I’d pick a few favourite Beatle covers and see what we find. I meant to do all four in one post but, as anyone who knows me will find easy to believe, I found so much to say about each I’ll drag it out/give due attention to each…

Now generally speaking I’m hard to amuse. I mean, I’m happy and laugh a great deal of the time and in one unsolicited endorsement online a former student very sweetly recalled that I was ‘always in a really good mood’ in classes and that made learning much more fun. But when  it comes to ‘comedy’ my problem is that often it just ain’t funny, old son.

However, THIS is funny.

In the first rush of Beatlemania with ‘serious’ cultural critics falling over themselves to lavish praise on Lennon and McCartney’s compositions, Peter Sellers – a cultural catalyst from the previous decade – had the idea of matching the Fabs with another Great Briton, William Shakespeare, via another very well known public figure, Laurence Olivier. His portrayal of Richard III in the 1955 film of Shakespeare’s part History play/ part Tragedy of (approximately) 1593 would still have been very fresh in the audience’s mind – in fact it was so successful a performance that it still has a firm grip on the public imagining of the King and dominates any effort to represent him, a totemic reference point to be negotiated one way or another by any actor taking on the role. Today it’s a curious watch: Oliver’s hyperreal performance is both ridiculous and endlessly brilliant, often in exactly the same moment. The combination of look and sound was so distinctive as to have characterised a whole style of delivery in itself and it is this that Sellers borrows so successfully.

To demonstrate, here is Olivier’s legendary performance of Richard III‘s opening scene aka ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’ : you’ll have to keep reading to get to Mr. Sellers!

Both portrayals are of course based on the only evidence of what Richard looked like; the portraits painted in his lifetime. The one below is purportedly the last painted from life. Doesn’t look too strong and stable does he. Note the hat which Olivier spruced up with a logo (!) and Sellers picks up on too.

Laurence Olivier as Richard III in the 1955 film of Shakespeare’s play
Peter Sellers recites ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ 1965
Last known portrait of Richard III, unknown artist, late 15th century

Sellers’ cover of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ was originally a sketch on a Granada TV programme called The Music of Lennon and McCartney recorded in Manchester and broadcast on ITV on Thursday 16 December 1965. Taped in early November, the show featured the band themselves and had an impressive line up with Henry Mancini and Esther Phillips alongside Cavern veterans Cilla Black and Billy J Kramer and The Dakotas, with French and Spanish stars being testament to the Fabs’ international appeal.  

Titles for the show The Music of Lennon and McCartney

Scouse humourist Fritz Spiegl conducted an orchestral version of ‘She Loves You’ a la Mozart (I knew a girl who lived in a house owned by Spiegl in Liverpool in the 80’s – but that’s another story) but by far the biggest hit of the show was Sellers’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. The song was nearly 18 months old by this point (an aeon in 60’s pop in general and Beatletime in particular) and the band had come so far so fast that it was already ripe for a nostalgic rip. They loved it. Sellers’ backed up his Olivier style hamming with garb unmistakably spoofing dear, dear Larry’s Richard. George Martin’s music and arrangement also artfully skitted conventions of Shakespearean/Elizabethan musical encodings and representations; florid and theatrical but not obstructive or in the way of the comedy.

It wouldn’t be the only time Sellers and the Beatles worked together: in some ways the Fabs were Children of the Goons (Lennon’s poetry owed much to Spike Milligan, Michael Bentine’s harmonica instrumentals added an easily accessible musical dimension to the show’s surrealist mix and there’s harmonica all over early Beatlemusic) and Sellers acted with Ringo in the oft derided but not-bad-really-for-a-period-piece film of Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian in 1969. Not forgetting they had a producer in common: the one and only Sir George Martin.

