Proud Mary

riverboat

Yesterday the sun was out, the sky was clear and the birds were singing. Today, the forecasters assure us, will be just as nice. And tomorrow is likely to be the warmest Spring Bank Holiday there has ever been. Feeling unusually full of life the Crotchety Couple set about weeding the garden and cleaning the patio.

Having scraped away the moss between the flagstones it was time to try out the power washer that had been sitting in the garage for many months. Following the instructions carefully Crotchety Man fitted the wheels and the handle, attached the outlet hose, assembled the gun and its jet nozzle, attached the inlet hose, turned on the water, plugged the washer into the power socket and switched it on. Releasing the safety catch nervous fingers pulled the trigger. Whoosh! A powerful stream of water surged from the nozzle tip and soon the whole of the patio was covered with water.

“Well, that works!”, proclaimed Mr. Crotchety, proudly. Mary, however, was less impressed. “It hasn’t cleaned off the grime”, she said, “and everything is wet, now”. The missus was right, of course. “Shouldn’t you have the nozzle much nearer the slabs?”, she added. So I lowered the gun and fired again. The stone under the water jet brightened in colour from a grubby grey to a light sandstone. I couldn’t believe our patio was really such a lovely colour but, as I swept the nozzle from side to side, that light sandy hue came peeping out from behind the accumulated dirt of the last three years like the sun emerging from behind a dark cloud.

Our shared sense of triumph didn’t last long, though. By the time I had cleaned one slab the whole patio was submerged in water; no longer terra firma it had taken the appearance of an ad hoc water feature. The Crotchety Couple found themselves paddling, which would have been fun in bare feet but not so comfortable in our soaking wet gardening shoes. Even more worrying was the realisation that there is nowhere for the water to go. There is no drain in the back garden; all the water was flowing down the slope to lap against the back wall of the house.

brolly boat

Either we would have to shut off the river at its source or we’d have to do the rest of the gardening from a boat. I wondered, briefly, if an upturned umbrella would do the job but that was just silly. What we really needed was a full-scale ark …

Releasing the pistol grip and stemming the tide that threatened to wash us away while leaving the patio black and grimy a rueful Crotchety Man packed up the washer and stowed it away in the garage. It will come in handy for washing the car one day. In the meantime we’ll get some patio cleaner and a scrubbing brush. At least now we know what colour the stones should be.

These thoughts of rivers and boats reminded me of that classic song, Proud Mary, by Creedence Clearwater Revival. And on a hot and cloudless day like today it goes particularly well with an ice cream or a cold beer.

You all know this one. It was released in 1969 and reached no. 2 on the Billboard 100 chart in the U.S (no. 8 in the UK). The Crotchety ears heard it as a catchy pop song in those days but ‘country rock’ is a better description. Although ‘country’ is often a dirty word on this blog and Proud Mary sounds a little dated now this track is as warm as the summer sun and as refreshing as the clear waters of a mountain river.

Days of Pearly Spencer

 

sinking fast

Sometimes I feel I’m losing the will to live. It’s usually when I’m ironing – shirts are so darn fiddly, aren’t they? So I do my ironing weekday afternoons between 1 and 4 pm so that I can listen to the Radcliffe and Maconie show on the radio. They play some good music and they have a lot of laughs; it’s the most effective antidote for boredom that I know.

So there I was, ironing another shirt, when a jaunty disco tune came on. I barely noticed it at first. Then, over the funky bass and perky drum machine, a familiar jingle wormed its way into the Crotchety ears. I know that song, I thought, and its title flashed up on the mental display screen: The Days of Pearly Spencer.

But Pearly Spencer, as I remembered it, wasn’t a disco record. And yet there was that distinctive motif that pervaded the airwaves of every decent radio station back in the late sixties. If it wasn’t the song I knew it had to be a later cover. For the next 3 or 4 minutes ironing shirts was no longer a chore. Wrinkles in the cloth magically disappeared amidst little puffs of steam, while the Crotchety mind wandered elsewhere and the hands moved on autopilot.

The Pearly Spencer theme ran for another minute or so before the vocals came in with a dire warning for humanity. We are poisoning the planet with pesticides and, sooner or later, nature will have her revenge. That’s not the Pearly Spencer story; some reprobate must have stolen his theme for a completely different song. It was, in fact, a song called Supernature by Marc Cerrone, who (I discovered later) was a disco producer in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Supernature is quite listenable at its 4:22 radio edit length. The full version on the Cerrone I,II,III album is much too long at 9:45 and the YouTube video below runs three tracks together for an interminable 18 minutes plus. It’s visually rather good, though, so watch it until you get bored and then read on.

OK, so you’ve heard the rip-off, now hear the David McWilliams original. There are two versions: the single and a longer one from the album, Working for the Government. Here’s the single on YouTube:

On the Crotchety patented pop-meter that scores an almost perfect 10. The lyrics paint a picture of an old man, battered, bowed and finally defeated by life’s endless battles. And yet, it rocks along irrepressibly. The megaphone sound of the vocals in the chorus gives it an air of the supernatural. And there’s that unforgettable haunting riff in the strings, a phrase that can be plagiarised but never merely quoted, even in homage.

