Monday, 31 October 2011


The reformed Sham 69 (1977-79 line up) far exceeded my - admittedly low - expectations on Saturday by turning in a fiery set. I’ve never taken their cartoonish yobbery very seriously, always considered them a bit of a comedy band, but they set about themselves with an admirable lack of cabaret and bashed out a surprisingly credible show.

A lean, mean, mop-headed Jimmy Pursey remains a captivating ringleader, directing the overweight, follically-challenged crowd at will, and Dave Parsons, Dave Tregunna and Mark Cain played with such bristling intensity it altered my opinion of the group. Songs I’d previously thought weak sounded stronger, full of energy, and sat comfortably alongside the boisterous anthems. If this had been a new band with these songs they’d have rave reviews splattered everywhere. The Vaccines should’ve been taking notes.

Reformed acts can do one of three things with their reputation: tarnish it, preserve it, enhance it. Few manage that last one. Sham did for me. Comedy? Cabaret? The Cockney Kids Are Innocent.

Sunday, 30 October 2011


This month's turntable favourites.

1. Elvis Presley – “Little Sister” (1961)
Seeing how I pottered about his gaff this month (very nice it was too) it’s only fair to let the old hound dog have his day.

2. Lonnie Hewitt – “You Gotta Git” (1966)
This stick of dancefloor dynamite comes at ya like a super-charged Ramsey Lewis/Ray Charles love-in.

3. Leon Austin – “Turn Me Loose” (1969)
A James Brown production, and apart from the wonky horns, played with a straighter soul bat than JB usually used himself.

4. Neil MacArthur – “World Of Glass” (1969)
Better known as Colin Blunstone from the Zombies, this is equal, or even greater than, anything from Odessey and Oracle; it’s that special.

5. Muddy Waters – “Crosseyed Cat” (1977)
From the album Hard Again where Muddy’s mojo was most certainly rising.

6. Pulp – “Something Changed” (1994)
You had to be there. Maybe you were.

7. Thurston Moore – “Benediction” (2011)
If this opening track from Demolished Thoughts was a season, it would be autumn; in the same way all Nick Drake’s records are autumn.

8. The Silver Factory – “The Sun Shines Over You” (2011)
I’ve championed these jangle merchants for a while so I’m delighted Elefant Records have finally released it on an excellent new limited edition EP. Snap one up quick before they go.

9. Comet Gain – “An Arcade From The Warm Rain That Falls” (2011)
The best titled single of the year, and the song isn’t too shabby either.

10. The Black Keys – “Lonely Boy” (2011)
Oh yeah! Go listen to this and watch the video. I taught him all his moves you know.

Thursday, 27 October 2011


In his autobiography, Keith Richards calls 2120 South Michigan Avenue hallowed ground. He and other Stones love telling how when they arrived in June ’64 to record in the footsteps of their idols, Buddy Guy was there to greet them, Willie Dixon too, Muddy Waters – they claim – was painting the ceiling and helped lug their gear out of the van and up the stairs into the studio. Etta James was no doubt fixing them up something in the kitchen.

Since 1990 the site of Chess Records has been designated an official Chicago landmark, and since 1993 home to the Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation. When we turn up around midday we weren’t afforded such a welcome. The glass front revelled little of what’s inside and the place looked empty, so we rang the bell. After a while a man languidly comes to the door. I worry we’ve got him out of bed. His name turns out to be Kevin although we didn’t know that at the time. Didn’t know who or what he was. He picks the post off the floor and asks “you here for the tour?” Yeah, is that alright?

He leads us into a room with a desk and some mugs and t-shirts on display. It would stretch things to call it a gift shop. “You musicians?” he asks. Now, whenever I’m asked this, I always take it as a compliment but it’s not really is it? In my head all musicians look like The Action in ’66, The Stones in Green Park, the house bands of Motown and Stax, the dudes on Blue Note sleeves, where in reality, most are lucky to play a regular pub gig and inevitably wear a faded tour t-shirt and jeans that don't fit properly. “No, but I DJ in London and play old rhythm and blues records including, of course, loads of Chess stuff”. This was the second night in a row I’d thrown in the DJ line and felt myself squirm with uneasy self-consciousness saying it, but in my defence it was to (a) demonstrate we knew why we were here and (b) hope to engage Kevin in some conversation. It didn’t work. He said something about costing us $10 each and watching a video. We paid up.

He led us upstairs to a room filled with stackable plastic chairs and sat us in front of a big television and put a well-worn VHS cassette into the video player. “You watch this and when it’s finished I’ll come back and answer any questions.” With that he was gone. Looking around it was apparent we were in what was once the main recording studio of Chess. There wasn’t much beyond the white pegboard walls to give this impression but the big control room window in front of us gave it away. The video whirred into action and started to play a documentary called Sweet Home Chicago. It told of the blues, Chicago and Chess. It was probably made in the early 90s and was all right. It set the scene. But it went on. And on. We had no idea when it would end. Maybe it was a full 90 minute feature film? It was like watching BBC4 on a Friday night minus the bottle of wine and packet of Twiglets. There we were, sat alone, in the room where hundreds of amazing R&B and soul numbers were wrung from the sweat of incredible musicians; watching the telly.

