HELLO IN THERE – John Prine’s Greatest Song

Caring for the elderly has never been a widespread subject for songs by singer/songwriters, but the older I get the more I appreciate them. In fact, John Prine’s ‘Hello In There’ has been a favourite of mine since I first heard it sung by the man himself at a club in Greenwich Village in, I think, 1974. Until then I wasn’t familiar with Prine’s songs but even on first hearing this song – and ‘Sam Stone’ with its immortal line: ‘There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes’ – struck me as something special, and it’s another of those songs that I never tire of hearing.
         ‘Hello In There’ is a plea for understanding from one generation to another, from the old to the young, couched in verses that echo the experience of those whose life is slowly ebbing away. For my money, its first verse contains one of the saddest triplets ever set down: ‘We lost Davy in the Korean War/ I still don’t know what for/ Don’t matter anymore’.
         Prine sings his song from the husband’s angle in folksy style with melodic guitar fills between the verses that balance its sense of wistful melancholy with a more upbeat tone, but the better known, heart-wrenching version by Bette Midler, which swops genders to the voice of the wife, is markedly different; softly sung and simply beautiful, dignified, accompanied solely by a stately, unfussy piano. Regardless of which version I hear, I love the imagery that evokes the weariness of a creaking marriage, the emptiness of retirement and of trees and rivers growing stronger and wilder while we mortals grow weaker and infirm. In the shortened final verse Prine makes his life-affirming appeal for tolerance and kindness: ‘Don’t pass ’em by and stare as if you didn’t care, say hello in there, just say hello’.
         I came across Prine talking about his song in the internet, this from a site called Performing Songwriter: “I heard the John Lennon song ‘Across The Universe’, and he had a lot of reverb on his voice. I was thinking about hollering into a hollow log, trying to get through to somebody – ‘Hello in there’. That was the beginning thought, then it went to old people
         “I’ve always had an affinity for old people. I used to help a buddy with his newspaper route, and I delivered to a Baptist old people’s home where we’d have to go room-to-room. And some of the patients would kind of pretend that you were a grandchild or nephew that had come to visit, instead of the guy delivering papers. That always stuck in my head.
         “It was all that stuff together, along with that pretty melody. I don’t think I’ve done a show without singing ‘Hello In There’. Nothing in it wears on me.”
         Joan Baez has also recorded ‘Hello In There’ and there may be other cover versions for all I know but an otherwise rather disappointing compilation video/DVD by 10,000 Maniacs in my collection closes with a heart-stopping version of the song performed live by Natalie Merchant and Michael Stipe, accompanied solely by sturdy electric guitar chords from Billy Bragg. It’s at some outdoor event in Scotland – and I reach for a tissue just about every time I watch it. You can find it in YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPIpyB_ZtJ0
         You can also find John Prine singing it over a series of photographs that portray the song’s imagery, very literal but still very moving.


THE WHO - The Cancelled Shows

My sincere commiserations to all those Who fans with tickets for the cancelled London O2 shows yesterday and tonight. I am of course thankful now that I went to see them in Birmingham instead of waiting for the London concerts, as I might well have done had it not been for the fact that a couple who are close friends of ours were also driving up to Birmingham (from London) and we decided to meet there, have a meal together before the show and stay in the same hotel. I really feel for all those fans that now have to wait until March to see The Who Hits 50 show, not least because I enjoyed it so much and know everyone else would have done too.
              I’m sure Roger was gutted by having to pull out, and Pete and everyone else too. It’s such a high-end show production-wise that it must have been a difficult decision, and I’m absolutely certain the whole band, all eight of them, would have been gagging to perform it in front of a partisan London crowd. I felt in Birmingham that towards the end of the show Roger was saving his voice, especially as it’s such a long set (by anyone’s standards) and The Who’s music certainly calls for a lack of restraint on the part of the singer. Many years ago at a Who fan convention in Shepherds Bush I was amazed that Roger (and John) put a band together for the occasion and at the end of their set, when he looked out over the sea of faces and said, “Thanks for giving us a wonderful life”, it spoke volumes for the debt that Roger feels towards fans of The Who.  A few years later he even turned up unexpected with Simon Townshend to play a few songs at another fan convention, which I missed by about five minutes, and I’m hard pressed to think of many rock stars in Roger’s league who’d do such a thing.
              Over the years The Who haven’t cancelled many shows and when you consider how many they’ve done – well over 2,000 now I’d reckon (between 1964 and 1966 more gigs than Led Zeppelin, for example, did in their entire career) – it’s a pretty good track record. As far as I am aware illness is the sole reason for the handful of cancellations, and I know I’m not alone in wishing Roger a speedy recovery.
              To close on a lighter note, all this reminds me that back in 1975, in New York, I once received a press release from a publicist whose client, a UK act then living in America, had been obliged to cancel a nationwide tour because the singer was ill. It was the act’s misfortune that at the time I was ‘seeing’ a girl who worked for their booking agency and she happened to be round my flat one night that same week and spot this press release on my desk. “That’s a load of bullshit,” she said. “The tour was cancelled because they didn’t sell any tickets outside of New York and LA.” Unwilling to take her word for granted, the following day I called two or three venues in the Midwest that the tour was due to visit and, sure enough, after trying to buy tickets I was informed the show had been cancelled because insufficient tickets had been sold. Now certain of my facts, I mentioned all this in my New York news column – only to be confronted by the singer a week or two later at the Bottom Line Club in NY. Quivering with rage, he demanded to know where the story came from but I refused to tell him. “Was it true?” I kept asking but he declined to comment. It also occurred to me that he didn’t look very ill to me. But because it’s the season of goodwill I will decline to mention any names. 



