The Infinite Jukebox: Wayne Fontana’s ‘Pamela, Pamela’

Graham Gouldman wrote it, Wayne Fontana sang it, despite absolutely hating it, and it took him into the Top Twenty in 1968, his last charting record. There’s nothing outstanding about ‘Pamela, Pamela’, not like others of Gouldman’s career as a professional songwriter, such as ‘Bus Stop’ or ‘Look through any window’ for The Hollies, or of Fontana’s career as lead singer of Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders.
Yet ‘Pamela, Pamela’ arouses in me a light, nostalgic affection for an innocent song, almost an archetypal Sixties love song, in which love and attraction is buried under young innocence that neither Fontana nor Pamela can yet see through to the affection they have for each other. It’s a schoolboy/schoolgirl love song, set to a bright melody and a buoyant, airy backing in which it’s always summer.
They don’t make songs like this any more, because they can’t.
But beneath the happy music, and behind the lyrics that are a rush of nostalgia for childhood symbols is something deeper. Listen longer and what Fontana is doing is looking backwards, into memory, and the song becomes touched by an undercurrent of regret, for things that never, in the end, happened, because Pamela grew out of her innocence.
The song begins full of the rush of memory, about schooldays and before, inkwells and school plays, Little Brer Rabbit and Pooh in the woods. Fontana celebrates these with happiness, telling her that he remembers them so well.
Then he moves on towards an adolescence of things that look like dates but which may only have been the natural events of young friendship, recalling with a painful precision when Laurel and Hardy were shown at the flicks, and sticky red lollies on splintery sticks, pigtails and ribbons and crushes on Miss. It even comes to that dangerous moment of puberty, when the young pair held secret discussions about a (their) first kiss…
But that’s the moment when this idyll burst. Girls grow up faster than boys, and that was true of Pamela and Wayne. You were so young and everything was new, he laments now from his distant time, impatient to do things you couldn’t do, answers to questions you wanted to know…
What did Pamela do, breaking out from that innocence that still held young Wayne. We don’t know, we are left to assume this into being, most of us having thoughts that lead in the same direction. Whatever it was, it led to a bad future, the rest of her childhood forgotten as a dream, the harshness of life dimming those peaches and cream.
Wayne recalls it with an unspoken pain that the things that seemed to be meant to be were derailed. Does he know where she is now, what her life is now? Is there still a chance, in the traditions of the finest romances, that he could descend from his deus ex machina cloud and rescue her?
As I’ve said before, the songwriters of the Sixties had the gift of presenting a complex and subtle romantic story in a few simple words that only hint as to what lies beneath these sweet surfaces, these sometimes bland-seeming lines. The only answer Fontana and Gouldman give is to revert to that nostalgia, the Laurel and Hardy flicks, the splintery sticks of the sticky lollies, the pigtails, the crushes, those secret discussions. But this time it melts into those last regretful words about Pamela growing away from him, impatient.
So, no, there are to be no eleventh hour rescues, and the lightness of the song acquires an unexpected weight of ruefulness, of the effects of time and biology on young relationships developing at different rates. You could also say that it’s a male-biased song, suggesting that Pamela had her life ruined by doing things Wayne would have been encouraged to do and you’d be right about that, but in the haze of memory that’s not the first thing I think of.
A nothing of a song, an ordinary thing. On the surface. Always be prepared to listen deeper.

Paddy Moloney: a Musician passes

I never understood Irish folk music, not to the extent of someone who was Irish by birth or culture does. I only knew what I liked. The first time I heard of The Chieftains was in relation to their providing the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lindon, a film I have never seen. Nevertheless, I am certain that it was this film, in one way or another that led me to discover The Chieftains in the form of the lament, released as a single, ‘Women of Ireland’, or ‘Mná na h-Éireann’.
Whatever my ability to understand this music innately, I found this amazingly beautiful. I always have. It led me to see The Chieftains live, when I lived in Nottingham, and again as the first formal date I had with a woman born in England but of Irish parents.
Though there were many vital members, the heart of The Chieftains was always Paddy Moloney, musician, leader, arranger and a cultural giant, a genius, a legend, and irreplaceable human being.
And now, after 83 years on this earth, we have him no more. May your God go with you, Paddy, and thank you for everything and everyone you were.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Monkees’ ‘Don’t Call On Me’

