TOM WAITS: Music for Grown-Ups Insider’s Guide #1

September 24, 2009

By Martin Cowan

Tom Waits may be the only true genius operating in rock music today.

Shedding his boho beatnik image seven albums into his career with an astounding left turn (1983’s Swordfishtrombones LP), Waits is one of the few writers and performers who has actually improved with age.

There is little doubt that Waits can be a challenging listen, his growled vocals taking some getting used to.

Whether his songs are blues stomps or schmaltzy ballads, like no-one else he adorns the material with a deliberately “lo-fi” sonic ambiance, featuring bizarre instrumentations and the deliberate distortion of his voice.

Waits is something of an enigma, fiercely guarding both his privacy and the artistic integrity of his music (he has successfully sued would-be advertisers using his songs). He rarely tours or gives interviews, and the mystique that surrounds him is probably unique in modern rock.

Highly respected, with quite a sideline in movie acting (he has starred with Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman), it is in the quality of the music where Waits’ originality really shines.
Clues to his post-Swordfish direction are there in some of his earlier songs (“Barber Shop” from 1976), but nothing quite prepares the listener for the bizarre and plain bonkers bent of some of the later material (“Cemetery Polka” 1985, “Russian Dance” 1993).

A poetic lyricist who crafts melodies that are simultaneously original and yet sound traditional, Waits is a master songwriter who maintains a rigid control of his output, writing and producing his CD releases, along with his wife Kathleen Brennan. Waits attributes his change of direction to Kathleen, and he is happy to credit her with saving his life from his drunken barfly days.

There is much to reward the dogged listener, and the schizophrenic nature of Tom Waits is no more evident than when comparing “Pony” and “Filipino Box Spring Hog” from 1999’s Mule Variations LP and the insane “Kommienezuspadt” with anything else from the Alice LP from 2002.

Waits has described his music as “grand weepers and grim reapers” and there is no better summary of the output of this unique, startling and innovative creative artist.

TOM WAITS: a 2CD primer

Disc 1

1) Cinny’s Waltz FOREIGN AFFAIRS 1976
2) Lullaby BLOOD MONEY 2002
3) Lie To Me ORPHANS 2006
4) Johnsburg, Illinois SWORDFISHTROMBONES 1983
5) Barber Shop FOREIGN AFFAIRS 1976
6) Alice ALICE 2002
7) Road To Peace ORPHANS 2006
8) Last Rose of Summer BLACK RIDER 1993
9) Franks Theme FRANKS WILD YEARS 1987
10) Saving All My Love For You HEART ATTACK AND VINE 1980
11) Clang Boom Steam REAL GONE 2004
12) World Keeps Turning ORPHANS 2006
13) Straight To The Top (Rhumba) FRANKS WILD YEARS 1987
14) Pony MULE VARIATIONS 1999
15) Such A Scream BONE MACHINE 1992
16) Hang Down Your Head RAIN DOGS 1985
17) You Can Never Hold Back Spring ORPHANS 2008
18) Whistlin Past The Graveyard BLUE VALENTINE 1978
19) November BLACK RIDER 1993
20) Time RAIN DOGS 1985
21) Spidey’s Wild Ride ORPHANS 2006
22) If I Have To Go ALICE 2002
23) Take Care Of All Of My Children ORPHANS 2006
24) Diamonds and Gold RAIN DOGS 1985
25) Woe BLOOD MONEY 2002
26) Black Box Theme BLACK RIDER 1993
27) Cemetery Polka RAIN DOGS 1985
28) I’m Still Here ALICE 2002 Disc 2

1) Fawn ALICE 2002
2) Somewhere BLUE VALENTINE 1978
3) Russian Dance BLACK RIDER 1993
4) Cold Cold Ground FRANKS WILD YEARS 1987
5) Filipino Box Spring Hog MULE VARIATIONS 1999
6) Whistle Down The Wind BONE MACHINE 1992
7) Down Down Down SWORDFISHTROMBONES 1983
8) Day After Tomorrow REAL GONE 2004
9) Starving In The Belly Of A Whale BLOOD MONEY 2002
10) Kentucky Avenue BLUE VALENTINE 1978
11) We’re All Mad Here ALICE 2002
12) A Little Rain BONE MACHINE 1992
13) Goin Out West BONE MACHINE 1992
14) No One Knows I’m Gone ALICE 2002
15) Let Me Get Up On It BONE MACHINE 1992
16) Jayne’s Blue Wish ORPHANS 2006
17 Low Side Of The Road MULE VARIATIONS 1999
18) In The Neighbourhood SWORDFISHTROMBONES 1983
19) Telephone Call From Istanbul FRANKS WILD YEARS 1987
20) Briar and the Rose BLACK RIDER 1993
21) Bend Down The Branches ORPHANS 2006
23) Kommienezuspadt ALICE 2002
24) I Don’t Wanna Grow Up BONE MACHINE 1992
24) Come On Up To The House MULE VARIATIONS 1999
25) Presents ONE FROM THE HEART 1982