George Martin and Peter Sellers in 1959; note copy of the GM-produced Songs For Swingin’ Sellers, which they were promoting

Here is George Harrison really insightfully recalling just how and why Sellers and The Beatles got on so well: the video is marked as ‘Bloopers’ but there is a great section preceding that stuff…

Sellers’ contribution was the show’s breakout success, something which had clearly been anticipated: it had already been released as a single on Parlophone, produced and arranged by George Martin, and thanks to the TV exposure was an instant Hit, reaching number 14 in the UK pop charts in early 1966. It was backed with a C of E Vicar version of ‘Help!’ which was just …. okay.

It wasn’t Sellers’ first hit record – his album which bore the Sinatra-spoofing title Songs For Swingin’ Sellers, complete with very dubious cover as can be seen above, was such a smash that even my Grandma had a copy, and in the world of the single his Goon-era had yielded a mildly droll Skiffle skit of ‘Any Old Iron’ and his duets with Sophia Loren (sighs…sits back…contemplates the Mystery of Life…) were Top 20 hits in the pre- Beatle early 60’s when Parlophone was still EMI’s outlier for comedy songs and had red labels.

He even made an album with Sophia Loren in 1960 which used a sleeve image from that year’s film in which they starred together, The Millionairess, an adaptation of Bernard Shaw’s play of that title. It’s a loose adaptation, we should say, and in a bit of early-doors synergy spawned an ‘in character’ hit single, ‘Goodness Gracious Me’, although it didn’t appear in the film. George Martin scored the film and produced both single and the album which followed in the wake of the single’s Top 20 success. Peter and Sophia. Now I LIKE that title…

Sophia Loren with George Martin and Peter Sellers, recording the Peter and Sophia album (1960). Note Sophia’s ciggie!
Cover of 1960 Peter and Sophia LP, using a still from The Millionairess
Original poster for The Millionairess (1960)

Comedy and pop are uneasy bedfellows; skits can be funny – I’ll fight anyone who disses Philip Pope’s work for The HeeBeeGeeBees and Spitting Image – but often tire quickly, while British comedians’ records tended to fall into the ‘And this is me’ category where the song is sung straight with competent dullness (Ken Dodd, Mike Yarwood), or discs recorded ‘in character’ (Arthur Lowe, Harry Enfield, even John Inman )  which were often lightly amusing once or twice and then forgotten. Then you’d get novelties like Rory Bremner’s slew of ‘impressions’ records – his cricket commentator skit on Paul Hardcastle’s ‘Nineteen’ is still funny for those of a certain age. In the US too: ‘Weird’ Al Jankovic was hard-working but only intermittently successful with his skits while Steve Martin made comedy records at first, now he makes very splendid ‘real’ bluegrass stuff; banjo playing featuring centrally in both.  The rise of the Spoken Word market has put paid to singing comedians really; why bother when you can just record your act or yourself reading your memoirs?

Anyway I suspect this is another topic for another time. Cue Mr. Sellers!

Corcovado

After an interminable pause, far beyond the Beckettian and well ahead of the Pinteresque, here is Blog #5 from Pete Sounds. This time I have decided to get my musical muscles working again by reflecting on a song (and a musical form) which suggests pure relaxation. Which we could all do with just now. So come and sit down and we’ll discuss Bossa Nova in general and ‘Corcovado’ in particular.

You really can’t talk about Bossa Nova without talking about Brazil. Rarely has a musical style so profoundly influenced the way a nation sees itself or is seen by those outside it. The closest thing I can think of to it is the Viennese waltz, with Strauss’s paean to being ‘An der schönen, blauen Donau’ being the equivalent of Bossa Nova’s Greatest Hit, ‘The Girl From Ipanema’. The style of Bossa Nova, translating from the Portuguese as ‘new wave’, was born in Rio de Janiero in the late 1950’s out of a sublimation of the rhythms and melodic possibilities offered by samba and jazz. North and South America mingling together in a way which might explain the style’s tremendous and enduring international success. Gorgeously exotic, it is both realistic and dreamy, simple and sophisticated; hearing it somehow instantly suggests the kiss of a cool breeze from the sea, or glass of a smooth, warming and highly intoxicating liquor. Gimme!