I’m not the first, in fact I’m decades after the first I saw, to point out that the wonderful thing about The Monkees was that they made any decent music at all.
The Monkees were the first really famous manufactured band, though their musical success was a by-product of the reason they were assembled, as actors in a TV sitcom about a wacky, zany, hip band of crazy guys who would also, once or twice an episode, stand up and mime to instruments played for them by session musicians, and sing songs written for them by a professional producer of bubblegum music.
Originally, the network had thought of hiring an actual band, with the jugband sound of The Lovin’ Spoonful making them the favourites, but that didn’t get off the ground and the Producers raised an ad for Folk and Rock’n’Roll musicians for acting roles as one of ‘4 insane boys’. Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield came very close but was turned down because of his bad teeth, and the show settled on Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork. Nesmith and Tork were both musicians but Dolenz and Jones, who came from Manchester and had appeared in Coronation Street, were former child actors.
By the band’s fourth album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd, all the boys, not just Tork and Nesmith, were getting frustrated at having what they recorded dictated to them, and not being allowed to play on their own records. This was the first album on which they were allowed to play, supplemented still by skilled session musicians (leading to the lovely sleeve credit: Mickey Dolenz, drums, Eddie Hoh, drums (fast)!). What’s more, they were allowed to write their own songs.
Pisces etc. was the first Monkees album I bought, a second hand copy for 49p, and the only one I owned for a very long time. It has some classic tracks on it, including the future single, ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’, a Carole King/Gerry Goffin collaboration, and Nesmith’s superb country-rocker, ‘What am I doing hangin’ round?’, possibly my favourite Monkees track of all.
But Nesmith wrote two songs of his own, one of which, sung by Dolenz, included a forward-sounding synthesizer. It is the other song, a completely overlooked example of the Monkees’ music, that all this preamble leads to, co-written with John London, and titled ‘Don’t Call on Me’.
It’s another love song, this one about rejection, but this time it’s not the singer being rejected. Oh no, not so, for it is he who is rejecting, if you put it as strongly as that. It’s a warning, in as gentle terms as he can muster. Don’t call on me.
And why is he warning this young lady away? This is one of those songs where one party wants to play around and the other one wants a real relationship, and these were common enough but this is a rare example, the only other of which I can recall offhand being Smokey Robinson’s ‘I Second That Emotion’, where it’s the man who wants the real thing.
Nesmith sings in a pure, uninflected style, using the upper end of his register to produce a sweet, calm tone that carries the gentleness of his message. Don’t call on me when you’re feeling footloose and fancy free. He knows that from before and gently berates himself as a fool for coming back for more. Yet there’s a note of regret in his voice as he points out that it’s all over now, he’s seen his way, he needs her no more, not now or any other day.
Doth he protest too much? From the words you might think so, but Nesmith’s smooth vocals, and the underlying organ track by Peter Tork, carrying the melody and rising to a quiet, measured solo, conveys a different meaning. Yes, he loved her, and like all of us who have loved there is still that quiet corner inside where she remains a warming memory, but her failure, her inability, to take what he has to offer as seriously as he does has finally led him to the point where he will cut his losses, forget his wishes and surrender to a different future.
Yet he has no animosity for her. She is what she is, and his words are as much a release as a deflection. If ‘ok, little girl’ sounds patronising in this century, it’s still kindly meant. Live for yourself in your own little world, he tells her, adding that he knows that someday she’ll meet with someone just her kind. He like her will play at love and they will suit each other perfectly. It’s just not him. Go with my blessings.
The song is simple and brief, Tork’s organ beautiful and soothing, in perfect tune with the coolness of the song overall, and Nesmith plays a crisp, light, dry rhythm guitar that, more than the perfunctory percussion, provides the tempo. It’s a song that deserves wider appreciation, but that’s probably too much to ask for now.
One reason ‘Don’t Call on Me’ might never have acquired the traction it deserves might be the song’s hokey setting, wedged between fake conversation, silliness from Dolenz and the pretence that it is a performance at some kind of cocktail gathering. This does ‘Don’t Call on Me’ no favours, clogging it up with falsehood and artificiality, but further listening reverses that impression. Instead, the song’s performance becomes an oasis of stillness, as it captivates the ears of the ‘audience’, ceasing their chatter and listening with rapt intention, though the effect is somewhat marred by the post-song reaction of half-hearted clapping,a prominent yawn and calls of ‘check, please’.
Sometimes you just want to punch someone, very hard.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Eagles’ ‘My Man’