© Martin Cowan 2009

(Music for Grown-Ups will be publishing similar Insider’s Guides to other musicians from all genres. If you’d like to contribute to the series, please contact website Editor – gerrysmith@musicforgrownups.co.uk – before you start writing.)

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The Beatles: over-rated

September 9, 2009

You’d need to be media-averse to have missed today’s launch of the re-masters of The Beatles’ albums. Newspapers, mags, tv and radio, in this part of the world at least, are overflowing with Fab Four hype.

It’s all gone over my head, though: the Beatles were – and are – over-rated.

I loved the first two albums and the early singles: massively refreshing, the Fabs swept away half a decade of appalling pop pap.

Yes, the Beatles were the biggest pop musicians ever, far more popular than everyone else. And yes, their influence was far wider than the pop charts.

But they were less interesting than the Stones; and they weren’t even my fave mid-1960s Scouser popsters – take a bow, Gerry… The Searchers… The Big Three… and several more Merseybeat bands.

To compare the Beatles’ legacy, as many halfwit journalists have done in the current frenzy, to that of Dylan is plain stupid – it’s like comparing Dylan with Madonna or Abba. The Beatles were show biz entertainers. Dylan is the 20thC’s dominant musician.

I haven’t played a Beatles record for over 20 years; there’s little chance of that changing, re-masters or not.

Gerry Smith

Radiohead at Reading

September 2, 2009

If you didn’t catch headliners Radiohead’s gig at Reading Festival on TV last weekend, you can still check it out on BBC Red Button (and maybe online at iPlayer).

The gig was sensational. Playing a one hour (on TV) greatest hits set, Radiohead showed just why they are revered: a memorable, diverse, anthemic songbook, musical vision and innovation rarely encountered in rockpop, and a charismatic main man in Thom Yorke.

And the Reading staging did justice to the great music pouring from the speakers.

Marvellous stuff – Reading underlined Radiohead’s claim as the most interesting rockpop band since The Stone Roses.

If you can’t catch the BBC recording, consider buying the recent Best Of CD.

Gerry Smith

Two Miles Davis tribute programmes on BBC radio this week

August 24, 2009

You can hardly accuse BBC Radio of ignoring Miles Davis.

Last night’s Jazz Line-Up on BBC Radio 3 featured Julian Joseph’s celebration of the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue, in the company of trumpeter Henry Lowther, who performed with Davis’s regular collaborator/arranger Gil Evans.

Lowther also met Miles whilst playing in Hollywood, as well as seeing him perform in England not long after the release of Kind Of Blue. He talks about the impact the album has had on his own playing, and provides musical insights and illustrations highlighting the importance of this landmark recording.

Title: So What
Artist: Miles Davis/John Coltrane/Bill Evans/Cannonball Adderley/Paul Chambers/Jimmy Cobb
Album: Kind of Blue
Label: Legacy 8869 733552
Track: 1
Comp: Miles Davis
Publ: Sony
Dur: 8m45s

Title: Freddie Freeloader (studio Sequence 1)
Artist: Miles Davis/John Coltrane/Bill Evans/Cannonball Adderley/Paul Chambers/Jimmy Cobb
Album: Kind of Blue
Label: Legacy 8869 733552
Track: 7
Comp: Miles Davis
Publ: Sony
Dur: 30s

Title: Freddie Freeloader
Artist: Miles Davis/John Coltrane/Bill Evans/Cannonball Adderley/Paul Chambers/Jimmy Cobb
Album: Kind of Blue
Label: Legacy 8869 733552
Track: 2
Comp: Miles Davis
Publ: Sony
Dur: 9m32s