Here is the second half of the Joni Mitchell interview by Malka Marom from Both Sides Now: Conversations with Joni Mitchell, published by Omnibus Press last month. The photograph below was taken in Joni’s backyard in Saskatoon and shows teenage Joni with her friend Anne Bayin (then Anne Logie). The two girls swapped clothes before the shot was taken. “Joan was the most original person I knew,” says Bayin. (Photo courtesy Anne Bayin)

M: What encouraged you to do it, then? How did the spark come to marry the paintings with the words and the music?
         J: It all happened later. High school hit, and I used to do the backdrops for school plays. I did a lot of large paintings – a 36-foot painting for my French teacher as an apology that I was such a shitty French student, because I was just a lousy student. All I was interested in was art. I should have been in a special school, really. I was wasting my time in there, other than socialization. I lived for dances. My teens were pretty much obsessed with dancing, but I did one good poem in high school about celebrities – feeling sorry for them. At 16, we had to write a blank verse poem, it was on a Friday and I had to get this poem in on Monday. [That weekend] I was gonna be at one of the dances, so I was getting my hair done at a beauty school. A beehive with sparkles. I’m sitting there and stacked around me are Silver Screen and all these movie magazines. And on every cover, Sandra Dee is crying. She and Bobby Darin were breaking up and there were all these candid paparazzi shots of her and I thought, “That’s horrible. Imagine if you were breaking up with your boyfriend and people are snapping pictures and putting them on the school cover!” I thought that would be unbearable to me – to be looked at like a bug.
         That was the spark or the inspiration. Sympathy for Sandra Dee being photographed with her mascara running. It all just poured out this poem I called “The Fishbowl”. The fishbowl being Hollywood. I can pretty much remember it, although I did it in high school.
         “The fishbowl is a world reversed
         “Where fishermen with hooks that dangle from the bottom up
         “Reel down their catch without a fight on gilded bait
         “Pike, pickerel, bass,
         “the common fish all go through distorting glass
         “see only glitter, glamour, gaiety
         “Fog up the bowl with lusty breath
         “Lunge towards the bait and miss
         “And weep for fortune lost
         “Envy the goldfish?
         “His bubbles breaking round the rim
         “While silly fishes faint for him and say
         “Oh my God, I think he winked at me”
         M: I’m totally amazed that you remember this poem also, especially when you consider the body of work you composed since high school. And it’s almost as if you had a premonition that you would be in that same sort of fishbowl.
         J: There were things that I worked out at 16. Like, I had a column in the school paper called “Fads and Fashion”. And I started fads and stopped them. I knew the mechanics of hip. It’s hip to wear your father’s tie to school. Ugh, it’s uncool, we did that last week. So by the time I was 16, I knew that hip was a herd mentality, certain people would do it, they’d follow you, and you could embarrass them easily by saying, “Ewww, that’s not hip now.” And they would stop.
         M: Music-making was dormant in you then?
         J: Hitting me with a ruler during those piano lessons sent my love of playing music underground for ten years or so. When I wanted a guitar, my mother said, “Oh, no, no. You’ll buy it and you’ll just quit. You’re a quitter.” I couldn’t afford to buy it on my own. So I saved up 36 dollars, and on the day when my wisdom teeth were pulled, with bloody sutures in my mouth, I went in and plunked down the 36 dollars, bought this ukulele, and just hunkered over it everywhere to the point where my friends said to me, “Anderson, if you don’t put that goddamn thing down, I’m gonna break it in half.”
         I was just obsessed with it. And in six months, I could play and sing well enough. Some kids heard me play at the lake and they said, “You’re good,” and they put me on a late night [TV] show. It replaced a hunting and fishing show. I always think they took off the moose and took me on [laughs].   They gave me half an hour to play these little folk songs – after I had only been playing for only six months. My mom and dad went to the top floor of the Bessborough, which was the highest building in town, and looked at the snowy image of me in this neighbouring town about a hundred miles away playing. Anne’s mother saw it also. She was in charge of the adjudicated music festivals of the United Church, and she said to Anne, “Joni is pretty good.” So that was the beginning. I took it as a hobby at art school. I got into playing just for spending money, for smoking money and movie money. And for fun; it was just fun when you got a room full of people playing, you know. That’s the way I started and it really was to be no more than that. My ambition was to be a painter.
         M: How did it switch to music?
         J: Well, in Saskatoon there was a coffeehouse, which I was kind of involved with in the beginning. Some friends of mine were doing the carpentry and I was hired initially to be kind of a resident artist. There was some talk of me doing portraits of people as they came in and I ended up waitressing.
I came there with an interest in jazz, which I was starting to get into at that time. Folk music didn’t excite me at all.
         M: Did someone or something give you the impetus to start performing on stage, or was it an accident, as it was in my case?
         J: It was an accident, in a way... My mother said to me, before I went to art college, that my stick-to-it-iveness at certain things was never that great. She said, “You’re gonna get to art college and you’re gonna get distracted.” She said this very prophetic thing. But I said, “Oh, what could possibly detract from my art.” This is what I always wanted to do. I doodled through French and history and biology. I’d failed mathematics but I had done drawings of mathematicians for the math room. So finally, here I was in a situation where it was all drawing. But when I got there, the same thing happened to me. A lot of the courses were meaningless to me and not particularly creative. I had no money, so I thought I could pick up some – to smoke and to bowl and to go to a movie and eat a pizza. So I went and auditioned for the coffeehouse in town. I said, “Look, I play this ukulele...”
         I think I had a guitar at that point. Yes. A Martin tiple, which is a glorified South American 10-string ukulele. It has more sound because of all the strings. It was sort of a novelty item, and I began to sing in this little coffeehouse [in Calgary], called The Depression.
         An English kid had gotten there a day before they hired me. He said to me, “What is your repertoire?” I said, “Well, ‘Crow On The Cradle.’” “You can’t sing that. That’s my song.” And I named another one. “You can’t sing that. That’s my song.” This is my introduction to territorial songs. I ran into it again in Toronto. The territorial thing in the folk scene was part of why I began to write my own songs.
         In that coffeehouse, and another one in Edmonton... I forget the name of it, but they wrote me up in the local newspaper: “two-career girl.” When I saw it, I thought, “Two career? I’m a painter. I don’t have two careers.” “Winged words fly from her pen,” they wrote in the yearbook. So I was acknowledged in high school as a writer, but I never acknowledged myself as a writer. That gift had to be drawn out by tragedy, it seems.
         The writing of my own songs came out of the trauma of my being an unwed mother and being destitute. I mean destitute in a strange city and pregnant, and living in a 15-dollar-a-week room. It was the attic room, and all the railings... there was one left out of every four because last winter, the people burnt them to keep the room warm. It was run by a Chinese guy that they said was waiting for my child to be born and then he’d ship me off to Shanghai or something.
         M: I can’t imagine writing or painting, or playing guitar and singing in these conditions, but maybe you did.
         J: No, no, no. I was in the middle of this trauma.
         M: Where did you live?
         J: In Toronto, on Huron Street, in a house full of artists, starving artists.
         M: Why not in a shelter for unwed mothers?
         J: Couldn’t get in. They were flooded. I tried to. I tried to spare my parents by going to the anonymity of a large city, under the ruse that I wanted to be a musician. Because my mother already thought I was a quitter, so I thought, “Okay, she thinks I’m a quitter, so she’ll believe it.” “I want to be a musician.” “Oh, I knew you’d be a quitter.” That would get me out of town.
         And in Toronto I had, I think, 60 dollars, maybe, with me in a town where the cheapest room was 15 dollars a week. And I had six months ahead of me, no work. You had to be in the union to work all the clubs. It took 160 dollars to get in [but] I couldn’t earn the money to get in. It was a catch-22. You had to work to get the money to get in the union. And you couldn’t work until you got in the union. So I worked at a scab club called the Purple Onion till my sixth month. We did good business because I was a good scab act.


