The day that I was born – what planet guided me?

One of the downsides of this whole global pandemic spectacle (apart from the tens of thousands of deaths, obvs) is that the next leg of our tour of Spain has had to be deferred until next year. We’d been planning to do some loafing about and travelling around Asturias, Castilla & Leon and the Basque Country and had been looking forward to it enormously. All very first-world-problems and of barely any consequence in the grand, horrible scheme of things, I know, but…

Still, we’ve been lucky, everyone’s been very decent, all the places we’d been planning to stay have been more than accommodating and we should be able to do it all next year, without losing much money. Small mercies…

One of the upsides of this whole mess has been that with music venues, rugby grounds and the city’s pubs all closed, I’ve had a bit more time to practice my Spanish and get myself extra-ready. I’m still pretty poor for all the Skype inter-cambios and episodes of heavily-subtitled episodes of Money Heist I’ve watched. But, I find myself increasingly drawn into this whole language malarkey.

I think I’ve written about Radio Gladys Palmeira before, and it continues to be one of the radio stations I’m tuning into. And here’s a recent discovery that I’m currently …er… grooving to.

Rodrigo Cuevas

Rodrigo’s a pretty distinctive-looking feller, as I’m sure you’ve noticed from the photo. The hat and clogs are apparently traditional native garb of his native Asturias. The stockings and suspenders, less so, I suspect.

I was particularly looking forward to visiting Asturias – it’s supposed to be wild and lovely, good for food, drink and music and they do that pouring -cider-from-a-great-height thing – but I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting anything quite as exotic as this:

All a bit rich and buttery for my taste – I don’t think I could eat a whole one, thank you – but kinda fun, nevertheless. Cuevas’ thing, as far as I can tell, is that as a proud son of Asturian soil he tries to take a genuinely rich local musical culture (all pipes and Celtic roots) and put a modern, nutty twist to it. We’ve heard all this before, I know, but with the release of Manual de Cortejo last year, I think he’s done something with a little more reach. Produced by Raul Refree (himself another interesting character who’s worked with Lee Ranaldo and Mala Rodrigues), Cuevas has taken a range of traditional songs and, with the help of Refree’s battered portmanteau of gizmos, dipped them in all manner of cavernous bass beats and deep, foreboding ambience. Cuevas’ voice is at times heavily tweaked and auto-tuned (the Spanish seem to love all that stuff) but remains this side of artifice.

Listen to this:

This is gorgeous, no?

It’s a rare, pre-war gem, originally performed by Argentinian diva Imperio Argentina of which you can find a few versions on YouTube. Should you feel the urge, you’ll be rewarded with a strange but beautiful melody, stirring defiance, haunting sadness and you’ll be able to appreciate the extent to which Cuevas and Refree love and respect Doña Imperio and all their sources.

Cuevas likes to refer to himself as an “agitador folklórico” and I rather like this – it conjures up an image of a band of be-stockinged, moustachioed vaqueros coming down from the mountains to comprehensively (but always respectfully) mess with the locals’ pipe and clog festivals.

The whole record is this mixture of lovingly fucked-up originals, muddied and eddied by dark trickery and driven by spaghetti western theme tunes. All wonderfully rich stuff.

I never see the people that I know, in the bright light of day

When I started writing this last week, it would have been half-relevant, but having quiveringly submitted it to the sub-editors savage pen, little of it survived the criss-cross of angry red slashes that ranged unchallenged across the page. (I know, there’ll be more than a few quizzical eyebrows raised at the concept of any sort of review and editing going on in this Blog, but believe me, my reputation would have been in tatters if all of the old bollocks that flowed from this mushy pen had been allowed to pass unchallenged…)

In truth, I’ve never been especially prolific, but right now my muse has not exactly disappeared – with the exception of government advisors, we know exactly where everyone is these days – but I suspect it too has not ventured from its front room sofa, no doubt binge-watching old Friends episodes, surrounded by empty packets of Haribo and cold mugs of hot chocolate with marshmallows.

Someone’s got to do it, though.

Phil May passed away last weekend, seemingly just another one in a gruesome procession of Hall of Fame deaths over the last few weeks.

