Blood On The Tracks – Bryan Ferry’s ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’

‘Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row’

(Bob Dylan)

‘He had made his choice, chosen Ophelia, chosen the sweet poison and drunk it. Wanting above all to be brave and kind, he had wanted, even more than that, to be loved. So it had been. So it would ever be … ‘

(Scott Fitzgerald, ‘Tender Is The Night’)

‘Can’t let go, There’s a madness in my soul tonight, Can’t let go…’

(Bryan Ferry, ‘Can’t Let Go’)

In 1978 Bryan Ferry experienced something new in his, until then, wholly successful and glittering career – failure. His fifth, and to my mind by far his best solo record, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ an adult work drenched in passion, paranoia and desperate desire emerged at the height of the punk era in the UK and was (apart from a few critics and Ferry fanatics like me) roundly ignored. I guess you just can’t fight the Zeitgeist.

Up until that point Bryan Ferry, particularly as the principal songwriter and focal point of Roxy Music, had been a virtual ringmaster of the Zeitgeist. Roxy Music had materialised in public consciousness in 1972 with their staggeringly accomplished debut single, ‘Virginia Plain’. They didn’t look or sound like anyone else – an extraordinary feat in the modern pop era.

It seemed as if they had arrived as uber-glamorous spacemen, at warp factor 8, from an exoplanet in a distant galaxy where a particularly brilliant museum curator had created a group which would simultaneously celebrate and guy the whole postmodern project in music, fashion and the fine arts and do so with thrilling musical and intellectual confidence. And, they made records which were undeniably brilliant works of pop ephemera, huge hits!, as well as being carefully crafted art projects.

Bryan Ferry was after all a fine arts graduate who had been a star pupil of Pop Art maestro Richard Hamilton as well as someone who loved the suave look of Cary Grant alongside his reverence for the deep soul sounds of Otis Redding and Sam and Dave. The first three Roxy Music albums, ‘Roxy Music’, ‘For Your Pleasure’ and, ‘Stranded’ remain peaks of artistic creativity in popular music – endlessly replayable as they give up layer after layer of meaning and pleasure.

Roxy Music, initially a dizzyingly collaborative entity drawing on the disparate talents and influences of Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Paul Thompson became very much Bryan Ferry’s band after the departure of Eno before, ‘Stranded’ was recorded. The next two records, ‘Country Life’ and ‘Siren’ though excellent by anyone else’s standards represented a falling off in ambition and intensity of vision for Roxy Music.

Bryan Ferry had also commenced a solo career with a series of records which showcased his distinctive take on pop history as he intriguingly covered artists as varied as Lesley Gore and Bob Dylan. These records acknowledging the treasures in the Great American Songbook as well as the products of the Brill Building were highly enjoyable exercises in style with a capital S.

But, from the evidence of, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ sometime in 1976/1977, events in Bryan Ferry’s personal and artistic life (which I choose not to speculate on) pushed him to to write a series of songs , frequently self-lacerating, which displayed, once recorded, a ferocious, hitherto unknown (and never to be repeated) emotional and vocal intensity.

He also chose to cover songs from Lou Reed, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Al Green and J J Cale which along with his lovely, infinitely weary and regretful version of the Irish ballad, ‘Carrickfergus’ (see below) constitute what can only be described as the biography of a heart and soul in torment. The whole record can feel like the last semaphored SOS of someone who has hit bottom and can’t yet see a way out.

There is something like terminal despair in the unanswered question posed at the end of, ‘What Goes On’ – how does it feel to be loved? How could that be the situation of someone who in, ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’ knows no depths to the love he is prepared to give, ‘Any kind of love you want, I would get for you.’ Of course, sadly the truth sometimes dawns that love no matter how strong is sometimes denied, abused and rejected. Being loved does not always flow from loving.

A martial, crack of doom, drumbeat kicks off ‘Sign of the Times’ the opening track on, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ and immediately we are cast into a maelstrom of sound with Bryan Ferry raging like some urban Lear as he contemplates the bloody signs of the times with the leathered and lipsticked struggling chained and bound as they wait (welcoming?) for the hard lines to come down.

In the midst of the madness, in a world where we don’t know why we laugh or cry, why we live and die, he still wants to wreathe a rainbow in someone’s hair as a contrasting, perhaps countervailing, sign of the times. The song may have been written as ironic commentary on the times but the performance is anything but ironic or distanced.

Throughout this song and the whole record the studio veteran musicians, often derided as session mercenaries, seem to these ears to play, in response to their leader’s example, as if their lives depended on leaving no realm of emotion unvisited (not excluding emotional enervation and paralysis: the song, ‘When She Walks in the Room’ seems to drift in the ether like some weightless narcotic smoke ring of loss.)

The centrepiece of the album for me is, ‘Cant Let Go’ which I consider the greatest performance of Bryan Ferry’s career and one of the greatest performances by anybody in the rock era. ‘Can’t Let Go’ is a wide screen journey into a landscape offering no hope of redemption. The song is a postmodern epic (Ferry has always had a filmic imagination) echoing the Hollywood creeping insanity of Hitchcock’s, ‘Vertigo’ and the repellant allure of Wilder’s, ‘Sunset Boulevard’ while prefiguring the desperate hall of mirrors madness of David Lynch’s, ‘Mulholland Drive’.

The song follows and incarnates the nightmare situation of a man, a man who knows there is no waking up from this nightmare. A man who is a self-aware exile from the havens of love and home. Some disaster expelled him from home; a love gone horribly wrong has propelled him left him West to the land where pain (so they say) might be avoided.

