60. The Clientele – Devil got my woman

February 21, 2014

/ Since K got over me, Pointy, 2005


It’s always irritated the OCD-part of me that Backed with fell silent on 59 entries rather than at a nice round number, so while I’m busy posting the A sides of 45s over at A jumped-up pantry boy, and in particular the Clientele’s ‘Lacewings’, it seemed like time to put that right here.  Prior to The violet hour, the Clientele’s format of choice was the seven inch; their B sides consistently matched the high, idiosyncratic standards of the A, though they were usually bathed in a more reflective glow.  So it is with the B side I’ve chosen – their cover of Skip James’ ‘Devil got my woman’.

Round these parts we know full-well that the Clientele fell tripping on acid through a wormhole connecting 1968 to 1997.  But you can make a case that the group are linked to other times than that of the Quicksilver Messenger Service.  Subsequently discovered wormholes have enabled them to time-travel back to 1979 to produce Ze-era NY disco (‘Bookshop Casanova’, ‘Share the night’, ‘I wonder who we are’) and to 1931, to channel the spirit of Skip James on this B side, recorded in 2004 as a demo for possible inclusion on Strange geometry.  (Though truth be told, it may have been the song’s appearance in the 2001 film Ghost world which first brought it to their attention.)

Alasdair MacLean is a great guitar player, and you have to wonder whether he like Robert Johnson went down to some out of the way Mississippi crossroads (actually, given where he spent his formative years, perhaps it was the underpass leading to the Shepherd & Flock roundabout in Farnham) and there sold his soul for such other-worldly talent.  Of course, it could just be long hours of practice and nothing much on British telly during the first half of the nineties.  Whether devil or dedication, there can be few out there in the international pop underground who could improvise on a Skip James number, let alone sing it with the same kind of brooding presence that the original possesses (or is possessed by).  And this despite the fact that as with many of the Clientele’s earlier recordings, it sounds like Alasdair’s vocal was phoned in transatlantically.  They put that right on an incomparable three-piece version of the song played live on the radio for KEXP Seattle in November 2005, and in my dreams, this is the version which appears on the B side of ‘Since K got over me.’

59. Real Foundation – Word to the wise

December 24, 2010

/ Afterthought, Dishy, 1995

Real Foundation

I won’t pretend through omission that this is in any way objective.  I’m writing about the music made by friends; I’m writing about the songs written by an old friend.  And yet, I think I can stand outside of that friendship and say, this is a great debut record, that he was a great melodic songwriter; and that I still think it’s a shame that he didn’t go on to write as many songs as he might have, or that the songs that he did write never got to be better known.

So I know a lot about the genesis of the two songs on this single, and the others I heard played live a dozen times.  I know the music that influenced how they came out as they did.  I even know the songs written before them and remember noting the jumps in learning and craft at each stage.

Long before ‘Afterthought’ and ‘A word to the wise’ were songs such as ‘Angel Hill’, written about meeting a girl in what happened to be my home town.  And one day in the early nineties, while I was at work, the songwriter in his excitement at his creation played a demo of a song called ‘Sweet life’ down the phone at me.  And although it was not yet the finished article, from what I was hearing even through that tinny earpiece speaker, I couldn’t see how this songwriter wouldn’t become one that anyone with an interest in pop music would one day know about.

Real Foundation

I know that the harmonies of a song called ‘Reach for me, honey’ were sung over and over in a Pimlico bedsit, and that far from irritating one of the other residents of the building, she was enchanted (though not above taking it upon herself to make some suggestions as to the song’s arrangement).

And I know that the songwriter – Jack – used to listen obsessively and at times exclusively to the Beach Boys.  You can’t hear that so much in this record, whose lyrical tone tends more to the sour than the sweetness which was actually the staple of his songwriting.  What you do hear is a breadth of listening.  Brian and all the other songwriting Beach Boys were gods, purveyors of ambrosia, nectar and wild honey, just as they have been for so many writers and listeners, but Jack strove to assert his own vision in a way that prevented the Real Foundation’s recorded songs from succumbing to any one predominant influence.  And of course the other boys in the band brought their ideas and influences with them, so that what resulted was a marriage of the Beach Boys to mod, soul, funk and nuttiness.

