40,000 Headmen

HeadmenIf you look up the definition of ‘headman’ you will find it means ‘chief’ but I think Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi were thinking of the primitive headhunters of colonial Africa when they wrote 40,000 Headmen. Being confronted by 40,000 wise old tribal chiefs would be bad enough but an army of savage warriors bent on adding your head to their trophy cabinet is an all together more terrifying prospect.

Fortunately for Steve and Jim 40,000 Headmen is pure fantasy. (Capaldi said it was inspired by “a hash-fuelled dream” and he should know!) It was the B-side of Traffic‘s 1968 single No Face, No Name, No Number and a track on their second album, Traffic.
Headmen - Treasure.1
Headmen is the sort of song you might sing round the camp fire, accompanied by the strumming of an acoustic guitar and the wheeze of an accordion. In the flickering light the story of a man who walks across the sea, finds unimaginable treasure and flees with it chased by hoards of angry tribesmen wouldn’t seem so strange.

In Traffic’s version the guitar and synthesised accordion are submerged under the vocals, a tumbling bass line, a fluttering flute, rim-shot drums and a rasp of maracas. The tune is simple, the pace relaxed and the overall effect is both comforting and enticingly mysterious.

Headmen is very much a product of the sixties when psychedelic soft rock was the pop music of the day. But it is also timeless, as good to listen to now as it was when it was first recorded. (Roamin’ Thro’ The Gloamin With) 40,000 Headmen, to give it its full title, is my latest Track of the Week.

Born Under A Bad Sign

There was a documentary about Ginger Baker on the TV a few days ago. The programme is part of the BBC’s Imagine series and it’s available on BBC iPlayer until 7th August if you want to watch it. (I don’t think the iPlayer service is available outside the UK, though.)

Ginger Baker will be 76 next month. The wild ginger hair of his days with Cream is shorter now and silver. The long sunken face has become rounder and puffier. The mischievous grin has gone and the eyes don’t sparkle much any more. He suffers from COPD. Mr. Baker loves his horses; he hasn’t much time for people, though, if the documentary paints an accurate picture of the man as he was in 2012.

I learnt two things about Ginger Baker from that film: he started as a jazz drummer and he’s a prickly, irascible, cantankerous old man. I understand, at last, why he was (and still is) such a great drummer and why Jack Bruce found him so impossible. They say there’s a fine line between genius and madness and it’s easy to see that when you look at Peter Edward (“Ginger”) Baker.

A music blog is no place to criticise people for their failings, not even the failings of musicians, so I won’t. Instead, I want to celebrate Ginger Baker’s talent. I’ve chosen Born Under A Bad Sign from Cream’s Wheel’s of Fire album as my Track Of The Week because I think it demonstrates the flair and originality that Ginger brought to the world of rock music.

Born Under - Zodiac SignsBorn Under A Bad Sign was written by William Bell, an R&B singer, and Booker T. Jones, the bandleader. It was recorded by the blues singer and guitarist, Albert King, in 1967. Cream’s version was released in 1968. Many other artists recorded it, too, including Jimi Hendrix and Homer Simpson (according to Wikipedia).

It’s basically an R&B song. The sentiment is pure blues; the hook is the swaggering rhythm of the bass part; Eric Clapton’s guitar wails pitifully. And the drums sound like the steps of a down-and-out as he trudges through life, moving on, always moving on. With every step the cymbals tang, tang, tang like the sting of insults from hard-hearted passers by, people with homes, families and friends.

Ginger Baker may have started as a jazz drummer but he made his name as a rock musician and he’s perfectly at home here in this R&B piece. That’s a measure of the man’s versatility and exceptional talent. He has worked with quite a few bands in his 60 year career to date, as well as running his own fusion and jazz bands: Ginger Baker’s Airforce and The Ginger Baker Trio.

None of his collaborations lasted for very long. In the case of Cream, the band disintegrated because Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker couldn’t get along. I suspect Ginger’s coarse and uncompromising personality was a factor in some of the other break-ups, too. For every silver lining there must be a cloud, I suppose.

