30 November 2008

It's my birthday too, yeah

Rutles It was a special moment when two guests I had booked for a radio programme met in the green room. One was Neil Innes, of Rutles and Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band fame, and Python first cousin. The other was Noel Crombie, who helped put Python into Split Enz, and a man not untouched by the Bonzos. Both men wear their dada-ism lightly and are wry, no-fuss gentlemen whose success never quite managed to reach the polluting level of real fame. After his interview Innes was happy to sit and chat, even about his recently deceased close friend George Harrison (especially his love of gardening).

It's been the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' "White Album" this week, and while the flurry of coverage didn't bring any new insights, just thinking about it is almost synaesthetic. It was the third record I ever owned, and when I received it for my birthday I was so musically naive that it was like learning to read and then being given the Shorter Oxford Dictionary and being told, have fun. Now that music and popular culture is inescapable it's hard to fathom, but it was 18 months before I got another record, so it was just as well it is such a rich album. It can take you in any number of directions from Chuck Berry to Noel Coward to Stockhausen to  Bert Jansch, country, reggae, white blues ... and then there's 'Happiness is a Warm Gun'.

But I've just realised that it's the 30th anniversary of the Rutles' film All You Need Is Cash. When it was first shown in 1978, it was before videos, but so perfect was it as a parody that one instantly knew the best lines forever (without becoming a Python parrot-reciting bore, promise). From the start in New Orleans, meeting an old bluesman ("He's lyin!" says Blind Lemon Peel's wife. "Last week he said he started the Everly Brothers!") to their first manager's mother explaining what her dead son saw in the band ("It was the trousers ... they were ... tight") to their demise with the Let It Rot project ("released as a film, an album and a lawsuit") and their brutish last manager Allen Decline ("a man whose right hand never knew who his left hand was doing"), it was brilliant and unforgettable.

When I met Derek Taylor a few years later - he is parodied as Eric Manchester, and played by George Harrison - he was happier to talk Rutles than Beatles. They were probably more interesting to him by that stage and, besides, he was a director of Rutland Weekend Television. But he was too discreet to mention the then-unknown dark side of the Rutles: Neil Innes was sued for plagiarism of the Beatles' songs by ATV, who then owned Northern Songs (before selling the catalogue to Michael Jackson). This had nothing to do with the Beatles, who had to sell Northern to split up the band, and were actually great friends of Innes and the other Rutles. Harrison saw Python as the Beatles' true successors and one day Innes went around to visit Harrison at his home. Ringo was there, and they greeted Innes with a chorus of 'Ouch!' - the Rutles' parody of 'Help!'. Harrison also helped get the Rutles' film made and - so I read in the December issue of The Word - Lennon was also a fan, even warning Innes that 'Get Up And Go' in the rooftop scene was 'a bit close'. No, this was between lawyers not musicians, and ATV had more cash for lawsuits, so Innes settled by signing over 50 percent of his royalties and relinquishing the right to put his name in the credits. Ironically the Rutles were hugely influential in their own right: without them, no tribute-band industry, and no songs by Oasis, which are like the Rutles devoid of wit, intelligence or much melody. Liam Gallagher thought the Rutles were a real band: is that because the concept was so clever, or he is so fick?

04 November 2008

John Rowles on Girls

(From the programme for a 1970 Kerridge-Odeon tour)

John Rowles on Girls ... or IF I ONLY HAD TIME!

When deeply engrossed in a hectic recording session or straphanging in a crowded tube on his way to an engagement, John Rowles will suddenly close his eyes, sigh and transfer his thoughts to a golden beach, pretty girls and relaxing.

At 22 John considers he is far too young to think of getting serious with a girl but he loves their company. Holiday time to him is the one big break of the year in which to completely relax physically and mentally and simply refuses to be tied down to one girl during his short time away from the rigours of show business.

"I love being surrounded by pretty girls," he says. "I love girls, all of them. But I never take a girl on holiday with me ... I might meet a nicer one when I get away. Holiday flirtations shouldn't be taken seriously. They are just a giggle to be enjoyed and then forgotten. It's so easy to lose your head when you're on a lovely beach with time on your hands!"

Despite this reluctance to become entangled, John does not see himself as a confirmed bachelor. One day he feels he will settle down - his ideal girl will have long hair, be tall and slim and above all have a lively personality.

Not surprising when not working John will settle for peace and quiet above everything else. John Rowles jogging along on a horse, fishing in a stream or just thinking back over his boyhood in New Zealand and the days of pig and deer hunting is a happy man.

When I first interviewed John Rowles, it was on the phone, and he couldn't have been less interested. But when I met him for an interview 15 years later, he was charming and a good sport. What he said in the later interview was very similar to this one from 2007 in the Howick and Pakuranga Times (and his 1970 philosophy): honest, even disingenuous to a fault. Though looking at the video for what is still his greatest musical moment, I'm a bit doubtful about the recording budgets he quotes.

