Sunday, 21 September 2014

THE WHISPERERS (1967)


Dame Edith Evans is most remembered for her marvellous and much imitated exclamation of “A hand bag?” as Lady Bracknell in the 1952 film adaptation of The Importance Of Being Earnest, but in 1968 she won a Best British Actress BAFTA and was nominated for a Oscar for her role as Mrs. Ross, an elderly lady, poor and alone in her flat, living on benefits, who hears voices in the taps and the silent wireless and believes her neighbour is being kept against her will in the flat above. 

Bryan Forbes’s film, based on a 1961 book by Robert Nicolson, is as bleak as they come. Frequently confused and deluded (although at times keenly observant) Mrs. Ross is visited by her thieving son who hides money in her flat which she discovers and believes is her long awaited inheritance. As Mrs. Ross grandly tells the Welfare Board she no longer requires assistance and plans a trip to Barbados her real troubles are only just beginning. I won’t to say too much more about events as I never understand why folk would want a full synopsis before watching.

There are no laughs or light hearted scenes to be found. With the exception of the man at the Welfare Board there are few likeable characters, they’re all out for themselves, usually at the expense of the vulnerable Mrs. Ross. Made in 1966 and released in the summer of 1967, The Whisperers was filmed in black and white, which only underscores the dark and gloomy atmosphere and increases the kitchen-sink feel. The clues to the year are few and far between (an old man looking blankly at a lava lamp and a couple of mildly beatniky teenagers) and the crumbling, decaying, slum streets which Mrs. Ross gingerly walks, filled with stray cats scavenging in dustbins, adds to the end-of-days mood.

Evans fully deserved the accolades for her role and there are plenty of other familiar faces to spot throughout: Nanette Newman, Gerald Sims, Avis Bunnage, Eric Portman, Michael Robbins, Leonard Rossiter and Oliver MacGreevy. It’s a tremendous, deeply moving film. 

Thursday, 11 September 2014

I’ll TAKE YOU THERE: MAVIS STAPLES, THE STAPLE SINGERS, AND THE MARCH UP FREEDOM’S HIGHWAY by GREG KOT (2014)


The title gives the impression Greg Kot’s new book focuses on the Staple Singers’ contribution to the civil rights movement of the 1960s but that’s only one element as I’ll Take You There provides an overview of the whole career of the Staples family: tracing how - under the leadership of patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples – they gradually and cautiously moved from family gospel singers in the 1950s; to embracing folk, protest and message songs in the 60s; to becoming the most successful group on Stax during the early 70s; and then, after years in the wilderness and the death of Pops in 2000, how Mavis Staples’ star rose again with a series of highly acclaimed albums and concerts since 2007.

Kot interviewed Mavis, Yvonne and Pervis Staples extensively as part of his research so with their assistance I’ll Take You There reads like an official biography and with 43 short chapters it has an episodic feel. The reader gets a strong sense of the family characteristics and bond – they all come across as completely lovely people, which I’m sure they are, you can hear it in their music – but issues of a personal nature are washed over. Mavis’s failed marriage is explained away in a couple of lines and although she reveals a little more about her relationship with Bob Dylan than previously known it invites more questions. Recurring themes throughout the book are integrity and trust – vitally important, especially where Mavis is concerned – so it is understandable how the author didn’t wish to intrude after winning the confidence of the family when dealing with more sensitive issues, including the tragic death of non-singing sister Cynthia. Mind you, the Staples are one of the straightest families in the rock history so those looking for a gossipy tome have already knocked on the wrong door.

The focus is therefore very much on the music, with one eye on the business. The early chapters recounting the Staples driving around the country in their car to sing at churches are especially evocative. It also showed how lucrative this could be. When “Uncloudy Day” took off in 1957 – with Pops’ spooky tremolo guitar sound and Mavis’s big old mama voice emanating from her young little bitty body - it allowed Pops to quit his $65 a week job at the steel mill; the family were coming home from appearances with hundreds of dollars stuffed in their pockets and would go on to play churches holding three thousand people.

But the choices the family made weren’t financially driven, they -following Pops’ lead – were about singing songs with a strong positive message, whether overtly gospel in nature or, later, moving into a more secular field. Even then this came with firm, if not fixed, boundaries and lyrics had to be believed before given the go ahead for Mavis to pour herself in. This philosophy, which stood them so well, was relaxed (after the younger members pleaded with Pops) sufficiently to record Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to Let’s Do It Again, the fruity title track giving them a number one single in 1975. That though was the beginning of the end of the Staple Singers as a true force although they continued to soldier on, but the times weren’t as accommodating for their style or for an act that had already been making records for twenty years.