I never liked The Eagles, and even today they are among my most hated bands. Much of that is down to the back end of their career, and songs like ‘Lyin’ Eyes’, ‘New Kid in Town’ and, most awful of all, ‘Hotel California’. It wasn’t much better when they first appeared in 1972: ‘Take It Easy’ was pleasant enough but this whole outlaw stuff the band wanted to wallow in didn’t sit easy with music that was right from the middle of the road. The term then was Hip Easy Listening, music that you could put on when you invited your Boss to dinner, music that indicated you were young and forward-thinking whilst not producing anything that might offend his ear. Not for me.
But you know my maxim by now. Never say never. It applies to genres, and it applies to bands. Listen out and invariably there’s something, maybe not one of the famous ones, something there in the background that somehow eludes their usual blandness to sound that little bit better, sometimes even special.
I have a soft spot for the comparatively energetic ‘One of these Nights’, now and forever a remembrance of a Mallorca holiday where it was on the radio several times a day, and I still retain my fondness for ‘Best of my Love’, which Johnny Walker amusedly commented sounded like David Cassidy on vocals, raising hundreds of letters of angry complaint: ‘It sounds nothing like David Cassidy: David Cassidy can sing’.
In between, this overlooked track sort of sneaked out as a single, failing to get anything like the airplay of the other two songs. To me, it deserved more than either, and these were the songs I like. It’s one of those songs that is recognised as a classic, though it remains a secret one, rarely spoken of when fans talk about their favourite Eagles songs.
‘My Man’ tells a story. It’s a song dedicated to Gram Parsons, the ex-Byrds member who, as much as anyone else, pioneered the genre we recognise as country-rock. Both with the Byrds, on the album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and in solo albums – where he introduced Emmylou Harris – Parsons wove the two musics together with verve, invention and superb musicianship. His song, ‘Hickory Wind’ is a classic. He died in 1973, aged 26, a victim of a drugs overdose, and his body was stolen by two friends who performed an informal cremation at the Joshua Tree.
Bernie Leadon, a former colleaue of Parsons in The Flying Burrito Brothers, wrote the song in tribute. The personal emotions involved are evident on both the singing and the playing. There’s an extra sense of commitment to what is a gentle, mid-tempo acoustic song, and the band’s harmonies are both full and sincere.
The song begins in conversational tones, with Leadon asking his listener to tell him the truth about how he feels, before going on to suggest that he’s rolling so fast that he’s spinning his wheels, spinning his wheels without going anywhere. Leadon is full of sympathy, telling his friend he’s not alone, everybody’s just trying to get along, and with everybody trying to go their way, his friend is bound to be tripped up somewhere. It’s a condition of life, Leadon implies, advising his pal to relax, to go with it until they turn out the lights, and not to fight something that can’t be beaten.
And the band join in on a stirring and heartfelt chorus, agreeing that this is a world of pain, and that no man has it made until he’s gone beyond that. And we who must remain go on living just the same.
There’s sorrow shot through all the words. If you didn’t know the background to the song you would realise that it was a ballad to a departed friend, sung from the heart of someone looking back on a person he misses like crazy. The band may not share the exact degree of personal feelings Leadon has for his friend, but there’s not a tremor to their harmonies, they are one in their joined regret.
After a middle eight decorated by a sweet Hawaiian guitar, Leadon returns to his tale, but now he is personal and specific. He’s tributing this man he once knew, a very talented guy, whose music touched people and made them cry. But this is not so much a story as a hagiography, but then again, in lapidary inscription no man is upon oath. Leadon paints Parsons in terms that we may regard as an understandable exaggeration, but which get to our hearts anyway.
And the band come back with that chorus again, but like Leadon’s second verse they’re addressing themselves to Parsons and not some mythical everyman who might be any and every one of us. My Man’s got it made, they sing, he’s gone far beyond the pain, and we who must remain…
The melody is simple and unadorned, but Leadon has gifted his friend’s memory with a chorus that demands to be sung, if the throat isn’t catching. ‘My Man’ is not laid back, it doesn’t have that shallow and empty peaceful easy feeling. It comes from powerful emotion, and it bears it up. The boss will probably only hear a song that doesn’t disturb him, but the young executive who’s schmoozing him has taken it to the limit by playing this.
And we who must remain go on laughing just in vain.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Beatles’ ‘The Long Medley’

