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Posts Tagged ‘Ray Davies’

sunny-afternoon-programmeI’ll take it as read that Sunny Afternoon is this hugely enjoyable and successful award-winning musical, that it’s much more than just juke box theatre, and that it is performed  superbly by a multi-talented cast.  What we have here is ensemble playing at its best, full of energy, emotion and period feel.  (And of course there had to be dolly birds).  I’m taking the Kinks history for granted too.

So, I record just a few things here that occurred, after watching the touring cast at Milton Keynes Theatre, to one who has (for his sins) read all the Kinks biographies and was championing the songs long before the cliché of Ray Davies as ‘national institution’ was a given, before that soubriquet started being attributed liberally to any old Tom, Dick and Harriet.

Obviously much had to be telescoped into or left out of this telling of the story, but I thought the crucial dramatic band episodes were mostly nicely handled and worked well as theatrical moments too, in particular:

  • the ousting of co-manager Robert Wace as singer; ’50s crooner blown away mid-song by Dave’s blues guitar
  • the full enactment complete with legendary insults of the Cardiff incident where Mick Avory thought he’d killed Dave on stage in mid-show with a drum pedal
  • a collage of the all action run-ins with the unions and other awkward Americans leading to the band being banned from the States for 3 years.
  • (although I have to say, as a veteran reader and listener of the Kinks story, I thought the partial destruction of the Little Green Amp section a bit hammy, to tell the truth)

I particularly liked the way the songs were chosen and used, not necessarily chronologically, and not necessarily exclusively from the time frame of the show (1964-69), with some put into unexpected mouths as the story unfolded:

  • so Days is started by posh-boy managers Robert and Grenville when they’re given the boot; a lovely and powerful acapella spell cast over the audience as most of the gang join in
  • Pete Quaife’s exit to A rock’n’roll fantasy, the latest song in the canon featured, from 1978’s Misfits album; one of my least favourite Kinks songs, as it happens (but let’s just leave it as that being my problem for the time being).  (A friend with his own Kinks website describes “Dan is a fan” as the worst line Ray ever wrote; it has also led in fandom to disputes as to who Dan was, with pathetic claim and counter claims).
  • remind me, was Dead End Street, featured early in the show, sung initially by Ma and Pa Davies?
  • that passage in the play a lot of reviews mention, when Ray is calling wife Rasa on the phone from America, he singing Sitting in my hotel, and she the sublime I go to sleep as counterpoint; and yes, you really could have heard a pin drop.  Extraordinary moment.  I seem to recall she did a touching Tired of waiting directed at Ray as well.

A few other things less easy to categorise:

  • I was never a fan of the phenomenon, but that brilliant and witty drum solo at the start of the second half, after one had got over the initial shock of its unexpectedly being there at all, had me (and the audience) engrossed; I think it must have been a particularly good night because I thought I saw some congratulatory banter from the non-acting musician tucked away at the back of the stage.  Proof positive, I would say, that Ray does not share Dave’s famously derogatory opinion of Mick Avory’s skills.  Andrew Gallo take a bow.  (Have to report, too, a certain bewilderment for me that he was a spitting image of my niece’s husband; kept thinking, What’s James doing up there?)
  • the recreation of the genesis of Waterloo Sunset in the recording studio was beautifully done
  • Ryan O’Donnell has to get a name-check here as entering fully into the spirit of Ray; while Mark Newnham actually looked like Dave (but had a better voice).  The whole cast was tremendous (with the bonus of  Grenville and Robert being proficient on trombone) and their CVs refreshingly free of the usual Casualty, The Bill and Midsomer Murders credits.
  • a lot of football metaphors thrown in, but I thought they made a bit of a rush job with the collage of Sunny Afternoon, the show’s title song, and England winning the World Cup
  • Class: in the US Ray and Dave play up as working class socialists, and it is made quite clear that the touted classless society of the early ’60s was, if not an illusion, a very short-lived phenomena
  • a couple of neat ‘time traveller’ jokes
  • is Sunny Afternoon set to be the middle part of a very broadly defined trilogy?  I wonder this because of the way it ended, with Allen Klein reintroducing them to the American stage.  So we’ve had the Davies family background in more detail with the earlier rather fine but never made it to the West End Come Dancing musical, albeit with a fictional plot overlaid, and Ray is talking about “something epic” when the Americana – the what came next – CD is released?
  • so Allen Klein: I must admit I hadn’t realised that it was his team that cleared the legal or bureaucratic decks that allowed the Kinks to work in America again, and although there was the dramatic moment in the show when Ray made sure they didn’t sign another damaging management deal with him after he’d sorted a few things out (unlike the Beatles and the Stones), Klein’s voice announcing their return to a big New York venue seemed an odd way to end the narrative.  As if “the rest is history”, except for most people, it isn’t.  Apart from Lola.
  • indeed, I have to say I thought the admittedly joyous singalong clap-along audience on their feet finale of Lola was a bit of an artistic cop-out, a populist failure of nerve, seeing as the song Lola – the one, of course, the whole world knows – had no point of reference with the basic narrative in the show that had gone before.  Don’t worry, I was up on my feet with the rest of the audience, but I’d have preferred a reprise of Sunny Afternoon.
  • Great night, nevertheless!  I think I can see why a few of my Kinks fan community friends have seen the London cast show many, many times.  At certain times, excitement revived, when the lads picked up their instruments you could close your eyes and …  As well as all the fun.

shakespeare-circleMeanwhile, 400 years earlier …

Exactly 400 years had passed between his birth and the start of the action in Sunny Afternoon and You really got me being released, but there are still many things that are unclear about the life of William Shakespeare, born 1564.  Friday before last (Sept 2), in the local library in Stony we had a couple of world-class superstars of Shakespeare biography introducing their book The Shakespeare circle: an alternative biography (Cambridge UP, 2015).  The need for “Imaginative biography” is the phrase they used, if I remember correctly.  It was a fascinating evening, all done without the help of  a ss-shak-400PowerPoint presentation.  Paul Edmonson and Stanley Wells made for a fascinating double act, a splendid mix of wit, friendship and scholarship, their depth of knowledge staggering (but then this is what they’ve been doing for most of their adult lives).  Here’s the publisher’s puff, because I feel like being lazy:

This original and enlightening book casts fresh light on Shakespeare by examining the lives of his relatives, friends, fellow-actors, collaborators and patrons both in their own right and in relation to his life. Well-known figures such as Richard Burbage, Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton are freshly considered; little-known but relevant lives are brought to the fore, and revisionist views are expressed on such matters as Shakespeare’s wealth, his family and personal relationships, and his social status. Written by a distinguished team, including some of the foremost biographers, writers and Shakespeare scholars of today, this enthralling volume forms an original contribution to Shakespearian biography and Elizabethan and Jacobean social history.

All great fun, honest.  50 years ago, in year 2 of Sunny Afternoon, I did a sixth form project on the question of ‘Who Wrote Shakespeare?’ prompted by John Peirce, an inspirational English teacher who knew of my keenness for Mark Twain and guided me to a late work of his, published 1909, Is Shakespeare dead?  (Here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry).  There Twain details humourously and not unseriously the known facts of the actor William Shakespeare’s life and compares them with the width and breadth of knowledge displayed in the plays, and promotes a conspiracy theory that has been repeated over the decades, invoking various other writers for any number of reasons, as the true authors.  All nonsense, of course, and research has found a lot more about the Bard in the century hence.

No-one directly brought up the question of authorship, but one of the questions from the floor invoked the supposed “missing years” in the documented life of Shakespeare, which some have used to reconcile the mismatch Twain highlighted – did he go to Italy, for instance, and pick up all the knowledge thereof that’s there in the plays?  Apart from the fact that London was a major cosmopolitan trading port where all sorts of things could be picked up in bars etc., Wells and Edmondson said that many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries also have big gaps in their documented existence, indeed one would expect it, given the times.  Anyway, mention of ‘the missing years’ reminded me of John Prine‘s rather wonderful part-song part-recitation  Jesus the missing years, which I leave you with here, to enjoy:

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DomeSunday, November 22:
In Tufnell Park
did the Official Kinks Fan Club a pleasure dome decree as the venue for this year’s Konvention.  (Stately? nah!).  In the Dome – still the Boston Arms but upstairs, entry gained from the edge of Betjeman country at the bottom of Dartmouth Park Hill – a more spacious venue than the more plebeian ground floor function room, entered from the more prosaic Junction Road, which had hosted the gig for a decade or so.  Biggest wrist stamp I’ve ever had, cloakroom £2.00 an item on a dry cleaner’s wire coat hanger and Guinness at £4.50 a pint, which I’m pretty sure was a lot cheaper downstairs last year.