The Pretty Things

It’s hard to write about bands that everyone’s heard of, particularly when you’ve been fond of them for years and have lost any sense of proportion; and any case there’s been loads of good writing about the Pretties in the last week or so (look for it yourself, what do you think this is?).

I suppose the first image we all have of the Pretty Things will be some of those mid-sixties, black and white clips, dominated by the Bo Diddley beat, the loose guitar of Dick Taylor and unfeasibly long hair of Phil May. People say that in post-war Britain a man singing and howling like May did and looking like one of the Ramones would’ve been considered something of a curio if it were not for the genuine threat to society that was appearing in the shape of the Rolling Stones. I’m guessing that in the only analogy that I can think of, the Stones and their like carried a threat and sparked a moral outrage that was only really comparable to that of the Pistols a little more than ten years later.

I don’t think the Pretty Things were taken as seriously as the others, though and, largely because of May’s looks and Taylor’s association with Jagger and Richard’s first band, have often been labelled as a poor man Stones – cartoonish and over the top. If the Stones are the Pistols, the Pretties are X Ray Specs.

You’ll be aware that I’m teeing this up to be smashed down with a triumphant flourish of my (mushy) pen, but much as I’ve always loved them, there’s an element of truth to this, particularly in the early days.

That doesn’t mean, though, that they didn’t produce some wonderful Nuggets-style thrashes. Witness this:

(And yes, that is a woman with a pet goat. No, not a clue…)

 

In modern parlance, a proper “banger”… and if you’re not blown away by it, you need to leave now. We can never be friends…

That’s as rough and, dare I say it, as punky as anything the Kinks or the Who did, and the Stones were nowhere near this at the time. Dick Taylor’s fuzz-tone is a thing of gruff splendour.

Once you’ve marvelled at the fuzz-tone, ogled May’s jacket and checked out the goat, the other highpoint of the show is drummer, Skip Alan’s… erm… eccentric and highly individual performance. The Pretties already had something of a tradition of wild man drummers, Alan being the second one, presumably having proved himself to be less erratic than his predecessor, Viv Prince. The going into the audience brandishing cymbal and stick mularkey was apparently a Viv Prince thing too, you can see it on the clip of the band in Holland at the notorious Blokker festival which also features some proper argy-bargy in the audience.

(Prince eventually left the band after a series of incidents with tear gas grenades which resulted in a life time ban from appearing in New Zealand – he was later a candidate for the Lord Such’s Monster Raving Loony Party and was reputedly ejected from a Hells Angels drinking party…)

May was known for his standout appearance and for his squealing, snarling vocal style, but here he tucks in behind Alan and the very underrated Dick Taylor. Taylor always looked a generation older than the rest of the spotty faced oiks about him, more like a trad jazz fan or a member of the Springfields, but at the time of this clip was an old-looking 22.

The first couple of albums are patchy but have moments of harsh brilliance and there was some real success for the band. The transition into psychedelia, however, was to be the end of all that, as for many bands of the time.

Which is actually strange. It’s all barkingly good…

The Pretty Things jumped gleefully into the counter-culture and I think you could say they “embraced” the alternative lifestyle. Some of their late sixties true psyche records are genuinely ambitious and mostly brilliant, certainly as good as any of their beat group chums and better than anything the Satanic Majesties-era Stones produced.

The other thing people know about the Pretty Things is that they were responsible for the first, pre-Tommy “Rock Opera” – SF Sorrow. The song-cycle is in truth a pretty ropey old device that hasn’t produced many moments to savour. I can’t be arsed with it most of the time, but SF Sorrow stands up reasonably well still with some great songs.

Here’s a couple of clips from that era, the first being “Private Sorrow”:

 

The character that May is looking at with ill-concealed contempt throughout this performance (and who presumably had to make his own way home after this) is none other than Twink.

Nominally the third Pretty Things drummer, John “Twink” Alder shows that the band had still not really bought into a Charlie Watts-type model of backseat efficiency. In fact, it’s clear that Twink was testing the bonds of his day-job, exploring the medium of “interpretative dance” and channelling his own Leo Sayer. It was the late-sixties, people barely batted an eyelid.