Ginger keeps several dogs on his gated property in South Africa. They are pets rather than guard dogs but there’s a warning sign at the gate: it says, simply, Beware of Mr. Baker.

Ginger Baker - Beware

The Gnome’s Revenge

Free Admission - Gnome In Chains

Free the Gnome! Or we’ll take revenge …

In 2007 Josh Dick and Brad Scoville used computers to create a music album for their U.S. college project. They called themselves Free Admission, the album was called Revenge of the Lawn Gnome and the result is available for free streaming and download on Jamendo, Last FM, Soundcloud and the Josh Dick website.
Josh Dick
There are no ‘real’ instruments here; it’s all synthesised and computer-generated. But what you hear is traditional piano, guitar, bass, drums, strings and horns. Yes, there are electronic sounds but no more than on any pop song nowadays. The compositions don’t fit into any genre I can name. It’s a blend of classical, pop, jazz and other styles; the sort of thing a music student would have to write at college. All in all, it would make an excellent film score.

Free Admission have weak connections with Axis (free music from a band you’ve not heard of), Landscape (conventional tunes using unusual instruments) and Guillemots (film score music). Those connections alone would justify making Revenge of the Lawn Gnome my Album of the Month for July but no excuses are needed. The album is a joy to listen to; another Hidden Gem.

Here’s a track called Incognito Redux, a 2012 version of Incognito from the 2007 release.

Greensleeves

The Crotchety clan is going back in time again. Mrs Crotchety and her daughter are going way back to the Jurassic era of pre-history (as portrayed in the film sets of Jurassic World). And, while they’re at the cinema, Crotchety Man is visiting Tudor England.

GreensleevesHenry VIII has been dead for more than 40 years, Elizabeth I is on the throne and Shakespeare is writing his first plays. We can hear the sound of a minstrel plucking the strings of his lute and singing a lament for the Lady Greensleeves, who has spurned his advances. But, soft, that is like no lute that I have ever seen. “Pray, sir, what instrument is it that you play so melodiously?”, I enquire. “It is named after Emmett Chapman, gentleman and renowned luthier”, replies the minstrel, doffing his hat. “It is called a Chapman Stick, but it will not be invented for another 380 years”.

His remark seems not to have been noticed by the bystanders but it shakes me to the core. Obviously, I am not the only time traveller here. “Why, sir, you look suddenly pale”, says the musician. “Let us buy some ale and we will sup together for a while.” He steers me through the London streets to an inn by the river, calls for a jug of the landlord’s finest and bids me drink while I recover my composure.
Acoustick closephoto
I ask him his name and how he came to be here. He tells me he is Bob Culbertson and he came here by chance, carried on a train of thought. Quite satisfied by this explanation, I ask about the song he was singing. The Stick player knows little more than I. He learnt the tune from a passing band of entertainers too drunk to be serious. According to them Greensleeves was composed by Henry VIII but it was only known in these parts long after that king’s death. It is usually played using a melodic minor scale I am told, but other versions are heard from time to time, too.

An hourglass catches my eye. The sands are running out. It is time I was going. “Play it again for us, Bob”, I entreat. A few groats are tossed onto a table, the minstrel takes up his instrument again and a small crowd gathers round. As a weariness descends upon me I close my eyes and listen in rapt admiration for the skill of the player and the beauty of the arrangement.

When the strains of the Stick fade away and I open my eyes again I am back in the present. A YouTube video has just ended and the girls are back from the cinema. They are full of praise for the Jurassic world but I think I much prefer the Tudor period and the soothing tune of Greensleeves. Dinosaurs are just so passé, don’t you think?

Space Oddity

Bowie - 2001 Room

For my track of the week I’m offering a song you all know. You’ve heard it on the radio, on the TV, in films, and in pubs, restaurants and shops. It’s ingrained in our collective consciousness like our national anthems or your favourite hymn. Most people like it, some adore it, few hate it. It’s David Bowie’s Space Oddity and it is, of course, a pop/rock classic.

