Friday, 29 January 2010

On Again! On Again! or Strangers on a Train


I was sorry to hear of Jake Thackray's death; I remember fondly, albeit dimly, early appearances on the Sunday afternoon children's TV show Tickertape (though he once replied to a letter of mine saying that he reddened to remember the songs). I also remember a (presumably live) performance on Bernard Braden's show in which Jake, possibly singing Sister Josephine, went on beforehand about his bowels to the amusement of the audience, prompting a slightly acidulous Braden to congratulate him on stretching out a three minute spot to nearer eight.
Years later, probably around the mid 90s, I was on a train going to or from Wolverhampton, saw what I thought was a spare seat and, approaching, thought I recognised the man sitting opposite: "Mr Thackray?" He acknowledged that it was indeed him, but I then launched into a rambling adulatory spiel, mentioning Tickertape, that was probably highly embarrassing for him in that public place with no escape short of the communication cord. But he simply said mildly, "Yes, well, I think that seat is taken," and I moved off.

Actually, it was Bantam Cock. But more on that brief encounter later. That's not the end of the story.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Donovanagain


I stuck with the Donovan concert to the end (see previous post), although I wish I'd been aware of it when it was actually going out. There would only have been a notional difference, but still. The interval was good fun:  various people, some of whom didn't seem to be expecting it, were roped in to say something. What do you expect in the second half? Er, I dunno. More songs? Possibly a few more of his hits?

Monday, 25 January 2010

The TRUE story of how I fell out of love with Donovan


I feel guilty framing the title for this entry but it has to be faced. Yes, that Donovan - is there another? Donovan the minstrel whose Fairytale in truncated Marble Arch form was the first LP I ever bought; Donovan whose 1972 benefit gig with his new Irish band at Green's Playhouse, Glasgow, for UCS (Upper Clyde Shipbuilding) was the first concert I ever attended (you can't include Dean Ford and the Gaylords, as the Marmalade probably still were then, in a marquee in the Duchess Park in Motherwell sometime in the sixties as that was simply an event like a fete or a jumble sale to my younger self - and I'm not even sure I remember it properly).


That Donovan, the weaver of spells, is now, sadly, no more: no more, that is, than any other fondly remembered artist whom I don't exactly blush to recall, but who is no longer a living force for me in terms of going to gigs or seeking out new releases.

I'm speaking, of course, about the public Donovan, the image which is no more the whole man than I may be considered to be solely constituted of the enthusiasms contained within this blog. Okay, bad example, but you get the idea: Donovan In My Life, not his own.



Good-morning-Mr-Leitch looms almost as large as the Beatles (which'll please please him) in that part of my musical development bound around early adolescence. LPs and gigs apart, he was also my initiation into the wonderful, or at least boredom-devouring, world of weekly music papers: it was an article about him which prompted me to buy a copy of Sounds for myself for the first time (an elder brother read the music papers), prompting a kind of wistful surprise and regret from my mother: I, too, had now crossed over to the other side. Ever after I would be listening to and reading about music, still present in the house but, I suspect, from my mother's point of view at one remove, a transition already made by two elder brothers. Like starting to have a bath by myself (a tad earlier) it was a staging post.

The Beatles were there all through my childhood, thanks to those elder brothers, but perhaps the group's ubiquity in the sixties made seem them less of a threat (even my father's idol Harold Wilson had acknowledged them) or perhaps it was the fact that I had actively sought out Donovan, rather than listening to pop music which happened to be playing in the house anyway.

Although that, now I think of it, is a grey area: I recall 45s of Hurdy Gurdy Man and Sunshine Superman which I think belonged to my eldest brother so that even if I bought the budget LP for myself I would have been following his lead.

I do recall, however, the more or less explicit rule, observed more by myself and my immediate elder brother, that you had to like different artists. My eldest brother didn't intervene to claim first dibs on Donovan
either because he wasn't around for part of my teens - or because with a greater age gap between us, the need for that kind of direct rivalry was lessened, as he had already won whatever kind of male game it was.


I recall one occasion when my immediate elder brother and his schoolfriend poured scorn on the unhip cover of the Universal Soldier LP which only had a photograph of a smartly dressed Donovan, possibly performing on TV: the flower power image on the Marble Arch Fairytale cover was one thing, but this was beyond the pale. (In later years he would enthuse about the Donovan in Concert album, thus exposing the essentially shallow and contradictory nature of his so-called principled stance.)

At the time, however, that brother favoured Tyrannosaurus Rex, still some way from teenybopper fame and, though widely publicised via John Peel's BBC radio programme, very much a cult group, "underground," so his liking for them proclaimed his superior status and musical knowledge - neither of which prevented him, when Tyrannosaurus Rex came to play at Motherwell Town Hall in 1970, from embarrassingly himself by foolishly asking a female fan standing by the entrance: "Are you June Child?" (Although now I come to think of it, it can't have been all that embarrassing if he related the tale himself.)


And this egregious error did not affect the essential point: Donovan may have been "mine" but Tyrannosaurus Rex was "his." I might be permitted to listen occasionally to his Prophets, Seers and Sages album, but I couldn't, in any sense, own it. A strange and wonderfully exotic thing it seemed at the time, although now I'd like to have Marc Bolan arraigned in the same court as Bernie Taupin for crimes against songwriting. (In what seems to have been a characteristic bout of self-delusion Bolan once complained that "The Labour Exchange couldn't get me a job as a poet.")


You could say that Donovan, for all his connection with childhood innocence - I can hardly say robbed me of my own innocence, but provided me, at the time I needed it, with a figure whose songs spoke of an alternative existence, of other ways of being. Rather, I must reluctantly allow, as Marc Bolan may have done for my brother - and in a sense the words mattered less than the meaning we chose to invest in them.

I'm not talking about drugs, incidentally, but being given the capacity to dream. There had been a famous bust in which Donovan was involved in the sixties - even though after returning from India where he had studied alongside the Beatles he renounced narcotics in the notes to his meditation-inspired A Gift From a Flower to a Garden.



Would my parents have been aware of either event? But the psychedelic associations of any photo of late sixties Donovan might have been enough for them - if, that is, they actually distinguished one pop star from another instead of seeing them all as a kind of unvariegated threat like a grey cloud of hoodies lingering in a shopping mall (there's my own middle-aged fear coming out), seeking to rob their sons of that overriding desire for academic achievement which my father, in particular, seemed to prize to the exclusion of just about everything else. In a neat inversion of the protestant anthem my eldest brother would chant:

Oh, the sash my father wore, it said: Study Hard All Day,
And it's on the twelfth I love to slash the sash my father wore.

Donovan had been a beatnik, stealing milk bottles off doorsteps in Cornwall; John Lennon's middle class origins may or may not have been apparent, but in my father's eyes the Beatles and their ilk stood for a dangerous creed of pleasure and possibility whose easy rewards did not follow from anything which constituted Hard Work. I can recall his displeasure when I was listening to Donovan's Open Road LP on headphones in the dark in my bedroom, a small part of me already beyond his control.


And pop stars in general, as mentioned in the entry about the visiting priest, were undoubtedly seen by him as threats to the Catholic way of life. When David Essex, who had starred in Godspell, was asked by on  a children's TV show whether he was himself religious, his reply was something like: No, but I recognise that Jesus was a good man who did a lot of good things.

My father, who happened to be in the room, contented himself on this occasion with a kind of low-level rumble: "How very good of you." But in my memory he is gripping the armrests of his chair with white-knuckled intensity.

In time, each of us turned his back on the church, becoming, in a phrase my father used to more than one of us, Flotsam On the Sea of Life (though I have been informed since that technically we would have been jetsam). Yet my Dono-faith it waivered not, although when Tyrannosaurus Rex morphed into glam rock gods T Rex, I'm not sure how my brother was able to rationalise this volte-face. It was certainly a personal blow to our flesh-and-blood guru, and Bolan's former champion, the BBC DJ John Peel; I recall his playing Telegram Sam on his evening show but saying something which suggested sadness and bewilderment afterwards.