Here’s a clip of another track from the record, “Baron Saturday”, with Twink actually drumming (although still looning around and tellingly, front and centre):

 

Another cracking clip, again from a French TV show (always a bit of a give-away, a Top of the Pops slot clearly not forthcoming).

The use of tape loop and fading in and out of electronic “FX” was pretty unusual for the time, but it works well. The clip’s also pretty remarkable for the lead vocalist handing over vocals on this track to the guitarist, and not in a Carl Wayne “I’ll be off soon” sort of a way (May was still the chief lyricist). I’m also very keen on Taylor’s increasing geography-teacher-who’s-still-down-with-the-kids look.

Also at about this time, there was some sort of record label dispute which resulted in a series of recordings under an assumed name – the Electric Banana, (again, it’s the late sixties). These are also a patchy but occasionally brilliant bunch of songs. Again, there’s no British footage that I can find and with continental spots also drying up, it was left to a late-period Norman Wisdom to provide a turn for the Banana. There’s a good clip of them singing “Alexander” here, but I think I prefer the whole clip, as Wisdom ventures tentatively into the Screaming Apple discotheque:

 

Wisdom is a bank manager going through his own down-with-the-kids moment, following around a nubile Sally Geeson in a midlife-crisis, not at all creepy way. Spoiler alert: he does have a degree of improbable success with the girl, (and not just in a Strictly sense). In a similarly unlikely, life-reflecting-art-reflecting-life moment, May and Taylor recounted in a Guardian article how Wisdom and the band shared a joint in the dressing rooms after this scene. Mind-blowing…

The Pretty Things became increasingly a critics’ favourite sort of band, with a high-profile fans like Jimmy Page and Bowie helping them to continue releasing records. Eventually, they became drinking buddies of Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies, and disappeared into their own long dark tunnel of motorcycle gangs and West London squats. A decade long party you don’t return from unscathed, I’ll warrant.

There was however still time for one more cracking record, Parachute – a Rolling Stone record of the year, I believe, and one that was enthusiastically ignored by all and sundry. It didn’t sell well at all, and is still not well-known, which is a shame. It’s a record I’ve listened to a lot this last week or so, and it stands next to SF Sorrow as the peak of their career.

The fuzz-tone and Jerome Green maracas are, of course, long gone. The interpretative dance too has disappeared by then (Twink having disappeared to form a band with Steve Peregrine Took and Syd Barrett – just imagine…) and the Pretties have settled into their denim. But there are still strong songs and an increasing confidence in harmony and melody. It only became obvious as the band moved into their SF Sorrow phase that some of them could actually sing, produce harmonies and write accomplished songs.

There are a few clips of this era, although they’re all pretty hard rocking and don’t give us a full taste of the light and shade of this record. You’ll also notice that by this point Taylor had moved on (he rejoined later) and that again May had no problem sharing lead vocals. It’s another great song, uncluttered by whimsy, late-sixties foppery or, I suspect, any ambitions of returning to the Big Time.

 

Phil May – a lifetime, ogled and overlooked at the same time.

You can tell a good drummer because we… have four limbs… and they are… playing different things…

It feels like the irksome manacles of these weeks of Lockdown are beginning to rust and crumble and I wonder whether we’re really ready to venture out from our bunkers – pale, squinty-eyed, carrying a few extra pounds…

It has of course been a truly horrible, desperate time for many, many people, but over here we’ve been very lucky that it’s been nothing much more than an awkward, difficult period of enforced house arrest, interspersed with periods of taking my turn in the skeleton staff at school and sitting in the garden. So, rather than dwell on the greater tragedies and controversies of the age, (which in truth I’m ill-suited to write about – there’s no colloquial whimsy in 37,000 deaths…), there are a couple of things I’ll turn to.

There’s been quite a grim procession of losses to the world of music in these months, one of whom I’d been hoping to see a couple of weeks ago at the (long-since cancelled) Cheltenham Jazz Festival. At the age of age of 79, Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen has passed.

Tony Allen

As is often the case, I was only just cottoning on to the tentacle genius of the man, and was very much looking forward to seeing him in all his multi-limbed glory. I do like a drummer who takes his job seriously:

 

 

He really was as cool as fuck.

