Mr. Tambourine Man

Bruce Langhorne, the original tambourine man

When he was about seven Little Boy Crotchety had a part in the school play. Sitting cross-legged on the floor he used an enormous silver cardboard needle to stitch some invisible cloth, while the narrator introduced him as the tailor. I don’t remember what the plot was or even why it required a tailor. I might have had a couple of lines, then again I might not. It certainly wasn’t a taxing part and I wasn’t the least bit nervous in that scene. The butterflies in the tummy had come earlier when, along with one of the girls, I had to open the play with a tambourine flourish. Yes, folks, on that occasion I was the very embodiment of Bob Dylan’s tambourine man.

Not that I’d heard of Bob Dylan then, no-one had in 1959. And, anyway, like most radio listeners I fell in love with The Byrds‘ version in 1965 long before I knew who wrote the song and many years before I heard it sung by Dylan himself.

Roger McGuinn’s jangly guitar arpeggios announce Mr. Tambourine Man like a solo glockenspiel in an approaching marching band. “They’re coming, Ma, I can hear them!”, cries an excited voice from behind us in the waiting crowd. And, sure enough, here they come. Three guitarists, one with a twelve-string, all of them singing, then a bass player striding along and a drummer keeping time at the back. “Hey, mister tambourine man”, they plead, “play a song for me”.

This is strange. Why would they call for the runt of the instrument litter? A tambourine doesn’t ring like a guitar string or bellow like an organ. It doesn’t croon like a clarinet or trill like a flute. It can’t blare like a trumpet and harmonies are out of the question. Surely a tambourine is not a proper instrument, it’s just a device to get bored and tone-deaf students involved in a music lesson. Isn’t it? Or is the tambourine man such a brilliant musician that he can make his humble wooden hoop with its goatskin membrane and bright brass jingly zils sing with the wind and crash with the thunder?

The Byrds don’t explain, they just keep singing, their harmonious voices asking for another encore from their idol entertainer.

Take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship.
All my senses have been stripped
And my hands can’t feel to grip
And my toes too numb to step
Wait only for my boot heels to be wandering.

They must have been up all night. Their biological batteries are completely drained. They no longer have the energy to stumble forward but the Duracell Bunny is still going strong, hitting and shaking that tambourine as if he has an inexhaustible source of power.

the byrds

The Byrds‘ version of Mr. Tambourine Man was a number one hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It is regarded as the song that got the folk-rock genre started and it has been covered many times. Notable covers include those by: the late Glen Campbell (guitar instrumental), William Shatner (in one of his silly moods), Martin Simpson (a superb example of the folk guitarist’s art), Stevie Wonder, Melanie, Arlo Guthrie and Crowded House.

But to my mind the best of the rest is this pure folk one by Judy Collins. Her clear voice gives full expression to the words, the 12-string acoustic guitar harks back to the jingle-jangle of Roger McGuinn’s electric Rickenbacker and a double bass adds depth and warmth. (OK, the YouTube poster can’t spell ‘tambourine’ but let’s not get picky.)

Are any of the covers better than the Dylan original? Popular opinion puts The Byrds‘ version above that of the songwriter’s but in the end it’s all a matter of taste. In the sixties a one verse, 2 minute 29 second single got airplay, a five and a half minute album track did not. Nowadays we’d rather hear all four verses. Then again the electric guitars and the Bach-inspired arpeggios gave that first cover a new and exciting sound. It’s a close call, but the Crotchety vote goes with the majority on this one.

My final word on the tambourine man goes to a YouTube video with over 12 million views. At first glance it’s a 2013 recording of Mr. Tambourine Man by Dylan himself and it’s very good. Irritatingly, though, it’s another cover credited to Helio Sequence, “an American indie rock duo from Oregon”, but that information is hidden away in the fine print. Still, it sounds very much like the single Bob Dylan might have produced back in 1965. And 12 million hits ain’t bad!

Footnote

Bruce Langhorne, pictured at the top of this post, was a folk and session guitarist as well as a tambourine player. It is his electric guitar that we hear on Bob Dylan’s recording of Tambourine Man from the album Bringing It All Back Home. He died in April 2017.

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Doctor Who

12 Doctors

The First Doctor has been characterised as a crotchety old man but he was so much more, displaying childish delight, great charm, enormous warmth and a wonderful sense of mischief during his many adventures through time and space.