Once there, he finds that a life without pain can only be found in the grave – a grave he finds himself not yet ready to occupy. He goes on as a man who finds that it doesn’t matter where he drives because all directions end up being the same. The driving is important as the whole song seems to take place inside the tormented mind of someone looking through the rain spattered windscreen of a car speeding nowhere fast in endless loops.

Bryan Ferry’s superlative singing on this song seems dragged from the depths of his being and worthy, in its commitment, of the Stax soul masters he had hitchhiked to see in London when he was a student. His voice here has wonderful presence, power and a desperate nuanced elegance which survives even as he is about to be overwhelmed by the terrible storm. The terrible storm which remains one car wheel behind, one car wheel away from overtaking him, one car wheel away from destroying him. Rain streams down as his soul fights a battle between the consolations of finally feeling no pain and the not yet buried desire to live again.

Wasted and cold, exhausted from a hundred sleepless nights, he has to try to hold on, to hang on by his fingertips or else he will be lost forever and the madness in his soul will take full and permanent possession of his life. Afraid in the dark, there is no relief in celebrity, now he is only a face in the crowd, one more anonymous face, endlessly circling the purgatorial freeways.

The music enveloping Bryan Ferry as he fights his life and death battle has a wonderful sense of the movement between control and loss of control. The musicians accelerate and decelerate, rising and falling with the increasingly desperate situation of the singer. Waddy Watchtel on lead guitar, urged on by the string arrangement, send shining sad spirals of sound echoing into the seemingly endless dark of the night.

As the song reaches its resolution you are left wondering whether this represents the car being driven off the road into the canyon or rather a hard stop allowing, after a deep shuddering breath for life, one more chance to begin again.

Perhaps the repeated final anguished cries of, ‘Can’t Let Go’ is a wounded acknowledgement that to be able to feel the need not to let go is proof that some strands of a man who might still find the will to hope, might yet wish to live, survives.

Perhaps that’s the spirit animating the elegiac version of, ‘Carrickfergus’ I leave you with now.

I will close, as I began, with a Bob Dylan quote, which seems particularly apposite to my take on, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare':

‘Pain sure brings out the best in people, doesn’t it?’

Notes:

Though I think that, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ is by far the best record of Bryan Ferry’s career it is heartening that a recent project, ‘The Jazz Age’ featuring 1920s style recreations of songs from the Roxy era was a triumphant success on record – as were the concerts that followed.

I also have enormous affection for his album of Bob Dylan songs, ‘Dylanesque’.

Bruce Springsteen & Manfred Mann : Pretty Flamingo!

‘In quella parte del libro de la mia memoria dinanzi a la quale poco is potrebbe leggere, si trova ina rubrica la quale dice: Incipit Vita Nova …….

In that first book which is my memory, on the first page of the chapter that is the day when I first met you, appear the words, ‘Here begins a new life.’

(Dante from Vita Nuovo)

‘Yonder comes my lady, rainbow ribbons in her hair …. Nobody, no, no, no, nobody stops me from loving you baby … And you were standing there in all your revelation! It’s too late to stop now!’

(Van Morrison, ‘Cyprus Avenue’)

‘Some sweet day I’ll make her mine, pretty flamingo
Then every guy will envy me
‘Cause paradise is where I’ll be
Pretty flamingo, pretty flamingo.’

(Mark Barkan)

There really are moments when the course of your life is irrevocably altered. Moments when your history, your story, becomes divided into Before and After. After such a defining moment you look at and experience the world around you as if it were an entirely fresh landscape glistening with new possibility. Epiphanies are lightning strikes to the dormant consciousness; quickening barely acknowledged dreams into blood pumping, temperature raising life.

And, so often they occur without warning. One moment you’re a regular fellow shooting the breeze with the guys on the corner of the block and the next, the next, you’re a hopeless, helpless fool prepared to mortgage your entire future for this girl, no , The Girl … If you just could – if she just would, if she just would, if she just would!

And, this can happen at any stage of your life. It might happen, as it did, for the 9 year old Dante Aligheri on first glimpsing the divine vision of the crimson robed 8 year Beatrice Portinari in a Florentine Palazzo. It might happen, as it did, for the teenaged Van Morrison obsessively haunting the tree lined avenue, so close and yet so far from his working class East Belfast home, as a rainbow-ribboned vision of beauty came into view.

It might happen, as it did for me, at 40 plus, in a worthy seminar about third world debt – suddenly realising that the woman I had just met was without any shadow of doubt the woman I must captivate because she was the woman I was going to marry, the woman I HAD to marry .. If I just could, if she just would.

Mark Barkan, a jobbing Brill Building style songwriter, in early 1966 through some divine inspiration came up with a perfect pop song, ‘Pretty Flamingo’ which captures, as few pop songs have ever done, that moment of abandonment to the dream of finding the love of your life. The lovely image of the crimson coloured Flamingo, simultaneously familiar and exotic, brilliantly captures the sensual glamour of the beauty who, simply walking by, turns an ordinary day into a never to be forgotten one.

The original and in some senses definitive version of the song was by the Manfred Mann group who took it all the way to Number 1 in the UK in May 1966. It went on quickly to become an anthemic world wide hit.

