Friday, 20 January 2012

Cyndi & Sandie

Having nothing better to do on New Year’s Eve, I watched a bit of Jools Holland’s Hootenanny (HOOTENANNY!) to usher in 2012 and whilst enjoying the usual entertaining mix of acts backed largely by his own Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, I was constantly nagged by one question that seemed to loom large over the proceedings.  And it was this: Why do the older generations of popular music just refuse to go quietly?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining, just a little mystified that most acts who are now edging retirement age are not donning the comfy slippers and having an early night.  Exhibit A was Sandie Shaw who did first rate versions of both ‘Always Something There to Remind Me’ and ‘Long Live Love’ whilst predictably bare footed and wearing a dress that she probably bought in 1967 and showed acres of well preserved leg.  But not only that, she danced, flirted with Jools, sat on fellow guest James Morrison’s lap and generally terrorised the audience.  No wonder Jools saw her off with a ‘Wild Woman of Rock’ accolade.  ‘Such fun’, to coin a phrase.

The other thing that I find a bit disconcerting about performers of her vintage is the voice.  Obviously, age plays tricks with your vocal chords and the register and timbre often change as the years go by.  This is only to be expected.  But what is a little disconcerting is that every now and again, the younger version of the voice peeps through and it feels like the years have rolled back just for an instant.  This was very apparent during Sandie’s performance.  If you closed your eyes it was like her older and younger selves were vying for prominence in a Dr Who timey-wimey sort of way.  Weird.
Exhibit B was Cyndi Lauper, who whilst not quite as old as Ms Shaw, also refuses to grow old gracefully.  She also is beginning to show signs of the dual voice syndrome when doing her hits.  We were treated to an utterly mad version of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ and a beautifully re-arranged version of ‘Time After Time’ with strings and pipes.  Not only that, she showed us a new side to her with a traditional blues number from her 2010 album, ‘Memphis Blues’ which I thought suited her perfectly.  It takes character to sing the blues and Cyndi has it in spades.

I like Cyndi Lauper a lot.  She is humble and has a true musical soul.  Her performances were mesmerising and full of heartfelt honesty.  How unlike her hard-nosed business woman contemporary, Madonna.  Madge, take note – you may be infinitely richer but you could learn a lot from Cyndi.  And even Sandie.

Friday, 6 January 2012

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Every now and then I’m drawn back to listening to The Beatles’ ‘White Album’.  Owing to its sprawling all-styles-and-quality nature, it is an album that invites debate – that is its weakness and its strength – but for me personally, there are three songs that always stand out.  Neatly, but quite by chance, the trio comprises one effort each from John, Paul and George.  Even more intriguingly from an album where many of the songs are acoustic guitar based, they all have a piano introduction.  Spooky or what?

The first is McCartney’s ‘Martha My Dear’.  Most commentators dismiss this as a typical piece of McCartney whimsy but I like it.  It just drips with melodic invention where the same idea is barely used twice.  The main theme is curiously phrased across bars so that it has a slightly wonky rhythm which extends and then contracts like an elastic band.  Love the jaunty piano and orchestral flourishes as well.

The second is John’s ‘Sexy Sadie’, his scathing sideswipe at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.  Who’d have thought that Lennon, an instinctive writer rather than a grafter, could come up with such a McCartney-esque melody?  It too has a slightly strange melodic progression which tends to be linear rather than cyclical.  In this respect it is a natural bedfellow for ‘Martha My Dear’ but where MMD is jaunty, SS has a classic Ringo backbeat that just nails it to the floor making it tougher and more Lennon-like.

But I’ve saved the best till last.  The third is probably my favourite song from the whole album and it is George’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’.  This is where Harrison comes of age, baring his soul in the most emotional way and underpinned by the uncredited Eric Clapton’s mesmerising guitar.  Up to that point The Beatles didn’t entertain guests on their albums but the addition of El Clappo adds a new dimension to their sound.  George noted later that when Eric arrived to do his stuff the whole band upped its game.  That’s peer pressure for you.  Interestingly, Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre tells a similar story about the recording of ‘Aqualung’ when Jimmy Page paid a visit to their studio.  Martin’s solo on that track is probably his finest ever!

Hundreds of years before, the likes of Bach and Mozart knew all about the power of a descending harmonic progression and George hammers this home in a stately yet frankly over-the-top way during the verse and then glides weightlessly over the chorus cum middle section.  It is a powerful combination which lends itself to a massive guitar solo.  It is the kind of trick that Pink Floyd used frequently some years later but here Eric Clapton shows remarkable restraint and taste.  Perhaps he was frightened of showing up the most famous band on the planet?  Either way, it works beautifully.

There are several versions on YouTube but this is one of my favourites from the Concert For George in 2002.  Eric gets to sing as well as play and he is backed by a bewildering array of drummers, guitarists and keyboardists – including Ringo and Paul and Dahni Harrison who looks so like his Dad, it makes your heart bleed.