– A quote from the BBC website

It seems my secret identity has been revealed. Yes, Crotchety Man is The Doctor and he returned to his Earthly home, Cardiff (Caerdydd), last week for a few days. Well, when I say ‘returned’ it’s actually the first time I’ve been to Cardiff but, because time isn’t linear, I was able to see lots of artefacts from my future visits. It’s always nice to see a little of your own future – it’s one of the perks of being a Time Lord.

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Back home in the Tardis it struck me that the best TV programs always have good theme tunes and the time had come to feature the Doctor Who theme on my music blog. But that presented a dilemma. Many versions of the track have been recorded and used in the TV broadcasts – Spotify has at least 5. There’s the original 1963 version, composed by Ron Grainer and realised by Delia Derbyshire using analogue electronics and tape recorders. Then there are versions from 1967, 1980, 1986 and 1987 just from the album Doctor Who – The 50th Anniversary Collection (Original Television Soundtrack). The Internet also mentions later arrangements by Murray Gold from 2005, 2007 and 2010. Then there have been a number of cover versions, including one by Pink Floyd¹, apparently.

Do I need to say anything about the tune itself? Its first incarnation was, of course, one of the very first successful examples of electronic music. It pulses and whoops like a time machine spinning out of control, cascading through the universe as it heads for an unknown, but inevitably perilous, destination. In the eighties the tune was given a digital synthesiser makeover that to my (admittedly alien) mind sounds mechanical and colourless. Its regenerations in the 21st century introduced orchestral sounds, while keeping the electronic swoosh as the little blue police box rips through time and space.

The primordial life force of the original had returned but I was still unsure whether to select the analogue electronica of the first series or the orchestral grandeur of the post-millennium runs. The solution, when it came to me, was simple.

While swirling absentmindedly across the fabric of space/time the Tardis stalled on a video that stitches together some 16 different versions of the Doctor Who theme dating from 1963 to the present day. I don’t need to choose; you can have them all. Here they are – over 37 minutes of a short composition that originally ran for 2:21, with details of the composer/arranger and dates of the TV episodes that used it. A bit repetitive for the average music lover, perhaps, but a treasure for Whovians across the galaxies.

Notes

  1. I can only find a 33 second YouTube clip to verify that. It’s from a live show; as far as I know Pink Floyd never released it.
  2. There are some photos from the Cardiff trip here.

Walk On Gilded Splinters

shattered

In 1968 the Broadway musical Hair opened in London’s West End. It caused quite a stir in the British news media. It was praised for its songs and production but there was some vehement criticism, too, mainly for the 20 second scene in which the actors stood naked on the stage.

Hair  was a story about a group of hippies living in New York and their struggle to break free from the stultifying conservative society they were brought up in. The publicity material used colourful, psychedelic images hinting at sex, drugs and debauchery. There was one particularly striking picture of a young Afro-haired black girl on all the posters. That girl was member of the cast, Marsha Hunt. Although Marsha only had two lines of dialogue she became the face (and hair) of the show.

Marsha

Marsha Hunt ca. 1968

In the wake of the musical in 1969 Marsha Hunt released a cover of the Dr. John song I Walk On Guilded Splinters. It’s a menacing song full of mystery and voodoo. Here’s a YouTube clip of the original from the album Gris Gris.

The Dr. John version contains a high proportion of undecipherable lyrics and rolls on for nearly eight minutes. Marsha Hunt’s single has a slightly different title, dropping the ‘I’ and using the more usual spelling of ‘gilded’. It also omits the unintelligible Creole verses and cuts the song to the radio-friendly length of 3:30 without losing any of the spine-tingling sense of dark forces barely under control. Both versions are well worth a listen.

There have been several other covers of Gilded Splinters, too, including ones by Cher, Paul Weller, the Allman Brothers Band, Humble Pie and a guy called Johnny Jenkins. None of those match the power and spookiness of the first two releases from Dr. John and Marsha Hunt.

Come, walk with me back to the sixties, but watch where you’re putting your bare feet – those nasty splinters sparkle and shine but they’ll get under the skin if you don’t tread carefully.

End Notes

  1. Marsha Hunt married Mike Ratledge (of Soft Machine) in 1967. The marriage has never been dissolved but they only spent two months together.
  2. Mick Jagger dated Marsha Hunt for a while and they have a daughter, Karis.
  3. Marsha Hunt’s version of Walk On Gilded Splinters reached number 46 on the UK pop charts in 1969.
  4. Crotchety Man saw Hair for the first and only time during its revival in London; that must have been in 2010. It was a great show. And for a man who doesn’t like musicals that’s a rare compliment.