The result of a refusal to play a subsequent single was that Peel, a close friend of Bolan's who had endlessly promoted his work, had driven him to gigs - hell, had even read out a stupid fairy story on the first Tyrannosaurus Rex album ("Kingsley Mole sat high on a windy knoll") - was cruelly and suddenly dropped, an event remembered with some pain in that portion of his autobiography he survived to write. Peel did talk elsewhere about being greeted warmly by Bolan much later on - but only after his star was in freefall. And it's fair to say that producer Tony Visconti, who worked on those Tyrannosaurus Rex LPs and far beyond, does not retain exclusively happy memories of the bopping elf once his career took off.

I can't resist mentioning that the spurned friend did get in at least one pleasing dig: reviewing a later T. Rex single for Disc and Music Echo, he noted that in the song Marc pronounced "dinosaur" as "dino-saw-er, " like the Hollywood Argyles' Alley-Oop. "Oh well," wrote Peel, "at least Marc's sources are good."


A further, related, diversion: Alley-Oop had been produced by Kim Fowley, who also worked on a 1969 comeback album for John Peel's childhood hero Gene Vincent, funded by Peel's label Dandelion Records. It can't have been much of a success, as I bought a cheapo copy in Motherwell Woolworths about the same time as that Ronnie Hawkins LP, but at least on one track Vincent - sinking down as Bolan was soon to float up - drawled: "This is for Mister Jahhhn Peel, who's been so kind to me."


Meanwhile Donovan, if never again to become the huge star he was in both Britain and America in psychedelic mode in the sixties, kept reinventing himself in the seventies. The Open Road album referred to earlier (one of Peel's favourites, incidentally) on Pye's more hip Dawn label, ostensibly made him just another member of a group, but it was clearly Donovan's show; his later claims to have invented Celtic Rock stem from this album and he has a point, although you do wish someone else had made it for him. And had my father looked at the lyrics inside the gatefold sleeve, he might have done more than to ask me not to listen in the dark, where songs such as Poke at the Pope were concerned:

His eyes are sunken and his cheeks are hollow
While you dig the poor of the world they follow
He hoarding up their gold in the Vatican
Would you trust this man? ask yourself now

"Of course, it's very emotive," my immediate elder brother told me in a superior sort of way. Mind you, he had had the humiliating (I'd like to think) experience of playing records to the doctor's son across the road who merely kept muttering, "Mediocre, mediocre." (Now he was a Scott Walker fan so I suppose, taking the long view, that must make him the overall winner.)


Over the years I went to see Donovan quite a few times. The magic of that first gig is what sticks most in the mind, although I was never disappointed. I recorded the 1973 gig at the Apollo (as it probably was by then) to promote Essence to Essence, the album produced by Andrew Loog Oldham, and another "new" Donovan. Fuzzy as it was on my little cassette recorder, I listened to it through the Rigonda (Russian) stereo system which my father had bequeathed to my room, having got the next model up.

This thought suggests a contradiction: as far as I remember, my father had no particular interest in music. He did, however, have an eye for a perceived bargain, so was it that the Russian-made Rigonda ("adjustable from a whisper to a ROAR!" according to the ad in Exchange and Mart) was simply too good value to resist, or could it have been some kind of reluctant nod in the direction of his sons' enthusiasms? I don't know - although he also bought a Moskvich, an ugly, mustard-coloured block which was apparently the most potentially dangerous car on the road.

When I look at a list of later Donovan albums I can see that I didn't always buy them, but usually borrowed them from my local library: a sign of waning interest? But three fairly recent events combined to make that faith finally ebb away. One was seeing the Master Musicians of Joujouka in concert at the Royal Festival Hall around the mid nineties. Presumably because of the Brian Jones connection (Donovan married Linda Lawrence), just before the interval Donovan popped on to sing a fairly pointless song centering around the elderly leader of the group's limited English, not going much beyond a few phrases like "Thank you very much." At a party it might (perhaps) have been charming; here, where we had already been immersed in those hypnotic, repetitious rhythms for the best part of an hour it felt irrelevant.


A few years later, having had the delight of hearing the second half of A Gift From a Flower to a Garden for the first time (that the cost of a full price double album would have been beyond my means in my teenage years) I warmed to Donovan again. As with the Henry Red Allen sides with the Luis Russell Orchestra (see Luis, Louis post), there is a peculiar pleasure to be derived from hearing something you haven't heard before but which is intimately linked to something you know well.

In this case, I could hear that a song like Epistle to Derroll (about mentor Derroll Adams, who had played at that UCS gig) was related to, but several stages on from, the sensibility who had written the lyrics for The Ballad of Geraldine, which closed my edition of the Fairytale album. And in Starfish-on-the-Toast, lines like:

Fanfaring daffodilly, trumpetingly small

had a precision and a poetry which was beyond the former husband of the real June Child, although maybe you need to hear that close-miked, intimate, almost whispered, delivery, and the unhurried, simple guitar patterns, possibly influenced by the banjoman, to get the full effect:



Re Epistle to Derroll, incidentally, it was John Peel, also a longtime Dono-fan, who said that only Donovan could make the word "Belgium" sound romantic. Anyway, rather than faffing around with paraphrase, I'll paste in my review of A Gift From a Flower to a Garden from a well-known etc, simply headed "At His Very Best":

The best of this double album undoubtedly shows Donovan at the height of his artistic powers: songs are poetic but succinct, with sensitive backing from Harold McNair and others when it's needed (Enchanted Gypsy; Tinker and the Crab) or his own acoustic guitar when it isn't (Isle of Islay; Epistle to Derroll).

If you are only familiar with the numerous permutations of the much-reissued early stuff then this is a clear development, though the songs retain Donovan's sense of seeing beauty and wonder in the simplest things, especially in Isle of Islay or a song like Starfish on the Toast: "Holding whelks and periwinkles tingling in his hand / Little does he know they hold him too."

I agree that the second album is better than the first, as others have said, but one of the beauties of Gift... as a whole is that several styles, including a relaxed, jazzy feel on some numbers like Sun, blend effortlessly together without feeling forced - indeed, ease and unselfconsciousness are the key words here. Other Donovan albums have their merits but in my view this record simply has the highest concentration of excellent songs.

There was a forum called something like "Donovan Conference"; I left a gushing message there of gratitude to Donovan a few years ago which is perhaps better left floating in cyberspace. Because now we come to the less good news.

I'm not sure of the order of events but I went to see Donovan at a gig at the Festival Hall maybe two or three years ago. I couldn't get a great seat but being sort of top left wasn't so bad: it was roughly where I'd been seated at Green's Playhouse more than thirty years before so maybe, along with the newly discovered delights of A Gift ... I could fall back into that Sunday afternoon when everything he sang was a wonder, and I never wanted the concert to end. The RFH gig was, indeed, consciously looking back to 1964, so it would be an occasion to celebrate our memories together and do what I've talked about in the doo wop entries in this blog, have that bittersweet overlay of past and present, linking hands with that younger self.

Well, the title of this piece sort of gives it away. I can't remember when I'd last seen him do a full concert (as opposed to popping up at someone else's) but the sense of absolute commitment only seemed fitfully there on that night in January 2004. Certainly the voice had changed. Whether it was a means of masking deficiencies brought about by age I don't know, but the vibrato-laden singing I heard that night seemed like a parody of the younger Donovan.(Matters were not helped by a lot of chatter coming from the back of the house - possibly members of Donovan's entourage or family, as they had percussive instruments to shake during There is a Mountain.) Donovan's schtick may not have been that different from earlier Dono-gigs, but it felt tedious that night.

So was it me? Him? Is it fair (as in the conclusion of that Paperback Writer book) to expect idols to give you back your youth? And he is continuing to record (although the Rick Rubin effort did not ressurect his career in the way that the Cash recordings did for the Man in Black), so that he isn't simply relying on his back catalogue, although that night was specifically about looking back.