I was hoping to find some decent footage of Zombie-era Africa ’70 with Fela, but in most of the clips Allen is lost in the bewildering crowd of musicians onstage. You can hear his clipped, probing rhythms but you can’t see a lot of the man. So I’ve gone for something more recent – you’ll have to forgive the grinning white boys in pork pie hats (who can blame them? They’re playing with Tony Fuckin’ Allen…), because front and centre you can see the languid genius of a proper cornerstone legend. There’d have been no Afrobeat without him.

You can only applaud drummers in hats who barely break a sweat… (and the shirt /hat combo – oof!)

There’s another little tribute I need to pay too – I’ll be back, ooh, very soon….

Doing my rhumbas with uno

If you’d somehow imagined that a period of UK “lockdown” would herald a period of prolific posting on this Blog, a Golden Age of witty and ahead-of-the-curve posts that would inform and deftly entertain in equal measure, well, you’d have been disappointed, I guess. We all are.

I suspect that regular readers of these sporadic pages (and against all the odds, yes, there are actually one or two…) would not have thought any such nonsense and are in fact well past the “disappointed” stage.

But there you are – it is what it is. Let’s not dwell on the past…

There has, however and as ever, been quite a lot of music – although I’m no longer driving around as much, and am therefore spending a significant amount of time gazing blankly from living room windows, like the lad in the Cat in the Hat. This has meant that as with everything else in this strange new world, I’m listening to a bit more music online.

A friend recently sent me a wondrous app called Radio Garden which allows you to spin the globe, bottle-fashion, and pick a radio station wherever in the world you click. It’s tremendous fun, and I feel there’s more to come from it – I say this because predictably I’ve spent the week touring Spain and Spanish stations (the only Spanish travelling we’ll be doing this year, I’d imagine…).

This has led me to a cracking station based in Barcelona, called Radio Gladys Palmera, which actually has two streams – its main stream and a sort of “Gold” which consists of all manner of Hispanic sounds from the fifties. (I’ll leave you to imagine the vulgar scenes of Chicano frenzy currently “gracing” our kitchen of a morning…)

The main stream is also a lot of fun, with a general diet of more modern Latin beats and a lot of African-heavy world music. It’s a seductive listen.

And one of the artists, I’ve discovered at Radio Gladys Palmera that I don’t think I would ever have run into pre “lockdown” is this gent:

Sam Gendel

Sam Gendel is a saxophone player who seems to specialise in woozy, jazz-focused improvisations, which is the sort of description that will have most folk scrabbling franticly for whichever button it is that takes you the hell away from this place. But bear with me, after all, we’ve got a little time, we’re not going anywhere, are we?

First, I’d recommend reading this interview with Gendel in Aquarium Drunkard (the Blog that makes all other Blogs pointless).

Go on, I’ll wait…

He sounds like a pretty independent sole, doesn’t he? Affable, self-effacing but single minded… I was particularly drawn to the idea of jazz standards deconstructed (not something I’d have noticed, being a worthless know-nothing in these affairs), so let’s try something…

Here’s the Duke Ellington standard that Gendel uses as his title track for this year’s album, “Satin Doll” (a 1962 live version, I believe…)

 

Mr Duke Ellington…

(I know almost nothing about Ellington, but clearly a man with a certain authority – I’m very keen on the way he teases dark, elegant pieces out of his young bass player. Lordy…)

There’s also a definitive sung version by Ella Fitzgerald, although a word of warning – the clip contains scat-singing that some readers may find offensive (there are no words until about halfway through…)

 

And now, pour yourself a drink and enjoy Gendel’s, squinty-eyed, hazy-days take on the same. (And, yeah, it’s a smashing video…) Again, a warning to the beardy, banjo-toting members of my “audience”, this clip contains beats and, even, “breaks”

 

It’s in there somewhere, isn’t it? That melody, just about keeping its head above thick waters.

You’d have to say this is something of an impressionist venture, an out of focus glide across an already sparing performance, which sounds less clear the closer you try to get. You’re better off, listening to it side-on, as it were.

