Wednesday 20 June 2012

Barry Gibb and Barbra Streisand: 'Guilty'

If you were looking for a duo to sell massively in the black American market of 1980, Isle of Man-born Barry Gibb and America's latterday answer to Marie Lloyd would not have been the likeliest pairing. For the Bee Gees it was a fantasy collaboration: Barbra Streisand's people had read in a magazine that she was the one singer the brothers dreamed of working with. For Streisand, the brothers Gibb had written ten number ones in two years and the possibilities were obvious.

Yet straight away, before a note was sung, there was an ego problem. Bee Gee manager Robert Stigwood demanded three quarters of the royalties; three Gibbs, one Streisand, he figured. "They all sound alike," she snapped. "How much for just one?" The compromise was that Barry alone would complete the album with her.

Though Streisand was famously exacting, Gibb soon found her to be a pussycat in the studio. The one thing that riled him was her habit of making two cups of tea with one teabag: "my roots are in Brooklyn, we came from a poor family" she protested, "you don't just use a teabag once and throw it out!"

Clearly, he was in awe of her. He excitedly demo'd a dozen songs inside a week (with the bulk of the demos available on itunes, we know the album was effectively eighty per cent finished in seven days; yes, he does sing "I am a woman in love" and, yes, it'll make you snigger). When Barbra invited Barry and wife Lynda to dinner at her ranch home they saw rats scuttling across the floor. Gibb was shocked but too timorous to point out that his host had an infestation: besides, he reckoned it wouldn't have done much for the creative process.

The first single from Guilty, Woman In Love, is all minor key, with an eastern European feel, and it sounded ageless as soon as it hit the airwaves. "Life is a moment in space - when the dream has gone, it’s a lonelier place" has been decribed as "metaphysical cheese" on Tom Ewing's Popular blog but for me it's one of the most desolate opening lines to any pop song, and Streisand is entirely believable as a middle-aged woman who refuses to give up on her elusive, lifelong dream - what world could exist beyond it? She'd rather not know.

One of Streisand's few quibbles was with the line "It's a right I defend, over and over again": bizarrely she was worried it would make her sound like a militant women's libber. Gibb was more concerned that Streisand's trademark Broadway technique of gliding from one note to the next was in total contrast to his staccato, r&b-led melodies. The title track put them to the test: Streisand handles the first verse and chorus, before Gibb comes in - "pulses racing, we stand alone" - riding an unexpected key change. He never sounded more leonine. A lush string section glides in to back up his audacity. By the second chorus, Streisand is gliding and swooping like a swallow as Gibb stands square, not a hair out of place. It's a very playful performance, light and quite beautiful.

The album contains a couple of makeweights in the showy Love Inside and Life Story, which includes the curiously culinary line "You boiled me over, now you're cold as ice." But all is forgiven on What Kind Of Fool, another duet which this time has Gibb chasing in between the stentorian Streisand's lead, and chastising a lost lover with a suitably heartbreaking melody.

Guilty went on to sell eight million copies. In 2005 there was a sequel, Guilty 2 (it would have been titled Guilty Pleasures but the London club of the same name objected) which traded the original album's crisp minimalism for a contemporary, fuller, Nashville slickness. The same year brought the 25th Anniversary Edition of the original. It included no outtakes which is a shame as, apart from two Gibb originals in Secrets and Carried Away (duly covered by Elaine Paige and Olivia Newton John respectively), there were unreleased recordings of Wilbert Harrison's Kansas City and The Beatles' Lady Madonna.

But there was a bonus DVD, which included live footage shot in Malibu, in 1986, of Guilty and an especially fragile What Kind Of Fool. The duo are all in white, so clean, all mutual respect. Gibb is the cowardly lion, Streisand is Miss Bighearted Brooklyn of 1980, the Jewish matriarch with a bowl of chicken soup for her younger charge. "Make it a crime to be lonely and sad" they coo, "make it a crime to be out in the cold." With blue-eyed soul this persuasive, they could teach the law commission a thing or two.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Paul Williams 'Someday Man'

There's a Paul Williams documentary called Still Alive which has just come out in the States. Rumer has recorded his Travellin' Boy on her new album. So it seems a good time to take a look at his first solo album, Someday Man, a personal touchstone. I talked to Paul about it in 2001. Here's what he had to say.

"Some people always complain that their life is too short, so they hurry it along
Their worries drive them insane but they still go along for the ride
As for me, I have all the time in the world..."

It's early 1970, and Paul Williams and Roger Nichols have been writing a few songs together. Great songs, too, that saw them shaping up as a Goffin and King for listeners who had hung around soda fountains listening to Bobby Vee in their early teens. For Up On The Roof, there was Harper's Bizarre's The Drifter; for Oh No Not My Baby, read To Put Up With You by The American Breed. But while there was plenty of work rolling in, notching up hits was a different matter.

"We were just about convinced that we'd never have a smash single. We almost sank The Monkees with Someday Man - Listen To The Band on the B-side got more airplay." The release of Paul's debut album, then, was never likely to test the noblesse of that opening lyric. By the end of the following year, the Nichols/Williams team was America's most in-demand.

Nichols was from Missoula, Montana, a city at the convergence of five mountain ranges, spreading down the Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers. In 1968 he released an album as evocative as his rural roots with brother and sister Melinda and Murray MacLeod. Roger Nichols And The Small Circle Of Friends came out on A&M with help from the cream of the West Coast - it was produced by Tommy LiPuma, engineered by Bruce Botnick, with Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks in attendance. Nichols' lyricist was Tony Asher, and in many ways Small Circle is a lyrical sequel to Pet Sounds - a little older, a little wiser, an album for early twenty-somethings thinking of settling down, but still turning to Smokey Robinson songs for relationship advice.

The album didn't do too well (though it did sell 50,000 copies when it was re-issued in Japan in the nineties, encouraging a belated sequel), but A&M owner Herb Alpert was impressed enough to get Nichols a staff job as a songwriter for A&M publishing, which is where he was introduced to Paul Williams.

Paul Williams had a peripatetic childhood, born in Omaha, Nebraska, but constantly moving, changing schools (nine by the time he reached the ninth grade), thanks to his father's job in construction. Then his father was killed in a car crash and Paul was shipped off to live with an aunt and uncle. He quit singing in talent shows and became more interested in film and acting, actively pursuing a movie career when he reached 21.

Soon he was acting alongside John Gielgud and Rod Steiger in Tony Richardson's The Loved One. "I was suddenly living my dream, 23-years old playing a 13-year-old squeaky voiced genius." His looks - part cherub, part Jim Henson creation - meant he was made for character parts, usually a good deal younger than his real age. In The Chase (1965) he taunts Robert Redford with a snippet of one of his own tunes - which inspired Paul to write, if only for his own amusement. A few months later he unsuccessfully auditioned for The Monkees. Acting work was drying up, and a short-lived publishing deal with Ishmael Music, part of White Whale, ended after three months with Paul being told he had no future in music.

A chance meeting in 1967 with songwriter Biff Rose was the catalyst. Together they wrote Fill Your Heart, recorded by Tiny Tim and later David Bowie; they also got a publishing deal with A&M, whose head of publishing, Chuck Kaye, teamed Paul up with writer/arranger Roger Nichols. Paul recorded one patchy but worthwhile LP on Reprise with a short-lived group called The Holy Mackerel (with pre-Elvis Jerry Scheff on bass), which was released in '69 after they'd already split. It included a moody soft-psych track called Scorpio Red, as well as one bona fide classic, Bitter Honey, an ultra catchy co-write with Roger Nichols which presaged the uplifting melancholia that was to become their trademark. "Roger is the best thing that ever happened to me as a songwriter. I learned more about structure, discipline, quality and class from Roger Nichols than anyone I ever met. He made me feel like I was a real lyricist."

