Friday, 24 February 2012
Phil, 67, and Joe, 62, walk their dogs around the park every afternoon at around the same time, throwing sticks for the dogs and insults at each other. Phil spent a lifetime working in the print business, apprenticed straight out of school to a typesetter. Joe spent most of his life at sea, working fishing boats out of small Cornish ports until the last few years, when he moved back to the town he grew up in and got work emptying recycling bins for the local council. They met three years ago and, in the way that men do, only slowly got to know each other, using their dogs—a golden labrador called Campbell for Phil and an Alsatian named Gabby for Joe—as the main source of conversational material.
For the first time, this week, they got to discussing their teen years, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Turns out that one of them was a Rocker and the other a Mod. Phil was the Rocker, which might seem a little odd, given that he was the one with the middle-class dog, apprenticed occupation and smart outdoor jacket worn just to walk the dog. 'I had no money for clothes', he told Joe. 'I had one whistle and that was for Sunday afternoons, taking the bird to the pictures. I had my first big motorbike when I turned 18 and wore my jeans, leather jacket and workbooks for riding that. It was only the mummy's boys who were Mods, they had to get their clothes bought for them 'cops none of us had money to waste'.
'Hang on,' Joe spluttered, 'I weren't no mummy's boy, I spent me wages on clothes because I wanted to look smart, and jeans were for work, not going out in. I had a Parka so my suit wouldn't get dirty on the scooter. My old man never went out to the pub or anywhere except in a suit and he wouldn't let us kids out of the house in scruffy gear if we were going drinking or dancing'.
'Bah', Phil stopped and threw his hands up in the air. 'No-one ever had any money for shirts that cost as much as they did in Carnaby Street. I went there once and had a look and it were £35 for a bleeding' shirt! I was only earning a tenner a week, and some of that went to mum for me keep. The rest went on beer and birds. I fixed the bike meself'.
'What you like', Joe laughed, 'I didn't pay that much, I got it all round here (waving in the general direction of the town), from local shops and the local tailor. I rode on my mate's scooter 'cos I was only 14. Couldn't get served in Pubs, but did love the dancing and the girls liked it too'.
'I tell you what, you never hear people saying that in the 60s they didn't have enough money for all that clobber, do you? Yeah, it was a problem getting birds to ride on the back of me bike', Phil sniffed. 'I couldn't wait 'til I had enough money to buy a car—I had a Morris Oxford with spots and everything, which birds loved to ride around in. But we'd ride our bikes to the seaside on Bank Holidays, try to avoid those oiks on their hairdryers, have a lash-up, ride the dodgers and Whip, maybe get a tattoo: here's the three dots I got on the pier at Yarmouth. Outside that place the ground was covered in spew where blokes had gone in drunk, come out tattooed and been sick'. Phil pulled back his North Face down jacket cuff to reveal three tiny blue dots above his right wrist bone.
'Was you sick, then?'
'Nah, I was drunk but not that bad. Had another one done next year. Where's your dog gone?
'Gabby! Come on, home'.
'Campbell! See you tomorrow then'.
'See you tomorrow".
Monday, 13 February 2012
The more time I spend on youtube and Facebook, the harder it becomes to get the wise words of Peter Allen out of my head; 'everything old is new again'. I first heard Allen's live version of his 1974 song of that title, which is played as backing for a dance scene in All That Jazz. Clearly it's supposed to sound like an old show tune, maybe from an MGM musical of the 1950s. There was a lot of that about in the '70s—Kander and Ebb's majestic 'New York, New York' for instance, was written in 1977 and recorded in 1979 by Frank Sinatra, in the same studio that parts of London Calling were being produced, by the Clash.
It shouldn't surprise anyone, though, when you consider that going way back to the 1950s, old songs or songs that were written and recorded to sound as if they were old, were the staple fare for emerging rock n rollers, lounge singers and Broadway musicals alike. The Clash's inclusion of Vince Taylor's Brand New Cadillac on London Calling was an admission by the former punk nihilists that the history of rock n roll had some good stuff in it—both musically and visually.
The thing is, Elvis made it singing songs of the 1940s by Wynonie Harris, Big Joe Turner, Roy Brown, and Bill Monroe. He dressed like all the sharp-dressed men he'd been in awe of growing up, the men who he'd see at the roadhouse on a Saturday night—pimps and gangsters of Tupelo during WWII, dripping with women, jewellery and hair grease to keep the Marcel wave in place. The roadhouse bands playing jump and jive got everyone shaking, rattling and rolling and, as one of the few poor white boys in the area, it was all supposed to be out of bounds to Elvis. So naturally he dug it.
Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra wanted to be like Bing Crosby, and loved Jimmy Durante, The Count and Duke, Mabel, Billie and Billy (Eckstine, below), the musicians who made it big in pre- and during WWII America. Sinatra's second wave of success came in the mid-1950s when he recorded old songs such as I Get A Kick Out Of You (1934), Just One Of Those Things (1935), My Funny Valentine (1937) and Taking A Chance on Love (1940). Like Elvis though, it was how Frank dressed, his attitude and how he sang the old songs and made them new again, which made them so successful.
In 1957, John Lennon and Paul McCartney formed a skiffle group together, called The Quarrymen, and the only surviving recording of them includes a live performance of a song that they might have thought was an Elvis tune; 'Baby, Let's Play House'. In fact the first and original recording of the song was by it's author, Arthur Gunter (in 1954). Elvis made a lot of old songs into new hits in his time, and to begin with The Beatles also performed lots of old, mostly American, material as they learned their trade.
I wrote about their love of US girl groups in an earlier blog, but the Liverpudlian beat combo also loved Little Richard, Buddy Holly and some rare—to Brits, anyway—other songs, too. 'Slow Down', which the Beatles played at the BBC in 1963 has since regularly been misattributed as a Lennon/McCartney original. Alexis Korner and Steve Marriott slowed it way down in 1975, but The Jam increased the same song's beat on their debut album, in 1977. The Replacements covered the song in 1981 (it's not clear whose version they're taking as their start point, probably all of them). In fact, the song was written and originally recorded by Larry Williams, in 1958. Perhaps best known as the author (and original singer) of 'Dizzy Miss Lizzy'—another Beatles' fave cover tune, done in the manner of Little Richard who had the big hit with it—WIlliams also wrote Bony Moronie. He and Little Richard were drug buddies in the 1960s and '70s, and despite attempts at resurrecting his recording career (with Richard and Johnny Guitar Watson both, at one time), Williams never got to be a big recording star. He shot himself in the head at age 44, in 1980.
The Beatles' version of Matchbox, which they'd been playing since 1962, was credited to Carl Perkins (1957) when they got around to recording it. But he seems to have been 'inspired'; by the much older Blind Lemon Jefferson-recorded Matchbox Blues (1927). Since the Perkins hit version the song's been recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis (1958), Ronnie Hawkins (1970), Bob Dylan and countless others. There's even a Derek & The Dominoes version in which Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins join in. That 1970 TV show footage is great for many reasons, not least of which is the other, major influence that the original, old rockers, bluesmen and country pickers had on the impressionable, austerity-beaten Brits. Eric Clapton stands at mic flanked by two very cool looking old dudes: Perkins (left) and Cash (right) make Clapton look like the stage sweeper in his bell-bottom jeans.
It's impossible to overstate the impression that the American stars made on British dress sense in the late 1950s and early '60s. While Bill Haley and Gene Vincent were dressed in British-inspired outfits (Vincent's was borrowed from Vince Taylor; it was re-designed for Elvis' 1968 TV Special), the suits, jackets, instruments and hair styles were all taken and adapted by Brits. The cyclical nature of pop culture means that the same looks—and the same sounds—have been coming around ever since the first commercial release of a 45rpm record (1951, Columbia). In the 1980s the pudding-basin hair cut, cowboy boots and fancy shirts, vests and fringed jackets favoured by the bands like Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds in the late 1960s were worn by The Long Ryders and similarly-influenced country/rock/psych bands (Rain Parade, Dream Syndicate etc). Today Morrisey's version of the Elvis quiff is to be spotted atop a new generation of Buddy Holly-style spectacles-wearing young people.
In the 1990s of course, Oasis (sorry, no links; can't stand them) slavishly copied the Beatles music and faxed over a thin version of Lennon's attitude for a generation yet to have youtube. Liam's daft hairdo could only have been improved by an original Beatles wig. If their fans could see how bad the Oasis facsimile was, perhaps not so many young people for whom the Gallaghers' rewrites were new, would have paid money for their music. Still, it couldn't happen again. Could it?
Tuesday, 7 February 2012
For some reason the other day the radio in my kitchen—which was, as always, tuned to a talk station in order to avoid hearing random assaults on my/our once priceless pop music cannon by x-factor bums and screeching failed actors now given to recording 'music'—there was a package about AC/DC. Apparently the Aussie metal monsters will have been 'going' for forty years soon, and given that they've now taken on the mantle of everyone's fave tame extreme noise merchants (inherited from the Ramones), the smug middle class who think it ironic to carry the AC/DC logo emblazoned on their 'vintage' t-shirt/dress/yarmulke, are bound to rejoice and buy, buy, buy all the AC/DC merch and re-releases that are bound to flow soon.
Except of course, the 'new' fans who wear the logo on ridiculous items of merchandise, really don't want to listen to the hoary old metal that the ridiculous old geezers have been peddling for the last four decades. I am willing to bet an original Ramones holed plimsole to one of Angus Young's school caps that their new-found 'fans' have never sat through an ear-bursting hour of endless SG-chugging, tight-trousered screaming, walloping bass'n'drum-driven 'Whole Lotta Rosie'. Unfortunately, I did, once.
Because I was a precocious kid, at age 14 most of my pals were 18 and 19. There were six of us and we used to spend Friday night to Sunday mornings getting drunk, smoking, dancing, and driving around in a gold Ford Cortina MkII 1600E. While they mostly danced simply to pick up girls, I danced to the music and loved it. My musical tastes and that of my older pals differed somewhat, but I'd always liked different stuff, and so was willing to listen to what they wanted to hear on the car's cassette player. Mostly it was prog rock with a smattering of pro to-metal. So I learned how Yes, Genesis and ELP could bore in the time it took to play an interminable drum solo, how Led Zep were really quite funny if you listened for too long and that Deep Purple were deeply dull.
Occasionally one of the guys would suggest going to a gig, most often a few miles up the coast, in a tiny venue about the size of a church hall, but which amazingly attracted some of the biggest bands on tour at the the time. Tickets were cheap, booze was to be had and the place turned into a disco after the gig. So I'd stand at the back, drink beer and yawn as the Ian Gillan Band, Barclay James Harvest, Curved Air, Wishbone Ash or Gentle Giant plonked away on stage. One night, just as I was becoming intrigued by something called Punk which was happening in London (120 miles away), my friend with the car suggested we all pile along the coast to catch this new Australian band who the music press (or at least Sounds) were raving about.
And so I got to see AC/DC on their debut UK tour, in 1976, and they were stupid. Not entertaining, witty 'stupid' like the late, great Ramones who I saw later in the year and was blown away by, but stupid as in assholes. In order to stand out from every other metal-pushing band on the road in the mid-1970s who had a screaming, drunken, but really very butch lead singer (and yes, I know I saw the 'legendary' now dead guy, but he sounded hysterical to me), someone had the bright idea of getting the guitarist to dress up as a school boy, in shorts, blazer and cap. So there's me, who during the week was forced into wearing a school uniform (although not the shorts or cap), watching a supposedly grown man dressed like Just William and being carried on the shoulders of an enormous roadie through the less than sell-out crowd at this hick dive. What am I supposed to think? Exactly. Dumb.
Spool forward four decades and Angus is still wearing his uniform to play the same songs (isn't he?), and the band's resistance to change has made them an object of fondness for people who think metal is cute. And that puzzles me somewhat. How did the formerly macho, confrontational, teen-angst-driven Metal music become so acceptable in a post-PC world? As any normal person knows, when confronted with the ridiculous sight of that other dumb metal act with the Nazi-paraphenalia-loving frontman named 'Lemmy' (Motorhead), or the ludicrously camp leather-saturated-fronted Judas Priest back in the day, Metal was always funny, but it was also nasty. The absolute misogyny and self-delusional macho-posturing of metal music was, and remains, objectionable in the extreme. Spinal Tap is not fiction, it's absolutely drawn from the pathetic reality that metal bands of the 1970s and '80s enjoyed.
Somehow, thankfully, I managed to miss out the development stage which called for metal music, or wizards and dragons. Despite twice seeing Yes perform with Rick Wakeman, dry ice and laser light shows, seeing Deep Purple with Ritchie Blackmore and Genesis at Knebworth, I never owned albums by any of them. The last gig I gladly attended though, because of one of the support acts: Devo were brilliant and played on through a rain of beer cans with so much wit and energy (they tore off their paper-suits during Jocko Homo and I fell about laughing), that they are the only memory I have retained of the day. Well, that and sleeping in the Cortina.
Four decades later Devo are still doing kinda the same thing, but unlike the metal morons, the Akron Devo-lutionists are doing it with style. Always smart, always alternative, Devo continue to puzzle, intrigue and entertain. I'm sure AC/DC fans are just as entertained by their heroes, but really, it must be kind of like a very LOUD groundhog day going to see them, surely?