Billy Fury, Nick Lowe & Ben E King : Halfway to Paradise

‘Strange how potent cheap music is.’ (Noel Coward)

‘I like pure pop moments with a lot of vitality; songs that are supposedly disposable but which you end up loving for ever.’ (Bryan Ferry)

A Winter morning here in the South Downs can be a glorious experience.

Hedges stiff with frost and the sky gleaming blue as if proudly polished by a benign deity.

Trusty running shoes laced up I begin my four circumnavigations of the lake.

As my pace increases with each lap I find snatches of poems and songs skimming across my mind :

‘ … And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.’

‘… The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops.’

‘  … under the ocean at the bottom of the sea
You can’t hear the storm, it’s as peaceful as can be
It’s just the motion, it’s just the motion.’

And, as I was about to collapse at the end of my final sprint clear as a midwinter bell the song I would be singing for the rest of the day –

‘ .. So put your sweet lips next to my lips And tell me that’s where they’ll stay ..

Don’t leave me halfway to paradise …So near yet so far, so near yet so far, so near yet so far away.’

‘Halfway to Paradise’ by Carole King and Gerry Goffin who may well be the ne plus ultra makers of moments of pop perfection.

Moments, Immortal Moments, which generations upon generations end up loving forever.

The song was originally recorded by Tony Orlando in March 1961 but the version I was remembering was that by the one and only Billy Fury.

Billy’s vocal and stylistic amalgam of the bravura and the vulnerable always cuts deep to the heart.

The arrangement by the brilliant Ivor Raymonde, best known for his work with Dusty Springfield and The Walker Brothers, provides a wonderfully dramatic setting – those sweeping strings! the heart stopping percussion! – which Billy takes full advantage of.

There is always something wistful in Billy’s delivery, as if he can never be sure that the emotions he feels so deeply aren’t just about to overwhelm him leaving him, for a reason he can never fathom, finally, abandoned and bereft.

Billy Fury will always find empathetic fond hearts.

Now, whenever the phrase Pure Pop appears I inevitably turn to the veritable professor of the genre – Nick Lowe.

Nick’s version was issued in October 1977 as Buy 21 on The Stiff Label.

This was a compulsory purchase for me as I had already bought the first 20 singles put out by Stiff and I had made it a point of principle to be the first in the queue when any record by Nick Lowe appeared.

The sharp eared among you might recognise Dave Edmunds backing vocals and the pianistic playfulness of Steve Naïve (from Elvis Costello’s Attractions).

This is a much denser sound than Billy’s with nods to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.

This is much more of a defiant complaint than yearning lament.

Another decade passed before I found another version I could stand to listen to alongside Billy’s.

This came from the great Ben E King whose take on Halfway to Paradise surprised me by its three o clock in the morning tenderness.

Sometimes when thinking about music you can get lost in abstraction and dissection of form.

Whenever I fear I might be falling into that trap I turn to Pure Pop where what the heart responds to is performances which though based on simple material can be truly sublime and wholly unforgettable.

Billy Fury died at 42 having been afflicted all his life with a serious heart condition.

The performance below from 1976 was his first for many years after seemingly successful surgery gave him a new lease of life.

Billy walked in shadows throughout his life yet few singers give such comfort to the broken hearted.

It hurts me some, to know your heart’s a treasure … that my heart is within reach to touch.

Oh, Oh, Oh, bonny Billy!

So near yet so far away.

John Hiatt, Charlie Sexton : Tennessee Plates

The ‘All Hail The King’ Series (1)

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Summer of 1988 and I was going 90 miles an hour down a dead end street.

So, I walked one block from my office to the Tourist Centre for Greece and asked them to recommend an Island without an airport and with as little tourist infrastructure as possible to ensure the three week holiday I had just awarded myself would be as peaceful as possible.

The next day I was on my way with no suitcase in the hold.

Just a carry on bag with the minimum changes of clothes, one book (Virgil’s The Aeneid) and one music tape (John Hiatt’s Slow Turning).

I loved every song on Slow Turning but the song I played the most and the one that accompanied me to the beach and kept the throttle on my hired moped wide open was Tennessee Plates – probably the most oblique and powerful tribute song to Elvis Presley ever composed.

