Dead Pop Stars

Back in the 1960s, rock stars weren’t expected to have long careers. “I hope I die before I get old,” sang The Who. Soon after, the likes of Hendrix, Jones, Morrison and Joplin joined the 27 club. Nobody associated pop music with longevity, let alone a pension fund. But now we have octogenarian rockers releasing new albums and even touring (health permitting). It’s almost indecent….

Of course, most musicians don’t go out in a blaze of glory, at the height of their career. Instead, they fade away gracefully after their 15 minutes of fame (or pursue a career in reality TV). With better management of their back catalogues (and thanks to streaming services, box-set reissues, band reunions and come-back package tours), a decent living can even be had by artists from the second and third divisions.

As we ourselves age, we may measure our own mortality against the stars we were fans of. I’m not quite old enough to remember (or register) the passing of Hendrix or Joplin, but I certainly remember where I was when Elvis Presley, Keith Moon and Sid Vicious each left this mortal coil. For various reasons, none of these untimely deaths were totally unsurprising, based on their lifestyles. I was somewhat shocked when I heard about the death of Ian Curtis – I was still a teenager, he was only a few years older than me, and I’d even spoken to him, albeit briefly, at one of his last ever gigs. But again, not totally unexpected in the circumstances.

Understandably, John Lennon’s murder was pivotal in popular culture (due both to the manner and timing of his demise), but otherwise, major rockers from the 60s & 70s have reached old age intact (but not always with dignity). Sure, there have been many exceptions, mostly thanks to lifestyle choices or misadventure. But it’s not uncommon for pop, rock and jazz musicians to live (mostly happily) to a ripe old age – in recent times, we have lost Harold Budd, Jon Hassell, Lee Perry, McCoy Tyner and Charlie Watts, who each enjoyed more than their three score years and ten. Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr are still troubling the charts in their 80s (and what about Sir Elton!), while the remaining members of the Beatles and The Stones are close to joining octogenarian rock royalty.

So it was with some sadness that I read about the recent death of Pat Fish, aka The Jazz Butcher. Not only was he just a few years older than me, but I’d enjoyed seeing his band play several times around London (most memorably, supporting R.E.M. in late 1985). I’d also met Pat a few times via a mutual friend, and he was always charming and entertaining.

Pat was one of the last “gentleman rock and rollers” – he wasn’t just in it for the money or glory (although both help to sustain a long music career). He was a chronicler of the absurd, the whimsical and the eccentric (in the nature of other English songwriters such as Ray Davies, Syd Barrett, Robyn Hitchcock and Julian Cope), and as epitomized by “Mr. Odd” and the self-referential “Southern Mark Smith”. Yet, despite this, he found loyal audiences across North America and Europe, where he was probably more appreciated than in the UK. (For example, a Paris-based American musician I knew at the time only became aware of The Jazz Butcher thanks to a tribute to Olaf Palme they recorded after the Swedish prime minister’s murder.)

If the calibre of a band can be measured by the songs and artists they cover, The Jazz Butcher made some interesting choices, revealing their influences and personal tastes: “Road Runner” (Jonathan Richman), “Sweet Jane” (Velvet Underground), “Take The Skinheads Bowling” (Camper Van Beethoven) and “Spooky” (Dusty Springfield). And Pat was also supportive of other bands that were associated with his home base in the East Midlands, or signed to the same labels he was. In this way, and at various times, he was connected to the likes of Bauhaus, Spacemen 3, Eyeless in Gaza, In Embrace, The Pastels, Teenage Fanclub, Bron Area and The Woodentops.

Finally, in keeping with the times, The Jazz Butcher have been the subject of a recent reissue campaign, and there may be a posthumous album released shortly.

Cheers, Pat!

Next week: Opening Up…

 

Telstar!

The quality of a song can often be reflected in the number and variety of cover versions it prompts. Think of tunes that have become jazz standards, or key songs like “Yesterday” or “My Way” which have become some of the most covered compositions in the pop canon. Sometimes, the original can be overshadowed by a later interpretation, to the point where it becomes the definitive recording. (For me, John Cale’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” outclasses both the original and later, more popular renditions). Too often, though, cover versions are pale imitations, mere pastiche or karaoke cannon fodder for TV talent shows.

One of the first records I am conscious of hearing at home and playing on the family Dansette is “Telstar” by The Tornados (the 7″ version with the deep blue Decca label, and distinctive striped orange and white sleeve). Although the main melody is quite simple (and total ear-worm), the original 1962 version features strange noises and curious effects, while the overall instrumental tone is appropriately other-worldly. Both of its time (reflecting the emerging space age) and timeless, “Telstar” has given rise to numerous versions, and thanks to the current lock-down in Melbourne and the wonders of YouTube, last week I killed a few hours searching and compiling this playlist.

