23 November 2007

David Bowie & Bing Crosby - Peace on Earth / Little Drummer Boy


David Bowie and Bing Crosby - Peace on Earth / Little Drummer boy 12 inch

Wikipedia is hardly a reliable source to quote. If anything in it is remotely controversial then it gets attacked. My favourite was Tony Blair's entry saying 'Tony Blair spilled popcorn down his pyjamas last night'.

Still, if you need a quick grasp of something uncontroversial then it usually points the way.

Having railed against anti-rock n roll cardigan wearing singers in my last post, I'm forced to make an exception for Bing Crosby. His Wikipedia entry informs us

Crosby also exerted an important influence on the development of the postwar recording industry. In 1947 he invested US$50,000 in the Ampex company, which developed the world's first commercial reel-to-reel tape recorder, and Crosby became the first performer in the world to prerecord his radio shows and master his commercial recordings on magnetic tape. He gave one of the first Ampex Model 200 recorders to his friend, musician Les Paul, which led directly to Paul's invention of multitrack recording.

Bing is the butterfly that flapped its wings and caused the hurricane of popular music as we know and love it. It's distinctly possible that if there was no Bing, there'd be no multi-track recording, or at least it would have been developed later. Which would mean it wouldn't have tallied chronologically with, say, Brian Wilson's hermit urges or The Beatles' ingestion of LSD.

And talking of drug intake, how about Bing on the bong;

A 2001 biography of Crosby by Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins says that Louis Armstrong's influence on Bing "extended to his love of marijuana." Bing smoked it during his early career when it was legal and "surprised interviewers" in the 1960s and 70s by advocating its decriminalization, as did Armstrong. According to Giddins, Bing told his son Gary to stay away from alcohol ("It killed your mother") and suggested he smoke pot instead. Gary said, "There were other times when marijuana was mentioned and he'd get a smile on his face." Gary thought his father's pot smoking had influenced his easy-going style in his films.

There's a clear clash of drugs in the 1977 Bing and Bowie recording of Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth. Bowie, living atop a mountain of cocaine in Berlin with Iggy Pop, careers into Bing and his lifetime of weed.

Bing was recording a Christmas TV special. According to research done by Paul Farhi of the Washington Post,

The original plan had been for Bowie and Crosby to sing just "Little Drummer Boy." But "David came in and said: 'I hate this song. Is there something else I could sing?' " Fraser said. "We didn't know quite what to do."

Fraser, Kohan and Grossman left the set and found a piano in the studios' basement. In about 75 minutes, they wrote "Peace on Earth," an original tune, and worked out an arrangement that weaved together the two songs. Bowie and Crosby nailed the performance with less than an hour of rehearsal.

The duet was released as a single for Christmas 1982, but more, the limited 12 inch featured a peculiarly huge 6 inch label and the spoken preamble to the piece. It's absolutely mad.

It starts with the doorbell going, appropriately enough, 'bing bong'. Bowie asks if Bing's the butler, what happened to Hudson and if Sir Percival is around - I get the strong impression Bing played several roles in the show.

But then Bowie talks about having the usual Christmas 'presents, tree, decorations, agents sliding down the chimney'. There is no meaning to this, it's coked up paranoid weirdness.

Of course these days it's on YouTube. Imagine Bing's just docked out a bammie and press play.

Bowie then went a filmed an episode of Marc Bolan's TV show Marc. He did Heroes on both shows. In a peculiar kiss of death effect, both Bolan and Bing died before their shows were broadcast. Just what the paranoid, magick influenced, narcotic-basted Bowie needed. Imagine how much he quivered and clasped his hands to his head every time his agent called after that. Sadly, the offer from the Jim Davidson Show never came.

The Marc show performance, like all of human history, is also on YouTube. This time it's a specially recorded backing track as well as a live vocal. Imagine watching this in 77, having grown up on the outlandishness of Aladdin Sane and all that, and he's just standing there, no theatrics, normal hair, no make up, with a frankly pedestrian production on the track, somewhat idly delivering the lyric. Then he hits the second verse ('I will be king...') with such force, such a desperate cry in his voice.