Fifty years after The Beatles broke up, you’d expect that I would have heard everything they recorded. On the other hand, my CD collection only goes up to Magical Mystery Tour and even though I once had Let it Be on vinyl, the fact I let it go speaks volumes about my attitude to the music of the end of their career.
A couple of weeks ago, as I write, I heard the Long Medley from Abbey Road in full for the first time. I’ve heard parts of it before, and I used to have the last three tracks on tape, but this was the first time I had heard the Medley from start to finish. I’m not impressed.
John Lennon once described it as “junk … just bits of songs thrown together”, and it is. It’s the throwing together of fragments, half-ideas half-baked, not one of which could constitute a song if taken to an extended conclusion. None of the first five songs are anything worthwhile, they are leaden, not even jokes.
But what I didn’t understand until hearing the Medley in full, is how they establish the context for the immense change that occurs when Paul McCartney launches into ‘Golden Slumbers’. The last three songs have depth, tell a story that anatomises in the simplest of words, where the Beatles were at and where they very shortly would never be again. The last three songs are serious, in intent and in impact. The weary, stupid, barren quintet that precedes them serves to emphasise the instant increase in intensity, a Phoenix from the ashes instant.
Abbey Road was the last Beatles album: Let it Be was released later but recorded earlier. It was a deliberate attempt to record as they had once recorded, as a working band, but against the crumbling relationships between the Fab Four it failed in that task. And McCartney acknowledges that fact openly at the very beginning of ‘Golden Slumbers’.
There’s a change in sound, the looseness, the amateurishness of what has come before vanishes in an instant as McCartney’s gravitas underpins the piano introduction. And what he sings is sad but brave: once there was a way.
Once there was a way to get back homewards. The words are both wistful and resigned. Where is home? What is home? We each of us define this according to our own emotions, but the ambition of the Abbey Road recordings, to make the Beatles a band again and not four talented individuals reaching the point where they cannot work together any more, has failed. Because the other side of Once is that there isn’t a Now. There is no way to get back homewards, to when the Beatles were friends, comrades, allies, a band.
McCartney pairs this line to an old and sentimental lullaby, a song from the Twenties. It’s perfect for his sentimental streak, but it fits the overall theme, for it is a putting to bed, to peaceful sleep, just as the band will do once this final sequence is done. McCartney sings powerfully, sleep pretty darling, do not cry, for I will sing a lullaby. And those words come back: once there was a way.
As if to answer him, the music changes. The band masses its voices, McCartney inside as much as he is outside. Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight they tell him and us, carry that weight a long time. The weight they carry is of being who they’ve become. Whether as Beatles or former-Beatles, they are none of them who they were and they can never recover any of what they were, not after their experiences. McCartney responds by re-writing the words of ‘You never give me your money’ to talk of intangible things, a pillow, an invitation. But in the middle of negotiations, I break down, and the band emphasise it for him again, you’re going to carry that weight. There is no going back.
And from there we pass into the final part, the aptly titled ‘The End’. The band is back, the rock band, the band of Hamburg and the Cavern Club, playing simple, joyous rock. Oh yeah, McCartney roars in delight, all right! Are you gonna be in my dreams… tonight? There’s that little pause before the word tonight that turns the song into a question, and an expectation that no, not tonight, like many nights, this can be as plain and happy rock as it wants to be, this explosion of energy and raucousness.
And of all things we cut to a Ringo solo! His only drum solo in the history of the Beatles, one urgent drum beat in solid rhythm as he builds fills and runs around it, and then the band, playing together for the last time ever in the same studio, make the most of these final moments before the guitars fade and McCartney bangs the piano and sums up the Sixties in a short, sweet but very powerful couplet.
And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
If one line could sum up the Sixties, that would deserve to be it. Yes, it’s trite, yes, it’s sentimental, it’s even hippy-dippy, but it’s what it was all about. Being together, being one, being for each other as much as for ourselves. Being allies, not adversaries. It’s a reminder of what the Beatles were and where they came from, lost in the poignancy of where they no longer were.
I’ve been conscious of the weight, if you’ll excuse the pun, of those last three songs for a very long time. The rest of the Medley is crap, but by being crap it points up by just how much the end of it is genius, is serious, is the Beatles’ final message.
The rest is history.