But his recentish autobiography and an anthology-type DVD documentary haven't helped matters. Again, rather than faffing around I'll paste in my review from a well-known etc, entitled, rather cheaply I admit, "Readable but no Chronicles":

Forty years on, I'm sure the last thing Donovan wants is to be compared to Bob Dylan yet again, but it's difficult to avoid such comparisons when their autobiographies have come out so near each other.
What The Hurdy Gurdy Man lacks, however, is that sense in Dylan's book of sudden richness in an unlikely phrase, or a willingness to depart on all manner of unexpected (but enlightening) tangents. There's a sense, too, that Donovan has a chip on his shoulder and wants to make sure he impresses upon you his importance as a jazz-rock and Celtic rock innovator. Not that that is unreasonable: he has been unfairly neglected after his plummetting from the immense fame of the sixties, and I hope the recent reissues of his early albums will redress the balance.

The book is highly readable – Donovan’s tranformation into a major musical figure is a fascinating story, after all – and sections like his account of the casual beatnik lifestyle in Cornwall are enormously entertaining. But despite a strong page-turning quality, occasionally it feels like details have been omitted or insufficiently expanded. His eventual reuniting with Linda Lawrence is the overall arc of the book; perhaps as a consequence, other relationships seem to be given short shrift. And when you consider who our troubadour kept company with at the height of Flower Power isn’t there a more complex, contradictory tale - or at least an extra anecdote or three - waiting to come out?

A documentary series on his life some years ago on Radio 2, narrated by Donovan himself, hinted at problems in coming to terms with his life in the 70s or 80s. This book sidesteps that by effectively ending early, despite a cursory nod to the present day at the end. The upbeat nature of his telling of his tale is perhaps of a piece with the uplifting naivety of his best work, but you do feel there is more to be told, whether by Donovan himself or a biographer; Donovan's talent as a songwriter certainly merits further exploration.

The DVD documentary is of a piece with the biography: at times there is what seems like a protective layer of self-importance but you can understand his frustration that because he is no longer fashionable his actual achievements are consistently underrated. He wasn't just a Beatle hanger-on but a major star in his own right - who taught John Lennon the fingerpicking style which helped make Julia (see previous post) the classic it is. Julian Cope praises the documentary here (scroll down).


And if you are a reader of rock magazines or websites (and you probably are if you've got this far) you will know that a surprising number of musicians do, in fact, regularly cite Donovan as an inspiration - but maybe cult status is not enough when once you soared to Beatle-type heights. I remember, in a Radio 4 (I think) documentary about Donovan from the early seventies presented by Michael Wale, Mickie Most saying: "I've seen ten thousand people in America bow their heads to him." It must be hard not to inhale. And it must be very difficult when nothing else you do can get you back on the same plane ... and I don't mean Translove Airways.


But, finally, however he copes with the inconsistencies of his career, the business problems which prevented him fully capitalising on his success at the opportune moment, and despite his notion of whatever level of fame is, or ought to be, his due, not to mention the problem of striving to remain a child of faerie when trapped in an aging body, what really matters is that the best of his recordings, especially the second disc of A Gift, are pure gold, allowing us to see, or think we can see, with a child's eyes: forever young, to quote a former rival. And they won't go away.


Surfing the net looking for images and links for this piece, I saw that Donovan's official website had a live streaming of a concert in Munich last night. Had I been aware of it yesterday, I probably would have watched it, despite everything I've said above. What's that about, eh?

I've just realised it is still accessible and as I write this I can hear him singing The Enchanted Gypsy. And now, forty five years on, he is singing Catch the Wind. And with Try For the Sun, track 1 on the Marble Arch Fairytale, I think I must stop. I'd rather be listening to that than writing this. He looks older - he's no longer trying to cover his forehead with a few locks of hair - but he sounds alright - less mannered. Now he's singing The Ballad of Geraldine. I'm hesitating because I wanted some kind of conclusive sentence here but maybe it's best just to come to a halt, accept the contradictory feelings about Donovan, and invite you, the reader, to join me in hailing your Evening Star - as his dad put it all those years ago - Donovan.


... assuming, of course, there is still a link of some kind. (Is that a clever enough ending?)

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Paperback Writer (Mark Shipper)


Donovan exploded. "Don't call me Don!"

With his recording career a failure, Ringo made one last bold move: he cut off all his hair. But it didn't help him and, in retrospect, it's hard to see how it could have.

"You heard me. Top billing."
"You mean Linda McCartney and Wings?" Paul could hardly say it without choking.

Last night I had the unusual experience of meeting someone who seemed actively interested in checking out my blog (hello, if you're reading). He is a big Beatles fan who goes  to see Paul McCartney live whenever he plays London - although he drew the line at attending every night of a hypothetical ten day residency at the 02 Arena by Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band, which does rather call his commitment into question.

Anyway, one of the things which came up in our conversation was Paperback Writer by Mark Shipper, a pebble in the cairn of Beatlebooks best described by the author himself:


THE LIFE AND TIMES
OF THE BEATLES:
The Spurious Chronicle
of Their Rise to Stardom,
Their Triumphs & Disasters,
Plus the Amazing Story
of Their Ultimate
Reunion


It's billed as "a novel" (presumably in case lawyers don't know what "spurious" means), and essentially it's a Rutles-type spoof biography which appeared just before Eric Idle's celebrated mockumentary.

I don't think there's any question of one "borrowing" from the other, however, as the humour is often broader in Shipper's book. Not all the gags work, but there are so many of them that the strike rate is still pretty high. I'll quote a few in the course of this piece but they don't respond that well to being held up to the light individually; the cumulative effect is what counts. He will even use footnotes to apologise for the corniness of some of them.

It's a book I discovered ages ago and still reread periodically, once I've had time to forget some of the jokes. And unlike the Rutles, as far as I remember, there are some fairly serious and poignant moments which are integral to the story, however facetious the accompanying details may be.

As you've probably gleaned from the quotes at the top, it was written before Linda McCartney's death - and before John Lennon's come to that, so a Beatles reunion was still theoretically possible. The first half of the book gives us a distorted mirror image of the Fabs' career - in Shipper's universe, for example, the infamous "butcher" sleeve is designed for the album "Meat - The Beatles" (no connection with this spoonerised variant). Then he deals with their less than scintillating solo careers:
By 1976, Ringo Starr was no longer enjoying hit records with the same sort of regularity that he had in the early 70s. An occasional record appealed to him, like Elton John's Philadelphia Freedom, but by and large he found little to enjoy. Perhaps his negative opinion was due to his own lack of success on the charts.

Eventually the four have a meeting to discuss the possibility of a reunion , but fall back into the old banter instead of talking business:

"Actually, it doesn't really matter what we do," Lennon continued, "so long as we always observe one rule."
"What's that?" Ringo asked.
"Never let George sing, John replied.

"In a sense," Shipper-as-narrator writes in a passage of rare sobriety, "this was the real Beatles' Reunion, not the publicly craved for Beatles' Reunion."

This was a  reunion between four old friends who'd shared the most tumultuous, creative, exhilarating, terrifying, and ultimately gratifying experience of anyone from their generation. Nobody wanted to bring up business, because it was business that drove them apart. Right now it felt good to bask in that peculiar radiation that everyone experiences at a reunion of this sort. For the Beatles this experience was heightened a hundredfold. Only those who have risen to the level where they are surrounded daily by those who are either afraid of them or in awe of them can know the terrible loneliness and dehumanization of such a life. Friendship and cameraderie become just faint childhood memories. How could a Beatle be certain of anyone who claimed to be a friend, knowing fully well that to grant a Beatle's friendship was to grant a profitable commodity to its recipient - economically, socially and every other way. It's not surprising they preferred the friendly abuse they were dishing out to each other to the phoney, illegitimate praise they'd heard from everyone else in their individual circles for the preceeding nine years. Easy to understand, too, postponing the topic of business that had brought such a terrible and unforeseen loneliness the last time it came up nine years earlier.

