80s

“Song for you” Popcorn (Prime Choice, Shannell Records, 1983)  

Taken from an almost unlistenable EP, apologies to its makers, especially those commenting below the YouTube videos (the man who played keys, in particular), this song is a little marvel. Perhaps that’s unfair, there might be some interest in the Prime Choice release, some humour perhaps – the song “Handy Man” starting with a phone ringing sfx – but most of it sounds like variations on “Ma Cherie Amour,” without anything remotely Stevie about it, not really.

Here  is the EP in any case:

“Song for you,” though, is pretty much perfect in every way. I love the shy-soul-funk-type vocals, and the sentiment, the way the singer seems to be reaching out to express the feeling, it’s very nice – the way the bassline does its descending thing around 3’30” and its odd atmosphere, something that is atypical for releases of its type. Not unheard of, but less common (ergo: rare).

It turns out that the singer/producer of this Florida funk track is known for his Christian-theme recordings; see his Discogs listing: “James Ward is a composer, performer, and recording artist whose innovative Christian contemporary music has been a widespread influence throughout the Christian church and entertainment community since the early 70's..” The artist k.a. James, Jim and Calvin “Popcorn” Ward.   

“Natty Don’t Go” Cornel/l Campbell, prod. Coxsone Dodd (Studio One 7”, 1975) & more

Without wanting to fall into a journalistic tic of once again selling this track as so distinctive, so different etc (a tic I can’t kick even if I felt so inclined) this song stands out among other reggae songs, as it does within Campbell’s oeuvre for the expressive quality of his voice.

Campbell is well-known for the sweetness of his singing, with some suggesting he is the greatest among his contemporaries, many of whom similarly sang in a soft style. On this track there is something so exposed, so plaintive it’s closer to the delivery of a Soul singer it seems to me. This impression comes from the song’s dramatic opening and then reinforced by the way he sings certain words, adding a syllable almost (“dread” and “yeah”), thereby making the words sound fragile. It’s almost as if you can hear his breath within them. Note too the way his voice is at the very start, of everything. The song begins with his voice, as I wrote about the other C.S. “Coxsone” Dodd production for Carlton and the Shoes, starting a song with the singer enmeshed in the music is atypical in terms of most songs that came out of Jamaica at that time. Most often the band would begin for the singer to come in later.

The music by the Brentford Rockers provides the perfect foundations: the highly sibilant drums, the bass line deep in the mix, before the guitars come in changing the mood, allowing for an upbeat feel. Even Campbell’s vocals become jaunty one minute in, moving away from the previously introspective nature of it.

Natty Dread, don’t go into Babylon, oh no, no, no
It will be dread, dread, dread, dread
Remember our days, of slavery,
Our people sold out, to Babylon
How they tried to trick us out of our land,
But Natty Dreads, don’t go, back to Babylon
Natty don’t go
Remember the pain and the suffering,
Jah Jah children bear in Babylon
How they try, to take Jah power plans
So Natty Dreads don’t go, back to Babylon
Natty don’t go
It will be dread
It shall be dread..
Natty Dread, Natty Dread, Natty Dread, Natty don’t go
I beg you Natty Dread, Natty Dread, Natty Dread, Natty don’t go
And dreads so was sold out for thirteen pieces of silver
Martin Luther King also, he was a blessed man, yeh
Remember poor Marcus, poor Marcus Garvey, when was a home predictor
Brother Paul Bogle, he fight so hard to save his life, yeh-yeh
So I beg you Dread, Natty Dreads, Natty Dreads, Natty don’t go
So I beg you Dread, Natty Dreads, Natty Dreads, Natty don’t go
Remember our days, of slavery,
Our people sold out, to Babylon
How they tried to trick us out of our land,
But Natty Dreads, don’t go, back to Babylon
Natty don’t go
It will be dread
It shall be dread..
Natty Dread, Natty Dread, Natty Dread, Natty don’t go
I beg you Dread, Natty Dread, Natty Dread, Natty Dread, Natty don’t go
And dreads so was sold out for thirteen pieces of silver, yeh-yeh
So I beg you Dread, Natty Dreads, Natty Dreads, Natty don’t go
Natty Dread, Natty Dread, Natty Dread, Natty don’t go

Here’s the extremely simple, even basic dub version that came out under the name “Natty Rub A Dub” on the b-side (as Campbell and the Brentford Rockers, elsewhere they recorded under the name Brentford All Stars) - and another version, which is just-about music only. Check out this other version, which sounds like an entirely different recording, much sharper and with a bouncy, almost Flamenco-style guitar.

