Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Thursday, 11 August 2011


With economic downturn, rising unemployment, riots in the streets and a royal wedding  I feel we've gone back through some sort of space/time anomaly and ended up back in the eighties.
However, one thing that we don't seem to have now but we did have in the eighties was political pop music. Not just music that was about bringing down the system or about loving everyone but music that was avowedly political and made statements about issues larger than not getting laid.
I grew up on a steady diet of left-wing, anti-fascist, feminist and anti-racist music and music writing and I have to admit that my current political views are very much formed by those early exposures.
I was encouraged to read books because I heard them mentioned in song lyrics, encouraged to seek out works by artists because they were on record sleeves and listen to older music that was reference by reviewers.
No doubt there are kids today who are being influenced in just the same way, although I doubt they are listening to jingly jangly guitar rock.
Looking around now it seems that perhaps politics has become as important to kids now as it was to kids in the late eighties. Riots and looting recently and violent politically motives demonstrations earlier in the year seem to me to be signs that young people are thinking about their world and are not very happy about what they see.
Of course in 1987 when I Am A Wallet was released the charts were as untroubled by political songs as they are now. Once in a while someone like The Style Council, or Billy Bragg or the Redskins would sneak a song through the pap but it was a rarity.
If McCarthy are remembered at all its probably because their lead guitarist Tim Gane went on to form Stereolab.
His playing in this record is superb in a very Byrd's influenced way. It reminds me somewhat of Primal Scream's Sonic Flower Groove but better. I also hear moments that remind me of Johnny Marr, particularly on The Way of the World. Overall the sound owes a lot to early Orange Juice and Malcolm Eden's singing always makes me think of Paul Haig in Josef K.
After all these years I have to admit that musically, McCarthy are definitely very twee.
But it is the lyrics that prompted me to pull the record off of the shelves.
Complex and rarely rhyming, Malcolm Eden's strident left wing political views are manifest on I Am A Wallet. Cloaked in pretty guitar and propulsive drums, Eden sets about attacking the pillars of the day, MPs, Prince Charles, Fleet Street, religion, the response to AIDS and on almost every song capitalism. The horrors and inequalities of the capitalist system are laid bare for all the see. The system which enables some to get rich at the expense of others is reviled and attacked. In much the same way as George Grosz (whose Funeral Procession is on the front cover) Eden caricatures figures such as politicians, journalists and bankers, creating grotesque parodies in order to highlight their crimes.
Here are some tracks from the record. Listen to the lovely guitar work and pay attention to the lyrics. Sadly they are as relevant in 2011 as they were in 1987.

Exploito # 10 The Stone Canyon Rock Group - MacArthur Park

I can still remember hearing Richard Harris sing/talking his way through MacArthur Park and thinking "what the phuck is he going on about????"
But like many strange things repeated exposure changed my mind and I now believe it is one of the best songs ever committed to wax.
It has everything, intrigue, pathos, melodrama, suspense and release. Jimmy Webb's arrangement is masterful and Harris's Tramp Shining vocal efforts make Lee Hazelwood sound like Pavarotti. Unbelievable stuff.
Which of course brings us to the record here. MacArthur Park has of course been covered by everyone from Donna Summer to Wylon Jennings but no one has take the song and given it quite the same treatment as the Stone Canyon Rock Group. These guys, and despite the pretty girl under the blossom on the cover, they are guys, tackle the song without the string orchestra. Fair enough perhaps you might say. And although the singer lacks Richard Harris's vocal delivery and phrasing you could say that no one else can treat a song in the same way that he can.
However, the result is something that sounds sadly like a cake left out in the rain. Soggy, washed out and tasteless. Everything that is good in the original, everything that saved it from falling into saccharine pretentiousness has been taken out.
All that is left is a thumping piano and a singer straining at the top of his abilities.
Please heed my warning and avoid this track. It's not worth the five minutes of your life.
Who could be behind such a travesty you might reasonably ask. Look no further than Jerry Cole.
I Can't Stand It, Wild Times and I Love You (originally Don't Think Twice) and from the Id Sessions. I would guess that they are alternative takes as they feel much more 'country' that then versions of the Inner Sounds of the Id reissue.
Can the rest be originals? Of course not what a stupid question. If you are a bit of a trainspotter you would recognise Baby Can't You See as I'm a Man, Most of All There's You as Lisa and Light Show as Strange Shadows, all from the Generation Gap Up Up and Away album. Read about it here
Light Show/ Strange Shadows is a very eerie slice of surf instrumental. Recommended.
The last two track could, I am sure be tracked down on a Cole county record, but to date I haven't been able to do so.
All in all, unless you like bad covers of Richard Harris songs I would avoid this record and get The Generation Gap instead.
On a final note I had always though that the Stone Canyon Rock Group owed its name to Ricky Nelson's Stone Canyon Band. It would explain the country element to most of the songs as the Stone Canyon Band were pioneers of that sound. However, if they were then they were very prescient as Ricky's band didn't release a record until 1971. Maybe they got their name from this record!