Literally gave me tingles first time I watched it. You so see that he was making music he had to make at this point, it's got that artist using their art to figure themselves out feeling, like Woody Allen's criminally overlooked Stardust Memories.

Bowie has more bizarre corners to his career than any other major figure in music. Less than a year later he was releasing his narration of Prokofiev's Peter And The Wolf (which he really does start with 'are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin') and releasing Stage, a live album where all the tracks have been sequenced in their order of original release - why? - and there's a whole side of stuff from Low. A live version of the ambient Eno collaboration Warszawa! With crowds cheering! What the fuck is that about?

Meantime, let the onset of the festive season and this spaced oddity fusilli your mind.

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

03 November 2007

The Higsons - Music To Watch Girls By


The Higsons - Music to Watch Girls By cover

The Higsons were an early 80s British band doing punchy angular white funk, kind of like Talking Heads but without any hint of genius.

For such a short, low volume career they pack a huge quantity of weirdness. For some reason, despite not being a ska band, they got signed to 2 Tone and released two singles in the label's twilight days, Tear the Whole Thing Down and Run Me Down.

Then there was this, an inexplicable cover of the 1967 Andy Williams track. Whilst too much of a Val Doonican to ever be a Rat Packer, Williams certainly belonged to that anti-rock n roll element of American popular music.

I fuckin hate all that Rat Pack revisionism that admires the slimy, arrogant, suit and tie singers who'd sing about sweet love then go home and drunkenly beat their wives. Anyone who tries to pretend that Dean Martin was cool is someone who can't deal with music expressing things that are real. Schmaltzy soulless and smug, Memories Are Made Of This was everything that Elvis came to save us from.

Despite it having Rat Packesque overtones, dubious gender politics and originally being a vehicle for a be-jumpered crooner, it's a hard heart that doesn't like Music To Watch Girls By.

'Watch that sound each time you hear a loud electric sigh' is an endlessly fabulous and thrilling line, and the dark descending melody underneath propels you with a relentless swirl that's glamourous yet sinister, poppy yet uneasy.

The Higsons version was produced by Warne Livesey, who within a year or two would be doing astonishing work on The The's epic and classic Infected album.

In a final twist of oddity, lead singer Charlie Higson went on to be the bloke in the Fast Show, the one who did Bob Fleming and Swiss Toni.

Making a record is a lot like making love to a beautiful woman; it's all very well having your solid seven inches but you've got to keep moving at the right speed to make sweet music.

Is it me, or does the Scott Walkerish bloke on the cover look like Louis Balfour presenting Jazz Club?

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

06 July 2007

Prince Buster - Respect

Blue Beat
BB 335

Prince Buster - Respect

Glastonbury is the only festival that, no matter what happens, at the end you feel like a survivor. Which is a whole lot better than feeling like Survivor. Which, in turn, has got to be better than feeling Survivor.

Those outside have a whole load of misperceptions. The only time it reaches public consciousness is when there's a big problem, usually a mudbath. The photos in the papers are always of some pair of eyes staring out from a two metre mudball. People must think it's like that every year, and that everyone who goes gets in that state.

If it were like that, hardly anyone would go. As opposed to it selling out all its 177,000 tickets in an hour, with an even bigger number failing to get one, and all before anyone knows what bands are playing. Can you imagine anyone buying a ticket for fuckin Reading or V without knowing who was on?

And even if it is muddy, it's utterly brilliant. I don't care what the weather's like or what happens to your stuff, if you don't have a good time at Glastonbury it's your own fault and I've no sympathy for you.

It's a measure of the weirdness of the festival that this year I managed not to see the Stooges or The Who but I did see Chas and Dave. Still, it was a smaller crowd than for the Who, which means I got a good view of the band. Which, with Chas and Dave, only makes it worse.

There were good reasons for missing those two class acts. I missed The Who to do my all-time dream DJ set, in the Lost Vagueness Diner on Sunday night, spinning rock n roll and Northern Soul to a massive and utterly having-it crowd.