As you can see from this quickly produced UK compilation album from 1964, the connection between place and rhythm, sight and sound was there from the very beginning once the secret was out and in the marketplace.

Yet despite the exoticism and glamorous images, it’s very definitely a simple and entirely acoustic music – the guitar is always fitted with nylon strings and amplified only (if at all) with an external mike. Percussion is light but essential, adding that feeling of sensual buoyancy to the song. Maybe some airy flute dancing around the melody, a little simple piano tinkling too…as for the voice, well, we must knock on the door of the Gilberto house for that.

Joao and Astrud Gilberto absolutely set the tone in every sense for the way Bossa Nova vocals should sound; the disarmingly ‘unperformed’ vocal, technically possibly even occasionally flat, intimate, close miked breathiness but without a hint of force to its sensuality. Joao had been recording for over ten years before the fateful trip to New York in March 1963 to record with Stan Getz, while Astrud, according to legend, was only there to accompany her husband and got roped in to sing what was intended as a guide vocal on ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ as she was the only member of the Brazilian party who could speak English fluently. Despite the fact that she only took two short vocals on the album as a whole, the instant global success of the album was in many ways actually Astrud’s success and within months she had eclipsed her husband’s career – and it proved to be the beginning of the end of their marriage.

But don’t get me started on the greatness and perfection of Astrud Gilberto. Back to our subject!

There’s a missing ingredient here though; and his name was Antonio Carlos Jobim. He was a writer and arranger in Rio, employed by Odeon Records but busy everywhere and linked up with very popular poet Vinicius de Moraes on a musical adaptation of the Orpheus legend for Brazilian TV and film in the late 50’s.

Living la dolce vita in a bar adjacent to the beach at Ipanema in Rio the pair noticed a young woman walking past the cafe every morning to swim and sunbathe. This girl – Heloísa Pinheiro, a real person, who is still alive and still beautiful – provided the inspiration for a tune the pair lightly concocted between swooning and drooling and going ‘ahhhh‘. ‘Garôta de Ipanema’ was first recorded in 1962 but, with English lyrics by Norman Gimbel, made it on to Getz-Gilberto in 1963 as ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ sung by Astrud and that was that.

But today we are thinking about another of Jobim’s tunes which the Gilbertos took to the world. ‘Corcovado’ actually predates that Girl from Ipanema by a couple of years and sprang early from the well of Bossa Nova, in 1960. The title refers to the mountain above Rio which is crowned by the city’s most famous man-made landmark, the statue known as Christ The Redeemer. The word ‘corcovado’ actually means ‘humped back’ and the shape of the mountain shows this to be a good name for it: see the beautiful image at the top of the page. The song is also sometimes known by the first line of its anglophone translation (by Gene Lees), ‘Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars’. Joao Gilberto was the first to record the song, in 1960, and since it arrived in the world at large in 1963 via Getz-Gilberto there have been scores of versions.

Here is Joao Gilberto’s 1960 original recording of Jobim’s song.

You want Bossa Nova? You got it right here.

It was a huge hit in Brazil and no Bossa player could afford to not know it. After ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ this is the song that lit the touchpaper of the Bossa craze that went worldwide in the era of Beatlemania. For that elevation, Jobim had Astrud to thank. Here is the Getz-Gilberto version recorded in New York in March 1963, very cannily leading with Astrud in English and then following it with Joao singing the original Portuguese lyric, followed up with Stan Getz’s typically smoky sax variations on the melody. Jobim on piano, perfectly complimenting Astrud at the opening.

Selling zillions might be good news financially but not always so good for a marriage – ask ABBA or Fleetwood Mac – and Joao and Astrud split very soon after the album took off. Astrud even had a brief fling with Getz himself, something of a mismatch given Stan’s appetite for narcotics. How did those old jazz guys do it? Incredible. Anyway she went on to build her own career but ‘Corcovado’ was always part of the deal.