A bit late, I’d foregone my annual mid-day pilgrimage – make that sentimental journey – to Waterlow Park, up on Highgate Hill, a place of succour, respite and inspiration (such trees!) when I first moved to London many moons ago (and lately a place Highgate resident Ray Davies often chooses to do print media interviews).  Turned out I could have made it, such was the amount of time it took for the queue to get in.  So it goes.  But once upstairs, of course, hey – always good to see the usual suspects; you know who you are.

OKFC KOK 1998Muswell hillbilliesThe Kast Off Kinks started off as Fan Club treat.  The first four London Konventions (there had been a couple further afield) were held at the Archway Tavern, where the fold-out cover photo of the KinksMuswell Hillbillies album – my favourite, for what it’s worth – was taken.  The set list was agreed by email and over the phone; no full rehearsals, cassettes were exchanged.  It worked, it was great fun for all.  This was basically the Muswell Hillbillies rhythm section of John ‘Nobby’ Dalton, to whose leukemia charity the profits went, original drummer Mick Avory, and John Gosling (aka The Baptist because Salome cut his head off – no hang on, because of his long hair and beard), with Dave Clarke, a mate of Dalton’s from the Hertfordshire rock’n’roll beat group scene and beyond – no, not that Dave Clarke, this one’s a musician – bravely taking on the roles of both Ray and Dave Davies.  Crucially, without attempting to take on either’s persona, he’s always excelled and has become a firm favourite with the, if you’ll excuse the spelling, the British Kinks fan Kommunity.

Geoff Lewis maintains a website for the band at http://kastoffkinks.co.uk/ with a whole bunch of live videos and some fascinating interviews – variously transcriptions and recordings – with the chaps.

2015: John Dalton taking it easy. (c) Julia Reinhart. www.juliareinhart.com www.facebook.com/juliareinhartphotography

2015: John Dalton taking it easy. © Julia Reinhart.
http://www.juliareinhart.com
http://www.facebook.com/juliareinhartphotography

The Konvention moved down Junction Road to the Boston Arms in 2002 and over the years more and more ex-Kinks have become involved, to the extent that whereas early on there were support slots, the Konvention Kast Offs became a moveable feast spanning all eras of the Kinks, filling the afternoon by themselves.  At the peak of all this re-gathering I think we had two back-up singers, (was it?) three bassists, two drummers and three keyboard players leap-frogging the performance area.  Ray Davies has been known to turn up and say a few words, sing the odd verse; Dave Davies has never had anything to do with them.  I won a signed photo of Ray in the raffle one year, put it proudly in a frame and the sun faded the autograph faded out of existence.

As things progressed the Kast Off Kinks started doing the odd gig elsewhere, and this has developed into the core members becoming a regularly gigging band up and down the land.  As The Baptist’s presence has diminished, Ian Gibbons, who continues to work with Ray Davies, has become the keyboards man in residence, with Mark Haley guesting.  John Dalton announced his retirement half a decade ago but no-one believed him, and so it has proved; Jim Rodford took up most of the gigging bass duties when available, though the recent resurgence of the Zombies‘ career may limit his appearances in future.  Jim and Ian’s fellow Kinks-as-stadium-rockers band era drummer, the amazingly well-preserved Bob Henrit, has been known to take a turn too; an interview covering his decades spanning career in the music business (including the introductory cowbells on Unit 4+2’s Concrete and Clay) is one of the highlights of The Kast Off’s website, and is well worth your time; he’s published an autobiography too, titled Banging on).

I've taken the liberty of posterizing Kevin Kolovich's photograph

2015: I’ve taken the liberty of posterizing Kevin Kolovich’s photograph.

So, Sunday before last, and we’re upstairs in The Dome, which is certainly an upgrade from downstairs.  A two tier stage – “I’ve played in pubs smaller than that stage” says Geoff Lewis – and  improved sound from the PA.  Stage left upper tier were back-up singers Debi Doss and Shirley Roden, looking down on Ian Gibbons, who, as Nobby said at one stage, was “on fire”, and indeed he was, a real tour de force.  He also called him “the funky gibbon”, but I never liked The Goodies, so find that regrettable.  Centre, raised at the back, the redoubtable Mick Avory, in front of him Dave Clarke, and to his right, the aforesaid Dalton.  And on the raised dias behind him, it was good to see the excellent Oslo Horns (from Norway!) again, sporting trumpet, flugelhorn and trombone – always adding something to the sound, never intruding.  Even better to hear them properly this year.

Julia Reinhart 06

2015: Messrs Gibbons, Clarke and Dalton. © Julia Reinhart. http://www.juliareinhart.com http://www.facebook.com/juliareinhartphotography

Over the years, as the Kast Offs have turned into a working band, I’ve got a bit blasé about these performances, and – dare I say it – it had all got a bit routine.  Something today about the special emotions of an OKFC audience – international, spanning three generations – and the tightness that comes from constant gigging, along with the limited personnel which meant not so much chopping and changing, but this year I think it was the best I’ve seen them, really on top of their game and still enjoying it too.  With Nobby and Ian and the gals helping out on the vocals it was a storming show all round.  No-one’s put up a set list on social media yet so I’m running blind here; they probably played for at least 3 hours, doing most of the hits and more.  Almost at random, my highlights from memory: they do a slow and stately Village Green Preservation Society (outsider for new English national anthem, anybody?); Dave excels on the long intro take on a passionate Celluloid heroes; the band are really rocking with the fabulously obscure It’s too late; Debi fronts up for Stop your sobbing; they do a brilliant Better days.

DC & JD.

A delicate touch: DC & Doolin’ Dalton. © Julia Reinhart. http://www.juliareinhart.com http://www.facebook.com/juliareinhartphotography

John Dalton always makes a point of saying how much he rates Shangri-La and that wonderful Ray Davies song hidden away for years on the Percy soundtrack album, God’s children (atheist that I am, singing along gleefully), and they are never short-changed.  Alcohol always gets full measure too; how I’d love to see him and Ray doing that as a double act, but later for him.

The incandescent Mr Gibbons and pal. © Julia Reinhart. www.juliareinhart.com www.facebook.com/juliareinhartphotography

The incandescent Mr Gibbons and pal. © Julia Reinhart. http://www.juliareinhart.com http://www.facebook.com/juliareinhartphotography

It’s one of those strange inversions that the passage of time brings about, but what could well be The Kinks‘ second worst recorded cover version (nothing can compare with their Dancing in the street) always turns out to be one of the rousing closing climaxes of a Kast Off Kinks show.  I speak of Louie Louie, which is swiftly followed by a Long Tall Sally, to which even I was goaded to dance (thanks … sorry, forgotten your name), and Elvis Presley’s One night, the first song, apparently, that Nobby and Dave Clarke ever played in public together.

Ronny Van Hofstraeten posterise2Ronny Van Hofstraeten posterise4Ronny Van Hofstraeten posterise7Somewhere in the third set yer man Ray Davies came out and said a few words, and towards the end was cajoled into delivering, in fine form, a full reprise of – what else? – You really got me, with Dave Clarke getting the first few bars of Dave Davies’s original guitar solo – something he never normally tries – note perfect. [That’s Ronny Van Hofstraeten’s photo of Ray I’ve mucked about with here]

A fine way to spend a winter’s afternoon.  Thanks as ever to Bill and the Official Kinks Fan Club stalwarts for putting it all together.

Stony Lights Bard launchAnd the next weekend …

… another fine way (with added mulled wine) to spend a winter’s afternoon.

Last Saturday of November is the Stony Stratford Lantern Parade leading up to the ceremonial switch-on of the Xmas lights that brighten the High Street, church Street and Market Square for the season.  Weather was not great – only wet and windy, though, as opposed to the gales and heavy rain at one stage forecast – but that didn’t stop the crowds turning out as usual.  Impressive community dedication.

Gimp night

Gimp night: Photo from the phone of Ray Roberts.

Earlier, a select band gathered in the Library for what has now become an established part of the tradition.  Entertainment and enlightenment from bards past and present, near and wide, poetasters, storytellers and singers, not forgetting the Stony Mummers and local kids’ group Act Out doing a scene or two from their panto.  Excerpts from a new Fay Roberts epic about the child of a mermaid and dragon had us entranced, while, as is now – that word again – traditional, the mighty Antipoet – self-proclaimed Bards of Bugger All – brought proceedings to a splendid end, showcasing new and newish material.  In their quest to alienate as many sections of the community as possible we got another fine atheist piece and a spirited demolition of hipster beards, particularly of a ginger variety; Sam Upton, Bard of Northampton, didn’t seem to  mind.  Then there was Gimp night (was it at the Rose & Crown? – NO: it was, much better, the Fighting Cocks (thanks to my pseudonymous correspondent Pedantic Pete for the correction)), a report on the parlous economic plight of many of the nation’s public houses, necessitating their resort to the promotion of niche nights for all variety of minority interests and perversions, including … poetry.