The whole album is a lot like this – obtuse takes on tunes you thought you knew, tunes you sometimes didn’t even notice were there until you looked at the track-listing.

Somewhat wilfully, Gendel claims that “nothing really interests me about deconstructing jazz standards” but I find that hard to believe. There’s a genuine love for and respect of the original in just about all of these songs, and he talks engagingly about the process of recording them.

You can do a similarly rewarding exercise comparing a few of his versions, I’m going to spend some time on “Afro Blue”, this afternoon, but particularly I’d recommend his fumbling exploration of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”. There’s a glorious performance of the original at Montreux ‘75, which is on YouTube (worth it, alone, for the sight of Mingus strolling solemnly, eyes like the Void, through his past) but I’ll let you discover that on your own. I can trust you, I know you’re good for it…

There’s also this 53-minute monster recorded at a Union Station, Los Angeles which in normal times, I wouldn’t suggest, life’s too short after all. But it turns out, these aren’t normal times, we’ve all got a little bit more of time these days.

Relax a little, we’ve got nowhere to be. Time is starting to unfold for us, the lucky ones.

We’re on Gendel time now…

I don’t know if you can hear me…

I seem to be starting all my emails, texts and messages with “Well, this is weird, isn’t it?”

All the weirder for the fact that the sun’s out, our pond is stirring into life and signs of Spring are peeping coyly over the skyline. I’ve spent the morning in the garden, talking over the fence to neighbours (at a safe distance…), watching newts lolling about in the duckweed and generally feeling like I’m on holiday.

An extraordinary holiday, for sure, and one that scoffs unwisely at the probability that we’re most likely on the brink of something truly terrible. My heart goes out to all my friends who have relatives in Italy and Spain… Truly, we’re living through history.

You might be imagining that as a teacher, right now I’ve been lounging around all week in a smoking jacket, flicking playing cards into a top hat. But you see that’s just where you’d be wrong (this afternoon excepted…). As a freelancer, there’s all sorts of readjusting and rearranging I’ve been sorting through this week, not the least of which is the knotty business of learning how to use various video-conferencing apps and remote classroom tools (a problem that becomes near-Gordian when you have to explain it all to non-English speakers from your vantage point of a whole 2 days mastery…).

So pretty much like many other people, I guess (minus the Polish and Fula obviously)

There has, of course, been a constant soundtrack to all this, and the more I listen, the more apposite it seems…

 

My generation’s Byrds, they were.

A perfect song on an absolutely perfect album, that one day will be officially inducted onto The List.

(And somehow all the more perfect for being in front of a bunch of quizzical Australian kids…)

I’ll tell you something – you can dance till you don’t exist

In your laser-like scrutiny of these pages, some of you will have noticed (chiefly, I’d suggest, because I’ve told you) that periodically I go through something of a personal crisis as the realisation strikes me that despite being a gentleman of advancing years, I’m still yet to resolve the issue of my Top Ten Records. This is obviously something any self-respecting chap should consider a priority in these uncertain times. I’d imagined I would have had this pretty much nailed down, it’s not such a big ask, after all – your ten favourite records of all time, recorded faithfully in longhand amongst your personal papers, maybe neatly typed out, at the very least committed to memory in readiness for that decisive, in-your-cups conversation at the end of a long evening.

Yeah, well… about that.

You’ll have guessed, keen eyed marksman that you are, that this list is still not quite ready. I’ve always known three or four of them, but the rest of the spots are still unclaimed. It’s a poser, for sure

The good news is that there’s one less place to play for…

Barafundle

Having spent Sunday afternoon watching Gloucester’s slim chances of making the last eight in the Champions Cup disappear pretty quickly (dicked in the South of France), a knock on the door revealed some poor beleaguered feller delivering a couple of CDs. I’d almost forgotten that I’d spent some Christmas money from in-laws, hoovering up a bunch of reasonably-priced CDs by folk heroes Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. What a lovely surprise.

And this was also another issue I’d been meaning to address for a while, knowing as I do relatively little about Euros Child’s wunder-band. Apart from Barafundle, that is.

