“The night was clear, and the moon was yellow, and the leaves came tumbling down.” This morning’s iPod’s shuffle opened with Lloyd Price singing ‘Stagger Lee’, a US number one in 1959 and a song I remember well from buying the single, a 7-inch on HMV which I bought after playing it endlessly on that juke box at the coffee bar in Skipton, and which I still have. This is the best known version of an old traditional song about how on a Christmas night many many years ago in St Louis, ‘Stagger’ Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons for stealing his Stetson hat, certainly a robust response but hardly justified. According to Wikipedia, over 50 singers have covered this song, but Lloyd Price’s version takes the honours; a massive, rollocking R&B rendering with a great honking saxophone and a fat production that oozes good time juice. The version on my iPod comes from a compilation album called Lemon Popsicles & Strawberry Milkshakes, a triple CD with about 60 tracks from the sixties that I picked up for a fiver somewhere, but I’m pretty sure the single sounded better.
There followed a brief snatch of John Williams playing his classical guitar, a short piece with Spanish origins entitled ‘Llobet’. Back in, I think, 1966 I saw Williams play his guitar in Ilkley and reported on the concert for my employers the Craven Herald & Pioneer, Skipton’s weekly newspaper. It thus became the first concert review I ever wrote, before any of the hundreds of rock shows that followed. I have both Williams and Segovia on the iPod and sometimes play this kind of music on a quiet Sunday morning, tucking into a Full English with the Observer open in front of me. Very nice. Thank you John.
Next we reverted back in time to another traditional song, ‘Careless Love’, also recorded by many, and my version is again the best known, by Big Joe Turner; another terrific recording, this one taken from a Mojo cover mount CD, The World of The Small Faces. I often download tracks from these freebies with a slightly guilty feeling, knowing that the performers (or their estate) are likely to get jack shit in royalties. Most of the tracks on these CDs are almost always very old and often by fairly obscure artists, a sure sign that no one is likely to ask questions about copyright issues.
Try as I did I didn’t really enjoy the album by Them Crooked Vultures, the side-project group featuring John Paul Jones, Dave Grohl and Josh Homme, whose song ‘Eraser’ is next on today’s menu. It’s probably my age and the creeping realisation that bombastic riffs, no matter how well executed, are behind me now. There’s no question that these Queens Of The Led Foo Nirvana guys have amazing chops but I wasn’t convinced, and the supergroup concept not only seems a bit dated now but smacks of a ‘we haven’t got anything better to do’ situation.
Next up, drummer Dylan Howe’s take of Bowie’s ‘Weeping Wall’ from his Subterraneans album was better suited to my morning mood, a jazzy interpretation from an album I enjoyed a lot, thought-provoking, meandering, atmospheric and skilfully executed. ‘Weeping Wall’ is quicker than most of its tracks with fine keyboard work from pianist Ross Stanley.
‘Disappear’, this version from R.E.M.’s Unplugged, was one of the better tracks from the slightly disappointing 2001 album Reveal that pre-empted a regrettable fall from grace for a band I continue to hold in very high regard. It was followed by ‘Pocket Calculator’ by Kraftwerk. Over to David Buckley for an extract from his KW book for this one: “‘Pocket Calculator’ poked fun at rock music subtly but devastatingly. Rock music was traditionally all about the electric guitar, about neat fretwork, power chords, and the masturbatory excesses of the solo. It was manly. On ‘Pocket Calculator’, Ralf shows how electronica have dispelled all the sweaty guff and ludicrous posturing of the cock rockers because the star of the show isn’t even now a real instrument. It’s a battery-powered hand-held abacus which can sound a jingle and is operated not played. The German-language version of the song, ‘Taschenrechner’, carried a slightly different lyric, but was still as droll: ‘Ich bin der Musikant mit Taschenrechner in der Hand.’ [‘I am the musician with a pocket calculator in my hand.’] This was, as Karl Bartos remembers, a trademark piece of lyric writing by Emil Schult: ‘Emil had a good sense of the English – or shall I say American – language since he spent some time at high school in the USA? He could easily come up with simple lines in German which were catchy and witty at the same time. He contributed a great deal to the Kraftwerk lyrics. Listen to ‘Autobahn’, ‘Trans-Europe Express’, ‘Radio-Activity’, ‘Computer World’, ‘Pocket Calculator’, ‘The Model’ – just to name a few.’”
Next up was Robert Plant singing ‘Fortune Teller’, from the Grammy-winning Rising Sand album he recorded in 2007 with Alison Krause. Plant offers a fairly delicate, suspended rendition of a song I first heard sung by The Searchers I think, way back in 1964. I have a few other versions of this song on the iPod, all of them tougher than Robert but not necessarily as focused. There’s Benny Spellman (the original), the Rolling Stones and nine (!) by The Who, all different, including the 1968 studio version and the one from Leeds, of course, which segues into ‘Tattoo’, Roger having duly credited Spellman which prompted Keith to add: “But ours is the most important version.” I don’t know about that but it was probably the most lucrative for its writer Allen Toussaint, at least until Robert included it on this massive seller.
The final song this morning was Stephen Stills singing ‘Wounded World’/’Rocky Mountain Way’ from his Live At Shepherds Bush album, recorded at the Empire in 2009. This album is a bit of an acquired taste as Stephen wasn’t in the best of voice, even if he still played his guitar as well as ever. It opened with a riff that I mistook for a few seconds for the Stones’ ‘The Last Time’, then got into gear, and at around five minutes segued into the Joe Walsh song which offered an even greater challenge to Stills’ wounded voice. Tonight, just to reassure myself I think I’ll listen to Manassas as the train heads from Waterloo back to Guildford.