25.4.17

SNOOKER – GENTLEMEN OF THE GREEN CLOTH




My dad played snooker well. The name J. H. Charlesworth appears on the honours board at the Craven Club in Skipton for winning the annual snooker and/or billiards championships several times during the fifties and sixties, but he was never able to pass his skills on to his son. Oh, he taught me the correct stance and how to hold a cue properly and I could pot a ball here and there, but when it came to controlling the cue ball to line up the next shot, the essential skill in high-level snooker, I was pretty hopeless. Dad could put side and back spin on the white, and knew precisely how hard to hit it, though one thing he did teach me that sank in was to avoid hitting it too hard. A ball played softly, he would tell me, was far more likely to find the pocket.
Dad loved to watch Pot Black, the first ever televised snooker competition, and would have been astonished at the way the game and those who play it professionally have progressed since then. This week he’d have been glued to the TV set watching Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Selby and the rest work their magic with a cue on the green baize at the World Championships in Sheffield.
Snooker is one of those sports that you need to have played, or tried to play, in order to appreciate. Those with no acquaintance with the game, or who have never even picked up a cue, will find it desperately boring; each game appearing identical to the last as two players hit a white ball at a coloured ball that they hope will disappear into a pocket, over and over again until one misses, or try to place the white ball in a position from which their opponent is unable to score, safety play as it is called, which is arguably even more boring for greenhorns since the white ball is merely hit up and down the table with no coloured balls pocketed for several shots on end.
As it happens, I often prefer watching a bout of skilled safety play to seeing a player pot red after red with blacks, pinks and blues in between, especially when the balls are close together around the area where the reds start out. Break building in these circumstances can be a bit monotonous in a seen-it-all-before kind of way, but getting that white ball back into baulk and tucked underneath the top cushion is incredibly skilful, a real art, especially if the path of the white to the object ball is interrupted, meaning the player is snookered. Those who’ve tried it know that playing snooker well is infinitely more difficult than it looks. These guys on the telly make it look easy, just like Prince on the guitar or Entwistle on bass.
And no matter what its detractors may say, every game of snooker really is different to the last. The balls never fall in the exact same place twice, so each and every shot must be weighed up, options, odds and angles calculated, before the player gets down, chin tucked in right above the cue, and makes the shot, all the while holding his head as steady as a rock and following through smoothly. A twitch will send it off target, as will taking your eye off the object ball. Good eyesight is essential; very few players wear glasses and those that do have them specially made, with lenses halfway up their foreheads, as if they’re wearing them upside down.
Snooker is a cool and calculated game, played at a stately pace, and the players dress and behave like gentlemen; well, most of them anyway. The occasional bad apple will cause a ruck of some sort, like the late Irish firebrand Alex Higgins whose speed around the table was as mesmerising as his facial tics. The more sedate players surely knew he would burn himself out one day. Jimmy White was another hothead, helped by his fondness for hanging around with rock stars like Ronnie Wood. Today’s firebrand, if you can call him that, is Ronnie O’Sullivan, another fine player whose speed around the table captivates and who isn’t ashamed to show his emotions. What these three had or have in common is the pace at which they could or can wrap up a game, and this makes them thrilling to watch, popular too, and good at keeping the sport in the news.
However, the vast majority of professional players keep their emotions in check, especially the more recent arrivals from the Far East; inwardly seething when they miss one or if the balls fall badly of course, but propriety is the name of this game, steely resolve essential. So is sportsmanship. If a player’s foul on a ball somehow escapes the notice of the referee he will declare it every time, and when a player flukes a shot he will invariably acknowledge it, just as he will acknowledge an excellent safety shot from his opponent by tapping the table with a wry smile.
Snooker appears to a man’s game. Although there is a women’s world championship, I am not aware of any woman who has competed in the world championships at Sheffield’s Crucible, not the televised rounds anyway. There are female referees nowadays, and mighty stern they look too, and there’s plenty of female fans in the audience. It isn’t hard to imagine how the cool, elegant, James Bond-like demeanor of certain players might appeal to women. Years ago in America I had a girlfriend who was an absolute ace at pool – her dad ran a pool hall in Florida – and I loved watching her hustle some arrogant bloke and take his money. Having played a bit of snooker in the UK, I was pretty confident on pool tables in America with their small size and big pockets, except against her of course.
        Some sports, among them football, cricket and those that require a racquet, pitch the players directly against one another insofar as the actions of one player require a direct response from another, and the quality of those actions and responses determines the outcome. Others, such as track & field, rowing or golf, are different in that the players are competing against the clock or the course, and the performance of their opponents has no direct influence beyond setting a target to beat. Snooker, I believe, is unique in that it mixes both these elements: the direct contest of player verses player during safety play and the indirect consequence of a player’s individual skill as he builds a break while his opponent has no choice but to sit and watch.
        Perhaps that’s why snooker is such an unlikely success as a spectator sport, perennially popular as TV viewing figures indicate, or maybe it’s because it seems made for television: all those brightly coloured balls rolling around on a green cloth, all that deep concentration, and all those players, dapper as dandies in their suits and ties, putting on a show, their skills as precise as rocket science, the immaculate gentlemen of the green cloth. My dad, a conservative with a small c, would definitely have approved and, as it does every April, watching this week's World Championship brings back wonderful memories of watching J. H. Charlesworth play on the table at the Craven Club, sinking a red and lining up the white right behind the black, a skill that was always beyond me.