The marriage of words, rhythm and wit are worthy of Chuck Berry (and when it comes to Rock ‘n’ Roll song writing there is no higher praise).

Woke up in a hotel and I didn’t know what to do
I turned the T-V on and wrote a letter to you
The news was talkin’ ’bout a dragnet up on the interstate
Said they were lookin’ for a Cadillac with Tennessee plates
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Since I left California baby, things have gotten worse
Seems the land of opportunity for me is just a curse
Tell that judge in Bakersfield that my trial will have to wait
Down here they’re lookin’ for a Cadillac with Tennessee plates
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It was somewhere in Nevada, it was cold outside
She was shiverin’ in the dark, so I offered her a ride
Three bank jobs later, four cars hot wired
We crossed the Mississippi like an oil slick fire
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If they’d known what we was up to they wouldn’t ‘a let us in
When we landed in Memphis like original sin
Up Elvis Presley Boulevard to the Graceland gates
See we were lookin’ for a Cadillac with Tennessee plates
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Well, there must have been a dozen of them parked in that garage
And there wasn’t one Lincoln and there wasn’t one Dodge
And there wasn’t one Japanese model or make
Just pretty, pretty Cadillacs with Tennessee plates
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She saw him singing once when she was seventeen
And ever since that day she’s been living in between
I was never king of nothin’ but this wild weekend
Anyway he wouldn’t care, hell he gave them to his friends
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Well this ain’t no hotel I’m writin’ you from
It’s the Tennessee prison up at Brushy Mountain
Where yours sincerely’s doin’ five to eight
Stampin’ out my time makin’ Tennessee plates
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Ok – let’s press the pedal to the metal and drive!

A complete movie with; a love story, criminality, cultural commentary, eyeballs out playing from the band (especially Sonny Landreth on guitar) and a twist at the end – all in under three minutes.

What more could you possibly want!

Hard to pick out favourite lines when every verse gleams with brilliance.

Still :

Three bank jobs later, four cars hot wired
We crossed the Mississippi like an oil slick fire
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has a thrilling propulsive power that takes some beating.
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Mind you :
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If they’d known what we was up to they wouldn’t ‘a let us in
When we landed in Memphis like original sin
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matches it all the way.
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And :
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Well, there must have been a dozen of them parked in that garage
And there wasn’t one Lincoln and there wasn’t one Dodge
And there wasn’t one Japanese model or make
Just pretty, pretty Cadillacs with Tennessee plates
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is both emotionally apposite and laugh out loud funny.
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While :
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She saw him singing once when she was seventeen
And ever since that day she’s been living in between
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is as good a summary of the Elvis’ impact on our lives as anything ever written.
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John Hiatt has been writing superb songs for decades and all those, ‘in the know’ from Ry Cooder to Bonnie Raitt to Bob Dylan are in no doubt about the magnitude of his abilities.
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John’s bank balance got a welcome boost when, ‘Tennessee Plates’ was featured in an iconic film of the 1980s, ‘Thelma and Louise’.

There is a great additional pleasure in that the film version was by Charlie Sexton later to be famed as the stellar guitarist in Bob Dylan’s touring band.

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Let her rip Charlie – let her rip!

 

A song with such wild fire power is always going to attract cover versions.

The one that I’ve chosen to present today introduces Samantha Fish to The Jukebox.

She sure can burn it up!

I am going to leave you with John burning down the barn with The Goners – listening to this we are all Kings and Queens of The Wild Weekend!

Now, when I make my pilgrimage to Graceland as I drive down Elvis Presley Boulevard let me assure you that I won’t be driving a Lincoln or a Dodge or heaven forbid any Japanese model make.

No. No. No.

I will be driving a Cadillac (Hell he gave ’em to this friends!) and blasting out in tribute to The King will be Tennesse Plates.

All Hail The King!

Tom Waits : What’s He Building?

During the Christmas festivities a couple of balls of malt into a serious philosophical discussion a friend of mine suddenly asked – if you had the time to write another Blog not themed around music what topic would you choose?

The question took me aback but my answer was immediate and as surprising to me as it was to him.

