Monday, 28 January 2008

Dusty at the Beeb

In the 1960s, in an effort to ride on the coat-tails of the burgeoning new-fangled pop music wave, television companies snapped up the more presentable performers (i.e. not Mick Jagger) and gave them their own TV shows. Tom Jones had a go as did a few other males but it was mainly the women that got the prime time Saturday night slot. Cilla Black, Lulu, Petula Clark (in the US) and of course, Dusty Springfield all fronted their own shows with varying degrees of success.

It became apparent that Dusty was head and shoulders the best singer, but perhaps not the best host, so her show played to her strength and comprised little more than a succession of songs sung against a cheap backdrop, with a guest spot or two to break it up. The BBC has just issued a DVD of several surviving archive tapes of these programmes and they are sensational.

These are programmes from an era when material was recorded ‘Live’ and then broadcast (and then wiped!) so what the viewer is seeing is effectively a live concert of 6 or so songs. No miming, no edits. What strikes you when watching these shows is not how primitive they look, but what a stunningly good singer, Dusty was. She takes on every style and musical genre with consummate ease without the need for dance troupes or tele-visual effects. The songs include showtunes, standard ballads, gospel, folk, blues, and most important of all, R&B. Nothing seems to be beyond her canon and it is captivating. How many singers do you know today who could sing live on television and cross all these boundaries in 30 minutes?

Most interesting of all is the undercurrent of subversion. Here was a white, seemingly middleclass woman appearing on the bastion of middle England; the BBC, but singing a great wodge of black American music and one wonders how this went down with the establishment of the day? Dusty always adored the material emanating from American record labels such as Motown, Atlantic and their ilk. There are some versions of songs by Holland, Dozier & Holland and Smokey Robinson that put her up on a pedestal with the original artists and where she seems immediately at home. It’s not surprising that she fled to the States to produce ‘Dusty in Memphis’ and to further her career there when the UK public was beginning to tire of her.

These early tapes show her at her best, just singing and entertaining us as she did so. The slow descent into relative obscurity and eventual death through cancer seems so far away at this point it makes you want to cry. RIP Dusty.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

How to Write a Song

Did anyone watch Paul Morley’s ‘Pop – what is it good for?’ on TV? As someone of a similar age it struck quite a few chords with me and it is always interesting to hear what others pick as their own half-dozen ‘touchstone’ life-changing singles. In his case it is these (in no particular order):

Ride a White Swan – T Rex
This Charming Man – The Smiths
Freak Like Me – Sugababes
What Do You Want? – Adam Faith
Lola – The Kinks
Can’t Get You Out of my Head – Kylie Minogue

Actually, I have no issue with any of them, in principle, as they also feature prominently in my life (it’s a generational thing) but no doubt would have chosen a selection that was more personal to me if I’d been in charge. Perhaps this might form the material of a subsequent post!

The bit that really interested me was hearing Rob Davis explain how he and Cathy Dennis had written ‘Can’t Get You Out of my Head’, Kylie’s mega-hit of 2001. It just confirmed what I have always believed about a good pop song and that is that it has an internal conflict at its heart.

Rob showed how he had chosen a basic dance groove, that is, something upbeat and feelgood and then set against it a series of quite melancholy minor chords. This is the conflict. It is something that Abba writing team of Benny and Bjorn knew all about and exploited in spades. All the best Abba hits either marry an uplifting tune to a lyrical tragedy or a minor key melody to an upbeat dance rhythm or any combination of all of them. ‘The Winner Takes it All’ is the greatest example but there is ‘SOS’, ‘Name of the Game’ and many others.

It seems that by combining opposites it is possible to cover all bases in the emotional scale and yet avoid the cheesiness of overwrought ballads on one hand and the relentless smugness of happy-clappy songs on the other. All of us like a good tune that we can hum on the way to the shops, but we also like a bit of tragedy to remind us that, as REM once put it, ‘Everybody Hurts’. It’s the identify-with-your-audience syndrome that comes into play with a ‘conflict’ song as it catches both those looking for comfort in the midst of their own life crisis and those looking for a damn good tune to whistle in their happy oblivion.

Easy really, isn’t it?

Friday, 18 January 2008

Could Do Better

I very rarely venture into the world of politics but having a wife who is a primary schoolteacher has sensitised me to goings on in the education world. The current UK government has mooted the idea that on top of the mountains of bureaucracy heaped on the education system, teachers should now produce a weekly on-line report for every pupil in their care. Just in case you haven’t grasped the magnitude of the task, let me say that again, ‘a weekly on-line report for every pupil’. I trust that Prime Minister Gordon Brown will personally be producing a similar weekly on-line report on what he is doing for the country? Don’t count on it.