The band’s fourth album (if you count back from Gorky 5 – sixth if you include their cassette-only records, released while the band were, marvellously, still at school) has forced its way onto the only list that really matters. You’ll know all the stuff you need to know about Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci by now, I’d imagine, and if you don’t, well, you should probably sort that – I wouldn’t trust me to get it right for you.

Bursting with gentle, curious melodies, awkward lyrical turns and moments of straight genius, it’s a record that has charmed me for ages and now I’m thinking that way, it beats me why I’ve not written about it before. Time to step up.

A bumper package of sixteen songs by most bands might be a little intimidating but sixteen songs as complex, varied (and simple) as these, is perhaps the reason why I’ve never gone here.

There’s a bewildering variety of instruments (and musicians) used for starters – bodhran, violins, voila, flutes, jew’s harp, recorders, hurdy-gurdy, shawm (“a conical bore, double-reed woodwind instrument”, as you’re asking) and crumhorn (oh… look it up yourself…) are all credited (as is Euros’ and Megan’s father Lynn). The arrangements are increasingly complex as the record develops belying the “feel” of the record, which is endearingly simple and heartfelt.

There’s any number of favourite tracks I could pick out, frankly, but right now, I’m loving “Starmoonsun”, partly because it illustrates what I’ve just said about being complex and simple at the same time, and also because it features a fair few of those exotic instruments (and what sounds a lot like Stanley Unwin as the song fades out).

From the beguiling plinky-plunk of the plucked violins behind Child’s organ, through the harsh, earthy sound of what I’m guessing is the sound of the shawm, to the over-exuberant pixies on back vocals, it’s a gorgeous, twisty donkey ride.

The lyrics are light (but pretty) and are graced by a melody of actual, straight up genius (yep – it’s a hill I’m willing to die on), the passage where “and when you cry, there is no sky” dissolves into that shawm, brings a great big, soppy lump to my throat. Breath-taking…

It’s also one of the songs that illustrates what I’d say is another of the features of the whole record – it’s really organic. So many of the songs feel like they have grown independently, developing unexpected but entirely natural twists and diversions. I like to imagine that songs such as this one and others like “Pen Gawg Glas”, “Cursed, Coined and Crucified” and “The Wizard and the Lizard” might have taken on a whole wilful life of their own in the studio, musicians raising a quizzical eyebrow at the end of each session.

I’m also rather keen on Richard James’s beautiful, mystical “Sometimes the Father is the Son”. Led gently by Megan Childs’ insistent violin and accompanied (as in “kept company”) by James’ delicate guitar, you’re on a bit of a Lal Wateron-style journey of uneasiness, dressed gaily but awkwardly in pretty, pretty colours.

There’s quite a lot of this surface loveliness, veiled seductively over lyrics like “all that’s safe to hear, is collapsing around your ears”, only a cheap, cheap comfort afforded by the most beautiful of melodies. Richard James is behind so much of the prettiness of the whole record, I wonder how he put up with the craziness around him for so long.

Actually that’s another of the things I love about the record, and pretty much everything about Gorky’s – their relentless oddness. I’ve spoken before about how much I admire the Daevid Allens and Robert Wyatts of this world, defiantly (and even “deviantly” as I typed at first) garbed in the daftest of pixie hats and knitted gimp masks, while the rest of us smirk and poke fun. Much as I love Gruff Rhys and the other Great Welsh band of the nineties, I’m not sure whether their demented spark would have had such a jolt without the aid of bountiful supplies of stimulants (God bless them). The Gorky’s, on the other hand, would’ve sounded much the same with or without drugs. Their fundamental otherness comes from … I’ve no idea where.

I also love the gorgeous richness of “Better Rooms” with it’s almost New Testament hopefulness, it’s incoherent gasps and it’s clipped, brushed drumming, and of course, it’s Barret-esque lyrics (“the birds and trees they talk to me”)

I could go on (surely someone needs to be extolling the pervy virtues of “Barafundle Bumbler” or “Miniature Kingdom”) but I think I’ve probably tried your patience quite enough already.

The Internet is disappointingly thin on this period of Gorky’s but I’ll leave you with possibly the only clip from Jools Holland’s show that doesn’t involve boogie-woogie piano…

 

Enjoy. Marvel. Treasure.

It’s still a beautiful world…

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