Kot provides commentary on all the albums they made together and individually, and whilst at times (particularly towards the latter stages when the narrative becomes less interesting) it reads a little like one album review after another, it does give a full account of their music. It’s a shame there’s no full discography included as the book highlights just how unavailable much of the Staples catalogue is. Getting hold of their early Vee-Jay recordings and all the Stax stuff is easy enough but what about the records they made in between for Riverside and then Epic? I can’t remember the last time those were issued. Good music books prompt the reader to re-listen or seek out recordings for the first time; I’ll Take You There does that in abundance (I've already begun filling in gaps).  

As a reluctant solo artist, Mavis Staples’ recent albums – One True Vine, You Are Not Alone, Hope At The Hideout and We’ll Never Turn Back – mixing new songs and revisiting ones cut in those early gospel years sit among the best records of her career, ensuring that for the close-knit Staples family and the listener fortunate enough to be fall for such inspirational, heartfelt music, rich with honesty and positivity, the circle remains unbroken.

I’ll Take You There by Greg Kot is published by Simon & Schuster, priced $26 (not yet published in the UK).

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

THE WEIRD WORLD OF BLOWFLY (2010)


You think you know someone. Clarence Reid is a name whose work is scattered through my record collection. Born in Cochran, Georgia in 1939, from the mid-60s he cut a host of 45s for different labels – Dial, Wand, Tay-ster etc - including the funk classic “Nobody But You Babe” in 1969 as well as working behind the scenes to write and produce for Miami based labels cutting commercially successful records on Betty Wright, Gwen McCrae, KC & The Sunshine Band and countless other small releases on obscure labels. Even for only his rhythm and soul thumper “I’m Your Yes Man” and Jimmy Bo Horne’s sublime 1967 northern glider, “I Can’t Speak”, both co-written with Willie Clarke, he’s earned his spurs in my book. Incidentally, a copy of “I Can’t Speak” on Dade sold for $3746 last month. 

It was after pulling a 1985 Kent Records compilation from the shelf, The Soul Of A Man, that I realised I only knew half the story. Clarence Reid’s, “Part Of Your Love”, from his Wand period opens side one. It’s a heart-wringing deep soul track about an affair with a married woman – proper, classy soul music - and my eyes then scanned Ady Croasdell’s liner notes. “His main source of income since the mid-70s had been recording porn covers of soul hits under the pseudonym Blowfly”. Porn covers of soul hits? What the? How had I missed this?

And it’s true; whole albums of the stuff all through the 70s and beyond; popular songs of the day rewritten with X-rated lyrics and performed by a man in a mysterious superhero outfit. Blowfly’s 1971 debut LP, The Weird World Of Blowfly, includes “Shitting Off The Dock Of The Bay” and “Spermy Night In Georgia”; At The Movies tells how “Superfly, keeps his head between chick’s thighs”;  1977’s Blowfly’s Disco Party features “What A Difference A Lay Makes” and Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes “Bad Luck” reworked as, well, you can guess. Not everyone’s cup of tea but if you were a kid at school, a stoned teenager, or heard this stuff at a house party it’d raise a chuckle. The disco tracks and especially his early rap records like “Rapp Dirty”/”Blowfly’s Rap” in fact have more to offer than juvenile humour. Blowfly and the Sugarhill Gang can argue the toss over who made the first rap record (it’s difficult to be precise) but “Rapp Dirty” goes to places “Rapper’s Delight” would not have dreamed.

Filmmaker Jonathan Furmanski caught some of the story in The Weird World of Blowfly in 2008 when he followed Reid and his manager Tom Bowker touring America and Europe attempting to raise the profile of the Blowfly “brand” (argh!) and get his career back on track. It doesn’t always make for comfortable viewing with Reid/Blowfly encouraged to shock (he doesn’t actually need much encouragement to be fair) rather than simply entertain and into coerced into unfamiliar musical areas in an attempt to introduce him to a younger audience. Seeing a 69 year old man with an arthritic knee wearing a glittery wrestler’s mask performing lewd songs to a handful of drunks in a late night bar isn’t perhaps the most dignified way to make a living but need’s must. Although Blowfly records have been heavily sampled and have appeared on smashes by the likes of Beyonce, he doesn’t have a pot to piss in, having sold all his rights to his songs and future royalties to pay off mounting debts. “A million dollars tomorrow ain’t worth a damn if you can’t get two hundred dollars to live off today,” he says with a mixture of pragmatism and regret.