Title: Blue in Green
Artist: Miles Davis/John Coltrane/Bill Evans/Cannonball Adderley/Paul Chambers/Jimmy Cobb
Album: Kind of Blue
Label: Legacy 8869 733552
Track: 3
Comp: Miles Davis
Publ: Sony
Dur: 5m23s

Title: All Blues
Artist: Miles Davis/John Coltrane/Bill Evans/Cannonball Adderley/Paul Chambers/Jimmy Cobb
Album: Kind of Blue
Label: Legacy 8869 733552
Track: 4
Comp: Miles Davis
Publ: Sony
Dur: 11m27s

Title: Flamenco Sketches (Alternate Take)
Artist: Miles Davis/John Coltrane/Bill Evans/Cannonball Adderley/Paul Chambers/Jimmy Cobb
Album: Kind of Blue
Label: Legacy 8869 733552
Track: 5
Comp: Miles Davis
Publ: Sony
Dur: 9m29s

And tomorrow, Tuesday 25 August, at 2230, BBC Radio 2 celebrates the 40th anniversary of Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, and explores the extraordinary music that Miles produced in the period dubbed the “Electric Era” from 1969-75.

The documentary includes newly sourced interview material from musicians who collaborated with Miles including Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Jack DeJohnette and Dave Liebman.

You can listen to many BBC radio programmes online for 7 days after broadcast:

www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer

Gerry Smith

The Stone Roses’ first album: best rock album since… ?

August 14, 2009

The Stone Roses’ eponymous first album is the best rock album since… ? Beggars Banquet? Into The Music? The Queen Is Dead? It’s one of the top rock albums, and contender for best ever debut rockpop release.

Every grown-up music collection should have one. There’s no need to pay the extra for the new anniversary release (PR puff below) – it only has one extra. But if you don’t possess The Stone Roses, you should pick up the now heavily discounted original and play it loudly, repeatedly on long car journeys.

Great art. Highly recommended.

Gerry

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Promo for new release:

To commemorate the 20th Anniversary of The Stone Roses debut album this iconic release has been remastered by John Leckie (Pink Floyd, Radiohead) who produced the album back in 1989, and singer Ian Brown.

The Stone Roses debut is rightfully cited as one of the UK’s greatest debut albums of all time, and is an album that helped change the face of British music at the end of the 1980’s by reintroducing a swagger which had been lacking from the UK scene since The Rolling Stones when they were in their prime.

The album follows the same track listing as the original (is there a better start to an album than ‘I Wanna Be Adored’, ‘She Bangs The Drums’ and ‘Waterfall’?) but now finishes with the full length version of the single ‘Fools Gold’ which was not included on the original release, but is one of the band’s finest pieces of work.

This remastered edition is an essential purchase for all the original fans as well newcomers who want to check out British Indie Guitar music at its finest. Many bands have been influenced by The Stone Roses over the last 20 years but only Oasis have come close to producing a landmark record of to rival them.

‘The Roses’ never reached the soaring heights of this album again, but it has left a legacy in the UK music scene that few will surpass. Classic is a word thrown around far too easily, but this is a genuine classic album that should be in your collection.

The Stone Roses (20th Anniversary Special Edition) by THE STONE ROSES

1.I Wanna Be Adored
2.She Bangs The Drums
3.Waterfall
4.Don’t Stop
5.Bye Bye Bad Man
6.Elizabeth My Dear
7.(Song For My) Sugar Spun Sister
8.Made Of Stone
9.Shoot You Down
10.This Is The One
11.I Am The Resurrection
12.Fools Gold

Dylan “too selfish”, according to female singer-songwriter

August 10, 2009

Singer-songwriter Dory Previn regards Bob Dylan as selfish.

In an interview with Jonathan Wingate published in Record Collector (Jan 2008?*), she tells of a gig she performed where Dylan asked to meet her backstage:

“Yes that was the worst… you can’t have a chat with him because he’s too selfish, so he won’t give you anything…“

Dory Previn was a cult favourite in the early 1970s. Her bleak confessional lyrics documented her mental health problems, marital breakdown, and a world going wrong.

In my list of favourite women rockpop artists from the 1970s, I’d place her second only to Joni Mitchell, and well ahead of every other female writer/performer.

(* The interview, pulled out the monthly mag Record Collector, looks as if it promoted the Jan 2008 release of The Art Of Dory Previn, a must-have compilation CD summarising the gifted singer-songwriter’s legacy.)

