Thight Lines …

… and Screaming Reels

black marlin

No, I haven’t spelled that wrongly¹. My Track of the Week really is called Thight Lines and Screaming Reels. Then again, it must be a spelling mistake. Somewhere between Colin Hodgkinson’s pen and the record company an extra ‘h’ must have crept in. Perhaps it was a communication problem between an English man and a German music publisher (in-akustik GmbH & Co. KG). Or perhaps someone just had a fubar moment. Whatever the explanation, the spurious ‘h’ is present in every reference I can find.

Colin Hodgkinson is one of the finest bass players around. And he’s been around for quite a while². Colin is the only bass player I know who plays the instrument as if it was an over-sized six-string electric guitar with the top two strings missing. He plays it sometimes with a plectrum, sometimes with his fingers; he plays chords; he plays blues licks; he bends the strings. He is almost a one man band. (He sings a bit, too.)

colin hodgkinson

Colin Hodgkinson – Ten Years After concert, 21st May 2016, Paris

Thight Lines is an instrumental from Colin’s solo album The Bottom Line. The album consists mostly of bass solos but this track features drums and some rather nice keyboards, too. In stark contrast to the screaming reels of the title the feel is one of relaxed anticipation.

Hey, Colin, I called round but you weren’t home. Looks like you’ve gone fishin’ (there’s a sign upon your door). I see the boat has left the shore (you ain’t workin’ any more) and the engine is humming as it glides over the water. Soon it will be time to unpack your tackle and start fishin’ (instead of just a-wishin’). If you’re lucky you’ll catch a big one, a marlin perhaps, that will strain the rod and set the reel a-spinnin’. But for now you can just sit back, enjoy the sun on your skin and listen to the swell of the keyboards and those crisp tight bass lines as they mix with the sound of the waves lazily lapping on the hull.

Half way out into the channel the skipper cuts the engine. You’ve arrived and it looks as though the big fish are feeding. The clatter of a drum solo marks the tethering of the rods and the opening of the bait boxes as you settle down to wait for the first bite. The bass and keyboards return, echoing the gentle thrum of the bilge pump and, with your hat shading your eyes, your thoughts start to drift away. Then, suddenly, the line tautens, the sport begins and, as you play the fish the music fades slowly away. This is going to be a beautiful day.

Notes

  1. Note the adverbial form, here. To have written ‘wrong’ would have been unforgivably wrong.
  2. According to Colin’s website he played in a British band called The Dynatones from 1959 to 1964 and turned professional in 1966. He was a founding member of Back Door (my review of their debut album is here) and has played with all sorts of well-known bands (Alexis Korner, Spencer Davis, Zoot Money and others). In 2014 he became the bassist with Ten Years After and is still gigging. He is now 71 years old.
  3. There doesn’t seem to be a video for Thight Lines although there are clips of other performances by Colin Hodgkinson, both solo and in bands, on YouTube. There’s a nice one of Back Door from the Montreux Jazz Festival here, recorded, I think, in 1974.

Blind Faith

Blind Faith - cartoon

Regular readers of the Crotchety Man blog may have picked up that I hold a non-religious view of the world. I’m a humanist – one who believes that there is probably no god and we must, therefore, base our moral code on being nice to one another. I came to this way of thinking because it’s so difficult to be sure about … well, anything. Descartes had it right when he said “I think, therefore, I am”. Everything else could be just an illusion. The one thing that annoys me more than any other is certainty in the absence of evidence – blind faith. It doesn’t matter what your belief is, if there is no evidence to support it you have no right to believe it. And even if there is some evidence you could still be wrong.

So, if I’m so antagonistic about it, why am I writing about blind faith? Well, for a start, it’s not the unjustified (and unjustifiable) convictions of religious fanatics that I’m referring to here, it’s the one and only album by the first ‘supergroup’, Blind Faith. The band deserves a slot in these pages simply because I can give a first hand account of their first public performance at the free rock concert in Hyde Park, London on 7th June 1969. (See this post on my Stoney Fish Tales blog for a personal story about that day.) But the main reason for writing about Blind Faith is that it’s a darn good album.