Here she is on Dutch TV in 1966 with the Pim Jacobs Quintet.

The songs of Bossa Nova were easily nudged into MOR if the touch wasn’t deft, or maybe just not Brazilian, and so the multiple covers have often leaned that way. Sinatra did a whole album with Jobim, trying to shoehorn some of that charm and style into his performances but he didn’t quite make it: he was always ‘just visiting’ the feeling.

Here’s Frank’s go at climbing the mountain…unusual to hear him struggling to get on point…see what you think.

Actually we could go on listening to versions of the song all day but my favourite is distinctive in its own way – it was the very last recording ever made by Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn as Everything But The Girl, issued on Red Hot & Rio, an AIDS awareness charity album in 1996. It was track two on the album and rather splendidly track three was a remake of another Jobim tune made famous by Getz-Gilberto, ‘Desifinado’, performed as a duet between Astrud and George Michael.

I think of the EBTG version as the ‘Omega’ to the ‘Alpha’ of their first recording together, a Bossa’d guitar/vocal take on Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day’ issued on a Cherry Red 45 in 1983 when they were still undergraduates at Hull. In fact I asked Ben about whether there was a ‘full circle’ thing here, going back to a Bossa tune for their final recording as EBTG and he said that that was precisely the idea. It is in their late style of course – the twanging, poinging electro beats mixing with their fidelity to the art of song – but the song swims beautifully. As does Tracey’s Portuguese, as she finally gets to sing one of Astrud’s signature songs. Early EBTG resonated with Getz-Gilberto a lot so the circle is indeed unbroken.

‘And a window that looks out on Corcovado, oh how lovely…’

The Art On Your Sleeve #1

Sorry for that terrible pun-of-a-kind in the title of Blog #4. It just seems appropriate. And we like being ‘appropriate’, don’t we? So there it is. This one is about looking more than listening, I must confess; it’s about the infinite beauty and variety of record sleeve design. In this case all LPs but I’ll get round to the 45s don’t you worry. So the other day I just had a skim through the spines of a rack or two of my long-suffering long-players and plucked out just a few that appealed to me on that afternoon – had I done it today there would have been others, no doubt, as although I love a list, I am also aware of their mutability. So these aren’t my Desert Island Designs, they are just ones I liked reconnecting with. Shall we begin?

Buzzcocks: A Different Kind Of Tension (United Artists 1979)

This was the third and final LP by the original iteration of the band. Everything happened so fast at that time that this was issued less than 18 months after their debut. It seemed like ages at the time but feels like nothing now. Buzzcocks records, albums and singles, always had great sleeve designs, and this one is by Malcolm Garrett who also designed the covers for 1978’s Another Music In A Different Kitchen and Love Bites .

This one has more of the anxiety of the first album than the poppy confidence of the second, this time working with lurid, faintly nauseating colours as opposed to the steely industrial greys and chromes of the debut album’s cover. This queasy colour scheme was appropriate to the musical material which even at the time clearly had a ‘success sucks and we’re just about to break down’ quality. Garrett went on to more mainstream acclaim, designing covers for huge selling albums by Simple Minds and Peter Gabriel amongst others. He’s now the CEO of a massive design agency in London with an international reputation. Nicely done, Sir.

The band’s raised profile is doubly registered here by the cover shot of the band in silhouette being by Jill Furmanovsky, the pointing of whose lens at a band meant they had Made It. We saw Buzzcocks promoting this LP at Leeds University (supported by a powerful if rough-as-old-boots debutante band called Joy Division) and Pete Shelley sang the last two songs with a towel over his head. He clearly wanted to get off the roundabout. And shortly afterwards, he did: this was the last Buzzcocks album for a decade, and arguably the last ‘real’ one, as none of the later records featured this original quartet.