The Infinite Jukebox: Van McCoy and The Soul City Slicker’s ‘The Hustle’

Sometimes we have the radio on at work, broadcast over the TV screens. When we do, it’s usually crap being played, contemporary stuff, Heart Radio mostly. There was a spell, recently, where somebody had got the radio tuned to Heart Dance, day in, day out. I gritted my teeth for long periods but eventually started pleading for the channel to be changed to something bearable.
In doing this, I was very aware that I was being my parents.
But enough is enough and after five hours non-stop of this, I didn’t think I was being unfair in asking for a couple of hours of music I might like, or at least be able to tolerate. One time, they tuned in to Gold Radio, partway through the Small Faces’ ‘Lazy Sunday’. That, I thought, will do for me.
However, that’s not why I’m writing today. One of the managers has brought a radio in and is playing it from his desk. The first song I heard got me out of my seat and walking across to complain: he wasn’t playing it loudly enough, I was straining to hear it, and that’s not what you want to be doing if ‘My Girl’ by the Temptations is in the air.
There’s been nothing as good as that since but a few moments ago, as I write, something was playing that I couldn’t recognise. But although it wasn’t that specific track, there were ooh-oohs and swoops that triggered old and warm memories, because it made me think of ‘The Hustle’, of Van McCoy and the Soul City Slickers, and the summer of 1975, the one that was hot and dry but not as consistently so as the Drought Summer of the following year that overwhelmed 1975 in our memories.
And the summer of 1975 and Van McCoy – ‘Do the Hustle!’ – led inevitably to Friday nights and Saturdays nights, every weekend throughout the summer and the next year too, me and Alan, and Glyn and, more often than not his girlfriend Ruth, queuing down the steps into Placemate Disco at 10.00pm, because it was dead before then and at 10.30pm the entrance fee doubled.
And into Placemate 1, the main floor, the mainstream room, where the records were the straightforward disco stuff of that era, and all the classics would be played and the floor would get fuller and fuller until it was heaving. Van McCoy – ‘Do the Hustle!’ – Hamilton Bohannon’s ‘Disco Stomp’, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, The Trammps’ ‘Disco Inferno’.
We didn’t dance, well, Glyn and Ruth might occasionally but not Alan and I. There was a mini-balcony around the floor, little stairs, three steps down, and we would position ourselves by the top of the same stairs every time, where the girls heading to dance would have to squeeze past us, sometimes, many times, literally. It wasn’t that we were crowding them, but that Placemate was so popular at weekend nights, space was limited and we couldn’t have moved back if we wanted to, not by more than an inch, maybe two, but we didn’t want to move. This was the point. We weren’t going to ask any girls to dance, we would just stand there and look at them and drink until 2.00am when Placemate closed, after the slow romantic stuff, and then we’d go home.
I did ask a girl to dance once, when I was on my own at a place far from Placemate but that lasted the length of one record (‘Ms Grace’ by The Tymes, I remember these details) and our last disco night was a Monday in Altrincham, when we signed in as members at the same time as two girls, who then did their best to attract our attention. It worked on me, but not on my companion, who was staring at a tall, long-haired blonde wearing a rugby shirt that obviously belonged to the six foot plus bloke with her. He was driving so I couldn’t act independently, the evening was blown on the spot as far as I was concerned, the girls gave up on us and found two other blokes to dance with and I have never been to a disco since.
Friday night and Saturday night at Placemate. There’s an odd coda to all this. About a decade ago, writing a time travel novel, I planned to have my pair take a trip back in time to the legendary Manchester dance club, the Twisted Wheel. How many times had I heard about that place? And where the hell had it been? I never knew. But when I investigated, gore blimey, it was Placemate! Placemate had taken the club over! And I’d been there so often and never for one moment realised.
To look at me now, and also then, you’d never have figured me for a disco kid of any kind. And it’s true, I never really liked the music unless I was hearing it with a bass thump in Placemate, though ‘The Hustle’ was always a glorious exception to that, a bright, jaunty melody and all those ooh-oohs were just a pleasure to listen to, into and out of an underground club in the centre of Manchester all those many years ago.
I should remember those nights more often.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Nolans’ ‘Gotta Pull Myself Together’

