Friday, 26 March 2010

A Mind of Their Own

What makes a genuine artist? What is it that makes me feel that someone is worth following? I think at least part of the answer lies in the following examples.

Example 1 – The recent BRIT award ceremony contained several live performances by artists either nominated for, or winners of, some gong or other. Amongst the chosen ones this year was Cheryl Cole, TV personality, member of Girls Aloud, WAG and now solo artist. She presented us with a highly choreographed routine backed by a pre-recorded tape over which she attempted to lip-synch. Admittedly this was a TV performance, not a live gig but you get the feeling that the two would not differ significantly.

Example 2 – In the late 1960s, ‘Shout’ merchant and diminutive singer, Lulu, was given her own prime time TV show. In a show that was broadcast in 1969 her guest was a certain Jimi Hendrix with his Experience. The Jimi Hendrix Experience played live in the studio and caused the TV producer to have the proverbial kittens by stopping the scheduled run-through of ‘Hey Joe’ in mid-flow and starting up an improvised version of The Cream’s ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ which then over-ran its allotted time slot.

I’m very much afraid that in this day and age, the ‘show’ is very much the be-all and end-all of music and that means cutting out all the things that do not fit a highly regulated, physically demanding performance, like…ooh…real singing and improvisation. Those lucky artists that have been chosen by their backers to be heavily promoted are completely in the palms of their paymasters and have no real say in the matter.

Or do they? Example 2 shows what can happen when the artist takes control. Admittedly, Jimi’s act of mischievous defiance took place over 40 years ago when the control of artists was much looser than today, but it can happen. In the same BRIT ceremony as example 1, Lady Gaga ditched her originally planned ‘hits’ act at the last minute and instead, played a low key, one-woman performance of two lesser known songs, one of which was completely reworked for piano and voice. The audience was a bit stunned to say the least. But it was unexpected and fascinating. Unlike Cheryl Cole.

And I think this is what draws me to certain acts. It is the ones that say, ‘This is what I do. If you like it, fine. If not, tough!’ There is nothing worse than an artist that panders to their audience. Actually there is; it is an artist that panders to their audience because their management tells them to.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Pink Floyd: The Dinosaur That Lived

Sometimes you can just never tell how people will react. People whom you have known for yonks turn out to have the most unexpected responses in certain situations. Personality surprises can often be shocking.

Take my sister, for example. I’ve known her for, well, all her life and musically, we couldn’t be more different. I still haven’t recovered from being forced to listen to all her vast collection of interminable 12-inch disco singles from the 1970s blaring through the wall into my bedroom when we all lived at home. My sister was a clubber and a dancer, whereas I was a stay-at-home-with-the-lava-lamp type of listener. And never the twain.

So you will probably be as amazed as me when you learn that her all time favourite album is not ‘Saturday Night Fever’ nor anything by Chic or KC and the Sunshine Band…but ‘Dark Side of the Moon’. Just what is it about this album that seems to cross all known boundaries? You can’t dance to it (well, not until the Scissor Sisters get hold of it), yet my sister loves it. In fact, when you come to think about it, Pink Floyd is a mass of contradictions. Underground, yet mainstream. Experimental yet accessible. Dinosaur, yet loved. Let’s face it; anyone who can make a hit album out of something like ‘Umma Gumma’ deserves some respect but then bands were indulged and encouraged to develop once upon a time.

I watched some of the ‘Live at Pompeii’ extracts on YouTube the other day and hearing the live versions of ‘Echoes’ and ‘Saucerful of Secrets’ offers a few hints to the answer and it is quite simply this: they are (or were) a damnned good band. They managed to do exactly all those things I mentioned above. They were weird yet wonderful, edgy yet musical and above all, talented and committed. I think the real reason DSOTM succeeds is that it is genuinely tuneful whilst being a bit quirky and it deals with timeless themes of the human condition, which affect us all whether you’re a wallflower or exhibitionist.

Not all art appeals to everyone yet Pink Floyd seemed to have managed it with DSOTM whilst thinking they were being wilfully experimental. This must be true otherwise there’s no way that my sister would have it as her number one, it would be ‘Spirits Having Flown’ by the Bee Gees and then where would we be?

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Lesley Duncan, Singer Songwriter (1943 - 2010)

The musical dynamic that exists between Britain and the USA is one that has propelled music throughout the last 50 years but never more so than in the early years when rock/pop was a blank sheet stretching away to the horizon.

First there was the initial blast from the States in the 1950s to be answered by the British Beat Boom of the 1960s and so on back and forth throughout the 70s and 80s, a rivalry which has seen the emergence of some of the best music this century. But whereas the Brits had the upper hand in the 1960s when it came to floppy haired beat combos, they sadly lacked in the field of singer-songwriters and especially female singer-songwriters.

In the early 60s when A&R was God, performers and writers were kept firmly at a distance from one another but by the end of the decade, the writer inmates of the Brill Building had formed an escape committee and had tunnelled their way from under the piano to freedom. Thus we had a whole host of new performers who actually wrote their own stuff and on the distaff side the USA led with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Laura Nyro, Joan Baez and many others. Here in the UK we had…er…well, no one really.

On this side of the pond, the 60s was a hard time for women in rock. Whilst we had some great performers – Dusty Springfield leading the way, and one or two that wrote a bit but generally performed within a band context like the mercurial Sandy Denny, there were no true singer-songwriters who wrote and performed solo. Whilst there were a few false starts (Lyndsey De Paul, anyone?) it would not be until a teenaged Kate Bush crashed onto the scene in the late 1970s that Britain had a truly talented female SS in its ranks. Or did it?