Owing Reprise one more album, Paul recorded Someday Man in '69 with Roger producing. The pair had already released a legendary publishers album, We've Only Just Begun, that was a beauty in its own right. On Someday Man, Williams' warm, intense vocals - like a reedier Gene Clark, with a similar emotional tug - are a perfect match for Nichols' soft magic: there's the baroque Americana of I Know You, and the incredible switches on Roan Pony from urban paranoia to panoramic dreamscape. Oboes and harps figure strongly. "It was really Roger's album," Paul modestly reckons, "he did everything, charts, player choices. I wasn't an artist yet, not as much as I would become in a few more years I think."

Yet the spirit of Someday Man is more in Paul's lyrics than anything, the generosity, humility and humanity. Truth and beauty. Really, it's a whole philosophy: "I wrote from my heart more than I realised." The Monkees' cover of the title song probably makes it the most familiar track. "Is it about me? I'm not sure. I think so. It's a song about trusting."

The critics' indifference to the record hardly seemed to matter as the Carpenters' recordings of the Nichols/Williams canon - starting with We've Only Just Begun - sent their publishing cheques into the stratosphere. The former was originally written for a bank, a jingle commissioned after one of the bank's executives heard Nichols' Small Circle of Friends album. It was written the day before the ad company's deadline. Then Richard Carpenter saw the ad, the Carpenters cut their version, it reached no.2 in the States, and was nominated for a Grammy. A swathe of classics followed: I Won't Last A Day Without You, Rainy Days And Mondays, Let Me Be The One. By 1973, Nichols and Williams had "gone our separate ways after several years of day-to-day contact. I was off chasing movie dreams. I had a huge ego and a performing career ahead of me and I was using and drinking so my perception may have been altered." 

Bugsy Malone and Phantom Of The Paradise, plus a string of Radio 2 staples like An Old Fashioned Love Song, followed but somehow the magic and innocence of Someday Man wasn't to be repeated. "The sweet surprise is finding out that there are people around the world who really honour the work, really cherish the album. Me and Roger have been collaborating a bit, we both think we've got one more really good song in the partnership. You never know."

Tuesday 15 May 2012

A conversation with Brian Matthew

Brian Matthew was there at the birth of British Rock'n'roll, presenting Saturday Club on the BBC's Light Programme. In the sixties he introduced the Beatles to millions of BBC radio listeners, and even toured with them in the States. Today, Brian Matthew still presents a show in the same slot - he has been the host of Sounds Of The Sixties since 1990, and has the highest listening figures of any Radio 2 Saturday show, not bad when you consider the octogenarian is up against the high-profile likes of Graham Norton and Dermot O'Leary. Over tea and sandwiches at his home in Kent, he told me that he trained at RADA and had always planned to end up a TV producer.

Bob Stanley: You didn't initially want to be a DJ?
Brian Matthew: Not at all. I did forces radio in the army for a year, in Hamburg. It was all BBC equipment. We were based in what had been an old opera house, and lived in a hotel. The guys in charge there included Cliff Michelmore who was head of variety, and Raymond Baxter who was head of the announcing department. He'd not long been out of the RAF, a terribly hoo-ray chap. When he first met me he said 'There's only two things to remember - don't go on air drunk, and don't swear.' I thought crikey, what sort of set-up is this? Of course I broke all the rules. Not intentionally.

BS: I've read that you were at Hilversum too, which is a name I know from my parents' old radiogram, but I still don't really know where it is.
BM: After Hamburg I was at RADA, then I went straight into the Old Vic which is where I met Pamela (his wife - they married in 1951), and someone who worked for Hilversum, in the English department of Dutch radio. He gave me his number. When work was thin on the ground I called and he said 'Please go along to HMV on Oxford Street and record an audition, we want you to read some news. HMV will send us the disc, we've got an arrangement with them'. So I did, and we lived there, in Hilversum for two years. It was the centre for all Dutch radio. It was a funny old set-up, short wave radio, short wave only, and we broadcast the same 40 minute transmission three times a day to different areas - America, the far east.

Dutch radio was split up by five main companies, either religious or run by newspapers. So in effect you had a catholic station, a Conservative station, a Labour one, and a non-conformist one... I don't know what the fifth was. And they all had their own buildings around Hilversum. We had our own set-up in an old house, quite near to the others but not connected. Offices in one house, studios in another. We were there during the time of the enormous flood in 1953, large areas in a terrible state, loads of people killed. The American army came in. They gradually rebuilt the dykes, and came the time they were going to fill in the last block, it was quite a historic event. I was covering it so I learned everything I could about how it had been done. Needless to say I was repeating myself, but they put a copy of the recording in their archives.

BS: What happened between Hilversum and your first job at the BBC in 1955?
BM: We came back and lived with my parents in Coventry. I tried to get work at the Jaguar factory - they kept me hanging on, until one day I noticed there was a dairy across the road, advertising for work. So I was a milkman for six months. I used to go round in a lorry and collect milk from the farms. Then I worked in the dairy doing all the pasteurising, stacking up the next day's delivery in bottles and crates. It was pretty horrid.

While I was there I wrote to the BBC and asked if I could do a programme on Dutch jazz - they had a programme called World Of Jazz - and they said yes. The people in the dairy were very impressed, they said 'bloody hell, we've got a star working with us now!' and all that rubbish. The producer - who left under a bit of a cloud, but that's another story - he liked it and asked me to do a programme on English traditional jazz.
Within weeks I got an offer from Dunlop to edit their works magazine, in Kenilworth, which is not a bad place to live I must admit.  And the BBC offered me a job as a trainee announcer, so I thought I'd go for that.

We found a flat in Willesden, quite a large flat, and lived there for a couple of years on the princely salary of less than £20 a week. They put me straight on to announcing, on all services - in those days it was Home Service, Light Programme and Third Programme. You were usually associated with one of them, but I did everything, I went from one to another quite happily. Read the news, I did prom concerts...I always liked the light music, big band jazz and that sort of thing. Johnny Dankworth had a short series, only four programmes, with a huge orchestra, a 27 piece band. Every week he had a guest classical musician in the band, a viola player or whatever, and each week he'd write a piece featuring this soloist. I did those with Johnny and we became good friends. So I did three years an announcer, then I thought I'd like to be a producer - I thought it might be a way in to television, as a director.

BS: You produced Saturday Club, starting in 1957. How did you end up presenting it?
BM: Jimmy Grant was their principal jazz producer. He was briefed to launch a programme called Skiffle Club which he asked me to introduce. I said I don't even know what skiffle is, he said that's alright, we'll manage. And it was an unbelievable runaway success, getting enormous listening figures. Management thought 'ullo, and asked Jim to do a two hour programme that would include skiffle but also has other elements of all this pop music that's emerging.

We had a traditional jazz band and a modern jazz group as well. We ended up with five groups a week that we recorded ourselves, and one live in the studio on Saturday morning. We were very severely restricted on playing records, what they called 'needle time', which I've never really understood. Basically it was an agreement between the BBC and the record companies that you would severely restrict the number of records in order that you could continue to employ live musicians. And of course, that's how the pirates shot from below everybody's feet and broke all the rules by playing records all the time. And the BBC very soon followed, thank goodness.