This is a very 1960s beat group record brim full with youthful energy and vigour. The brash guitar is loud and upfront as the song starts and remains powerful as it beats on throughout; perhaps portraying the rib pounding rhythm of the protagonist’s heart as he comes to terms with his new, captive, situation. The background wash of keyboards and the lovely woodwinds point to the escalating wonder and desire for one who seems so out of reach and out of sight. You can almost feel the sigh as she walks by with that crimson dress that clings so tight.

Vocalist, Paul Jones, manages to capture the wonder and the longing of the situation as well as the bewilderment. I love the, ‘Huh!’ he inserts as he contemplates whether he really could and whether she really would!

This incarnation of the Manfred Mann group had Manfred providing jazz chops on the Hammond Organ, Mike Hugg on drums, Jack Bruce (only very briefly a member) on bass and Tom McGuiness on guitar. I’m assuming that the gorgeous flute work was provided Mike Vickers who had only recently ceased to be in the band.

The group had become a strong musical outfit through intensive gigging from from the very early 1960s. They combined musicianly multi-instrumental prowess and a love of jazz, R&B and Soul music with a flair for picking top quality songs from the emerging titans of the American songwriting scene (Carol King, Greenwhich/Barry and the peerless Bob Dylan).

I think you can hear their musical togetherness and attack in, ‘Pretty Flamingo’ reflecting their joy in music making and the thousands of road miles they had travelled together. Their version of, ‘Pretty Flamngo’ should always be in any representative collection of the finest 1960s pop.

A song and a record like, ‘Pretty Flamingo’ was certain to light a flame in heart of would be tough but tender songwriters the world over. So it is no surprise that the 16 year old Bruce Springsteen, listening to his radio in Freehold, New Jersey should have been bowled over by the song and kept it bright in his memory in the ensuing decades as he progressed from a tyro writer and performer to a global superstar.

I would hazard a guess that along with the operatic arias of Roy Orbison the echo of the yearning of, ‘Pretty Flamingo’ was somewhere in the creative mix in Bruce’s mind as he wrote ‘Thunder Road’one of his indisputably classic songs.

The magnificent opening of that song with the vision of Mary’s dress waving as she dances across the porch recalls for me the sashay of the Flamingo as she brightened up the neighbourhood and constricted the throats of every guy who wished she would let him be the Guy, not just one of the guys. The Guy who had made her his!

Listen to Bruce’s live version of Flamingo from 2014. He performs the song solo, virtually acapella, and introduces the song with a meditation outlining how the song tells a story, a primal story, that’s always true and current. For men as long as they breathe will fall in love with a girl, the Girl, as she passes by your porch.

He muses, sotto voce, as he begins to play the song that, ‘You’re always…. ‘. I think we can take it that by this he means that we are all always hoping that this time, today, will be the moment when could and would miraculously coincide so that together you take up residence in the longed for paradise.

Bruce, the mature twenty-first century Bruce, performs Flamingo with a wry romanticism that includes real erotic charge as well as an almost elegiac plangecy. It may be that has something to do with Bruce’s inevitable recognition that his days as one of the guys on the corner of the block are long past – no matter how fondly remembered. The consolations of such a realisation are however beautifully captured as Bruce’s own flamed haired beauty, his wife Patti Scialfa, joins him duetting at the microphone.

Sometimes all your dreams of the sweet day when you make the Girl, the fabled Flamingo, your very own turns out to be more than a daydream. It turns out to be what you were living for before you knew what you were living for.

Notes:

As the ornithologists among you will know the name Flamingo derives from the Iberian, ‘Flamengo’ (with the colour of flame) is a highly distinctive wading bird prone, eccentrically, to standing on one leg. The Flamingo, which can vary in colour from light pink to Dantesque Crimson, is in the genus Phoenicopterus from the family Phoenicopteridae. Don’t you just love the Greek language and Taxonomy!

Manfred Mann:


Their 60s output is a cornucopia of delights and you will be amazed at how many of their songs are already in your own mental jukebox (take just, ‘The Mighty Quinn’, ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’ and,’ 5-4-3-2-1′ for starters!)

The succeeding Chapter 3 and Earth Band have intriguing catalogues with regular forays into the Dylan and Springsteen catalogues as well as radio classics such as, ‘Joybringer’ and, ‘Davy’s on the road again’.

More Flamingos!

As a pop classic Flamingo has been covered innumerable times. The versions I recommend are:

The Everly Brothers – an ineffably tender rendition from their 1966, ‘Two Yanks in England’ record.

Elvis Costello – a rave-up version (powered by excellent drumming) where Elvis turns spa like Montreux into a sweaty simulacrum of 60s beat dives like Liverpool’s The Cavern or London’s The Marquee. He is joined by the brilliant songwriting team from Squeeze Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook along with his own mentor Nick Lowe. Their obvious collective pleasure, as hardened songwriting professionals, in playing such a glorious pop confection is a joy to behold.

Paul Weller – has recorded Flamingo acoustically and also performed a tremendously rousing live version where he shows how acute his ear for the merits of the 60s pop song has been since his emergence from the punk pack.

John Lennon lauded it, Willie Mitchell produced it, Ann Peebles sang it: ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’

‘When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day’.

(Feste’s song from Shakespeare’s, ‘Twelfth NIght’)

‘Let the rain kiss you
Let the rain beat upon your head with liquid silver drops
Let the rain sing you a lullaby
The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk
The rain makes running pools in the gutter
The rain plays a little sleep song on our roof at night
And I love the rain’

(Langston Hughes – ‘April Rain Song’)

‘Hey rain – Get off my window … ‘

(Ann Peebles, Don Bryant, Bernie Miller – ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’)

‘And when the Sun comes out,
After this Rain shall stop,
A wondrous Light will fill,
Each dark, round drop;
‘Twil be a lovely sight.’

