Thursday, 22 November 2007

Solid Air - John Martyn

The album I never expected to buy

Solid Air - John Martyn

Beardy faced acoustic based singer song writers have little appeal and minimal interest for me - John martyn was the bloke who wrote 'May You Never' on Clapton's deeply dreary album 'Slowhand'and one of thé performers I skipped on the marvelous Old Grey Whistle Test DVDs to get another performance.

I was always thought Nick Drake would be my token folky concession. So I bought all the albums, played all the albums and found him a bit like Scandinavia - isolated , icy, prone to extended periods of darkness - and not some where I wanted to spend much time.

Ironically it was a song about Nick Drake 'Solid Air' that drew me into the world of John Martyn. This was a much broader musical geography the folky trappings of 'Over The Hill' and smoky trimmings of 'Solid Air' and 'Don't Want To Know' give it the weight and warmth of a late night Jazz club or intimate acoustic performance, all perfectly underpinned by Danny Thompson's gliding bass lines. And the echoplex reverb adding an almost dubbish depth to the folk funk of 'Dreams By The Sea'.

Solid Air the album is as rich, plummy and fruity as a bottle of vintage red wine, each note plucked drops glossily from the guitar and oozes out of the speakers on all tracks but particularly on the understated eroticism of 'Go Down Easy' and gentle lullaby of 'May You Never'.

May you never lay your head down
Without a hand to hold
May you never make your bed out in the cold.

Davey Graham, Bert jansch and Nick Drake are are all genius acoustic technicians, but none of them have John Martyn's intuitive touch and feel for delivering the full flavour of a song.

I still don't have much interest in beardy faced acoustic based singer song writers - but 'Solid Air', John Martyn (the weighty Marlon Brando to Nick Drakes whispy James Dean) and his 70s albums are a joy. I don't skip John Martyn any more instead I sit and study his tone and technique - why not try it yourself?

Watch the fiddle finger moves at the very end of 'May You Never'.

Recommended Reading

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Life's A Riot With Spy Vs Spy by Billy Bragg

It seems that each generation has its troubadour. In the 1950's there was Woody Guthrie, the 1960's gave us Bob Dylan, the 1970's Nick Drake. All these artists were steeped in folk music and Guthrie and Dylan in particular were overtly political. Punk was meant to smash all that away. Gone were the hippy generation and gently strumming a guitar. The next generation's troubadour came along in 1983. Billy Bragg was an ex-member of the British Army and member of punk band Riff Raff and he combined a punk sensibility, a loud electric guitar and the song craft of a folk musician to really capture the spirit of Thatcher years. Bragg was a tireless performer and travelled the country with his guitar and his amp strapped to his back playing gig after gig.

Life's A Riot is in reality a mini-album. It is barely 20 minutes long and has just 7 tracks but it was so different from the scene at the time it was a breath of fresh air. It is raw, passionate and full of energy and still sounds as good today as it did when it was released. I first heard this on John Peel's show and I remember having to order it from my local record shop and I had to wait for ages before it was delivered. In those days you had to do things like that. There was no Amazon, Myspace or iTunes where music was instantly obtainable so if you wanted something you had to work at getting it. It was later reissued on the newly formed Go-Disc label and went into the Top 30 album chart.

The first track 'The Milkman Of Human Kindness' is one of Bragg's brilliant love songs. He has always been able to balance his political work with gorgeous love songs which are humorous, clever and above all completely unsentimental. 'Milkman' is all of these and was an early indicator of just how good a song writer Bragg was to become. 'To Have And To Have Not' is a challenge to the mean Thatcherite dogma that was preached by the Daily Mail, Express and Murdoch's Sun. Lyrically it is as angry and passionate as you'd expect:

Just because you're better than me,
Doesn't mean I'm lazy.
Just because you're going forwards,
Doesn't mean I'm going backwards.

The song sums up the early 1980's in the UK. If you were not earning obscene amounts of money you were deemed as a lazy good for nothing despite the fact that you were almost certainly doing something far more worthy than the champagne swilling Yuppies in the City.

Another of my favourite tracks is 'A New England' which is probably Bragg's best known song. Kirsty MacColl had a sizable hit with a cover version of this song but Bragg's original is far superior. Another of Bragg's marvellous unrequited love songs 'A New England' has one of my very favourite verses:

I saw two shooting stars last night
I wished on them but they were only satellites
Is it wrong to wish on space hardware
I wish, I wish, I wish you'd care.

Billy Bragg has now been around for close on 25 years and he is still making great music. His appearances on Question Time or Any Questions show that he has lost none of his political fight and his recent book 'Progressive Patriot' is a marvellous cross between auto-biography and Bragg's vision of a Socialist Britain.

Bragg is still touring extensively playing countless festivals and benefit gigs as he did 25 years ago. On Thursday 15 November he is playing a gig in Acton to commemorate a concert given to raise money for the Fire Brigades Union which was the final time Joe Strummer appeared on stage (and I'm going). He has just signed up to play some gigs for Mencap's Little Noise Sessions and he is touring in Australia and New Zealand in early 2008.

We should all be thankful for Billy Bragg. He is a national treasure.

Billy Bragg - Official Website

Monday, 5 November 2007

Roxy Music - Roxy Music

The album from another world

Where in the name of Robert E Lee did Roxy Music come from? They seem to have appeared fully formed like highly intelligent Sci-Fi pop art aliens from some fantastic forbidden planet.

There's no clumsy stumbling through two or three albums finding and refining the Roxy sound. No roots in the blues boom or evidence of a hangover from the Hippy period. In fact, the only minor concession they make to life before Roxy Music are soundtrack's and cinematic's. It’s like the sixties never happened and they’ve arrived on earth crooning, cranking, squeaking, and bleeping all impeccably captured by Peter Sinfield.(how did he get that fantastic drum sound)

The champagne fizz of ‘Remake/Remodel’ sets out the Roxy stall in one blistering bundle, with each player taking a solo at the coda. ‘Ladytron’ is a rocket race with Eno, Mackay and Manzenara revving their instruments to be first past the post, and ‘If There Is Something’ captures some of the most desperate vocals ever heard on the section;

“I would put roses round our door
Sit in the garden
Growing potatoes by the score”

But on Side 2 it gets even deeper and darker with 'The Bob (medley)',and 'Chance Meeting' - inspired by 'Brief Encounter', but actually sounds like something from 'Nightmares In A Damaged Brain'.Each track is it’s own unique sketch and swatch of other worldliness, all enhanced by each player's part and grounded by Paul Thompson's (one of the most under rated drummers) earthy thudding style.

Read any Punk biography and Roxy Music are right there alongside Bowie, T. Rex, Iggy and the Velvets as an influence (The first nightclub setup for Punks was called The Roxy), and future Pistols collaborators Chris Spedding and Chris Thomas were both involved in later Roxy Music recordings. But this influence, and the evolution of the Roxy sound went much further than Punk. Chic’s 'high society' look was modeled on Roxy template. David sylvian and Duran Duran all borrowed from the bank of Bryan Ferry,(Ferry being one of the few who kept his cred' rating intact throughout the 80s). And then there's Eno - Ambient Music, Bowies Berlin trilogy, Talking Heads, 'My Life In The Bush of Ghosts'. All these threads can be traced back to the Roxy Music's debut album.

Which still sounds as remote, futuristic and alien today as it did when I first heard it 25 years ago – so what must have it sounded like when these space invaders first landed in 1972.

Recommended Viewing
Remake/Remodel - Beat Club
Ladytron - Old Grey Whistle Test

Recommended Reading
Viva Roxy Music Site
Roxyrama Site