Blind Faith - personnel

Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton, Ric Grech, Steve Winwood

There are six tracks on the Blind Faith album. The first is nearly 9 minutes long, the next four are a more radio-friendly length (3, 4 or 5 minutes) and the last is a 15 minute excuse for individual members of the band to demonstrate their improvisational skills. All of the first five songs would make excellent singles (with some judicious trimming in the case of the 8 minute 48 seconds of Had To Cry Today). Just looking at the track titles kicks Crotchety Man’s mental jukebox into life: Can’t Find My Way Home, Well All Right, Presence of the Lord, Sea of Joy – they come over the psychic streaming service one after another as if God has made a celestial playlist and is proving to me that He really does exist.

Not that I’d take any notice of an old man with a beard and long white hair, dressed in a flowing robe and sitting on a throne in the clouds. The music may be heavenly but it’s not truly divine. Still, to show there are no hard feelings, here’s Eric Clapton’s composition Presence of the Lord as a representative sample of the songs on the Blind Faith album. It is, as you can guess from the title, a testimony of faith in the Christian god. I don’t agree with the sentiment but Eric is entitled to his view and I can’t be too dogmatic – after all, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, he just might be right.

This video is actually a clip taken from a film of the Hyde Park concert released on DVD in 2006. (The full concert can be found here if you have an hour to spare and your conscience lets you ignore the copyright notice on the DVD.) Presence of the Lord is a slow, bluesy track that suits the guitar, keyboards, bass and drums combination that gives Blind Faith their distinctive sound – a relaxing accompaniment to a sunny day in the park. On the album there’s some nice piano work instead of Steve Winwood’s organ used in the live performance.

Of the remaining tracks my favourite is Sea of Joy. It’s a Steve Winwood composition with a jaunty guitar/bass hook and some soulful violin playing by Ric Grech. This is a song that can spin in my head for days and never grow stale.

The lyrics are, frankly, quite odd. What are we to make of “Is it just a thorn between my eyes?”, I wonder? And what’s a thorn got to do with a sea of joy, anyway? But it really doesn’t matter when the music is so enticing.

I suppose I should mention the controversial album cover. It features a topless, pubescent girl with luxurious hair holding a model of a futuristic aircraft/spaceship. In some places it was regarded as inappropriate and banned; the album was issued with an alternative cover in those regions.

Blind Faith - cover
The image was created by Bob Seidermann, a photographer friend of Eric Clapton’s, and was supposed to represent innocence bearing the ultimate technological achievements of humanity. In Bob’s words, “The space ship would be the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the girl, the fruit of the tree of life”. He titled the artwork “Blind Faith” and the band took its name from that. I can’t imagine any other band has been nameless until the cover of their first album provided the inspiration they needed. But it’s so hard to know these things.

I’m sure the Blind Faith album is familiar to most readers of the Crotchety Man blog but my advice to anyone who hasn’t dipped their toes into the sea of joy on it is this: don’t take my word for it; faith is not enough; gather the evidence for yourself; listen to the album and form your own opinion; then, whether or not you agree with me that this is a jewel of artistic achievement, you can never be accused of being blind to the sparse but exquisite fruits of the first supergroup.

Electric Ladyland

Electric Ladyland - nudes

Why do we write about music? After all, mere words can not express the pleasure we get from listening to our favourite songs. How do you communicate the excitement when you hear something for the first time and your inner music critic says “Wow, that’s amazing!”? How do you explain what makes this song special?

We can, of course, use similes and metaphors: as sweet as honey, a sledgehammer of a song, etc. We can search for adjectives: mellow, gritty; stunning, awesome. We can compare this track with others that share some of its characteristics: pop, rock, folk, jazz; happy, sad; acoustic, electric. Do that well and we begin to sketch a phonic picture in the reader’s mind using a palette of rhythms, tones and melodies. But even then it is a ghostly apology for a picture, a figure without shape or substance, the merest hint of the sounds we are trying to convey.

Sometimes this flimsy sketch is enough to pique the reader’s interest and insinuate another note into their mental list of things to explore. If we write about a typical track by a well-known artist we may succeed in siphoning a little of its essence from our minds to theirs. But that’s the easy part of the blogger’s art. It is much harder for a writer to get across the thrill that comes from the exceptional or the utterly extraordinary.

