Sunny Afternoon

The splendid clock tower cast a lazy late afternoon shadow over the village green, the four o’ clock chimes almost insolently intrusive among the gentle murmurings of ‘here here’ and ‘splendid catch, what?’ emanating from the haphazardly serried ranks of deckchairs surrounding the white clad sportsmen acting out the summer Sunday ritual on this particularly green and pleasant patch of rural England.
‘Cricket, eh’ remarked Smithers-Jones, stirring his tea with what might once have been described as languid grace, observed Watts, albeit inwardly.
“Gentleman’s game, gentleman’s game…’ he mumbled, apropos of… well, of nothing, really, thought Watts.
‘You know young Watts’ continued the older man, leaning forward and jabbing in his direction with the teaspoon to emphasise whatever grand point he was about to make
‘Your father and I used to come here every weekend to watch the cricket… every blimmin’ weekend. Happy times. Happy times…’ he sighed deeply and his voice trailed off. Watts detected a moistening in the rheumy eyes of the other, and felt uncomfortable. He needed to defuse, or at the very least diffuse whatever was coming.
‘Happy times… here we are, now, you and I… just lazing on this sunny afternoon, watching these young chaps with their life ahead of them… and you know what David Watts? It’s too late for me… I’m already on dead end street. I was a well respected man at one time, a dedicated follower of fashion, I would see my friends and we would live life to the full, all day and all of the night… what now?’ he sniffed loudly, then fumbled in the pockets of his grubby white linen suit for an equally grimy handkerchief on which he blew his reddened nose loudly. He sobbed again ‘I miss your father… so, so much…’ another sob, which seemed to come from the depths of his tired soul, but was almost completely subsumed by the cries of ‘well caught!’ now rippling around them. ‘Where have all the good times gone? You know, I’ve never told you this before, but you need to know this. Your father and I…’ again his voice trailed off. He gazed upwards, dabbed briefly at his watery eyes with the handkerchief, breathed out, then turned to Watts and began again ‘We met in a pub, down in old Soho, where they drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry cola – ‘
He was interrupted by Watts’ hand on his arm, the younger man now leaning forward and gazing hard into the face of the older. It was merely a moment, but it felt as if time had been eternally suspended until Watts finally spoke.

‘More tea, Vicar?’

I don’t suppose that’s how you spend your Sundays, do you? Certainly not how I spend mine outside of the UK, particularly last Sunday in Phnom Penh. My music-loving, footie-playing, blog-writing, beer-drinking, tech-savvy Aussie colleague Al had almost casually mentioned in passing last week that he was now also an independent film maker , so…

So I find myself standing on the pavement beside the Russian Market, five o’clock in the afternoon, guitar over one shoulder, bag containing small amp, leads and other necessaries (mobile phone, tissues, cold sausages, lipstick… usual man bag things) over the other watching as Dustin (cameraman) and Al (producer, director, sound man, gaffer, best boy, grip etc etc) coax an Oscar winning performance from the unsuspecting Tuk Tuk driver they have press ganged into driving us all around for a Tuk Tuk session. Yes, a Tuk Tuk session. Now, if we were back in dear old Scotland, those words would conjure up the interesting notion of spending the afternoon in a drinking session (or ‘sesh’, as the youngsters term it nowadays), presumably engaged in imbibing copious amounts of something liquid going under the moniker of ‘Tuk Tuk’, but as we are actually in balmy Phnom Penh the reality is much more exciting. It’s basically a music video shoot, but with certain rules, dreamed up by Al and his mate Rory after… well, after a session (Scottish style – see above). The rules? In a nutshell, one song, one take, one Tuk Tuk. The one take rule does not, however, apply to the driver, who is manfully struggling with the manifold complexities of the line ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!’.
Sorry.
Wrong movie.
The line was actually ‘Welcome to the Tuk Tuk sessions, Phnom Penh.’ and was eventually delivered (with shades of Dennis Hopper I thought) enabling us to then pile in to the vehicle and generally both terrify and mystify the local populace in equal measure as we tootled around town filming several songs totally and utterly live in one take for the Tuk Tuk sessions. The results are online now, on a rather spiffing website where you will not only find the rationale for this fabulous project, but also other performances, from Rory and Al, and also Cambodian Space Project, with more to come. You can find it at http://www.tuktuksessions.com and I hope you enjoy it and take it in the spirit in which it was intended and forgive the abundance of lyrical and chordal misdemeanours emanating from yours truly.