Imagine being a music enthusiast in his early twenties back in 1979, especially one who has a bent towards Punk/New Wave. Every week, it seemed, something fresh, new and energetic was coming out via the John Peel Show, still five nights weekly. Slowly, but surely and increasingly, these records are getting into the Top 40 and the bands are getting onto Top of the Pops. Every time one does, I get smugger and smugger at work, because each one that does vindicates me and my belief in this music, which not a single person I work with shares with me.
Now imagine me, one Saturday morning in summer, waking up to bright sunshine with nothing planned. Rather than lounge in bed, I wandered down to the TV lounges, one each for BBC1 and ITV. Both are pretty much deserted: who watches Saturday morning TV apart from me?
But this is the era in which ITV offers the anarchic and frequently hilarious TISWAS, with Lenny Henry at his most surreal, and besides, Sally James is always worth an appreciative stare or two or more.
The downside of this is that TISWAS often includes popular pop, usually in the form of videos, i.e., the daily dross of Radio 1 and the weekly dross of Top of the Pops. Like, on this Saturday morning in question, The Nolans’ latest single, ‘Gotta Pull Myself Together’.
Now never let it be said that there is nothing to be enjoyed in looking at the Nolan Sisters, here in their video dressed in bright yellow and performing some dance moves. Listening to the Nolans singing is altogether a different matter: I simply loathed ‘I’m in the Mood for Dancing’ to the point of overwhelming prejudice. But I’m sat in a big lounge capable of holding up to fifty people and there’s only me and the TV and, to put it bluntly, there’s bugger all to do until something better.
So I found myself having to listen to the song as well as look at the fit Irish birds.
It was something of a revelation. The single was already in the chart and I’d heard it a dozen times or more but listening to the radio was always an adjunct to doing something else and it was exceedingly simple to tune out anything you weren’t bothered with. That wasn’t an option now. And having to listen to the song, I discovered that it had a good, solid beat, a propulsive sound, a strong pop sensibility and, god help me, good close harmony singing.
It was nothing like ‘I’m in the Mood for Dancing’. It was good. To my horror, I discovered I liked it.
If I recall correctly, there were BBC strike issues that summer that took Top of the Pops off the air for some weeks, so there were no performances to watch, and no repeats of the video, just the usual daily airplays on Radio Trent, with my ear attuned to the song’s appearance just as much as it was for The Buzzcocks, The Undertones and Elvis Costello.
It’s horrible the tricks your ears can play on you.
It wasn’t just this single. I bought myself a second hand copy of it, plus several of the following ones (as long as they had picture sleeves) which I found myself enjoying as perfectly good pop. A couple of years later, back in Manchester, I even shame-facedly bought a ticket to see The Nolans live at the Free Trade Hall. By this time, elder sister Anne had rejoined the act and, perhaps because she was the oldest, the music was reverting back towards cabaret stuff and away from the crisp, effective pop of that brief spell.
The worst of it was that this was the second of two gigs I attended on successive nights, and I enjoyed this one better. The one on Monday was the first time I’d seen my favourite band of the time live. They were New Order and it was the only rotten performance I ever saw from them, but the juxtaposition was unwelcome.
As time moved forward, more and more people started to recognise Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Nolan as the fine singer she was. Hers is the lead vocal on ‘Gotta pull myself together’ and most of the pop singles that surrounded it, so I don’t feel too bad about this unexpected and unwelcome musical diversion I took. I haven’t listened to the song in years, and the thing that reminded me of it now was a piece on the recording of ‘I’m in the Mood for Dancing’. Still can’t stand that, but this song is still a great single. And the video…

The Infinite Jukebox: Derek and The Dominos’ ‘Layla’