After the Real Foundation collapsed, Jack recorded songs under his own name.  These solo songs hinted at all sorts of possibilities, and a future beyond influence.  One, ‘Head full of sound’, appeared on a Dishy compilation; for reasons best known to himself, when an upcoming film director asked if he could include it on the soundtrack of his first feature, Jack said no.  It might never have made it there, in the end, of course, the world of film being what it is; but what it indicates is that there are so many other things beyond songwriting talent that enter the equation, that stop someone from making it, in whichever way you think ‘making it’ ideally applies.  The what ifs are legion.

Well, here it is then, both sides of a lost gem.  I hope its creators don’t mind me posting it in advance of telling them about it.  It’s my Christmas present to them, and to you.

58. Johnny Cash – Get rhythm

December 5, 2010

/ I walk the line, Sun Records, 1956

Get rhythm

The incomparable.  The magnificent.  The mighty.  Even the fabulous.  Johnny Cash.

I’m a sucker for Walk the line, James Mangold’s film of 2005, its mythologising of the Johnny Cash story.  I was a fan of the Man in Black’s songwriting and delivery before seeing it; I’ve been an even bigger fan since (and it has to be said of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon for their mesmeric acting in the lead roles).  Every time I watch it I go back to the records.  Back to the Sun recordings, and forward to the American recordings, and stopping off for the prison recordings in between.  Fifty years of being able to put something down which would stop listeners in their tracks; that’s a rare achievement, possibly unique.

We have a lot to thank Rick Rubin for, in terms of rescuing a drifting or drifted career.  Together he and Cash created the template that other once-greats have tried to follow, though mostly with nothing like as much success.  Which is not to say that the American recordings are choice throughout; although the fourth volume The man comes around contains ‘Hurt’, it also presents versions of ‘Bridge over troubled water’, ‘First time ever I saw your face’, and ‘In my life’ that to my mind either struggle to add to the originals or butcher them; not only that, but both ‘Danny boy’ and ‘We’ll meet again’ get wheeled out.  Sentiment was by then entering into a project which had started off so unsentimentally twelve years previously with songs as tragicomically hard as Cash’s own ‘Delia’s gone’ and Loudon Wainwright III’s ‘The man who couldn’t cry’.

The best of Cash’s own songs on the American recordings have the perfect storytelling economy that he established with Sun recordings like ‘Folsom Prison blues’ – how could you better the punch of lines like ‘But I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die’)?  Like ‘Folsom Prison blues’, the creation of ‘Get rhythm’ is dramatised in Walk the line.  The unknown John R. Cash, not long out of the army, spots a shoeshine boy hard at work on the street in Memphis, marks the image, hears the rhythm, puts the two together, and a song is born.  The Tennessee Two add a suitably rhythmic supportive framework; there’s Cash-like economy in Luther Perkins’ lead guitar break, which sings out a few birdlike phrases before swiftly returning the limelight to Johnny.

And who cannot at some point in their lives testify to rhythm having been the enemy of the blues?

Photograph by Mike Logan via Flickr.

57. The June Brides – Josef’s gone

November 9, 2010

/ No place called home, In Tape, 1985

No place called home back

‘Every sound, from each transmission, is stored away to be rewritten’ – ‘Josef’s gone’

‘The Manic Street Preachers also do a version of ‘Josef’s Gone’ – not on the tribute album. Their versions is actually called ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’!  They totally stole the chords… I would sue, but I kind of borrowed ‘Josef’s Gone’ from Roxy Music (‘Pyjamarama’) and Josef K in the first place.’ – Phil Wilson on Anorak

If Orange Juice were the sound of happiness, then the mood and mode of the June Brides was fast established as exuberance.  But therein lay their problem.  Because if you listened closely, you could hear that the joy was sharp-edged with melancholia.  As a songwriter, Phil Wilson grew almost too quickly for his audience, and that and the absence of any guiding strategist within or without the group meant that their star faded as quickly as it rose.

The mini-LP There are eight million stories showcases the exuberance, and the recorded as live (or as if live) excitement of their sound.  It was the sound of the Buzzcocks and Josef K combined, the musical leanings melodic as well as scratchy and wiry, the words lyrically defiant and defiantly lyrical.  On the LP there is no better example of the excitability than the cover version of The Radiators From Space’s ‘Enemies’.  It starts and ends chaotically, but in between somehow manages to strike exactly the right balance of loose performance and tight belief in what is being performed.  This was how they put across Phil Wilson’s own songs too, the songs that set them apart from and alongside the influences they wore.