I’m off now, it’s time to listen to some Kinks, methinks…

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Lets talk about music. So, let us imagine we are somewhere both accommodating and appropriate, holding this discussion. Hey, how about The Garage in Phnom Penh? Yes? Good. Let’s buy Jeff a (virtual) G&T then get down to it…but before I reveal my personal favourite album of 2010, shall we recap on the year?

‘Goin’ Back’ may well have been my musical theme for 2010, as much of the time I spent re-exploring the music that inspired me in my youth. It also marked my own return to the live arena after 5 wilderness years, my first ever solo performances and, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, the (limited edition 7-inch in coloured vinyl on 1977 records!) re-issue of the first Radio City record I made to satisfy the demands of mainly Japanese collectors. Now (with the emphasis firmly on the pantomime aspects of the following statement), I am truly a ‘cult’…

Jerry Goffin and Carole King’s ‘Goin’ Back’ is normally cast as a wistful, dreamy reverie of a song that evokes a resigned sense of nostalgia through its chords and lyrics. It was rendered virtually immaculate in 1960’s in the hands of The Byrds, softly pillowed in whispered harmonies and gently chiming 12-string guitars. The version I went back to this year however was the strident piano driven statement of intent emanating from the first solo album recorded by Nils Lofgren in the early 1970’s. He takes the song by the scruff of the neck and possesses the lyric in a way that totally reflects the attitude that oozes from the rest of the tracks and from the cover picture of a leather jacketed swaggering Lofgren… ‘But thinking young and growing older is no sin, and I can play the game of life to win…’ yes, we need the past to make sense of the present and prepare us for that unknown future…
This was one of my favourite ‘getting ready to go out for the unknown future of the weekend’ songs back in those heady days, and this song and its parent album were again established as firm favourites on the Jamesian playlist for 2010.

2010 was also the year of returning to some other old friends from the 70’s and 80’s – Dwight Twilley, The Raspberries (‘Starting Over’ – what a song – what an album!), the Shoes, the Db’s, the Plimsouls, Marshall Crenshaw, Let’s Active, the Flaming Groovies, the Rain Parade, John Hiatt, the Only Ones, early Cheap Trick, the Stiff and Chiswick records crew, the Postcard and Post-Postcard bands …. andmoreagain and again. I kept up my love affair with the 1960’s, the greats and the garage bands, spent far too much time with the complete Pete Townsend demos and with outtakes from the Beatles and Stones, obsessed (as usual) over the Kinks had a huge crush on the Bonzos/Viv Stanshall (shared by Otis!) and continued to love those contemporary artists whose musical hearts are very firmly in the classic tradition – the wonderful Black Keys, White Stripes and Billy Childish/Holly Golightly spring to mind here.

I continue to mourn the loss but celebrate the work of Alex Chilton. A complex kid indeed, but a true musician, and a HUGE personal inspiration. Although the direct line in my own work is closest to the first two Big Star albums, I’ve recently been listening to live tapes drawn from throughout his life, and there is no doubt that the image he had of being an ornery cuss at times overshadows just how good the man was…

So, so sad at the passing of Mark Linkous also… to be selfish I shall really miss the spooky scratchy whisperings of Sparklehorse. Listening to them reminded me of hiding from your friends in the damp dark woods when you were young… being so aware of your own body, breath and heartbeat, then realising there were other things there also, rustling and moving next to you, a natural world co-existing with you… I wish you peace now, Mark, and thank you for the memories in sound you have left behind…

I also confess that for many years I never really ‘got’ Captain Beefheart, but over the last few years had developed a real fondness for a great deal of his music, so his recent death was another reason to feel sad, as we will never see the like again… another original gone…

Enough of the maudlin for now, what has been the new music that moved me in 2010?