14.4.17

RIVERBOAT SONG by Gillian Welch




In November of last year I wrote approvingly about Boots No 1 – The Official Revival Bootleg, a double CD set of outtakes and alternative versions from Gillian Welch’s 1996 album Revival, her much acclaimed debut recording. In particular I have come to love a song therein called ‘Riverboat Song’, a gently swaying ragtime tune with a hint of blue, about the river that flows past the singer’s door, a lament for a time when this river, referred to always as ‘she’, carried far more traffic than it does today and seemed to have a greater purpose beyond ‘[tumbling] to the sea to find some company’; in truth it’s a rather melancholy song of sympathy for the barren times on which her treasured river seems now to have fallen.
Set to a gorgeous melody that, like many of Welch and her partner Dave Rawlings’ compositions, sounds as if it could have been written at any time in the last 100 years, we hear about the river’s more prosperous era, when a huge cotton crop came floating past, and when the paddle-steamers – ‘the Mississippi Queen and the Alabama Pearl’ – were floating dancehalls that rang with the sound of gamblers and Dixieland jazz as they made their way down to the Gulf of Mexico. After a lovely chorded ragtime guitar solo, reminiscent of John Fahey at his best, we learn about how the river flooded ‘in the spring of ’65’, becoming ‘ten miles wide’ and how those on the banks should have seen it coming because, after all, ‘a woman’s gonna make a fuss if no one pays her any mind’. 
The songs ends where it began, with Welch serenading her river in spite of everything, ‘the blue old girl travelling past’, urging this neighbour of hers that she loves so much on its watery way. A delightful sense of affection towards her river just about prevents the whole piece from descending into a well of sadness.
Rivers have inspired countless songwriters over the ages, and in some respects Welch and Rawlings’ ‘Riverboat Song’ is a grandchild of ‘Ol’ Man River’, from the 1927 musical Showboat, sung most famously and with unfathomable warmth by the great bass singer and political activist Paul Robeson. While some songs use a river as a metaphor for overcoming hardship (‘Many Rivers To Cross’ by Jimmy Cliff or ‘The River’ by Bruce Springsteen) and others dwell on things that happen alongside them (‘Take Me To The River’ by Talking Heads and ‘Down By The River’ by Neil Young) or even celebrate their power (‘Grand Coulee Dam’ by Woody Guthrie and ‘Proud Mary’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival), ‘Ol’ Man River’ and ‘Riverboat Song’ are simply celebrations of the wonders of a river as nothing more, and nothing less, than a creation of nature.
Talking of unchained power, my favourite Led Zeppelin track is river related: ‘When The Levee Breaks’, from their fourth album, originally recorded in 1927 by Memphis Minnie and Kansas John McCoy, and written about the Great Mississippi Flood that destroyed homes and crops that year. There’s a hint of this song in Welch and Rawlings’ verse about when their river flooded, and also in the ragtime bluesy feel of the original. Of course, Page & Co take the song by the scruff of the neck and shake it like a chorus girl, but there’s genuine old-time authenticity in Plant’s shrill harmonica when it arrives over Bonham’s relentless drum pattern, and Page’s slide guitar is unfussy, strident and similarly relentless, suggesting a warning call and the very real feeling of impending doom felt by those who live by a river during a particularly bad rainstorm.
The insistent feel of this Zep track is in some ways shared by Creedence’s surging ‘Proud Mary’, bringing to mind the reality that a river never stops moving, not even a tidal one like the Thames which, when the flow changes from upstream to down, seems to swirl around like a whirlpool, re-arranging itself for the next phase but still stirring, still in motion. So it’s no wonder that rivers, in themselves or as a metaphor, inspire songwriters; be it the contrast between Paul Simon’s troubled water and the stately progress of Art Garfunkel’s complementary vocal, or Dylan brooding on his luck as he watches the river flow, or Springsteen drawing a parallel between a river that has dried up and died and the broken dreams of Mary and her man.
You can hear Gillian Welch singing ‘Riverboat Song’ on YouTube, both the version on Boots No 1, and a different take that features a bluesier acoustic guitar and an accordion in the solo. Here’s the links:
Boots version:
Alt version:


9.4.17

DEFYING GRAVITY by Emmylou Harris





For many years now one of my favourite songs has been ‘Defying Gravity’, written by Jesse Winchester and sung with wraithlike beauty by Emmylou Harris on her Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town album, released in 1978. (I’m not talking about the show song of the same name that features in the musical Wicked.) In trying to put my finger on why I like this song so much – and Emmylou’s interpretation of it in particular – I realise how the title perfectly captures the melody and, unusually, is not a part of a lyric that is slightly surreal in a hazy sort of way, about flying or falling or being dizzy, or, like some of the best lyrics ever written, whatever you want it to mean really.
But it’s the melody that really captures my imagination. It rises and falls across octaves, lilting like a child’s swing, up and down like a smoothly bouncing beach ball, yet at the same time is unhurried and in perfect sync with the words. Emmylou takes the song at a stately pace, the clarity of her lovely voice at odds with its impressionistic words, humming the melody after the second verse to announce a chiming, echo-laden guitar solo that reaffirms the humility of the basic tune, followed by a repeated verse and more bars of humming to the fade; no middle-eight or variance from the central melody throughout. If it was possible to ride a roller coaster in slow motion, this is what it would sound like.
Of course this got me to thinking about other songs that feature the same device, an octave leap or an octave drop, a sort of gravitational plunge or, conversely, a leap that defies gravity. I’ve written at some length about ‘Sparks’ and ‘Underture’, both essentially the same instrumental tune from The Who’s Tommy, the former a preface to a recurrent theme, the latter a far lengthier, 10-minute exploration, and how on stage it took on another dimension; that thrilling exercise in layered dynamics generated by the propulsive cascade of Pete Townshend’s guitar, the harmonic counterpoint of John Entwistle’s bass and, most conspicuously, the orchestral sweep of Keith Moon at the top of his game.
I suspect the first time I encountered an octave skip was on ‘Dance On’, the 1962 UK number one hit by The Shadows, an instrumental I played with my old group The Rockin’ Pandas back in Skipton in Yorkshire. The song opens with a twangy low open E followed by the sharper E an octave higher at the second fret on the fourth string, a rousing sequence repeated half way through and again at the close; dead easy to play and sounds great.
For some reason our family never really did cotton on to the movie The Wizard Of Oz, otherwise I’d have been familiar with the same device in Harold Arlen’s ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’, sung by Judy Garland in the 1939 film. This was probably where David Bowie first saw the possibilities of an octave climb and chose to incorporate one into the luscious chorus of ‘Starman’, a great song’s greatest moment.
Bruce Springsteen, never a man to resist the appeal of a good idea, used the same device on ‘Born To Run’, which I heard for the first time ever when he played the song on stage at the Bottom Line Club in August of 1975. The album had just come out, or was about to, and I remember thinking what a cracking and memorable little riff it was. I think I went home humming it that night, which says a lot considering I’d only just heard it for the first time.
Then again, it wasn’t really the first time I’d heard it. It was just lingering in the back of my mind from other songs that incorporated a similar device. There’s a suggestion of it in John’s Beatles song ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, a favourite of mine that I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog. In his definitive analysis of Beatles music Revolution In The Head, far and away the best book on its kind, Ian Macdonald identifies this song as being a distant cousin of Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’, but that song doesn’t seem to me to incorporate any octave leaps or drops. Macdonald refers to the ‘rise-and-fall feeling’ of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and believes it vies with ‘Come Together’ for ‘consideration as the best of Lennon’s late-style Beatles records’, an opinion I share. He’s bit sniffy about ‘Across The Universe’, however, which I rather like, and this too uses an octave leap in its acoustic guitar introduction, as does Paul’s finger-picked guitar on ‘Blackbird’ on the White Album.
So I’m trying to think of some more. The bass riff in ‘Shakin’ All Over’ perhaps; ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story; ‘Moon River’ from Breakfast At Tiffany’s (introduced to Andy Williams in a Los Angeles restaurant in 1973, he courteously stood to shake my hand but was so short I thought he was still sitting down); Acker Bilk’s easy-on-the-ear ‘Stranger On The Shore’; Ah Ha’s ‘Take On Me’; maybe even Jimmy Page’s staccato electric guitar introduction to ‘Immigrant Song’ on Led Zeppelin III. What they have in common, apart from juggling those undulating octaves, is that I pretty much like them all.
To end where I began, there are other versions of ‘Defying Gravity’ around, by Waylon Jennings and its writer Jesse Winchester, and it was used as the theme tune to the movie The Executioner’s Song, about the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore. For my money, however, none compare with the ethereal beauty of Emmylou Harris’ version. You can hear it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQl_nD9RCEg