The Stooges' blinder was me-less cos I was, again, over in Lost Vagueness. Madness played a secret set in the Ballroom. Oh to send a postcard back to 13 year old me telling him about it. Night Boat To Cairo! Baggy Trousers! Embarrassment! It Must Be Love! House of Fun! Shut Up! Our House!

Very few bands have such an all killer no filler repertoire; every song a total belter, such exuberance, but always with that nice snarly bite that makes all ska grip you; you have to go as far out as John Holt before you could put any cheese or schmaltz into the genre.

They opened with One Step Beyond (brilliantly put together video of it on Youtube) and closed with Madness. These are both covers of Prince Buster songs, the man they paid tribute to in their debut single The Prince.

Buster - still alive, kicking and self-proclaiming as the Sexiest Man in Jamaica - originally released One Step Beyond as a double A-side with Al Capone, which The Specials lifted for Gangsters. What a 45 that was.

Coming hard on its heels was this, a cover of Otis Redding's Respect. Slightly marred by a too-loud maraca overdub, it's got a fabulous flinchy groove and, common to Jamaican 45s of the time, a sense of a loose party going on in the studio, of it all being a joyous jam. Check out my favourite bit, the backing vocals near the end behind Buster ad-libbing. there's such a sense of music being how these people live, of it just moving through them and pouring out of them.

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

Kinnell, a quick bit of googling finds a copy of this single in mediocre condition going for 45 quid! And a few seconds more googling finds something much much more alarming. Survivor are still going!

10 June 2007

Indians In Moscow - Jack Pelter & His Sex Change Chicken


Indians In Moscow - Jack Pelter & His Sex Change Chicken cover

Well from one slab of coloured vinyl to another. This one's white (probably to do with the B-side being called Salt).

A while back I posted Indians In Moscow's Naughty Miranda, a delicious dotty bouncy tune of grisly patricide (you don't get too many of those). I said then I'd try to get round to posting the equally deranged Jack Pelter & His Sex Change Chicken, and have finally been prompted by Sara-Louise Allison leaving a Comment saying their dad played the keyboard on it.

My dad played sax on James I Love You by my old band Bigmouth. Not nearly as cool, as you can tell by the total lack of me ever posting any Bigmouth stuff.

Jack Pelter's brilliant insane relentlessness shows Miranda was no one-off. What a fulminating mindswamp these people inhabited. Anyone know if they ever did any more?

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

14 May 2007

Age of Chance - Kiss


Age of Chance - Kiss cover

I'm really sorry. I only just noticed that the last three postings were all bad tunes. Compelling and captivating, in a watching as you pass a car crash kind of way. But bad nonetheless.

Today I change that.

Last time Prince toured Europe he didn't even play the UK. The nearest he came was frigging Rotterdam. I've been whining about it ever since.

Then he announces that he'll do some European dates this summer. All 21 of them in one month and in London. Not so much a gig residency as a tenancy.

The first seven - at the new O2 Arena, the old Millennium Dome - went on sale on Friday, and I fuckin well got some. Face value only 30 quid, which is a lot compared to other gigs I go to but nothing compared to others at the O2.

The Stones are trousering 70-150 notes per punter. Which is fair enough, they are the best live band ever, capable of blowing anyone else off the stage.

Barbra Sodding Streisand is charging up to 500 quid! Excuse me? I get the very strong feeling I'm missing something here. Isn't she basically Elaine Page?

Not content with his excessive style, Prince is dishing out a free copy of his new album to all ticket buyers, a move that made his record company go 'what new album? he never told us about a new album'. What a dude.

So, being from Leeds and going to see Prince, I present the only other Leeds/Prince interface I can think of.

It's 1986, less than nine months after Prince's sinewy upright funk original was released, and Leeds' own Age of Chance come at it like a runaway steam train. Hard, heavy, electronic yet dirty, like a prototype for Pop Will Eat Itself and Jesus Jones. What's more, they release it on pretty green vinyl to boot.

Play it as loud as you can to get that full 'Alternative Night at Mad Hatters in Southport circa 1987' effect.

