The Rising Sun

The House of the Rising SunThis time, for my Track Of The Week, I’m going to do something a bit different. Instead of focusing on a specific recording I’m going to explore about a dozen different versions of the same song: The House of the Rising Sun. The link is to a Spotify playlist containing recordings from 1941 to 2001 given in chronological order.

The Rising Sun has a special significance for me. It was the first thing we played when our unnamed band set up our equipment for the very first time in the local youth club hall in the autumn of 1970. In that first rehearsal I played my electronic organ and we managed to recreate the sound of The Animals pretty well. As I was guessing the chords and it was the only thing I could play on the organ, that was pretty amazing. Our performance that day convinced me that playing in an amateur band really was going to be fun and it was, it really was.

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The origins of The House of the Rising Sun are obscure. It may have been an English folk song written in the 18th century and taken to America by immigrants from the British Isles. The oldest known existing recording is from the Appalachians and dates from 1934. The first version available on Spotify is the 1941 recording by Woody Guthrie that kicks off my Rising Sun playlist. This is an unremarkable folk/blues song in a 4/4 time with not much of a tune. In it the female singer warns other girls not to be led astray, as she was, by drunkards and gamblers. Although the words don’t say so most interpretations assume the woman is a prostitute and the House of the Rising sun is the brothel she works in.

Lead Belly recorded Rising Sun in 1944.  His version is also in a 4/4 time and still doesn’t have much of a tune. This time, though, it is sung from the point of view of a man who wants to save his younger sister from a life of misery in the House of the Rising Sun. And it has a rocking country feel, quite different from Woody Guthrie’s mainstream folk rendition.

Then, in 1947, a black American country-blues singer and guitarist called Josh White wrote new music for The Rising Sun and changed the words a bit. Most subsequent performances of the song are based on Josh White’s version, including the 1958 banjo arrangement by Pete Seeger. Now the song is in a 6/8 time and we hear the lilting tune familiar to modern listeners for the first time.

Joan Baez recorded a particularly captivating version of Rising Sun in 1960. With just an acoustic guitar and her clear, mellow voice she wrings the listener’s heart with the tale of a woman whose life has been full of sorrow and misery. Folk music at its very best.

The following year the folk singer Dave Van Ronk taught The Rising Sun to Bob Dylan and both Van Ronk and Dylan recorded it. The Van Ronk version doesn’t have an obvious time signature; the chords change in time with the soulful singing, which wanders along in traditional finger-in-the-ear folk fashion. (It’s music, Jim, but not as the pop charts would know it.) Dylan’s version is a straightforward rendition of the song but unmistakably Bob Dylan, the folk singer, as he was in 1961.

The Animals

The Animals

The most famous version of Rising Sun (at least in the UK) is the one by The Animals, recorded in 1964. Eric Burdon said that the band learnt the song from a Northumbrian folk singer, Johnny Handle, not from the Bob Dylan track as has often been suggested. It has been described as “the first folk-rock hit”, which neatly summarises the mix of folk, rock and pop that made it so successful. The Animals’ Rising Sun was a number one single in both the UK and the US and it won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999. It made an indelible mark on Crotchety Man, too.

There have been numerous other covers of Rising Sun. The Spotify playlist includes versions by another six artists: Marianne Faithfull did a slow folk/pop/classical version reminiscent of French folk songs; Tim Hardin offered a very nice, passionate, folk/blues version; there was a psychedelic rock rendition by Frijid Pink that saw considerable chart success in Europe; there have been two entries into the country music charts, including an up-tempo country/pop version by Dolly Parton; George Melly gave it the cool jazz treatment; and Jimmy Nail sang it as a traditional ballad.

So it seems The House of the Rising Sun is a folk/blues/country/pop/rock song that has also been given perfectly acceptable jazz and old-school ballad treatments. It is the ultimate genre-busting track. Have a listen. You won’t like every version, but it will be good for your education, I promise. And I haven’t even mentioned the 2013 heavy metal arrangement by Five Finger Death Punch…

Take Me To Church

HozierYou know a song has caught the imagination of the general public when it’s played to accompany the trailer for a popular TV program. I realised just the other day that Hozier’s Take Me To Church has achieved that ultimate honour, and it’s a really good tune, so I’ve chosen it as my Track of the Week. Needless to say the song is much more interesting than the TV program, which I’ve completely forgotten now.

Take Me To Church was released as a single in 2013. It sounds like a slow, religious anthem – the studio version of a piano piece written for an evangelical church service. The singer longs for the passion and the ecstasy at the climax of a religious ritual. “Take me to church” he pleads, but he is not asking to be saved and he’s not seeking forgiveness. It’s not God he’s worshipping, it’s his lover; he is borrowing the language of the Christian church to express his feelings of love and erotic desire. For him God is love, the raw, earthly, human love he has for his significant other.

