Wednesday, 29 July 2015


In a clip from a 1968 television interview featured in Liz Garbus’s new film, What Happened, Miss Simone?, its subject is asked about freedom. “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me, no fear. If I could have that half of my life, no fear…” with that, Nina Simone’s voice trails off.

Whatever fears Simone had, it didn’t prevent her from being a totally authentic performer and brutally honest woman on and off the stage. Little was hidden, her volatile temper impossible to hide and she could snap in an instant. “She was brilliant, a revolutionary, she used her voice to speak out for her people,” says her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly. But whilst other musicians used their position from the stage and turned off once home, Nina couldn’t turn her rage and sense of injustice on and off. “Nina was Nina 24/7” and that was a problem.

That injustice was rooted from an early age. What the young Eunice Waymon wanted was to be the first black classical concert pianist in America. After playing in church from the age of three or four, two white women heard her, then aged seven, play a recital and took her – literally – across the tracks to learn classical music and set up a trust fund to support her. For up to eight hours a day Eunice isolated herself from her peers to study Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and Brahms.

After graduating from high school, and with the money saved from the Eunice Waymon Fund, she went to New York to study for a year and then in 1950 applied for a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She had the ability but was rejected on colour. The money ran out. The whole family had moved to Philadelphia to support her, were very poor, so she got a job playing piano in a bar – pop, classical, spirituals, anything and everything. When the owner insisted Eunice had to sing to keep her job, she did. She became a singer out of necessity. Ninety dollars a night – midnight to seven - was great money but as she attempted to hide from her mother she was playing the devil’s music in bars adopted a new name. Nina Simone was born.

Garbus’s film tells her story using archival footage, radio interviews, concert footage (including full songs which makes a welcome change from most documentaries), Nina’s diaries and a small number of new interviews including: Lisa Simone Kelly; her guitarist Al Schackman; two of daughters of El Hajj Malik al-Shabazz (Malcolm X in old money); and excerpts from a 2006 interview with former husband and manager Andrew Stroud. Liz Garbus wisely only includes those who knew Nina well, so relax in the knowledge Bono’s big face isn’t going to hog the screen claiming what massive influence Simone’s music had whilst growing up on the mean streets of Dublin.

Andy Stroud was, in Al Schackman’s words, “a tough, New York, vice squad cop”, who married Nina in 1961 and took over as her manager. By all accounts he did a tremendous job in promoting her and building her career. Mindful of her desire to be the first black concert pianist to play Carnegie Hall he set about making that happen in 1963. When none of the New York promoters undertook the project, he put up the money. According to him Nina was “out of her mind with joy”. In her version that happiness was tempted by the fact she wasn’t playing Bach.

What Nina did play at Carnegie Hall the following year was a new song she’d written in the aftermath of the Alabama church bombing which killed four young girls and the murder of Medgar Evers. “Mississippi Goddam” sparked in Nina a sense of purpose to her music. Al Schackman noticed when they’d met years earlier there was something eating away at her and now it got stronger and had an outlet. It’s interesting listening to that recording of “Mississippi Goddam” and hear the almost exclusively white audience reaction. At the beginning they’re laughing as if the cussing was for jokey effect. Five minutes later they’re in no doubt she was serious and on her way to an almost complete transformation.

As the Civil Rights Movement moved into the Black Power era, Nina’s music and attitude became more militant and delivering a message for a black audience her overriding concern.  As an activist she aligned herself with the likes of Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X and the By Any Means Necessary philosophy ("terrorists" in Stroud's words), telling Dr Martin Luther King Jr. “I am not non-violent”.

Violent episodes provide the two most shocking episodes in the film. Firstly, in a radio interview Nina recounts a horrific attack by her husband, and then her daughter tells how after she’d gone to live with her in Africa, her mother became “a monster” and was now the one conducting the beatings. At the age of 14 Lisa considered suicide before flying back to New York to be with her father.

During her years in Africa Nina had no manager, no husband, wasn’t performing and hated the piano. Eventually she had to get her career back so moved to Switzerland and then Paris where Andrew Schackman found her “Like a street urchin, in rags”. Medication for manic depression eventually quietened her temperament but even her daughter admits it removed some of her soul. It was neither easy being Nina Simone nor living with Nina Simone. The drugs did help both.

