The first time I did one of these posts, on June 2 last year, there were 14,896 songs on my iPod. Today there are 16,421, signifying that in 485 days I’ve acquired 1,525 songs, or 3.14 songs a day, coincidentally the value of Pi. Seems my addiction to music is as strong as ever, fed now by iTunes as well as traditional outlets like Fop at Cambridge Circus and Sister Ray on Broadwick Street, the odd charity shop near where we live in Surrey and, shamefully I know, mail order through Amazon. All of which makes the shuffle selection on the train between Guildford and Waterloo more and more varied, so it was a bit of a surprise that this morning’s assortment was almost all Grade A and, what's more, immediately recognisable.
First up was Elvis Presley singing ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’, as sincere and lovely a ballad as he ever recorded, even though 1961’s Blue Hawaii, the film and album for which it was recorded, signalled the beginning of an artistic decline that would not be arrested until 1968. In 1985 I saw Springsteen sing this song at Wembley Stadium, prefacing it with a story about how he once climbed over the Graceland wall in a futile attempt to see Elvis, only to be turned away by a security guard. “Elvis,” he said, “showed us the promise of life,” or words to that effect, adding, “It’s easy to let the best of yourself slip away.” 80,000 of us then joined in the chorus.
Then came The Who, Roger introducing Keith who in his best toff accent introduces ‘Squeeze Box’, cheery and lascivious but not one of my favourite Who songs. This version, recorded live at Swansea Football Ground on June 12, 1976, is one of the bonus tracks on the reissued Who By Numbers from 1996, and sees The Who on good form, with Pete improvising a slightly untidy ‘wonder-what-I’ll-play-next’ solo and, at the end, telling his Welsh fans how nice it is to be playing while the sun goes down.
Next up is Bill Haley and his Comets singing that old chestnut ‘Rock Around The Clock’. It’s difficult nowadays to imagine the impact that this well-worn and rather cheesy song had on the world when it was a UK hit in 1955, but history tells us that it inspired Teddy Boys to slash cinema seats, thus causing what may well have been the first of far too many backlashes against rock’n’roll music. “Ban it,” screamed the uptight self-appointed guardians of our morality. King Canute tried to do the same thing with the tide. I saw Bill once, late in his career, at the Venue in Victoria, early 1980s, and he was struggling. A bit sad really.
He is followed by Anita Bryant singing ‘Till There Was You’ from a Mojo cover-mount CD called The Roots Of Paul McCartney. This song, of course, comes from the 1957 musical The Music Man and was covered by The Beatles on their second album, a bit of an oddity really and probably not to John’s liking. As it happens the same song appears on the cover-mount CD on this month’s Mojo too, this one entitled Songs The Beatles Taught Us, so our premier music magazine isn’t above selling us the same music twice just as record labels do, though I suppose they could defend themselves by claiming they are giving it away.
The distinctive sound of Jeff Beck’s guitar followed, ‘Morning Dew’ from the JB Group era with Rod on vocals. A much covered song that I always admired, the JBG’s version is quite restrained, with Beck contributing a typically mid-sixties wah-wah solo and a tasteful, lyrical sign off on guitar that reminded me a bit of the way Jimmy Page closes Zep’s ‘Rain Song’. Heaven forbid that Jimmy should take a cue from his old mate Jeff!
Equally restrained were the Manic Street Preachers on ‘This Sullen Welsh Heart’ which sounds like it should be one of their righteously angry songs about poverty in the valleys but instead sees James Dean Bradfield crooning along to his acoustic guitar, joined by Lucy Rose on the chorus. For many years I felt deeply hostile towards the Manics, the direct result of Nicky Wire’s offensive comments about John Lennon and Michael Stipe, but eventually I put that down to immaturity and the need to create a headline, so I’ve softened and nowadays enjoy their music a lot. I enjoyed this too.
There follows what can only be described as an interlude, ‘Harmonic Necklace’ by The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, a brief series of chords played either on a harmonium or an electric guitar on which a chord is strummed while the volume is adjusted, very soothing, unlike U2 who followed, a song called ‘Tomorrow’ from their second LP October, released back in 1981, and for which I will turn to Bill Graham, the Irish writer who sadly passed on in 1996, who in his U2 Music Guide that I commissioned wrote that this track… “most encapsulates what was bad and good about U2 at this point. For the first time in their career, U2 fly the flag for Irish music as Vinnie Kilduff’s uilleann pipes cast off for the skies. Scenic, cinematic and Bono’s singing is appropriately soulful but then at mid-point the mood is killed and the spell is lost as the rest of the band crudely clatter in and the tempo changes to a sprint. Bono justified this change through the lyric which moved from haunted memories of his mother’s funeral to the theme of fear and violence in Northern Ireland. But, typically for a young band, U2 were still prone to mistakenly and automatically equate passion with rock’n’roll velocity.” Bill Graham introduced U2 to their manager Paul McGuinness and, although always a fan, maintained a distance that was admired by everyone. I was certainly pleased when he wrote this objective book for Omnibus about the band that meant so much to him. There is a wonderful report on his funeral, at which Bono was a pallbearer, from the Irish Times on Gavin Friday’s website: http://gavinfriday.com/1996/05/11/bill-graham-dies-howth/
We moved on to Martha & The Vandellas giving it their all on ‘Come And Get These Memories’, unmistakably Motown with its fab dance beat, followed by Bruce singing ‘When You Need Me’ from his Tracks box set. This was a Tunnel Of Love outtake recorded in early 1987, a power ballad with predictable changes but Bruce has a way with this kind of song that lends it a profundity that others would be unable to impart. I’ll be there for you, sings Bruce with a good deal more understating than the theme from Friends, steadfast and true as the song rolls along.
This is followed by ‘So Far Away’ by Carole King from her mega-selling Tapestry album, a sturdy piano ballad that closes on what sounds like a flute solo, and ‘Wooly Bully’ by Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs, a novelty record certainly but a great one all the same, a number two US hit in 1965. Lots of fun, with a nice leap into the reedy sax solo. “It’s the thing to do. Watch it watch it!”
Heading through Clapham Junction Sam’s 12-bar romp gives way to country picking maestro Albert Lee who, backed by his band Hogan’s Heroes, offers up ‘Till I Gain Control Again’, a country-style ballad by Rodney Crowell, first recorded by Emmylou Harris in 1975, when Albert shared guitar duties with the great James Burton in her Hot Band. This is simply lovely, from a live double CD recorded in Paris that I cannot recommend highly enough, impeccable guitar playing as you might expect, not just from Albert but also from pedal steel player Gerry Hogan. A few years ago I attended an Albert Lee Guitar Master Class in Guildford and watched spellbound as he ran through his favourite licks for an audience of musicians. First he’d played one slow, nice and easy, then do it in real time. Magic – and a lovely, humble man too.
The train was heading through Vauxhall and approaching Waterloo as ‘Till I Gain Control Again’ was followed by ‘She Belongs To Me’, Dylan, from Bringing It All Back Home. Fabulous, and needs no comment from me, other than I paused it at 0.37 and look forward to the rest when I head home tonight.