Here’s a link to Stony’s Bardic Council: http://bardofstony.weebly.com/

 

 

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Reckless - HyndeCan’t say I understand the rationale of that photo on the dust jacket.  Would certainly be a reckless posture for me to try and then get out undamaged, or at least without pain.  Still, as Sheriff Bo Diddley used to say, You can’t judge a book by looking at its cover. Chrissie Hynde has one of the most distinctive voices in rock music.  I was going to say ‘female voices’, but no, it stands unqualified.  Tough without straining the larynx, and yet tender, spare yet tuneful and full of nuance even in recitative.  She’s written some great songs, too.

In the Prologue to Reckless: my life (Ebury Press, 2015), which takes us from childhood through to the making and release of the Pretenders‘ second album, by which time half the band who made the first remarkable album were dead, she simply states, “I regret half of this story and the other half is the sound you heard“.  This is a stark morality tale, economically yet colourfully related, with none of the poor-poor-pitiful-me about it.  There is humility, for sure, but the woman who wrote Brass in pocket is still abundantly in evidence in the writing, for which we must be grateful.

She certainly gives good zeitgeist, which is just as well because there are plenty of scenes to take in the spirit of.  But there is no grand retreat into sociologese or nostalgia; what we get are sights and sounds.  From an idyllic childhood in the leafy suburbs of Akron, Ohio, via counter-culture America and the killing ground of Kent State University, to heady days at the centre of the punk cyclone in London, with side sojourns in Mexico and Paris, it’s an engrossing story.

Akron may have been the ‘Rubber Capital of the World’, but “for all I knew every town had red brick roads and every fourth house was painted blue …” .  It was changing, though, with the coming of the all-conquering motor car and the six lane highway; no more wandering down the shops.  “When I started to realize that the days of walking were numbered, I subconsciously began to plan my getaway.”  She reads Kerouac at an impressionable age – surely the best time to read him – and wants to be a hobo.  As mammon loomed ever larger: “I was alarmed by the trend, but more alarmed by the fact that no one else seemed bothered“.

Naturally, music is of major importance to her and her mates’ lives, and they are not messing around.  She sees the Stones at age 14, there are trips to see and meet the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a tale about being the only white girls at a Jackie Wilson show.  She puts in a word for Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels to not be forgotten.

Not everyone needed to see the Rolling Stones in the mid sixties, but you could spot those who did a mile off in their modified clothes and carefully studied haircuts. For us elitists it was a chance to catch a rare glimpse of the few who shared our passion …

Reckless‘s back cover boasts this great portrait of the artist as a teenager, caught with guitar and albums in hand: that’s the Rolling Stones’ Out of our heads, and Dylan’s Bringing it all back home precariously balanced there.

CH back coverThe full text the rubric is taken from is a veritable time machine:

We were looking for adventure. We lingered long on Love Street. We had too much to dream last night. We wanted the world and we wanted it now. We were born to be wild. We were stone free. We were stoned. We didn’t think of ourselves as ‘innocent’.

We were taking up philosophies from what we could interpret of the musings of 23-year old guitar players …” she says, (though the Bhagavad Gita has stayed with her).  Then there was the question of her virginity, exquisitely put: It had to be dealt with sooner or later.  And it was getting later.”  Thankfully she doesn’t rub our noses in it, with that or the many subsequent encounters.  (The media storm about rape arose more out of interviews promoting the book, rather than the book itself).

I would like to take a moment to acknowledge that I was now 21 and the drugs had worked their magic on me. I was well and truly fucked up most of the time …”  Recognising her situation – “the unwilling tenant in a badly enacted Howard the Duck rip-off: ‘Trapped in a world he never made.’ […] It was all going in the wrong direction … ” – without having any significant contacts there, she escapes to the musical Mecca of London.  

Players No6Where she quickly adapts in matters of language and manners, discovers miniature cigarettes – hey! Player’s No.6! I used to smoke them – and (jumping ahead a bit) suffers acute “cultural humiliation” when asked by Brian Eno to make a pot of tea.  Fuelled with a big Iggy Pop obsession –  there is a lovely Iggy Pop story much later on in the book – she meets the similarly obsessed (and about to be homeless) NME rock writer Nick Kent, who moves himself piecemeal into her flat.  This is not entirely bad, since through the association she gets a gig writing for NME, though ultimately, to his displeasure, she dumps him: “Well perhaps he shouldn’t have presented me with first scabies, then a virulent strain of something even worse, which had landed me in Hammersmith hospital for three days.”  Later, she sells T-shirts made with Judy Nylon, one-offs, using Magic Marker: “One design I was particularly fond of featured a portrait of Nick Kent on the front and a recipe card for how to cook a turkey on the back.”  Ouch.  Revenge for what he wrote in his memoir of the time, one suspects.

It’s this affair that occasions an interesting bit of philosophising that pretty much sums up the story arc of the book:

That’s how we can be sure we’re not animals, this refusal to abide by what we know is good for us. If an animal’s instinct tells him to avoid something he has no trouble keeping a wide berth. We, on the other hand, run in the direction of danger if it offers a thrill or satisfies a curiosity.

Much has been written about the Golden Age of the New Musical Express, and Reckless offers an entertaining and more nuanced view than most, I would venture, of “the most intelligently observed and humorous of the music papers” as she justly describes it.  “These English weren’t the same as the wasters I’d been used to. They used words like ‘quintessential’ and the occasional phrase in French. […] It hadn’t taken me long to sniff out British versions of artistic types, the con artists I gravitated towards …”  In the pub with the NME crowd, she goes off on one, and the late lamented Ian MacDonald, to whom she pays proper tribute as a ‘true visionary’, invites her to write for them: “My only qualification, had I required one, was that I was as frustrated as the rest of them – a frustrated musician (the cliché of music journalism), opinionated, hungover, illegal in the workplace, devoid of ambition …”   It didn’t take too long for her presence to be felt:

Little teenagers in the sticks like Julie Burchill lapped up my half-baked philosophical drivel and prepared their own versions of nonsensical tirades for the day when they too could make a ‘career’ out of it. I even sold the darling little Julie my typewriter …

She gets offered a job as a shop assistant by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, whose creativity impressed her, but that falls through and she’s off to Paris, making music, being in a band, hanging with cabaret artistes: “I loved it when life opens its arms like that and says, ‘Yes’.”  But then back to the States and more bad times though, again, more experience of being in a band.

London saves her.  Malcolm asks her back as Punk is springing into life.  She tries writing with Mick Jones – “It was a joy to … walk over the bridge carrying my guitar knowing I was doing it, really doing it” – and visits regularly the 11th floor Westway flat where he lives with his gran, who, “would make us beans on toast while we put our song ideas together […] I really looked forward to it, especially the beans on toast part, my favourite English dish.”  She spends time with a shy, funny, yet troubled Johnny Rotten, “wrestling with his impending fame“.  Over the next few months she has a room in Don Letts’ house; Joe Strummer takes it over when she leaves.  She spends time in Croydon with the proto-Damned, might have joined the Slits.  Things go sour, blames Johnny Thunders: “The moment smack arrived it took approximately three weeks for the whole scene to stall and grind to a halt.”  She’s mates with soul brother Lemmy in Ladbroke Grove, a cultural mix she loves.

I, meanwhile, continued to peer out from under bus shelters in the rain, guitar by my side, looking for a band like a hunter having his prey chased away by animal rights saboteurs. […] … everybody was at it. (p209/10)

(Which reminds me: if you were thinking of reading Reckless but put off by the prospect of a few animal liberation diatribes – you have nothing to fear; PETA is not even mentioned).

Everyone I’d ever met in my whole life was now in a band. I now had absolutely no hope that it would happen for me but I was so used to failure that, like a cart horse en route to the glue factory, I just kept going. (p214)

But every band needs songs to play and a shitty original is still better than a good cover – and I had some shitty originals. (p213)

 And lo, The Pretenders came into being.  Three young men from Hereford – musicians, not punks, not all recruited at once – give shape to the Hynde songs.  She pays special tribute to the guitarist, the late James Honeyman-Scott, “the reason you’re even reading this because without him I’m sure I would have made only the smallest splash with my talents – probably nothing very memorable“.

Pretenders 1st albumLooking for a producer they send a demo to Nick Lowe, who says, “I definitely want to get in on this Sandie Shaw song“.  Which is … their cover of The Kinks’ Stop your sobbing.  (Thanks Nick, that one has stuck – sound like her, indeed it does).  It’s a hit single but Chris Thomas completes the album.  It so happens this was a quid charity shop vinyl purchase of mine a while back that I never got round to playing.  I just had to de-fluff the needle twice in the playing, but, reminded, am impressed by its realative sophistication and classic aplomb; everyone knows Brass in pocket but I’d forgotten what a sinuous epic Private lives is.