There’s much What Happened, Miss Simone? doesn’t say - it’s a difficult life to squeeze into under two hours – but it documents a unique (often, let's be honest, scary) woman, a brilliant performer and incredible artist who no matter what style of music she played – jazz, soul, blues, folk, pop - occupied a genre all of her own. No one sounds like Nina Simone.

What Happened, Miss Simone is available to view on NetFlix

Sunday, 26 July 2015


1.  Big John Greer – “I’m The Fat Man” (1952)
He may be big but he can thrill you through and through. So claims Mr. Greer in a song about his rocking meat.

2.  Charlie Mingus – “Dizzy Moods” (1957)
Recorded in 1957 but not released until 1962, Mingus is quoted on the sleeve of Tijuana Moods as saying “This is the best record I ever made”. It’s difficult to put these things in any order and difficult to understand why such a fantastic LP waited in the wings for five years, although this was an incredibly prolific period with four other albums recorded and issued in 1957 alone.
[Comment from Monkey Snr: It was not issued by RCA for five years because Celia Mingus (his wife) sued RCA, and settled for $1200. I think it was about Debut (Mingus and Max Roach's label) issuing an LP by Thad Jones; RCA nicked the idea].

3.  Jack Harris and the Arabians – “Dog Wild” (1962)
Honkin’ and hustlin’ dirty R&B out of Chicago on the very cool Witch label.

4.  Prince Love and his Royal Knights – “Don’t Want No War” (1962)
Mr Castro, I’m talking to you”. Gotta hand it to young Sly Stone for cutting a dance record about the Cuban missile crisis.

5.  Carolyn Franklin- “Right On!” (1970)
Big and brassy from Sister Carolyn.

6.  The Staple Singers – “This Is A Perfect World” (1971)
For the first time Al Bell and Stax took the Staples to Muscle Shoals to record, and their The Staple Swingers LP opens with the sound of machinegun fire, “God Save The Queen” played on a harmonium, and Roebuck Staples declaring “This is a perfect world, so let’s stop trying to make it what it’s not”. Powerful and rousing stuff even before Mavis takes up the baton.

7.  The Brand New Heavies – “Sphynx” (1990)
Although I saw the Brand New Heavies a fair few times in their early days – they were a great live band tapped into a strong funk, jazz and soul movement – I was pretty nonplussed by their debut LP when it eventually came out, playing it only a couple of times. This was probably due to preferring to listen to the JBs, the Meters, Charles Earland etc than a new band doing a copy. Twenty five later those considerations don’t apply and taken on its own merits The Brand New Heavies makes a strong summertime soundtrack.

8.  The Stairs – “Right In The Back Of Your Mind” (1992)
Smokin’ scouse big beat vowel mangling combo The Stairs are back! Or rather they will be when they play the Kazimier in Liverpool on 26 November. Details are sketchy at the moment and no other dates announced so get yer skins together and catch the 147. Hope they do this epic Stooges/Chocolate Watchband mash-up. 

9.  The Nervous Rex – “(I Love Your) Psychedelic Curtains” (2009)
Zyd Hockey played this on his Fusion wireless show the other week and my toe was already merrily tapping away when my ears picked out the line “Your LP records by The Action and the Electric Prunes” guaranteeing its place in this month’s playlist.  

10.  James Taylor Quartet – “Why Can’t We Get Along” (2011)
From The Template, the JTQ follow the one used by the Style Council trying to sound like the Isleys. Infectious little number this one.

Sunday, 19 July 2015


Richard Allen’s first two books for New English Library (NEL), the notorious Skinhead (1970) and Suedehead (1971) have been republished by Dean Street Press as paperback and digital editions. 

Skinhead began a decade-long run of pulp fiction novels from NEL, tapping into the latest youth cult or fad. Skinhead, in particular, was a huge unexpected success. Selling over a million copies - read by many times that number as battered copies passed around classrooms and playgrounds - its young readers assumed the author recounting East End’s Joe Hawkins putting his bovver boots into the nuts of authority was one of them; someone they could relate to. The reality being somewhat different:  Richard Allen was a Canadian born writer who’d knocked out hundreds of novels under a string of aliases and who was about to turn fifty.

