02 December 2014

Bumper Christmas Retro Music Edition

1. Song Mining

Dylan by Elliott LandyI recently interviewed Greil Marcus about his book The History of Rock’n’Roll in Ten Songs (a link to the interview will follow). With the imminent release of The Complete Basement Tapes – six CDs, well over 100 songs that Dylan wrote while woodshedding with the Band in 1967 – I had to ask about them. I wondered whether – now that the sessions were finally seeing daylight – this would change the public’s fascination with them. Marcus’s response shows that his fascination with the Basement Tapes hasn’t dimmed since he wrote a whole book on the sessions, Invisible Republic, in 1997:

You know there’s a lot of material – there’s 30 something songs – that have never been heard before, that haven’t been bootlegged or leaked out, song by song, on Dylan’s own Bootleg Series. Certainly there’s stuff I never heard before. And what’s fascinating about it, in the context of the whole set – which I think is going to start this conversation all over again – is you know how down-to-earth and ordinary and ah, work-like a lot of the stuff is.

The [phrase] that leapt to mind when I was listening to the stuff that I hadn’t heard before was “song mining”. These people are digging into what look like songs but they aren’t really. And you just keep digging to see if you find something in there that will explain itself, that will say, ‘No! No! Go in this direction, not that direction’ Really digging in the ground, and finding a root, and grabbing onto that root and thinking, ‘Well this root must lead somewhere, and maybe you find where it leads and maybe you don’t. These are people mining for songs.

And I think that when people listen to all of this material – and its 140 tracks – they’re going to be fascinated by the way that fragments and cover versions of songs that weren’t that interesting to begin with, and experiments that really don’t go anywhere, surround these songs that seem like gifts from the Gods. It’s going to make the whole question of creation, of creativity and writing, and playing and improvising, even more mysterious than it already is.

In some ways the mystique of the Basement Tapes I think is going to be washed away – replaced by the spectre of a bunch of people getting together every day to fool around – in a clubhouse, in a kind of boy’s club.

On the other hand you can say, Well okay, but where did this stuff come from. My God: ‘Tears of Rage’, ‘I Shall Be Released’, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ … did some visitation come down and strike these people with lightning, and then go away and leave them to play with ordinary hands – as they weren’t doing for a few weeks?

I don’t know. But I love the way there is stuff here that is mediocre, that is second rate, and stuff that seems like junk – it sounds bad and it’s very hard to hear – and has flashes in it that are as strong and as disturbing as anything in the formal masterpieces that these sessions produced.

So I think you can tell by the way I’m answering that I don’t know. That I don’t know how to answer your question. That it’s as if you have to learn how to start listening to the stuff as if you’ve never heard it before. And see what story it tells.

2. His Back Pages

At last, a one-stop shop of Greil Marcus’s archives: articles, interviews and reviews, regularly updated. It was a very smart idea to compile a series of links to all the songs in his “Treasure Island” of essential discs Marcus added to Stranded, the 1979 anthology he edited in which music writers wrote about their “desert island disc”. (The essays by Lester Bangs on Astral Weeks, and M Marks on It’s Too Late to Stop Now are unsurpassed. Bangs’s masterpiece aside, one of the best reviews of Astral Weeks I ever heard was from an older woman who just said, “You breathe in, you breathe out, you breathe in, you breathe out.”)

3. Writer’s block

Of the six artists featured in Marcus’s 1975 classic Mystery Train (Harmonica Frank, Robert Johnson, the Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley) only Newman’s career seems to have continue, rather than ended with pathos. Still, the exposure didn’t come without a cost to his productivity. In 1983 – I think in San Francisco’s BAM magazine – Newman said:

When I’m writing songs, the minutes are like hours – I sit there with nothing, just a big picture of Greil Marcus in my mind hanging over the piano as I think, ‘Ah, I don’t think this guy is gonna like this one, because I’m doing the same stuff he criticised me for before.

Marcus’s response? “You know, anybody who reads something I’ve written and comes back and tells me something about it that I didn’t know – that’s a valuable a reader as I can ever hope to have. And that’s happened with musicians and people who aren’t musicians. I really can't talk about other people’s reactions to my work, at least not positive reactions, it just comes off as self-congratulation. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to write, to find people to publish me, and to find people who read me. So that’s all I can say.”