(W H Davies – ‘The Rain’)

Shakespeare was right. Somewhere, each and every day, the rain rains down. Sometimes to bend and batter, sometimes to nurture and replenish. Of course, somewhere, each and every day, the sun shines brightly, bathing us in its balm or sending us scurrying from its awesome burning power.

Though we might pray and dance to win the favour of the weather gods in the end we find that the sun shines when it wants to shine and that when it’s time for rain – it rains. As with so many aspects of our lives we are not in control so we must learn to adapt or spend a lifetime in fruitless frustration.

Naturally, being a storytelling, metaphor manufacturing species, we look to the skies and begin to discern patterns and meaning in every drop of rain and every ray of sun that visits itself upon us. The rain can seem a rebuke for our failures; a physical manifestation of despair or the blessed agent of change and growth. Perspective is all.

Poets, songwriters and proverb makers have always known that rain, a small four letter word like love and hate, always attracts the ear and can be freighted with multiple emotional meanings to suit almost any human situation.

Bearing all the above in mind it’s no surprise that a sharp songwriter like Don Bryant should have had his imagination quickened when his girlfriend (later his wife) Ann Peebles looked up at the skies above Memphis one summer night in 1973 and exclaimed, ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’. Some phrases simply beg to be song titles and this was surely one thought Don.

Moving to the piano he began, with help from Ann and DJ Bernie Miller, to fashion a steamy soul ballad themed around a spurned woman being tormented by the sound of the rain against the windows of the house she used to share with her departed lover.

Each drop tolling upon the panes seems to bring back memories – she calls them sweet but in the context of the song there is surely a substantial bitter-sweet element to her recollections. Let’s listen and decide where the bitter/sweet balance lies! (You will need to be patient while the clip loads).

Now that’s a serious record! Loaded to the gunnels with love, longing and loneliness and blazing with the banked heat of searing emotion. No wonder John Lennon a man of firm conviction and a lifetime aficianado of superior R&B/Soul balladry, called it, ‘The best song ever’.

I make it a point of my critical practice to rarely take issue with John. So, ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ will take its rightful place on the Immortal Jukebox as A11 joining 99 other records in rotation as, ‘the best song ever’ just waiting to be selected by you (isn’t that what Jukeboxes are all about).

Ann Peebles sings the song with mature womanly authority investing the lyric with immense drama and emotional punch without once straying into diva like hysteria. Her vocal uses judicious variation of vocal volume, tone, register, leaps and slides to convey the migraine inducing situation the protagonist finds herself in as the rain insistently beats on and on against her window assaulting her mind with memories of days and nights when watching the rain was a shared experience. Now the rain only emptily echoes the sweet times.

Ann brings gospel training to her performance seeming to draw herself up, straight backed, to lament her loss, a loss she cannot deny but which will not defeat her. There is old testament glower and grit along with new testament sweetness and mercy in her vocal. In the end, exhausted she can still muster the strength to hurl a curse at the rain – Get off my window!

The drama and palpably humid heat of the song owes everything to the enormously gifted musical team that assembled at Hi studios Memphis HQ located at 1320 South Lauderdale in the old Royal Movie Theater. This is one of those addresses like 3 Abbey Road and 706 Union Avenue which should have preservation orders protecting them in perpetuity in view of the cultural impact of the works created there.

The moving mind and musical intelligence behind a wondrous series of superb soul records emanating from Hi in the 1970s (Al Green’s epochal run of hits being the most artistically and commercially successful of these) was bandleader/trumpeter/producer and arranger, Willie Mitchell.

Willie Mitchell is one of those rare figures who through production alchemy could turn a fine song into a living, breathing great record which would burn up the radio airwaves and sound like it had always been part of your life the first time you heard it.

It was Willie who thought of the attention arresting intro featuring electric timbale to mimic the sound and spooky impact of the rain. Willie knew that any arrangement he came up with for a song could be given a golden lustre because at his command he had a peerless rhythm section comprised of the Hodges brothers: Leroy (bass), Mabon ‘Teenie’ (guitar) and Charles (organ) with Howard Grimes on drums. Together, this quartet, supplemented when needed by Archie Turner on piano and the Memphis Horns were able to sustain a distinctively supple and slinky groove that became the signature sound of the Hi label. It’s a ravishing sound that seduces the ear while providing a singer with the room to strut their stuff.

‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ has the musicians supporting and swirling around the vocal providing an emotional surround sound accompaniment. Though the sound is full it is never clogged. Maybe that’s something to do with the cooperative trust and intimacy shared by brothers – always aware of the other, always adjusting, so that each has the space they need to build the whole.

The interplay between Teenie’s liquid subtle guitar fills, Charles’ emotion quickening organ and Leroy’s propulsive anchoring baseline is a wonder to behold. Howard Grimes drums always seem to me to be saying, ‘Listen up! This is some serious stuff we are laying down here!’ Together, their style is at least as tender as it is strong and powerful as if each tune was as precious to them as a child or a woman they loved.

It’s a rare life that doesn’t include some long nights staring out of a dark window as the rain falls prompting memories of lost love, lost time and lost hope. A song like, ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ can be a true companion getting you through those nights until the world turns again and the rain becomes one more memory while you wait for the sun.