I discovered the music at the very end of 1969, but I had to wait until 1971 before I started to delve into the music press. There were five major music weeklies, each with their own musical tastes and I dipped into and out of these on an occasional basis before deciding that the one that best suited me was the New Musical Express. The irony of that was that, between my last reading a random copy and my first regular order, the paper underwent a radical overhaul, espousing the Underground with great firmness – and it still ended up best reflecting my interests for the next fifteen years.
What I tend to forget was that, having given up the football magazines I’d previously been reading, I had room for more than one music paper, and once I placed a regular order, I was allowed three weekly. Disc (formerly Disc and Music Echo, representing a long ago merger and the name by which I tend to remember it) fell by the wayside fairly early on but I kept up with Record Mirror into 1979 before leaving it, disgusted at its wholesale adoption of ‘powerpop’, a sort of mindless, frictionless, respectable punk, and its attempt to incorporate The Jam under that banner.
Ironically, it was Record Mirror rather than NME that alerted me to the existence of ‘Layla’. There was a weekly column by the owner of a record shop that usually featured albums, and I wasn’t quite buying albums by that point (my first ever, Lindisfarne’s Nicely Out Of Tune, wasn’t acquired until the summer) so a lot of it was lost on me. Layla and Assorted Love Songs had been out since 1970, so quite why it took him into 1972 to enthusiastically espouse it, I don’t know, but I remember him mentioning the title track and praising it highly.
Then, no more than a month later, he returned to the song, announcing delightedly that it was going to be released as a single, although in an edited version that cut out the long piano coda. And in due course I heard ‘Layla’, and it hit the chart and got to no 8, and I thought it was brilliant, with one of the finest rock riffs I had heard by that time, and still one of the finest almost fifty years later.
I knew nothing of its background. I didn’t know that it was a love song to George Harrison’s wife, Patti Boyd. I didn’t know that she’d been the inspiration for ‘Something’, and when you think of one person being responsible for two songs like that you have to look at her with awe. I didn’t know that ‘Layla’ in its full form was actually the bringing together of two songs, Clapton’s rock love song that didn’t have an end, and Jim Gordon’s piano instrumental that didn’t have a beginning.
And I didn’t hear the full version for a very long time. Without the internet and YouTube, without the money to buy albums willy-nilly, knowledge took a long time to accumulate in those days.
When I heard it at last, and I have no memory of when that was, of course it sounded strange. I knew ‘Layla’ as a three-minute rock song, that faded out on the closing dual-guitar outro, Clapton and Duane Allman duelling and complementing each other. In that form it was a bloody good song, complete in itself and wonderful if you did not know its larger self. And at first, the piano coda was difficult to assimilate. Though it marries up well with the rock song, it’s obvious from the off that the full-length version is a stitch job, just as much as ‘Fairytale of New York’.
‘Layla’s been back to the UK charts several times, one of them an edit job that chose to reduce the full-length version to about three and a half minutes whilst representing all of its elements. It’s awful, a thin gruel mix that doesn’t give any aspect the sort of time it needs to define itself. No, it’s the full version or nothing now.
For a long time, I never heard the song, but of late it’s started to crop up on YouTube when I start with a specific video then let their algorithms guide me. Late one night, I stopped to listen to it properly, as more than background sound, a remastered version. The rock song takes me back: the passion that leaks through every second, the strain in Clapton’s voice, the twin guitars overwhelming the sound to the point where bass and percussion are almost inaudible.
The guitars continue entwined after the final chorus, and then they ease and slow and dwindle to almost an echo, through which the first chords of the piano arise. For some reason I found my eyes beginning to brim. The sound of the piano, the long coda as it plays a gentle rhythm, the guitars, especially Allman’s slide, no longer the dominant sound but rather a complementary sound: it brought on a sense of peace, peace that washes like an embracing sea. It’s the sound of passion spent, of calm descending, of a gentle surrender to that which may come. Everything that can be done is done. Now let hope work, and let hope meander. If the beauty of the music doesn’t convince her, what hope has anything you can say?
The song ends, not on the piano that has been its dominant instrument for this easing, that is longer than the rock song and feels longer yet, in that good way of music that hypnotises, but on Allman’s guitar, leaving a handful of notes for us to digest.
Several years afterwards, Patti Boyd left George Harrison and married Eric Clapton. It didn’t last, and I wouldn’t presume to wonder at Harrison’s feelings about any of this. Clapton loved someone he couldn’t have and wrote a powerful declaration of his unrequited feelings. But Jim Gordon topped it off for him in peace and harmony and love. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts but in a strange way, after almost fifty years, those parts no longer balance for me, and the scales have swung in the unexpected direction.

The Infinite Jukebox: Buffalo Tom’s ‘Tangerine’