Space Oddity is a song about man’s venture into space. It was first released just nine days before Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon in July 1969. Was this a deliberate attempt to cash in on the fevered interest in the moon shot or just a song that reflects the times? I’m prepared to give Bowie and his record company the benefit of the doubt (for now).

The track’s title obviously alludes to 2001 – A Space Odyssey, a book by Arthur C Clarke and a groundbreaking film by Stanley Kubrick. Like the film, David Bowie’s lyrics both celebrate the conquest of space and warn of its dangers, as if to make sure the record would be relevant whether the Apollo 11 mission succeeded or failed.

The instrumentation is a little unusual. Bowie himself plays a Stylophone to give a slightly buzzy electronic texture early on and Rick Wakeman provides some ethereal Mellotron that suggests the vast emptiness of space. But these are relatively subtle additions to the guitar, bass, drums and strings typical of pop/rock records. Admittedly, there are some weird effects on the lengthy fade-out, but Space Oddity is basically just a conventional track aimed squarely at the charts.

For a track that is so well-known it’s surprising that it didn’t have a greater impact on the charts. The original version reached number 5 in the UK, but only peaked at 124 in the US. Nevertheless, there have been several later releases and numerous covers. The 1973 release got to number 15 in the US and the 1975 version took the top spot in the UK. The link I gave above is to the 2009 remaster marking 40 years of oddness in space.

Bowie - Space Oddity (ISS)

Then, of course, there was the cover version recorded as a music video by Chris Hadfield, a real live astronaut, while on the International Space Station in 2013. That video has been viewed on YouTube over 25 million times. It’s a pretty good video but some of the words have been changed, taking away some of the ambiguity and mystery of the original lyrics, and it doesn’t capture the imagination the way the 1969 music-only track does.

I don’t doubt that Chris Hadfield was a fine commander of the ISS but when it comes to playing music he is totally eclipsed by the amazing talent of David Bowie and the session musicians on that 1969 recording. Space Oddity is a truly great track which fully justifies its place in the Crotchety Man blog.

Landscape

In my first chemistry practical at school we explored the difference between mixtures and compounds. Most metallic elements, we were told, have certain properties in common: they are hard and shiny; they conduct heat and electricity well; they ring when you strike them. Non-metals, like sulphur, are usually soft and powdery, are insulators and scrunch quietly if you hit them. Bearing this in mind we did the following experiment.

Pour some iron filings and some powdered yellow sulphur into a crucible. Mix it well and heat it with a bunsen burner. Both the sulphur and the iron will change. When you can no longer see any iron filings or sulphur powder remove the burner, allow everything to cool and examine the contents of the crucible.

If you do this you will get a grey/black solid mass that can be crumbled fairly easily. It doesn’t look like iron and it doesn’t look like sulphur, either. In fact, it doesn’t share any obvious properties with either of the original ingredients. You have made iron (II) sulphide, chemical formula FeS.

Landscape - Bar

Now take some synthpop and a generous spoonful of jazz. Bring them together in a recording studio and generate a spark of creativity by supplying the musicians with beer, burgers or promises of untold fame. Both the pop and the jazz will change. The result will be neither pop nor jazz; it will be the Landscape album.

Landscape was a group of five musicians about which the Net has very little to say. They were formed in 1974 and released three albums: Landscape (1979), From the Tea-Rooms of Mars … to the Hell-Holes of Uranus (1981) and Manhattan Boogie-Woogie (1982). In their early years they experimented with a variety of electronic instruments, including synthesisers, electronic drums, electric trombone and the lyricon, all of which feature prominently in their records.
Landscape - Album
That first self-titled album is a collection of instrumental pieces featuring keyboard, bass, drums and two brass/woodwind players. It’s the lineup of a jazz band, the sound of electronics and the tunes of the charts fused into something unlike any of those elements. Of the three albums only Landscape manages to get the chemistry right and create something genuinely new. (From the Tea-Rooms is pure electronic pop, Manhattan Boogie is full of dance tracks and both feature vocals that subtract more than they add.)

For me, Landscape (the album) is Landscape (the band) and it’s my overdue Album of the Month for June.