The film also features interviews with friends, family, folk he’s worked with and even Ice-T and Chuck D pop up to talk about Blowfly being a hip-hop influence and one of the original rappers (Blowfly might tell you he was the first but he’s not caught claiming that on camera here). There’s a nice part where Clarence Reid gets to perform in Miami as himself for the first time since 1972 but it’s his alter-ego that draws the most attention and we soon see him encouraged by his manager to record the charmless “Mummie Fucker”.

The Weird World of Blowfly left me with a whole jumble of emotions, as did Clarence Reid who has some “interesting” views of women and black people. It’s not a feel-good movie, there’s no redemption, no happy ending, it’s no Searching For Sugarman, but it is real and does portray something of the struggle of musicians – even ones with countless records behind them - trying to make a living. Bet Blowfly wishes he had a box of that Jimmy Bo Horne single under his bed. 

Here's the film.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

AUGUST PLAYLIST


1.  Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders – “Like I Did” (1965)
This was an unexpected pleasure when sent to me by a thoughtful reader the other day. The B-side of “She Needs Love”, the last single before Wayne and his ‘Benders went their separate ways, is a sumptuous track; neatly written and deftly performed with subtlety and grace. Impressive.

2.  Jimmy Smith – “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman” (1966)
The Incredible Jimmy Smith rips it up on the Hammond with such lightning dexterity a whole big band, conducted by Oliver Nelson, gets left puffing in his wake.  From Smith’s Hoochie Coochie Man LP. 

3.  Gary Walker & The Rain – “If You Don’t Come Back” (1968)
Post Walker Brothers, Gary formed Gary Walker and the Rain and they made one album, entitled Album No. 1 - curiously only released in Japan – before splitting. There’s a mixture of styles, from psych to pop to soul to folk, as if they couldn’t quite decide which direction to take but it’s no less enjoyable for it, as it mostly all works. Here they decide to give the Leiber-Stoller song made famous by the Drifters a heavy dose of acid-rock.

4.  Herbie Mann – “Hold On, I’m Coming” (1969)
Mann’s Memphis Underground, recorded for Atlantic, is a funky flute (Mann) and vibes (Roy Ayers) soul-jazz-rock sensation from start to finish. It’s brilliant. This nine minute monster goes nuts around the halfway mark with guitars sounding like they’re trying to communicate not with the underground, but outer space. 

5.  Lonnie Smith – “Move Your Hand” (1969)
Recorded live at Club Harlem, Atlantic City on August 9, 1969, the ever-dapper Lonnie Smith (check his threads on the sleeve of this LP) finds the biggest, fattest, soul-jazz groove and sits on it.  

6.  Smoke – “Dreams of Dreams” (1970)
It’s a mistake been made many times but this Smoke were not The Smoke who cut “My Friend Jack” and “Waterfall”. This young quartet of Bury St Edmunds long-hairs managed to eke out this one super rare 45 for Revolution records before disbanding. However, if York’s The Smoke had continued another couple of years they may well have sounded like “Dreams of Dreams” – sharp riffs and hazy vocals - so the confusion is understandable to my ears at least. Now reissued as a beautifully packaged two-single edition by Spoke Records, mastered from the original acetate and in crystal clear audio, it's available here. 

7.  The Soul Brothers Inc.  – “Girl In The Hot Pants” (1972)
Dead on the heavy, heavy superfunk. The Soul Brothers Inc. can hardly contain their, er, frenzied excitement at the sight of girls dancing in red, blue, pink and black hot pants.

8.  Sonic Youth – “Youth Against Fascism” (1992)
Was digging through an old half-forgotten pile of 45s the other day and gave this a spin. Been on repeat ever since. That bass!

9.  Chuck D featuring Mavis Staples – “Give We The Power” (2014)
If you want message songs - songs about empowerment and self-respect - who better than these two? It’s a pairing so blindingly obvious you wonder why it hasn’t happened before. The result is bang on everything one would wish for. Mavis gets the majority of the work and she rasps and crackles her way through the snaps and beats and Chuck’s raps. Watch the video here for footage outside Chess Studios in Chicago.     

10.  The Primitives – “Spin-O-Rama” (2014)
Here come the Prims, pirouetting out the music box like the opening scene of Camberwick Green to share the secrets of their delightful new hooks and handclapping single, “Spin-O-Rama”. Tracy Tracy takes the listener by the hand, twirls them around in her dainty finger and then, as soon as they’re settled, dumps them by the wayside leaving them wanting more. Short, sweet and very addictive. Paul Court takes the lead on the flip, a version of “Up So High”, a track originally released in France in ’66 by obscure Californian LSD munching garageheads The What’s New. That nagging buzz line could’ve been written for the Primitives. Out 1st September on Elefant Records, limited to 500 copies on clear vinyl. Snap ‘em up.     
The Primitives: In a spin.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

BEAT SCENE - ISSUE 73


In this world of the internet, social media and instant information it’s testament to the continuous effort of one man near Coventry that his self-produced and fiercely independent magazine is still the first call for all matters connected to the Beat Generation.