 

 

Gerry Smith

Blues Britannia – must-watch TV broadcast, Friday 7 August

August 6, 2009

BBC4 repeats its intermittently enlightening night of blues programming tomorrow night, Friday 7 August.

The core programme is a new BBC4 doc, Blues Britannia, a 90-min examination of how Anglo musicians took the blues, turned it into a key popular music form and exported it to the world (and back to the US, or so the story goes).

It covers the 1950s missionary work of jazzer Chris Barber and bluesman Alexis Korner, leading to the ‘60s R&B boom and the ascendancy of the Stones, right through to Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Cream and finally to Led Zep.

It’s a valuable primer, though the self-satisfied succession of old men in full-on reminiscence mode can be irksome; the narration, by Nigel Planer, isn’t to my taste, either.

The central argument (indeed, the party line peddled by Brit musos of a certain age) about the US market being oblivious to the blues until the English Invaders sold it back to them, has always struck me as self-serving bullsh*t: Music for Grown-Ups would welcome the views of American readers on the matter.

Blues Britannia airs at 2200 tomorrow, with related programmes before and after. And can be viewed online via BBC iPlayer for a week after transmission.

Gerry Smith

Van Morrison – a greater talent than Dylan?

July 23, 2009

Thanks to Martin Cowan:

“Need to take issue with Andrew from Adelaide on a couple of points:

1) Dylan v Van

I’m not sure you can compare Van’s “Astral Weeks”, “Moondance”, “St Dominic’s Review” and “Veedon Fleece” (released over a 6 year period) with Dylan’s “rolled gold” classics as selected by Andrew, “Freewheelin’”, “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Blonde on Blonde” which were not only released over just 4 years, but the last three were recorded and released over a ridiculously tight time frame:

* Bringing It All Back Home (14 and 15 Jan 1965); (2 days)
* Highway 61 (15 June, 29/30 July, 2/4 August 1965 (5 days)
* Blonde on Blonde (14 -17 Feb, 8/9 March 1966 (6 days)

So, three undeniable classic LPs recorded in 13 days over a 14 month period! Can anyone else match that? And wasn’t he touring during that time too…?

2) Dylan’s second golden era

Planet Waves 1973
Blood on the Tracks 1974
Desire 1975
Hard Rain 1976
StreetLegal 1978

3) Classic songs

I would suggest that Dylan has more classic songs in his songbook than Van that are more well known to the public at large eg Blowin in the wind, lay lady lay, knockin on heaven’s door etc

4) Sustained sequence of clunkers

Can anyone top Van’s output of clunkers from 1995 to the present?

 Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison (1996)
 The Healing Game (1997)
 Back on Top (1999)
 The Skiffle Sessions – Live in Belfast 1998 (2000)
 You Win Again (2000)
 Down the Road (2002)
 What’s Wrong with This Picture? (2003)
 Magic Time (2005)
 Pay the Devil (2006)
 Live at Austin City Limits Festival (Live) (2006)
 Keep It Simple (2008)
 Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Live) (2009)

That’s not to deny the brilliance of “Astral Weeks” which is unique in the Van canon, and possibly one of the greatest albums of all time.

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Van Morrison – a greater talent than Dylan?

Thanks to Andrew Robertson:

No surprise that Oh Mercy was rated the best Dylan album of this period (1978-89) – it was, indeed, the only album of that period that I would rate as a classic Dylan album or potentially a Desert Island Disc.

To provoke debate among other music lovers (and perhaps to annoy Dylan Diehards) I would like to repeat my previously expressed view that this confirms Van Morrison as the greater music talent, and indeed, the greatest in contemporary music.

The same period (1978-89) was Morrison’s second golden era in which he produced 6 “rolled gold” classics, as follows (in chronological order):
Into The Music
Common One
Beautiful Vision
No Guru No Method No Teacher
Poetic Champions Compose
Avalon Sunset

In addition, several other worthy additions to his canon (also in chronological order):
Wavelength
Inarticulate Speech of the Heart
Live at the Belfast Grand Opera House
A Sense of Wonder
Irish Heartbeat (with the Chieftains)

And not one weak album, not one that is not a worthy addition to my music collection.

A very significant difference to Dylan’s output from the same years, as your reader poll confirms.