JONI MITCHELL - Book Extract

This is the first of two extracts from Both Sides Now: Conversations with Joni Mitchell, published by Omnibus Press last month, which distils 40 years of original interviews with the legendary singer/songwriter by broadcast journalist Malka Marom. The two first met in a Toronto coffee bar in 1966 before Mitchell found mainstream success, and their first interview took place in 1973. Over the years more interviews followed with Marom enjoying privileged access as their friendship developed and endured.

M: Was there anything in particular that brought you to music?
J: I had, as a child, I don’t remember what age, a hurdy-gurdy that had a rope around the neck. It had circus images and it was made of heavy cardboard and it had a rubber thing that when you wound it, it hit some prongs, which played the melody ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’.
         I used to always play it backwards because backwards it rocked. It had a different rhythm. The melodic intervals were quite surprising. It was really entirely a different piece of music – almost African in its rhythm. Once I played it backwards, playing it forward was kind of corny. Played backwards, it was a much more interesting piece of music, the first piece of music that inspired me.
         The second one was when I was in the fourth grade. I had one friend who was a classically trained grade eight piano student, Frankie McKitrick. He let me dream big without any kind of contest. He was the only kid I could kind of play with, and I was exposed to a lot of music and ballet and things like that because of his interests. He was a real musician. I never thought of myself as a musician. He and I went to some pretty far-out movies together. My mother was horrified that the principal, his father, let us play hooky to go and see them. And among them was a movie called The Story of Three Loves, which had Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as a theme song. And that piece of music thrilled me to no end. It was the most beautiful
piece of music that I ever heard. I had to hear the record of it. I asked my parents to buy it for me, but it wasn’t in the budget. It would be seventy-five cents or something. So I would go down to Grobman’s department store, take it out of its brown sleeve, and go in the playback and play it maybe two or three times a week and just swoon. I saw [the movie] recently. It was really corny, but the piece of music is still stupendous.
         There isn’t another piece of music on the planet that has touched me like that. When I heard it as a child, that music was like pleading to my mother. “Don’t interpret the situation that way. You’re breaking my heart. And I’m trying to explain to you... I’m not trying to wiggle out of anything. I’m just trying to explain. And you won’t let me. You insist on creating this barrier by getting it wrong.” There isn’t a piece of music that affected me emotionally like that. Then I started to dream that I could play the piano beautifully.
         M: To dream or to wish?
         J: To dream. In my dreams, my hands would be on the keyboards and I’d be composing these fantastic pieces of music, like Story of Three Loves, that I could play and make emotions come out like that. And I also dreamed I could drive a car [laughs].
         So I told my mother that I wanted a piano, but it wasn’t in the budget. I begged, I wheedled, I pleaded, and finally, one winter night, because there was no piano store in North Battleford, this van pulled up with a lot of spinets on the back. Mine was not a good instrument at all.
         I began piano lessons from a teacher named Jill Evan, who wore her hair in a bun like a Spanish dancer, and a lot of red lipstick and long, red fingernails. And like all piano teachers at that time, she hit you with a ruler for all kinds of things. But I didn’t know that, that corporal punishment was the methodology. I took it personally. I thought she didn’t like me and my mother because she had a crush on my dad. Because she and my father used to do these duets, and she also played tennis and so did my dad.
         But it was just the way they taught piano in those days.
         It took us a year of right-handed, da da da da da da da da scales, and left-hand scales before you got your first two-handed piece, which was written by a nun. It was called ‘The Little Regret’ and it went from major to minor. It was quite a nice little piece of music.
         Once I got my first two-handed piece, I wrote my first piece of music, ‘Robin Walk’. I wrote it out in notes. So I’m proud. And I bring in this ‘Robin Walk’ to play it for this teacher — “Look what I’ve done. I wrote my own song here.” And I play it for her. When I’m finished, she says to me, “Why would you want to play [this song] when you could have the masters under your fingers,” and she whacked me across the knuckles with a ruler.
         I went home and I said, “That’s it. I’m not going back there. She hit me.” And my mother called me a quitter.
         When my mother was in her eighties, one day she said to me, “All that money we spent on your piano lessons and you quit!”
         M: By that time you were already...
         J: Yeah. I had 15 albums out. It was ridiculous. I played Carnegie Hall! So I laughed... She went, “All that money we spent and you quit!” I said to her, “Look, I think you got some bang for your buck.”
         M: Was she joking?
         J: No! She just had a trap mind. I don’t know what it is. I lied to her once in my teens. I told her I was going someplace and I went to a public dance, where I wasn’t supposed to go. So I was always a liar after that, a liar, a quitter and a lesbian. She’s wrong on all three counts and would not stand corrected. She just got these things fixed and they wouldn’t erase.
         M: Did you continue to play the piano after you quit those lessons?
         J: No. It killed it. Later I played a little bit of ‘Moon River’, like Henry Mancini. Other than that, my fingers found their own patterns. I think the fact that I did not have the masters, that I don’t have any musical heroes... my music is pretty original. Nearly anyone you talk to in my generation had a hero that they studied and analyzed and strove to be like. They did air guitar in front of the mirror. So it was less “muse” than “ick”. [laughs] Music comes from the muse, not from other musicians.
         M: And poetry? What sparked the songs, the poetry?
         J: The spark for the poetry came and died. I moved from North Battleford to Saskatoon in the sixth grade. Towards the end of the year, we were having a parent-teacher day and I was hanging some drawings of mine for this thing when the new grade seven teacher, Kratsman, came up to me. He said, “You like to paint?” I said, “Yes.” He said to me, “If you could paint with a brush, you could paint with words.” And I went, “I can?” I took his word for it.
         M: You mean the poems came just like that: because he said that you could paint with words?
         J: Yeah, the first time we were given an assignment to write a poem, he smothered the board in really interesting topics. I chose to write about a stallion, because I was into horses, because of Roy Rogers and cowboys. I used to play cowboys with the boys. And I used to spend my allowance riding [the pony] at the stockyard on the weekend. So I wrote a poem about a stallion and how he leads the horse hunters along a precipice and the horse hunters fall off the cliff. It was in sympathy with the horse. There were two words in it that I really stretched for. “Equine” I got from Reader’s
Digest: “it pays to improve your word power.” And one I got from my mother, which was a synonym for yellow. She gave me “saffron.” Anyway, I believed the teacher – if I could paint, I could paint with words. So I wrote this very ambitious poem. I thought it was good. And he gave me an A minus, but he passed out A plusses, including an A plus to the “toad stabber” – the kid who
sat across from me who kept drawing bleeding toads with daggers through them all over his notebooks.
         I stayed after school, and I said, “You told me I could do this. Did you not like my poem.” He said, “I thought it was alright.” And I said, “Did you think his, the toad stabber’s, was better? You gave him an A plus.” I don’t think I called him the “toad stabber”, but whatever his name was, I forget. The teacher said, “No, but that’s the best poem he’s ever gonna write. This is not the best poem you’re ever gonna write.”
         I took that as an explanation.
         He wrote things in the margin, like, I repeated an adjective... It was poetic, part of it, but it had a story.
         “Softly now, the saffron colours of the day
         “Fade and are replaced by silver grey
         “As God prepares his will for night
         “And high upon a silver shadowed hill
         “A stallion, white as newly fallen snow”
         He circled [it and wrote] cliché white as
newly fallen snow.
         “Stands deathly still”deathly better adjective?
         “An equine statue bathed in silver light”silver is circled.
         “For on the wind was strong the scent of man
         “He worried for the safety of his clan
         “And whinnied, hoping they would hear and heed.”
         M: You remember the poem. My goodness, Joni...
         J: Well, first stanza. I remember that much. I remember the criticism, which was valid criticism, good adjudication for a seventh grader. His take was “How many times have you’ve seen Black Beauty? The things you were telling me about what you did over the weekend are more interesting than this.” And in a way, that was the encouragement to write more autobiographically. It’s the only thing I learned in the school system. It’s the only thing I remember from 13 years in school really.
         M: You dedicated your first album to him.
         J: Yes, but in talking to him in later years, he unfortunately resented my success because he taught special kids at special schools and they were supposed to be the most likely to succeed – I was probably the least likely to succeed. I don’t think he ever could quite come to grips with that. He didn’t really mean what he said. He told me I could paint with words and then he told me I wasn’t very good at it. Even though his criticism was valid, his support was not there, as it was initially. So the spark went out, because I felt he lied to me. He let me down. And I never had any support from my family or anything. And at that stage, you need somebody to believe in you.