Autopsy

face

Why did our relationship die?

It’s almost exactly 50 years since Fairport Convention gave their first performance at St. Michael’s Church Hall, Golders Green, London on 27th May 1967. To commemorate that occasion the band called their recent half studio, half live album, 50:50@50. The album was released earlier this year and the band is on tour in the UK right now. Crotchety Man discovered too late that they will be at Lowdham just 25 minutes drive from the Crotchety mansion this coming Wednesday. Sadly, that is the only venue that is already sold out.

I swear I heard a newly remastered version of Fairport‘s 1968 single, Meet On The Ledge, the other day and I had planned to feature that as my Track of the Week. The thing is, I can’t now find any evidence of its existence. I suspect it was on the Radcliffe and Maconie show on BBC 6 Music but a search on the BBC radio website didn’t pick it up. It’s not on Spotify, either. So, instead, I’ve chosen another Fairport song, Autopsy, from their 1969 album Unhalfbricking.

The Crotchety ears first heard Autopsy, I think, on the John Peel show shortly after the Unhalfbricking album was released. I was fascinated by the off-kilter rhythm, captivated by Sandy Denny’s voice and gripped by some of the saddest lyrics you will ever hear.

The song starts in 5/4, ambling along slowly like a ladybird with a missing leg wandering through the leaf litter. The guitars of Simon Nichol and Richard Thompson build a mournful backdrop and Sand Denny’s clear, pure voice oozes the sadness of a failed attempt to resuscitate a relationship that has died.

You must philosophise,
But why must you bore me to tears?

Ashley Hutchings’ electric bass and Dave Mattacks’ drums push on, right through the missing beat, as if five feet was the most natural arrangement, not only for the song but for all the Earth’s myriad forms of crawling life.

The ladybird sings about her mate, now a desiccated husk of his former self, trapped in a slough of despondency.

You spend all your time crying,
Crying the hours into years¹.

Her song then slips into a different gait. The fifth leg is stowed away under the wing casing and the creature steps on in 4/4 time, singing sweetly that they can still be friends.

Come, lend your time to me

When you look at me,
Don’t think you’re owning what you see.

The sting of this message is eased by the dock leaf balm of a heaven-sent guitar break. And then the ladybird releases her fifth leg and repeats her reasons for breaking up in 5/4 time again. What they had is broken but, strangely, not incomplete.

the band

Fairport Convention ca. 1970

My brother and I listened to the John Peel show every week in the late sixties and recorded large chunks of it on our dad’s reel-to-reel tape recorder². For several weeks the 4 minute 20 second length of tape containing Autopsy passed the playback head as often as family protocols would allow.

This is one of my very favourite Fairport Convention songs. It deserves to be better known and better loved.

Notes

  1. A Google search for the lyrics throws up half a dozen sites, all with the same incorrect words for this line. The (presumably) correct lyrics are on this website, which is an homage to Sandy Denny, who wrote the song.
  2. On YouTube there’s a live session from John Peel’s radio show broadcast on 6th April 1969. This is probably the version I had on tape.

What Now My Love?

face

Rules, they say, are made to be broken. My self-imposed timeline for this blog is supposed to start at 1963 but this week I’ve chosen to go back a little further. My Track of the Week is a song that caught my attention before I realised that an indelible streak of music flows in my veins. The original was composed and sung by the Frenchman, Gilbert Bécaud, and it was called Et Maintenant. But the recording I heard in 1962 was an English version sung by Shirley Bassey, the Welsh singer of pop standards and show tunes.

Shirley Bassey is best known for her powerful renditions of the theme tunes from the James Bond movies Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, and Moonraker. In the U.S. she is something of a one-hit wonder, Goldfinger being her only single to break the top 40 in the Billboard Hot 100. Her live shows there, though, regularly sold out and over here in the UK she was one of the most popular female vocalists of the last half of the 20th century.

shirley

Back in 1962 most popular music fell into the easy listening bins in record shops, a genre that roused unvoiced contempt in the music appreciation section of the Crotchety Lad’s immature brain. What Now My Love could easily be dismissed as just another of those songs for the hotel lobby, a backdrop for check-ins and rendezvous, a mood-maker designed to dispel anxiety and add a little humanity to the mechanical operation of the robot they call the hotel clerk. It has been recorded by over 150 different artists and almost all the names I recognise are those old-contemptible easy listening crooners and their orchestras. And that’s odd because there’s nothing at all ‘easy’ about this song.