Friday, 5 August 2011


Listening to Mal Waldron's the Quest (read what I've said about it here) made me pull this record out.
Recorded a week before the Waldron date, Where? is actually a Ron Carter session.
After Dolphy died and posthumously became something of a celebrity Prestige reissued Where? and The Quest under Dolphy's name. I can see how you might think that The Quest was Dolphy's date given the subdued nature of Waldron's playing but Where? is definitely Carter's. In fact Dolphy doesn't even play on every track!
This sort of thing happened fairly frequently. As talented sidemen became famous in their own right their earlier recordings would be reissued under their own names, often with the leaders all but relegated to footnotes on the sleeves. Trumpeter Wilbur Hardin recorded a number of records with his friend John Coltrane on sax (he also recorded with Yusef Lateef and you can read about Prayer to the East here). Once Coltrane attained fame all of these recordings were re-released as Coltrane records and Hardin lapsed into obscurity. You have to love the exploitative nature of the record industry!
I can't help but feel that the first years on the 1960s  must have been a wildly exciting time to have been in New York and listening to jazz.  I find something fascinating and intriguing about a record like this or The Quest. To my ears its as though nothing was impossible and everything was allowed. Musicians were including everything in their music, absorbing influences from around the world, using different instruments, time signature, scales and modes. In many ways the nexus for all of this was New York, where some of the most experimental music was taking place.
Part of that experimental approach to music making manifested itself in so-called Third Stream music - a blend of jazz and classical.
For many jazz commentators Third Stream is seen as a dead-end for jazz, an attempt to smooth out the rough edges and disreputable elements of jazz, to in some way eviscerate it. That many Third Stream recordings were produced by 'cool' or 'West Coast' jazz musicians and that many of them were white also counts against it.
I have to admit that I find much Third Stream stuff too polite for my ears. How much Modern Jazz Quartet can anyone  take? But I feel that rather than be seen as a different path from the so-called avant garde it was part of the same questing for new sounds, for absorbing old music, and 'exotic' music and trying to turn that into jazz.
And who better to pull all of these influences together than Eric Dolphy?
Dolphy's appearance on a vast number of recordings is often lamented as an example of the plight of an avant garde musician who is forced to play in styles not his own in order to live. Perhaps. But I can't help feeling that when one looks at the dates Dolphy plays on, there are some consistencies. In the same way as the early experiences of Coltrane, himself a bandleader for Dolphy, funnelled into his later playing, most notably I think in some of the low honking noises he sometime made, Dolphy's experiences also shaped his playing.
Throughout his time with the Chico Hamilton group, Dolphy played with Nathan Gershman on cello. Although Gershman achieved a completely different sound on his cello from the sound that Carter gets on Where? Dolphy's earlier experiences must have played a part in his sensitive playing on this record.
Carter originally trained as a cellist and, as with some may jazz musicians from this era, was familiar with and trained in classical music.
I think you can hear this in the expressive way he plays and on the truly moving cello work on Bass Duet - a track that Dolphy doesn't play on.
Of course Carter would go on to play in one of Miles Davis's most important bands and although Miles had moved away from his 'cool' period it seems to me to be another example of the ways in which the so called differing schools of jazz were not as different as some commentators would like.
Dolphy also played with Charles Mingus, as did Mal Waldron, so both had extensive experience of working in bassist-led bands.
Talking of bassists I have to mention George Duvivier. When  Carter is on cello Duvivier takes on the bass chores. If you ever see a record with Duvivier's name pick it up. He played with some amazing musicians, Herbie Nicols, Wilbur Hardin, Shirley Scott. His playing on this record is incredible. I have no doubt that he and Carter pushed each other to greater heights.
If you've read this far you deserve a small reward - here is a very bad rip of the album - no track breaks I'm afraid! Enjoy.