Anyway, I started Saturday Club and the Sunday morning programme Easybeat (from 1958), and they said 'we'd like you to start presenting these programmes as well as producing them.' I thought 'Wow, whoopee!', and after six years of that I got an offer to go on commercial radio as well, on Luxembourg, and went freelance. I can't believe the amount of work I was getting through. The BBC said we'd like you to carry on doing what you're doing. So eventually I was doing eight programmes a week on Luxembourg, Sundays I went up to Birmingham and televised Thank Your Lucky Stars (from 1961 to 1965), and produced a World Service programme. I was never at home, ever.

BS: Most of your radio work was on the Light Programme. What happened when it split into Radios 1 and 2 in 1967?
BM: I did Saturday Club for eight or nine years, until somebody in management - now dead, I'm happy to say in this instance - decided they were going to unite people with Radio 1, and that I wasn't really suited for that. So they cast me out. I went to see this chap and I said 'Are you really telling me I have no future in radio?' and he said 'Well yes, I think I am'. Fortunately an engineer I'd worked with on Saturday Club named Brian Willey had started to introduce a daily afternoon programme called Roundabout, with a different compere every day of the week. Brian gradually increased it until I was working five days a week, the only one there. It was what they now call drive time, 4.30 til 7. And I've not really been out of work since.

BS: The first time I remember hearing your voice was on My Top Twelve. Have you ever been on Desert Island Discs?
BM: Never. It's absolutely crackers! It never came up.

BS: That is crackers. So how did you end up presenting My Top Twelve?
BM: That was a surprise. Derek Chinnery was head of Radio 1. Out of the blue (in 1973) he came up with the idea, it was a good idea. Once in a while, someone would surprise me and choose all their own records! It was a weird eye-opener. I remember a My Top Twelve that I did do with Bill Haley. We were chatting about his whole life story. He admitted he'd had a serious drink problem, and that it had interfered with his work. Then suddenly he broke into tears in the interview, sobbing, because he'd made a mess of his life. We got it sorted out, that didn't go on air, but it was quite moving. He wasn't being sour grapes or anything, no reason why he should, but clearly thought he'd fouled it up. Which he had, to a large extent.

BS: I've heard that you found Nina Simone a bit of a handful.
BM: I interviewed her two or three times - this wasn't on My Top Twelve, though. The last time was an absolute disaster. I was a great admirer of her work, saw her at Ronnie's (Ronnie Scott's) and thought she was really great. She was always a bit tight. She got a bit quirky and peculiar because she felt, with a great deal of justification, that she'd been mistreated, mainly by record companies. So she had a great chip on her shoulder. We had her on Round Midnight and Robin the producer was devoted to her, he was thrilled to be meeting her. She came up from Ronnie's with a crowd - I think they were related to her, at least some of them were. He went up to her and said 'Delighted to meet you Miss Simone, may I call you Nina?' And she said 'No! You may not!'. I thought wow, we're off to a flying start here! She sat with her crowd in the control room and eventually one of these guys came in and said 'I want you to tell me the questions you're going to ask Miss Simone'. I said 'I'm not going to tell you. That's down to me, not down to you, I'm sorry we don't work like that'. And he looked a bit put out. So he went back and told her, there was a bit of a hoo-ha... She came in in a very, very black mood and gave me a rich two and a half minutes, it wasn't much, and then said she had to go back to Ronnie's. I said, fair enough. Robin rang and he booked a cab, and we all stood on the steps outside with nothing to say to each other, not too pleased with each other. I remember Robin was holding the cab door open for them and said 'Thank you very much Miss Simone. Fuck off" and slammed the door. I thought good for you, man! I never met her again, I'm happy to say. We were only promoting her appearance at the club. Dear God!

BS: Were any other guests that awkward?
BM: I didn't get to meet many people who pulled that angle, with high blown ideas of their own importance. It was a weird eye opener. I was booked to do a session with Brook Benton. Radio was quite different where he came from. He asked 'who's gonna put this out on disc?' - he really thought we were ripping him off, and he wasted half the session arguing about whether he was going to sing. He gave me a really hard time, but he came out with five songs in the end. Gene Vincent, he was alright, but he came in on Saturday Club swinging a knife and frightened me to death. This dagger he'd bought in Africa. It was just a thing he did, he didn't make any threatening gestures. But I was a bit put out.

BS: One of the better known Saturday Club sessions was with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. Where would that have been recorded?
BM: Piccadilly Theatre, round the back of a gentleman's outfitter. Vincent was first, then Cochran came in to do his session, who I must say was a thoroughly nice guy. Vincent got up to leave and Cochran shouted 'Hey Vincent, you ain't goin' anywhere. I got your crutches! You come and jam with me'. They did a twenty minute jam which was fabulous, at the end of which our recording engineer came out of his little booth and said 'was I supposed to record that?' Can you imagine? Twenty joyous minutes.

BS: During the Saturday Club years, did you think of yourself as a Beatles man or a Stones man?
BM: I thought very much I was on the Beatles side of the coin. But now I prefer playing Stones records. Although I found them much more difficult to get on with. Mick would always do a promotional chat, but he would not be very forthcoming. I found out after he died that Brian Jones was quite a fan. I had a nice letter from one of his family saying he had always spoken highly of me and I was totally surprised, because I never got them impression from meeting him. He was always very cagey. Keith I never got on with at all. I admire what he's done, quite substantially, but he was almost impossible for me to deal with. They were a closed shop, very inward looking.

BS: How well did you get on with the Beatles? Didn't you accompany them on an American tour?
BM: The Beatles were very extrovert - my only regret there is that I didn't have more to do with George who I thought was a lovely guy, absolutely lovely. I went to America with them for a week at Epstein's invitation and they were all pretty good. I never knew where I was with Lennon! Who did? But Paul was always very forthcoming. And I had one long conversation with George in a dressing room in Chicago, and I thought this guy's got a lot more than he's allowed to say. I don't mean not allowed but... the kind of general attitude was John and Paul did all the chat, and Ringo would make the odd comment from the background - he was always all right. But George. I've just seen the documentary his wife made, and I've been practically in tears thinking 'what an opportunity I missed there'. Only because he was obviously somebody that you really ought to know. Extremely talented too. Well, they all were! I'll make an exception for Ringo, he didn't pretend to be particularly talented.

BS: I've read that you and Brian Epstein were set to open a theatre together. What happened?
BM: I knew Brian Epstein very well - only through the Beatles. I met him when they first came to Broadcasting House, and we became extremely good friends. I dreamed up the idea of building a theatre in this area (Orpington, Kent) and the council agreed. They gave me a potential site at a place called High Elms, which is a huge woodland estate, and they would charge me a peppercorn rent. We could have built it for £24,000 - it's unbelievable now when you think about it. Brian said he'd arrange the raising of the funds and I'd run it. In the meantime, the theatre in Bromley burnt down and it was put about that I'd set fire to it. Absolute nonsense! It was raised in council meetings - I had a friend on the council. They said 'we don't want this Matthew chap building a theatre because we'll have our new one' - and their new one cost £3 million. 

BS: Were you aware of what was going on in Brian Epstein's private life?
BM: I knew he was gay, but I didn't know he had quite serious problems in that area, which he had. I didn't know that he was so heavily into drugs, very, very hooked. And generally his life was a bit of a mess. Then the Beatles hooked up with that awful man in America, Allen Klein. A pretty fearsome man. When I was over there Brian said he had a meeting with him and would I like to come. Well, he had armed guards, literally, in this room in a baseball stadium. I don't know why, it was just his nature. I thought 'I don't like this man, he's poison.' Of course Brian didn't know what to make of it; he thought 'he can do things I can't do', which was true, unfortunately. Anyway, Klein got in there eventually and fouled it up for everybody. Poor old Brian. Very sad.