[Sorry! MP3 deleted to make room for new ones!]

10 May 2007

Cliff Richard - Jesus


Cliff Richard - Jesus 7 inch

No, really.

I found this one in Oxfam in Bradford. With that title, you've gotta give it a go. And my, how it rocketed past my expectations and into the stratosphere.

To start with, the lyric is breathtakingly brazen:

Jesus, Jesus won't you come back to earth?
Jesus, Jesus come back to earth

We apparently want him to save us from people who think 'the world is OK' (yeah, I know it's an abomination since we were cast out of the Garden, eh Cliff?), from 'the love of death' (not at all paradoxical from people who worship an image of a man dying very slowly).

But the best is yet to come. Cliff repeatedly belting out

Save us from the Devil!
Save us from Satan!
Save us from hell!

We've been gently immersed in decades of Cliff's emetic yuletide sludge, so hearing him say anything so loud and proud is a great comic shock.

However, it's the tune that does it. There is something really good about it. Really though. It's got this funky rolling drum pattern, a real groove that's something akin to Young Americans with a Ringoid looseness (albeit with a tinge of something from the Hair soundtrack). And the flanged drums, five years before White Man In Hammersmith Palais.

Then that guitar, nasally distorting like a stylophone until it finally breaks free into what you've been gagging for from the first note, its own free flying freakout solo.

It's a tremendously sticky song - I do warn you that you'll have it going round your head for fuckin ages.

I implore readers to leave suggestions in the comments for excuses to use when someone catches you singing 'Jesus, Jesus won't you come back to earth' or 'save us from hell! save us save us!'.

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

12 April 2007

Steve Jones - Suffragette City


Steve Jones - Freedom Fighter cover

Well I gave you what Steve Jones was doing a year after the Sex Pistols' demise.

But fast forward ten years through his forgettable band The Professionals and heroin habit, and where do we find him?

He's a permatanned LA rocker, baby.

Sex Pistol or orange poodle?

Having already done an album in 87 featuring a song called Drugs Suck, he was back with a new album called - ye gods - Fire And Gasoline. Co-produced by that master of faux-rock (The Doors 'reunion' tour, anyone?), Ian Astbury.

From the flagship single Freedom Fighter and bonus track on the CD issue of the album, I give you his cover of Suffragette City.

You've got to give him marks for trying. The guitar work is gritty and he's managed to get some distance out along the road to sounding like an Iggy Pop record. (He was in Iggy's band around this time and plays the killer guitar on Cold Metal).

But it's the late 80s, so it was recorded one instrument at a time to a click track with no fire and no balls, and with the drums horribly far forward in the mix. Why did everyone in recording studios back then think the snare drum had to be louder than the vocals, and the bass drum not far behind it?

Despite all this sterility I'd have still just about let him off if it wasn't for the 'aaaaaaaaaah wham bam thankyou baby'.


He compounds the error by going for another chorus, this time with the even more inexplicable 'aaaaaaaaah wham bam thankyou Sam'.

[MP3 deleted to make way for new ones, sorry!]

These days Jones - still resident in LA - does Jonesy's Jukebox, a really eclectic and entertaining radio show for Indie 1031. Thanks to the magic of the interweb you can hear it right where you are now, if you click here when he's on air.

Sadly, his contract with the station means he's not allowed to swear. The man who called Bill Grundy a dirty bastard and a dirty fucker, some of the best swearing ever!

To make up for that, why not download this seven minute epic built on a loop of Jones saying those immortal swearwords, 'dirty bastard dirty fucker'.

28 February 2007

Brian Wilson - Smart Girls & Spirit of Rock n Roll


You know why people say Brian Wilson is a genius? Because he is one.

To see beyond the limits of your field of work, to be bold, inspired, to expand and redefine your entire artform in a way that nobody had conceived of before and that makes pretty much everyone who comes after you respect your work and a serious proportion of them take heavy influence; that is what he has done. That is genius.

And still he hears it in his head. How else can he do all those breath-takingly heartmeltingly beautiful multitracked harmonies by himself?