Compare the song with this similarly stunning Campbell-penned song featuring Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare from 1985. No better pick-you-up, burst of optimism and faith than this music and then the final section is one more example of how superb the musicianship of artists from that era was, generally.

Here on this song the mood is completely different from the poetic excursions in the track from one decade earlier. From Jo-Ann Greene’s (typically) good AllMusic review:

“Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare provide the steaming rhythm, Roy Cousins the excellent production, and Cornell Campbell the superb vocals for this rousing and inspirational number from 1985.

Ragga was about to engulf the reggae world, but "Jah Jah Give Us Love" was one final, brilliant reminder of the cultural age it was about to bury. Like a shooting star, the riddim rockets across the grooves, its core Dunbar's solid beats and Shakespeare's fast padding bass line. Trailing in their incendiary wake is the sharp rhythm guitar, glorious keyboards, ebullient organ, and the haunting lead guitar flourishes so beloved in the roots age.

Campbell is almost physically propelled along this magnificent riddim, giving way to its propulsive power, and giving himself over to Jah. Part prayer, part affirmation, the singer reaches an epiphany, delivering up one of his best performances to date along the way. "Love" couldn't hold back the tidal way of DJs and synthesized sounds breaking over the island, but with this song pure roots rockers blinked out in a blaze of glory.”

Coda:

Mal Waldron ‘Left Alone’ (Mal Live 4 to 1, Philips/Japan, 1971; Left Alone ‘86, Paddle Wheel, 1986; w/ Archie Shepp, Left Alone Revisited, Enja Records, 2002) & Abbey Lincoln

Personnel: piano, Mal Waldron, alto saxophone, Kohsuke Mine, bass, Isao Suzuki and drums Yoshiyuki Nakamura

While at Prestige Mal Waldron estimated he wrote up to 400 compositions, the most famous being ‘Left Alone’ written for Billie Holiday and the John Coltrane destined ‘Soul Eyes’. First recorded by Coltrane for his Interplay for 2 Trumpets and 2 Tenors (1957), the musician loved the piece that would become of the genre's classic songs so much he recorded it three times with different ensembles.

‘Left alone’ became known as Waldron’s ‘signature tune’, even though the lyrics were written by Billie Holiday. Holiday never released her version; it was one of the seven songs she wrote but never recorded, as she said she was meant to but would 'always forget the damned sheet music.' This absence is deeply poignant and powerful. The fact that there is no record of her singing something so indelibly hers, transforms her absence into a presence in an almost ghost-like way. With this in mind; it is striking how often Waldron recorded versions of songs from Holiday's repertoire throughout his his career. It's as if he were continually seeking out some connection with her.

As heard in the interview extract with Waldron included at the bottom of this piece their bond was a tender one, he likened their relationship to one of brother and sister. It is affecting to hear him speak of Billie Holiday in this way, especially when he remembers her as relaxed and warm (she was the godmother of his child). Perhaps especially because Holiday is so often represented and remembered in a fashion that emphasises the brutal nature of the circumstances of her death and difficult life and by so doing erases her complexity as a woman and artist. Waldron speaks of how Holiday taught him to value words, in themselves, and how this shaped his phrasing as a musician.

Here’s Waldron’s recollection of how the song was written/composed, taken from the 2001 Ted Panken interview:

'In the previous set, we heard Mal Waldron with two great divas of the generation that grew up listening to Billie Holiday.  Mal Waldron played for several years with Billie Holiday.  I wonder if you can talk about how that happened and address the experience.