BS: From January 1978 until you took over Sounds Of The Sixties, you presented Round Midnight, which was an arts show.
BM: It was. That was its basic concept. That ran for thirteen years, 11 til 1, five nights a week. We did it as an audience show, live, from theatres all over the country and that was super, I really enjoyed that. We did a book every night, and some sort of entertainment - could be opera, could be ballet. And of course there was a substantial amount of music. We went to Edinburgh every year for a fortnight. And we did other theatres usually when they had a touring show with a big name. We went to Scarborough, Alan Ayckbourn was very keen. I couldn't believe it - that was one of the first we did and got an absolute full audience. In the middle of the night! In Scarborough! They didn't seem surprised, but I must admit I was. 

BS: Forty five years after they said you had no future in broadcasting, what are your thoughts on Radio 1?
BM: I've never had much time for it, quite honestly. I don't like a lot of the style that's evolved from it. It obviously had some very good people on it. But they've had some crap as well.

Brian Matthew presents Sounds Of The Sixties on Radio 2 every Saturday morning between 8 and 10

There are more details on Brian's career at:

Sunday 22 April 2012

Gene Vincent: the road is rocky

The more time goes by, the more it seems to me that Gene Vincent has the strongest claim to be the ultimate 50s rocker. Certainly he was the biker's choice. For a start he had the tortured, twisted look, the ever-greasy collapsing pompadour. He seemed shy but overloaded with pent-up aggression, and the only way he could find release was in hard liquor and harsh, chain-swinging songs about gals in red blue jeans. This was the image; you don't hear many stories to suggest it wasn't close to the truth.

Originally he was Eugene Vincent Craddock, a native of Norfolk, Virginia who didn't seem to like much beyond motorbikes and girls, and whose life was entirely unremarkable until the summer of 1955 when two events changed it forever. In July he was involved in a bike crash, one so bad that his left leg was almost severed below the knee. Then in September, with his whole leg in plaster, Gene went to see Elvis Presley play in Norfolk and had his mind blown. Elvis literally had his clothes torn off by rabid fans that night. Gene went home, picked up his guitar, and wrote Be Bop A Lula which he debuted at local radio station WCMS's talent show in January '56. By July it was a US Top Ten hit and Vincent was in demand, criss-crossing the States with his band the Blue Caps. His short life was suddenly mapped out for him.

Vincent's Blue Caps rocked raw, more desperately than anyone - listen again to Cliff Gallup's outrageous solos on the over-familiar Be Bop A Lula. It's an incredibly sexy record - Buddy Holly had melodic, romantic nous and Little Richard had balls-on-the-line freak energy, but neither made a record that was as intense and panting as Be Bop A Lula. Gene can't wait to tell us about what he's got. She's the gal in the red blue jeans, queen of all the teens, clearly a looker, then he sings "she's the woman that I know". From gal to woman in one verse. With that carnal clue, the song pauses, followed by an untamed, unplanned shriek from the drummer. This and the prophetic, breakneck Race With The Devil were both recorded at Vincent's debut studio session; unsociable and ferocious, these early recordings are very hard to beat.

And, truthfully, Gene Vincent never bettered them, though that's no reason to ignore the rest of his career. While the Blue Caps Mark One rapidly disintegrated, later line-ups still cut hard rocking classics; Lotta Lovin', Cat Man, Who Slapped John, the delirious B-I-Bickey-Bi-Bo-Bo-Boo, the slo-mo menace of Baby Blue. Live they were a very tough act; Gene's pose rarely changed, legs apart, gripping the microphone stand as if he might collapse, always looking at some imaginary saviour in the balcony. Footage survives of Tex Ritter's Town Hall Party TV show, and the Blue Caps - with Johnny Meeks now on lead guitar - look magnificent in pink peg slacks, perfectly bequiffed; the pace at which they play was probably down to the diet pills Gene lived on. They also appeared in a film called Hot Rod Gang (1958) about a drag racer who joins a rock 'n' roll band (with assistance from Gene in a brief, not too embarrassing, acting role) to make enough money to race. But in spite of Hot Rod Gang and incessant touring, record sales were constantly declining and by the end of the decade Gene Vincent's career seemed washed up. 

Now you may think all this was a lot of activity for a man who had nearly lost his leg, and you'd be right. During a season in Las Vegas he threw himself around so much on stage that he had to have a metal plate permanently inserted. Pretty soon, his finances were in equally bad shape and, midway through one tour, he absconded to Alaska with all the band's money.

Jack Good, the TV impresario who gave us Oh Boy! and basically invented Pop TV as we know it, was Gene's saviour. At a time when most had dismissed him as a one hit wonder, Good understood that he was a true great and brought him to Britain in '59. He loved the singer's outsider image and convinced him to lose his natty threads, decking him out in black leather. But when Gene appeared on ITV's Boy Meets Girls he hid his leg injury well, much to Good's chagrin - from the wings he was heard to shout "Limp, you bugger, limp!" 

On a British tour with Eddie Cochran in 1960, Vincent played the hapless older brother to Cochran's cocksure pin-up. After one show they dived into a car as fans tore at them - it was only after they'd been travelling a while that Gene, hunched in the back seat, whispered "Eddie... Eddie... they got my pants."

It was also on this tour that Vincent was involved in a car crash near Chippenham, Wiltshire; he survived, but it caused more damage to his twisted leg. A local policeman, PC David Harman, was the first to the scene, where he discovered the crash had killed Cochran, Vincent's co-star and best friend. Unbelievably, the tour continued. In Glasgow he was in terrible pain and rubbed his left shoulder throughout the show before collapsing - doctors then discovered he'd broken his collar bone in the crash. To get out of the rest of the tour, Vincent forged a telegram that said his daughter Melody had died of pneumonia. By the time the promoters found she was alive and well, Vincent was back in the States.

Touring income aside, Jack Good provided a new string of Abbey Road-produced UK hits - Pistol Packin' Mama, I'm Goin' Home To See My Baby, She She Little Sheila; with Joe Moretti on guitar (Shakin' All Over, Brand New Cadillac) and Georgie Fame on piano, they were punchy, fizzy, and outshone pretty much all the early sixties UK competition. By the time he recorded Ivor Raymonde's dire Humpity Dumpity in '63, though, the spark was gone from Vincent's UK career too. Always one to make his life as complex as possible, he had fallen into Don Arden's management clutches, and an ill thought out quickie divorce added to his trouble. With all this, no hits on the horizon and an unpaid tax bill looming, he bailed out of Britain in 1965.

His late sixties recordings were a mixed bag, often underwhelming, but an album cut in '66 - only released in the UK on the London label, and simply called Gene Vincent - is a real gem. It was recorded at Sunset Sound Recorders in Los Angeles, where he now lived in a duplex with South African singer Jackie Frisco (right). The Wrecking Crew are all present - Hal Blaine on drums, Al Casey and Glen Campbell on guitar, and Larry Knechtel providing the wailing harmonica that kicks off Bird Doggin', his best single in years. The autobiographical Born To Be A Rolling Stone, the gorgeous Lonely Street, and chiming folk-rocker Love Is A Bird (written by Jimmy Seals, formerly of the Champs, later of Seals & Crofts) are up with his very best. PC David Harman, meanwhile, had by now changed his name to Dave Dee and given up the day job - he was scoring his first Top 10 hit, Hold Tight, with Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, while Gene's fierce garage rocker Bird Doggin' failed to make any headway.

