26 July 2005

Nick Drake - Blossom & Richard Hewson versions

Nick Drake made music that is as good as music can get.

As I've said elsewhere,

His work is holy, haunting, enveloping, wise, mystical, graceful and complete. It can float over you on a balmy summer's evening making you feel like a petal spinning on a warm breeze, and yet be right in there with you articulating your thoughts on the darkest of lonely nights.

It goes right into you now and yet - and this is the real magic - it somehow feels just as much in you even when you change, it sort of becomes part of you and grows with you. It achieves what the greatest art achieves, it makes us feel understood, it shows us new ways to see, it informs and affirms.

Nick Drake's potent legacy only increases its power as time goes by. He was so unnoticed at the time that there was only one interview done, and there is no video footage of him at all (except for family cine film of him on a beach as a child).

Most dead musicians have had their back catalogue plundered, and whilst Drake's has been comparitively well handled, it's still left a lot to be desired.

The 1979 box set Fruit Tree was subtitled 'the complete works'. It was nothing of the sort.

The 1985 box set, confusingly also titled Fruit Tree, included a new out-takes album Time of No Reply that added ten new tracks to the canon (three new versions, seven completely unreleased songs). Sadly this one has been allowed to go out of print.

Last year's Made To Love Magic was something of a letdown. It gave us seven new tracks, and six lifted straight from Time of No Reply. When the combined tracks would fit on one CD, leaving half of Time of No Reply deleted was inexcusable; equally, making Drake heads splash out on an album they'd already got half of was a swindle. It's made worse when you know there are great songs of Nick's that have never been released.

Fortunately there's the rather pricey but extremely comprehensive Time Has Told Me bootleg CD. Here's three tracks from it.

Blossom is a Drake composition, from a home tape predating his studio work, probably early 1968. The intricate guitar style, warm vocal tone, use of nature imagery and metaphor, and the bittersweet emotional terrain are all already there.

The other two are Richard Hewson's arrangements. He was hired to arrange several tracks on Nick's debut Five Leaves Left, but the versions were rejected and Nick convinced the production team to get his friend Robert Kirby in instead.

The only arrangement of Hewson's to officially see the light of day was I Was Made To Love Magic on Time of No Reply. The others were rumoured to be lost or even never recorded. However, Time Has Told Me proves otherwise with The Thoughts of Mary Jane and Day is Done.

Whilst Kirby's arrangements give a stark quality and timelessness to the work that's way above Hewson's talent, I do feel that Hewson's versions have been rather unfairly denigrated. ‘Disney’ is the pejorative commonly used, but this is wide of the mark.

Hewson’s work has a sense of English whimsy with a baroque undercurrent in keeping with others of the time, such as Donovan’s Jennifer Juniper, or David Bowie’s Deram material. And certainly, Robert Kirby’s arrangement of The Thoughts of Mary Jane is at least as light, floaty and whimsical as anything Hewson did.

I don't think it's helpful to tell you which version is 'best' though. The different versions illuminate different aspects of the song, and in doing so offer better insight into Nick’s work.

Robin Frederick, who wrote Been Smoking Too Long which Nick covers on Time of No Reply, has written several great articles about how his music works to captivate us. They're quite technical, but this doesn't do the appreciation of the work any harm, quite the reverse.

As she says herself, 'to think that what's important about Nick Drake is his dark romanticism is like thinking what's important about Brian Wilson is surfing'.

The story doesn’t quite end here. There are more recordings in the vaults, and there’s talk of a new album, provisionally titled Family Tree, which will contain much of the stuff from Time Has Told Me and possibly some songs by Nick’s mother Molly which have been described as ‘odd and haunting’ and apparently had strong influence on her son’s work.

[MP3s deleted to make way for new ones. Sorry!]

13 July 2005

Flash & The Pan - Down Among The Dead Men

Easy Beat
EASY2 (12inch: EASYT2)
1978, reissued 1983

In 1983 Flash And The Pan had an unlikely top ten hit in the UK with Waiting For A Train. It pulsed along, like if New York white guys did the backing track for Timmy Thomas' Why Can't We Live Together?, but with an oblique vocal about, well, waiting for a train over the top of it dryly delivered by a tinny voice.

The follow-up was the track featured here, Down Among The Dead Men. Originally released five years earlier as And The Band Played On (Down Among The Dead Men) (Ensign, ENY15) it also has that trebly vocal with a cold tone from the American New Wave, but bubbling in the same pot are a bright pop sensibility and that main riff that feels incredibly familiar.