No place called home

The mini-LP made them lots of fans; for a variety of reasons – ones you can find recounted in the sleeve notes for Every conversation: the story of the June Brides and Phil Wilson – while these remained for the subsequent EP, No place called home, many fewer stayed on for the last post of This town.  For me this is where the best of the June Brides resides, on these two EPs – more than half of what would have been a great LP – where lyrically life gets more complicated still, and where musically the viola’s mournful edge takes the vibrancy of the brass down a notch or two.  Underneath, the guitars still cut and energise, but it’s shades of blue rather than red that predominate.

‘Josef’s gone’ still makes the heart swell all these years later.  The lyric recounts the heart-in-mouth, what-will-happen-next feeling of taking to a stage to perform a clutch of songs, and is I presume simultaneously a homage to seeing Josef K do precisely the same.  That feeling of nervousness that a musician has is not so dissimilar to a fan’s for his favourites as they take to the stage – will this be a good night?  Will they do themselves justice, be loved by all these other ears, who may not be as on their side as I am?  It’s simultaneously about that feeling of anticipation, and an elegy for lost times.

Caught between principles and the music industry, misstepping, the June Brides disbanded, and contrary as ever, Phil Wilson gave into his country roots, performing solo in cowboy shirt and tie.  But in the face of harsh disinterest, a solo LP never appeared, and neither therefore did who knows how many great country or pop songs, following Phil’s decision to turn his back on music.  But it’s heartening to note that old wounds heal, that midway through the nineties the June Brides could reform and take a well-deserved bow; and that 2010 finally sees the release of a Phil Wilson solo LP.

56. The Go-Betweens – This girl, black girl

March 15, 2010

/ Man o’sand to girl o’sea, Rough Trade, 1983

This girl, black girl

Part two: Grant

Mind, their first phase singles all came backed with intriguing B sides too; Go-Betweens songs with their flaws left in, and in certain lights some of these rough cut gems have more life in them than the highly polished diamonds on the albums.  Take, for example, Grant’s enigmatic ‘Heaven says’ and Robert’s metallic, shellac ‘World weary’, both as angular as anything on Send me a lullaby, and more evidence that the Go-Betweens have been as underrated as a post-punk art band as they are highly rated for what they became: second-to-none purveyors of literate, lyrical romantic-realist pop.  In his essay on the Velvet Underground in The 10 rules of rock and roll, Robert writes:

‘My first great realisation about the Velvet Underground was this: they were the first band I’d ever heard who wrote songs better than they could play them. … And this is exactly what the Go-Betweens tried to do at the start: we wanted to be a band that wrote great songs – but could barely play them.  This was partly due to our primitive musical ability, but also because to us it seemed noble and perverse – an attempt to upset the normal balance of rock’n’roll between what songs you had and how good you were on your instruments.  The kings and queens of this were the Velvet Underground.’

But that’s just the first third of the first phase of the Go-Betweens.  Their musical prowess soon matched their songwriting ambition, and even their offcuts are flush with melody and poetry.  There’s the emotional power struggle of Robert’s ‘Rare breed’, and his ‘Rock and roll friend’, which inverts the anthemic language of the form and loads it with luxurious heaps of self-pity.  Then there’s Grant’s almost-masterpiece, ‘Casanova’s last words’; but for the fact that it’s a little spoilt by the over-insistent gated reverb drum sound, it would have been my choice here.  But it’s still a wonderful song, full of detail and lived wisdom, the wisdom of McLennan and of Casanova; of life lived to the full.