Another obscurity worth digging out, as you fight your way past Be Bop A Lula '62 and Be Bop A Lula '69, is Our Souls (try saying it fast) from his final album, apparently written by his father-in-law. Always the lonesome fugitive, it was Vincent's kiss-off to a world that he must felt had it in for him.
In 1961 he had fallen down thirty concrete steps at a theatre in Newcastle and knocked himself unconscious; in '66 doctors in New Mexico decided to amputate his bad leg, but he fled the hospital in his pyjamas; in '69 he was mugged in his Paris hotel room.

Also in 1969 John Peel signed Vincent to his newly formed Dandelion label - incongruously he became a labelmate of Bridget St John and Medicine Head: sessions produced by Kim Fowley were disappointing, though a duet of Scarlet Ribbons with Linda Ronstadt stands out for its weirdness. He performed at the John and Yoko-sponsored Toronto Rock'n'Roll Festival, backed the Alice Cooper band, in September '69. Heavy drinking made for a shambolic show. At the end of the year he was back in Britain, touring dance halls which were appreciative but mostly small time. His backing group by now was a Croydon rock revivalist act called the Wild Angels and the BBC caught the first few days - including fumbling rehearsals in a pub basement, walls lined with used mattresses, Gene very patient with his amateurish young charges - on a beautiful but melancholy documentary.

He was broke again: at one point in the film Gene has to explain to a hotel receptionist that he is sharing a room with his roadie. On the backstage stairs of a venue in Ryde on the Isle of Wight, he stands exhausted, barely able to catch his breath after one last encore. He comes across as noble, sweet, but entirely defeated. Ravaged by booze, pills and his run of near-fatal accidents, he finally died of a perforated ulcer eighteen months later.

Thursday 12 April 2012

The Girls, and other girls with guitars

The Beatles visited Paris for the first time in January 1964. With the distaff population of Britain - even the Queen - in their pocket, they assumed the land of Bardot would be easily conquered. Some shock, then, when the opening night crowd at the Olympia had an unusually high percentage of excitable boys. "We had visions of French girls, ooh la la and all that" sulked George. Paul to this day is convinced that most of the audience was gay. It never crossed their minds that the kids were there to see the headliner that night, France's fastest rising star - Miss Sylvie Vartan.

If female pop singers were regarded as such an insignificant novelty in the sixties, it was ten times harder for female musicians to be taken seriously. Oddly this hadn't been a problem in blues circles where guitarists Memphis Minnie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe had been treated as equals. Likewise with folk, where Joan Baez, then Joni Mitchell, encouraged just as many women to pick up a guitar as Bob Dylan.

But rock 'n' roll was something else. The early sixties saw the huge boom in Girl Groups, propagated by the work of Phil Spector via The Crystals, Paris Sisters, and Ronettes: three girls singing in harmony, with a cavernous drum sound and a pair of castanets, was the du jour American sound of '63 - The Shirelles, Chiffons and Shangri La's racked up scores of hits. Ultimately, there were The Supremes. The records were often written for young women by young women (Carole King, Ellie Greenwich and Cynthia Weil), but the musicians were very rarely female; 90% of these records were played and produced by men.

The Beatles may not have gone a bundle on Sylvie Vartan, but Stateside they caused an explosion in the number of guitars bought by teenagers, plenty of whom were girls. In Boston, the Pandoras formed because they thought being in a band was, with a neat sideways logic, the easiest way for them to get to meet The Beatles. In Los Angeles, the classically educated Sandoval Sisters swapped their violins for Fender Jaguars and Rickenbackers after seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, and changed their name, with devastatingly naive arrogance, to the Girls (right). Their debut single, the Mann/Weil-written Chico's Girl, is a post Shangri La's bad-boy-good-girl melodrama which ranks as one of the dozen finest 45s of the Girl Group genre - and they actually played on it.

Pre-Beatles there had been a few maverick girls with guitars. Country singer Wanda Jackson was surrounded by older men telling her what to wear, what to say and what to sing until she crossed paths with hillbilly singer Elvis Presley in 1955. He convinced her that she had the voice for rock 'n' roll and Wanda duly obliged with gale-force rockers like Fujiyama Mama and Honey Bop. She painted her name on her acoustic. Off came the fringed suede jacket, too. Her new raunchy, heavy-lidded, high-heeled image went down particularly badly when she played Nashville's Grand Ole Opry where country bruiser Ernest Tubb insisted she couldn't show her shoulders. Wanda was so angry she could hardly sing.

On the rhythm and blues side Bo Diddley, a paternal, philanthropic rocker, assumed correctly that most people would rather watch musicians with accentuated femininity than a bunch of paunchy blokes; to this end he tutored a string of women to play guitar alongside him. The greatest was Norma-Jean Wofford, his amazonian half-sister (at least that's what told male admirers to keep them at bay) - she was renamed the Duchess (left). For good measure, the Bo-ettes provided backing vocals for Diddley. Footage of them on pop exploitation film The TAMI Show from 1964 shows just how mesmerising they were on stage, and makes their fellow performers - the full flower of mid-sixties pop from the Stones to the Beach Boys to the Supremes - look like so much less fun.

It says a lot that lead guitarist with the Beatles' Capitol label-mates the Girls, Rosemary Sandoval, was completely unaware of either the Duchess or Wanda Jackson when her own band started in '64. "We only ever came across one other all-girl band. There weren't many. In New York we met a group called The Female Beatles." The Girls' career path was typical of the period: signed by agency, plenty of local shows for reasonable money, the occasional Hollywood party, virtually no recording. "We played at a party for Bob Dylan once. Everyone was there. I remember one of the Yardbirds touched my guitar and I went 'Oh my gosh!' I was so excited."

Another common fate for girls with guitars was a trip to Vietnam to give the troops a shot in the arm. "We were there four weeks" remembers Rosemary, "and our dad, who was our manager, was very protective. Afterwards he admitted we'd been in quite a bit of danger, and places we'd played got mortared." Detroit's Pleasure Seekers (right), featuring 17-year old guitarist Suzi Quatro, played the same tour with a stop-over in Guam, site of the US military hospitals. "They asked us to play for a corridor full of wounded soldiers" Suzi recalled, "and it was horrible. They were 18-year old boys... legs missing, arms missing, eyeballs missing."

Gigs closer to home could be almost as bloody. The Girls, unarmed, had to deal with the mob frequently muscling in, not to mention over-amorous male fans and less than appreciative women. Rosemary Sandoval and her sisters wore "black tops, black tight pants and boots. The Midwest was not prepared for that look - too wild. We'd walk on stage in some clubs and straight away there was a certain buzz, then name-calling. And looks from some of the women, like 'what are they?' They thought we were going to steal their guys."

Respect from male bands seemed to come relatively easily - The Girls played with the Byrds, Lovin' Spoonful and Young Rascals, and they were "always super-nice. They carried our amps for us! Usually they didn't think we were serious but their attitude changed when we played."

If there were only a few scattered all-girl bands in the States, the UK was almost entirely barren. The Liverbirds were the only femme Merseybeat band to record, and they had to go to Germany to do it, where they became regulars on TV show Beat Club. Sally And The Alleycats grew out of the all-female Ivy Benson Big Band but cut just the one single. The Honeycombs had a girl drummer, Honey Lantree, who told reporters that she made tea for the boys. Guitar strumming heroine Twinkle had a hit with the doomed biker epic Terry, but had her career squashed by her record company Decca - they couldn't take a smart, attractive, woman guitarist who wrote her own songs. Homely Cilla and be-gowned Dusty were so much safer.