The riff is so sticky, feeling so much like it's already part of your musical knowledge that the song doesn't ever leave you, and indeed it goes round my head periodically to this day. Hence its appearance on the blog.

The lyric is a straightforward telling of the maiden voyage of the Titanic. Why was this a single? How on earth did they think this would be a hit?

The weirdness by no means ends there. Flash And The Pan was the project of Harry Vanda and George Young. This Australian duo started out in the 1960s as The Easybeats, scoring a top ten hit in '66 with Friday On My Mind (later done by Bowie on his covers album Pin Ups).

From that humid, brooding yet soaring pop classic, they went on to write and produce the karaoke favourite Love Is In The Air in 1978. Suddenly we have context for that bright ascending bridge in Down Among The Dead Men that seems so incongruous dropping back down into the darker and more strident main body of the track.

Between these two projects, they released commercially unsuccessful singles under various names (Paintbox, Grapefruit, Haffy's Whisky Sour, Tramp; it was the turn of the 70s, after all). However, they are better known during this period for producing the first seven albums for the band that featured George's younger brothers Malcolm and der-ner-ner-NER-ner-ner-ner AnGUS; AC/DC.

How utterly bizarre that in the year at the end of that collaboration, 1978, they made AC/DC's Powerage and the live album If You Want Blood, simultaneously doing Love Is In The Air and Down Among The Dead Men.

This multiple split personality does give me clues as to why I return to this record; I never completely figure it out, I can't ever get where it's really coming from, different ideas and sensibilities surface on different occasions. And then, of course, there's that riff that does a velcro job to your brain.

[MP3 deleted to make way for new ones. Sorry!]

Incidentally, I've always loved AC/DC's album title For Those About To Rock, We Salute You. It's so very particular; not for those who do rock, nor those who have rocked, or for those who might rock, not even those who will definitely rock but at some distant or as yet unspecified time. The salute is specifically and exclusively for those who, whilst they have not rocked as yet, will unquestionably begin to do so in the immediate future.

01 July 2005

The Jam - Get Yourself Together & Move On Up (live)


Sorry for the gap in postings, been away a lot. Gonna be away again for another week too. In the meantime...

In summer 1983, about eight months after The Jam split up, they released a compilation album Snap!. It was done as any decent greatest hits should be; all the singles, some classy b-sides, star album tracks. All in chronological order too, so you can see the progression.

The splendour of the double LP Snap! was fucked over and made into a simple singles compilation to be squeezed on to a single CD, although there has been a limited re-issue CD that has the full original running order.

With The Jam and The Style Council, Paul Weller made a point of giving value for money. The B-sides - and often the A-sides - weren't lifted from albums, the sleeve design and notes had passion and care in them.

And with Snap!, there was a limited edition bonus, a 4-track live EP. Recorded on 2nd and 3rd December 1982 during their 5 sold-out nights at Wembley Arena on the farewell tour, there were two unsung Weller classics on side B and two typically well-chosen covers on side A.

As a sucker for a decent or weird cover, it's these two that I'm giving you here.

Move On Up is the Curtis Mayfield classic, a live favourite with both The Jam and The Style Council. White guys can't really cover soul with the same vibe as the original, but then there's no point in facsimile covers.

The thing that white folks bring to music is tension. For all that rock n roll is simplistically defined as a melding of blues and jazz, it's the longing of country music and the uptight repressed tension of pretty much any white popular music that complete the equation, and this is abundantly clear when comparing the original Move On Up with the intensity and punch of The Jam's cover here, executed with a power that way exceeds their studio version.

Get Yourself Together is a Small Faces cover. They did some bona fide classics - All Or Nothing is simply perfect - and this song stands proud amongst them.

The lyric is has a remarkable sentiment for its time. In an era when a progressive writer like John Lennon was writing songs like Run For Your Life threatening physical violence against a girlfriends for looking at another man (gee, when she's got such a caring sensitive guy already why would she want to?), Marriott and Lane wrote this song where the bloke is acknowledging his girlfriend's unspoken pining for her previous lover and offering consolation, support and hope, telling her that she has got the inner mettle to recover and be alright.

To my knowledge, these live tracks haven't been reissued anywhere apart from that limited Snap! CD.

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UPDATE: After Paul Weller was given a Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music, his greatest hits albums have been repushed. (How many artists can have three greatest hits albums from different bands and them all be really good?). Universal saw fit to reissue Snap! on CD, together with a limited bonus three CD set that includes the Wembley live EP.

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[MP3s deleted to make way for new ones. Sorry!]