8.4.17

PRINCE (1958-2016)


PRINCE

(1958-2016)


An extraordinarily talented songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist, showman and record producer, Prince was a musical phenomenon in the tradition of Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix and Michael Jackson – perhaps even a combination of all three. He was also a prodigious workaholic, releasing no fewer than 39 studio albums during a recording career that lasted from 1978 to 2015, in addition to numerous collaborations with other artists, extensive work as a producer and even appearing as an actor in three feature films for which he naturally provided the soundtrack.
Equally importantly, he was very much his own man, with a proud and forthright personality and an occasionally perverse, almost picaresque, turn of mind, refusing to be intimidated by anyone, told how to present his music or, indeed, live his life. He was bold, sexy, stylish and unafraid to court controversy, his diminutive size contributing to a package that, like David Bowie, often seemed to have arrived from another planet.
He was born Prince Rogers Nelson in 1958, in Minneapolis, where he would base himself throughout his life and construct his own Paisley Park home, studio and rehearsal space. His parents soon broke up and he ran away to live with his musician father who bought him his first guitar. By his teens he was proficient on it and the piano, playing in a high school band and writing his own songs. Demos recorded in 1976 led to a contract with Warners Brothers, an uncomfortable relationship that often seemed perilously close to collapsing and which, perhaps inevitably, eventually would.
         Nevertheless it is the series of albums that Prince recorded for Warners during the eighties that secured his reputation, among them such landmark records as 1999 (1982), Purple Rain (1984) and Sign ‘O’ The Times (1987), the latter a superb double album that mixed all his many influences, funk, R&B, soul and pure pop, and is widely regarded as his masterpiece.
Simultaneously Prince developed his stagecraft, a guitar style that was as fluid as it was flash, as accomplished as it was effortless. Colourful custom built guitars in the shape a mysterious hieroglyph added to the spectacle, as did bands he led that invariably included girls who were dressed to kill but whose skills as musicians were never in doubt. Erotica and romantic intrigue were key themes in his work, often overlapping in lyrics that left very little to the imagination, yet at the same time he avoided any accusations of sleaze simply through being as gifted as he was.
Although his output never slowed down, Prince’s behaviour became increasingly erratic in the late nineties. During his protracted battle with Warners he took to scrawling the word ‘slave’ on his cheek, then adopted the hieroglyph as his name and, finally, announced that henceforth he wished to be known as ‘The Artist Formerly Known As Prince’. This kept him in the news, as did wildly successful tours, triumphant ‘secret’ club gigs and a personal life that included rumoured dalliances with, among many others, Kim Bassinger, Madonna, Sheena Easton, Sinead O’Connor, Sheila E, Carmen Elektra and Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles.
Eternally restless, never for one moment resting on his laurels and creative to the very end, Prince, evidently in poor health, died suddenly and unexpectedly from an accidental overdose of pharmaceutical drugs on April 21, 2016.

(If you don't believe me check this out - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SFNW5F8K9Y - and any clips on YouTube of Prince playing 'Purple Rain'.)