4. Country gentlemen mystique

Speaking of the Band, I stumbled upon these 1969 reviews from the Village Voice of the Band live at the Fillmore, and of their second album. The writer, Johanna Schier, has a charming straightforward style, with a wry wit, a talent for an apt metaphor – and musical insights. (Though she describes Robbie Robertson on stage as “sweetly bashful”, she also hears Smokey Robinson in the chorus of ‘I Shall Be Released’). Schier soon befriended Janis Joplin, and with her future husband John Hall wrote ‘Holy Moon’, the b-side of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’. The pair then founded the group Orleans.

5. Ballad of a Teenage Queen

JLL1We have heard a lot from Jerry Lee Lewis over the years, especially about rock’n’roll and the Devil, but little from his child bride, Myra. At last, she breaks her silence. “They were looking for a place to stick the knife into rock & roll. And Jerry gave it to them—well, I did, I opened my mouth.”

6. Click track

From David Hepworth, a link to a batch of classic Motown hits with the vocals removed. I know, that seems criminal, but it is so illuminating to be able to concentrate on the Funk Brothers.

7. Down the avenue again

Van Morrison’s paranoia about YouTube seems to have dissipated. Three extraordinary, lengthy clips have recently been added to the site, without legal intervention thus far. The legendary It’s Too Late to Stop Now 1973 shows at London’s Rainbow were broadcast by TVNZ later in the 1970s on The Grunt Machine and talked about for years; a high-def version has been up for a while. Now, two other full-length concerts from the same period are online. At Winterland in February 1974, in B&W, the band is his usual combo from “Street Choir” period – also featured at the Rainbow, but lacking the string quartet. With a completely different – and integrated – band, but several of the same songs, he can be seen in full colour at the Orphanage, San Francisco in July 1974 (note the presence of Tom Donahue, the deep-throated influence on all FM rock jocks). Both feature Morrison’s ‘Caravan’ can-can schtick. Perhaps best of all is this 10-minute clip from the Fillmore East in September 1970, introduced by Bill Graham: maybe the earliest filmed version of his ‘Cyprus Avenue’ tease. As a taster to the Winterland gig, here he is covering Dylan’s ‘Just Like a Woman’.

8. Funky, funny and fun

More back pages: here is how the Victoria University of Wellington’s student newspaper Salient reviewed Abbey Road in 1969. Mike Bergin described the medley of songs on side two as “a mess”, whereas that was the only passage Nik Cohn liked in his New York Times review. But Bergin showed a lot of promise in this and other reviews; sadly, he died not long afterwards in a car accident.

9. Back to the Island

In July, Glenn Jowitt – one of New Zealand’s greatest photographers – died suddenly. He was mourned in Auckland by about 400 of his closest friends in a moving, multi-cultural ceremony. The NZ Herald asked me to write an obituary.

10. Take the Coltrane

A crucial influence on Glenn was the expatriate New York photographer Larence Shustak, who taught him at Ilam School of Fine Arts in Christchurch in the mid-1970s. Glenn was a dedicated music fan and an enthusiastic guitarist (in the 70s he even looked like his hero, Gram Parsons). A connection he had with Shustak that I never knew until researching for the obituary: in the 1950s Shustak took many compelling shots of New York jazz musicians.

11. A little bit frightening

Musical racism 101: ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, or how to express the whole of Asia in just nine notes. No, not the lyrics – which are bad enough – the influence of the arrangement has been even more pervasive, reports NPR.

11 November 2014

Close Encounters

Originally published in the NZ Listener in November 2010.

ROCK MUSICIANS AND photographers are natural-born partners: show-offs need an audience, and a Nikon lens loves a show-off. For some photographers, like Auckland’s Bruce Jarvis, the scent of the hunt has been a life-long quest. Shooting first as fans, many become professionals, and Jarvis’s tenacity at capturing live shows secured him access that today’s photographers can only envy.

