Friday, 28 October 2011

Imelda May and the Curse of Rockabilly

For someone who has spent a lifetime in the grip of rock ‘n’ pop, you’d think that I would know something about its origins, wouldn’t you?  But shamefully the answer is more a ‘sort of’ than a ‘yes’.  I suppose the problem has been that my assimilation of knowledge has been via first hand experience rather than vicarious study and that I have basically winged it by living through its twists and turns.

So when it comes to a subject such as Rockabilly, I still find it hard to know whether it is angel or devil.  What I do know is that it is the earliest form of rock ‘n’ roll, emerging in the early 1950s from a primeval stew of Blues and Hillbilly (Country) and carried into the public ear by the likes of Carl Perkins and Elvis but as a style I’ve never really had much truck with it.

I can almost pin down exactly when it swung into the ‘devil’ category and that was in the early 1980s when the Rockabilly Revival stormed the charts in the form of The Stray Cats and numerous imitators and evolved into the dreaded Shakin’ Stevens.  Need I say more?  I hated both of them with a vengeance and vowed that Rockabilly or anything even vaguely resembling it would be banished from my collection for all eternity.

However, the door was edged open again in 1992 when Morrissey’s ‘Your Arsenal’ was released.  Subsequent to The Smiths’ breakup, Morrissey had offered up 2 solo efforts in ‘Viva Hate’ and ‘Kill Uncle’ but the quality was on the wane and the critics were circling.  Luckily for him, ex-Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson took on production duties for ‘Your Arsenal’ and pushed Morrissey’s style into Glam and *gulp*…Rockabilly.  And blow me down, it worked and it worked well.  Somehow, Morrissey’s ultra-modern muse was enhanced by the muscle of the oldest form of rock known to man and the Devil-Angel-ometer began to waver alarmingly.

Fastforward to 2008 and Dublin born Imelda May and her suitably be-quiffed band releases ‘Love Tattoo’ followed in 2010 by ‘Mayhem’ and the meter is registering ‘Angel’ for the first time.  There is something about her take on the form that is irresistible, especially her version of the Northern soul classic, ‘Tainted Love’.  So am I a convert?  Well…up to a point.  Whilst I like much of what Imelda does, there is a limit and I still find myself cherry-picking tracks from her albums.  It goes without saying that I’d still barricade the door if Shaky or The Stray Cats came a-calling.  Everything in moderation, I say.

Friday, 14 October 2011


I have made an amazing discovery.  It is something that pertains to a song that I have known since its release in 1967 yet has only just revealed itself to me via the almost inevitable service of YouTube.  When I tell you what it is, you’re probably going to say, ‘Oh, that old thing…didn’t you know?’ but then I’m always the last to pick up on most things.

Anyway, the year of release - 1967 - will give you a clue as to what sort of song it is.  The Summer of Love was the height of Psychedelia and anyone who was anyone was experimenting with studio weirdness following The Beatles’ lead.  Most of the experimenters were taken from the growing ‘albums-only’ underground which would reveal itself as progressive rock in the 1968/69 period so it was a bit of a shock to find that the voice of Young America, Tamla Motown, a label carefully geared towards the commercial singles market, was also a willing participant.  There were several ‘experimental’ singles released by Motown during this period, mainly by the more progressive elements such as The Temptations, but the one I am referring to here is ‘Reflections’ by Diana Ross and the Supremes.

Written and produced, as always, by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, ‘Reflections’ is one of my favourite Supremes hits.  It has all the usual hallmarks of a great H-D-H song with Ross’s breathy vocal carrying a compelling melody over a classic Funk Brothers backing track (with, unless I am mistaken, a signature slithery bass line from James Jameson).  But it is the psychedelic extras that are most interesting – the signal oscillators over the intro and verses and the strangely reverberated tambourine being just two devices on show.

And now we get to it, the bit that has surprised me over 40 years later and it is this: the main rhythm is carried by, of all things, an accordion!  I mean, who knew?  I didn’t expect to find an accordion in pop music at all let alone in a Motown single.  But then the Summer of Love opened the door to all sorts of exotic instruments, many from India, so I suppose it was inevitable that that most Victorian of instruments would turn up eventually.  Just not in Detroit.

Well damn me, if the video I based this post on hasn't been blocked over at YouTube.  You'll just have to listen to Reflections and try to pick out that accordian for yourself!