It’s a big success, and that’s when the real trouble starts:

All the things we saw happening to other bands were now happening to us. It took us by surprise. The ‘overnight’ success; having to explain ourselves to the press where we were open to be judged, even laughed at – same as we’d so often laughed at others. And the in-band resentments: only a few months in and we were already living the clichés of the trade. (p260)

The temptation for a Dylan quote overpowers me: “She knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all“:

As far as rock bands went, it was all textbook stuff. But the fact that everybody in every band in history had gone through the same things didn’t make it any easier to assimilate the horror show of drug addiction. Alcohol was always in the mix too, the lethal ingredient to the dark side, ever lurking. The only reason we were still standing was that we had youth on our side. But as always, time was running out.

By the time the narrative ends her one time lover and original bassist, fired because of out of control heroin usage, and guitarist James are both dead.  Over 30 years ago, that was.  She still works with original drummer, Martin Chambers.  One of the better rock memoirs, I’d say.  Distinctive, even.

A short postscript in the matter of Ray Davies

Given in the interest of Lillabullero in Raymond Douglas Davies evidenced elsewhere on this site, I’ll parlay a few words about their troubled relationship – “Ours was a battle of wills – as recounted in Reckless.  “We’d always laugh after the facts about the absurdity of our fights, but there was nothing funny about them. […] I kept going back into the ring, so to speak. After all, he was handsome, funny as hell, smart and interesting – he was Ray Davies!”  There’s a nice story about her throwing some new shirts she’d just bought him out of the window of their New York residence in a rage, only for them to be picked up by an old tramp, who secreted them under his mac, stepping lightly away;  Ray, of course, had cast himself as a tramp in his 3-album and stage show Preservation saga.  We also get her version of the Guildford Registry Office ceremony failure, they travelling down on the train: “I was wearing a white silk suit I’d had made in Bangkok, with a skirt (so, as you see, I really was serious).”  They got separate trains back.

Closer to home

Living Archive BandAortas last Oct Sunday 2015Vaultage 29 Oct 15The Living Archive Milton Keynes‘s one-off fund-raiser at York House provided an absorbing, entertaining and, at times, very moving evening.  A multi-media presentation, with the actual recordings of those who had been interviewed – with the old North Bucks accent much in evidence – about their youth and working lives, backed up by archive photographs setting the context before the accomplished Living Archive Band performed some fine songs, many sounding as if straight out of the folk tradition, directly inspired by those reminiscences.

The programme was themed, taking in, for the first half, The impact of the railway (including Cotton and fluff, about the women in the sewing rooms at Wolverton Works), and The impact of war (including the unforgettable voice of Hawtin Munday as per the poster).  The second half looked at Local communities during the last 100 years, finishing with The night the Stones rolled into town – one of those legendary gigs, the Rolling Stones at Wilton Hall in Bletchley, 1964 – a lilting refrain about the future being here then, a poignancy enhanced by there being no attempt at employing any Stones licks.  The Living Archive is a very good thing.  Here’s a web link: http://www.livingarchive.org.uk/

Highlight of the second Aortas open mic of October at the Old George was some great fiddle from Nuala Friedman, first accompanying Naomi Rose, whose granddad’s violin it was, on songs that were new to her – such musicianship! – and then having something of a session with Dan Plews.  Earlier Ralph Coates had managed the fine rhyming of “She’s a walking disaster / but I love her pasta“.

There must have been something in the air for Halloween week’s Vaultage, even though Pat was the only one with warpaint, because it was packed for featured sets from quality local stalwarts Mark Owen and Mitchell Taylor, and we got a Dave Cattermole bonus at the end.  Oh, and Ralph Coates played standing up for the very first time and it did indeed make a difference.

 

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Come the late ’90s and, as a family, we put away childish things, there were three common cultural denominators (notice I did not say lowest) that we – a couple of baby boomers and two teenage boys – shared:

  • There was competition for the latest Fortean Times that landed at the doormat each month, though we were coming at it from different directions.  I always maintained that the magazine’s credo was a basic scepticism – hey, it can rain frogs, and as that soliloquary man said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your philosophyincluding the phenomenon of the rubbish that some people can believe and actively espouse – whereas the lads were True Believers in UFOs and conspiracy theories (probably just to piss us off).  They were Muldur to our Scully.
  • Actually, better make that four: The X-FilesSuspense, wit, and – more than anything else – charisma.
  • There was the genius of The Simpsons, pretty much from the start, never mind the late ’90s, whether the kids got half the nuances or not.
  • And then there was R.E.M.

I’d pretty much given up on the post-Golden Age NME by the time they’d become the critic’s cult band, so the first I heard of R.E.M. was on a mix-tape of new music made for me by one of the Young Turks at work (I’d done him one of ‘old’ music).  From starting as a Saturday assistant in a small London branch library, and, single-handedly reducing the age profile of the libraries football and cricket teams significantly, he rose through the ranks and, these days, I gather he’s something in the City of London Corporation, but never mind that.  (I see now how he actually looked a bit like the young Michael Stipe).  The countryish jangle that is Don’t go back to Rockville was the track, and it stood out as embracing all the classic virtues and none of the vices that Punk had critiqued.  It still sounds singalong great today.  At the time I took Rockville to have symbolic status – signifying the boring excesses of the pre-Punk mid ’70s music industry.  Turns out it’s a real place and the band were advising, nay, pleading with a friend not to give up and go back home, one of the few directly autobiographical songs in their oeuvre.  But I jump ahead of myself.

2006_02_arts_stipeOver the years, one way or another, in an unsystematic fashion, we acquired a lot of R.E.M. CDs, without knowing too much about them, the place of specific albums in their story etc.  It wasn’t, strangely enough, until the less than overwhelmingly well received Up (1998), that I’d borrowed from the library and was utterly entranced by, that I actually bought an album anywhere near its release date.  Its successor, the superb Reveal (2001), was the soundtrack of our this year’s week in the Lake District and it has only recently dawned on me just how high the band stand in my music pantheon, and yet how little I actually knew about them at all.  What I did know, from watching a performance on telly, was that shaven-headed singer Michael Stipe in his live pomp was interesting enough to compellingly get away with that ridiculous blue eye/wraparound head superhero make-up.

Part liesThe title of an early band biography – Talk about the passion – taken from one of their early songs, sums up their work well.  Aside from the obvious musical qualities, what sets them apart is a powerful combination of intensity and oblique detachment, an immediacy of engagement obscured by often surreal lyric flourishes, even when it’s possible to decipher them.  Tempted by the charity shop price I bought Part lies part heart part truth part garbage 1982-2011 – the 2-DC chronologically curated career retrospective – new for a fiver, hard to resist even though I already had many of the songs.  Never mind that deliberate smokescreen of an album title (no smoke without fire?) and the simple graphics on the cover, here is richness indeed.  No slouches, of course, to begin with – only Gardening at night, that could be many another bands’ finest hour – but the growth in their confidence, competence and power as that first CD unfolds is astonishing.

Jovanovic StipeREM Inside outIf one was looking for clarity Craig Rosen‘s R.E.M. inside out: the stories behind every song (Carlton, 2005) could be said to be disappointing, were it not for the band’s unique power to be located in the spaces of meaning in between, if precise meaning there be, or in sly undercurrents.  Pretentious, moi?  While Stipe can be quoted as saying, “People need to realise that there’s potential for a great deal of nonsense involved … That’s a crucial element in pop songs” the seriousness of the band’s project cannot be doubted.

Rosen’s competent cut-and-paste job, a decent piece of work overall, is good in showing how the band worked up its material, the musicians presenting Stipe with a template needing melodic input and, crucially, a lyric and vocal.  Stipe is the one who makes the difference, more than just as frontman.  Here’s an excerpt from one of my favourite entries concerning the glorious, um, exultation that is the song The one I love, one I’d wondered about (what is it that does go “out to” its subject?) but never really given much hard thought to:

Despite a lyric that appeared to be clear and simple, Stipe once again had a trump card up his sleeve, and naturally many once again missed the point. Following the dedication in the song, Stipe dismisses the one he loves as “a simple prop” to occupy his time. “It’s that old cynical voice roaring up again,” he said.

“It’s a brutal kind of song, and I don’t know if a lot of people pick up on that,” he told Steve Pond in Rolling Stone. “But I’ve always left myself pretty open to interpretation. It’s probably better that they just think it’s a love song at this point, I don’t know. That song just came up from somewhere and I recognised it as being real violent and awful. But it wasn’t directed at any one person. I would never, ever write a song like that. Even if there is one person in the world thinking this song is about me, I could never sing it or put it out.”