I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies

Good God, let me give you my life.

Hozier - Take Me To ChurchUntil recently I had assumed that “Hozier” was the name of an indie band but actually it’s the performance name of Andrew Hozier-Byrne, an Irish singer/songwriter/guitarist. There’s a distinct flavour of Van Morrison in his voice and, like The Van, many of his recordings get the benefit of a full RnB production. Many, but not all. On the 2014 Hozier album there’s also a nice, simple, acoustic guitar song (Cherry Wine) and some bluesy material as well as the piano, bass and ecclesiastical choir of Take Me To Church. There’s one song in a 5 time, too (From Eden).

This year Take Me To Church was nominated for a Grammy and won the Billboard Music award for best rock song. Hozier also won the Billboard award for best rock artist and his first full album (Hozier) won the European Border Breakers¹ album of the year award. Those awards were richly deserved, I think. You probably have your own opinion.

Notes:

  1. “What’s that?”, I hear you ask. Well, I did look it up, but it really isn’t terribly interesting. Masochists and music industry information junkies can read about it here.

That’s Entertainment

The JamWe have the Radcliffe and Maconie radio show to thank (again) for my next Track of the Week. There was the usual stuff coming over the air waves a few days ago: some news from “Alcopops”; snippets of amusing banter; an eclectic mix of music. Not all to my taste but generally speaking very entertaining. I guess I was doing this and that (I don’t remember what) when a few acoustic guitar chords leapt out at me from the speakers. Immediately my internal Music Appreciation Detector triggered a cascade of thoughts: that’s great, that’s familiar, that’s The Jam, and That’s Entertainment. “Stop what you’re doing”, it commanded, “and listen”.

The Jam formed when the sounds of rebellious youth were being provided by the punk bands, but Paul Weller’s outfit never went down the punk road. Instead, they married the earlier beat and mod styles of The Beatles and The Who to mainstream rock, pop and soul, creating a style of their own. Where the early punks deliberately crashed and thrashed tunelessly The Jam took that raucous, raw energy, tempered it, refined it and delivered it in a polished, professional way. Where the punks were openly contemptuous of the Establishment and wanted to destroy it The Jam incorporated astute observations and political commentary into their lyrics, like a columnist for a respectable, but left-of-centre newspaper. They even wore smart suits.

That’s Entertainment is the simplest of songs. Wikipedia says there is very light percussion and, for one verse, electric guitar played backwards, but all I can hear is the strumming of acoustic guitars, Paul Weller’s voice and backing vocals. It could almost have been recorded in one take by a dissatisfied teenager in his bedroom. He’d be a Londoner steeped in the music of the Kinks. But, where Ray Davies sang about the beauty of a Waterloo Sunset, our teen is focused on the less attractive side of his metropolis home: the maddening sound of a pneumatic drill, the mindlessness of a vandalised phone booth, the all-pervading smell of petrol.
The Jam - thats entertainment
That’s Entertainment‘s simple, haunting tune and gently rocking beat appeal to the heart but the lyrics stimulate the intellect with their irony and insightful observation. Each verse paints a picture of run-down streets, a humdrum life or impending violence, then the chorus tells us that this is what passes for entertainment in inner London and adds a mocking chuckle.

… and a kick in the balls.
I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment.
La, La, La …

I’ve searched the internet for the lyrics of That’s Entertainment and found them on several sites. Most of the words are clear from listening to the song but one or two lines don’t quite make sense to me and there are a couple of discrepancies in the listings. For example, the first line of the last verse is given as either “Two lovers kissing masks a scream of midnight” or “Two lovers kissing amongst the scream of midnight”. Do either of those make sense? That line is followed by the evocative, but mysterious: “Two lovers missing the tranquility of solitude”, which doesn’t enlighten me at all.

Then there’s the last line of the last verse. It is consistently quoted in all the versions I’ve found as “Reading the grafitti about slashed-seat affairs”, which I’m convinced is wrong. I was living in London in the late seventies, commuting to work by train from the southern suburbs. One day I noticed a new piece of graffiti in large white letters on a dark, smoke-stained brick wall by the track. It said, “Slash seats or fares”. I puzzled over its meaning for some time. In the end I decided it was a protest at high train fares coupled with a demand for price cuts and a threat of vandalism if those cuts were not made. Cut the prices or we’ll slash the seats.

Over the following months and years that same text appeared as graffiti in several other places as I travelled around London. It’s meaning remained somewhat obscure to me but as it spread like a viral YouTube video it became firmly embedded in my memory. So I think the last line of That’s Entertainment has to be “Reading the grafitti about slash seats or fares”. I’d like to set the record straight and correct the published lyrics but, first, I’d like to be sure I’m right. There should be a definitive record of those lyrics somewhere but, so far, I haven’t been able to find it.

