It’s always nice to hear something unexpectedly cock-eyed from some of the old monuments of pop. The other week I heard a great radio show which special guest-starred the front man from Californian psych-rock garage superheros Thee Oh Sees who played an hour’s worth of his favourite musical belters. They were all corkers but probably most surprising (and perhaps for some most alarming) of the selections was this Paul McCartney song from his commercial flop, synthesized second solo LP. I didn’t even know such a thing existed, although this is perhaps not a great surprise – the only Paul McCartney solo records I know fairly well are the two singles I inherited from the family collection when everyone else got rid of their record players: ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’ - which I like - and ‘We All Stand Together’ with Rupert the Bear and the Frog Chorus – which I don’t.
I know people who think ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’ is utterly dreadful and put it on a par with the festive-themed output of Cliff Richard. (I haven’t asked their opinion on the frog chorus.)
Apparently, ‘Temporary Secretary’ was recorded at the same time as ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’ which would explain their mutual electronic-heavy arrangements although in comparison, the Christmas tune is a much more restrained effort than ‘Temporary Secretary’ which reaches much more ludicrous stratospheric heights of synth-o-matic bombast which I imagine could have gone down a storm on any disco dance floor of the era if the record hadn’t totally stiffed.
Rest assured folks, it holds its own against any of Cliff Richard’s Christmas songs. But that’s enough about Christmas – the buttercups are out.
Song of the Month: 5 O’Clock Bells in the Morning by Lenny Breau, 1979
My dad’s friend John P worked as a picture framer for much of his life and had a workshop in the basement of an art shop in Victoria. The shop offered a picture restoration service and proudly displayed an old guilt-framed painting in the front window which had a very neat line dividing it down the middle – the left side was brown and dull with age and dirt while the right side was colourfully bright and vibrant in its newly cleaned and restored beauty.
One day John walked downstairs to the workshop to see the restorer hard at work at his craft, scrubbing a canvas vigorously with a large wet sponge. By his side was a bucket of hot water and a box of Daz washing powder. On hearing John's footsteps he turned around and put his finger to his lips: “Mom’s the word - must keep up the mystique!”
I remember a story of one customer who came back extremely irate. After getting her seascape painting restored all the seagulls had disappeared.
John’s favourite music was jazz. My collection and knowledge of the genre is pretty thin although one of my all-time favourite albums is by Canadian jazz guitarist Lenny Breau. I once taped a copy of the album for John but I don’t think he ever listened to it. I don’t know if it was because he had no faith in my musical tastes or whether he just didn’t have a cassette player to play it on. I don't think I showed him the record sleeve but if I had done that probably would have put him off - while the record itself contains such sensitive, expansive, intimate, extraordinarily lovely music so as to produce tears to the eyes in weaker moments, the record cover of the version I have is similarly eye-watering but for very different reasons: it’s a shocker.
The song Five O’clock Bells is the title track of the album and to my knowledge is the only time he recorded a vocal. It’s like some gentle anthem for insomniacs and irregular sleepers. I first heard it in Poland where I experienced the worse stomach ache I've ever known. If anyone ever tells you that Polish sauerkraut and vodka are ideal digestive companions don't listen to them.
My most enjoyable live music experiences have tended to be at gigs where I can jump about ludicrously by the front of the stage alongside a load of fellow ‘dancers’. For some reason I’ve often found getting exhaustedly drenched with sweat and overpriced plastic-beakered lager, having my shoes written off from stamping feet and having my face periodically elbowed from others’ animated limbs to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. However, as I approach 40 I’ve been receiving signs making me wonder if I’m not getting too old for it all, most recently after seeing garage-psych-punk-rock titans Thee Oh Sees in London with my old friend Jonny Voss.
Jonny has always been partial to the delights of a good mosh-pit and has been a long-standing connoisseur of the Thrash, Death and Speed Metal music genres. He’s also by far the most athletic, energetic person I’ve ever known: as a teenager he used to think nothing of swimming a few hundred lengths before a couple of hours cycling in the morning to warm himself up for an afternoon of further strenuous physical activities. Even now as a parent of two young children, he seems to have brain cells that actually still work after the continuous sleep deprivation. What better companion for such a high-energy concert?
Alas, while I was getting knocked about among the barrage of animated bodies near the front of the stage he spent the whole time stood still against a wall saying afterwards he was “too old for all of that.”
When The Bionic Man tells you something like this, the writing seems unavoidably on the wall for mere mortals like me.
Thankfully, one doesn’t always have to be jumping around to receive transcendent live music experiences. Seeing Nina Simone at the Royal Festival Hall a few years ago was a much less energetic affair, and was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. After each song she got up from the piano and stared at us all from the front of the stage, stock still and with a completely blank expression. It was both magnificent and bizarre.
‘Memphis in June’ is from by far the best album I’ve heard of hers although curiously none of the songs on it seem to ever make the greatest hits compilations. Whether the song’s description of sitting in rocking chairs on Oleander-smelling verandas in Memphis is a similar experience to eyeing up the traffic from a doorstep in Ditchling Road, I wouldn’t like to say. If you’ve got Nina going on in the background though, I’d say that’s probably good enough.
Fiveways seems stuffed to capacity with visual artists and for better or worse I'm yet another one of them. Unfortunately, my own artistic muse has essentially been telling me for many years now that there's little hope of my giving up the day job any time soon.