After about an hour it finished and Kevin popped back. “Any questions?” Er, about the film or Chess in general? “Whatever you want.” I take it this was the studio? It was, and the control room was indeed the other side of the glass, and at the back the two rooms were the audition and rehearsal rooms. How long did Chess use it? Kevin said right up until 1969 when Leonard Chess died. The plaque outside said 1967 when I’ve read they moved to larger premises. Can we have a look around? “Sure, I’ll go back downstairs, come down when you’re ready. Take as many pictures as you want”.

It was difficult to get much sense of what recording in that room was like. It was now simply a rectangular room, high ceiling, with flat walls, and an old piano in the corner. There’s a distinctive echo to Chess records; an open, sparse feel. I tried to hear Little Walter’s harmonica in the walls, feel the stomp of Chuck Berry’s duck walk across the floor. It was difficult. The two back rooms contained some items of memorabilia but nothing much to write about: Dixon’s jacket and hat, KoKo Taylor’s dress, a few guitars, records and various odds and sods. The control room contained a couple of ancient pieces of recording equipment. One, bizarrely, was perched in a metal serving tray on top a wooden cross frame. I’ve no idea whether these were from the original control room or put there for illustrative purposes.

Back downstairs Kevin was sat behind his desk. When asked what the Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation is, he came to life and passionately explained how it was set up at Dixon’s request, to educate blues musicians about the music business, to help those who needed assistance in understanding contracts and the legal implications of what they had signed, to help find work and act as intermediaries when third-parties were looking for performers, to help those in trouble etc. “Musicians are artistic people. They need to be free to create. They can’t do that when dealing with contracts they know nothing about”. It was good to hear. He also admitted that they more or less keep the upstairs open for fans to come along, just so they can say they’ve been before getting on a roll about the standard of blues clubs in the city. We mention we went to Buddy Guy’s club and met him. “What was he like?” I think he’d had a few drinks. Was quite sweary. “That’s Buddy. But what were the chances of that? Back in the day, you could see Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon; they all lived here and played here. In those days you had to reach a certain level before they’d even let you in those clubs. Now they put on anything just for the tourists”.

As we leave the buzzer goes. Kevin lets in a couple of fellas. “You musicians?”

Next stop: Motown.

Sunday, 23 October 2011


Chicago likes to call itself the Home of the Blues, even if there aren’t too many bluesmen left at home. Buddy Guy moved to the Windy City in 1957, started cutting records as a session man for Chess in 1959, and is still doggedly keeping the blues alive with his own club, Buddy Guy’s Legends, situated at 700 South Wabash in the studenty part of the South Loop area.

The first things you notice as you approach the club are the large blue and white checker mosaics on the outside wall depicting the likes of John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf. Inside, it’s much how you’d expect, with photos, memorabilia and signed guitars hung on plain brickwork. It’s not dissimilar to a better equipped 100 Club with its wide but narrow layout and a bar at both ends and a low stage in the middle.

Me and Mrs Monkey popped in for a look on a lunch time and ended up eating catfish tenders, bourbon shrimp and having friendly locals offering us drinks. None of which is ever likely to happen on London’s Oxford Street. There were a couple of blokes on stage performing for the handful in there and luckily for them I didn’t catch their names. They did an atrocious version of “Goodnight Irene” - not that there has ever been a good version of that hideous song – and some other faux blues like every tin pot bus station busker from here to Timbuktu thinks is acceptable to pass off to the ill-informed or cloth-eared. It did though make us think that it would be a good venue to see someone half-decent.

So we went back that evening and Jimmy Johnson, a long standing Chicago blues guitarist and brother of Syl Johnson (got a couple of his singles tucked away somewhere), was on stage playing Junior Wells’ “Little By Little”. He had a cool laid back soul-blues style about him. Neat playing: nothing too showy, no face twisting histrionics. We stood at the bar with a beer and dug him. “Don’t turn around but I think that’s Buddy Guy behind us,” says Mrs Monk. I naturally turn around immediately and there’s a dude in the corner wearing a hat, blue smock, slouched on his stool, nursing a drink and chatting to a lady friend. We couldn’t get a proper look of his face but if he wasn’t Buddy he had the unmistakable look of being somebody. Not that we waited long for confirmation, it was him all right, as he soon climbed stage to hold court. You know in Raging Bull when Jake La Motta’s boxing career is over and he opens his own nightclub and drunkenly chats to the audience? It was a bit like that. I’ve no idea what got him on to the subject but he told how when he and Junior Wells arrived in Chicago (“you remember this too Jimmy”) the entire Chess crowd called them motherfuckers. “We thought it was our name,” he says, effortlessly breaking the Richard Pryor record for most motherfuckers and shits in a ten minute spell, only interrupted by singing his way through a couple of blues vamps. He also railed against the lack of blues played on the radio and how he keeps the club open as that’s the only way folk get to hear the blues in the city. Unfortunately he didn’t pull a guitar from the wall before the band went into the interval and he went into a photo and signing session by the club entrance.