All these offcuts you can find in their best available versions on the two disc editions of the albums.  ‘This girl, black girl’ appears on Before Hollywood though really it belongs to Spring Hill fair, and is notable not only as one half of the first pair of recordings to feature Robert Vickers on bass – it’s great to hear him feeling his way into being a Go-Between – but also as the first flowering of the image-laden and melody-soaked song writing whose impressive shoots had been Grant’s ‘Cattle and cane’ and ‘Dusty in here’.  As an elegy, ‘This girl’ matches Robert’s setting of Marion Stout’s lyric for ‘When people are dead’, and who better to tell us about how it came to be than the songwriter himself, as he did in the sleeve notes for the first ever Go-Betweens compilation, 1978-1990:

‘There is an annual event in north Queensland country life called the Oak Park Races.  People come together to race their horses and to congratulate each other on a good year or to console each other if it has been a poor one.  I had just returned from a trip which included a recording session in Scotland, a close shave in Egypt and a six week hangover in New York.  I found myself in a tent three hundred miles from the nearest bookshop.  My relatives asked me to play guitar for them but I knew it was impossible to dance the gypsy tap to ‘I need two heads’ so I wrote this song.’

55. The Go-Betweens – Girl lying on a beach

March 8, 2010

/ Caroline and I, Jetset / Trifekta, 2003

Caroline and I

Part one: Robert

From the same period as the underrated Bright yellow bright orange set (admittedly it’s somewhat elusive on the ears, but I like that in certain records) it’s a shame that ‘Girl lying on a beach’ didn’t make the cut for that long player.  Possibly Robert thought it was too personal, being the story of how he met his wife.  So he tucked it away, rather like the photo that brackets the lyric of the song, on a CD single few people would have troubled to buy.  ‘Girl lying on a beach’ is parenthetically perfect, in a way few songs are, a masterclass in songwriting economy and art.  The delivery is just so, with Robert adopting the softer tone he would later use to great effect on The evangelist; less arch than usual, more intimate – a performer who knows when to hold off on the performing.  And perhaps too, this late Go-Betweens song closes a bracket opened twenty-five years before by their first B side, ‘Karen’, later a live favourite perhaps precisely because it coincidentally celebrates a girl with homophonically the same name as the woman who would become his wife, Karin.

Robert Forster & Grant McLennan

It’s high time we had a collection which gathers together the Go-Betweens’ post-reformation B sides and rarities; as B sides often do, they have little imperfections or infelicities or a slight sense of incompleteness so that you can see why they didn’t make it onto the associated albums, but of course Grant’s and Robert’s offcuts are trimmed from material of the highest quality.  ‘Sleeping giant’ and ‘Erotic sunshine’ are two more great Forster songs to add to the collection, and ‘The locust girls’ and ‘Instant replay’ are a whisker from being genuine Grant McLennan classics.  His ‘Stone’ is indisputably that, having a lovely, typically yearning melody that once again makes you wish Grant was still with us so that greedily, insatiably, we could have many, many more of them.

54. Toiling Midgets – Mr. Foster’s shoes

February 8, 2010

/ Golden frog, Matador, 1991

Anyone who had missed the ‘Bad liquor’ wildness and fury of American Music Club from Everclear onwards – in a recorded sense, for live Eitzel could still be just as unhinged as he once was routinely in the days when the group performed mostly in San Francisco alone – would welcome the howls of rage that formed his contributions to Toiling Midgets’ Son LP (or ‘Sketches tO make you ruN away’ as the back cover put it).  It gives you a sense of the many musical Mark Eitzels there were, might have been, and indeed have been, more or less successfully, since he broke free of the restrictions he felt being a member of American Music Club placed upon him.  Eitzel was really only passing through the Midgets as a guest vocalist; they had been Toiling a long time before he came on board – since the late seventies San Francisco punk scene, in fact.  Drummer Tim Mooney would later became a member of American Music Club; AMC’s Tom Mallon was also involved in the making of Son.

Part prog, part punk, part alt or avant, there’s the light and shade but not the subtlety that made Engine, California, United Kingdom and Everclear such inviting records in which to wallow, but it’s still a compelling listen, dissonant and discordant, a definite precursor of quiet-loud post-rock.  Eitzel fits right in, bad-mouthing the moon and everything it illuminates.

Another favourite of Eitzel biographer Sean Body’s, coming at number two in his personal selection of the best less well known American Music Club songs in his book Wish the world away, ‘Mr. Foster’s shoes’ is a stripped-down version of a song on the LP, with the psychodrama of Eitzel’s vocal performance underscored by Tom Mallon’s string arrangement, beautifully played by cellist Carla Fabrizio.