Nevertheless, they do finally agree to reform, and Macca goes to Lennon's Benedict Canyon mansion to prepare for the reunion album:

"Ready to write some songs?" he asked Lennon as they were finishing off breakfast.
"I don't know. I don't feel particularly inspired this morning."
" I never knew you to be inspired in the mornings," McCartney reassured him. "You're a night person."
"I know. But I don't get particularly inspired at night lately either."
"When do you get inspired? Afternoons?"
"I don't know. I haven't been inspired for such a long time, I can't remember what time of day it was."
"Well, none of that matters now," McCartney said. "I'm here, and when you and me get together - "
"It's magic, right?"

But things don't go as well as hoped:

"What'd you stop for?" Lennon asked. "That's a great song."
"I know. It was a great song fifteen years ago, too, when we first wrote it."

Frustrated, the pair reminisce about how they used to have songs running through their heads all the time in Hamburg, writing four classics in an afternoon, in a tiny room at the Star Club with a backed up toilet (there is a running joke about Epstein being a plumber). Lennon says he hates talking about the old days, because what he remembers is never a specific thing but a feeling:

"It's a feeling I never get anymore," Lennon explained. "It's that feeling of satisfaction from knowing that someday you were just going to dump on everyone who'd been dumping on you. [...]  And that dream used to fuel me. I had so much goddam energy in those days, it amazes me now. I used to get more ideas on a twenty minute walk to the grocery store than I do now sitting around for a month in this bloody room." Lennon kicked the silver tray off the coffee table, splattering tea all over the white carpeting.

He and Macca share a moment of closeness as they realise that the dream came true for both of them - and was therefore taken away. And (plausibly enough) it's Macca who provides the reassurance: if they both still have that hunger to create anyway, so what if the end product is inferior to what they once did?

"So that explains your songs these past few years,  doesn't it?" Lennon asked.
"Of course. You think I'd have been writing Silly Love Songs if I had the same juice flowing through me that I did in Liverpool?"

Lennon (again, I think, plausibly) is less willing to admit his own songs in the intervening years might not have been  equal to the Beatles' output; Macca puts him straight, not unkindly, but tells him if he keeps worrying about surpassing his old songs all he'll do is block out the new ones.

"Never mind what people expect from us. We know what our needs are, and that's who we'll write for - ourselves."
"Hey!" Lennon said enthusiastically. "I just got an idea for a song about Gilligan's Island." He started working out a chord change.
"Now you're talking!" McCartney said, and seated himself behind the piano.


The reformed Beatles make an album which is poorly received, and on tour suffer the indignity of being billed below Peter Frampton, who has been brought in to bolster ticket sales. At the Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, when they try playing their new material, the crowd are silent but go wild for a medley of greatest hits. Afterwards, in the locker room, Lennon realises they have become like Bill Haley, a prisoner of his audience's past; the news their label has dropped them comes at that moment as a liberation. Suddenly, there is what feels like an earthquake; the four dive for cover but it's only the crowd going wild as Frampton steps onstage.

The parts I have concentrated on may make the book seem more serious than, for the most part, it is, but it is underpinned by the idea that the audience only wanted, as it were, to revisit their lost youth.

Which reminds me of a cruel irony. Having arranged to see Nowhere Boy yesterday with my Cheapo gaffe friend, I was late, having got carried away with the post about Tutti Frutti, and wasn't allowed to enter the cinema as I was just over the thiry minute limit. I wanted to scream: It's not fair! I'm going to appreciate it more than her, what with my extra knowledge about the Beatles, having read all the biographies including the "spurious" one - I've even got a complete book about the "Paul is dead" theory - I mean, c'mon.

But (of course) I didn't. I walked away and mooched around in bookshops for an hour. Ironically, had Cheapo still been open I'd have gone there instead, as this was the Prince Charles Cinema, only a couple of minutes' walk away.

There was, however, a reward of sorts later, when she emerged from the cinema and spoke these words: "I'd forgotten she was run over."

But the feeling I had at that moment - an unlovely male sense of superiority about being in possession of more Beatle fax'n'info, basically - vanished in the act of writing this down.

Who knows what Lennon's life would have been like if that accident hadn't taken place? Would there still have been the same anger-fuelled hunger to create? That part of Shipper's book feels real enough. In the song Dear John, when Lennon sings:

Put the TV on, have a snack
Wash your mother's back
it may be a reference to Yoko, whom he called "Mother", but if it's more than that (just as the White Album's Julia is about his mother and Yoko - or the idea of Yoko, the need for a Yoko) then there's something very moving, likewise, about that line in the later song, even if it was intended as a throwaway: the same wish for intimate contact with someone who can never now be reached, except fitfully and imperfectly ("meaning less") through music - the half-formed nature of the demo is somehow appropriate - and in the light of the more serious point at the end of Shipper's book the song also serves to reassure us that  Dakota John and Beatle John are one and the same, creating out of the same deep need.

Read more about Mark Shipper and Paperback Writer here, here and here and even here. There is also a short story I can't remember in detail; in it, Lennon left the group very early on, and is (possibly) now working in some clerical job. At the end of the story he runs - literally runs away - from possibly rejoining the group. I think Lennon was the narrator, if anyone else remembers it.

You can tell yourself you're chatting to John at the John Lennon Artificial Intelligence Project here. The results are variable, although today he greeted me with:

You are what you are Anthony . Get out there and get peace, think peace, and live peace and breathe peace, and you'll get it as soon as you like.

Happy Christmas in advance, John - wherever you are.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Scottish Screwball


I talked in one of the Doo Wop Dialog[ue] posts about the popularity of country music in the West of Scotland, as evinced by Glasgow having its own Grand Ole Opry. The writer and artist John Byrne celebrated the area's fascination with country in a BBC TV series called Your Cheatin' Heart (the soundtrack CD features a Jimmy Shand-style rendering of the Hank Williams classic, neatly encapsulating the two cultures), but Byrne's crowning achievement to date (likely to remain so, as he says the Beeb have no further interest in him) is his previous series Tutti Frutti.

Quite apart from anything else, for six weeks on primetime TV in 1987 we were treated to a blast of Little Richard's original Specialty recording (none of your Vee-Jay remake nonsense) over the opening credits (above) of this - well, you have to call it comedy drama, I suppose, but that doesn't convey the darkness.

Rather than attempt to weave them in seamlessly into this post, in a moment I'm going to give the floor to revised versions of reviews I've already written about both the series and its accompanying novelisation - although, again, the associations of the latter term scarcely do justice to a book packed with Byrne's own illustrations (scans of which have been spread here over both reviews) which makes full use of the extra flourishes which a narrative voice allows.

But before my searching, or at least "helpful, " analyses (hey, 27 people out of 30 on a well-known shopping website can't be wrong), a brief discussion of the oddest thing about Tutti Frutti, namely the fact it took so long to come out on DVD and has never been repeated on TV since near the time of the original broadcast.

There are contradictory tales which seem to focus on the issue of the licensing of the music, and what had and hadn't been cleared in which region, but the most plausible, because we can clearly hear the evidence in the series, is that when Robbie Coltrane's character changes the lyrics to Tutti Frutti to refer to his own boundary-imposing Sue, played by Emma Thompson: ("I got a girl, here's the rub, / She makes me sleep in the tub") that displeased the publishers of Tutti Frutti, who presumably had not been consulted beforehand.

I say "publishers" because I don't want to imagine the Georgia Peach raised any kind of objection himself - wasn't Tutti Frutti, even before Pat Boone got his hands on it, itself altered from a directly sexual version ("Tutti Frutti, good booty ... If it fits, don't force it ...")? When all episodes of the South Bank Show become available to consult (see post entitled 14 Karat Soul), there should be a documentary about Little Richard from around the time of the Charles White biog where lyrics to the earlier version are displayed while the hit recording plays.

