23.1.17

PETE ‘OVEREND’ WATTS




RIP Pete Watts, bass player in Mott The Hoople, whom I knew quite well back in my Melody Maker days, at least until the group fragmented after the departure of Ian Hunter. Overend, as he called himself for some inexplicable reason, was always friendly, down to earth, a great big tall geyser (especially in those ludicrous platform boots that he wore on stage) who sometimes died his hair silver and played a weird-shaped bass that had been specially designed for him. Like the rest of them, he was an honest toiler at the coalface of rock, modest and unassuming, with a droll sense of humour drawn from the knowledge that his band was never likely to top the Premier League but, with the wind in their sails, could rock up a storm on a good night.
          Mott taught me a lesson, albeit unintentionally. When I joined MM in 1970 I had naively assumed that any act worthy of coverage in the paper, ie one that had released an album or two and could sell out concerts, would be living the life of Riley, comfortably off and comfortably housed. Then I went to interview them at their communal flat in Earls Court where all bar Hunter (who lived in Putney with his American wife Trudy) lived. Well, it was a pigsty, truly awful, and it was a shock to realise that far from living the life of Riley the members of Mott The Hoople were probably worse off than me in terms of income and lifestyle. They were lovely guys but as Ian Hunter’s great book Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star later confirmed, life in a rock band was only really comfortable for those at the top of the tree. The rest, as that visit to the flat in Earls Court confirmed, had a tough time of it, even if they did get their mugs in MM.
          I wrote about MtH quite a bit in the early seventies but can’t seem to find any of my pieces on Rock’s Back Pages when I looked this morning. All I could find was a concert review from September 19, 1970 when Mott supported Free at Croydon’s Fairfield Hall, a show that sticks in my mind because Hunter encouraged a stage invasion that got slightly out of hand.
I wrote more about Free than Mott but here it is anyway: “Fairfield Hall, Croydon, has seen some amazing scenes since it became South London's home of rock, but I doubt whether the old faithfuls at the hall have ever seen anything like the excitement that Mott The Hoople conjured up on Sunday.
“With little more than an encouraging beckon from Ian Hunter, Mott's pianist and singer, over 100 excited fans leaped up on to the stage to dance along with the group during their finale, a medley of rock and roll songs from the fifties.
“Free had a difficult task in following such a performance, but they coped with the hysteria with a selection of numbers that have brought them to the forefront this year. They opened with ‘Riding On A Pony’ which could be their next single and included two songs from their forthcoming fourth album, ‘Be My Friend’ and ‘The Stealer’.
“For an encore they bounced through ‘All Right Now’ and – after some hesitation – came back for a second encore doing ‘The Hunter’.
“There can be few groups around where the bass lines play such an integral part in the overall sound. Little Andy Fraser moves around the stage like a toy that won't fall over, always getting the most from his four strings.
“The performance was recorded live by Island and – quality permitting – should be released on an album before Christmas. It will sell like hot cakes.”


15.1.17

DAVID BOWIE: The Golden Years, and Books Galore.