Bob Dylan : Slow Train Coming (1979) (Russian ‘samizdat’ version)

I think this is a record people either adore or which they run screaming from. It’s the first of Dylan’s ‘Born Again Christian’ albums, from 1979. It was his best produced record ever, with a very FM-friendly sound and made substantial use of Mark Knopfler and Pick Withers, guitarist and drummer from then pub-rockers but by ’79 newly emerging stadium conquerers to be, Dire Straits. The idea being, we suppose, to make the record sound so good on the radio that the ‘message’ would permeate and spread.

As I say, it’s Love or Loathe. I happen to Love, so when I saw this copy on a street market in Baja in southern Hungary in the early mid 90’s I willingly coughed up the 100 forints asking price. To quote Nigel Tufnel, however, if you can see, this is very special…not only are Dylan’s name and the album title rendered in the Russian (ie the Cyrillic) alphabet but also if you compare this sleeve to the CBS original you will, on close-ish inspection, see that it is not the same drawing. That is because this is a ‘samizdat’ copy of the album – due to state control of music distribution, a kind of ‘grey market’ existed for western music in the old ‘Eastern Bloc’, and great efforts would be gone to to recreate the original sleeves as well as make the record sound as good as was possible using the copies and resources available to ‘independent’ producers. Samizdat records like this one were effectively bootlegs in a market where the original didn’t officially exist.

Plenty of ‘controlled’ releases were made available in the East to satisfy the markets and also to demonstrate to the West that, hey, we have NO censorship here!, but appetites were whetted and so much lay beyond the reach of the everyday music listener that strategies of copying, sharing, duplicating and so on arose. Most of these methods- covert tape to tape copying, wide circulation of single copies of a third generation tape -were much more discreet than actual physical albums with recreated covers like this one, but this is a great example of this odd little corner of record production history that I am very pleased to own.

Gabriel Yared: Music from Betty Blue (1986)

It was this movie, along with Paris, Texas around the same time in the mid-80s, that first got me taking notice of ‘music in film’. ‘This movie’ being the epochal Betty Blue which was the English language title of the French film 37° 2 le matin – the sleeve as you can see above retains that title on the main image, and adds the English version in a floaty scrawl next to Beatrice Dalle’s left hand. It was one of those films which were somehow markers of identity and personality, and I felt about it in a way not unlike how Kenneth Tynan felt about Beckett’s Waiting For Godot in his famous review of the play’s London debut for The Observer in 1956: if you didn’t like it, we couldn’t be friends.

Back I went to the Bluecoat Chambers cinema in Liverpool, as often as I could afford to, in order to try and soak up some more of what mystified and delighted me about the film. I didn’t even notice the music first time around; the girl I was with when I first saw it said ‘Wasn’t the music great?’ after we came out and I said, gasping for air in The Old Post Office pub opposite the Bluecoat, ‘Music? What music? There was no music‘. So I went back the next evening to listen as well as look. But, I mean, Beatrice Dalle. BEATRICE DALLE. No wonder I didn’t hear the music. But once I did, I was off.

Anyway, the sleeve; beautiful intense blue and streaks of sunrise (or is it sunset) over the beach house which is a key part of the ‘happy’, earlier section of the story. And Mlle. Dalle, looking off into the uncertainty of the new day, her gaze a plea for tenderness and also a marvellous Fuck You to fate. Hardyesque, certainly – oh all right then, Tess-esque, certainly – but living so faithfully in the belief of good and right and natural justice in life eventually costs her everything. That’s why so much of the music in Gabriel Yared’s score has an uneasy undertow, even when the top line is bright and clear. And, come to that, the music is actually the same colour as the sleeve.

In fact one of my favourite pieces of music of any and every kind is on this album, the famous ‘theme’ ‘C’est Le Vent, Betty’, an exquisite thing which exemplifies the musical embodiment of Betty’s own fragile psyche. I always fancied working it up as encore for Innocents Abroad – we had the big drum, the languid rolling bass, the harmonica, the accordion, the mile-wide guitar strokes – but we never quite made it that far. C’est Le Vent, Pete.