Perversely, I still have all my school reports and very entertaining they are too. They reflect an age when public servants were not crippled by the dead hand of political correctness and a spade was, funnily enough, a spade. My favourite is from my old Geography master, who when assessing my achievement as top of the class in his subject provided a succinct appraisal in the single word, ‘Good’.

But he is not alone. A newspaper recently published extracts from school reports of various well-known public figures and what a hoot they all are. There is a fair splattering of the usual ‘He/She will never amount to anything’ but many had a deliriously off-kilter flavour typical of a less straitjacketed world. The one that caught my eye was a headmaster’s report on the young Richard Briers. I’m sure Mr & Mrs Briers would have been bemused to read, ‘It would seem that Briers thinks he is running the school and not me. If this attitude persists, one of us will have to leave’. Brilliant!

You wouldn’t get anything anywhere near that degree of surrealistic humour these days – it’s all too homogenised, grey and frankly tedious. In a way, this seems counter-productive as many of the best teachers have an innate madness about them that makes them irresistible and to remove this part of their personality through political machiavellism is plain daft.

There was one such individual at my school and shamefully, I can’t remember his name. Whenever it was his turn to take morning assembly, the place was packed to the rafters with standing room only at the back. It was the sense of danger he seemed to invoke when you (or even a nervous Headmaster) really didn’t know what was coming next that was so spellbinding and there is no doubt that he succeeded in getting his message across whether you believed it or not. I doubt he would get a look in these days and more’s the pity.

Sunday, 13 January 2008


In my recent pre-Christmas Post, you will recall that I mentioned that my favourite Yuletide single was ‘Christmas Wrapping’ by a band called The Waitresses and that their singer, Patty Donahue, tragically died of cancer in 1996 aged just 39. Now read on.

So there I was, browsing through YouTube like you do and I came across a long forgotten single from 1970 that I remember quite liking at the time – ‘Venus’ by the Dutch band Shocking Blue. OK, the main reason why I liked it was that my teenage hormones were given a bit of a wake up call by their singer, Mariska Veres whom I distinctly remember seeing perform on Top of the Pops. She must have been about 23 at the time and looked fabulous in classic 60s Babe style with her fringed curtain of long dark hair and Kohled eyes and I thought she was wonderful. It must’ve been her parentage, being half Hungarian, quarter French and quarter Russian that was responsible, but wow, what a cutie!

So for old times sake, I googled her to find out more, only to discover that she, too, died of cancer barely a year ago at the age of 59. This is all too tragic.

Those of you who are not ancient like me are more likely to remember ‘Venus’ as represented by the Stock, Aitken and Waterman produced Bananarama version which saw action in the 1986 charts but frankly this is a cruel patische of the Shocking Blue original. Have a look at it in the video sidebar to this blog if you don’t believe me. The original is a bit rockier and gutsier, unlike the SAW version which is the usual clatter of relentless and ultimately soulless computer rhythms with karaoke vocals stuck over the top.

Even Bananarama can do better than this – like under previous production gurus Jolley & Swain (‘Robert deNiro’s Waiting’, ‘Cruel Summer’ etc) but hey. But none of the ‘Nana girls can hold a candle to Mariska.

Why is the rock ‘n’ roll casualty list so inexorably long? Ok, so there’s drink and drugs…and shootings…and car crashes, but it seems that barely anybody lives to the biblical three score and ten let alone the lengthy life we are all promised in this brave new world of medical science. I suppose it’s as good a reason as any not to be a rock star. I wonder if young hopefuls are warned that their life expectancy is curtailed as soon as they pick up a guitar? I’ll bet life assurance companies know about this and charge the earth. Must remember to put ‘not a rock star’ on the forms next time.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Chalk Marks

So, what did you get for Christmas? Me? Well, in addition to the limited edition complete 1978 season ‘Dr Who and the Key to Time’ DVD boxset (Hahaha, it’s sold out now, and I’ve got one!!) I also received the latest CD from Polly Jean Harvey entitled ‘White Chalk’ which features a beautifully demure picture of her in a virginal white dress on the cover.

I have had a conditional relationship with PJ, dipping in and out of her career as the urge took me whilst she ploughed her lonely furrow over the last 15 years or so. Whilst I admire her greatly and like a great deal of her work, I find her albums difficult to listen to in their entirety (all except ‘Stories from the City…’ anyway). But ‘White Chalk’ is something else – brittle, haunting and utterly captivating.