It was really an accident.  Because her pianist… She was working in Philadelphia, and her pianist just conked out, he couldn’t function any more.  So she needed the pianist.  So she asked Bill Duffy, who had written the book with her, to find a pianist, and Bill asked his wife, Millie Duffy, if she knew any musicians, and Millie asked Julian Euell, who was one of her friends, and Julian Euell asked me, and I said “The buck stops here.”  I got on a train and went there.  So it was an accident, but it was a beautiful accident for me.

Were you always a fan of her music?

Oh yes, I was a fan of her music, but I had never played it.  But I got a crash course!

And “Left Alone” was written for her?

Yes.  She wrote the words and I wrote the melody.  We were on a plane going from New York to San Francisco.  It took more time than it does now because they were propeller planes.  She just wanted to write tune about her life, so she wrote those lyrics, and I wrote the melody.  By the time we got off the plane, it was finished.

What was she like with the band?

She was very relaxed.  In fact, she didn’t make rehearsals.  She didn’t like to make rehearsals.  She just came on and did it.  So I had to rehearse the band!' 

Here is the Abbey Lincoln version of 'Left Alone' from 1961, recorded with Coleman Hawkins, Eric Dolphy, Booker Little, Mal Waldron and Max Roach for her album Straight Ahead. It’s an extraordinary performance by Lincoln, her bold style perfectly suits the lyricism's direct nature. The fact that she sings it so straight makes it all seem even more tragic. She sings the lines as if recounting something factual, a weather report or something of that kind.

Lincoln's interpretation appeals to me because it feels honest, real. Something I really dislike in singers is the way they over-dramatise tragic material, or do something stagey (slow it down, stretch words or whisper parts of it, pause for drama etc). Such mannerisms only emphasise their lack of knowledge. When I first heard the Abbey Lincoln interpretation of this song I thought it was a bit strange, the forthright tone of it all and the distance (I was imagining how Billie Holiday might have sung it, how she might have used her trademark brittle elongation of words and sounds).

Then I came to really love it for those same reasons. As anyone who has heard someone speak like this of life, or love – or heard themselves perhaps speak like this – this is how such words are said, without self-pity or self-doubt. They are said as a statement of fact external to the speaker. Such words are a lament of the resigned, the broken. Then if you listen closely there are gradations in Lincoln’s performance, especially in this part, which is repeated:

Maybe fate has let him pass me by
Or perhaps we'll meet before I die
Hearts will open, but until then

I'm left alone, all alone

Something about the way she sings ‘perhaps’ as if there might be space for doubt is extremely touching. Waldron said that Billie Holiday wanted to write something of 'the story of her life.’ The fact that this song remains as her last testament is deeply sad.

Musically it’s a beautiful performance by the group: the Coleman Hawkins solo is moving, Waldron’s presence is so muted it can hardly be heard and I particularly like the way the music comes together, offering some kind of grounding or foundation for Lincoln to sing her truth, as she sees it. The music in terms of its performance feels deeply empathetic to me.

The live performance in Japan with Waldron with Kohsuke Mine (alto saxophone) Isao Suzuki (bass) and Yoshiyuki Nakamura (drums) is also very beautiful, a technically flawless performance, where Mal Waldron’s piano solo begins ever so gently, at points a a repetition of single notes. It is not so different from the first Waldron recording of the song from 1959 with Jackie McLean. The album description has it that Waldron is at the piano playing ‘the moods of Billie Holiday.’ Both performances have the same clarity, lacking perhaps the expression of something deeply felt, defined by a certain control.

Later performances, for example this one from 1986, when Waldron reunites with Jackie McLean and then in the one from the final year of his life, recorded with Archie Shepp are more emotional in the way they show a more expressive side of the pianist (the second one especially).

My favourite, along with the 1971 performance in Japan is this version Waldron recorded in February 2002, the year of his death (he passed away at the age of 77 the following December in Brussels). I understand that Archie Shepp’s sense of drama as a performer might not be to everyone’s taste, especially when compared with the other more formal renditions, but I always appreciate it. You sense something of his spirit when he plays. This quality I think encouraged Waldron to become more expressive as well, more lyrical, more present in his final performance of the song that defined his career.