Kevin Ring's Beat Scene issue 73 is upon us and, as always, I headed to the reviews sections where I found a look at a new collection of previously unpublished writing by Jack Kerouac, The Haunting Life and Other Writings (Da Capo Press). First I’d heard of it. As the piece outlines there’s debate whether early work like this (from the mid-40s, when Kerouac was 22, and years before the publication of his first novel) enhances or devalues his reputation. Personally, as long as folk are aware of the context of what they’re reading and have embraced the classics then there’s little harm to be done. The Haunting Life and Other Writings is now on my to-read list, knowing full well it won’t compete with even some of Jack’s lesser novels, but for any clues and hints of what’s to come and to build a fuller picture of the man, I’m content for these things to keep trickling out.

Elsewhere in this issue of Beat Scene there’s an interesting interview with Allen Ginsberg from 1978 about Kerouac, at the point when Jacks’s books were beginning to return to print after a period of critical mauling during his final years, and then neglect after his death; a rather sad although not surprising account by an acquaintance of William Burroughs Jr. (aka Billy, author of Speed and Kentucky Ham - both recommended reads by the way); Joyce Johnson; Ken Kesey; Lew Welch and much more. An essential publication for those with a Beat fascination (even with Jack looking awful on the front cover). 

Work is already underway for issue 74 which is focusses of the Beats In Britain including the travels here by Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Richard Brautigan, Kenneth Rexroth and Michael McClure. Should be another good one.

For ordering and subscription details see Beat Scene.

Friday, 8 August 2014

CONFESSIONS OF A 14 YEAR OLD MOD'S RECORD COLLECTION (1984)



It is 1984 and a fourteen year old me is already habitually recording, cataloguing or listing my interests. I’ve earlier examples (for another day perhaps) and Monkey Picks is simply the latest method of documenting events.

For whatever reason, thirty years ago I decided to keep note of every record I bought. Not only that, but to include where I bought it and how much it cost, and to keep monthly and cumulative expenditure totals (although, typically, I didn’t quite finish it off by calculating the final total in December). Quite why I did all this, I’ve no idea, and I only did so for a year before moving on to a different project in 1985. Maybe I knew I’d be stuck for a blog post in 2014.

As you can see almost everything was Mod or 60s related (interchangeable terms in my young mind) with only a few notable exceptions: The Alarm, The Smiths and even Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” which was such a massive record that summer and cut across the youth cult divide.

Also of interest (to me at least), the list pinpoints the precise moment I developed an interest in northern soul with my first purchase of a Kent Records’ collection in April, On The Soul Side, followed by Shoes two weeks later. Those albums – that entire Kent series - were game changers for kids like me who didn’t know about, or much care for, historic tales of the Wigan Casino but discovered the likes of The Impressions, Bobby Bland, Maxine Brown and Patrice Holloway from these mind-blowing LPs that could easily be bought on suburban high streets.

As for Roland Rat’s “Love Me Tender”, I wonder if my little brother still has it.


 


The lists can be viewed easier by clicking on them.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

VINCE, PAUL, LAWRENCE & RICHARD (1971)

Produced by Ivor Dunkerton and written and narrated by Dennis Tuohy, this Bafta winning documentary was made for the BBC’s Man Alive series and first broadcast on 21 April 1971. The film follows the lads, aged between eleven and fourteen, growing up in poverty and tatters among the rubble of London’s East End. Selected from the area as four of the “least likely to” the outlook for these boys is painted as very bleak. Dennis Tuohy from the outset announces “already these four lives are lives at risk, the future shadows them” and it’s an opinion supported by Vince’s mum who sees her son’s thieving leading to more serious crime and prison.

A couple of the scenes are noticeably staged but the struggles of their and their families’ lives are real enough and the most revealing moments are the interviews with the four real life Bronco Bullfrogs in their button-downs and Harringtons, especially Vince who wants Bobby Moore’s lifestyle so he can go where he wants to get things off his chest whenever he needs. “I ain’t even ‘ad a decent ‘oliday since we went to Bognor Regis a few years ago.”

Watching Vince, Paul, Lawrence & Richard it's impossible not to wonder what became of them. I was fortunate to see the film at the Whitechapel library last year and two of the quartet plus their old youth worker Dan Jones were in attendance. Against the odds, all four are alive and well, have families, none ever went to prison, and despite the gloomy prediction and tone of the film, all made something of their lives. Good on 'em.