Oddly, the one girl group who did make it here in the sixties were imported Americans: Goldie And The Gingerbreads were brought to London by Animals' manager Mike Jeffries who had seen them at New York's Wagon Wheel club. It's saying something that the best known all-girl band of the era had just one Top 30 hit (Can't You Hear My Heartbeat in 1965), but they enjoyed a high profile in their two year stay. Frequent performances on Ready Steady Go, and tours with the Kinks, Stones, Yardbirds and Hollies, were augmented by drummer Ginger Bianco's ad work for Premier drums, guitarist Carol MacDonald's songwriting for Madeline Bell, and organist Margo Crocitto's session work for the Pretty Things; there were no troop-rallying chores for the Gingerbreads.

Gingerbread Margo, somewhat neatly, played keyboards in the last line-up of Bo Diddley's band. The Girls, after having kids and drifting apart, got back together forty years on with the rather startling new addition of electric violins. In the wake of more recent role models - the Runaways, Dolly Mixture, Kenickie - it's now a hell of a lot easier for girl bands to be taken seriously than it was in 1966. "There weren't too many heroines in the sixties, that's for sure" sighs Rosemary Sandoval. Thanks to her and a handful of others, shoulder-baring is no longer a sackable offence.

Saturday 10 March 2012

The mystery of Bobbie Gentry

In Las Vegas, 1969, you had the choice of witnessing either Elvis Presley, Tom Jones or Bobbie Gentry putting on the style. All were star attractions. Yet while the King became immortal and Jones The Voice went on to continually re-invent his crimplene soul, Bobbie Gentry has vanished from sight. She hasn't given an interview in over thirty years and has barely entered a recording studio since releasing Patchwork in 1971, the last of her half dozen albums.

She was born Roberta Lee Streeter on July 27th 1944 to Portuguese parents in Chickasaw County, Mississippi. Her parents divorced when she was a toddler, and it was left to her grandparents to raise her. They lived on a farm in Chickasaw County - Mississippi Delta country. "We didn't have electricity, and I didn't have many play things," Bobbie recalled. "My Granddaddy liked possum stew, so whenever he caught one, he'd cut off the tail for me to play with."

Her Grandmother provided a toy that had a more long lasting impact when she traded a milk cow for a neighbour's piano. Bobbie taught herself to play by listening in church, and precociously had her first song in the bag by the time she was seven: My Dog Sergeant Is A Good Dog was later wheeled out as part of her nightclub act and survives on a BBC TV show. The rest of her oeuvre would be hugely influenced by her dirt poor, woodland community upbringing.

After grade school in Greenwood, Mississippi, where her father lived, Bobbie moved to California in 1957 to live with her mother. She attended school in Arcadia for two years before the family moved to Palm Springs, by which time she had taught herself to play the guitar, banjo, bass, and vibes. One afternoon, she caught the King Vidor movie Ruby Gentry in which Jennifer Jones plays a Southern girl from the wrong side of the tracks who falls for local land owner Charlton Heston. It was melodramatic fare, but also undeniably sensual for a 1952 Hollywood movie. Bobbie was so impressed she decided to change her name.

At 15, Bobbie Gentry was performing in a local country club, an act which was caught - and apparently encouraged - by Bob Hope and Hoagy Carmichael. Straight out of high school, she worked in Las Vegas as part of a nightclub review called Folies Bergere to raise a little cash, which then saw her through a degree in philosophy at UCLA. Transferring to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music she studied guitar, majoring in theory and composition. All this time, Bobbie was playing in local venues, scrabbling for cash, some of the time as part of Hawaiian musician Johnny Ukulele's troupe of girls. Her only known recordings from the period were Ode To Love and Stranger In The Mirror, two 1964 duets with singer Jody Reynolds, who had scored a hit in 1958 with the death disc Endless Sleep.

Early in 1967, Bobbie made a demo which came to the attention of Capitol Records producer Kelly Gordon. He liked the songs immensely, especially one called Ode To Billie Joe. The song was around seven minutes long, and it's eerie, mossy, swamp-country atmosphere was unlike anything Gordon had heard before. With support from Capitol's number one producer David Axelrod, he was able to sign Bobbie. Her first single was one of the other songs on the demo, Mississippi Delta, but pretty quickly DJs picked up on the flip side.

Ode To Billie Joe, truncated to four minutes and made eerier yet by Jimmy Haskell's string arrangement, entered the Billboard Hot 100 on August 5th 1967. Two weeks later it was in the top ten: a week after that it was number one, dislodging the Beatles' utopian All You Need Is Love. No other debut single had made the top faster. No question, it was a unique record, and even the flower-waving underground had to be riveted by the narrative. Elliptically evocative, loaded with mysterious place names like Choctaw Ridge and the Tallahatchie Bridge, this smalltown apocalypse came across like The Waltons in reverse. It sounded entirely believable, autobiographical even. The central mystery of the song - probably lost in the edit - was what exactly the young couple threw from the bridge. After much discussion in the press, in cafes and pubs (it made the UK Top 20 in the autumn), the least controversial conclusion was an engagement ring.

Overnight, this unknown country folk singer, her hair piled up like a downhome Priscilla Presley, had crossed the tracks just like namesake Ruby. True to the movie script, she had also begun an affair with Kelly Gordon, who left his wife and kids for his protogee. The two quickly amassed tracks for an album named after the hit, all original material. It hardly sounds thrown together. Mississippee Delta, the rejected A-side, is gritty, and would give Tony Joe White a run for his money in the southern stew stakes; Sunday Best and Papa Won'tcha Let Me Go To Town were sepia prints of a south that probably didn't exist by 1967 but surely did in Bobbie's childhood. The follow up to Ode was ill advised, though - I Saw An Angel Die was kaleidoscopic, vague, and quite beautiful, but it was way too unstructured for radio and bombed completely.

This didn't affect the huge sales of the album, or the year-end impact of her number one single: after selling 3 million copies it won Bobbie three Grammy awards, including Best New Artist (she was the first country singer to win in this category); Billboard, Cashbox, and Record World nominated her most promising new vocalist; and Nashville's Country Music Association asked her to co-host their awards show with Sonny James. Life magazine even ran a feature on her grandparents' farm - the money she'd made from the hit had enabled Bobbie to buy them new trucks.

Next came The Delta Sweete. This took the Ode album on a step - it was a segued, multi-textural album about the south, and maybe her best record. Standouts were Courtyard, a delicately terrifying morality tale of wish fulfillment, and Morning Glory, cheeky and playful, with Bobbie's voice at its breathiest and most sensuous. Dotted around the album were choice covers - quite obvious, but still flavoursome - of Tobacco Road, Parchman Farm, and Louisiana Man. The oak-aged Okolona River Bottom Band had presaged the album as a November '67 single, but only reached 54; Louisiana Man, backed by Courtyard, fared even worse and spent a solitary week at number 100.

Capitol took swift action - they weren't about to let such a hot property slip off the map, and Bobbie had two more albums out by the year's end. Local Gentry compromised some of her best songs (the saucy Sittin' Pretty, and deceptively airy, black-humoured Casket Vignette) with a bunch of more contemporary covers, including Fool On The Hill which became another flop single. There was also a definitive, curled-up-in-a-cosy-cabin take on Kenny Rankin's Peaceful. The striking red trouser suit and confident stance on the cover must have shifted a few copies of Local Gentry, too. Stanley Dorfman at the BBC was certainly impressed and offered Bobbie her own series, with guests including The Hollies and Donovan. Hits or no, at home she also regularly featured on TV. Something of a good luck charm, she was the maiden guest on Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, and Bobby Darin's variety shows.