Here is the interview where Mal Waldron speaks of what he learnt from Billie Holiday, the context of this, his most famous song which ended up becoming a dedication to the late artist throughout Waldron's professional life.

‘A Taste of honey’ Doctor Pablo & Dub Syndicate (North of the River Thames, ON-U, 1984) plus P. Desmond, S. Vaughan, C. Baker and others

Originally my intention was to write something extremely simple and short about this silvery-delicate cover by an English melodica player who took on the name Doctor Pablo when fronting the great Dub Syndicate on this 1984 ON-U release.

A release that is considered to be a kind of oddity in the Dub Syndicate catalogue, as Rick Anderson writes in his AllMusic review 

"This is one of the more curious entries in the always interesting On-U Sound catalog. Doctor Pablo is Pete Stroud, a British melodica player who fell in love with the "Far East" sound of pioneering melodica virtuoso Augustus Pablo and hooked up with label head Adrian Sherwood and his house band, the Dub Syndicate, to record an album of languid reggae instrumentals in a style closely based on that of his namesake. (Even the album title is a tribute: It's a parody on the title of Augustus Pablo's classic album East of the River Nile.)

What gives this album an added whimsical twist is the fact that two of the tracks are covers of popular British tunes -- there's an arrangement of the popular TV theme song "Man of Mystery" and a setting of the "Dr. Who?" theme. Others are more simply standard-issue instrumental reggae with featured melodica. The Dub Syndicate plays things a bit more restrained than usual, but its mighty rhythm section is as powerful as always, especially on the album's stand out track, a long and eerie Stroud composition entitled "Red Sea" (which would later be appropriated by Singers & Players as the rhythm for their equally powerful song "Moses"). Fans of the On-U label's signature sound should consider this a strongly recommended purchase, but newcomers may do better starting out with one of the Dub Syndicate albums or one of the compilations in the Pay It All Back series."

This piece of writing on 'A Taste of Honey' dub-version was going to be a quick continuation of my earlier ‘theme’ (see here) about explosions in 80s music; notice the classic, essential dub-explosion just before 1’40” (x2). Then to complicate things, all or some of my other favourites intruded in on it, forcing themselves to be included or at least heard. Sorry too for the sudden ending of the upload: pretty unfortunate.

Another writer with a different kind of mind might usefully tackle the question as to why pop music now is so concerned with originality - despite it being an era of sample-based recycling and reinvention and while there is a kind of relative stasis or lack of confidence about the act of creating music in itself. Never before has popular music been so self-aware and “complicated” in the French sense. Still, it would be unthinkable for a stream of artists to cover one song as was the case with “A Taste of Honey” through the 60s and into the 70s.

Dub artists always covered pop/soul songs, either in their entirety or splicing them up. And yet, returning to “A Taste of Honey” decades after its moment is kind of strange, but touching too. A vast contingent of popular singers covered the song in a relatively short period of time in the 60s: Barbra Streisand, Andy Williams, Julie London, Bobby Darin, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass among many many others.   

Three highlights though, Paul Desmond in 1965 and Sarah Vaughan

who does all kinds of unexpected things with her phrasing – unexpected that is for a typical singer, not for her such experimentation is an essential part of her gift.

And Chet Baker on his 1965 album Baby Breeze. Some criticise the version for the so-called “honky tonk piano” in the background that’s considered to be too loud and out of place, but I think it makes it, roughing up Baker’s early dulcet singing style. Another point of interest: how Baker slows the song right down, making it simpler and foundational like a folk song. It's really wonderful, I think.

To read more on Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughan, jazz and dub, follow the tags. 

‘Why are we in love’ Furniture (When the boom was on, Premonition Records, 1983) & ‘Shadows from nowhere’ Blue Gas, 12” (1983) Theme*

This song captures perfectly a style that at one point typified white/male/English alternative rock musicians (and counterparts in the former colonies) - the finest example is arguably here (his skin’s pallor the same colour as the swinging light) that is, the quality of being earnest.