Brian Wilson has made some of the most transcendently beautiful music ever recorded, and also some of the worst. Weirdly, he and many of his fans seem unable to tell which is which.

I know of Beach Boys fans who listen to a bootleg of 20 minutes of dogs barking because it's the recording session for the dogs you hear at the end of Pet Sounds.

The emotional strength of his work comes not through profound insights in the lyrics, but through matching complex harmonies and visionary arrangements with straightforward heartfelt words. I strongly suspect the latter quality is to do with an arresting of Brian's development thanks to fame.

I went to see Ray Davies reading from his (more or less) autobiography X-Ray. The book's written partly in the voice of a 19 year old, because that's how old he was when You Really Got Me hit, and a part of him got stuck there.

It made me make sense of Brian Wilson, the way that his songs have this childlike wonder, this simple approach to love. The trick is that his music is so luscious and ethereal that it elevates it, it seems so heavenly that it calls on the bit in the middle of us where, for all our adult wisdom and sophistication, we still just want to love and be loved and nothing else in our lives really works if that stuff ain't right.

After a decade in the void following Beach Boys Love You, he came back with an eponymous solo album in 1988. Despite the record company administering overdoses of big name producers, Brian still managed to make what we want the most, what he does best; a record of wide eyed tender wonder with a strong melancholic undertow drenched in astonishing harmonies (all vocals done by the man himself, too).

He recorded a follow-up, Sweet Insanity, that remains unreleased. For good reason. With the arguable exception of Don't Let Her Know She's An Angel, it's fucking awful.

There are, however, two curiosities on it that you should know about.

One is The Spirit of Rock n Roll, fairly unremarkable except for the fact that it's a duet with Bob Dylan. (Incidentally, for another Dylan-backed career anomaly, check out Leonard Cohen's riotous Don't Go Home With Your Hard-on, featuring not only Dylan but Allen Ginsberg too).

The track appears to feature the same twat who played saccharine sax on every bad record in the 80s. I reckon there have only been four sax players in the history of pop records. Each decade has the same sound. I can imagine how busy that filthy honking sax player was in the 50s. At the turn of the 80s insipid Saccharine Sax came along - first on Echo Beach, I think - and stayed for ten years or so.

But this is all as nothing to compared with what you're about to receive. Sweet Insanity's outstanding mp3 from Hades is Smart Girls.

Taking appallingly heavy-handed samples of Beach Boys classics and working them into his - ye gods - rap lyric, Brian tells us of a personal revelation.

He used to write songs about pretty girls. Now he's realised that it's just shallow crass objectification of women. He now wants them to look nice and be very clever with it.

Wouldn't it be nice
If PhDs
were stroking me with hypotheses?

Think that's bad?

God only knows what I'd be
Without smart girls
Hip hop and harmony
I'm wiser now, I know where it's at
Intelligence is an aphrodisiac
So if you're seekin' that perfect mate
Listen to Brian, beauty's good but
Smart girls, talkin' 'bout smart girls
Sexy legs with high IQs
Smart girls, I love the smart girls
You brainy babes with your attitudes

The song offends on pretty much every level possible. The utter stupidity and unintentional irony of saying you're beyond sexist objectification of women by narrowing the perameters. The shoddy production. The shit rhymes. The slimy sexual politics. The thorough desecration of his own titanic talent not just in performing this crap but in hacking into his perfect recordings from the past less like a sampling producer and more like a googly-eyed frothy-mouthed crack addled murderer flying round the tape archive with a jetpack and a chainsaw.

It's by far the worst thing he's ever recorded. And that really is saying something.

The Sweet Insanity album was so self-evidently shite that it never came out and, worse, gave the record company the leverage they needed to make him do a tired retread of old hits for his next album, the entirely superfluous and negligible I Wasn't Made For These Times. Ever since, his proper new albums have suffered from Eric Clapton guest appearances.

We should be enormously thankful for his amazing backing group the Wondermints who've given him the confidence to tour again and got him to finish the frankly astonishing Smile project.

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