CHUCK BERRY - 88 And Still At It

Yesterday I went to pick up Sam from his Uni at Harrow in North London, a three-hour round trip from where we live in Surrey; A3 to M25 to A40 into London, then a slow, traffic-clogged drive through the neighbourhoods and then the whole journey back again. This offered an opportunity for seriously loud in-car entertainment, so on the way I played the whole of Bob Dylan & the Band’s two-CD Basement Tapes Raw, then an R.E.M. hits compilation and finally Exile On Main Street, the Rolling Stones’ greatest album which still sounds absolutely fantastic.
         By this time, of course, Sam was aboard and we got into a discussion about the Stones. We’ve talked about Hendrix, The Beatles and The Who a lot before but never really about the Stones. He didn’t even know how many were in the group, so I told him about them, and how the great Bobby Keys played saxophone. “Who wrote the sax parts?” he asked. “Probably Keith,” I said, not quite sure if I was right. “How can he write sax parts if he only plays guitar?” Good question, I thought. “He hums them I guess,” I replied, ad-libbing a bit. “But I think Keys was so good he just played them intuitively.”
         When the truly wonderful ‘All Down The Line’ came on we turned the volume even higher and Sam correctly remarked that the song had a touch of Chuck Berry about it, so this developed into a conversation about how Chuck’s music inspired just about all the first generation of beat groups in the sixties. Then Sam told me he’d seen some recent footage of Chuck and he was dreadful. “He was doing Johnny B Goode, and he didn’t even sing,” said Sam. “He just spoke the lyrics. And his guitar solo was useless. He could barely play.” “Well, he’s pretty old,” I said. “How old?”
         I didn’t know, so this morning I looked it up. He was 88 in October; eighty-bleeding-eight for chrissakes and he’s still going! So I can forgive him for what Sam thought was an under-par show. I only ever met Chuck once, at a party in LA in 1973. It was held at the home of his LA girlfriend, a publicist for a record label, whose name escapes me but she’d given Chuck – or Charles as everyone called him – a Polaroid Land camera as a present and the great man was much taken with this gift, so he took photographs of everyone at the party, me included.
         Of all Chuck’s many great songs, my favourite has always been ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’. As I mention elsewhere on Just Backdated in a post about this particular song, many years ago I was descending an escalator at Leicester Square tube station having had drink taken when I accidentally bumped into a large and unfriendly looking bloke who looked like he might want to do me harm. So I started singing ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, quite loudly too. “Do you like Chuck Berry?” I asked him, and without waiting for an answer launched into the verse: “They’re really rockin’ in Boston…” The bloke took one look at me and fled, probably thought I was mad. 
         Thanks Chuck. Hope you make it to 100.



It’s all over. Just Backdated might just as well pack up and go home. Today’s Guardian G2 Film & Music supplement lists what their music critics consider to be the top 40 ‘best’ albums of the year; not only have all 40 passed me by but I haven’t even heard of about half of the acts on the list. I really do need to get out more.
              However, as much as this shames me, what does strike me as odd is that none of the new albums I chose to review this year on Just Backdated, many of which were given glowing reviews in the Guardian and elsewhere, are mentioned. No Wilco & Roger Daltrey, which won Classic Rock magazine’s album of the year award; no Dylan/Band and their Basement Tapes Complete which was awarded five stars in the Guardian; no Robert Plant whose Lullaby… got five stars elsewhere; no Elbow or Paolo Nutini, both of whose 2014 albums were glowingly reviewed across the board; and, less likely perhaps, no Pink Floyd or Empty Hearts, let alone Abba’s Live At Wembley set or the Dylan Howe album of Bowie instrumentals that charmed me and managed four stars, unlike – and this is a random example I chose – Owen Pallett’s In Conflict (at number 20), an album with which I am unfamiliar but which a glance at the Guardian’s website tells me was awarded only three stars when it was reviewed in May, one less than Wilco & Roger (and Elbow and Nutini for that matter).
              So there’s a definite inconsistency between the reviews that appeared when the albums were released and the critics’ end-of-year assessments. In some ways this doesn’t surprise me as back in the day the staff of Melody Maker were asked to choose their Top 10 albums of the year for the Christmas issue and, such was pace of all things rock in those days, it was easy to forget an album that was nine month’s old when October and November’s LPs were spinning around my turntable.
              Nevertheless, it does seem that the Guardian list is designed to focus on newer acts to the exclusion of those that my own generation might probably prefer. The oldest act on the list, at 79, is Peggy Seeger, closely followed by Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker. With the possible exception of Damon Albarn, all the rest are of my children’s generation.
              I haven’t reviewed every new album I’ve bought or been sent this year, of course, but I’m pretty sure there are many others – the Manic Street Preachers’ Futurology (four stars on review) springs to mind – that have also been ignored. So I’m not really sure what to make of it. Either I get out more or investigate some form of anti-aging treatment. Or stick with what I know. 