‘The 80s’ today is shorthand for a certain look/clothes style and dominates in a lot of pop-ironic music. Nothing wrong with this, even if such irony appears to go against this quality of being hyper sincere and unaware of your effect as mentioned above; the song encapsulates this style to me (even if it was a big part of the 80s sound, across genres). Being self-aware, as any disco-diva-lover knows, is a wonderful thing in-and-of-itself, but it’s a real stretch to aesthetically and conceptually play the innocent with an 80s-inflected musical naivete, while your image is transmitted via social media, or when talking endlessly, endlessly … endlessly.

Nostalgia for a period before you were alive, or just born interests me and is something I relate to, focussing in as I tend to on the 50s/the 70s, but it is an affectation on some level, a performance (even if only internal). I should add that I’m not comparing one era with another to the detriment of the present one etc. I find that kind of backward-looking stance supremely boring and have nothing invested in this, I wasn’t buying albums in this period, or seeing shows. And yes, here is one contemporary act that manages to do both: pilfer the style, while sounding unmasked, heartfelt while doing so.

To return to the aptly strange-named English group ‘Furniture’ - and that instance where he sings out, with an apparent loss of self-control, how they ‘sleepwalk back to each other’s arms’ just before the outburst that is just as quickly resolved. Musically this piece is special for the way the bass is so dense it almost overwhelms all the other elements, the swirling sound of the an instrument that sounds like a clarinet and the pock-marked percussion. And yet this effect seems to depend on how you hear the music; it lessened when I listened to the song with headphones, not via speakers. Here is some information about the group, some of whom went on to form Transglobal Underground. This song is pretty beautiful as well, ‘I miss you’ for the same sorts of reasons … 

Listen out for the minor explosion effect throughout this song by Blue Gas (a ‘one-off Italian electronic studio-project from Celso Valli’), a 12-inch from the same year, even if the effect sounds pretty standard here, I mean most pop commercial songs included these little blasts for emphasis.

Theme: *sudden explosions in music, 1983

‘Everybody’s got to learn sometime,’ cover Jean-Philippe Verdin/Readymade FC (Lol film soundtrack, EMI/Capitol, 2009)

Reasons to appreciate this cover: the voice, I’m touched by the way he sings these familiar words, this such a familiar song, the French-accented inflections on the word ‘heart’ with that emphasised final consonant (and off phrasing at times, the stretched vowel on ‘it’ as in ‘it will astound you …’ which makes it seem more genuine) and then how the music changes just over half-way to include surprising sound effects, a kind of controlled improvisation that sounds almost animal-like.

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is how so often the arrangements in soul music from the 60s/70s are eccentric, including sounds and/or riffs on sounds that serve no apparent purpose, other than to provide decoration and embellishment, as a kind of caprice. Such additions add to the overall effect, but are not essential. They either add to the sweeping orchestral impressiveness, or are touching and unexpected: amateur in the best possible way, in the true sense of the word. There is great joy to be found in this, in the revelling in freedom and abundance, via the addition of beautiful, unexpected and surprising details and turns in the music. Much the same could be said for the electronic musings that emerge in the latter half of this song that are quite different to the music that preceded it.

Verdin’s cover appeared on the soundtrack to the French film, Lol. Here is a link to the French musician/composer's site, categories: Albums & Singles, Scores & Soundtracks, Productions, arrangements, Akzidenz Grotesk, Remixes & Versions. Beck also did a cover of the song for the 2004 film soundtrack for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is lovely if a little bland and lacking any particular point of difference to the original. 

The original by The Korgis came out in 1980: according to my favourite free online factopedia ‘the unique sounding instrument played after each chorus is the 18 string Chinese zither known as a guzheng’.  

Ballads for Two, Chet Baker & Wolfgang Lackerschmid (In-akustik/Inak,1986) plus live performance & interview  

1979 was an important year for Chet Baker, a period of great activity and development. Central to this were his recordings with German jazz musician/bandleader/composer Wolfgang Lackerschmid, best known for his work as a vibraphonist, but he also played other percussion instruments.