And of course any notion of the integrity of the original was compromised long ago by that Boonification - still the version you get in some songbooks, so the publishers can't have been all that picky, although I'm happy to say a proper Little Richard songbook was published in America recently:


And the novelisation of Tutti Frutti is dedicated to Little Richard, which certainly doesn't suggest any animosity on Byrne's part at the time. Maybe we'll never know the whole story - in an article linked to above Byrne even speculates its absence from the screen could be class-based - and should simply be grateful that John Byrne's TV masterpiece is finally available on DVD.

Cue the reviews:

Scottish Screwball


Tutti Frutti, a series of six one hour episodes by John Byrne about a failing Scottish rock band, was first broadcast in the mid 80s and recently adapted by Byrne into a stage musical for the National Theatre of Scotland.

Byrne once said in an interview that he couldn't imagine anyone other than the original actors in the roles - and as ages weren't specified in the original script, having the characters attempting a comeback twenty years older than before would certainly have upped the poignancy stakes. In the end, however, Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson et al did not, or maybe were never seriously asked, to reprise their TV roles onstage. Understandably, as Tutti Frutti the original series is as good as it gets.

Byrne, like so many Scots, is immersed in American culture, and there are elements of screwball comedy in the bickering romance between Danny McGlone (Coltrane) and Suzi Kettles (Thompson) where love and concern can only be expressed through seemingly vicious putdowns (hey, it's the Glasgow way).

Alongside that main plot is the story of aging rocker and self-styled "Iron Man of Scottish Rock" Vincent Diver's (Maurice Roeves') coming to terms (or not) with age and failure, and the shenanigans of the group's manager Eddie Clockerty (Richard Wilson) and his "strangely non-sexual" (Byrne's words in the novelisation) relationship with his gallus young secretary-cum-dogsbody Miss Toner (Katie Murphy, though you need to hear Wilson pronounce her surname to get the full flavour).


What fascinates me is that I recall Byrne admitting that Tutti Frutti was written at a frantic pace to meet a deadline: he wrote, if I'm not misremembering, in a converted coal bunker and said that if his head spun at the end of his daily marathon that was usually a good sign.

His subsequent series Your Cheatin' Heart allowed for the lesiure of more consciously considered structure - I vaguely remember an interview around the time where he gave the impression that he had only now discovered how to write properly - but somehow it's Tutti Frutti that lingers in the mind.

Why is it better? Byrne did say on one occasion that he had been obliged to condense two episodes into one at the end of Your Cheatin' Heart, but the performances in the earlier series - just look at the names above - are without exception excellent, right down to the minor roles. And whether it's lack of planning or deliberate intent, there is a lot of material that is simply about the band members bickering over pointless things which could have been excised but wasn't, so scenes, or episodes, are really given room to "breathe" (one wonders whether the BBC would be quite so accomodating today).


A reviewer on the net said that the appeal of Tutti Frutti was in part about feckless men being forgiven or tolerated by women - and in a wider sense (the unreal dreams of a comeback) you could say it's about Scottish failure in general. It homes in on the emotional difficulties of the Scottish male: the Maurice Roeves character (distantly related to Alex Harvey, I wonder?) seems to exemplify life in a city where (as a standup who went to my school once said) a man can go up to another man and say "Ah'm hard," without any sexual connotation whatsoever.

A schoolfriend once said to me that boys at our school expressed friendship by the device of speaking to someone without irony - and in the scene where Vincent reveals himself (momentarily) to Danny, the using of first names without some belittling appendage (Danny is normally "Danny Boy" to the group members) seems the same kind of thing.

Balancing such scenes are some wonderful Laurel and Hardy-type moments: the Coltrane character tries to seduce Clockerty's secretary by a beltin' version of Love Hurts late at night in the recording studio; she puts him in his place though he has an American-type suave farewell line to save face - only to crash into something in the darkness as he leaves.

According to a reliable source there was a certain amount of resentment about the very experienced Wilson's perceived upstaging of the others but there's no doubt that Coltrane and Emma Thompson are the heart of the story. There are joyous and life-affirming moments throughout, but perhaps most touchingly, and related to male inarticulacy, is the serio-comic moment when his bandmates try to revive the wasted Vincent. What do they do? They sing the "dum dum dum dummy doo wah" backing vocals to Only the Lonely - and you sense the long years spent together and the understanding which can (at least) be expressed through music if not direct communication. And it's important because it balances the comedy, and the undeniable pleasures of the screwball-type dialogue, or the fact that everyone lives in a kind of dream of things American (their songs are Chuck Berry and Little Richard, etc): these are men with hearts.

Bernard Levin was, once upon a time, drama critic for the Observer or the Sunday Times. He said he was leaving the post because, of all he'd seen over the last year, only Byrne's The Slab Boys was life-affirming. Tutti Frutti is too. You don't have to be Scottish to enjoy, I suspect, or even male - but both conditions undoubtedly help.

Review of the book (NB This is the novelisation and not the script of the stage play revival, something that well-known shopping etcetera cannot seem to get its head around):


No hack novelisation but a wonderful souvenir to go with your DVD

Now that you have your Tutti Frutti DVD, your souvenir Fud O'Donnell hairpiece and Miss Toner talking doll ("Gonnae shut it? " Beat it, creep!" plus FOUR other phrases) you could do a lot worse than investing in this, the heavily illustrated novelisation of the TV series.

There has been no new edition to accompany the DVD release but the original can still easily be found. I bought a copy in North Berwick for two pounds a few weeks ago which was a bit silly as I already have one, autographed by one R. Coltrane, no less, but I couldn't help myself: it's the sort of book that's too good not to buy.


"Novelisation" usually suggests something farmed out to a hack author but Byrne took six months to do the book and all the pictures himself, and this attention to detail shows throughout (if, for example, you have ever pondered over the the phrase "dry boak", Byrne's drawing, below, of the moment Bomba clocks Vincent in the Glenna-knitted jumper knitted by Glenna is worth a thousand photographs). You can get a taste of the illustrations in the extras on the DVD and some of the DVD packaging (the book also contains a sprinkling of stills from the series) but the retelling in prose form is an additional pleasure, if you can tear yourself away from the DVD.


Each episode is an individual chapter here, and there are some pleasing details in the prose which could not be conveyed in the series: eg when Vincent's wife burns all his clothes, we are told: "Noreen retreated a short distance and shielded her face. It was the first real warmth she'd experienced in over twenty years of marriage."


Or take Danny trying to defend Vincent's relationship with Glenna to Suzie: " 'Look, stop talkin' about her as if she was a schoolgirl - she's a grown woman, the lassie.' That didn't sound quite right."

From memory I had thought the above line was in the TV version, but no. Byrne says in the DVD extras that episodes were cut to time, so it may be that some additional details in the dialogue were in his original scripts, but whatever, they are a pleasure to read and savour in this book.

And to return to the narrative voice, take two sections from the scene where Danny is finally in bed, rather than beside it, with Suzie:


"The physical violence of the Pavilion had in some miraculous way served to loosen a few bricks in the wall which Suzie had built between herself and Danny, and he - ever the opportunist - had got a toehold in that wall and hauled himself over the top. His drop to the other side had been short and taken in the dark. Danny lay there in the blackness and thought about it. What did she mean, it was 'okay?' "

A few moments later Suzie takes umbrage when Danny offers to touch up her paintings stashed under the bed:

"Desperately Danny tried to think how to worm his way back into her affections ... No, he'd already tried that one, with an actual scale model of a worm, and it had not been an out-and-out success."


Yes, it's essentially only a souvenir of the TV experience, but as souvenirs go I'd take this over the talking Miss Toner any day. After all (as most of the Majestics seem to think, most of the time), dolls - who needs 'em? Oh, and the book is dedicated to - who else? - Little Richard. Messers Byrne and Penniman, I salute you, and the joy you have given us in whichever medium.