Notes:

Ann Peebles 5 albums from the 1970s for Hi have now been reissued and have my unreserved recommendation. Just listen to the imperious, ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’, the incandescent, ‘Love Vibration’ or the stupendous, ’99 lbs’ and I guarantee you’ll be getting your credit card out!

5 Classic Rain Songs (Send in your suggestions):

Bob Dylan: ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ – a cloudburst of songwriting and performing genius.

Brook Benton: ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ – Tony Joe White who wrote it and Brook Benton singing it will surely convince you, while you listen, that Lord, it’s raining all over the world.

Creedence Clearwater Revival: ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain’ – John Fogarty is a heroic pessimist with the drive of a 50s rocker combined with an acute eye for history and social dislocation. And, he’s one hell of a singer and guitar player. There are no answers to his question.

Randy Newman: ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ – A typically clear eyed and heartbreaking meditation on the crooked timber of humanity.

Buddy Holly: Raining In My Heart’ – Perhaps there is an artist who can cut more directly and deeper to the heart than Buddy Holly. If there is I’m not sure my heart would be up to listening to them.

On The Bus with The Beatles – Helen Shapiro!

Sometimes cultural earthquakes and revolutions, like their political equivalents, can turn the world upside down with staggering rapidity. Looking around after the initial shock new figures, previously hidden, become prominent and established seemingly impregnable careers and reputations may lie buried or broken in the settling dust.

The emergence of The Beatles, in 1963 in Britain and the following year in America, as joyous rock ‘n’ roll revolutionaries, signalled that the times really were a changin’ and that all our maps would need need to be hastily and radically redrawn to reflect a new reality (if you want to be fancy a new paradigm).

Today’s tale on The Immortal Jukebox concerns a British early 1960s pop phenomenon, Helen Shapiro, now largely forgotten- except by faithful greybeards like me. Yet, this is an artist with a thrilling and wholly distinctive voice who began recording at the age of 14 and whose first four four records included two British number 1 smashes and two further top 3 hits (as well as once grazing the Billboard Hot 100 following two Ed Sullivan Show appearances).

An artist whose first pre-teenage group included the future glam rock star Marc Bolan (T Rex) and who headlined The Beatles first British nationwide tour in January/February 1963 (they were fourth on the bill!). An artist who inspired Lennon and MacCartney to write, ‘Misery’ and who recorded, ‘It’s My Party’ in Nashville before Leslie Gore had ever heard the song.

Despite all this Helen Shapiro was overtaken by a cultural tsunami and was effectively spent as a pop star before she was old enough to drive a car or vote! Perhaps, additionally she was a victim of, ‘Shirley Temple Syndrome’ whereby the public’s fickle support is withdrawn from a child star when they inevitably grow up and are no longer the incarnation of, ‘cute’.

On a personal note I should add that her, never to be forgotten once heard, 1961 signature hit, ‘Walking Back To Happiness’ (below) is among the first songs I ever remember begging my parents to buy for me and probably the first pop song I could enthusiastically sing, word perfect, as the vinyl spun around at 45 revolutions per minute on our treasured Dansette record player (Helen Shapiro’s parents didn’t even own a record player when her first single was issued!)

If you can screen out the dated backup chipmunky ‘Yeh Yeh Yeh’ background singers you will hear an astonishingly confident and powerful singer singing her heart out and generating emotion at power station levels. ‘Walking Back To Happiness’ is pure pop champagne – bubbling over with fizzing life every time it is played. Listening to it since invariably rekindles the ecstasy I felt as a 6 year old hearing it for the first time. That’s quite a gift and one I will always be grateful to Helen Shapiro for.

The material and production on many of Helen’s records too often reflected the safety first, by the music business play book, of old school pre rock ‘n’ roll professional Norrie Paramor. It was probably deemed not sensible for Helen to risk her moment(s) of fame by recording songs by, ‘unproven’ writers and in styles not yet fully appreciated (or heard) in Britain. So this fine voice rarely flew unfettered.

Astonishingly, Helen’s management did not take up the offer to record The Beatles, ‘Misery’ and become the first artist to cover a Lennon/MacCartney original composition. This was compounded by the later failure to issue her take on, ‘It’s My Party’ as soon as she had recorded it!

Still, as you can hear in her number 1 hit, ‘You Don’t Know’ there was always a quality of poignancy and direct emotional heft in Helen’s voice which still reaches out across the decades. In all her records, from every era of her career, you can detect an artist who simply loves to sing, to make songs come alive for the audience as she becomes more alive singing them.

It is important to remember that the Britain that Helen toured with The Beatles in 1963 during one of the coldest winters for many centuries was emphatically not the, ‘Swinging Sixties’ Britain that would bloom later in the decade. Though the nation was finally, after more than a decade of post war austerity beginning to enjoy economic uplift it would be a country unrecognisable to my own children: as alien in many ways as a distant planet.

In common with many working class families of the time I lived in a monochrome world of Without! Without a telephone, without a car, without central heating, without a bathroom (I bathed in a tin bath), without a refrigerator. Crucially we did have a radio and a tiny black and white TV with a 12 inch screen that seemed to work best when firmly disciplined by means of heavy slaps to the frame.

Through the TV and the radio I became dimly aware there was a wind of change stirring and that it was likely I was young enough to be a lucky recipient of its transformative power. The TV and radio also introduced me to records that sketched out new vistas of emotion and identification for me. I then bought my records (more accurately had them bought for me) from a stall in the street market that literally took place outside our front door.