This is another story of those crazy, random ways that I had to rely upon to find things out about music between my ceasing to listen to John Peel or read the NME, and the advent of YouTube.
Between 1984 and their dissolution in 2010, my favourite band was R.E.M. I saw them live within about seven months of first hearing them and instantly loving their music, and I went on to see them live seven times in total, more often than any other band or singer I’ve followed.
So when, sometime around 1992, I heard that Michael Stipe’s favourite album of the moment was by some previously-unknown band called Grant Lee Buffalo, I was automatically interested.
Not enough to buy the CD on spec, not at full price that was. A second hand copy, reduced to a more reasonable price for something I would encounter sound unheard, that would be something different. Also something apparently unachievable, it seemed.
My most reliable source for second-hand music was the legendary Sifters on Fog Lane in Burnage, the shop that was frequented by Messrs Noel and Liam Gallagher. Though I hadn’t lived in Burnage for several years by then, I would rock up there at least once a month, in perpetual search of something I’d never heard before at a painless cost: after all, if I didn’t like what I bought there was a ninety-plus percent probability that I could sell it back there. I started keeping an eye open for the name Grant Lee Buffalo.
One Saturday morning, not all that long after I’d started this particular odyssey, I flicked through the CDs and paused at a very distinctive, uncredited cover. I turned it over to see who it was by. The CD was called Let Me Come Over, presumably because you instinctively wouldn’t invite the guy on the cover into your home, and I was struck by the band’s name, which was Buffalo Tom.
No, it wasn’t Grant Lee Buffalo, but the word Buffalo was there, and that created a link between my interest in the one band and a curiosity about the other.
Eventually, at a time and in circumstances that I can no longer recall, I got the Grant Lee Buffalo album. It was alright, but I wasn’t impressed and I didn’t keep it long. That Buffalo Tom CD was there in the rack every time I visited Sifters.
Jump with me now to summer 1995, a very hot Saturday afternoon. I visited Stockport Central Library, picking up yet more books to read. And I browsed through the CDs that were available on loan for £1 for a week. I didn’t do that all that often. There was, and I borrowed, Cast’s eponymous debut album. And there was an album with a distinctive cover.
No, it was not Let Me Come Over but it was by Buffalo Tom and it was titled Sleepy-Eyed and this was an ideal opportunity to find out what they sounded like and if I’d enjoy them. So I paid my £2, drove home and, leaving Cast aside as the known quantity, popped the CD into the player and pressed go.
The opening track belted out. I listened to it unmoving for about thirty seconds then pressed stop on the player. Not because I didn’t like it. Far from it. I crossed to the music unit, stripped the wrapper off a fresh C90 cassette, popped that in the tape deck and pressed play again. Thirty seconds of that opening track, ‘Tangerine’, was enough to tell me I was going to LIKE this album.
Listen to it below at this point and come back. The energy is incredible, the attack instant and demanding. You don’t need to hear more than thirty seconds of this to be dragged into its wake at a hundred miles an hour. Breathless from the coffee, Bill Janowitz shouts out, and the whole song is away and running full-tilt already.
The song is an explosion in the ears, a hell-for-leather charge for death or glory. Drummer Tom McGinnis – the Tom of the band’s name – contents himself with a strong, forceful, unvarying beat, kickstarted every few seconds by a little fill beaten out at top pace.
And that chorus arrives to pull you together. She’s a Tangerine, made in California, she’s a soul filet, putting the woman he’s singing for before your eyes with the briefest of word pictures, and then the incredible line and he modestly claims it’s just a little haiku to say how much I like you. That couplet is brilliant and all the more so for being delivered with such rawness and frantic energy instead of emerging from a modest and contemplative acoustic ballad.
And I was right about the others on the album. Although nothing matched the sheer attack of ‘Tangerine’, the energy flowed, and even the ballads played from a sense of strength unused. Best of all, Buffalo Tom felt like a band with raw edges who had learned a certain musical sophistication without compromising their instinct not to compromise with mere melodies. They would always stand off at some angle of their own.
Thirty seconds to convince me that here was a band – not just a track – who were going to fill up my ears for a long time to come. Which they have. One day, I still hope to see them live and hear ‘Tangerine’ pounded through my ears like a railroad spike.
After that, Cast didn’t stand a chance. As for Let Me Come Over, which I was going to buy next time I popped into Sifters, it had gone by then after years of hanging around.

Death of a Titan

Charlie Watts, drummer with the Rolling Stones, has passed away at the age of 80. The man was a rock solid drummer, a calm and still presence, the heartbeat of the Stones who, alongside the Beatles, will go down in history as the two musical pillars of the Sixties, the ones everyone looked up to and sought to outdo but couldn’t. And in the long hinterland of the decades after their peak, Charlie was the one with the credibility. What Jagger and Richards do after this, I honestly don’t know, but Charlie’s ending is perhaps the signal for the band’s ending too. Be all our memories now: there is no shame in that, and they can be proud forever.