XTC: GO 2 (1978)

Some covers are just great images to look at. Some are, ‘ow you zay, High Concept. This one is both. XTC’s second album cover keeps the monochrome aesthetic of their debut White Music (also 1978) but abandons the idea of showing you the artist in a pleasing way or even making clear what the record is inside the sleeve, or giving you a clue as to what the music might be like. Instead, there is a densely worded block of text about the psychology of advertising and design. The conceit was extended to the adverts placed in the music press to promote the album, and also to the cover of the cassette and, later, the compact disc editions.

It’s doubly revealing (as well as being obscure – a great and characteristic XTC trick) in that this design was actually a ‘ready-made’ or ‘dummy’ cover, not made specifically for the album. The band found it after rejecting other more bespoke designs (I wonder if they survive somewhere) at the studios of Hipgnosis, probably the most famous sleeve design agency of their day – run by old friend of Pink Floyd Storm Thorgerson, they were de rigeur in the 70’s, chiefly because of the work they did for ‘The Floyd’. Hipgnosis designed all their album covers from Saucerful Of Secrets up to Animals, as well as providing cover art for many, many other artists. You could spot their work a mile off. If you’ve read this far, you’ll have several in your collection, I guarantee it. Anyway this one was atypical because it was a kind of ‘in house’ spoof revealing a humorously cynical insight into what they were actually doing in creating their ‘artworks’ for a commercial product. It’s the classic Art vs Commerce dilemma, there in living black and white.

This faintly itchy mood was accidentally appropriate to the music inside the wrapper too; a year and a bit in to their recording career they were no longer debutantes and, in addition to mounting commercial pressure from their employers Virgin to deliver hits, growing internal stresses built as keyboardist Barry Andrews began writing and ‘singing’ his own songs and pushing for their inclusion. This all ruffled feathers, and those of Andy Partridge in particular. Something had to give. And it did. Andrews was Out before this record had really been given the chance to succeed or fail. That tension is right there in the sound – you can hear the music about to burst a blood vessel on ‘Red’.

In early ’79 Dave Gregory joined and XTC were reborn, remade, became a different animal altogether. But that’s another story. And this is the RECORD COVER.

Fleetwood Mac: Tusk (1979)

This was the 1979 follow up to Rumours, which had conquered the world in the previous two years. Everybody expected more of the same but Lindsey Buckingham had other ideas.

He had become a big fan of so-called New Wave acts, particularly Talking Heads and The Clash, and wanted the new music to walk in that direction. His songs on the record do exactly that, in a very pared back, home-demo style. He even shaved off his King Of California Soft Rock curls and beard! The rest of the band, including former paramour Stevie Nicks, stayed resolutely where they were, writing-wise, but met him partway by scaling back the dreaminess and left their tunes with a few rougher edges than they might have otherwise had. The pictures taken by legendary LA rock photographer Norman Seeff (see Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, Van Morrison’s Wavelength) on the inner sleeves of this double-album-in-a single-slipcase show off this dichotomy beautifully: Fleetwood, Nicks and both McVies look as they had done before but are gazing at the newly shorn Buckingham, part in admiration, part in concern.

The front cover does its best to illustrate the change too. Sandpapery textures, suggesting spotty abrasion, encapsulate the faintly schizophrenic mood of the 20 track, two record set. The cover image is not of the band but of the album’s producer/engineer Ken Calliat’s dog, Scooter, who was always around at the sessions and was by all accounts best approached with caution; this may well have been a subliminal message about the musical contents therein. It’s a very beautiful record, and a weighty musical package, often smooth and caramel creamy, but one which, like Scooter, sometimes bites. It’s also one of my very favourite albums, capable somehow of being, like life, love and matters arising, multiple things at once.

Tusk!