If you can help me pin down the words of the song do, please, get in touch. A quick comment on this post would do the trick. Any opinions on The Jam, That’s Entertainment or London around 1980 would be welcome, too. And, finally, if you’re looking for some light relief from the daily grind, I highly recommend one of The Jam‘s best loved singles, That’s Entertainment.

Thank Christ …

GroundhogsIt was the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki just recently. Watching the memorial services on the television reminded me of the Groundhogs album Thank Christ for the Bomb. The title was intended to be controversial and (I assume) to raise the question of whether the use of atomic weapons can ever really be justified. In spite of the appalling loss of life, both as a direct result of the blast and from the ensuing radiation, those bombs brought the second World War to an end. Was it worth it? It’s hard to know for sure and the album, rightly, doesn’t try to provide an answer.

The Groundhogs was a rock band with distinct blues influences. The line-up when Thank Christ was recorded in 1970 was: Tony (T.S.) McPhee (guitar and vocals), Pete Cruickshank (bass) and Ken Pustelnik (drums). There was another well-known, blues-influenced guitar/bass/drums trio around at that time: Cream, and there are some similarities between the two bands. Tony McPhee’s easy guitar style does sound a bit like Eric Clapton in places and it’s amazing how full a sound the three of them generate. But there the similarities end. The Groundhogs was a fairly typical rock band – a very good one, but ground-hogging rather than ground-breaking the way Cream were.

Groundhogs - Thank Christ

The Band as WW1 Soldiers

In the sleeve notes for the 2003 re-issue of Thank Christ for the Bomb Tony McPhee says that the album title was suggested by their manager. After some initial misgivings Tony decided that he liked the title and it prompted him to write several songs on the theme of alienation. It’s a theme that makes Thank Christ for the Bomb very nearly a concept album.

In almost every song there’s someone who feels out of place: a young man full of life in a dull, dead town or trapped by poverty in a bare, dark room. There’s a man of peace on a First World War battlefield; there’s an urbanite who finds he prefers the countryside. And there’s a rich man who chooses to live on the streets.

Musically, Thank Christ‘s nine tracks have a greater uniformity than any other album I know this side of Pink Floyd. There are no strings, horns or synthesisers, no backing vocals; it’s just guitar, bass and drums all the way through.  And yet it remains fresh and stimulating for the whole 41 minutes, a triumph of composition and performance.

Pick any track from my Album of the Month and you’ll get a feel for the whole album, but the stand-out songs for me are the ones with one-word titles: Soldier and Garden.

Soldier is a bleak description of what it was like for a WW1 infantryman on the front lines:

Soldier, don’t think of runnin’, your death is just as sure. 
If you don’t face it now, you’ll face it anyhow in front of the squad, y’know.

In Garden, a wearisome victim of the modern way of life declares his intention to give up the rat race and return to nature:

I’m forsaking my comforts to live another way,
Get my clothes from heaps, my food from bins,
My water from ponds and have tramps for all my friends.

Groundhogs - CroydonMany years ago now I was privileged to see the Groundhogs at the Greyhound, Croydon on the southern edges of the London suburbs; a Google search turns up a date of December 13th 1970. I remember being immensely impressed by the band and absolutely amazed by the sound of Pete Cruickshank’s black Zemaitis bass guitar – deep, powerful and gritty.

It was one of those unforgettable gigs, an event to be remembered with awe and reverence. And that thought brings us back to those atom bomb blasts of 70 years ago. Playing Thank Christ for the Bomb would be a fitting accompaniment, I think, to our personal reflections on the events of August 1945.

Danses Sacrée …

danses sacree - catrin-finchOn those rare afternoons when Mrs Crotchety is out and I have nothing particular to do I like to listen to the Radcliffe and Maconie show on BBC 6 Music. Last Monday Stuart Maconie was presenting solo and in amongst the usual rock and indie tracks he played something by Debussy called Danses Sacrée et Profane. It’s a quiet, contemplative piece for harp and string orchestra. I found it soothing, calming, relaxing, like something you’d hear in a New Age incense-and-trinkets shop but with rather more depth and substance.

Stuart had included Danses Sacrée because the BBC was promoting its coverage of The Proms, a series of popular classical concerts held in London’s Albert Hall in August every year. I hadn’t heard this work before but it made a pleasant 10 minute interlude to accompany my afternoon cup of tea. Those two short early twentieth century dances sat surprisingly comfortably between the half-spoken, bass-heavy Sorry My Love, It’s You Not Me by Ghostpoet and the driving beat of The Ground Walks With Time In A Box by Modest Mouse. Only the BBC’s 6 Music radio station would run that improbable sequence.