Not being a thirteen or fourteen year old boy in early 70s Britain excited by tales of brutal violence and rape, Skinhead and Suedehead aren’t enjoyable reads. That said I can understand the attraction of taking your gang to Stamford Bridge to infiltrate the Shed and stick it to a bunch of Chelsea fans (or “Chelseaites” as Allen calls them). I can also appreciate Allen’s writing appealed to a section of the population who had no interest in the rest of the literature presented to them, but despite any superficial resemblance to the vicious gang mentality portrayed in A Clockwork Orange these are books are worlds apart when taken as anything other than a titillating read. The protagonists of books aren't required to be likeable, the subject matter doesn’t have to be palatable, but Skinhead and Suedehead are poorly written, nasty pieces of exploitation with few redeeming qualities.

What’s perhaps more interesting is how these books were perceived at the time. As far as I can tell, there wasn’t a massive outcry about the subject matter or, and I don’t want to sound too prudish, that kids were reading this stuff. There would be uproar now to such glorification of the actions of Hawkins and his gang. It’s impossible not to read the triumphant last sentence of Skinhead without hearing the distant echo of cheering playgrounds. The treatment and attitude towards women is, from this distance, quite shocking. That presumably was the intention but I can’t help wonder how close to reality it was. As time capsules go, even accounting for exaggeration, these novels were perhaps best left buried. 

Reading between the lines, the permissiveness of the era was something Allen was keen to rail against and he adopts the tone of a hectoring Daily Mail writer, keen to bring back National Service and hanging to deal with all this unchallenged thuggery. “Since when does molly-coddling criminals pay dividends?” He also manages to take a dig at unions and has one beaten man ask “Can’t you see what this bloody Welfare State is costing Britain?” The books are so right-wing they’ve slipped off the side of my bookcase. Whilst some attitudes from the early 70s have changed for the better, making Skinhead now read like a postcard that's been hidden in the sideboard, others read like our current government. Now, that’s frightening.

Skinhead and Suedehead by Richard Allen are published by Dean Street Press. 

For a very good article about Joe Hawkins, Richard Allen and New English Library see Subbaculture and there’s also this 1996 BBC2 documentary, Skinhead Farewell, which, however improbably, was narrated by Tony Blackburn.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015


Here’s a great documentary for ya, The Howlin’ Wolf Story. Loads to enjoy in the tale of the man born Chester Burnett down in Mississippi in 1910 and whose voice sends shivers down the spine and whose moaning alone can shake the bones of an elephant.

There are touching interviews in Don McGlynn’s 2003 film with Wolf’s wife, daughters and band members including Hubert Sumlin and some incredible home movie footage taken by drummer Sam Lay in the blues clubs of 1960’s Chicago. More than anything, Wolf comes across as a lovely, level-headed bloke who bucks the stereotype of poor, drunken, philandering bluesmen.

Sunday, 12 July 2015


After posting the monthly playlist on here I’m occasionally asked where the tracks can be found to listen to. I could include links but choose not to as they are generally easily accessible by YouTube or Spotify and it leaves the onus on the reader to engage, however slightly, with the thrill of the chase.

However, Mike Woodward who runs God's Eternal Jukebox blog – containing a veritable feast of wonderful Spotify playlists – has done all the donkey work for you and gone through the Monkey Picks monthly lists throughout the years to create the motherlode: as it currently stands, 577 tracks across over 34 hours. Huge thanks to Mike for making the effort.  

I was a bit sceptic as to how useful such a beast would be – I tend to like neat hour segments – but this week alone I’ve heard from folk playing it at work, down the gym and, most satisfyingly, by the pool on holiday in Cyprus. I’ve dipped in and out of it and to be honest there are so many fantastic songs I’d half forgotten about. So, if you have 34 hours to spare, let me tell you the story of my life…

Tuesday, 7 July 2015


“We’ve come all the way from Chicago, to bring you some joy, some happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations!” declared Mavis Staples three songs in to her performance at the Clapham Grand last Tuesday. In those few words Mavis perfectly encapsulates what her gigs are all about: joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations turned up to eleven.

I don’t think I’ve ever beamed from ear to ear through a gig so much. Mavis is a remarkable woman, a little bundle of infectious energy, and the warmth radiating from her expressive face, cackling laugh and sensitive soul could melt the coldest heart. I make no bones about it; I want to give her a big hug. Luckily for her the closest I managed was a touch of her hand when she shook the outstretched paws of the first few rows.

This gig followed her Glastonbury d├ębut and watching that online it didn’t come across as well as it should. The mix – or the BBC’s continuing failure to broadcast live music satisfactorily - meant her band were close to inaudible. Here in Clapham they sounded full and funky and Mavis was cooking with them. They are a unit. One of the things which makes Mavis stand out from other touring singers is she always uses her own musicians rather than pick-up bands in different countries. It pays off.

Central to the performance and her music in general these days is Mavis’s working relationship with guitarist Rick Holmstrom. The bond between them is unmissable and beautiful to watch. Mavis is the reluctant solo star. She always wanted to remain singing with her family but the death of her father Pops in 2000 brought an end to the Staple Singers and put Mavis into a period of, at first, voluntary inactivity. But eventually she fought her way back and her later run of albums are every bit as essential as the early ones. It’s not blood anymore but it feels like family.

Yet it’s live, singing for people, delivering her message in person, which is at the heart of Mavis Staples, and she calls her group – the trio of Rick on guitar, Jeff Turmes on bass and Stephen Hodges on drums, plus the Deacon and Squeeky on backing vocals (there’s no sister Yvonne tonight) – “the greatest group in the world” (before gently mocking Kanye West’s grandiose claim of being the greatest rock and roll star on the planet) and there’s no doubt there are no more suitable musicians, who totally understand the feel and soul of the Staples, than these.

When Mavis hits an incredible final note on “Respect Yourself” she and Rick shoot each other a wide-eyed look as if to say “Hey, did you hear that?”; when Mavis embarks on a walkabout during “I Like The Things About Me” to touch the hands of those in the front rows she returns with the very faintest of stumbles unseen by most eyes except Rick’s who gives her an “I told you to be careful” twitch of the head. Mavis for her part can’t help but frequently go up to her band and give them cute little loving rabbit punches.

Sixty-five years in the business – Mavis started very young – she’s fit as a flea (my quick attempt to catch a half decent photo proved impossible as she wouldn’t keep still long enough) and can still belt out a song and make a lyric stand out in new ways. Her songs, and those of the Staples Singers, have always had meaning; they’re not lyrics to fill out a few bars of music. “Take that sheet off your face” on “Respect Yourself” conveys both horror and determination and in the set’s only real ballad “Holy Ghost” the glistening in Mavis’s eyes, as she so obviously remembers her father, demonstrate how deeply she inhabits these songs. It takes a comforting smile from Rick to help regain her composure.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen four Mavis gigs in recent years and they’ve all been unique. This set was different from the visit to London for her birthday last year and had even been altered from Glastonbury three days earlier when “Wade In The Water” and “You’re Not Alone” provided two highlights. That those two tracks make way here shows the depth of the well. Staples’ classics “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” and a mirror-ball shining “I’ll Take You There” top and tailed the set; “Freedom Highway” was incendiary; “Can You Get To That”, “We’re Gonna Make It” and “Slippery People” hit the funk; and, forever marching on, never turning back, there were two tracks from her new Your Good Fortune EP, “Fight” which adds the snap of hip-hop to gospel, and “Wish I Had Answered” a number written by Pops for the church and refreshed here from  the Staples’ 1963 recording.

“You can buy that EP from over there for five dollars,” says Mavis proudly before correcting herself with that rasping laugh of hers, “I mean five pounds. How much is that? About twenty five dollars?” She’s giggling away. “One potato, two potato…” What price joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations?

Your Good Fortune EP by Mavis Staples is out now on Anti-Records. 

Friday, 3 July 2015


New Record Of The Week: This is the latest single from the Wirral band Hooton Tennis Club. Released by Heavenly on Monday it sounds like a load of good stuff we've heard before but are more than happy to hear again. I've played it again and again and again this morning...