Ah, but what of Dylan’s early years, do I hear you – and Bernard McGuinn – say (defiantly)?

OK, ignoring Bob Dylan, on which he only wrote 2 tracks, Dylan’s only golden era comprised 7 albums of which 4 were “rolled gold” classics:
Freewheelin’
Bringing It All Back Home
Highway 61 Revisited
Blonde on Blonde

While 3 were simply excellent:
The Times They Are A-Changing
Another Side
John Wesley Harding

In Van Morrison’s case, ignoring Them and the Bang output, his first golden era also comprised 7 albums of which, similarly, 4 were “rolled gold” classics:
Astral Weeks
Moondance
Saint Dominic’s Preview
Veedon Fleece

While 3 were simply excellent:
His Band and the Street Choir
Tupelo Honey
Hard Nose the Highway

I would argue that Morrison’s “best of the best” (namely Astral Weeks) is better than Dylan’s but putting arguably subjective judgments aside, my point is that Morrison had two golden eras compared to Dylan’s one (not that Dylan hasn’t had other great albums – Oh Mercy being a case in point – however he hasn’t, in my opinion, had another sustained period of such extraordinary excellence).

Let the debate begin…

Andrew in Adelaide

Van Morrison – a greater talent than Dylan?

July 22, 2009

Thanks to Andrew Robertson:

No surprise that Oh Mercy was rated the best Dylan album of this period (1978-89) – it was, indeed, the only album of that period that I would rate as a classic Dylan album or potentially a Desert Island Disc.

To provoke debate among other music lovers (and perhaps to annoy Dylan Diehards) I would like to repeat my previously expressed view that this confirms Van Morrison as the greater music talent, and indeed, the greatest in contemporary music.

The same period (1978-89) was Morrison’s second golden era in which he produced 6 “rolled gold” classics, as follows (in chronological order):
Into The Music
Common One
Beautiful Vision
No Guru No Method No Teacher
Poetic Champions Compose
Avalon Sunset

In addition, several other worthy additions to his canon (also in chronological order):
Wavelength
Inarticulate Speech of the Heart
Live at the Belfast Grand Opera House
A Sense of Wonder
Irish Heartbeat (with the Chieftains)

And not one weak album, not one that is not a worthy addition to my music collection.

A very significant difference to Dylan’s output from the same years, as your reader poll confirms.

Ah, but what of Dylan’s early years, do I hear you – and Bernard McGuinn – say (defiantly)?

OK, ignoring Bob Dylan, on which he only wrote 2 tracks, Dylan’s only golden era comprised 7 albums of which 4 were “rolled gold” classics:
Freewheelin’
Bringing It All Back Home
Highway 61 Revisited
Blonde on Blonde

While 3 were simply excellent:
The Times They Are A-Changing
Another Side
John Wesley Harding

In Van Morrison’s case, ignoring Them and the Bang output, his first golden era also comprised 7 albums of which, similarly, 4 were “rolled gold” classics:
Astral Weeks
Moondance
Saint Dominic’s Preview
Veedon Fleece

While 3 were simply excellent:
His Band and the Street Choir
Tupelo Honey
Hard Nose the Highway

I would argue that Morrison’s “best of the best” (namely Astral Weeks) is better than Dylan’s but putting arguably subjective judgments aside, my point is that Morrison had two golden eras compared to Dylan’s one (not that Dylan hasn’t had other great albums – Oh Mercy being a case in point – however he hasn’t, in my opinion, had another sustained period of such extraordinary excellence).

Let the debate begin…

Andrew in Adelaide

London signing for new book tomorrow (Wednesday)

July 14, 2009

If you’re in central London tomorrow evening (Wednesday 15 July, 6-9pm), you’re warmly invited to attend the signing event for my new book, Music For Grown-Ups.

I’ll be signing copies from the numbered limited edition; Music For Grown-Ups is not available from High St bookshops.

The evening is hosted by AMUTi, the specialist collectable and book dealer, at its delightful gallery/shop near King’s Cross/St Pancras/Euston railway stations.

I’ll be giving a short talk about music for grown-ups, before enjoying a drink with the audience.

You’ll be able to marvel at AMUTi’s unique selection of music-related rare books and collectables.

If you manage to make it, please ensure that you ID yourself to me as a reader of this website – I look forward to seeing you on Wednesday!

Details:

www.amutionline.com

Gerry Smith