The riot of colour and glamour that would characterise the,’Swinging Sixties’ was still securely stoppered in the genie’s bottle as Helen, The Beatles and 9 other acts boarded the coach in early February 1963 to visit Bradford, Doncaster, Wakefield, Carlisle and Sunderland on the first leg of the fourteen date tour they shared. The Beatles had just issued, ‘Please Please Me’ and they were yet to record first LP. That would happen on 11 February during a break on the tour. The impact of that LP would change everything and turn a raw bunch of provincial rockers into world wreckers.

You can see something of the joshing elder brother/adoring kid sister relationship The Beatles and Helen Shapiro developed on the bus in this clip from the TV show, ‘Ready, Steady, Go’ from October 1963 when Beatlemania was an established reality.

By 1964 Helen Shapiro was effectively an ex pop star. For many that would have been a devastating and embittering fate. Not for Helen Shapiro. Helen Shapiro’s truest ambition was never to be a pop star. She had a vocation as a singer so when the caravan of fame passed on she was not emotionally defeated rather she carried on singing – carrying out what she came to regard as her god given vocation.

A careful comb through her record catalogue yields a number of, ‘how that did that one get away’ gems and displays her passion and versatility as a singer. Among those the one that holds my heart is, ‘I Walked Right In’. It makes you wonder what would have happened if Helen had been born in Brooklyn rather than Bethnal Green!

Helen Shapiro was always a lot more than the cute teenager with the Beehive hairdo, the gingham, the lace and the train-stopping voice. In the half century since her 60s supernova moment Helen has continued to honour her gifts. This has included playing the role of Nancy in the musical, ‘Oliver’ and a dozen years or so proving her jazz chops live and in recordings with the wonderfully swinging Humphrey Lyttleton Band (Humphrey, a true gentleman maintained no prejudices except one in favour of real talent for which he had an unerring eye and ear). These days Helen’s gifts are directed through gospel outreach evenings in the service of her faith which became central to her life from 1987.

Even in this context she still sings, ‘Walking Back To Happiness’ though now as a mature reflection rather than youthful impulse.

She has certainly earned that right.

The Avett Brothers, Mahalia & Randy : A Closer Walk

‘When one is a child, when one is young, when one has not yet reached the age of recognition, one thinks the world is strong, that the strength of God is endless and unchanging. But after the thing has happened – whatever that thing might be – that brings recognition, that one knows irrevocably how very fragile is the world, how very, very fragile …’ (Russell Hoban from the Novel, ‘Pilgermann’)

‘Pilgrims are persons in motion … Seeking something we might call contemplation, or perhaps the word clarity will do as well, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way’ (Richard Neibuhr)

‘Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of joy to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.’

(Sir Walter Raleigh)

Solvitor Ambulando! (It is solved by walking!)

We are all pilgrims. Between the moments of first drawing breath and breathing out for the last time last we all conduct our own pilgrimages. For some of us this will involve solitary, epic journeys, for others the daily accumulation of quiet thoughts and unnoticed actions among friends and family close to home. We all find, one way or another, our own road to walk the way.

The song featured on The Immortal Jukebox today, ‘Just a Closer Walk with Thee’ is a traditional gospel song that has lifted, comforted, and accompanied many a pilgrim on their walk through life as well as galvanising many fine musicians in many genres to produce inspirational performances. Of course, the song has often (especially in New Orleans) been played as a cortege song as many a coffined pilgrim makes their final earthy journey : and who is to say it does not comfort them at that moment every bit as much as the weeping mourners?

With no further ado I’ll kick things off with a barn-burning performance from a band, North Carolina’s The Avett Brothers, who have regularly commanded audiences to their feet with their fervent encore performance of, ‘Just a Closer Walk’ (Warning: once heard this version will echo in your mind for months to come!)

Wow! Brothers Seth and Scott Avett know only one way to play – with lung busting, nerve shredding, whole hearted, heart bursting, total fraternal commitment: so that you are breathlessly swept away by the tidal wave irresistibility of their performance.

I’ m convinced that if, at the end here, they had kept on playing and said,’Come On! Let’s walk together to the end of the earth (wherever that might be) the whole audience would have joined them!

So where did this great song come from? As so often we have to rely on conjecture and guesswork as much as documentary evidence. It is surely true that the song emerged out of the African-American encounter with slavery and the soothing sonorous cadences of the Bible. The idea of the suffering pilgrim being accompanied on their daily travels and eventual journey across the Jordan by a compassionate saviour runs very deep.

Late in the 1800s Martha Lankton and William Kirkpatrick published, ‘Closer Walk with Thee’. Sometime in the early 20th century the Reverend Elijah Cluke from Atchinson, Kansas seems to have come up with something very close to the song we have today though gospel publishing luminary Kenneth Morris had a hand in the process too.

Gospel choirs, quartets and soloists recognised the strength of the song and it became in the 1930s a staple of the sacred repertoire. Still, it was just two months before Pearl Harbor when it was first recorded by the Selah Jubilee Singers. Since then there is no counting the number of versions that have been recorded (I’ll point to some superior versions in my Notes).

When Van Morrison, in his endlessly absorbing song of pilgrimage and contemplation, ‘Common One’ was looking back at the voices that had stirred his soul, calling forth his own voice and setting him off on his continuing journey towards Avalon he reached down deep to exclaim, ‘The voice of Mahalia Jackson came through the ether’ to acknowledge the spiritual power and inspiration that the, ‘Queen of Gospel’ has exercised on generations of her fellow citizens in the United States and on singers and musicians all over the world.