Towards 1968's end, Bobbie was teamed up with Capitol's other top country-pop crossover act, Glen Campbell. Somehow their album of duets rarely sounded more than perfunctory, in spite of great arrangers and another eye-catching cover. No matter, a version of Mornin' Glory - nowhere near as good as the Delta Sweete version - charted, and Let It Be Me, the old Everly Brothers hit, went to 14 on the country chart and restored Bobbie to the Top 40 for the first time in a year.

The Gentry live show was by all accounts more of a rocking affair than her records let on, and the 1969 album Touch 'Em With Love certainly shifted up a gear. The polished brass of the title track failed to chart as a single, but a version of Bacharach and David's I'll Never Fall In Love Again - with Bobbie's voice straining in an endearingly high register - charted all over Europe, making it all the way to number one in Britain. This was followed by the Top 3 All I Have To Do Is Dream, another Everlys-originated duet with Glen Campbell. Back home, Bobbie got hitched to casino magnate William F. Harrah - she was 25 and he was 58. It lasted three months. According to Mojo magazine Harrah, who was none too impressed with his young wife heading out on tour, followed her to a theatre and caught her in flagrante backstage. Maybe he should have listened to Courtyard before he signed the wedding contract*.

All of which made Fancy, her last single of 1969, seem more than a little autobigraphical: "Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy, and they'll be nice to you." Produced by Rick Hall at Muscle Shoals, it made the US Top 40 but felt bigger. Reba McEntire scored hugely with it in 1991, and apparently the film rights have since been doing the rounds for the story of a girl who "might have been born just plain white trash but Fancy was my name ... and I ain't done bad." Bobbie certainly hadn't. With the smarts as well as the sass, she set up her own publishing company, Super Darlin Publishing, and television production, Gentry Limited. Her purchase of a percentage of The Phoenix Suns basketball team in 1969, as well as vast tracks of land in California, made her a wealthy woman. Somehow, she also found time to record a stack of songs that remained unreleased, including Show Off, Donovan's Skipalong Sam, and the exquisite Smoke, unavailable until recently and all recommended.

In 1970 Johnny Cash introduced her on TV, singing Fancy, as "our Mississippi River Delta Queen, Bobbie Gentry." Internationally, she had now consolidated after her first instant rush of fame and was a genuine star. In Vegas she had a million dollar contract. "I write and arrange all the music, design the costumes, do the choreography, the whole thing," she said. "I'm completely responsible for it. It's totally my own from inception to performance. I originally produced Ode To Billie Joe and most of my other records, but a woman doesn't stand much chance in a recording studio. A staff producer's name was nearly always put on the records." Fame doesn't get more glamorous than aftershow parties with Elvis, yet a melancholy single called Apartment 21 that summer suggested she was beginning to feel trapped by it.

These feelings were made more explicit on her final album, 1971's Patchwork. Written and produced by Bobbie (this time, with full credits), it featured southern characters like Benjamin, Billy The Kid and Belinda who hadn't been around since The Delta Sweete, as well as Miss Clara and Your Number One Fan, both flapper skits, the latter aimed at her more dottily devoted supporters. Marigolds And Tangerines betrayed a yearning for a simpler, sweeter life; Somebody Like Me had a soulful strut; Lookin' In was effectively a resignation letter from the world of pop. Bobbie has since said that, of all her records, she is most proud of Patchwork and it's not hard see why.

It's hard to believe that Bobbie couldn't have found a new recording contract if she'd wanted to - we just have to assume she considered that she'd left her mark and wanted to move on. A compilation called The Sounds Of Christmas featured her renditions of Scarlet Ribbons and Away In A Manger, and EMI released two budget albums Sittin' Pretty and Tobacco Road. Otherwise, Bobbie was quiet until the summer of 1974 when she launched The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour on CBS. It ran for four episodes, and a single called Another Place Another Time (the theme for Max Baer's film Macon County Line) slipped out at the same time. A couple of years later Baer made a movie based on Ode To Billie Joe (re-spelt Billy Joe for some reason) and Bobbie re-recorded the song. Both the new and original versions  charted in the summer of '76. Another shortlived marriage, to Jim 'Spiders And Snakes' Stafford, resulted in a son called Tyler. On Christmas Eve 1978, she was a
 guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Since then Bobbie Gentry has never performed, sung, or given an interview.

From the very beginning, Roberta Lee Streeter seemed to know exactly what she wanted, and had the charm, skill, and talent to get it. Five years of recording took her from a Mississippi farm to Vegas and riches beyond most people's dreams. Then, simply, she got bored, poured her artistic ambitions into one last album, and quit while she was still at the top. Her catalogue is almost faultless. As a blueprint for ambitious feminists, the Bobbie Gentry story is hard to trump. 

Supermarket sightings are frequent enough these days. Starstruck fans report that her raven mane is still unmistakable. She's no hermit**. It's just that Bobbie Gentry knows exactly how to keep her legend bottled, her image unruffled, and her music timeless.

* It is often assumed that Bobbie managed to retire a wealthy woman after she divorced Harrah, receiving a $3.5 million settlement. Accusations of gold-digging are derailed by the fact she made over $3,000,000 in royalties from Capitol alone. Bobbie also made millions from her Vegas stints which lasted on and off until 1980, and an alleged $4,000,000 when Warner Brothers optioned Ode To Billie Joe.

**Here is a comment on a Bobbie Gentry thread from Tom Ewing's Popular blog: "I heard a touching story about Bobbie from the 1980′s. A couple years after her retirement, one of her Vegas male dancers became ill with AIDS. His lover told me they were penniless and about to be evicted from their home. Even though she was raising a newborn son as a single mother, she stepped in paid the bills and got her friend the medical care he needed. In an era when some people would not touch somone with AIDS she came to the hospital, held his hand and comforted him. She even paid the funeral expenses and made a terrible situation a little more tolerable for a dear friend. "

Sunday 12 February 2012

Greg Shaw spreads the word

October 2004 was a grim month for pop obsessives and record collectors, especially those who had come of age in the seventies and eighties. In the space of ten days we lost three great navigators of the  backroads, byways and ditches: John Peel, Dave Godin - the man who coined the term Northern Soul - and, Stateside, Greg Shaw. Some philanthropist should have corralled their collections and pop ephemera and created one beautiful library.

Shaw was, in his way, just as important as Peel. He was a fanboy with means. To precis his CV, he created the first pop fanzine (Mojo Navigator, later Who Put The Bomp), put Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus on the printed page for the first time, started the Pebbles compilation series, and was America's premier salesman for Glam, Punk and Powerpop - a genre he named. He created an independent label and distribution company in the seventies - Bomp - giving succour to the Ramones, and a home to Iggy Pop and the Flamin' Groovies. He also knew his parameters. When Michael Stipe showed up with his tape looking for a deal, Shaw sent him away, telling him to go to a major - Bomp wasn't right for him.