The lyrics of What Now My Love read like a suicide note. Here is a woman who has lost everything she held dear. Her love has left her and with him went all her hopes and dreams. Her world has been turned upside down; her life has no meaning any more; she has been stripped of her heart and soul. No-one would care if she should die. That’s hardly the message a hotel manager would want to be giving his guests.

Apart from the Shirley Bassey version all the covers I have heard use an instrumental arrangement more suited to the hotel lobby (or, in some cases, the hotel lift) than the high drama of a woman about to throw herself off a lofty parapet. It’s as if the scene is too starkly terrifying to show directly; we must avert our eyes, looking on only in Perseus’ reflective shield lest we become petrified victims ourselves. In that hotel entrance the TV is showing a film, a tacky drama in which a distraught woman teeters on the brink. But we just know a superhero will swoop down to save her – just after the advertising break – because it’s that kind of movie.

In contrast to all those ordinary covers that tell the story from a safe distance and filtered through a camera lens Shirley Bassey stands right there in that lobby and assails us with such power and emotion that we are rooted to the spot, turned to stone by Medusa’s evil stare.

What now my love?
Now that you’ve left me.
How can I live through another day?

As she sings the ominous rhythm of the bolero marches on towards the final tragic climax.

What now my love?
Now there is nothing.
Only my last goodbye.

And, with that, the orchestra builds to a thunderous crescendo, those final words rip the heavens apart and the song ends with a sickening crash of drums and cymbals. No good samaritan talked her down. No superhero saved her. Her spirit was already broken and now her body is, too.

There are decent versions of this song by Elvis Presley, Barbara Streisand and Roy Orbison, to mention just three, but nobody does it like Dame Shirley Bassey. The power and passion of her voice caught the imagination of the young Crotchety Man in 1962 and I have never forgotten it. That’s reason enough to break an arbitrary cut-off rule.

The Fool On The Hill

painting

“We’re going away for a few days”, said Mrs Crotchety, “for your birthday”. The look of anticipation on my face prompted her to continue. “I’m not telling you where we’re going, just that we’ll be going on the train”, she said, enigmatically. So, for several weeks, I wondered where we would go and what we might do when we got there. As we were only going to be away for three days I could safely eliminate the trans-Siberian railway and the Canadian Rockies. The Orient Express was unlikely, too. EuroTunnel to Paris, perhaps? More likely, somewhere within the UK, but where? For the time being it was to remain the travel agent’s favourite ruse, the mystery tour.

A few days before departure I was told we were going to Liverpool, a city I had never visited before. Liverpool, of course, is famous as the place where the Fab Four grew up, formed the Beatles and began to make a name for themselves. It was where John, Paul, George and Ringo went to school, where they performed at The Cavern Club and where Brian Epstein gave them their first steps on the road to stardom. Mrs. Crotchety had booked us on the Magical Mystery Tour bus whose guide would tell us about those early days and show us all those places.

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It was an overcast day with a chilly wind but the tour guide was friendly and every bit as bright and cheerful as his bus. We drove past some of the landmarks: Ringo’s old house is down there on the right, George lived here, this is Penny Lane (you can still see the barber’s shop, the building where the banker worked, the shelter behind the roundabout where a pretty nurse was selling poppies). We stopped a few times for photographs: Strawberry Field (where trespassing was “nothing to get hung about”), the house where John lived after his mother was killed in a traffic accident, the McCartney family home (now owned by the National Trust). And all the time we were on the bus the guide gave us a potted history of the Beatles between the years 1940, when John was born, through to 1963 when they left Liverpool to find commercial success in London.

As the bus toured around the streets of Liverpool the guide’s commentary was interspersed with unforgettable Beatles songs. There’s nothing like a bit of unashamed nostalgia to take you back to the swinging sixties – those days of social change, sexual liberation and unfettered optimism – and Crotchety Man allowed himself to wallow in it. By the time the tour ended at The Cavern Club he was a well-softened sucker for the souvenir trade, play dough in the hands of the trinket pedlars.