The album was recorded some 20 years after the single release and that version has a completely different arrangement. It dispenses with the rocking beat, the fuzzy chorus vocals and the characteristic haunting riff. It throws away nearly everything that makes the single so memorable and appealing. It slows the pace and nearly doubles the playing time, too. It’s almost a different song. And Crotchety Man says it’s amazing.

I can’t find this version on YouTube, so here it is on Spotify.

David McWilliams was a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Northern Ireland. The Crotchety memory banks have him down as a one-hit wonder but the usual online sources say he released some 14 albums and was, for a time, very popular in continental Europe.

Surprisingly, although The Days of Pearly Spencer topped the charts in “numerous countries” and sold over a million copies, it was never a hit in the UK. Wikipedia puts this down to the record being banned by the BBC because of somewhat indirect links to the ‘pirate’ radio station, Radio Caroline. I find that explanation hard to swallow because Pearly Spencer had no trouble reaching my ears – and the only pirate station I listened to had been shut down before the record was released. Perhaps my memory is at fault.

David McWilliams died in 2002 but the Pearly Spencer story lives on. McWilliams had a daughter, Mandy Bingham, and she released a version of The Days of Pearly Spencer just last year, 50 years to the day after her father’s single. The Mandy Bingham version brings back the distinctive riff as a viola’s lament in a lovely folk song arrangement where it complements Mandy’s lead vocal beautifully. This release also features Mandy’s daughter, Lola, on backing vocals.

The Crotchety pop-meter gets horribly confused by the Mandy Bingham recording but the prototype folk-meter goes right off the scale. It’s subjective, I know, but to the Crotchety ears this is the best rendition yet of a timeless song in the pop/folk tradition.

The  ironing pile of life will never be too big if Pearly Spencer is there to relieve the tedium.


Headline Image: https://w-dog.net/wallpaper/pauper-the-homeless-man-dog-street/id/346396/

River Man

river man

Cormorant fishing on the Li river, Guilin province, China.

I don’t have much to say about this Track of the Week. So, instead, here’s a silly little ditty about the Chinese fisherman’s friend, the cormorant.

The common cormorant, or shag,
Lays eggs inside a paper bag.
The reason you will see, no doubt,
Is to keep the lightning out.

But what these unobservant birds
Have failed to notice is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

[A Crotchety memory from Verse and Worse.]

It’s unlikely that Nick Drake was thinking of the cormorant fishermen of China and Japan when he wrote River Man, although quite what was in his mind isn’t entirely clear. My personal interpretation is that Nick was feeling stifled by the mores and conventions of the middle-class society in which he was brought up. He envied the river that flowed by, unconstrained by the invisible shackles that bind individuals into a stable, coherent society. As the song puts it:

Going to see the river man
Going to tell him all I can
About the ban
On feeling free.

Perhaps the river is wiser than he. Perhaps the river has the key to his metaphorical ankle-irons. Perhaps if he immerses himself in the river’s swirling thoughts it can set him free.

The lyrics given with this YouTube video are credited to Emily Dickinson and Nick Drake. But the great god Google can find no connection between the American 19th century poet and the English singer-songwriter. There are some curious similarities, though. Both withdrew from public life, becoming semi-detached even from their family and friends. There’s a certain similarity, too, in the major themes of their work: death and mortality in Dickinson’s poetry; dark, autumnal overtones in Drake’s songs. Was River Man influenced by Emily Dickinson’s poetry? Perhaps, but I can find no evidence to support that suggestion.

River Man is from Nick Drake’s first album, Five Leaves Left, released in 1969. It was a time when Nick and his record company were expecting considerable commercial success. The song is dusky in tone, but far from gloomy – like dark molten chocolate rather than the looming shadow of sorrow and loss. Nick’s precise guitar playing and warm voice are complemented by Danny Thompson’s resonant double bass and backed by a silky string section. This is a song that is searching for an answer to one of life’s troubles and fully expects to find it.

Unfortunately for Nick neither that first album nor his next two, Bryter Layter (1971) and Pink Moon (1972), sold well. The lack of sales contributed to a developing depression and in 1974, at the age of 26, Drake took an overdose of anti-depressant pills. The coroner concluded that he committed suicide although Nick’s producer, Joe Boyd, prefers to think he was trying to recapture his earlier optimism and “making a desperate lunge for life rather than a calculated surrender to death”.

nick drake

There were no fond retrospectives of Nick Drake’s music immediately after his death but in 1979 a new box set, Fruit Tree, was released and an appreciation of his songwriting talent gradually grew through the 80’s. Although undoubtedly under-appreciated in his lifetime Nick Drake’s influence has turned out to be, like a great river, deep and widespread. For those of us fishing for good music his River Man is as fine a catch as you could hope to land – with or without the help of a cormorant or two.

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.