Jarvis’s work is the backbone of a large-format book Live: Gigs that Rocked New Zealand, that portrays the flamboyant visitors in our midst. From the first international rock’n’roll tour – Johnny Cash and Gene Vincent, in 1959 – to Lady Gaga’s aerobic fashion-show earlier this year, the performers are freeze-framed at the peak of their careers. Some of the images – such as ZappaJarvis_thumb1Jarvis’s portraits of a satanic Frank Zappa, an exultant Bob Marley – belong in the rock photo hall of fame. But even more than the performers, it is the settings that resonate. In the background, a vanished New Zealand hovers like a vaguely remembered backdrop.

At the Beatles’ civic reception outside Auckland’s Town Hall in 1964 – how the councillors criticised Mayor Robbie for his generosity – one can glimpse the area now lost to Aotea Square. Out of sight are the 7000 fans who wagged school that morning. Instead, we spot the Market Hotel, one of many Edwardian corner pubs that are long since gone like the Vauxhall Velox seen cruising an almost empty street. Twenty years later, in the same area, a panoramic shot by Bryan Staff shows DD Smash’s drummer Peter Warren surveying a calm, peaceful crowd of thousands. The “Thank God It’s Friday” celebration to welcome the summer of 1984 will soon be renamed the Aotea Square riot.

The surprises often come from the unsung heroes who turn emotion into emulsion: the jobbing photographers rostered on for the day by a newspaper’s picture editor. At the Turnbull Library, saved from destruction, are gems from the files of deceased papers such as the Evening Post. These go beyond the requisite Maori welcome parties, the gimmick poses and the bland equivalents of rock stars kissing babies. Among the treasure are action shots of the Who, smashing their equipment on the Wellington’s Town Hall stage in 1968. Viv-Prince-from-natlib.govt.nz_thumbSomehow, the Pretty Things’ out-of-control drummer Viv Prince found time to sit for a formal portrait during the band’s notorious tour in 1965. He wears a woman’s leopard-skin hat, the coolest of rimless shades, chain bracelets of the style favoured by bodgies – and across his knuckles, a sticking plaster that testifies to his many scrapes while here.

As glamorous as some of the stars appear – the Temptations, stepping out in the 1970s’ finest flared suits; Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, elegant in herringbone tweed – it is the species Kiwi Rock Fan that makes these photos special. Invading the Rolling Stones’ stage in 1966 is an ecstatic fan, resplendent in homemade polka-dot mini skirt. Almost as gleeful are the navy-blue helmeted constables coming to Mick Jagger’s rescue.

Parked ostentatiously before the muslin-clad crowd waiting for Rod Stewart at Western Springs stadium in 1977 is a Ford Falcon emblazoned with Radio Hauraki’s logo. Beside it mooches a deejay in denim flares and manky long hair, while staff members or girlfriends attempt cool in satin jackets and bad posture. Their attitude: we are closer to the action than you.

StonesbyLloydGodman_thumb1The images also evoke the months of excitement that once came with the news that an overseas act was about to play “the Springs”. Long before the mammoth 1980s shows by David Bowie and ZZ Top, the Auckland speedway amphitheatre had hosted Little Richard, Elton John and Neil Diamond. For the first time we can see the Rolling Stones’ 1973 show in colour, thanks to a roll of film shot by Lloyd Godman. He didn’t need a flash – they played on a sunny afternoon – and it turns out that Jagger’s diamond-studded, low-cut, satin jumpsuit was turquoise.

Presented en masse, many of these shots have a “They walked this Earth” quality. They also answer the perennial question asked of visitors as they step off the plane: how do you find New Zealand? (It was apparently a wide-eyed Australian reporter who enquired “How many of you are there in your quartet, Mr Brubeck?”).

The Beatles look jubilant, although reports later came back that they described New Zealand as being like Britain, before the war. The Rolling Stones – specifically, Keith Richards – said of Invercargill it was “the arsehole of the World”. We remember these jibes, and almost more than the concerts we remember the interaction that these troubadours – grizzly or courteous – have with the locals.

Contrary to their surly reputation, in 1966 the Rolling Stones look cheerful, with their shirts off, enjoying the sun beside their Wellington motel swimming pool. The Guess Who play an apr├Ęs-gig jam at Tommy Adderley’s speakeasy Grandpa’s (sadly, no one was there to record the night in 1973 that Keith Richards turned up with a guitar and sundry other Rolling Stones).

Afterwards, when the litter has been cleared from the town halls and the paddocks that once hosted festivals, the anecdotes turn into urban legends. The Great Ngaruawahia Music Festival of 1973 is now remembered more for Corban Simpson’s nude performance than for headliners Black Sabbath headlining or the early appearance by Split Ends. Two years later, live on stage at the Te Rapa Racecourse, is Slade’s gormless Dave Hill; he is resplendent in an early mullet, a glitter-pasted forehead, a silver frock coat and platform boots. The promoter of this 1975 one-day festival – the cape-wearing Byron de Lacey – sounds almost mythological.

An Auckland school teacher friend says that every year – for nearly four decades – some 15-year-old aspiring guitar heroes in his class ask him the same question. “Sir, have you heard the Led Zeppelin song Stairway to Heaven?” Yes, he replies. “In fact, I heard them play it live at Western Springs in 1972 – before many of us had heard it on record.”

Really?” they gasp. “Led Zeppelin played ... here?”

*

The Viv Prince shot is from the Alexander Turnbull Library’s collection of Evening Post negatives. The reference number is EP/1965/3179.

07 April 2014

Firebird Suite

stravinsky nz1
When Stravinsky visited New Zealand in 1961, Tom Shanahan had something better than a front row seat. As a member of the NZ Symphony Orchestra, and a photographer, he wasn’t looking at Stravinsky’s back when he conducted the orchestra, but his face. Shanahan was sitting with the musicians, ready to play his trombone. Luckily he took his camera along as well, and took some much used photographs of the Russian composer at work in the Wellington Town Hall.

Music in NZ 1Shanahan was a very keen photographer, who captured many images of New Zealand’s cultural history over several decades. One photograph – of musicians taken from above – was used on the cover of the first issue of William Dart’s Music in New Zealand (left). But he also took thousands of others that weren’t about music, including a set covering the Springbok tour in 1981.

Now, many of those images and negatives have been lost due to the fire – suspected as arson – at the Kilbirnie self-storage unit on Saturday. They were about to be given to the Turnbull Library for safe-keeping and use by future historians; now they are just one of many sad stories left behind by the fire, which ripped through one floor of storage units, and damaged those on another with smoke and water.

stravinsky nz2There have been many pros and cons with the National Library and Turnbull’s shift to the digital age. The increased availability of its photograph collection at an affordable price is one of the best elements; the loss of the accessible books on the ground floor – most now need to be ordered from storage – is one of the most difficult to comprehend.

Last year the New Zealand branch of Fairfax sent millions of images to Arizona to be digitised by a private company. They will hold the originals, and digital copies will be able to be used worldwide. These images have been assembled from the newspapers that Fairfax has bought over the years, and are often the only tangible assets when the papers have later been closed down. The National Library was unable to reach Fairfax’s price. Luckily, before the desperation of media owners in the digital age, the newspaper company INL gave many of its images from the Evening Post and Dominion to the Turnbull before INL was bought by Fairfax. These photos can now be used at an affordable price, usually $20.

I worry about what’s happening to New Zealand’s other big archive of photos, that of the NZ Herald, Listener and many other publications, since they were bought by Bauer. Already these images had become difficult to access by historians, and at unaffordable prices. For example, in 2010 it cost $80 an hour to research a photo, and then $100 for the use of that photo in a book.

This has major implications for New Zealand historians: images of our culture are priced off the market. Authors pay for the images they use in a book, not publishers. So when an author is getting, say, $5 royalty on a $50 book, it will take 20 sales just to cover the cost of that single photo. What happens? The photo archives stay idle, unloved and badly treated by their proprietors.
It remains to be seen what the cost of accessing and reprinting a photo from Arizona will be.

Luckily a vast resource of historic images is being released on the net through social media. Their owners are only too happy to share the images, and some replicate those the publishing conglomerates are sitting on. (It’s understandable the companies protecting their copyrights, where legitimate, but often photos are given to them to use, but not returned; in some cases they were originally paid for by the taxpayer). But there is  nothing as safe as a public archive with its own programme of digitising to a high standard. And where the cost of usage isn’t prohibitive.