The misinterpretation of the song, which was performed regularly on the 1986 Pageantry tour, stunned Stipe, who recalled performing the song in concert. “Last night I sang it and this couple two rows back looked at each other lovingly and held hands,” he said to Bill Flanagan in Musician. “I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ “

What does it say about me that I had no idea Orange crush on Green was ‘about’ the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, where Stipe’s father served, or that Crush with eyeliner on Monster was about the New York Dolls.  Was I alone in this?  Does it matter given they intrigue so and sound so good, even in ignorance?  Elusiveness is one of the strengths, I’d say, of the R.E.M. package.

I knew serial popular music biographer Rob Janovic‘s work from his decent mostly cut-and-paste job on The Kinks (God save The Kinks, 2013) so I was expecting to be able to fill in a few gaps in my knowledge with his Michael Stipe: the biography (Portrait, 2006) and – proving how little I knew – I got a lot more than that.  He paints a portrait of a decent man who, for all his success, while playing a media game, has stayed true to his art and conscience, escaping the temptations if not the limitations of celebrity.  I had no idea just how big a deal R.E.M. were globally at the height of their popularity (early ’90s, Out of time and Automatic for the people), with the surprising achievement of both critical – because they never compromised their seriousness – and commercial acclaim.  Not forgetting the political and environmental campaigning.

One thing that immediately struck me was, as it happens, the parallels between Michael Stipe and The Kinks’ Ray Davies (a big interest here on Lillabullero, in case you haven’t noticed), in what sets them apart from their contemporaries:

  • Stipe’s continued allegiance to Athens, Georgia, where R.E.M. started , and to his family cf. Ray Davies and North London and Muswell Hill, and the Davies clan.  (Jovanovic’s description of that local Athens scene is superbly done)
  • that both, although they never finished their formal courses, have continued to pursue the interests that engaged them in Art College beyond the confines of a career in rock; Stipe mainly with photography, video and film, and Davies agin with film, and theatre.  (I’d hope for a memoir from Stipe in the future, that would be at least as unorthodox as Ray’s X-Ray.)
  • it’s the song not the singer; although some of Davies’s work has subsequently proved to have specific reference points, both – Stipe is adamant about this – have had occasion to emphasize that they write from inside a character of the song’s invention.  Neither write direct love songs.
  • I don’t write autobiographically, and I never have, but there’s something in there, as an observer, as a voyeur, taking in the world around me, breathing it in and really observing, which is what I do best.’ – who?  Stipe.
  • Stipe’s lyrics, like Davies’s, drop cultural references all over the place.  If time was infinite I’d contemplate doing what I’ve already done here at Lillabullero for Davies and the Kinks, logging and expanding on the people, real and imaginary, listed in their songs.

Michael Stipe is a fascinating man.  Though to all intents and purposes he’s a rock star – and R.E.M. undoubtedly a great rock band – he’ll try not own up to it as any big deal.  When he sings “Hey, kids, rock and roll” in the song Drive (on Automatic for the people) it’s no unambiguous affirmation (though, it is a nod to David Essex), and he invariably sees himself as a popular music entertainer:

‘It was always embarrassing to me that when I was in a room with either Clinton of Gore, or for that matter the Dalai Lama, they’ve got better things to do than hanging around with pop stars,’ said Stipe. ‘But I’ve got something they want, or something that can help them with their mission.’

Here he sums up why R.E.M. were so good:

‘If I can just turn off my thinking brain long enough to allow that unconscious voice to do all the work, then I wind up with the 55 minutes of music that comprise a new record. It’s OK for them to be nonsensical. You tell me what Bob Dylan is singing about. I don’t know. Some of the best songs in the world don’t make any linear sense whatsoever. Perhaps the best songs don’t. So it doesn’t have to have a narrative or follow a train of thought that makes any sense at all. It just has to be good and make you feel something when you hear it.’

And here’s a neat presentation of the problems that can bring:

‘It seems like I’m being chased by an ever-growing contingent of over-30 rock writers who want to delve into my psyche and try to pull out all these philosophical breaking points for this century,’ said Stipe at the time [the Reckoning album; he was 24]. ‘To my mind, if there’s anything to what I’m writing, if it goes beyond nonsense and piecemeal phrases, it’s exactly what they felt when they were my age and maybe never wrote it down or had any way to vent, to get it out. I just have this medium, a band, and I’m able to get it out.’

Why do novels and films about made-up musicians, or indeed creative artists of any medium, not stand a chance?  Because you could not make up a 15-year-old Stipe, living with his parents in Athens, Georgia, reading about all this interesting stuff happening in New York, and then he gets his hands on Patti Smith‘s Horses on the day of it release.  So he gets home from doing a pin-money late shift, and …

… sat in the living room, in the dark, with the headphones on. […] I had these crappy headphones on, and I sat up all night listening to Patti Smith and eating this bowl of cherries going, “Oh shit”, “Holy fuck”, and then I was sick. I was very impressionable, very gullible. I heard Horses and it gave me, you know, I had this secret and I was afraid to tell anyone about it. I didn’t think anybody would accept it. It gave me incredible strength and I knew immediately that that’s what I wanted to do.’

And 20 years later he’s tagging along photo-documenting backstage with his mate Patti Smith for the ten dates she’s only the support act for Bob Dylan; she’s there at Dylan’s personal invitation, her live performance comeback after her husband’s death.  Stipe publishes Two times intro: on the road with Patti Smith and next year she’s accompanying him on E-Bow the letter on the New adventures in hi-fi.

Plenty of miles to go from there, but I’ll sign off now with just a few random observations:

  • Stipe risked the wrath of the grammar nazis by omitting the apostrophe for the Lifes rich pageant album in 1986 because no great rock album ever had an apostrophe in its title.  [Now there’s a challenge.]
  • KrazyKat7Further proof of his cultural astuteness: while I’m no fan of tattoos, I am impressed that he’s had one done featuring George Herriman’s Krazy Kat cartoon, an American newspaper strip of genius that ran for nearly 30 years from 1916.  (Do yourself a favour: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krazy_Kat; there’s a huge archive at http://www.comicstriplibrary.org/browse/results?title=1)
  • For some years in the ’90s I was a member of a pretty good quiz team.  We went out with a different team name each season, one of the best being The Bleeding Gums Murphy Appreciation Society (and here we are back with The Simpsons again).  One of the encounters from those enjoyable evenings that has stuck in my mind, is of talking, after the match had finished, with a young man from the opposing team, who was saying he’d seen R.E.M. at a small club gig in Dunstable – must have been when they were recording Fables with Joe Boyd – and chatted with them afterwards.  There is local nuance to be relished in there – Dunstable is seen as basically just a traffic jam waiting to happen any time on the A5 –  but I do so wish that I could say that.
  • One of my favourite moments – the beautiful noise and the timing – in all of music is Peter Buck’s rapid guitar chord intervention What’s the frequency, Kenneth? on Monster, that first appears 42 seconds in, and at various stages subsequently throughout.  Great track and a rather wonderfully odd official video.
  • And, going backwards in time, here’s the young Michael Stipe with hair.  Toodle pip!
    Michael Stipe when youngStipe 1

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It’s happened again.  I’ve just finished reading a book about W.H.Auden and here he comes, walking through a New York hotel room door in the late 1930s, a character in the next Reading Group novel that’s up for discussion.  A novel chosen for us by the public library months in advance and about which none of us had an inkling.  Talk about intertextuality.  As Kurt Vonnegut once punctuated one of his novels, Hi ho.

AudenRichard Davenport-Hines‘s fascinating biography of the poet W.H.Auden – Auden (Heinemann, 1995) – throws up many areas of interest and speculation, some of which are dealt with detail while others are left tantalizingly untouched.  What follows are just a few things that occurred to me while reading rather than any sort of reasoned evaluation.

As a humanist and atheist I can quite happily live with other people’s religious beliefs so long as they’re not ramming them down my throat.  Hell, I’m even quite partial to Bob Dylan’s trilogy of openly Christian albums. And the poetry of Wystan Hugh (as all quiz teams will know him) holds no great problems for me.  The “correct notion of worship” for him was, “that it is first and foremost a community in action, a thing done together, and only secondarily a matter of individual feeling,” an extraordinary statement given the life he led, and I’ll return to that.

But staying with Dylan for a while, I think there’s a case for seeing the early political communist fellow-traveller Auden as the pre-electric Dylan of the ’30s.  As Davenport-Hines puts it:

Auden was a meeting ground for young people: enthusiasm for his work seemed a measure of intelligence as well as an indicator of literary or socio-political seriousness. […] The cult figure for literate young people was also a bugbear for his testy elders.

And just as Dylan’s acceptance speech to the American Civil Liberties Union in 1963 upset many followers with his, “I have to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy … I saw some of myself in him” – a very Audean statement in itself – so Auden’s stepping back from the cultural front line was a significant shift:

He disliked poets being solemn about themselves or precious about their art, and his aesthetic theory against poetic pretensions to change the world, as it had developed by the 1940s, annoyed or disappointed some of his early admirers.

By 1965 he was telling a BBC interviewer, “For God’s sake, don’t ask such bloody silly questions!” (about the same time Dylan was doing much the same, as it happens) and proclaiming, “Art is small beer.  the really serious things in life are earning one’s living so as not to be a parasite, and loving one’s neighbours.”  He had a lot to say about poets and poetry, about which he was deadly serious – “You don’t understand at all,” he told his tutor at Oxford, “I mean to be a great poet”; he got a ‘bad third’ – except when he wasn’t, like in 1948:

The ideal audience the poet imagines consists of the beautiful who go to bed with him, the powerful who invite him to dinner and tell him secrets of state, and his fellow poets. The actual audience he gets consists of myopic schoolteachers, pimply young men who eat in cafeterias, and his fellow poets. This means that, in fact, he writes for his fellow poets.

He had little time for poets who were wallowing in their own misery, rather than using it stoically, as “exemplifying the human condition” (to quote RDH) – “a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness” he called it – and, RDH reports, “… agonised confessional poetry had always repelled him” to the extent that he actually heckled Anne Sexton at Ted Hughes’s first Poetry International in 1967.

Allen Ginsberg was at that one too, and one wonders what he thought about that.  Ginsberg, of course, had been the star at the International Poetry Incarnation of two years earlier, also held in the Albert Hall, that heralded the British cultural underground movement of the ’60s (and to which Hughes’s event was almost certainly a response), and you can be pretty sure Auden would not have been impressed.  The two poets had met on the idyllic Italian island of Ischia in 1957 and argued about Walt Whitman, and there – Alan Bennett or Tom Stoppard – is a play just asking to be written;  tis reported Ginsberg wept all afternoon when he told of Auden’s death in 1973.

It would be interesting to know how, living in New York, he reacted to the phenomenon of The Beats and beyond, given that in the ’40s he was bemoaning to a friend, “the unspeakable juke-boxes, the horrible Rockettes [a dance company] and the insane salads.”  He was certainly aware of the later counter-culture, and, we are told, took LSD at some point, but Davenport-Hines just leaves that one hanging there, giving us absolutely nothing about how that went, which given the non-revelatory nature of his religious commitment could have been interesting.

And here we have a fascinating … conundrum, not exactly contradiction, but something intriguing like that, in the life of arguably the most culturally significant homosexual of the twentieth century give or take an Alan Turing.  Auden died in 1973, Stonewall happened in 1969 and New York’s first Gay Pride march was in 1970, over which period Auden was still living in New York some of the year, and yet Richard Davenport-Hines’s Auden, published in 1995, makes no use of the ‘gay’ word at all and we given nothing as to how he reacted to these developments.  When his privately circulated 34 stanza erotic poem of 1948 The Platonic blow, celebrating in graphic detail male on male fellatio was published without authorisation, in Ed Sanders’ Fuck You magazine, with an Andy Warhol cover, he admitted to a friend, “in depressed moods I feel it is the only poem by me which the Hippies have read.”  The book, his life, is full of such wonderful juxtapositions.

The thing is, for all his later avowed Christianity, because of his avowed Christianity, he never stopped seeing homosexuality as a sin.  A trifling one compared with, say, avarice, but still a sin, and not one relished because it was a sin.  It’s hard not to argue that he got a lot of his poetic power from this and other denials.  For the poet, he maintained, unfulfilled wishes, unrequited love, were the best kind.  “Suffering has value,” he tells Delmore Schwartz (Lou Reed’s tutor, dedicatee of the Velvet Underground’s European son) in 1942, but only for what you can do with it.  Leavisite critics who ruled the English Department university roosts in the 1950s sidelined him as immature basically because they saw homosexuality as immature.  And yet he was lukewarm about homosexual law reform in England:

‘To begin with, they seem unaware that for over ninety-nine percent of us, it makes not the slightest difference, so far as our personal liberty is concerned, whether such a law be on the statute books or not.’ He judges that ‘the few who do get into trouble are either those with a taste for young boys – and I am surprised by how seldom they do – or those who cruise in public.’ The pragmatic strategy of Arran and his supporters was to stress the separateness and freakish otherness of homosexuality. Auden disagreed.

So, a man very much of his time but also transcending it, and out of it.  This is a fascinating biography and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of his personal life (never mind the work).  He discarded one of the poems he remains most famous for – the formidable September 1, 1939 (here’s a link to the original version), the one written in the first days of World War 2, containing the line, “We must love one another or die” – from the last authorised edition of his Collected poems.  As early as 1944 he’d excised that stanza from a new collection because the line was a lie, “for we must die anyway, whether we love or not“.  And when President Lyndon Baines Johnson misquoted it in a speech on the Vietnam war – “One cannot let one’s name be associated with shits” – he decided it had to go altogether.  “I pray to God that I shall never be memorable like that again.”  He told novelist Naomi Mitchison it was “the most dishonest poem I have ever written,” and he further revised other work, particularly that from the 1930s.  Many find this depressing (I probably would if I had the studying time) but he at least did it with a twinkle in his eye:

‘I get more of the crotchety, ritualistic bachelor everyday,’ he reported … ‘God! How careless I used to be. I feel as if I am only just beginning to understand my craft. The revisions will be a gift to any anal-minded Ph.D. student.’

Music, music, music

Last week it was non-stop, went to something at least every other day, culminating with the mighty Yorkiefest (click on the images to get an enlargement).  Getting fit for StonyLive!

Beechey Room May 15 Aortas 100515 Scribal May 15 Vaultage 16 May 15The second of the Saturday Beechey Room Sessions in York House delivered another grand afternoon.  Blurred lines betwixt  performers and audience made for a relaxed community of music lovers freed from the hubbub of a pub setting, for which initiative take a bow Michèle.  The music ranged from a 1927 guitar rag to Iris Dement via Donovan and Strawberry Wine (the 17 one), sung not drunk.  Another reminder too of the extraordinary emotional power that Carole King song can have for women of a certain age (quite a span, actually, but definitely older than 17).

Aortas open mic at The Old George and, having remembered to bring the words with him, Dan Plews debuted the latest version of his evolving Northampton song, Boots and shoes, complete with cricket and John Clare’s  “vaulted sky” references.   Very good it is too.  The original songs of Fraser & amazing accordionist Liz (so many buttons!) made a nice addition to the usual talented mix.

The first post-election Scribal Gathering saw Polkabilly Circus, the latest aggregation of musicians involving the Antipoet’s Paul Eccentric, strut the stage, if by strut you can understand at least two of them sitting down most of the time.  Kicking off with Polkabilly Boy you could see where the billy in the name came from, and the last song – “this is my punk statement” – gave clue to the ‘p’, if only lyrically.  In between a rich mix of many things, including klezmer and gypsy violin.  What else?  The latest installment chronicling how rotten Stephen Hobbs’s month had been, including an apology for no matter how small a proportion of his contribution to the Labour Party went towards that fucking ‘Ed stone’.

Ralph Keats (no relation) gave some Advice to J.Arthur Prufrock from the Beatles, while Vanessa got away with dissing the whole male gender even though I’m pretty sure there were plenty present who have little interest in football.  Rob Bray said it was the first time he’d played keyboards in public and proceeded to play like Jamie Cullen.  Mark Owen was his usual excellent self; Breaking waves is such a good song – any documentary maker out there working on the Mediterranean migrant boats crisis looking for a suitable song, look no further.  Danni Antagonist wrapped up another fine evening with a poetical warning – written that evening on the spot – for the electoral victors to build a nice high fence.

Thursday’s Vaultage was a bit of a bear-pit, drinkers and talkers unremitting most of the time, though Breaking waves broke through – into my skull at least – again.  Was this the first Vaultage without a Dylan cover?  Pat Nicholson made the mistake of introducing his song Liberty as “This is my Brain in the jar” – another regular’s old chestnut – only for certain members of the audience to start singing that song’s chorus over the guitar intro to Pat’s song before he had a chance to get started.  Liberty hi-jacked – or is the phrase mashed up? – Pat happily sang along.  Great fun.

Yorkiefest 2015And so we come to the mighty YorkieFest and its glorious fourth annual incarnation.  Personal favourites only otherwise I’ll be here all day, but a splendid musical roster – great work from the aforementioned Pat Nicholson (not forgetting Derek Gibbons doing loads of other stuff).  The day kicked off with a refreshing change – Navaras (the name – it says here – signifies the 9 essences and colours of Indian music) playing songs from the Bollywood canon.  Keyboards man had a few jazz chops to bring to the party.  The never-failing AntiPoet brought new material: The bards of bugger all and We’re not worthy.  Oh yes they are.  Five Men Not Called Matt – usually six, actually – today 4 men and a woman, so still rousing but a little sweeter.