Back in the early 70s there was a candidate that may lay claim to being the first British female SS and her name was Lesley Duncan. By the seventies, Lesley was not exactly a newcomer as she had spent much of the sixties in a backing singers' co-operative with fellow would-be pop stars Madeline Bell, Kiki Dee and even Dusty herself, singing on each other’s albums. But by 1971 she had written, recorded and released her debut album, entitled ‘Sing Children Sing’. It contained one true hit, ‘Love Song’, covered by Elton John on his ‘Tumbleweed Connection’ effort but her nervousness over live performance rather stymied any commercial success that was her due and her star never rose despite further LPs in the mid seventies. It seems she preferred the anonymity of session work and can be found in the chorus of many well-known albums including ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.

As far as I know, her first two CBS (and best albums) were not released on CD until the early 2000s and even now you’d be lucky to find copies of them and that’s a shame. It seems pioneers never benefit.  Worse, the shocking news has just reached me that Lesley died on 12th March, aged just 66.  As a tribute, here's a video of Lesley singing 'Earth Mother', the title track from her second LP and below that, a glimpse of the 'Backing Singers Co-operative' in action supporting Dusty Springfield at the NME Pollwinners concert in 1966.  From L-R Madeline Bell, Lesley Duncan and Kiki Dee.

Rest in peace, Lesley.

And if you'd like to read more about my views on music, don't forget my book, 'Memoirs of a Music Obsessive'.

Monday, 8 March 2010

The Year of 1969

Being an Obsessive means that I have all my albums neatly catalogued (in an Access database, actually) so that I can pore over them at will. Every so often, I have a trip back through time and look at what I bought in each year of my long and distinguished career as a music buyer and time and again I stop at 1971 which, to me, contains many of my all-time favourite albums.

If I was asked which was my preferred year in rock history I would probably go for 1971 but this is based entirely on personal discovery as 1971 was the year that I discovered ‘album’ music as opposed to singles and was also a time when my disposable income rose sufficiently for the purchase of albums. Not surprising then that this year means a lot to me.

However, from a more objective perspective, I have always marvelled at the year 1969. The end of the sixties was politically and socially a bit of a ‘messy’ time being a transition between the exuberant 60s and the dour 70s. Nevertheless, in musical terms it is a fascinating year reflecting the changes taking place around it. Just have a look at a small sample of the albums that were released that year:-

Captain Beefheart – Trout Mask Replica
Crosby Stills and Nash
Johnny Cash at San Quentin
Beatles – Abbey Road
The Who – Tommy
Rolling Stones – Let it Bleed
Dusty Springfield – Dusty in Memphis
Led Zeppelin & Led Zeppelin 2
The Temptations – Cloud Nine
Isaac Hayes – Hot Buttered Soul
King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King
Fairport Convention – Liege and Lief
The Stooges
Pink Floyd – Ummagumma

What a potent mixture this lot is. Some of them are masterclasses from established bands (Beatles, Stones, Who, Dusty), but many are from relative newcomers who point the way for all sorts of genres that would not blossom fully for many years (Led Zeppelin – Heavy Metal. Isaac Hayes, Temptations – Soul. King Crimson, Pink Floyd – Progressive. Stooges - Punk). There is also a massive diversity from the avant-garde (Captain Beefheart) to folk (Fairport Convention) and from bright shiny supergroups (Crosby Stills and Nash) to the dark underbelly of social conscience (Johnny Cash). It is an intriguing cocktail – and one that fizzed enticingly at ‘Woodstock’ and then bubbled over alarmingly at ‘Altamont’ as the decade closed.

All this and man walked on the moon using the processing power of a mobile phone. Amazing!

Tuesday, 2 March 2010


‘Even at the age of ten
Smart boy Kevin was a smart boy then
He always beat me at Subbuteo
‘Cos he flicked a kick and I didn’t know’

As a kid growing up in the sixties, I almost inevitably became an expert Meccano engineer, Scalextric racing driver and Subbuteo table football champ, by a sort of osmosis. I loved my Meccano but Subbuteo was the top game, as immortalised by the Undertones in the above lyrics from ‘My Perfect Cousin’. Subbuteo, whilst still played today, really belongs to the sixties when it evolved from its initial flat plastic figures to the famous moulded plastic ones with weighted bases we know today and I spent hours playing it – usually by myself. I had a 1966 ‘Continental’ set with the usual ‘red’ and ‘blue’ team, both of which became the most accident prone teams in football history with broken arms and legs all round. Playing on the floor where my mother often walked probably had something to do with it.

I remember playing most games by myself in those days and this was no exception. I played both sides and even had a league for a short while but the reds and blues suffered mightily from either my knees or others’ feet. It was worse than the Somme.

Eventually, in a fit of pique over playing with two paraplegic teams, I spent the whole of my school dinner money for a week on a brand new team (team 3 - blue and white striped shirts/white shorts) from a school friend and nearly starved in the process. But even they suffered fractured limbs on my floor field so it was with much relief that I was allowed access to a table top and soon the casualty rate fell dramatically.

At this time I felt flush enough to buy another team - number 6 (gold shirts/black shorts) representing my local team, Watford and then team number 40 (claret and sky blue striped shirts/white shorts) before I gave up the game due to old age. But guess what? The latter two teams turned up in the back of a cupboard recently and they are in their original boxes and in perfect condition. A quick look on ebay suggests that I may have something valuable on my hands. Ha! And my mother thought I was wasting my money – again.