Both photos are by Tom Shanahan. The top image is from the NZ International Arts Festival website, the third image is from the NZSO’s website. It shows Stravinsky meeting members of the NZSO, among them the violinist and Holocaust survivor Clare Galambos Winter, on the right – the subject of an excellent biography by Sarah Gaitanos.
The NZSO website shares this anecdote by former principal clarinettist Alan Gold:
“When Stravinsky was here, conducting the end of part of Firebird, where the big chords are, he changed it, which was fine, we did it, and about 18 months later, we had another conductor doing the whole of Firebird, and when we got to the end of it, we played these chords short. The conductor, almost in despair, threw his baton down on his podium. “My God,” he said, “What are you doing that for? What jerk ever told you to play the thing like that?” And old Vince [Aspey – NZSO Concertmaster at the time] he just sat there and said, “Oh, it was some old Russian bugger called Igor, I think!”

31 January 2014

The envelope, please

In February 1984, Michael Jackson was primed to win big at the Grammys for Thriller, but had recently had an unfortunate accident – the first of a few, probably – during a video shoot for one of the album's many singles. His hair was set on fire, and it was uncertain that he would be able to attend. The Grammys were so unhip for so long that whenever they do get it right, it's a relief. They got it right with Lorde. Thirty years on from this story, I can understand why it took so long to shake off the feeling that it was for the old guard of the industry. anita kerrIn the Grammys for 1967 (for recordings of 1966), Sinatra won the best pop vocal, and the Anita Kerr Singers (left) best pop group vocal – the Beatles did get an award, but not for Revolver. Paul McCartney took the Best Contemporary (R&R) Vocal for 'Eleanor Rigby', which was something the old guard could understand. (Pet Sounds also missed out, though it could be said that its innovations were only innovations in rock’n’roll: great melodies aside, it was a pastiche of techniques that had been used in mainstream pop since the early 1950s.  Older Grammy voters could see that.)

For years the likes of the urbane CBS president Goddard Lieberson held court; they were still hoping that rock'n'roll would go away, and musicals would once again reign supreme, or real vocalists like Barbra Streisand. In 1966, rock’n’roll – and the Grammys – were only about 10 years old. (Were they set up as a counter-attack, and last stand of old values?) They even cut out the rock'n'roll category for 15 years after 1966. This year, I noticed the rock category was completely dominated by has-beens or "heritage acts" such as Led Zeppelin or Neil Young. Now, I don’t care that rock was being sidelined; it has no lien on quality, originality or sincerity. So three cheers for Lorde who, unlike Beyonce, didn't need to f*** in public to get attention, or over-act like the pod-person Taylor Swift, who looked like she was faking an orgasm in a bad movie.

How to Win a Grammy

MICHAEL JACKSON will be there. That’s the latest news from Hollywood. Jackson may have to borrow Frank Sinatra’s toupee, but it’s essential he appears at the 1984 Grammy Awards. There can be no show without Punch.

The music industry last year was dominated so effectively by Jackson that without him the show would be rather empty. As it is, this year’s Grammys will be similar to our own record awards last November, when Dave Dobbyn seemed to stroll away with every relevant award. Jackson is eligible for 12 Grammys, having received a record number of nominations.

The last time an act dominated the year’s music so overwhelmingly was in 1964, when the Beatles invaded America. Who won the Best New Artist Award? The Bach-scatting Swingle Singers. The Record of the Year was ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, but wait – it gets more perverse. The Best Rock and Roll Recording was not ‘She Loves You’ or ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ – but Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’.

The Beatles did win a Grammy that year,for the Best Performance by a Vocal Group. Ironically, the song which won them the award was ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, in a year when the winner for Best Motion Picture Score was Mary Poppins.

In 1966, just as rock music began to have some bite again, Rock and Roll was dropped as a Grammy category. But as the American rock writer Dave Marsh points out, “the travesties picked from 1962 to 1966, when ‘Winchester Cathedral’ was one of the victors, made it obvious that the Best Rock and Roll slot was a fraud from the start.”