OmniVibes (aka Paul Jackson) was something else.  Just the one man, beatnik beard, pork pie hatted, and his sitar.  He started off with an immaculate raga, pausing only briefly to pick up a steel bottleneck slide and synch into a couple of equally spellbinding slow blues, only to finish with a foot-stomping Seven nation army, still making full use of the sitar’s sonic potentialities.  Then apologising because he was feeling a bit under the weather as he’s over-celebrated his birthday the previous night.  I just don’t understand how people can carry on boozing and bantering away while something like that is going down, but they do.  Second Hand Grenade played that funky music, and Palmerston finished everything off harmoniously, delivering quality original material – country rock as good a label as most – with elan, gusto, subtlety and wit.  Both bands had people who seldom dance up prancing, while a celebrated tea drinker was seen with a glass of red in her hand.  Splendid day’s music.  And Towcester Mill Brewery’s Rubio was a tasty tipple to accompany it all.  Bravo Pat, Derek & co.         

OmniVibe in full flow.  Photo (c) Pat Nicholson.

OmniVibes in full flow. Photo (c) Pat Nicholson.

 

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Complicated lifeIf you include Ray’s own ‘unofficial autobiography’, Johnny Rogan‘s Ray Davies: a complicated life (Bodley Head, 2015) is the 8th Kinks/Ray Davies biography I’ve read down all the days – sly Kinks song reference there – since 1984.  It’s certainly the heaviest.  At over 700 pages it weighs in at a whopping 1.12 kilos, leaving its most recent contenders – Nick Hasted‘s You really got me (2011) at 0.7, and Rob Jovanovic‘s God save the Kinks (2013) at 0.66 kilos – well behind.  Keeping a boxing the going, Rogan certainly packs a punch, but he’s also not averse to hitting below the belt.  Can it be called definitive on bulk and documented sources alone?  No, that would be difficult in any circumstances, but also because the book is so mean-spirited.  But does it add anything?  Yes, indeed.  For which thanks are due.

In what follows I take a lot about Ray Davies and The Kinks for granted; as might be gathered from elsewhere here in Lillabullero (see the header tag) I have rated his cultural contribution – finest UK songwriter of his generation, just for starters – highly for decades.

Ray Davies: a complicated life is a substantial piece of work, then, put together from a series of interviews with a broad range of people connected with its subject conducted by the author over the space of 30 years, including a recent one actually with Ray, that still did not entirely resolve Rogan’s quest for clarity, along with others’ unedited interviews made available to the author, and a wealth of newspaper and magazine articles, mostly based around interviews,  from the past 50 years.  Inevitably there is plenty about brother Dave in the mix.  The biographical progression through the life is accompanied by hum-drum zeitgeist summaries and relevant historical background information.  It has to be said he is not the greatest of prose stylists, but while there is not much that sparkles, he’s a competent enough composer of sentences (not something you can take for granted these days), albeit one prone to the odd purple passage:

While Dave Davies was bereft, lost in the voracious revel of his senses and wary of the uncharted topography of the future … (p72)
Harbingers of the cult of youth realized that 1963 symbolized a sudden erosion of the old order as teenagers paraded their discontent while spending freely on glossy magazines … (p87)

There is a 73 page apparatus of notes documenting and supporting the text, the lengthier of which of which are also worth reading.  There is no bibliography, there’s a pretty full selected discography if that’s what you need, and an intriguing list – the fullest I’ve seen – of unreleased compositions.  In writing this piece I’ve tried to find a couple of items in the index and failed.

Rogan first published a book about The Kinks 30 years ago.  He’s also done books on, among others, Van Morrison, The Smiths, The Byrds and Neil Young, and wrote the well-regarded Starmakers & Svengalis, about the ’60s generation of pop and rock management.  His first Kinks book was subtitled The sound and the fury in the UK and, more significantly, in the United States, away from the lawyers, A mental institution; the writing of it was not made easy for him and it showed.  There’s been a lot of water under the (Waterloo) bridge since then, but Rogan’s tack hasn’t really changed.  I’m assuming he had some say in the photos to be used on the dust jacket.  When I looked to put a date to the photos chosen, Getty Images, who own it, had 1,605 others to choose from.  I can see the design attraction (glasses on, glasses off) but … from 1979?  Hardly the most auspicious year in Kinks history, and not exactly doing his subject any favours in the instant recognition stakes.  Never mind the candidature for worst dark glasses ever.

Why should Kinks aficionados read this book?  Because Rogan has talked to people other writers haven’t, or didn’t get much out of if they did.  So we get more about the year Ray was at the Hornsey College of Art than I’ve seen anywhere else, and more about his musical apprenticeship gigging with the Dave Hunt and Hamilton King bands before he committed to the group that was to become The Kinks.  Both pre-Avory drummers get to tell their tales and erstwhile (twice) manager Larry Page is given plenty of space.  We get Rasa’s view of their marriage, all the more interesting for being presented unsensationally, and, without being prurient or intrusive, more about wives two and three – talented women – than I’ve seen anywhere else into the bargain, and is interesting to know.  Ray has said he can’t write love songs, he only does break-up songs; it’s a quote I’m surprised not to see used here.  Although obviously Rogan is going over much well-trod ground, he doesn’t labour Ray’s formative family and school experiences in too much repetitive detail (though still plenty enough for it to be a revelation to a friend for whom all this was new).

Why will Kinks aficionados find it a painful read?  Because, while it’s no secret that Ray can be a nightmare to work and live with, how mean a man he can be, Rogan seems to me to be going out of his way to document this to the detriment of everything else.  Yes, he’s talked to other members of The Kinks over the years, but I do wonder about the direction of the questioning.  The pluses of the experience don’t get the exposure that you can find in other sources, like the lengthy interviews you can find on Geoff Lewis’s splendid Kast Off Kinks website, or in Tom Kitts & Michael Kraus’s collection of academic pieces and interviews, Living on a thin line (2002).  Nevertheless, it’s hard not to contest Larry Page when he says, “Ray just enjoyed being awkward,” and bitter long-suffering tour manager Sam Curtis pulls no punches in this regard.  As for the fights and the sibling rivalry – not especially illuminated by quotes lifted from articles in psychology journals – well, there is no getting away from it, over and over again.  Back-up vocalist Shirlie Roden has some revealing things to say about touring with the warring brothers, which makes depressing reading.  As does John ‘The Baptist’ Gosling’s withering letter to Record Collector in 2006:

… it’s not easy working with a megalomaniac, and I got tired of being abused just to justify Ray’s unreasonable and selfish demands.

There’s something D.H.Lawrence wrote in his Studies in Classic American Literature – “Never trust the artist.  Trust the tale.” – that has to apply here.  We’ll come to Rogan’s problematic appreciation of the art later, but he certainly doesn’t trust the artist, and not, it must be admitted, without some cause.  He challenges the mythology, the narrative Ray has applied to, among other things, the ‘injustice’ of the NME Prizewinners’ concert (“Ray’s attempt to rewrite history was not merely eccentric but downright peculiar“), how much blame Larry Page should take for the early American tour debacle, or just how much of a commercial failure The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society was first time around; it was probably actually “a modest seller.”.  He runs down sources to back up such suppositions too.  On another tack, he logs, for example, a whole range of explanations delivered in interviews over the years – he barely scratches the surface, I suspect – of the genesis and meaning of Waterloo sunset.

When it comes down to it, I’m not sure Rogan trusts the tales so much as takes them on trust a lot of time either.  He’s no musicologist – doesn’t try, no bad thing – but nor do I don’t get any great love of music springing from the pages of this book.  It hasn’t got me racing to the turntable – always a decent measure of a book about musicians, surely, no matter how well the reader knows the songs.  Of course, it’s a truism that Kinks fans will always disagree about particular albums and songs, but I think he undersells a lot of the Kinks work from all eras, not least Phobia (“without Ray’s strongest songwriting” – really? Scattered?), never mind the brilliant Muswell hillbillies.  Does Arthur really sound “somewhat anti-climactic by comparison” with the single of Shangri-la that preceded it?  Mind, he does find Sleepwalker unimpressive and even finds a Ray quote saying he’s not convinced about it either, so it’s not all bad.