That’s why writing about Jimi Hendrix is so daunting. Jimi was truly extraordinary. He is widely regarded as the greatest rock guitarist there has ever been. When drawing up a list of great rock guitarists for an article in Rolling Stone David Fricke put it this way:

Jimi Hendrix was Number One in every way; the other 99 were all Number Two.

So, how can I write about Jimi Hendrix? What can I say that hasn’t already been said? And, if I do write something, how can I compete with the eloquence of professional journalists? Well, of course, I can’t. What I can do is give you my take on the man and his music.

Electric Ladyland - faces

Looking down Fricke’s list there aren’t many I would have in my own shortlist. Most of them I’d reject as “not rock”¹ or “not in the same league” or even “not heard the name”². Steve Howe and Robert Fripp deserve consideration but they both belong in the ‘prog rock’ sub-category which is not really comparable. Peter Green is a genuine contender but even he didn’t achieve the symbiosis between man and instrument that Hendrix so effortlessly demonstrated. In Jimi’s hands the electric guitar could squeal and whine and thunder, but it could also sing with the voice of an angel. That, for me, is the mark of his genius.

The art of Hendrix reached its peak in the 1968 album, Electric Ladyland. When I think of Electric Ladyland I remember the electronic effects first. I think that’s partly because the album opens with a psychedelic wash of sounds that seem to be from another world or another time, the perfect introduction to the mystical land of lovely android women. It seems to say, this is what heaven must be like – soft, warm, your every need catered for.

If there is a theme to the album it is one of benign Science Fiction. The old Earth is dead but technology provides an escape from the devastation, a bolt hole under the sea, where what’s left of humanity can live in peace and harmony. Hendrix is known for his flamboyance and turning up the amps to maximum but much of Electric Ladyland is a laid back, gently rocking groove. It is powerful without being abrasive – the perfect antidote to the crash and thrash of later metal bands.

Electric Ladyland is very much a studio album. Guest musicians make an important contribution, changing the character of individual tracks, adding variety without destroying the integrity of the album as a whole. The 15 minute Voodoo Chile would be a different track without Steve Winwood’s organ, there’s tenor sax on Rainy Day, Dream Away and, if you pay attention, you’ll hear piano, congas, flute and girl backing singers. It’s a vibrant and faultless production.

Above all, Electric Ladyland is a showcase for Jimi Hendrix’ mastery of the electric guitar. It is an essential part of every rock enthusiast’s record collection, a disc for the desert island and one of the best reasons for writing about music that I know.

Notes

  1. Bert Jansch and Joni Mitchell, for example, were/are folk guitarists.
  2. In most cases that just illustrates my own ignorance; it’s not meant to imply any judgement of their talent.

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.

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.

Albatross

Albatross
Back in the sixties, when I was just a lad, every once in a while there would be a musical interlude to liven up the school assembly. One of these stands out like a beacon in the fading fog of my memory. One of the boys in my year was an accomplished pianist – his name was Dave Nelson. On this particular day, Dave walked quietly over to the grand piano, sat down on the piano stool and started to play.

The piece was instantly recognisable. It was Fleetwood Mac‘s number one single, Albatross.

Albatross is a beautiful instrumental exploiting the tonal qualities of the electric guitar to the full. Peter Green, the composer and guitarist, strokes the strings and uses a ‘bottle-neck’ to slide gently from note to note, adding echo for a soothing, ethereal effect. Like an albatross soaring effortlessly on the wind. And underneath Mick Fleetwood’s deep tom-tom drums pulse like the waves of the ocean. This is a piece so obviously conceived for the electric guitar that it couldn’t be played on any other instrument. And yet, here was Dave Nelson playing it on a piano and, somehow, it worked.

I learnt something about music that day. Or, rather, I learnt how narrow my musical horizons were. That I couldn’t imagine a piano version of Albatross didn’t mean it couldn’t be done. And if that can be done all sorts of wild and interesting variations must be possible. So I’d like to thank Peter Green for composing the tune, Dave Nelson for daring to perform it on the ‘wrong’ instrument and the headmaster of my old school for giving them the opportunity to give me a music lesson I would never forget.