... Me gotta add.



When revising the previous entry and searching for more images online I came across the very LP of cherrypicked Armstrong/Russell Decca sides whereof I spake, so shall reproduce it here, along with the tracklisting. I borrowed this not from Motherwell Library, but nearby Hamilton, some ten years later - don't know whether there was some kind of Okeh/Decca reissue turf war going on there. 

Not every side has the Russell Orchestra backing him, but the whole is very listenable. Ev'ntide and another song, can't remember which, are by Hoagy Carmichael.

Side 1 : Thanks a Million / Lyin' to Myself / Ev'ntide / Swing That Music / Thankful / The Skeleton in the Closet / Jubilee

Side 2 : Struttin' With Some Barbecue / I Double Dare You / You're a Lucky Guy / Ev'rything's Been Done Before / Hey Lawdy Mama / Groovin'

Thanks a Million is probably not the best song in the world, but sung from the heart by Armstrong for a moment it seems to be. And it's a perfect example of what he once said about only needing to play the melody. No real fireworks on display but it's enough to explain why the young Humphrey Lyttleton enjoyed the Decca sides. The clip embedded below seems to be of a 78 with a few bumps along the way, but it still sounds pretty good to these ears.



Here's one of those Hoagy Carmichael songs. You will search for it in vain in Carmichael songbooks (I know; I've tried), and Armstrong's performance may not be the best guide to the composer's intentions, but I'd imagine he approved anyway.



The version of Struttin' With Some Barbecue here comes from 1938. I read on the sleevenotes that one musician had been mistakenly instructed to take a solo and so a better performer was left out: a note had been left on the wrong chair. Presumably that referred to the clarinet, which sounds okayish to me, but I'm no expert. I will mention a few experts at the end, so hold on if you are already becoming annoyed and frustrated.



The next side I'd like to bring to your ears is Hey Lawdy Mama. This is the number which caused Max Jones to write: "When Louis plays the blues - hold everything." This is a small group, sort of a group-within-a-group, a la Benny Goodman, though I don't know whether this would have been a regular thing when Louis played live with the Russell Orchestra. As Jones implies, this is fairly sedate but pleasant until the trumpet solo. No, make that sedate-but-sprightly:



I have just looked up Hey Lawdy Mama on Ricky Riccardi's highly recommended Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong blog. Apparently it came from one of two 1941 Decca session which may have been put together as a way of cashing in on recent reissues of original Hot Seven sides: The 1941 group-within-a-group was indeed a septet and called the Hot Seven. You can read more here, although Riccardi's focus is on some other songs from those two Decca sessions. The lineup is as follows:
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; George Washington, trombone; Prince Robinson, clarinet; Luis Russell, piano; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; Johnny Williams, bass; Sid Catlett, drums.
It's nice to hear Luis Russell given a piano solo on Hey Lawdy Mama - not great but pleasant. And the guitar's good too.

 And finally, in this skim through the LP, the final track, which places Armstrong in a swing context where he doesn't quite fit, though he goes for it like a good sport. This youtube clip sounds as though it's been taken from a fake stereo source, unlike the Decca album, but that added whiff of phoniness also fits - and besides, I can't find an alternative:



Rather than embed all the other sides on the album, here are a few of my favourite Armstrong numbers from elsewhere. First, another small group, with some Russell sidemen, from 1929, when Luis Russell's orchestra was still a powerful force in its own right. Good sound on this clip too:



And another from the same period, Dallas Blues. I love this one in particular, more than the other side of the original issue, St Louis Blues. As I may have written elsewhere, I once put the radio on and heard this for the first time, but knew immediately it was Luis Russell's band, even seemed to recognise the "room."

And lo, the track ended and "Chuckles" Larkin, he who had named St Louis Blues the Hottest Record Ever then seemingly recanted, was speaking.

Maybe, like me, he realised that Dallas Blues was just ... better. Dunno why. Oh no, wait a minute, I do. Sort of. Larkin wrote that St Louis Blues was more than "mere rhythmic excitement" and cited a comparatively leaden Cab Calloway version to bolster his case. But with Dallas Blues, there's an interesting tension between gutbucketty things and musically, jazzy things. (As, I fancy, Max Jones might have put it.) What I mean is that there are decorative details in the arrangement of Dallas Blues which are about more than raw emotion, although the emotion is there too.

Well, that's as precisely as I can put it, and as the balance of probability is that your eyes will only be flicking past these words as you scan the post for non-existent downloads I don't suppose it matters too much.



Finally, a couple of  Armstrong sides which I heard when young and grew to love. Indian Cradle Song, in particular, is an example of a song which would probably mean very little handled by anyone else, but becomes affecting because Armstrong appears to be investing something in it.



Indian Cradle Song is described in detail in The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong, here, and you can hear the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra's version too.

And finally, Body and Soul, which is undoubtedly a good ol' good one. I would also have liked to include Walkin' My Baby Back Home, but couldn't find a youtube clip.Those two sides are familiar to me from a cassette on the Neovox label, issued by Norman Field, my constant companion (the cassette, not Mr Field) in my university days: I would often walk at night round a country park with those recordings from just over fifty years ago playing through my walkman, carrying their brightness and warmth through the dark and cold of a Scottish winter night.




That previous posting was the first piece here which can't offer any pretence to be about doo wop or rock'n'roll-related matters, so I suppose this is not going to be the doo wop-dedicated blog I intended after all. My apologies to those who only want to read about that, but it seems right to have that material here rather than start a separate blog; it's music I discovered around the same time and still love. My interest stops around 1945 (Charlie Christian is my limit), so it all fits neatly into place: there's Too Soon to Know by the Orioles in 1948, so I've just got three years to fill ... Oh, and of course, the first version of Gloria Mk. 1 was in 1945, as you can check in these very pages (additional notes for Doo Wop Dialog[ue]: 39, here), sung by Herb Jeffries, former lead singer with Duke Ellington, so (rather to my surprise) it all stitches together rather neatly.

Besides, as I've just realised, with the mention of that Cheapo Closed pic, I'm still grieving over the loss of Cheapo, despite my brave attempts to pretend otherwise at the top of the previous post, so you've got to cut me some slack anyway.

Back to rock'n'roll - plus at least one (count 'em) tender doo wop moment from otherwise inarticulate males, guaranteed - next time, when we leave the vinyl of Motherwell Library to travel, oh, a good twelve miles at least, for a solid slab (clue) of screwball comedy from the man who dared to rewrite Little Richard without being Pat Boone.



[revised December 2012]

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Luis, Louis


I've been tempted to add more to that original post about Cheapo, piling on the detail in an effort to keep nudging the stark "CLOSED" of that final image out of sight. But Tuesday's visit to Rupert Street and the act of photographing what amounts to conclusive proof that my favourite record shop has not, after all, been granted a magical reprieve by some eccentric but minted collector has brought about a belated acceptance of the situation. Unless I'm still in denial.

Either way, it makes sense to discuss lesser-known jazz great Luis Russell more fully in this separate post, as he only came up in the context of my love for jazz being shaped by my local library. I don't think I ever actually sighted a Russell record in Cheapo, in fact, although the happy result of my random decision to borrow The Luis Russell Story from Motherwell Library some time in 1972 may have predisposed me to take a chance on many an unpromising item in Cheapo and elsewhere.

A random decision, I'm assuming, because the image above doesn't exactly scream excitement - especially to someone who didn't really know anything about jazz. The names would have meant nothing to me then.

But Motherwell Library (a pioneer, I was once told, in making records available to borrowers) had a strictly "no pop" policy at the time. Otherwise the range was fairly wide, not to mention eccentric, and seemed to reflect the community and immigration in the Lanarkshire area: I once had to borrow a Lithuanian folk record for a teacher who could not get it in his own Glasgow library. (By way of reward, he gave me a bar of chocolate. I was sixteen at the time.)