By all accounts, she decided to discard her trusty jagged guitar and learn to play the piano. All the songs on this CD are piano based and this probably explains why they are so different to her usual fare. John Lennon, as a guitarist, once said that he preferred writing at the piano as it was a lesser-known instrument and he didn’t fall into the trap of following well-known chord sequences. I suspect the same applies to PJ and it has produced a magical album.

In the early 1990s, the music magazine ‘Q’ decided that the future of females in music was represented by PJ Harvey, Björk and Tori Amos and to be fair they were not far wrong. The three of them were gathered together for a joint interview and the result published on a wave of hype. The interesting point from all this is that all these years later ‘White Chalk’ sounds very close to what you would expect a collaboration between the other two sides of the ‘Q’ triangle, Björk and Tori Amos might sound like! It marries Amos’s kooky piano to Björk’s melodic invention and then sprinkles it with the lyrical directness that makes it a PJ album without doubt.

The other thought that occurs to me is this: is PJ the female Neil Young? Many songs on this album, especially the title track ‘White Chalk’, have the same wistful out-on-the-range feel that Neil’s ‘Harvest’ invokes and PJ’s other albums make use of the fuzzy guitar in a way the Southern Man would’ve been proud. And I can just see her in a Stetson. But perhaps not joining the Spice Girls (talented Spice?) or Girls Aloud in a CSN & Y sort of way.

All in all a very satisfying Christmas present.

Thursday, 3 January 2008


Well what a start to the New Year!

Those who know me will understand that I was more than a little cut up when my all-time favourite band, Lush, understandably split up in 1996 following the suicide of their drummer. Out of the ashes of Lush, guitarist Emma Anderson teamed up with singer Lisa O’Neil to form Sing-Sing which, over the last 10 years, has produced two excellent albums, ‘The Joy of Sing-Sing’ and ‘Sing-Sing and I’, on a sort of DIY basis whilst relying on fan donations for finance. See Video of 'Feels Like Summer' below for a good example of their work.

I have just received their New Year newsletter which informs me that they are throwing in the towel owing to a combination of babies and getting a proper job. I suppose the allure of living on bread and cheese for your art begins to pall once you are past 40. So I am bereaved again. Sob!

For those interested, they are selling off their albums for £1.96 each until the 18th of January from their

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

DVD Enabler to the Stars

Blimey Guv…how was I to know?

This was one of my weirder experiences of 2007. It all started the day I had to go to Birmingham on business. It was the end of the day and a colleague and I were standing on platform 2B at Birmingham New Street waiting for the train back to London. When it finally arrived, it was packed and the only two seats we could find in the general stampede were sharing a table with a harassed young mother and her potentially irritating child of about 3 years or so. There seemed no option so we plonked ourselves down next to them.

Mum was struggling with a newly purchased portable DVD player, bought, clearly, to amuse the child for the next hour and three-quarters with ‘The Little Mermaid’. With wires and packing everywhere, mum was clearly struggling whilst child was getting evermore fractious. So I offered to help and after wrestling with the manual, we eventually got the thing working and ready to go - only to find that the earpieces wouldn’t fit in the child’s small ears so would I mind it on speaker if the volume were turned downish?

“No”, I said meaning, possibly.

Relative peace reigned for all of 30 seconds before child decided she wanted a drink. Exit mum and child for the buffet car leaving behind the DVD player and a very expensive looking leather jacket.

It was at this point that my colleague leaned over and hissed at me, “You do know who that is, don’t you?”
“It’s that Janine from Eastenders!” (A long running television soap, m’lud)
Well, the last time I watched Eastenders was when Ian Beale was the irksome son of Pete and Caff and Ali the Turk ran the Café, so this was news to me.
“Are you sure? No, can’t be!”
“I heard her call the kid ‘Kiki’ so it must be!”

But TV stars don’t travel in standard class so I remained unconvinced although the costly DVD player and jacket didn’t really fit the ‘young mother’ profile that you usually see on trains, so the seed of doubt was sown.

Anyway, they returned from the buffet and Kiki spent the rest of the journey spilling her drink down her front and pushing all the buttons on the DVD player so that the disc stalled while ‘Janine’ tried to read her book. As the father of a four-year-old myself, this was all too familiar.

I decamped at Watford without a backward glance, but later the next day I googled ‘Janine’ and judging by her photograph, it seems a good possibility we had been sitting next to Charlie Brooks aka ‘Janine’, real life mother of Kiki (b 2004). And I didn’t even get her autograph. So if you are reading this Charlie, I’m sorry I didn’t recognise you and hope the DVD still works.