Who Put The Bomp, even now, is a great source for forgotten 45s (Shaw's format of choice). He would review British pop singles like Warwick's Let's Get The Party Going when they first appeared and were dismissed as worthless bubblegum by pretty much everyone else - the Warwick single wouldn't be revisited until the late nineties Junk Shop Glam boom, but Shaw's recommendation was enough for me to pick one up when I saw it. His publications have since been compiled in a hardback by ex-wife Suzy Shaw. When Mojo Navigator first appeared in 1966, pop nerds barely existed, and the ones that did were most likely unaware of each other. Likewise, rock 'n' roll record collecting rarely stretched beyond buying records to play at parties, after having first scrawled your name on the sleeve and label to make sure they also came home with you. Mojo Navigator was *the* first music rag by fans, for fans. Shaw was a cheerleader, not a chinstroker, and would always value the directness of Wild Thing or You Really Got Me over, say, the Grateful Dead. Time, it's safe to say, proved him correct. Greil Marcus says that Shaw put on paper "the irreducible thrill of hearing the secret before everybody else did, and the irresistible thrill of passing it on."

Still, Greg Shaw was no saint. Bomp's accounting system, for starters, was a little wayward. Suzy Shaw remembers one of the Dead Kennedys handcuffing himself to Greg's desk to get a check - it bounced. Another time their car was smashed to bits. There were threats of arson, after which a baseball bat was bought for the office. Asked to contribute to the book,  Kim Fowley said "I'm not going to glorify Greg Shaw because he was a thief and a pig in regards to paying me money. I always liked the idea of BOMP and the idea of Greg Shaw; he was a great historian but a bad executive and a disaster in accounting to his artists and producers."

While Greg's record collection was rumoured to number a million items, Suzy reckons "I knew the size well, as it was I who had the shelves built for them and arranged for the space in the warehouse.  There were probably a maximum of about 150,000. He often just wanted the record and had no particular interest in whether it could be played or not." Taking up almost as much room was an index card system that listed "every rock record that he owned, heard about, or suspected existed. He was a historian first and foremost, and wanted it to be a life's work that would survive as a reference for generations to come.  It was his obsession and although few people know it, the project probably took up more of his life than any other venture in terms of sheer hours."

Shaw was an outrageous womanizer, with four marriages and innumerable girlfriends. Pretty soon, each starry-eyed lover realised they were no match for the index cards - most of them came to the conclusion that if they could get rid of the cards, they could have Greg all to themselves. The one constant was Suzy Shaw: "I became accustomed to the frantic, late-night calls from Greg: "Help!  Suzy! Get over here, she's got matches and she's going for the cards!" Police would be called, tears would be shed, the girlfriends would leave, but the cards survived." It's a minor tragedy that the digital age has rendered them little more than a curio.

Beyond the printed word, he was behind the Legendary Masters series of compilations, produced during a stint at United Artists - Shaw was as conversant in Fats Domino and Ricky Nelson as he was in Ramones and Raspberries. Then in the early eighties he was the secret compiler of the multi-volume Pebbles series, sonically imperfect bootlegs of obscure 60s garage punk which unearthed now-open secrets like the Litter's Action Woman for the first time. In look and feel, Pebbles was widely imitated on series like Highs In The Mid Sixties and Back From The Grave; the lo-grade pressings inadvertently galvanized new re-issue labels such as Bam Caruso, who issued the Craig's R&B freakout I Must Be Mad on their first Rubble album in pristine quality, eighteen months after Shaw had alerted the world to its primitive power. As he had with Who Put The Bomp, Greg Shaw started a whole underground industry.

The vast record collection Shaw amassed has been split up since his death between friends and collectors. One beneficiary - though not of the index cards - was Geoffrey Weiss, a sagely A&R man at Hollywood Records. "I always thought his biggest achievement was convincing people that popular music that wasn't successful could be great, that the guy up the street could be John Lennon for at least two minutes and forty five seconds."

Sunday 5 February 2012

30 years on: Felt's Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty

 On New Year's Eve 1989, I was in a pub in Manchester, talking pop with a bunch of friends. We reflected on two English singers who had illuminated the previous decade with great originality but no commercial success. Obvious star quality and wild eccentricity, it seemed, were no match for fickle fate. Fame would elude them. One was Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, the other was Lawrence from Felt.

In a decade of fey make-up boys and the gated snare, Felt's approach to record making had seemed positively antique - sumptuous, sculptured guitar melodies housed in sleeves that owed more to Barnett Newman than Gary Numan. Their first album was called Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty, a statement of intent in itself.

Felt had a rare air of mystery. Gigs were infrequent, some were in virtual darkness. As the decade wore on, odd stories about Lawrence snuck out. Apparently he was obsessively clean. A friend once stayed in his Birmingham apartment and woke up at 3am to hear scratching noises under the bed. Expecting to see a mouse he was shocked to see Lawrence with a dustpan and brush. Pete Becker of fellow West Midlanders Eyeless In Gaza claimed that, when Lawrence took him to gigs, he always drove in second gear. He was deadpan, dead pale, and once claimed he would become the first person in the world to die of boredom. All my girlfriends were in love with him.

Lawrence spent his teens in the Birmingham overspill of Water Orton. In 1980 he made a cacophonic DIY single as Felt called Index, a solo performance of clanging chords that sounded like it was recorded on a cassette at home - "after that I decided to form the greatest band in England." In spite of his ambitions, he couldn't tune or re-string his guitar. "I used to wait until I met someone who could do it for me. Sometimes it took ages." He'd often seen Maurice Deebank walk through Water Orton with a classical guitar on his way to have lessons, "so one day I got him round and he tuned my guitar in three seconds. I was in shock. Then he played a song, it was Mr Tambourine Man. I said 'I don't believe it, you're a genius'. We were only 16 or 17 and at that time I'd never seen anyone play that fast. It still went clunky when I went from one chord to another."

Deebank became a part of Felt. "I thought, God, I could really go somewhere with this kid. Ride on his back to the top, that's how I saw it." Initially, there were constant arguments. "They were always about clothes and drinking. I told him he would have to change his entire wardrobe. Sometimes he'd get drunk and go off down motorways, disappear for two days. Or he'd go round this big mental hospital with this other kid, after they'd been in the pub. One of those dark Victorian things. When you were a kid you lived in fear that someone would escape and break into your bedroom. Deebank used to go there and walk around the wards at night for a dare. He'd come back from those trips and every time I'd say 'we're finished, you're not serious about this.'"

What Lawrence wanted to create was something brand new - Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty (released in January 1982) was both beautiful and very odd, with Lawrence's near-asthmatic, heavily reverbed voice and Deebank's crystal clear guitar lines underpinned by what sound like red Indian tribal drums. Lyrics were largely indecipherable. The songs - just the six - all clocked in around the five minute mark. "The music had to be something I'd never heard before. A new kind of music. Long guitar solos, like something that Hank Marvin would do but extended." The result was closer to Tyrannosaurus Rex playing Marquee Moon in a barn. Truly, it sounded - and still sounds - uniquely atmospheric. "I wanted the first album to be the best English album ever released, in the history of music. We wanted the kind of impact The Stone Roses had later - the way they were a group, the way they cared about what they wore."

A critical hit - Sounds' 5 star review was enough to get me to buy it without hearing a note - Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty instead created a small but dedicated core of Felt fans which would grow incrementally over the decade. In 1987, Lawrence found his image in a Smash Hits sticker collection.  Suicidally, he chose to capitalise on this good fortune with an album of instrumentals called Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death. "I remember taking the album artwork to Creation, really confidently, and Bobby Gillespie (of Primal Scream) was there. He said 'You're not really going to call it that are you?' I said yeah, it's a great title. He said 'Crinkle? What the hell's crinkle?' I realised I'd made the worst mistake. It was the worst title in the world."

Now, as then, Lawrence is childlike in his enthusiasm, and meticulous in his planning, even if genuine stardom seems as far away as it did in 1982. "I thought we could invent a new form of music. I really believed we could. Now I know it's practically impossible, but that was the kind of ambition we had."
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