THE WHO - More Than I Could Count

I somehow miscalculated the number of Who shows I’d attended when I wrote that Sunday’s show in Birmingham was my 36th. Having consulted my Who Concert File, I now realise it was my 37th, or 38th if you include my sneaking into the Young Vic early in 1971 to watch them rehearsing for the aborted Lifehouse project. I’m sure there’s loads of fans who’ve seen them many more times than this but it began for me on August 9, 1969, at the Plumpton Racecourse in Sussex where they blew me sideways at what was known as the National Jazz & Blues Festival. A friend of mine had got a gig working on one of the bars and he sneaked me in somehow.
          Come to think of it, if my timing had been better I might even have been able to catch them at Leeds University in February of the following year – the famous Live At Leeds gig – as I had a friend who was studying there and, with me wearing a borrowed University scarf and NUS card, he’d got me into a few shows in ’68 & 69 but I’d left Yorkshire by that point in my life and wasn’t around for it.
          Plumpton was followed by two shows at the Dunstable Civic Hall, north of London, the first in April ’70 and the second in July the same year, my first Who assignment for Melody Maker. I saw them again at Dunstable Civic in July of the following year but by that time I’d made contact with them, as it were, and also seen them at the Isle of Wight Festival, the Hammersmith Palais, the Roundhouse and that Young Vic show. I caught them in Watford in July – a few days after that third Dunstable show – so by this time I was seeing them as often as I possibly could. Next up was the Oval, the cricket ground just south of the Thames in Kennington, a memorable night indeed, and then the students-only show in Guildford that I write about elsewhere on Just Backdated. Then there was a gig in Southampton when I went with Keith and on the way back we called in at Ten Years After drummer Ric Lee’s house to relieve him of the contents of his booze cupboard. Back in the MM office I wrote of the Southampton show: “They used the best combination of songs to whip up the excitement to an awe-inspiring climax as huge searchlights beamed down on delirious fans drunk with ecstasy at the group’s new finale... There isn’t a band in the land that couldn’t take a lesson or two from The Who...”
          By now I was getting seriously greedy so I gorged myself on three consecutive nights at the newly-opened Rainbow in north London whose manager John Morris had given me a pass that said ‘Admit to all parts of theatre at all times’ – a passport to paradise really as I used it regularly for at least a year and saw a load of other bands there too.
          In November ’71 I saw The Who in the US for the first time, travelling down with them from New York to Charlotte, SC, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It was on one of the plane flights on this trip, a regular commercial flight, that I was sat next to Pete when he developed a nose bleed and I found myself cradling his head in my lap and administering to him with a damp towel. It was also on this trip that I remember a box of Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy albums arrived from MCA in LA, and we all sat around in Pete Rudge’s room admiring it.
The following year, 1972, was quiet by Who standards but they did a short European tour in the spring and I caught them in Amsterdam and Rome. In the Dutch capital I remember Roger being frustrated by the sound system and making a gesture towards Bobby Pridden that looked like he was, er, satisfying himself manually, if you get my gist. The Rome show wasn’t sold out, as I recall, and afterwards Keith, Dougal and myself roamed around Rome looking for non-existent club action. Back in the office I wrote in MM: “It’s as good as it always is, a combination of violent excitement, near perfect sound and those power-packed Who songs... Townshend smashed his guitar into fragments – the first break of the tour – at the end and the Italian fans didn’t know what had hit them. He swung it wildly at Moon’s kit, and took three heavy blows against the stage floor before the instrument succumbed... The Who are so good they could probably put their shows over with their eyes shut. The inevitable problem arises – what next for The Who?” 
           By the autumn of 1973 I was living in California, and I caught two consecutive Quadrophenia shows at the LA Forum on November 22 & 23. I remember being frustrated that the momentum of the shows was interrupted by the apparent need to explain the storyline of Quad. Nevertheless my MM report ended as follows: “Some 19,500 fans had stomped and cheered for over 15 minutes in the Forum, refusing to leave even though the house lights had been raised and probably well aware that The Who rarely do encores. But tonight their enthusiasm was rewarded with just that. The group came back and did an encore – actually ‘Baby Don’t You Do It’ – only the second time I’ve seen this happen in watching The Who around 20 times now... they blasted through the song, climaxing with Townshend unstrapping the Gibson and, gripping the fretboard as if it were an axe, bringing it down on to the stage with a resounding crash time and time again until it cracked around the 12th fret.”
          The following year I was in New York, of course, for the four June shows at Madison Square Garden which I cover extensively in other posts here. Then I was back in the UK in October ’75 for the two shows at Stafford, again covered in some detail here, before I found myself back on the East coast of the US again for another show at the Garden and one in Philadelphia. I think that Garden show followed one in Boston where Keith collapsed and the show was aborted as a result. I remember that afterwards, at the Navarro bar, he was nowhere to be seen, which was most unusual. Then someone told me he’s been confined to his room by Bill Curbishley, with a guard on the door.
          The following year, in August, I saw them with Keith for the last time, at Jacksonville, on August 7. This was the show that wasn’t anywhere near sold out but they played an absolute blinder, and Pete, exhausted and still trance-like, told me afterwards that they were playing for the people who weren’t there.
          So now we’re into the post-Keith era, during which all the shows I’ve seen have been in the UK, at Birmingham NEC, Wembley Arena, Shepherds Bush Empire, Watford Coliseum, London’s Earls Court, the Town & Country Club in Kentish Town in 2004 (my first without John), and – after my longest ‘Who break’ ever – finally Birmingham again earlier this week.
          I wrote in my report of the Birmingham show that I’d felt disconnected from The Who after Keith died and I realise now that the same thing happened after John’s death. Both tragedies somehow took away my hunger for The Who, albeit temporarily, but I also refer to my ‘love affair’ with them and I think that like all love affairs that last for decades, albeit those that are a bit on and off, the tug is still there, won’t ever really go away completely. So Pete, Roger, John and Keith (and the rest)… thanks again for all these magnificent shows. No one does it better. 