The loss of David Bowie was always likely to inspire a slew of books about him that would not otherwise have been written. Amongst them were Paul Morley’s The Age Of Bowie which I ignored after my friend Johnny Rogan dismissed it as ‘a dog’s dinner’ in his review in The Irish Times* and Lesley-Ann Jones' rather melodramatic Hero: David Bowie which began and ended very well but I felt was let down by certain omissions and the author’s tendency to inform readers about things before they’d happened, thus interrupting the flow (not to mention the spurious claim that Bowie’s mother had worked in the sex trade, an allegation that ensured the book got plenty of press, albeit of the wrong kind). Both books clearly suffered through being written hastily to meet unreasonable deadlines.
For my money the two best text-led biographies of Bowie remain David Buckley’s lengthy Strange Fascination, an updated and revised edition of which has occupied the author for much of this year, and Paul Trynka’s more compact but less affectionate Starman.
I ought to have published Strange Fascination myself and would have done so had not Virgin Books outbid Omnibus Press. Additionally, there was an issue with regard to David Bowie’s own feelings towards the book. At the time the book was being pitched, Music Sales, Omnibus’ parent company, were in talks with Bowie’s management about song publishing matters and it was felt that it might rock the boat if Omnibus Press were to publish David Buckley’s ‘unauthorised’ book. In the event this was probably erring on the side of caution as Buckley’s 1996 (Omnibus) book on Bowie, The Complete Guide to the Music of…, was favourably received by the great man, so much so that he chose to privately publish his own edition as a promotional tool for his Earthling album in 1997.
As it was, the best Bowie book that Omnibus published during my time as editor was probably Bowiestyle, by Mark Paytress, a large format, heavily illustrated book that eschewed the biographical approach in favour of examining Bowie’s influences and the way he has influenced others. Published in 2000, it remains in print, superseding to an extent the David Bowie Black Book, first published in 1981 and also still in print. Originally written by Barry Miles, my predecessor as Editor at Omnibus Press, I updated it twice which explains my co-author credit. It was among the first illustrated ‘coffee table’ style books on Bowie, a huge seller at the time in a market that in 1981 had yet to become saturated.
There were other Omnibus Press Bowie books in the meantime, among them early manager Kenneth Pitt’s fascinating Pitt Report, and Bowiestyle and the Black Book have now been joined by a third coffee-table book from Omnibus entitled David Bowie: The Golden Years by Roger Griffin, an even more sumptuous volume that the publishers believe reflects the attention to presentation that was so important to its subject. Early Amazon reviews indicate it is being appreciated by fans for its attention to detail, lavish photography and superior design.
I should point out that this book was commissioned long before Bowie left us. I had a hand in it, of course, and can reveal that its production was seriously compromised by David’s passing. Many of the photographers whose pictures were to have been included either withdrew their permission to use them or decided to triple the fees they would otherwise have charged. It was Omnibus’ original intention to publish this book in time for Christmas 2015, but when this didn’t happen – books like this, which are nowadays printed in the Far East, invariably encounter delays – we scheduled it for the spring of 2016. Then came the sad news, and a rethink. The result is a ‘spare no expense’ attempt at producing the ultimate Bowie memento.
The Golden Years, of course, were the seventies, and Griffin’s book is a comprehensive and scrupulously precise chronology of David’s moves and grooves between January 4, 1970 (a gig at the Beckenham Arts Lab) and December 15, 1980 (the release of a K-Tel Best Of Bowie compilation). In between are details of every record released, every concert performed, every TV and radio appearance, every recording session, the films, the interviews, the collaborations, the off-stage shenanigans, the travel, the contretemps, and the socialising, just about everything that David Bowie did in those 3,652 days, together with hundreds of photographs, many reproduced to full bleed to take advantage of the large format. It is 450 pages of day-to-day diary entries, the whole package enhanced with gold leaf blocking, a hardback that weighs over 6lbs, so if you buy several take them home separately.
        It is my belief that time and distance add gravity and that it will be a long time before the definitive David Bowie biography is written. It is an undertaking that will take years of scrupulous research, two hundred or more new interviews with those once close to Bowie, and a slow and methodical approach to the project. I hope that out there is a biographer who is to David Bowie what Mark Lewisohn is to The Beatles, perhaps a literary scholar and Bowie fan who was maybe too young to have been watching Top Of The Pops on July 5, 1972, but who understands what that moment meant and can bring to his or her book the same mix of profundity and sparkle that we recognised in Ziggy. I give it five years.