Well, I loved The Decemberists ‘Hazards of Love’, Midlake’s ‘Courage of Others’, John Grant’s ‘Queen of Denmark’ and Karen Elson’s ‘Ghost Who Walks’. Honourable mentions go out to Josh Rouse for ‘El Turista’ (even though he is currently walking a path parlously close to Paul Simon!), The Villagers ‘Becoming a Jackal’, The National ‘High Violet’ and Alejandro Escovedo’s ‘Street Songs of Love’.

Of course there were hundreds of others too, the ever-changing daily obsessions, but however (cue fanfare!), the time has now come to reveal the winner of the coveted(?) accolade, James’ Album of the Year, 2010. Bear with me whilst I do so in true ‘getting- up-slightly-tipsy-at-an-awards-ceremony-fashion’…

‘Ladies and gentlemen, this award goes to an artist who has weathered not only the changing face of a music industry he entered over thirty years ago as a shorts-clad sandal-shod, bright eyed and bushy-tailed hat wearing naive, but one who has also fought back in recent years from a near fatal and debilitating illness to confound us all with an album that stands as a career high. Of course, he has done this with a little help from his friends, some very much in the public eye themselves (hey Alex, Roddy! Hiya Paul! Alright Johnny?), others much less so, such as wife and manager, Grace… this is no maudlin, weepy, ‘oh me, oh my’ album either, but a pounding, vibrant re-affirmation of life in the face of adversity that is not afraid to face its demons armed with a killer guitar riff and a northern soul bass line. Ladies and gentlemen, raise a glass of Orange Juice as I give you my Album of the Year, 2010, and most of all I ask you to appreciate its creator, no Poor Old Soul but the Blue Boy himself…
‘Losing Sleep’, by Edwyn Collins!’

And that, dear reader, is all there is to say. If you haven’t heard it, please do seek it out and listen. It’s every bit as good as I say it is, indeed more so.

I’m off now, but I’ll be back later.

See you then….

Home Again

‘One is a lonely number…’
not, as you may be thinking, another half-baked philosophical statement from yours truly, but actually the title of the first track on the latest Edwyn Collins album ‘Home Again’. I purchased the aforesaid CD when I was back in the UK in the summer, and… no, lets save it for later. I promise we will return to Edwyn shortly, but let us first catch up on the second part of our summer holiday adventures. After the minor hell of our return journey to the UK we had a week or so more of enjoying the English summer. Prior to the U.S.A trip we had enjoyed some quintessentially English moments, visiting summer fetes, watching cricket on the green, feeding ducks in the mill pond, that sort of thing. As a Scotsman, and coming from a family who have its fair share of intensely patriotic members I do find it strange how I am inexorably drawn to a particular notion, or sense, of ‘Englishness’. I blame this on an inordinate fondness for the Kinks, early Pink Floyd, Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt and many others who jumped into the spaces created by those very significant footprints. Records on the Harvest label seemed to imbue this character almost naturally. I recall many a chilly northern night spent lying with my head between the speakers (my primitive version of headphones) of my portable stereo listening to ‘Grantchester Meadows’ off ‘Ummagumma’, or ‘Fat Old Sun’ from ‘Atom Heart Mother’, or ‘Whatevershebringswesing’ and immersing myself in the hazy warmth of the sounds emanating from the straining speaker cones…

In the middle distance, the muffled murmuring of the traffic gave way to the sonorous clang of the church bells and the gentle rustling of the leaves in the honey-thick breeze. The world was revolving slowly and lazily in the sticky warmth of this sunny afternoon.
‘More tea, Vicar?’
“Oh, splendid, Miss Jones,a capital idea, I must say. My goodness, your muffins are extraordinary…’
‘Oh Vicar, you are such a card…’
Sorry. Drifting off again. Let me get back on track.