THE WHO - National Indoor Arena, Birmingham, December 7

The Who’s greatest asset was always being a bit rough around the edges, a sort of controlled chaos that produced a fascinating, occasionally heart-stopping, element of uncertainly, but catch them on a roll and heaven descends. So it was for me during parts of this show at Birmingham NIA last night; heaven descended when they whipped into ‘Substitute’, the second song of the night, floated through a sublime ‘Kids Are Alright’, now a Mod anthem, offered up a spectacular ‘I Can See For Miles’, just about made it through ‘So Sad About Us’, gave us ‘A Quick One’ in all its ungainly glory and spliced a devastating ‘Sparks’ into the Tommy medley towards the end. Others in this sell-out crowd of 12,000+ probably went for the more obvious moments, especially the homage to the fallen, the teenage wasteland roar and meeting the new boss, but I’ve always looked for surprises in my Who, and I was grateful – and not a little startled – that I’d found it again.
         It was an unashamedly nostalgic show from the opening riff of ‘I Can’t Explain’ to the dying embers of ‘Magic Bus’ two hours and 20 minutes later. Pete Townshend often claims to be allergic to nostalgia while Roger Daltrey wraps it around him like a warm blanket, but whatever their individual feelings about powering through their greatest songs yet again the 2014/15 edition of The Who puts to the sword any ideas that these two surviving members from the classic line-up are merely coasting on what seems likely to be their final UK tour. It is not, and never has been, in their nature to smooth out the edges, and although this was a sentimental journey there were times when it was pretty amazing too; perhaps not quite as amazing as when they and their former colleagues John Entwistle and Keith Moon explored the outer limits of live rock, but this was a show that brought the past shuddering back to life, an echo of yesterday fast-forwarded to today, a celebration of their glorious legacy that for someone like me, seeing The Who for the 36th time, was often profoundly moving.
         Of course, the vast majority of those 35 other shows featured John and Keith, and I think they would have been quietly satisfied that to make up for their absence a further six musicians are now required on stage. This fact, more than anything else, seemed to me to underline why this show should not be weighed against former glories. There is a school of thought that believes groups of this vintage, intact or otherwise, should pack up their guitars and amps and call it a day, that Daltrey and Townshend have no right to continue as The Who, that this Who is simply a tribute act to the old one. Well, so fucking what – it doesn’t matter. One look at the joy on the faces of the NIA crowd, many of them too young to have seen the classic group, puts those arguments to the sword too.
         The show wasn’t flawless. The Who never were – and this was one of their greatest virtues. Although the enlarged group enforces a fairly rigorous attention to pre-rehearsed details, Townshend was never a guitarist who played the same every night and he still doesn’t. Daltrey is used to being buffeted along by the whims of his partner and takes it in good stride. The overall sound from the stage was fantastic, as clear and powerful as I have ever heard from this or any other group; three long suspended columns of speakers at either side of the stage delivering the music to state-of-the-art perfection. The non-stop visuals, too, were as good as it gets, whether it be zap-pow footage recreated from stills of the old band to anything and everything that reflects the target-cum-arrow-cum-red-white-and-blue Who imagery we’ve known for so long. Screens at either side of the stage offer wonderfully clear live close-ups, mostly of Roger and Pete with Zak Starkey a distant third, and at one point, as the Quadrophenia segment ebbed away and the scooters headed for home, the four faces of the old Who, circa 1965, were superimposed on what I suspect were the white cliffs east of Brighton. Perfect.
         The Quadrophenia section, as it has in the past, featured synchronised contributions from John – the bass solo in ‘5.15’, which seems to grow in stature with age – and Keith – singing ‘Bell Boy’ – still clumsy and lovable in a badly behaved puppy-dog sort of way. This isn’t new, of course, but it still upped the emotional level of the show, and I was especially moved to see Roger, his back to the audience, saluting Keith at the end of ‘Bell Boy’. No other group has ever been as caught up in its own past as much as The Who, so this tribute section is a simple act of continuity for them, just like the hint of ‘My Generation’ that slips into ‘The Punk And The Godfather’ – two songs they didn’t play, by the way.