There was no Rock and Roll category again until 1979, when a tuxedoed Bob Dylan collected his first Grammy for ‘You Gotta Serve Somebody’ – a gospel song. But then, the only Grammys Elvis Presley ever won were for his gospel recordings. ‘How Great Thou Art’ won twice.

Marsh is one of those who believe the Grammy Awards have an anti-rock bias. The confusing thing is that though the cynical may think that sales would be the only criterion that counted – and whatever one may think of rock as music, it does sell – rock music has invariably been snubbed.

But there is another irony. Popular music tastes and these days the mass market in America demands a heavier sound. Some critics suggest that it was Michael Jackson’s use of heavy-metal guitarist Eddie Van Halen which helped him break through the virtual ban on black music on the FM stations and the all-rock cable TV channel MTV. With the greater exposure, Jackson’s album Thriller went on to sell an estimated 20 million copies.

The Grammys are voted for by the members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (Naras). The voting system is questionable – only active members of Naras can vote, but they only have to be active in the industry at the time they join. From then on, as long as they pay their fees, they can vote. Block voting and the trading of votes is not uncommon. “Many record companies,” says Marsh, “vote in wholesale lots, without regard for quality. This problem is endemic to industry awards.”

Of course, conflicts of interest also arise. In 1975, Janis Ian led the nominations, being eligible for five awards – and the producer of her comeback album was a past president of Naras. Albums ignored that year included Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

But there is a lack of interest in the awards among the US music industry, because the Grammys don’t really mean very much. Being nominated for, or winning, an Oscar ensures that a rerun of the movie will make money, but a Grammy does not mean a retailer will push on of last year’s albums.

Sales figures are central to winning the Grammy, but equally important is the need to be recognisable to out-of-touch Naras members. As with any political election, in the end, voters may choose not on the issues, but for the name they recognise.

This is how Christopher Cross won five Grammys with his debut album in 1981. The album had already gone platinum (two million units sold) before the Grammys, but more importantly, Cross had covered the TV talk-show circuit – collecting “exposure” as any good candidate should.

Classical music gets similar treatment from the Grammys. Itzhak Perlman’s talents as a violinist are equalled by his skills as a candidate. Perlman, who has won several Grammys in the past, and has four nominations this year, is a veteran TV talk-show guest who even appears on Sesame Street. Classical critic William Anderson comments: “Naras members vote not for the things they have heard but for things they have heard of, and all too often in a field where they are less than knowledgeable.”

THIS YEAR, Michael Jackson has had more exposure and sales than anyone. But he leads a strong field: his main opponents are David Bowie, the Police, Billy Joel, Lionel Richie and the Flashdance soundtrack. At the American Music Awards, in January, Jackson collected seven awards, winning every category he entered but one. In an upset, Lionel Richie’s ‘All Night Long’  won the favourite soul single award.

Of the candidates for the Best New Artist, Culture Club is the most “recognisable” amongst Big Country, Eurythmics, Men Without Hats and Musical Youth.

But why have the Grammys? Says Dave Marsh: “The Grammys ought to bring some artistic recognition to a form and an industry all too often seen as shallow and corrupt. For much of the public, the Grammys establish popular music’s artistic reputation. Yet the Grammys continue to snub art whenever it rears its head.”

THE 1984 GRAMMY AWARDS, Friday on TWO, 6.30pm.

First published in the Listener, 10 March 1984. The Grammys get it right more often than they used to – sometimes because a broken clock is correct twice a day – though there are still anomalies such as this year’s rap award going to the Pat Boone duo of rap. It’s easy to mock: there are thousands of new releases each year, and – despite the number of categories, which was only recently cut from over 100 to about 75 – every year, some future classics will miss out. But there is a lot of fun to be had going back and forth through the years starting with these results from 1966. But one wonders really what the rock-blinkered Marsh was frothing at the mouth about: weren’t the acts he was championing supposed to be alternatives to the establishment? As David Hepworth pointed out this week, in reference to this year’s Hollywood Reporter school photo of high-profile Grammy acts, “I look at this Grammy Awards line-up picture & think of all the past greats who would have refused to do it.”

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