Yes, summer holiday memories. Many of them from this year involve the continually evolving wonder that is our son. Little O attempting to adapt his funky Khmer style of dance to the strains of a brass band performing Abba songs; his joy at visiting a country park …very wide open spaces where he could simply run and run and run with what must have seemed to him as no boundaries; feeding ducks and swans with O doing his ‘one for you, one for me’ routine; a miniature train journey, O and Granddad together – who was most excited by that…? I wonder…; blowing bubbles in the garden, sheer naked enjoyment, O running around and around in circles laughing gleefully; feeding times, characterised by the infinite patience of Nana, with accompaniment from Iggle Piggle and Upsy Daisy; a visit to Swindon Mela, with so many familiar colours, shapes, sounds, smells and tastes – and time for some more O-type dancing, this time to familiar rhythms…; having the time and space to see the wonderful bond between O and mummy growing every day…
These are just some of the memories I have of this summer, there are many, many others that will come to me in the future, to make the good times better and to help me to smile during the hard times… summers are wonderful, magical things that re-awaken the child within us all, and we should cherish each and every moment of them…

My goodness, that was a bit Sunday Post-ish, wasn’t it? What has happened to my tireless cynicism? I confess I really don’t know, I’m sure it was here a minute ago… I must have temporarily mislaid it…

The other night, performing the increasingly difficult wrestling match that is getting O into his ‘jammies’ at bedtime I got to thinking about how much the vintage cowboy print thereon reminded me of the old Postcard Records label design. Ah, ‘The Sound of Young Scotland’… memories swept into my synapses, of those mysterious cardboard boxes from Fast Distribution that would arrive in Thurso Music Shop on a Saturday afternoon or Monday morning and be eagerly ripped upon to reveal their contents… would the eagerly awaited ‘1 only cat no PC-80-6 Orange Juice ‘Simply Thrilled, Honey’ 7” single’ in its cowboy bedecked sleeve be in there? Yes!! In stock! Mine! Those were exciting times, and many of us (hello Messrs Gavin Duncan and Ian Begg – where are you now?) felt such musical affinity with Orange Juice in particular, as their melodic gifts were really, really strong but tempered with some willfully unkempt, ragged yet glorious performances. I only knew (and if truth be told, still do) three chords, and hadn’t really mastered any of that barré chord stuff, so it was a joy to have it reinforced that traditional skill wasn’t necessarily a prerequisite of making exciting, clamorous, glamorous music. The Fire Engines were another band who shared that rowdy charabanc to pop success, music that sounded all over the place, spiky and fuzzy, but absolutely imbued with a total sense of fun. ‘Candyskin’ comes on like a Scottish Salvation Army playgroup that has had just a wee drop too much acid in their Irn Bru… wonderful stuff which even now brings a smile to my face as I type this.

‘Englishness’, ‘Scottishness’… I’m not sure how I got here, but the moving fingers type, and having typed, move on… or rather back, back to Edwyn Collins. He’s grown up now, has Edwyn. Life has dealt him some pretty bad cards in the last couple of years – he’s suffered two strokes, but has fought back and has been on tour, performing again this summer in a few festivals. I finally got round to listening to ‘Home Again’ a few nights ago, and I am so happy to tell you that it is an absolutely magnificent album, his best since ‘Gorgeous George’. He’s still wry, still sonically adventurous, still making records that sound like ‘records’, but his recent brushes with the fragility of existence seem to permeate his music (although amazingly, given some of the lyrics, most of this was written before he suffered his successive strokes) and give it a strikingly unusual cast, that of the man-child facing the enormity of life and the natural and un-natural challenges it throws against us all. The title track is quite simply awesome, a meditation on the redemptive and healing power of music that is almost overwhelmingly emotional in its evocation of that feeling of being truly at ‘home’ that music can bring. The Bearsden Blues, no less. As the late, great, Stuart Henry would have said, ‘I can’t recommend this album highly enough, my friends.’

Oh well, I’m off now to slip into my sandals and fringed buckskin jacket and nip round to Roddy’s house to see if he can show me how to play that augmented 7th chord… you coming? No? OK, catch you later, man…

Next episode – the return to a post-election Phnom Penh and all that entailed.
This episode was brought to you borne on the angel wings of Edwyn Collins ‘Home Again’ on Heavenly Records, remembrances of Postcard Records – the Sound of Young Scotland, ‘ Long Way Down’ on BBC DVD (Ben, it’s the same two guys, McGregor and Boorman, biking from John ‘o’ Groats in Scotland to Capetown, South Africa. Let me know if you want me to get you a copy my friend), and is dedicated to all those who hung around on a Friday, Saturday or Monday in the Music Shop, Thurso, waiting for the boxes of new releases…’there’s only one copy… and it’s mine!!’