I don’t know how much he’s seen of The Kinks in performance (not too much, I’d wager), but I get no sense that he’s seen much, if anything, of Ray performing solo, or with the new band.  I get no sense from this book of the magic – of his joy in performing, the skill, the artistry, the energy – of what I saw when I was privileged to see him doing, say, Stand Up Comic at The Stables a few years back, of the absolute glee of his leap at that bit in The tourist, of the massive achievement of the Village Green Preservation Society suite with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Crouch End Festival Chorus in 2011, or the brilliant music-making of the three-pronged acoustic guitar trio on the Americana tour.  He almost certainly did see him as the narrator of Ray’s play, Come dancing, at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.  But note the barbed, begrudging, proviso:

Never before had he been this revealing or more endearingly human.  Onstage at Stratford East, his more puzzling, petty and negative personality traits were consumed by the emergence of Davies the humanitarian.  Were he a great actor, this would be one of the most astonishing performances of his life […]  This was the Ray Davies of songs such as ‘Waterloo Sunset’, a fragment of a more complex persona but, for fans and idealists, the true essence of the man.

 clinnerAlmost finished here.  There was a surprise lurking under the dust jacket.  Not unwelcome, makes a change.  Matt laminate.  Not sure I understand what’s going on.  Vaguely reminiscent pattern and colours from the car on that old Marble Arch album?  Click on the pic to get a blow-up.  Looks like the image is taken from the back cover – those glasses – but … what happened to his mouth?  What is it all supposed to mean?  The creator remains anonymous, uncredited.

Before we leave the page within, though, a few thoughts and things that tickled my fancy that don’t fit in anywhere else:

  • I was hoping for more football.  That all those hours Rogan spent in the British Library newspaper and magazine archive at Colindale might have unearthed more details in local papers of the show biz teams the brothers played in, who with, who against, how did it go?  And I know you can’t include everything, but I missed the story about the group being late for a gig in Torquay because the 1966 World Cup Final went into extra time, and the fact that it was goalscorer Geoff Hurst that Ray chose to induct The Kinks into the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005 rather than someone, like most, from within the music industry.  Because surely both are an important part of the genuine Ray Davies narrative of him not being like everybody else.
  • Fascinated to learn that the song Apeman might have been inspired at least in part by the David Warner character in the film Morgan, a suitable case for treatment(1966), one of my favourite films, that Ray identified with in his first crisis as a successful Kink.
  • There’s a wonderful quote in the chapter bravely titled The Negro’s Revenge (that taken from an early anti-rock’n’roll diatribe in a newspaper): “Contemporaneous studies such as … Richard Hoggart’s The uses of literacy … lamented the Americanization [sic] of modern society with unabashedly partisan zeal.  Hoggart’s description of a mundane coffee bar had the tone of a religious pamphlet mixed with the portentous prose of a science fiction novel.”  He’s right, it’s hilarious; it’s the end of the world as we know it.  (And Hoggart was one of the good guys!)
  • That story about the Registrar refusing to marry Ray and Chrissie Hynde because they were arguing too much?  Not true.  By the time they’d stopped arguing they’d simply missed their allotted time slot.
  • Shel Talmy: “Ray made Rod Stewart look like a philanthropist.” You have to laugh.
  • Did you know that Ray had changed his name by deed poll to simply Raymond Douglas by the time of his second marriage?  Neither did I.

EverybodyEverybody loves Raymond

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  If you don’t know the tv programme that ran from 1996 to 2005 in the US then, if you’ll excuse the imputation, you should.  It’s one of the most brilliantly sustained ensemble family sitcoms, well, ever.  This side of FrasierEverybody loves Raymond is both title and wearily delivered catchphrase out of the resentful mouth of his sibling Robert (the tall one at the back).  Raymond (blue checked shirt) is a bit of a monster.  I’m secretly in love with wife Debra (in the red) and only slightly less so on learning that the actress who plays her is an active pro-lifer.  And yes, that is Peter Boyle.  In context, his delivery, the pained yell of, “I used to be a gentleman” is quite simply one of the great comic lines of all time.  In the UK early morning cyclical re-runs of Everybody loves Raymond and Frasier on Channel4 (and an hour later again on Channel4+1) are reason enough to get out of bed of a morning.

james-mcmurtry_complicated-gameIt’s complicated

As it happens, the last two purchases I made from Amazon (I know, I know, I feel dirty) have the word ‘complicated’ in the title.  James McMurtry‘s Complicated game is prime modern Americana.  It’s on Spotify so go find.  Try the rockiest track, How’m I gonna find you now: “I’m a-washing down my blood pressure pill with a Red Bull.”  I doubt I’ll hear a better new album this year.  If a new Ray Davies album does come along, I’ll be happy if it comes anywhere close.  Baffling cover, mind.

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Monday, March 3.  Not the usual way to start a week.  More’s the shame.  This post takes it for granted that:  i). The Stables in MK is a great little venue, and ii). you have a fair idea of what Ray Davies has achieved down all the days, and furthermore – iii). a few other things.

The Rails' album out in May - bit of a genre shot? It's on pink label Island.

The Rails’ album out in May – bit of a genre shot? It’s on pink label Island.

Neat lively and lyrical short support set from The RailsThe Rails are James Walbourne (“a teenage prodigy” it says here on their Facebook page, though he’s older than that now) and Kami Thompson (yes, a relation).  In as much as Fairport Convention were the British The Band – not that that is meant to diminish their achievement in any way –  I’d venture by the same token The Rails are shaping up to become the British Gillian Welch and David Rawlings in the near future.  James has the guitar chops in abundance and he contributed greatly to the main show when called upon, which was, lucky for us, a lot of the time.

Americana UK editionRay came on, initially with just regular guitar accompanist Bill Shanley; both were stationed well back from the front of the stage.  He told us tonight was “an experiment”.  The evening still involved more music than anything else, of course, but, as per earlier Storyteller/X-Ray tours, it was punctuated with a number of recitations from his new book Americana: The Kinks, the road and the perfect riff (reviewed earlier here on Lillabullero) and this time around, to add further spice, some rough-cut ‘home’ videos illustrating various aspects of the book, during which they left the stage (and a few members of the audience went to the toilet).  There were some new songs – hurrah! – the lyrics, or at least fragments thereof, had first been seen tantalizingly in the pages of Americana; there were some lesser known songs from his and The Kinks‘ back catalogue; and a fair sprinkling of the usual crowd favourites, mostly at the start and end, some given the by now traditional singalong treatment.

It was a great evening.  Fears that Ray’s voice was on its way out were soon allayed and he was in comfortable good form with the banter, mentioning Arsenal a couple of times.  I thought the format worked well.  Never mind that the idea of the ‘experiment’ was probably designed on an artistic level, to set up a few theatrical ‘moments’, given that Ray Davies is 70 this year I’d say he deserves a chance to recharge his batteries during proceedings, to preserve the voice, and while anecdotage from the queue in the toilets revealed a little disquiet from the odd attendee moaning about the videos (they might have been better off at a Kast Off Kinks gig), I found them absorbing, though I’d have to grant that is more likely the case more for fans of a certain ilk carrying a fair bit of pre-knowledge.

What struck me after the event was the realisation of just how much of an ensemble performance the outstanding moments were, with James Walbourne there on stage with Ray and the ever-present Bill.  An exquisite ensemble with the added bonus of including writer Ray Davies on lead vocals – always in charge, of course – but in the actual performance functioning as one of the trio, enjoying himself immensely and in awe of the instrumental prowess going on either side of him.  Quite literally no backing band this, lined up as they were across the stage, though their back-up vocals added another dimension when called upon.  Not that Ray Davies is a slouch as a guitarist himself, but the three-pronged acoustic attack, when in place, was a thing of many-shaded wonder to behold: exciting, inventive, powerful, beautiful.

Bill Shanley‘s jazzy embellishments have been a delightful part of Ray’s subtle reshaping of his old songs for a while now, but the addition of the folkier Walbourne to this show gave us a perfect British take on the music known vaguely as Americana. The workouts on Dead End Street and The Getaway were outstanding.  Who needs bass and drums?  Seriously: if you can be a part of music-making this good, why would you want to go back to being in a rock and roll band?  I see absolutely no musical point in a Kinks reformation in this 50th anniversary year of You really got me – if there’s any validity it can only be as a one-off symbolic gesture.  Even if that record still sounds as fresh now – despite its use in a hundred adverts – as it did then back then.

Just a few other random afterthoughts:
Strange that of the Kinks albums with the most relevance to the theme – the English Americana of the ’50s & ’60s mind – the great Muswell Hillbillies – they only played Twentieth Century Man (with updated date line) and nothing from the Arista albums, from Sleepwalker on, with which The Kinks conquered the States, and which take up a fair amount of time in the book.  But I look forward to Ray’s next album, intrigued whether he uses the arrangements on display here.  I’ve heard that beat before (or whatever the official title is) sounds particularly potent.  One of the video sequences reminded me what an under-rated song – though there are many of those in Ray’s canon – the actual song Storyteller is.

I’ll sign off with a random picture of Ray Davies from the cover of France’s premier popular music magazine, just for the sake of it.  When the forehead wasn’t quite such a feature:
Rock&Folk cover

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