12.1.17

TIGHT BUT LOOSE – Portrait of the Singer as a Young Man




The evolution of Robert Plant from prancing stallion to grizzled old rock warrior is something to behold. The photograph of Led Zeppelin’s front man on the latest issue of Dave Lewis’ Tight But Loose fanzine brings back memories of the youthful Plant as he was in 1969, a few weeks shy of his 21st birthday, hungry, passionate, perhaps a bit shell-shocked that so much had happened in so short a time and, above all, relishing in the sheer wonder of having musicians of the calibre of Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham backing him up as he sang. Once he grew a beard, let alone after he shaved it off for the first time, it was never quite the same but in ’69, there was something decidedly feral about him, like a big cat gnawing on the songs he sang. Offstage, however, he was a slightly green middle-class English boy, raised not to drop his (h)aitches, as nice as pie, perhaps a bit unsure of himself, quite unlike the cultured, well-travelled Page, the experienced session-hand Jones and boisterously blue-collar Bonham.       
Most great groups take a year or two to get into their stride but Zeppelin was the Usain Bolt of rock, at full strength straight off the starting block, and the image of Robert on the front of this latest TBL caused me to do a double take. His hair covers his face and he looks like he’s about to fellate the microphone, so for a second or two I didn’t recognise him. Then I looked again and noted that the picture came from the Royal Albert Hall, June 29, less than a year after their first rehearsal, about one year before I first saw the group. They’d had a busy week that week with shows in Newcastle (June 20), Bristol (21), London (24, a BBC recording), Portsmouth (26), London (27, a second BBC recording) and the Bath Festival the night before, so they would have been at Olympic fitness. They actually did two shows at the RAH that day, and two other groups played before them each time, which suggests their set was short, not much longer than an hour, a handful of songs from the first album and a finale that evidently climaxed with Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ for which the supporting groups joined them on stage – havin’ some fun tonight indeed.
But I digress. I was going to write about the contents of the new TBL but became side-tracked by its front cover. Indeed, I ought to have opened this little piece with my thanks to Dave for the fulsome coverage of No Quarter: The Three Lives Of Jimmy Page by Martin Power, a book I had a hand in, which occupies three pages of TBL 42, and I’m happy to say Dave welcomes it warmly.  Dave points out that it is comprehensive (622 pages) but not salacious, a deliberate editorial stance agreed upon by the author and myself when the book was commissioned. You can find plenty of that in Hammer Of The Gods, Richard Cole’s Stairway To Heaven and Barney Hoskyns Trampled Underfoot, not to mention memoirs by the likes of Pamela Des Barres and Nick Kent, so Martin and I agreed he should go easy on the sex and drugs and concentrate on the music, of which there is a great deal, and not just LZ. I have reason to believe that a work in progress by a former NME writer of some distinction will not be quite so discriminating.
Taking pride of place in this issue of TBL is Dave’s take on LZ’s Complete BBC Sessions, for which he wrote liner notes, thus elevating him to the same role that Mark Lewisohn attained with The Beatles on their reissue series and, to a lesser extent, my own participation in Who reissues from the mid-nineties. It is pleasing to note that the time and effort that Dave has put into helping Led Zeppelin maintain their profile 37 years after they called it a day, not to mention the knowledge he’s amassed along the way, has been recognised in this way. As far as I am aware he is the world's only full-time professional Led Zeppelin archivist. Groups, even those as sturdy as Led Zep, need fans like him.
Elsewhere there’s a feature on collecting singles on which JP played without credit, including such disparate names as Val Doonican and Brenda Lee, a low down on the Top 100 most valuable LZ albums, the usual info on bootlegs and the like, news on recent Page, Plant and Jones activities and a report on the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ court case which went the way TBL hoped it would: “Reason prevails,” observes its editor sagely.

6.1.17

BRIAN ENO – REFLECTION, CD review


Alerted by a positive review in last Sunday’s Observer and undeterred by a mediocre one in today’s Guardian, I have been soothing my troubled psyche this week by listening to this latest chapter in Eno’s ambient tales. A 54-minute continuous meditation of unhurried music that sounds suitable for the soundtrack of a movie exploring the wreck of the Titanic, it a fine antidote to the overdose of ‘Frosty The Snowman’ and ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ from which I was suffering until we took down our tree last night.
This is not my first encounter with Eno’s ambient work. Back in the early eighties, freelancing after an early release from the rigours of RCA’s press office, I was contacted by Eno’s record label who commissioned me to write descriptions of about a dozen avant-garde albums and biographies of those who had recorded them, not all by Roxy Music’s original non-musician. Among them, however, were Eno’s Discreet Music, Music For Films and Music For Airports, all in the ambient style and all quite new to me at the time. I warmed to them, just as I had warmed to Eno when he, I and two others had dinner together many years ago in a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. He won’t remember that night but I do, as he’s not the kind of guy you forget in a hurry.
Reflection is playing as I type. It consists of sustained chimes across a fairly narrow band of notes, with a deep foundation making its presence felt and a very occasional unexpected trill, bleep or ping. Placid doesn’t do it justice. Quite simply, it is the slowest music I have ever heard, yet at the same time I wouldn’t describe it as lethargic, as in encouraging laziness. Something is happening amidst the languor, and its contemplative potential is quite profound. I suspect that if I was to indulge in that old habit of mine that involved crumbling dark matter into a roll-up cigarette I would enjoy it more, but I can enjoy it straight all the same. For a few seconds at the beginning I was reminded of the opening bars of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’ or even Led Zeppelin’s ‘No Quarter’ but those thoughts soon ebbed away as I became absorbed in the mysterious depths of Eno’s synthesiser.
I believe that those with the correct equipment can download a version that is endless and which can be manipulated by the listener to create their own personal variations, but that’s far too far out for me. I’m content with the basic model, an acquired taste maybe but unlike some I find that the older I get the more I explore.
I should add that the packaging is as beautifully minimal as the music. The cover of the CD’s eight-page black sleeve is bible black but for a shot of the master’s face that is only just discernable; no text inside, a minimum of credits and a wonderfully tasteful design throughout.
        Were I in a position to do so I would advise the President Elect of the United States to give this recording a listen immediately before his next imprudent tweet. A pause for reflection might do him and the rest of us of some good.