Hey Porter!

So, Porter Waggoner has died. He is credited (mostly by himself, it has to be said) as being the man who brought Dolly Parton to prominence. Prominence and Dolly Parton… what thoughts pass fleetingly through the mind, dear reader… send them away, they have little place in this particular missive. His rhinestone-encrusted besuited frame topped by the strange inverted triangle of his head and his extremely large ears (hang on… isn’t it strange that many male country singers – and Bryan Ferry – have larger than average ears…) are etched in my memory through the courtesy of RCA Camden and their range of budget LP’s, as sold in Woolies and as bought in large quantities by my Mum and Dad. We had several of their duet LP’s, and the material on those was pretty much your average (!) tearjerking country balladry, songs of orphans freezing to death in the snow, life’s great tragedies and of decent god-fearin’ folks snatched from the warm bosom of life way before their time. Classic stuff. Hallmark was another great label for country vinyl. Patsy Cline was a favourite in our house. My sister Pam can do an uncanny Patsy Cline impression. I really, really liked Patsy (and the Hank’s – Williams, Snow and Locklin. I found Red Sovine just a little too much to take, Jim Reeves – mmm, good singer but too much of a smoothie, although Bimbo’s a great tune… mind you, so is ‘This world is not my home’… time for a re-appraisal, I think…). I loved Marty Robbins, particularly ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs’, home to the wondrous ‘El Paso’ and ‘Big Iron’, and anything by Johnny Cash (both CBS orange label – a tad more expensive!) and though I would never admit this to my Dad, I really liked his other main man, United Artist’s very own Slim Whitman. I think it was the fact that so many of his recordings sounded really spooky to me, like spirit messages filtered through a medium locked in an echo chamber with a steel guitar, and he looked amazing, really plastic and always soft focus, like an early version of Max Headroom. Boy, did I have an active imagination as a kid.

My introduction to country music came courtesy of my parents, when as a young child (maybe four or five years old) I received a red vinyl 78 of Roy Rogers singing ‘Red River Valley’, backed with ‘The Old Chisum Trail’ (my middle name is Chisholm, and my dear Nana’s family were Chisholm’s who had many émigrés in their history, so this set off fanciful flights of imagining about their role in the Wild West which I have recently found are much more accurate than I could have ever dreamed.). It was encased in an incredible picture sleeve, with Roy mounted on Trigger, his trusty steed (many years before he would literally mount Trigger – titter ye not, I mean upon a wooden plinth, stuffed and on display at his ranch) on the front. If Otis is the whitest baby in the world, then there is no doubt that Trigger was the whitest horse in the world. Even whiter than the White Horse whiskey horse, or the White Horses from the eponymous 1960’s children’s TV serial. Sorry, I’m diverging and digressing again. Lets get back on track… Roy Rogers… I really liked both songs, and at that time my heroes were pretty much either cowboys or spacemen, or my Dad, who I kind of imagined was Michael Rennie playing the role of a cowboy spaceman… which I suppose he did in ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ … now there’s an obscure reference to something coming up in this blog very shortly…

TV was full of cowboys, and my favourite was Ty Hardin from Wells Fargo. Ty didn’t go much for shootin’, oh no, he favoured pistol-whipping the bad guys, and usually being pistol-whipped in return. This was very unfortunate for my younger sister Vanda, who found herself the recipient of a particularly vicious pistol-whipping from her beloved big brother, copying old Ty. I don’t recall the exact details, but my mother remembers my disbelief that poor Vanda didn’t just get up right away, rub her head and clamber back into the saddle and ride off into the sunset, as Ty was wont to do, but had to suffer mild concussion courtesy of the Milky Bar Kid (me).

All this reminiscing is getting me misty-eyed with nostalgia, so while we’re on a roll, let’s carry on. Dan Dare, Yuri Gagarin (I far preferred the Russian cosmonauts to their American counterparts – Gagarin seemed such a cheeky and likeable chappie – and Russian spacecraft were way more interesting, almost Heath-Robinson-ish in appearance. Remember Lunakhod, the Russian Moon-rover? I swear that was a bathtub with wheels on it…), Quickdraw McGraw, Robert McGregor from across the road and his huge collection of glossy music magazines, so many, many formative influences… but let us fast forward to the point where my burgeoning obsession with rock music collided with the realization that country music was a very real part of the whole kaleidoscopic jigsaw… step up and take a bow Mr. Alan J ‘Perce’ McPherson, the man who introduced me to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Perce was a little older than my friends and I, and he had a record collection full of many strange and wondrous things, but none more wondrous than his Creedence albums. He also became the drummer in our first band, Paranoya.