I’m sure there are many more tributes out there, but this list comprises 20 or so key recordings I came across during my internet trawl:

Chronologically, the first couple of tracks on the playlist are quite faithful renditions by The Tornados’ contemporaries, The Ventures and The Spotnicks. (Strangely, the latter put out a later, and rather pointless “updated” version.)

The record’s initial success led to a vocal version by Bobby Rydell which has a certain naive charm. This in turn inspired (directly or indirectly) a couple of wonderful European vocal recordings – by Slovenia’s Marjana Deržaj and Finland’s Laila Halme. They both stay just the right side of kitsch, and bring some unique elements of their own.

These vocal recordings are followed by a cluster of orchestral/easy listening renditions, typical of the time both in style and context: there’s Billy Vaughn‘s big band recording, featuring sax and guitar; The Hawaiians‘ exotica; and James Last‘s cheesy string arrangement. All great examples of the hits of the day played in styles to suit all tastes…

We shift gears for The Pyramid‘s ska take, followed by Al Casey‘s faithful version from the early 70’s, that features an interesting opening. Also around this time came Hot Butter‘s sanitized synths, that feels like a missed opportunity to go further out in space…

If we take “disco” to be a broad church, then the oddities by Venus Gang and Ovni would just about qualify in that category – while The Shadows‘ early 80’s take sounds like those awful Stars on 45 records.

Also in the 80’s, we find a couple of versions that are either ironic, or so post modern it hurts. The Models‘ 1981 recording attempts to add some new wave atmosphere, while Ad Infinitum‘s 1984 effort is notable for coming out on Manchester’s very hip Factory record label. (It also features a tongue-in-cheek piano bar version on the b-side.)

Finally, a couple of more recent versions that each add another dimension. First, from 1997, Takako Minekawa‘s neo-loungecore interpretation (very on message for the time), which would appeal to fans of Saint Etienne and Stereolab alike. Lastly, from 2014, Bill Frisell‘s restrained but lush slide guitar that presents a fitting tribute to this classic space age instrumental.

[“Telstar” cover versions that I wish existed: the outake from Bowie’s “Low” sessions; Kraftwerk’s 1975 sound check from London’s Festival Hall; Esquival’s bachelor pad stylings; Jacques Loussier channelling Bachian counterpoint; and Marlene Dietrich’s vocal rendition…]

Next week: Living in limbo

I got nothing

After nearly six weeks in Melbourne’s current lock-down (#6 if anyone is keeping count…), I have nothing to blog about this week.

The lack of external stimulus has finally beaten me, and I have nothing much to say. The muse is gone, the well is dry, and there’s only so much you can say about being confined to quarters.

One benefit of this enforced inactivity has been the opportunity to catch up on recent movies, that I either missed at the cinema, or which were not widely distributed upon release.

A few of these films seem perfectly suited to these times – mainly because nothing much happens. These particular stories are more concerned with slow observation and self-reflection.

In “The Truffle Hunters”, there is a stillness bordering on stagnation, as a group of elderly men respond in different ways to the changes being foisted upon their cottage industry. It’s not just the fact that their traditional way of life is coming to an end – it’s the nagging inevitability of their situation, and the growing realisation that there’s probably nothing they could have done to avoid this happening.

Stagnation of a different kind informs the main characters in “Another Round”. They see their lives as being stuck in a rut (although outwardly, they have a comfortable existence), and they feel relatively helpless. Until, that is, they stumble upon the idea of a social experiment, which involves maintaining a consistent blood-alcohol level. They embark on the project to see if they can enliven their mundane existence, with vastly different results.

A similar sense of helplessness pervades “Brad’s Status”. Similarly dissatisfied with his life, and with a growing awareness that perhaps he has misread key social relationships, a middle-aged father uses a trip with his son to re-assess his friends, reflect on his values, and re-connect with what sustains him. He also finds contentment in his achievements, and achieves a sense of acceptance about what he can and can’t change or control.

Finally, a journey of self-realisation also befalls the protagonist in “People Places Things”. When his marriage collapses (and he didn’t see it coming…), our hero finds a way to use his work to explore and resolve this apparent failure to read the situation. In the process, he learns how to communicate his feelings, and more importantly, he gets comfortable with who he is.