I'll Take You There

02 November 2008

Piecarts and pie charts

1. What, me worry?

hopelessOur own election has been almost totally eclipsed by the US election, so once theirs is all over - late on Wednesday NZ time - there may be a scurrying to establish points of difference. But one thing is inescapable: whoever wins New Zealand's election on Saturday night is going to present a cabinet of mostly tired faces from the 1980s to 2000s. So while there are just nail-biting polls to come from the States, a last piece of excellent election writing. In "Obama & Sweet Potato Pie" Mark Danner compares small town outdoor election meetings from both camps (from the November 20 New York Review of Books). He covers a lot of political territory with complete ease, and an extended riff on potato pie that comes to a neat conclusion in an encounter with a Republican pie-maker. For light relief, the Village Voice has a slideshow parodying the era-defining Obama "Hope" posters designed by Shepard Fairey. And just in from wacky Canada, Palin is victim of a phone call from pranksters posing as Nicolas Sarkozy.

2. Bus Stop

For an impassioned, clear-sighted explanation of why others should vote the way a black, female Democratic super-delegate is expected to vote, here is Donna Brazille saying "Don't ever put me in the back of the bus!" The clip is from a New Yorker festival panel early in October, in which she stole the show while on stage with a group of campaign strategists from both parties. Warming up, she says that yes, US society has changed since she became politically aware aged eight when Martin Luther King was assassinated:

"This is a more tolerant, open, progressive society. And yet, we're having this conversation because [Obama] is biracial. He spent nine months in the womb of a white woman. He was raised...by his white grandparents...He got out of school and went to Harvard, and all of a sudden he's "uppity" and there's something wrong with him? What is wrong with us?...You can vote against him, but don't ever put me in the back of the bus. I'm not going to the back of the bus! I'm not going to be afraid! My black skin does not make me inferior! And may I add: being a female does not make me dumb!"

3. Dancing to architecture

The extraordinary breadth and usefulness of Graham Reid's Elsewhere is even more apparent - and accessible - since the site's makeover. It acts as a one-stop music and cultural magazine when so many printed on paper are no longer worth picking up, let alone your dollar, and with an RSS feed anything new on Elsewhere is home delivered. Just posted is Reid's account of a 1988 press conference in Wellington with conductor Maxim Shostakovich and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich: I can't imagine anyone else present would have put together something of such substance from the event. It includes this aside from Rostropovich about the acoustic difficulties faced since his audiences had expanded from 200 in a hall to 4000, say, in an events centre:

“It’s significant that modern architects can make a condominium with many apartments and on the 10th floor you can hear anything said on the third. But if the same architect made a concert hall you could not hear anything from some seats. That’s a miracle.”

Elsewhere on his site Reid writes of the pointlessness of press conferences. When we were together at the same events in the 1980s, 90 percent of those present only warmed their seats, five percent asked asinine questions, any good questions had their answers poached, and the Auckland Star's Oscar Kightley could be relied upon to derail pretensions by always asking "Will the Beatles get back together?" I wish I could remember Billy Joel's excellent, cheerful response.

4. Grumpy Old Men

Van pic Ringo Starr recently announced that, 38 years after the demise of the Beatles, he will no longer be giving autographs. Now he can attempt to eat in restaurants and walk through airports in peace (flash V-sign here). A month before, Van Morrison banned alcohol from his concerts because he finds it "off-putting" when fans walk around the venue to visit the bar during his shows. Both understandable, though if you're paying $300 US for a seat at the Hollywood Bowl later this week when Morrison performs and records his legendary Astral Weeks in concert for the first time, you can probably afford table service or a hip flask. The occasion means that Morrison will have control over a version of Astral Weeks, after years of battles which have only added to his bitterness about the music industry. The concert features two of the musicians who played in the original sessions, guitarist Jay Berliner and the great double-bassist, Richard Davis. Yet, even in a rare interview in the LA Times this week - his most extended ever about the album he usually doesn't wish to discuss - Morrison remains churlish while plugging the concert. (And it's odd the interview reveals he didn't know the Astral Weeks arranger Larry Fallon has been dead for some time, yet Morrison's legal team surfs the net daily to check for unauthorised use of his music on YouTube, etc.) Part of the continued attraction of Morrison, apart from the timelessness of his great albums, is the incongruity that for someone so notoriously grumpy and introspective, he has also come up with some of the sunniest moments in pop. Here he is with 'Brown Eyed Girl' - not a pop song, according to the new interview - from the legendary 1973 concert at London's Rainbow Theatre with his Caledonia Soul Orchestra. About time this became a DVD. Update: in today's Observer an excellent essay by Sean O'Hagan backgrounding Astral Weeks.

Meanwhile, here's Ringo making toast: