‘If I Could Only Be Sure’/’Keep On Keepin’ On’ Nolan Porter (Nolan, ABC Records, 1972) plus P. Weller & Joy Division

This is such a distinctive sound, few other songs resemble it, even earlier Soul/R&B releases that are defined by their innocent musicianship a lot of the time and a kind of straight from the heart directness lack its essential grace.

Most notable is the guitar-line; this is what first attracted Paul Weller who covered the song on his 2004 album Studio 154 (and helped in the revival of Porter’s career in the UK/Europe from the ‘90s on).  Here are Nolan Porter’s comments on how Weller first fell for the song from a 2014 interview with Michael Grieg Thomas published at The ‘45s Club, focussing in on this:  

MT: Do you remember what kind of guitar it was recorded on?

Nolan Porter: I don’t remember the type of guitar, but I remember the guitar flair. You might know. That was Johnny “Guitar” Watson. That’s probably what got Paul Weller about the song more, was that guitar lick. And that’s Johnny singing with me on the background in some parts. He was really, Johnny Guitar Watson was something else, he spent the last few years of his life in England. He’s got one of his last few CDs he writes about is very cool. I remember he was one of the best R&B guitar players. I used to see him at the blues club a couple times in LA before I even met him and he was just so multi-talented. Him and Frank Zappa became really tight friends at the end, in the last few years of Frank’s life. And he recorded Johnny on a few tunes and it’s just wild. He was with Lizard Records for awhile and he liked Gabriel Mekler a lot.

If you compare Porter’s original first released as a single and then as part of his Nolan record, and Weller’s cover decades on you can see why the former is so unexpected, so lyrical. Weller takes a classic rock approach, a full-band sound with all the instruments at once, his voice too is more urgent, demanding, potentially angry, definitely frustrated. In contrast, Porter’s arrangement is subtle, allowing his voice to dominate over the guitar, drums/bass. The simplicity and cool of it makes it so powerful; it operates as a gentle entreaty. Porter’s delivery also works because of its understatement; there’s no shrieking, or plaintive wails just a few very cool ad-libs every now and again. The music, the voice and the arrangement operate as one, as a model of restraint.

Lyrically, too, it’s interesting for its plain language and repetition, and then the curious inversion intended to represent the depth of his dedication: ‘I'd turn my world upside down/I'd turn my smile all into frowns/I'd do anything at all/ If you'd only let me love you baby/Let me, let me love you baby …’

Porter is also known for the song ‘Keep On Keepin’ On’ …

The song went on to inspire Joy Division’s ‘Interzone’ from Unknown Pleasures, with the 1979 song borrowing the original Porter riff (apparently the latter song came about after the band was trying to learn the Nolan song).    

To give the final words to Porter, from the same 2014 interview quoted above:

MT: So we have some questions from the fanpage: What keeps on keepin’ you on?

Nolan Porter: It’s primarily the love of music, I would say that. Also, I don’t think in terms of age so much, when you have some something that you love and that you desire that you should try to develop a passion for, you’ll keep working, you’ll keep going if you have a passion. If you don’t have a passion for it, you’re not going to keep moving on. I love these old songs. They’re kinda like my children. They were never dead to me in my heart, in my creative heart. But I didn’t know that halfway across the world that they were alive, that people were digging on them. I know it sounds a little strange but I have a personal feeling for each one of those songs. So that; and the love of old music, the love of interaction with people, like yourself, the opportunity to do music with different people, that all keeps me going.