         What they did play was a ‘greatest hits plus’ set, and it would be remiss of me not to list them, in order then: ‘I Can’t Explain’, ’Substitute’, ‘The Seeker’, ‘Who Are You’, ‘The Kids Are Alright’, ‘I Can See For Miles’, ‘Pictures Of Lily’, ‘So Sad About Us’ (a first, evidently worked up during the afternoon’s sound check), ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ (Roger outstanding), ‘You Better You Bet’, ‘Join Together’, ‘I’m One’, ‘5.15’ (Zak Starkey accompanying John’s solo was staggering), ‘Bell Boy’, ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ (another outstanding performance from Roger), ‘Eminence Front’ (which Pete brought to a rather sharp close after a spiky solo), ‘A Quick One’ (with a nod to the Rock And Roll Circus version and John’s falsetto), ‘Amazing Journey’, ‘Sparks’ (Pete raising the game to a ridiculous level, as noted), ‘Pinball Wizard’, ‘See Me Feel Me/Listening To You’ (this Tommy medley was negotiated non-stop, each song seguing smoothly into the next), ‘Baba O’Riley’, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and ‘Magic Bus’.
         The Who now use three keyboard players, two of whom sing, with Simon Townshend on second guitar and vocals, so what with Pete singing as well Roger now leads a choir of five. Session ace Pino Palladino is retained on bass but I felt he could have been slightly louder. Pino maintains a lower profile than even his predecessor, an almost invisible presence behind Simon. In John’s day the bass was a crucial element of the overall sound but it has now been relegated to a secondary rhythm instrument as it is in every other band with more than three instrumentalists. Since Zak Starkey is a powerhouse on drums, in the same class as Moon now, the role of the bass is the key difference between The Who of old and The Who of today, and I really do miss that unique mid-range bass harmonic that John brought to the group's sound.
         Roger plays guitar on many songs nowadays, either a Gibson Jumbo or a Telecaster, but you can’t really hear him. His voice, however, seems to get better with age. It’s a bit deeper than it once was but is still an enormously powerful instrument. It seemed to me he was easing off a bit during the final half-hour, perhaps a wise move with six more shows still to play until this leg of the tour ends on December 18. He still chucks the microphone around and frets that he can’t hear himself in his ear piece, but he shouldn’t. He sounds terrific, and moves around with the energy of a teenager.
         As for the guitarist and principal songwriter, well, there’s still a touch of the Mr Grumpy about him but he still windmills spectacularly when the mood takes him, though the leaping about is largely a thing of the past, and his choice of trouser – grey elasticated waistband sweatpants – seemed not to befit the occasion. On the plus side Pete still plays like a man possessed, superbly too, mostly with his fingers like Jeff Beck now, on red or white Strats, often with capos on the neck. I'm pretty sure the band are never 100% certain what he'll play next when hes soloing but then again nobody ever was, and that air of uncertainty adds enormously to the show. Behind him are about half a dozen tube-like baffles of various sizes, presumably placed strategically so as to reduce the higher-pitched frequencies from his guitar amp, thus easing the strain on his hearing. He is still far from cuddly and quite funny in his cranky way; still bemoaning the fact that ‘Miles’ wasn’t the hit it deserved to be and that ‘Boris The Spider’ and ‘Magic Bus’ have always been the songs most requested by fans, one of which he didn’t write and the other a Bo Diddley pastiche. I thought for a moment they were going to have a crack at ‘Boris’ just before ‘Magic Bus’ but it wasn’t to be. Sensibly, after a towering Fooled Again’, with staggering climactic drums from Zak, Roger declared that instead of leaving the stage for five minutes and coming back again, they would play the encore, Magic Bus, now. Pete grinned and said something about it being their silliest song, shouldered arms and went into the Diddley beat, much to everyone's delight. 
          I have had a long and for the most part immensely satisfying love affair with The Who, and it might well be that this affair is finally coming to an end, at least as far as live shows go. Strangely enough, the first time I saw the group without Keith on drums was also in Birmingham, in March 1981. I’d felt disconnected from The Who after Keith died and didn’t go to any shows in 1979 or ’80, but my girlfriend at the time, name of Jenny, really wanted to see them so we drove up to Birmingham for that show at the NEC. Afterwards Jenny told me she thought they were the greatest band in the world, and I remember thinking… if only, if only. Last night in Birmingham, back at our hotel, a bottle of red newly opened as I looked over my scribbled notes, Lisa told me how much she’d enjoyed the show, far more than she actually thought she would. If only, I thought, if only… 