’I would write a Blog called ‘Tom, Tom, Tom’ celebrating the wondrous achievements of those who share my forename including, of course, those Toms formally called Thomas, Tommy, Tomas and indeed Thom.

Toms have been prominent in every field of human endeavour throughout history so I’ll have no shortage of engaging subjects.

Here’s 10 off the top of my head :

Thomas The Apostle – How can we know the way?

Thomas Jefferson – “The equal rights of man, and the happiness of every individual, are now acknowledged to be the only legitimate objects of government.”

Thomas Hobbes – Because waking I often observe the absurdity of dreams, but never dream of the absurdities of my waking thoughts, I am well satisfied that being awake, I know I dream not; though when I dream, I think myself awake.

Thomas Hardy

At once a voice arose among The bleak twigs overhead,
In a full-hearted evensong of joy illimited.

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
With blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

Tom Mix – King of The Cowboys, 291 Films and a violent death!

Tom Finney – A Football Genius : Tom Finney would have been great in any team, in any match and in any age .. even if he had been wearing an overcoat.”Bill Shankly.

Thomas Tallis – Listen to Spem in allium if you want a foretaste of the sound of Heaven.

Tommy Farr – The Tonypandy Terror who went the full 15 rounds with Joe Louis in his prime.

Thomas Sudhof – Nobel Prize Winner, Professor of molecular and cellular physiology.

Oh .. And Tom Waits – Singer, songwriter and performer  extraordinaire :

You won’t believe what Mr. Sticha saw
There’s poison underneath the sink
Of course…

But there’s also
Enough formaldehyde to choke
A horse…

What’s he building
In there.

What the hell is he
Building in there?

Tom. Tom. Tom.

Tom Waits whether he’s right or whether he’s wrong Lord ain’t we gonna miss him when he’s gone.

But, if you have created and curated one of the great songbooks you will never, ever, be gone.

Tom has studied the old masters – Hank Williams, Gershwin, Mississippi John Hurt, Kerouac, Hemingway, Bukowski, O’ Hara and Bob Dylan.

He has drunk deep of their influence and then mixed up a miraculous confection tipping the hat to them all while remaining obstinately and magnificently the one and only inimitable Tom Waits.

Ain’t no kind of song Tom can’t write.

Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards.

Drunk Songs.

Sober Songs.

Lullabys and Vampire Venom.

Philosophical Songs.

Sociological Songs.

Songs you won’t forget for the whole of your life.

Songs as innocent as dreams.

Songs as guilty as your worst waking nightmare.

Songs that, damn it, can make a grown man or woman break right down and cry.

Songs that make you scratch your head and then say with a grin – well I guess that’s true I know someone with a story just like that (often because it’s your story).

Songs that can spook you and give you the shivers.

What’s he building in there?
What the hell is he building in there?
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He has subscriptions to those magazines
He never waves when he goes by
And he’s hiding something from the rest of us
He’s all to himself, I think I know why
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Songs that are plain as day and cranky as Hell.
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He took down the tire-swing from the pepper tree
He has no children of his own, you see
He has no dog, he has no friends
And his lawn is dying
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Songs that betray a deep knowledge of the crooked timber of humanity.
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And what about those packages he sends?
What’s he building in there?
With that hook light on the stairs
What’s he building in there?

I’ll tell you one thing, he’s not building a play
house for the children.
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Songs that can make you laugh out loud one minute and silence you with dread the next.
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Now what’s that sound from underneath the door?
He’s pounding nails into a hardwood floor
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And I swear to God I heard someone moaning low
And I keep seeing the blue light of a TV show

He has a router and a table saw

What’s he building in there?
What the hell is he building in there?
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I. heard he has an ex-wife in some place called Mayor’s Income, Tennessee
And he used to have a consulting business in Indonesia
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Songs that Nobody else could write.
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But what’s he building in there?
He has no friends but he gets a lot of mail
I bet he spent a little time in jail
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I heard he was up on the roof last night, signaling with a flashlight
And what’s that tune he’s always whistling?
 
What’s he building in there?
What’s he building in there?
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We have a right to know
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Songs that Nobody else could write.

Nobody.

Nobody.

Tom. Tom. Tom.