The Crotchety Couple descended into the dark cellar of The Cavern Club, ordered a beer and a fruit juice and listened to a guitarist singing Beatles songs. I took a few photos before buying a harmonica and climbing the steps back up to the real world of brightly lit shops and the present time. It may be 2017 but my new harmonica will always remind me of the time the Beatles were growing up and honing their craft. Perhaps I’ll even learn to play it one day.

cover

To mark a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon I’ve chosen a track from the Magical Mystery Tour EP/album, The Fool On The Hill. Although The Fool was recorded in 1967, several years after the Beatles left Liverpool, I can’t think of a more appropriate song for my Track of the Week. It has the characteristic appeal of a good Beatles song and the flutes provide a hint of magic in the arrangement (Mozart would be pleased, I’m sure). The link in the text is to the original version on Spotify (remastered in 2009). The YouTube clip below is a live version by Annie Lennox with the other half of the Eurythmics, Dave Stewart, providing guitar accompaniment. Annie does a great job on the vocals but I miss the pied piper flutes on the original.

Good Vibrations

vibrations

I think I remember, presumably around the end of 1966, watching The Beach Boys play Good Vibrations on BBC TV’s pop music programme, Top of the Pops. I liked the song partly because it was quite unlike any other pop record I’d heard. This wasn’t a beat group with two guitars, bass and drums, nor was it a vocalist backed by a small orchestra. From the opening rhythmic organ and bouncy bass through to the complex vocal harmonies and the otherworldly glissando of the electro-theremin every sound was different. The song had an unusual structure, too. It had several distinct sections with different instrumentation which were pieced together like a mosaic; Brian Wilson, who wrote the song, subsequently described it as a “pocket symphony”. But it was still very much a pop song: a tune for the charts and for singing along to.

When Top of the Pops first aired in 1964 artists would mime to their records. Sometimes this was obvious and the faulty lip-sync was mildly distracting but most of the time it worked pretty well. The Musician’s Union, however, objected to this policy and in 1966 miming on TOTP was banned. From then on Crotchety Junior assumed that instruments and vocals were truly live; what we saw and heard on the TV was what was happening in the studio at that very moment. I was often puzzled, though, by the programme’s uncanny knack of reproducing exactly the same mix, tone and phrasing as on the record.

Wikipedia has a lot to say about Good Vibrations (about a dozen screenfuls on a good-sized computer monitor). On that page you can read about its use of innovative recording techniques, how long it took to cut the track, how much it cost, the impact it had at the time and its lasting legacy. By the time Crotchety Junior was able to watch a performance on the TV it had already been described as a song that, because of its complexity and special effects, couldn’t be performed outside a recording studio. So, how, I wondered could The Beach Boys play it ‘live’ on Top of the Pops?

Staring intently at the black and white pictures and listening with pricked up ears Crotchety Junior tried hard to solve the puzzle. It sounded like the record and it looked as though it was being played live. On the other hand we could have been watching a pre-recorded promotional video; there were none of the usual shots of the TOTP audience or any other indication that the band were in a BBC TV studio. Somewhat disappointed, Junior concluded that the broadcasters had cheated, although he wasn’t sure how. One thing was clear, though: Good Vibrations could certainly be played live by a 5-piece band without losing anything essential.

the boys

I was never a big fan of the Beach Boys. They made a few excellent singles (Sloop John B, God Only Knows and, of course, Good Vibrations) but their signature surfing songs always seemed to lack depth and substance. I’d happily listen to the current Beach Boys single on the radio, especially on a bright sunny day, but I’d never consider buying any of their albums. There’s something special about Good Vibrations, though. How else could a “pocket symphony” get to be number one on both the US and the UK charts?

Crotchety Man’s memory is, like a treasured pair of jeans, old and faded. Looking back 50 years, as I do here, the scenes that were once fresh and vibrant now shift and shimmer like ghostly black ink blots. It’s easy to see whatever my imagination can conjure up. I can find no evidence that The Beach Boys performed Good Vibrations on Top of the Pops, in 1966 or at any other time. And yet, the puzzle of the song that couldn’t be played live is clearly visible in the swirling fog of recollections, solid and undeniable.

Perhaps the scenes I can recall are false memories constructed from later broadcasts or wholly fabricated by random ripples of thought in a muddled mind. Who knows? Wherever they came from they look and sound uncannily like the YouTube clip above. And that’s good enough for me.