When you listen to the awesome, regal power of her performance of, ‘Just a Closer Walk’ (a song she sang for her whole life) you will surely agree with Martin Luther King that such a blessed voice comes along not once in a century but rather once in a millennium. Mahalia, when she sang, was clearly filed to the brim with the Spirit and her gift was to honour and glorify that Spirit through the stately magnificence of her performances.

There is an unquestionable healing power in her singing which seems to accept and contain, unafraid, the inevitable pain of life even while her voice is uplifted by a faith which insists that no journey of pain has to be walked alone.

The penultimate version featured is by Randy Travis perhaps the greatest singer country music has produced in the last 40 years or so. Randy’s voice has a manly, burnished elegance such that when he has a song worthy of his talent he can touch your heart and soul as few singers have ever done.

As a man he remains a pilgrim whose life has provided him with glittering triumphs along with devastating bouts of addiction and illness. I am pleased to read only today that he is continuing to recover from a debilitating stroke and that he has just got married.

The restrained, strangely moving, inner-lit, fervour of his performance of, ‘Just a Closer Walk’ must owe something to his hard won understanding that those to whom great gifts are given are not exempt from experiencing how fragile, how very, very fragile life can be. I wish him well in the miles he has yet to walk.

To conclude today I turn to the magnificently named New Orleans native, Trumpeter/vocalist Kermit Ruffin, accompanied by the Rebirth Band who returns, ‘Just a Closer Walk’ to its incarnation as a song to steady the heart and lift the spirit as another brother or sister is carried away on the day of their burial. Kermit has indeed played this song hundreds of times at New Orleans funerals and this shows in the relaxed authority he brings to it below.

I hear this version as an affecting, consolatory amalgam, of defiant vitality, unashamed sorrow, purposeful dignity and heart-shadowing grief.
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‘Just a Closer Walk’ is a song which will always live because it speaks to our bone deep understanding that nothing in this world is permanent and that each step we take is a further step on our path to a destination far beyond the grasp of our limited human senses.

Yet each of us may feel our burdens eased when shared and our load made lighter by melody and song guiding us gently to some farther shore.

Notes:

The Avett Brothers – I was tremendously cheered when I first discovered them because they gave me, once again, that sense that I had found, ‘My band’ – one I could commit to without snarky reservation. I was bowled over by their sheer joy in making music and their seeming indifference to the dictates of what they should do according to the music business moguls and analysts.

I don’t think you can go wrong with any of their records but I particularly recommend:

‘Mignonette’ (2004), ‘The Gleam’ (2006), ‘I and Love and You’ (2009) and ‘Live Vol 3′ (2010).

Recommended versions of, ‘Just a Closer Walk':

Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Van Morrison
Bob Dylan with Johnny Cash
Dr John
Louis Armstrong
Patsy Cline
Harry Dean Stanton (a cameo performance in the Paul Newman film, ‘Cool Hand Luke’)
Corey Harris
Allen Toussaint

The Beatles & Bowie agree: The Merseybeats are Fab!

British Beat – Some Other Guys:

The Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9th 1964, viewed by some 73 million people (!) was an epochal moment in the history of popular music and indeed of global popular culture. The world would never be quite the same again. Additionally, their Sullivan show debut red letter marked a new, wholly unanticipated, chapter in the, ‘Special relationship’ between the peoples of Britain and The United States Of America.

Following in the wake of The Beatles overwhelming chart triumphs and virtual colonisation of the hearts and imaginations of an entire generation of American youth battalions of British Beat groups began packing their bags and stared dreamily at their atlases as they wondered what the fabled cities of New York City, Chicago and San Francisco were really like. Could it true that they were on their way there and that when they arrived they would be screamed at by hordes of gorgeous young women, celebrated for their ‘cute’ accents and garlanded as members of a wholly welcomed invasion?

For some like the Rolling Stones and The Who, Field Marshalls of the Invasion, this was indeed the case and they would go on over the following half century to pursue storied careers now commemorated in DVDs, Box Sets and epic myth making tours. But while the Generals and Staff Officers of any army always grab the lion’s share of the glory and the headlines, others in the ranks – the regulars, the foot sore infantry, sometimes have their fleeting moment(s) in the sun too.

The, ‘Some Other Guys’ series will feature posts on the lesser lights of the British Beat era who nevertheless made some great records that endure as fine music as well as being emblematic of the times.

So, today I showcase The Merseybeats/Merseys – a group who played hundreds of times at Liverpool’s legendary Cavern club in the early 1960s, alternating as headliners with the Beatles. In many respects they were like younger brothers of The Beatles – sharing their enthusiasms if not the overwhelming charisma and depth of talent of the Fab Four (but then who did!).

They did however produce a classic record in 1966, ‘Sorrow’. Both The Beatles and David Bowie were fond of the group and, ‘Sorrow’ in particular. The Beatles directly quoted from the song in their, ‘It’s All Too Much’ and former fan club member Bowie had a substantial hit with his sometimes camp, sometimes impassioned, wholly Bowiesque, version of the song which appeared on his early 70s covers album, ‘Pin Ups’.

The Merseys version, below, intimates that that the unreachable beauty, the longed for lover with the long blonde hair and the eyes of blue, may well turn out to be not an angel but the Devil’s daughter and the cause of long lasting sorrow as well as momentary joy. Or so it so often seems in the overheated imaginations of hormonally ravaged, emotionally immature, teenage boys! Later, spurned, the young man may come to realise that thinking about his fate might well be an illicit pleasure in its own right and cue up, ‘Sorrow’ time and again until the next love of his life appears.

The charmingly morose vocals are by the key duo of the Merseybeats/Merseys – Tony Crane and Billy Kinsley who also respectively played rhythm and lead guitar. The record label assures us that the track was produced by Kit Lambert (then manager of The Who) though I am inclined to hear more profoundly the influence of John Paul Jones (later of Led Zeppelin fame) who played the opening bowed bass figure and surely arranged the horns which feature so effectively.

The great Clemente Anselmo Arturo ‘Clem’ Cattini, the doyenne of UK session drummers, plays with the professional expertise he brought to over 40 British number 1 singles. ‘Sorrow’ will take up permanent residence in your musical memory. I’d like to feature two more songs to illustrate the worth of the Band. First, the Merseybeats 1964 million selling ballad, ‘I Think Of You’ which in addition to the aforementioned Crane and Kinsley has Aaron Williams on guitar and the late John Banks behind the drum kit.

This swooner with its attractive guitar figure was surely meant to play as the mirror ball scattered its indiscriminate temporary glamour over local dance floors. Perhaps many of the dancers as this song played thought of, ‘the one who got away’ even as they held close the one they were dancing with that night. The record is contained and contentedly wraps us up in satisfying angst. Finally a more dramatic and weighty performance from 1965, their version of Tony Colton and Ray Smith’s magnificent cri de couer, ‘I Stand Accused’ (later to be given a thrilling, amphetamine rush version by Elvis Costello). Tony Colton, as secret hero of the UK Music scene, will feature later in this series.

The above performance reveals an altogether grittier, sweatier, side to The Merseybeats. This, surely, is how they would have sounded in stygian gloom of The Cavern as the crowd, packed way beyond capacity, urged them on for chorus upon chorus before they all needed to groggily come up for air.

Few glossily illustrated, footnoted tomes will be written about the Merseybeats yet they surely left their mark on the 60s musical landscape and with, ‘Sorrow’ that mark is likely to prove indelible.

Notes: The original version of, ‘Sorrow’ was written and produced in 1965 in a hazy folk-rock style by the New York City wise guy team of Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer for The McCoys which featured guitar wunderkind Rick Derringer. Feldman, Goldstein and Gottehrer issued records under the name The Strangeloves including the garage rock staple, ‘I Want Candy’.

Richard Gottehrer is very likely to feature here on The Jukebox later as he went on to be an important figure in the New York New Wave scene (producing records for Richard Hell and Blondie) and co-found Sire Records.

‘Some Other Guy’ a raucous 1962 R&B by Richard Berry (written by Leiber & Stoller) has, as the the more astute among you will have already figured out, provided the inspiration for the, ‘Some Other Guys’ series. It was frequently played live by The Beatles in their Cavern days.

Van Morrison : Carrickfergus (Elegy for Vincent)

The Unfinished conversation:

‘There you are …… ‘

‘Grand, Grand ….’

‘Isn’t there a fine stretch in the evenings now’

Aye – there’s a fair dazzle of daffodils over the old road’

‘Did you hear that McCoy’s retiring! And didn’t he drive in a 14/1 winner, at the front every step of the way, at his last Cheltenham.’

‘Sure, many a time I’ve seen him near lift an animal over the line to get a winner’ – we will not see his like again.’

‘If you had to guess who, in their seventies, would record an album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra and pull it off who would you pick?’

‘Not Bob! But after the Christmas record who could ever be surprised again!’ We will not see his like again’

‘You’d hardly recognise the lad now – he’s up to my shoulder’

‘God bless him – isn’t it natural. Before too long it’s you that will be looking up at him’

‘Well I can see you need to be on your way. I’ll see you further on up the road’

‘Aye, but take your time, take your time – there’s plenty of road.’

In memory of my friend, Vincent Roche (RIP) who was one of nature’s gentlemen. A craftsman, a scholar of music and horseflesh and a man of wry humour and quiet dignity. Vincent was a proud Irishman from Foxford in the County of Mayo.

We often traded lines from the great ballads of the Irish tradition as opening salvos or payoff lines in our conversations:

‘… And we made a football of his rowdy-dow-dow’

‘… He never tried to go railing from Ennis as far as Kilkee’

‘… One star awake as the swan in the evening moved over the lake’

‘… Down by the sally gardens my love and I did meet’

‘… The pale moon was rising above the green mountain’

‘… And I said let grief be a falling leaf at the dawning of the day’

Today, in his honour, I feature a luminous performance of, ‘Carrickfergus’ by the greatest singer Ireland has ever produced, Van Morrison, accompanied by the legendary Chieftains who provide the sympathetic melodic and rhythmic ground against which Van weaves his profound magic.

Van makes emotionally real the knowledge we have in our bones that our relations and dearest friends are all bound to pass on like the melting snow. Treasure them while you share the same stretch of road.

Wherever we wander most of us keep an image in our hearts of the home place and all of us are mesmerised by the waves of the salty sea ebbing and flowing as they have done for millennia before we were born and as they will do long after we are gone.

P.S. Those of you interested in my more literary efforts and Ireland might like to look up the, ‘Once In A Blue Moon A Poem’ post below.