Oddities I took home with no perceived confectionery humiliation overlay  included Ron Geesin (indescribable, so I'll refer you to his official website, where you can hear sample tracks) and - I now remember - McGough and McGear (two thirds of the Scaffold). Geesin deserves at least a footnote in the doo wop part of this blog, as he remastered Dell Vikings recordings for the Flyright label, but his own recordings, which I first came across on my brother's BBC-issued John Peel Presents Top Gear LP, are, to coin a phrase, Something Else.

On the Top Gear album (a tie-in with Peel's Radio 1 programme featuring musicians who hadn't yet been signed by big labels), Geesin seemed to be dropping a lot of equipment very noisily and apologising to "Mr Engineer" (which memory of his voice reminds me he was from the West of Scotland, another possible reason for the above album being stocked), but it was a fun listen, for a while, anyway, on the novelty of stereo headphones. All I really remember of As He Stands, Geesin's first album, is a supposedly withering dissection of a nightclub full of Beautiful People: "Humans pulsate! Where? Somewhere else." (It sounds better with the appropriate reverb.)


Ah, McGough & McGear ... Now there's a funny thing - there is a funny thing: Beatles verboten in the library, yeah yeah yeah, but Paul McCartney's brother Mike is okay? Presumably the reasoning was that Roger McGough was a poet and doing a bit of recitation over a guitar so that was vaguely educational and alright. (The joke is on them, however, as Macca played uncredited on the sessions.)

Folkwise, there was a lot of stuff in the library from the late fifties and early sixties. Which suggests to me either a) the library had had a bigger budget a few years earlier or b) the purchasing of items was entirely at the whim of an individual recreating his youth - now that's the sort of power that can corrupt.

Anyway, judging from my last foray, they stock all sorts these days, only now you have to pay to borrow. And there's even a cafe slap bang in the middle of the library, so it's all-talking, all-slurping, all-eating, all the time. (HOORAY!!!)


But if (muttering all the while "Serenity now") I may saunter back in the general direction of my original point, just what was it which made me choose that LP (Luis Russell, remember) on that day? If it was indeed aything other than a plunge in the dark, I can only assume it would have been the title: a single disc which encapsulated this person, telling his complete tale, saving me from having to choose from the baffling range of Armstrong, Ellington and other LPs, some with forbiddingly arty covers.

More likely, however, it was the sleevenotes. Explanatory notes for lots of those jazz and folk LPs were in tiny print and very full. Brian Rust, a noted jazz authority and the author of the comprehensive and definitive discography of the era, was probably the writer, and the basic premise - that this band were the missing link between older jazz and the regimentation of swing - may have been simple enough to appeal to my younger self: they were trying something new, musically, so maybe I should. It worked when I stepped out of the TOTP comfort zone into rock'n'roll. And there was some detail provided about individual musicians so I was given a sense of what to listen out for. It may even have been the song titles: The Call of the Freaks? The New Call of the Freaks?!

Whatever my initial impulse, this was, as it turned out, great (and accessible) jazz, immediately apparent on numbers like Doctor Blues, with its irresistible flapper-type intro, and the sheer momentum of Panama, which had an energy, from its screaming intro onwards, I could easily equate with my experience of rock'n'roll - not to mention the sense of fun which exhuded from such tracks as Feelin' the Spirit, with a wonderfully stupid bit of gravelly-voiced scat: however technically proficient they were I had no way of knowing at the time, but they were clearly enjoying themselves, which I, if you will, "dug." I remember a birthday celebration rapidly going downhill a few years later until we began shaking pasta in jars by way of percussive accompaniment to these wonderful, infectiously good-humoured sounds.

Thinking that that was it - that I now "liked jazz" - I proceeded to borrow LPs by different bands, disconcerted to find that I could not, by an effort of will, extract anything like the same pleasure; my first inkling that Luis Russell's 1929-1930 Okeh recordings were not the norm for the genre.


Why were they so good? Well, Russell was apparently a generous paymaster, which may have helped him retain the best players He had won the lottery in Panama in 1919 and moved to New Orleans; maybe he still had cash to spare. The band had arisen from the ashes of the King Oliver band, so they already had a pedigree (in 1927 Oliver turned down the Cotton Club gig which was to make Duke Ellington's name, which can't have impressed his musicians much). But perhaps the main point, again going back to early jazz vs. swing, is that the band had arrangements but weren't straitjacketed: there was ample space for them to stretch out and with excellent (and well-paid) soloists like JC Higginbotham, trombonist extraordinaire, Pops Foster on bass (likened by Philip Larkin to the engine room of a great ship), not to mention Henry Red Allen (above), a trumpeter who admired Armstrong but had his own fiery style, some of the performances on that Parlophone LP rank among the best ever recorded in the name of jazz.

Panama is Russell's masterpiece and my favourite ever jazz record. Difficult to say why except that the balance of control and passion feels so right: at times the pace is so ferocious they almost lose control of their instruments - but don't; each solo adds another delight yet there is never any sense of competition, only their delirious pleasure in adding to the whole.

The power of those performances knitting together on Panama is also, as I now know, about the common language of New Orleans and the experience of playing together night after night - resulting in three minutes of distilled joy which the late Humphrey Lyttleton described, with far more detail and authority than I can muster, in his appropriately entitled The Best of Jazz. He surmises that the final chorus was the result of a signal that there were still about twenty recordable seconds, and so they went for it. It's an astonishing thought, as the thing seems so fully formed: it's the recording that I wish, above all others, I'd been present to witness. Did they realise immediately what they'd done? There are no alternate takes, so maybe they knew they'd nailed it. But from various accounts those musicians had a blast playing live, so who knows what other wonders were lost in the air night after night?

Why, then, does the Luis Russell Orchestra seem to remain unknown to the general (as opposed to the jazz-loving, or library stock-purchasing) public? I've done my bit, thank, having made a compilation tape for the late friend referred to a few posts ago - at his own request, I might add - as an introduction to jazz. He liked blues, liked soul - there was once a drunken phone conversation in which he entreated me most earnestly ("It's very important") to listen to Bobby Bland forthwith - but jazz had apparently been a no-go area. I forget what else I chose for this baptism by oxide but I do remember putting Panama as Track 1 and Track 2, just to press home the point that this was no ordinary recording.

De mortius, but to the best of my recollection, when I later asked him if he'd enjoyed the tape, he said something along the lines of how he recognised it was probably the best of its kind but he didn't want to submit to having to like it and then get too involved ...

At least I tried. And I was able to convert a mutual friend more recently ("Thank you so much for the CD It is AMAZING"). Plus I think I feel the same about watchingThe West Wing, which was one of his favourites, so I understand - sort of.


Of course, one factor in acquiring fame is the sheer amount of product you have out there, and there are a limited number of recordings under Russell's own name, and an even more limited number of absolutely top drawer sides. The excellent sleevenotes for a fairly recent, comprehensive double CD (fuller than I have seen for any other compilation) explain why the band never attained the longevity of the Ellington or Basie orchestras: economic factors and a lack of nerve (or simply common sense, given the depression?) which led to Russell emulating other bands rather than continuing to plough his own distinctive furrow - but as the notes say, "the records, in all their undimmed splendor, endure."

The CD set, on the Retrieval label, gives you all you need and rather more - there are some treacly vocal performances on the second disc, and the sheer number of tracks makes it less of a cohesive listen than the album I happened upon in Motherwell Library.It's also very odd to have the tracklisting, familiar to me from LP, cassette and CD issues, rearranged as a result of all the extra material, including King Oliver tracks, but as the JSP CD Savoy Shout, which has all the essential sides and not much else, is deleted and secondhand copies are usually priced fiendishly high, the Retrieval double is undoubtedly the best alternative soundwise, as both were remastered by the late John R.T. Davies.