Never mind, I can always find solace in the example of painters like Spanish National Treasure Antonio Lopez Garcia who seems to make a comfortable living out of his artwork against the odds. Described to me once as “an obsessive nutter”, he'll often spend years to finish a painting. With his sort of work rate, it's impressive he ever has anything to sell at all let alone make a good living from it, and yet that's exactly what he's done for much of his life.
The film 'The Quince Tree Sun' documents one of his long-winded attempts to paint the quince tree growing in his back yard and is by far the best thing I've ever watched about art. Through it's patient, non-judgemental observations of him going about his work, the film manages to offer an expansive view of what it is to be an artist in the modern world - their place and role in society, the modesty and arrogance of the artistic temperament, and the dignity and absurdity of creative endeavour and human existence in general. I think it's magnificent. It was described in a review at the time as being “the cinematic equivalent of watching paint dry”.
One thing I find interesting is Antonio's relationship with music. Although he likes having the radio on as company while he works, he feels it can dilute his ability to be totally present in the moment, affecting his connection with what he's painting. I listen to a lot of music, particularly at home, but sometimes get the sense of it having too much of a cocooning effect from my hearing what's immediately going on outside such as the type of birdsong or the sound of the weather changing, and I'm convinced the more in tune you are with those kinds of noises the more healthier your mental state.
In the end though, I just find having a sing-a-long to some of my all time favourites too much fun to resist, and it seems Antonio is the same – at one point in the film he's visited by his friend and fellow artist Enrice Gran and, after ignoring his advice on how best he should paint the picture, they do a duet of an old favourite of theirs.
Watching live footage of rock
concerts is generally disappointing I find. The event itself may well be an
exciting euphoric experience where audience and performers are communally and
transcendentally united as one through shared adrenaline sweat-fuelled musical
ecstasy. You don't quite get that though when you're sat watching it on the
telly in the evening with a hot drink and a biscuit and the sound turned low so
as not to disturb your good lady and dog who are conked-out on the sofa snoring
My dissatisfaction established itself around the time when my friends at school
began listening to heavy metal and smoking. Visiting one of their houses
suddenly meant sitting around watching hours of live Led Zeppelin videos which
always climaxed with a 15 minute version of 'Moby Dick', 13 minutes of which
was a drum solo. According to my companions, being there would've been the
equivalent of being in the presence of God, but I was never convinced. I don't
even think the rest of the band were either -their walking off stage during the solo told me all I needed to know
about what it was like to actually be there.
Anyway, attempting some optimism I had a go at watching some of the televised
footage of this year's Glastonbury festival, and to my surprise I'm glad I did
because amongst all the stuff that I can't now even remember who they were was
tUnE-yArDs: florescent face-painted hollering women banging out unpredictable
African-based polyrhythms decked out in ill-fitting multi-coloured home-made
fish-themed outfits, a brass section, distorted electric ukulele and a bass
player who looked half asleep, backed by amateur dancers dressed in cardboard
eye-balls wrapped in a silk sheet.
They were glorious.
I could even turn the sound up a bit as my good lady Kate woke up, mesmerised
by what she was seeing and hearing. I'm always pleased when our tastes coincide
– often while listening to much of the music I love she gives me a look of
someone who wants to punch my ears.
Back in the dark ages before Google and YouTube, discovering new music could be a very slow and financially painful business. Seeking out a copy of something you’d read about or remember hearing once on the radio could result in months or even years of traipsing around back-street record shops, music fairs and flea-markets. There was excitement and trepidation felt before listening to it back home where the All-Important Question would finally be answered: Does it live up to expectations, or is it yet another crushing buy which you'll have to dutifully listen to a number of times in the fruitless attempt to justify the cash you've just shelled out for it?
Mercifully to my rescue was a friendship with Colin Davies who ran the fanzine for Fairport Convention founding-guitarist Richard Thompson and conveniently lived only a couple of streets away. Colin had a magnificent record collection, and as an awkward teenager with lank long hair which my mother said made me look like a spaniel, it was a relief to be welcomed by someone whose enthusiasm for music dissolved any potential boundaries which may otherwise have been present from our age difference.
With every visit round his house he’d generously spend the evening loading me up with records to borrow, enthusing about each album with fond anecdotes about being stoned as a student in the 70s at Kingston Polytechnic, his wife Nita rolling her eyes in the background while getting on with the washing, ironing, cooking, cleaning or something else of actual use.
It was through Colin I was first introduced to such delights as The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Eek-A-Mouse, Captain Beefheart, and the short-lived genre of Morris-dance rock fusion which consisted of two records (I only heard one).
Best of all was Bright Phoebus by folk siblings Lal & Mike Waterson which I remember Colin saying sold a total of 200 copies when first released, of which he’d bought two. I recently heard it described as being the 'Sgt Pepper of folk music' which is fitting. However, while The Beatles’ effort is a more pill-popping, heads-in-the-stratosphere affair, Bright Phoebus is a record with its feet firmly planted in mud, the smell of dung in its nostrils, and a keen eye fixed on the weather. It’s unique and sounds nothing like their other recordings, let alone anyone else’s.
The songs are a peculiar assortment, with chirpy country fair sing-a-longs about rubber bands, magicians and sunshine, alongside magnificently bleak tunes about desperate lives in rural landscapes.
The singing is unvarnished. Mike has a warble that sounds like he’s constantly welling-up, which is understandable given his sister’s performance – I get tearful just thinking about it. She’s devastating. Her songs and her voice cut like nothing else I know.