Next week: No-code product development

 

 

The Fall – always different, always the same

During the latest Melbourne lock-down, I have been revisiting the music of The Fall. A strange (or should that be Kurious?) choice, but at a time when you feel like ranting (or mithering) at the absurdity of it all, The Fall make perfect sense. It might not always be comfortable listening, but sometimes you need a bit of grit and gristle as a catalyst to move on.

When exploring The Fall, it’s hard to know where to begin (and, just as importantly, how to end). Although they emerged from the 70’s punk movement and were associated with the Manchester music scene, The Fall identified with neither. But if punk hadn’t happened, and without that link to Manchester, I doubt they would have got as far. They out-lived all of their contemporaries, without the tired reunions or desperate comeback tours of their peers. Perhaps only Wire or Gang of Four can claim a similar longevity, but they both had long periods of inactivity.

Named after an Albert Camus novel, The Fall were not afraid to acknowledge their influences and interests, in particular those of their core founder and only consistent member, Mark E Smith. Scattered across lyrics, album covers, sleeve notes, press interviews and side projects, it is possible to find references to literature, art, theatre, dance, philosophy, politics, psychology, spiritualism and the occult. Elements of Wyndham Lewis, Samuel Beckett, Edgar Allan Poe, Aleister Crowley, Jean-Paul Sartre, William Blake, H.P. Lovecraft, Luke Rhinehart, Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Jarry and Kurt Schwitters can be found strewn across The Fall’s output.

This should not be too surprising: during a 40-year recording career, The Fall released 30+ studio albums, 60+ singles and EPs, and more than a hundred live albums and compilations. Integral to their recording career are the two-dozen sessions The Fall recorded for John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 program. (Peel was an early champion, and often cited them as his favourite band – he is also credited with the quotation that provides the title of this blog.) It’s the sort of discography that will keep fans busy for years – and represents something of a licensing headache for record labels and music publishers alike.

The Fall’s prolific (and challenging) body of work only came to an end when Smith died in early 2018, although the posthumus re-issues and compilations have continued with almost indecent frequency – I hope his estate are keeping tabs.

Of course, with that sort of work ethic, quality control can suffer. Smith was equally feted and feared for his wilful determination and unwillingness to conform. His refusal to compromise or comply with current fads and fashion was certainly an admirable trait. But this steadfast and stubborn control over his content reveals a weakness – the absence of any discernible editorial oversight means that there is a law of diminishing returns, especially in the band’s later years. Although it must also be acknowledged that even on the last few albums, there was something of a return to form.

When Smith died, he was honoured with an obituary in the Washington Post, which must have had more than a few readers perplexed – (Mark E who? Marquis Cha-Cha of course!). Smith would have loathed/laughed at the attention. He had a love/hate relationship with journalists, but he also understood the value of the media to reach his audience, especially in the pre-internet heyday of the UK’s weekly music press (the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds). At the same time, he could be dismissive towards certain sections of his fans, although he saved most of his bile for other bands, especially those whom he felt were mere plagiarists.

Trying to summarise what The Fall represent musically is no easy task. Their antecedents can be traced to 1950’s rockabilly, 1960’s garage rock and 1970’s glam. In terms of outlook and attitude, it’s possible to discern similarities to American groups such as Captain Beefheart and Pere Ubu, and German bands such as Can and Faust. Yet another reference point might be their choice of cover songs, ranging from The Kinks to Sister Sledge, from Hank Mizell to Lee Perry.

Another way to approach their music is to break it down into chronological chapters: the post-punk and dense sounds of their first few albums, the rapid evolution into art rock and neo-pop in the mid-1980s, the brief period with a major label in the early-19990s that saw a transition to a more electronic sound (and mild flirtations with techno and big beat), the peaks and troughs of the middle-aged years, and then the erratic coda in their dotage that showed glimpses of former glories. But this hardly does their back catalogue justice. If you asked fifty fans to list their top 10 tracks by The Fall, you would get as many different compilation albums.

I was fortunate to see The Fall in their early- and mid-1980s peak – so my own preferences mainly stem from that era – the run of albums that comprises “Grotesque (After The Gramme)”, “Perverted by Language”, “Hex Enduction Hour”, “Room to Live”, “The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall”, “I Am Kurious Oranj”, “Bend Sinister”, “This Nation’s Saving Grace” and “The Frenz Experiment”, plus the myriad singles and EPs dotted around those releases.

If pushed, I’d have to say my favourite track is “Leave the Capitol”, from 1981 – to me, it sums up what The Fall represent.

Next week: Eileen Agar – My Brush With Surrealism