Ballads for Two, while continuing a longstanding jazz tradition of pairing two notable artists is a curious release, surprising even for Baker whose late work showed an impressive range and interest in experimentation. Such creativity also marked his earliest recordings, certainly. But the sheer virtuosity, the lyricism of Baker’s playing (and undoubtedly his pin-up good looks) has often come to obscure this side of his work.

Baker/Lackerschmid recorded two albums together in 1979: Ballads for Two and Baker/Lackerschmid with a band, guitarist Larry Coryell, bassist Buster Williams and Tony Williams on drums. Here's a review on Ballads for Two by Bob Rusch:  

'This was a record not so much of rhythm as of tonal coloring, pitch and reverberation. This was also an avant-garde Chet Baker, without gimmicks, just meeting an interest to expand and further develop: to invent, expand, create. This was also very beautiful creativity; art for art's sake. Wolfgang Lackerschmid played vibes in a manner owing itself more to Red Norvo and Gary Burton than Milt Jackson, and proved himself to be a creator and artist in his ebb and flow with the trumpeter. Bravos for both artists.'

This was a record not so much of rhythm as of tonal coloring, pitch and reverberation.

‘Dessert’ is a marvel in its expression of tender, difficult to express emotion and the way the music upsets our expectations

as is the cover of the standard, ‘You don’t know what love is’ with its deep vulnerability and imperfection. To get a sense of this, compare it to the classic rendition by Baker from the 1950s. Here’s a live performance that one listener claims was recorded in Norway, with this line-up: Chet Baker (tp) - Wolfgang Lackerschmid (vib) - Michel Graillier (p) - Jean-Louis Rassinfosse (b). 

And an interview from around the same time where Baker speaks in Italian about his struggles with heroin addiction and his music (with English subtitles).  

‘Real cool time’ Half Japanese/Don Fleming – single (Split, 1989) plus Laughing Clowns, The Stooges

Never thought I’d be writing this about Jad Fair, but with this cover of The Stooges classic (no, this word is not over-used in relation to the spirit of Detroit, even their messiest/sloppiest/non-conscious moments were touched by greatness and this was maintained despite the lack of recognition, drug-induced conditions) he is switching it on, expressing some definite lustiness. 

I like this cover for many reasons: it reminds me of Laughing Clowns 

a sound/atmosphere that is inbuilt somehow, etched into my being, DNA-mapped even though I wasn’t going to see the Laughing Clowns shows, obviously. I think it’s something about the keeping it loose spirit and the warm, percussive sound – jazzy in the nicest, the most sinister-acting way. 

Yeah we danced around the golden calf
And we had a very sharp knife
And we never did anything by halves
We had a strong philosophy of life
And everything that flies is not a bird

Yeah we give it such a friendly reception
Disarm it and disembowel it with a feather
Hope for the best nothing’s too good
For the lords of the plague
When everything that flies is not a bird

You’re a part of my world here
You’re the air that I breathe in
You’re a part of my world here
The water I urinate in

And the wind and sea get up on their hind legs and walk across the land

I have to cut off the electricity to turn off the light
We had a strong philosophy on light
And everything that flies is not a bird
Is not a bird

“And now, introducing the wonderful Ed Kuepper ...” 

This brings me to the key reason for liking this track the drums, how beautiful is this performance, reminding me of the best loose-wristed, keeping it fluid and so solid at the same time performances by the drumming greats of the 70s transplanted to the rock idiom. I’m not 100 % but I think the drummer here is Gilles Reider. 

It’s the combination of Jad Fair’s switch to expressing longing/desire, the pared back poetry of the lyrics, simple and true like a koan and the drums:

Can I come over tonight?
Can I come over tonight?
What do you think I wanna do?
That's right
Can I come over tonight?
I say we will have a real cool time tonight
I say we will have a real cool time tonight
I say we will have a real cool time
I say we will have a real cool time tonight
I'd say will have a real cool time tonight
I say will have a real cool time
We will have a real cool time
A real cool time tonight


To hear the original from The Stooges 1969 self-titled record: American poetry in its purest form, yes (three minutes or less).

Here’s an interview with Jad Fair from The Quietus (2013) on the reissue of Half Gentlemen/Half Beasts