THE KINKS - Ray Davies Interview, Part 2

Here is the second part of my interview with Ray Davies from 1971, postponed from earlier in the week.
Are there any activities outside The Kinks that you are currently working on?
         “Yes, Granada asked me to do another programme for them and I had lots of ideas. It’s going to be a story about a person who is always told what he is. Everybody keeps telling him what he is and what he looks like. It’s just a play with music, which I am writing. I’m writing the story but I couldn’t write the script because it would take too long. It’s got to be out next July but I am hoping to have it finished by April.
         “The next album will be about this story. It will contain the music from it but in the meantime we will put out an album of just songs without a running theme. I’m also working on a musical film which is allegedly coming out this year, and it’s taking up a lot of time. I suppose I am very busy in a way, but if I were a businessman I would say that I haven’t got much of a turnover at the moment.
         “I like writing and playing, but I think I write to play rather than write and play.”
         How was the last American tour? “It was excellent. We had bad nights when we were all off together, but the rest of the time was very good. On this tour we concentrated on the new album, playing tracks from it, and we put ‘Shangri-La’ in the act as well. We get requests for the old numbers, but I think a lot of the people haven’t heard things like ‘Waterloo Sunset’ which came out in the period when we weren’t allowed into America.
         “We have built up a following in the States but I would like to build up a bigger following over here as well. I still think people don’t really understand us in this country.”
         Wouldn’t another hit single help? “Yes but I am not looking forward to going through the mechanism necessary to get another hit single. We haven’t had a single out for eight months but when we played that gig in Birmingham I discovered that there wasn’t one song that people really wanted to hear. They wanted to hear everything, but there wasn’t any one to finish the act with like a current hit song.
         “I think the people who have seen us play once or twice understand us more. We wouldn’t have made it in the first place if we hadn’t gone literally all around England for a year. We played every week in a residency in Manchester and built up a great following there. It’s still an honour for me to play live. It was an honour for us to play the Carnegie Hall when we were in New York, and if I play badly somewhere I feel ashamed afterwards.”
         What about the new generation of rock fans who have arrived since The Kinks’ early days or the changes that their original followers will have gone through since then? “I don’t think they have changed basically. They have been around longer and they have been through everything that is going on with worries and problems to cope with but I think the basic following is still there. As far as ‘You Really Got Me’ is concerned, it’s a new song every night for us. We play it differently every time we play it.”
         Did this mean the Kinks will go on for ever? “We could break up next week, but I don’t think we will. We are developing all the time. We are going on to new things and keeping the old songs as well. We do it to live and I get a certain feeling from the songs I write. I like to think that other people get a feeling from the songs I write, and those are the people who really understand The Kinks.
         “The fact that a guy in Cincinnati really knows me because of the songs I write is amazing. I met someone in San Francisco once whom I’d never met before and he knew all about me. He knew little things like what I liked and what I didn’t like and he’s worked it all out from the songs I’d written. It was a great feeling.”
         Undeniably The Kinks tend to be a vehicle for Ray Davies’ writing and consequently his thoughts. Did the rest of the group feel held back by this?
         “Mick Avory is working on something of his own at the moment, but I do want the group to become more creative. On the next album I want to do more group arrangements instead of my own. We are planning to work a lot next year and I want it to be group work instead of my own ideas.
         “I throw away a lot of ideas if the rest don’t like them. There was a song I wrote this year that I wanted to record and I thought would be our biggest song ever. It took me a long time to write it, but the rest of the group didn’t like it at all. I had to leave them for a time because I really thought they would be knocked out by it                                                                   
         “I started to write songs for the Kinks because the standard of the stuff the recording company was bringing us to record was very bad. They brought us songs that everybody else was doing. I am a vehicle for The Kinks and The Kinks are a vehicle for me. We have created a working relationship with each other and we help each other along. Over the next three years I am going to make six LPs with the Kinks, and there are still things I want to do. I would like Shel Talmy to produce for us because I really enjoy working with him.”
         Are the days of the great Kinks’ singles over then? “No, but I really feel that the stuff I am writing at the moment is album material. It’s not material for a single. I just don’t like all the problems involved with singles, promoting them and things because people think that’s all you are doing, just the single. I don’t think there are any singles on Hillbillies. It’s a comedy album. ‘Complicated Life’, ‘Alcohol’ and ‘Acute Schizophrenia’ are comedy songs.
         “They are not serious social comment, but I think I have made a more definite statement on this LP than ever before. That life is complicated is what I am really trying to say.”