We started as a ‘front-room’ band in my friend Michael’s house, before graduating to ‘garage band’ when we began to get a little too loud. I suppose we were a very early example of art-rock as we used found or everyday objects as part of our equipment. Michael’s mum’s big radio was our PA system; his front room lamp stand became the microphone stand. Guitar amplifiers were built from mail-order electronic kits (Kids! Why grow giant mushrooms in your basement when you can build your very own ‘Eagle’ crackling high voltage electric shock dispenser that also functions as a signal amplifier for only £8-3/4d!!), speakers resembling inverted Kleenex dispensers were constructed from Planika. Our bass player’s mum and dad obviously had more faith in him as they bought him a guitar, amplifier (15 watts! Yay!) and a strap, bag and cable (ironically he went on to be the bassist in a real country band…) I didn’t have a guitar at that point, or indeed a purpose to my life, so I drew the short straw of vocalist, which was a bit strange as I was at that time chronically shy. (Which is not to say that I am not still chronically shy, because I am, albeit in a slightly more extrovert way.) One of our original two guitarists who had previously shown little interest in music didn’t like the idea of being left out of this latest digression so he toddled off down to the Music Shop, bought a guitar and a copy of Bert Weedon’s legendary ‘Play In A Day’ and stayed up all night, effectively learning to play in half-a-day, returning the next day to stun us with his new-found expertise. As I recall, the first song we practiced (nobody ‘rehearsed’ in those far-off days) was a song by the Kinks called ‘Took my baby home’, which I believe none of us had actually heard at that time, we learned it straight from a songbook. Some years later I did get round to hearing the original, and our version was pretty close.

Well, reasonably close…

I wish I could find a set list, as my memory of those days is pretty hazy now, but I’m pretty sure we did more than a few Creedence numbers – ‘Don’t look now’ for certain, maybe ‘Effigy’… ‘Travelin’ Band’, ‘Lodi’, perhaps ‘Bad Moon Rising’ (also known as Bare Moon Horizon… does that mean anything to anyone out there reading this??). I think Michael may have made some reel-to-reel recordings of the garage sessions, but he may well be sitting on these (if they still exist) in the unlikely event of any of that little group of people becoming famous for whatever reason… (News just in – Thurso man blown up in Cambodian minefield – Legendary Garage Sessions tape to be released!) .
Jebus, I’ve been rambling a bit, haven’t I? I’ve completely lost track, so let me finish with a recommendation. Buy ‘Revival’.

Must admit, first time I heard the single (well, actually saw the video for it– I do hope John is being ironic, though I would kill for the painted western acoustic one of the kids is playing… ), I wasn’t sure… Now I am. Absolutely. The real John C Fogerty is back with a vengeance. It’s simple and direct, maudlin in parts (like the best country music), and it rocks like an unhinged mountain man high on moonshine driving his truck at 110 the wrong way down the interstate highway in others… and dammit, yes, it really sounds like Creedence. The last time Mr. Fogerty released anything this consistently great was around the time my Dad died, so the memories that flood through me when I listen to this incredible album are tinged with a little bit of that ole country sadness. Like we all do with the people who matter and who have gone from our lives, I really wish my Dad was still around. I would love to tell him honestly how much I really secretly liked his music, and the incredible effect it would go on to have on my life, but I do have some amazing memories.

We once went to see Carl Perkins and Bo Diddley play… I’ll never forget looking around during Bo’s set to see my Dad grinning from ear to ear and almost bopping around with the sheer joy of the music. Music is all about moments, and in that moment on the stage it was country meeting it’s best buddy, rock and roll, and up in the stalls my dad and I realizing that we weren’t really as different as we thought we were after all…

…so this one’s for you, Dad

Keep on chooglin’…