So, three cheers for the BBC, for 6 Music and for Debussy’s Danses Sacrée et Profane, which is my Track of the Week.

P.S. The link I’ve given here is to a YouTube video of Anneleen Lanaerts and the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Michel Tabachnik. There’s also a version by the US Marine Band that is available for streaming and download under a Creative Commons 3.0 licence. The free one suffers from a little background noise, though.

P.P.S. The picture is of the Welsh harpist and composer Catrin Finch taken from a web page about the Wales International Harp Festival in 2014.

The Beatles

the beatles - in colourFirst I want to make it clear that The Beatles isn’t one of my favourite bands. They made some terrific singles in the sixties but, overall, I think they have always been overrated. That said, they were the best pop band around in the mid-sixties and She Loves You was the song that prompted me to take a bit more than a casual interest in music.

Before The Beatles there were one or two exceptional songs on the radio that impressed me but nothing that presaged a whole new musical genre. Back in 1963, though, The Beatles were recording hit after hit after hit. That year they had four smash hit singles (Please Please Me, From Me To You, She Loves You, I Want To Hold Your Hand) and by the end of the year Beatlemania was in full swing. The Beatles wasn’t a band any more, it was a phenomenon. (I guess you could say they went from band to brand.)

the beatles - earlyIn some ways the deification of the Beatles was deserved. Please Please Me got to number 1 on every London music chart except the one used for retrospectively official statistics (Record Retailer), where it stalled at number 2. Their other three single releases that year all reached the top slot whichever chart you use. These weren’t just exceptionally good pop songs they were records with an enormously wide appeal. Lennon and McCartney’s music took on Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and Roy Orbison, beating them all in both sales and release rate. Everybody was a Beatles fan in 1963.

Searching for ‘Beatles’ on Spotify produces just one album (The Early Tapes of the Beatles) and a few (probably ghastly) covers of Beatles songs. For the sake of completeness I listened to snippets from The Early Tapes. If you want to know what a second-rate Elvis impersonator sounds like backed by a late 50’s skiffle and rock ‘n roll band give it a whirl. Don’t indulge for too long, though; its rank cheesiness will give you heartburn and terrible nightmares. (You have been warned!)

If you want to listen to Beatles tracks you’ll find a good selection on YouTube. As a rule, I assume that YouTube videos violate copyright and I try not to provide links to them. But, in the UK, copyright on sound recordings lasts 50 years, so I don’t need to worry about that for any recording released before 1965. There are several Beatles playlists on YouTube; the one I like is: The Best of The Beatles. It has recordings from both before and after 1965 so please don’t blame me if some or all of the tracks have been removed when you play it.

the beatles - sketchIt’s hard to pinpoint what made the early Beatles compositions so appealing. At the time the critics put it down to the heart-rate beat and I suppose that was part of it; music that opens a teenager’s purse has to have a pulse. But there was more to it than that. To get played on the radio in the sixties there had to be a memorable tune and Beatles songs certainly had that. Then there was their sound – twangy electric guitars – very different from the staple fare of the session musicians or small orchestra backing most pop songs. The young were excited by a totally new sound while their parents accepted it as a more respectable variation on the rock-and-roll they danced to just a few years ago.

Later, as the years have gone by, I have come to appreciate some other things about the Beatles. The band must have learned their craft from some respected guitarists – you can hear it in their licks. They use the full repertoire of techniques, too: plucking, strumming, bending notes and stroking broken chords. Although based on conventional ideas there’s plenty of originality in Beatles songs, particularly in their harmonies. (The last ‘yeah’ at the end of She Loves You adds a distinctive major sixth, which isn’t in the rule book.)

In the final analysis, The Beatles recorded a lot of mediocre and dead duck tracks, especially later on, but many more of their songs still sound fresh and exciting. It may be more than 50 years ago now but no other artist can touch The Beatles for Band of the Year 1963.

Falling

Here we go magic

A band called Here We Go Magic cropped up a couple of times recently. They were mentioned on a blog I follow and Guy Garvey (of Elbow) featured them on one of his radio shows. Out of curiosity I looked them up on Spotify.

They’re an interesting band. A touch on the happy-slappy side for my taste but worth investigating. Think of Crosby Stills Nash and Young at an American ‘Jesus Loves You’ evangelical church disco, clapping and singing along with the congregation. There are folk, pop and country influences here, married to prominent vocals and a driving beat.

Here we go magic - FallingThe latest single release from Here We Go Magic is called Falling and it’s my Track of the Week. Not stunning, but not bad either. And, unusually for Crotchety Man, bang up to date.