It wasn’t possible to engage him in much chat but he was gracious in having his picture taken (one had to give their camera to his burly security guy to do the honours) and I did manage to tell him how I and others play his “I Dig Your Wig” single in clubs around Europe. It’s a popular tune. He pauses for a moment as if wondering what the earth I’m on about before a flicker of recognition hits his face. “Man, that’s from waaay back”. We shake hands. It’s a great moment. For me anyway.

Back in the main part of the club Jimmy Johnson was sat by himself with a coffee. He’d almost been upstaged at his own gig so we took the table next to him and asked him how he was doing. He said he was bit bored, which wasn’t the kind of answer we were expecting, but would be okay once he got back on stage. Jimmy turned out to be a lovely bloke and seemingly happy to chat to us. He said he’d been a professional musician since 1959. “What’s that been like? Bet there’s been some ups and downs?” I said, unaware that in 1988 his band’s van came off the road killing his bassist and keyboard player. It was hardly the right time for him to mention that horrible incident, and he struck a very positive note instead. “I been all around the world and I ain’t never bought no plane ticket.” I asked him about Buddy’s cussing; did everyone really call each other motherfucker? “Sure, that’s just how we spoke. We all call each other nigger too, like ‘hey nigger, how ya doing?’ Just how it was, don’t mean nothin’. Except say if you say it, there might be some meaning behind it. You know what I’m sayin’?” I knew what he was saying.

Jimmy asked where we were from and so told him London and that we got married on Saturday. When a man of 82, married for nearly fifty years, offers you advice, you listen. To me he says “you gotta learn to say ‘yes dear’” and to Mrs Monk he says “you’ve got to remember it’s we not me”. He also offered us advice about looking after ourselves when we travel to Detroit, and when back on stage he dedicated a couple of Motown songs to us, thoughtfully doing “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Get Ready”.

It’s hard to imagine how a night out looking for the blues in Chicago in 2011 could’ve been any better. Next stop: Chess Records.

Friday, 21 October 2011


I bought a Comet Gain record in 1996, “Say Yes! (To International Socialism)”, and then not another until this year’s Howl of The Lonely Crowd, which gets a lot of action in Monkey Mansions. Any band who name a song the same as I named my goldfish - Herbert Huncke - is all right with me. I’ve no idea why I lost fifteen years but I'm gonna enjoy catching up. They were good last night; hanging a poetic lyric on a resolutely ramshackle and wonky beat. You'll find more polish in QPR's trophy cabinet - which is how it should be. They were thoroughly nice folk too, giving me their fab new single ("An Arcade From The Warm Rain That Falls") and chatting about The Left Banke.

I was on record duty, and as it was a gig rather than club meant my role was that of human jukebox, albeit a slightly self-indulgent one. These got pulled from the box:

The Impressions – Meeting Over Yonder (1965)
Arthur – Garnish Fantasy (1993)
High Priests – Baby Diamond Mind (2007)
The Choir – It’s Cold Outside (1967)
The Ronettes – Do I Love You? (1964)
Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out Of This Country (2006)
The Lemonheads – Galveston (1997)
The Silver Factory – The Sun Shines Over You (2011)
The Left Banke – I Haven’t Got The Nerve (1966)
The Lovely Eggs – Watermelons (2011)
Dinosaur Jr. – Freak Scene (1988)
The Who – Doctor, Doctor (1967)
The Action – Twentyfourth Hour (1967)
Johnny Cash – The Lady Came From Baltimore (1974)
Hank Williams – I Can’t Get You Off My Mind (1951)
Love – Alone Again Or (1967)
Slim Harpo – I Need Money (1964)
Ko Ko Taylor – Wang Dang Doodle (1966)
Bob Dylan – Positively 4th Street (1965)
Pete Molinari – It Came Out Of The Wilderness (2008)
Maurice and the Radiants – Baby You’ve Got It (1966)
Mark Markham and the Jesters – Marlboro Country (1966)
Mouse and the Traps – Cryin’ Inside (1968)
The Horrors – Count In Fives (2006)
Betty Lavett – Witchcraft In The Air (1963)

Wednesday, 19 October 2011


The latest Crossfire allnighter is on Saturday and although you wouldn't know it from the selective flyer above it features a live performance by 60's UK psych sensations July. If you don't own their eponymous 1968 LP, you really need to remedy that fact. I'll be spinning some tunes in the R&B room later.

Doors open at 2030, July are on at 2200, and it'll cost you £15 with admission to the allnighter after the band. If you miss the band and come after eleven the price drops to £12.

Monday, 17 October 2011


If you're free in London Town this coming Thursday you could do a lot worse than get along to the Silver Bullet opposite Finsbury Park tube for an Oxjam benefit show put on by Idle Fret Records. Certainly looks an interesting mix of bands and DJs (Comet Gain, Pete Wiggs etc). I'll be playing a few records early doors and seeing as how I'm listed with reference to Monkey Picks it'll be a ragbag mixture of 45s that kinda encompass what you get on here. They may regret uttering the words "play whatever you like". Should be good fun and certainly good value for a fiver or so.

Saturday, 8 October 2011


Monkey Picks is on the road. Will be back shortly with a whole bunch of new stories for y'all. S'laters.