I'm happy to say that I emailed him a few years ago to thank him in particular for his remastering of the Luis Russell sides on CD and received a charming reply almost immediately. (I have never heard the original 78s directly but the CD had the punch both of the vinyl and a cassette issue, possibly from 78s, on the Neovox label. And if the reader thinks that these things are unimportant, then the reader has not experienced the sonic horrors of some vintage jazz CDs like what I have. Late 20s jazz has the potential to sound like they're in the room with you. Alright, yes, yes, I admit, with the unwelcome addition of a pan of bacon sizzling in the corner throughout, but that doesn't affect my point. May I go on, please? Thank you. Ahem.)


Russell later recorded a great deal on Decca with Louis Armstrong; those tracks, from the mid-thirties onwards, are agreeable enough (Humphrey Lyttleton thought they had been unfairly dismissed by critics) if hardly world-shattering, but it's very much Louis Armstrong "and his Orchestra.". I particularly like the simplicity of the blues Hey Lawdy Mama, featuring a small group drawn from the orchestra including Russell on piano - as in the photo above, presumably, plus Armstrong himself. Taken from the Mark Berresford Rare Records site, the photograph features Russell on piano, Paul Barbarin on drums, Pops Foster on bass and Lee Blair, guitar. I think it was this number that the Melody Maker's Max Jones was referring to in a 70s review of some cherrypicked Decca sides: "When Louis plays the blues - hold everything." I later bought a complete CD collection of the Decca masters but my pleasure was not increased tenfold; the cherrypicker had done his job. The LP started with a banal enough ditty, Thanks a Million; in Louis' hands it approaches something genuinely humble and touching.

Thanks to the wonders of the net, I have just picked up some interesting information about airshots from the early Decca years which Armstrong himself preserved. I was typing in words in an attempt to locate a phrase which I remembered had been used to describe the Russell band: something like "twelve men swinging with the power of twenty but the looseness of six."

No joy, but it did lead me to a blog entitled The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong. This quotes several of the standard views that the Russell Orchestra, once harnessed to Armstrong in the thirties, became a shadow of its former self but then reveals that Armstrong kept 12 inch 78s of radio broadcasts, selections from which have now been issued on CD, which suggest that the Russell band live in 1937 was still a pretty fiery proposition. You can listen to examples directly on the blog.

And by searching that same blog for "Luis Russell" you can also find an entry where different recordings of On the Sunny Side of the Street are compared; another small group from the Russell Orchestra provides one of the standout versions. You can listen to it, and many other recordings, directly on the site and enjoy the detailed and informative commentary, not to mention mind-boggling industry, of Ricky Riccardi, " a 29-year-old Louis Armstrong freak with a Master's in Jazz" who is working on a book on Armstrong's later years.

Apart from Russell's own recordings on the Retrieval set, the only others I'd really consider essential are a sprinkling of sides backing Armstrong in the studio from that same golden period (29/30) before the more permanent, but generally less adventurous, hookup on Decca. They can be found in many places, including the Louis and Luis CD mentioned below, but the JSP Complete Hot Fives and Sevens set (John R.T. Davies again), widely regarded as the best transfers of Armstrong's historic recordings, includes them on Volume 4.


And Henry Red Allen, Russell's star trumpeter, also has a number of sides in his name using the Russell band, some of which are also very good indeed. Hearing them for the first time some twenty five years after my first exposure to the Luis Russell Orchestra was a pleasure like discovering an unexpected photograph of old friends.


Those early Armstrong/Russell numbers include St Louis Blues, the track which Philip Larkin (in that missing review) called "the hottest record ever made." As Stirling's Llibrary in the centre of Glasgow where I found that information in the original hardback of All What Jazz is now an art gallery, I can only rely on my memory of Larkin's claim that after the third chorus you can feel the walls begin to move; it certainly felt like that when I listened to that Louis Armstrong album borrowed from Motherwell Library, and for those tempted to dismiss the performance as "mere rhythmic excitement" Larkin went on to discuss a lumpen effort, possibly utilising the same arrangement, by Cab Calloway's Orchestra.


You can hear Armstrong, backed by Luis Russell's Orchestra singing (and playing) St Louis Blues here; unlike the writer of this blog I have never heard the 78 so I can only say that the vinyl worked for me on that Chris Ellis EMI compilation. (Yet another LP, incidentally, which I had a chance to buy for myself and didn't - although I can't remember whether I sighted it at Cheapo or Steve's Sounds, a similar, but inferior, vanished emporium of musical tat and treasure).


St Louis Blues opens as a "raunchy tango" but then it just builds and builds, increasing in intensity, with bassist Pops Foster going at it ever harder. It's similar to Panama, in that every so often there's a thrilling ensemble "shout" as they take things up another notch. But somehow it doesn't quite work for me in quite the same way: there is so much musical richness all the way through in Panama (I can only refer you to Lyttleton), whereas towards the end St Louis Blues sort of becomes headbanging - powerful but not exactly subtle.

I prefer what would originally have been the flipside, Dallas Blues, where there are all sorts of small decorative musical details which enhance, rather than detract from, the performance. And Louis Armstrong's on Dallas Blues here is impressively raw. I think what it always comes down to for me is a sense of passion and control holding each other in check: you really feel the held-back power of Dallas Blues. This was a recording I first happened upon, unidentified, by turning on a radio (it wasn't on the Library LP); it may even have been Larkin being interviewed or introducing some records. But again, that family/friend recognition thing worked; even that sense of the room they were playing in was familiar. What one might term "one of the good old good ones."


There is a CD entitled Louis and Luis, which is the only one I know to couple the golden period Armstrong/Russell Okeh tracks with the best of the Deccas, so it might be a good place to start. I haven't heard it so can't comment on the quality of the transfers. Henry Red Allen, incidentally, became for a while a kind of surrogate Armstrong, doing a lot of trumpet-and-vocal recordings in his own right, and in possession of a similarly gravelly voice; I bought several CDs of these but they don't really approach the sides with the Russell Orchestra. There is one standout, however, Roll Along Prairie Moon from 1935, done at a ferocious lick, with his audible encouragement of "Higgy" - fellow Russell sideman JC Higginbotham - to do one more chorus at the end. We're not talking power held in reserve here but wild, irresistible fun.

Clicking the first mention of Luis Russell's name at the top takes you to redhotjazz, a wonderful repository of the kind of jazz I like. You get brief and to the point accounts of musicians and bands, and lots of streamed tracks (in middling quality) on realplayer. It's a great way to become acquainted with the form. You can find better quality streamed audio for some Russell tracks if you look on the right of this page on the riverwalkjazz site, although I haven't been able to open the audio for the Pops Foster documentary on the same page.

And if you go on to buy stuff, the name "John R.T. Davies", not just on JSP CDs but such companies as Retrieval, Hep, Frog and Timeless, is a guarantee of audio quality.


One final note worth placing here relates to that sense of double exposure mentioned in some of the Doo Wop Shop posts: Russell's daughter Catherine, surprisingly young, is a jazz singer who has released several excellent albums, sample tracks of which you can hear on her website, here; there is also some footage of her father (although nothing survives, or perhaps was even filmed, of the Russell Orchestra in its glory days) and there are even some home movies of her as a child with Louis Armstrong.

Her material is a mixture of jazz and blues, including an excellent version of Kitchen Man (the BBC's Russell Davies summed it up, if I remember, as being "full of passion and commitment but without adding a single unnecessary note)." She has also recorded Back O' Town Blues, jointly credited to Louis and Luis. Essentially - and I'm speaking after hearing two CDs in full - she owns the songs she sings, without making them sound old-fashioned. As John Lennon said of the Ronnie Hawkins song Down in the Alley (part-payment, I suspect, for the wreckage and unpaid phone bill he and Yoko once inflicted on the Hawkins homestead):

"It sounded like now and then, and I like that."

That Hawkins track, incidentally, came from an LP I took a chance on when it was going cheap in my local Woolworth's in the seventies. Was it a similarly life-changing experience?


On this occasion, alas, no cigar. Not even close.