Monday, December 31, 2012

The 2012 Tinsel Twenty

Unless you hold a particularly churlish disdain for the world, and your preferred brand of curmudgeon is strong enough to knock Van Morrison into a cocked hat of irritation, it should always be possible to find twenty good albums each year. It's just the nature of the beast: if you like music and there's enough being made covering enough genres, even the most subjective tastes should be satisfied.

However, 2012 just seems to have been a stupendously boffo year for stupendously boffo stuff. Perhaps it was the unfulfilled threat of global annihilation, according to the Mayans, that pushed rock and pop's citizenry to deliver a particularly purple annum. Whatever was in the water this year, it has produced handsomely.

So as 2012 prepares to pull up its stumps and declare, What Would David Bowie Do? dares to put its neck above the parapet by pronouncing its own double-decade of listening pleasures for the last twelve months in the inaugural What Would David Bowie Do? Tinsel Twenty:

20 - Ben Folds Five - The Sound of the Life of the Mind
There are certain artists whom, it must be said, come over as a little too smart-arsed for their own good. The Ben Folds Five arrived in 1997 with a breed of piano-based songsmithing which sat more conventionally than contemporary smart arses Eels, but still suggested a certain intellectual superiority. Folds appeared to be behind a joke or at least a cynical bent, like fellow wry smile vendors David Byrne or Randy Newman. For those who know of him, think John Sessions on Whose Line Is It Anyway? after he's thrown in a particularly ripe Shakespearian reference into a skit about football hooligans.

All of which, I know, doesn't preface too positively Folds' comeback after what seemed like a neglectful age (13 years) with The Sound of the Life of the Mind. Hitherto unsigned to any record label, Folds turned to crowdfunding to get the record made, which sounds horrendous, but whatever works, works. It picks up wherever they'd left off in 1999, with Folds as asceerbic as ever, an indie Randy Newman, if you will, together with Robert Sledge, whose distinctive fuzzbox-filtered bass was an inventive sonic partner for Folds' piano on their breakthrough Whatever And Ever Amen and its hit Brick. Here's hoping the next follow-up won't take quite so long…

19 - John Mayer - Born And Raised
He may have turned into something of serial shagger (Katy Perry his latest conquest), but five studio albums in, Mayer changed spots once more with Born And Raised. Following his various forays into pure blues, white-boy soul and FM rock, this took a metaphorical journey into the canyons of LA, evoking CS&N with a brazenly old-school shot at '70s country-rock.

If you've spent any time in LA, listening to its classic rock radio stations, the endless repeats of Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles do start to grate. Thankfully, Mayer found gaps in the genre worth listening to on this, to which he applied his trademark plaintiveness and heart-on-the-sleeve intimacy which, based on past efforts (Your Body Is A Wonderland has always been rumoured to be about Jennifer Love Hewitt, another name in Mayer's little black book) must have Perry worrying how she might do out of Mayer's next album.

18 - Neil Young with Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill
I'm immensely proud of my story about my personal encounter with the angriest Canadian in rock and roll. It wasn't, alas, in some debauched rock star episode or an ill-tempered meeting across the interviewer's notebook. No, it was in a WH Smith's at Heathrow Airport that I turned around in the queue for chewing gum to find Young behind me, clutching a selection of puzzle books for his impending flight. Quite the leveller that.

Having reformed Crazy Horse for the earlier 2012 album Americana (the bonkers collection of old-time songs like Oh Susannah, Clementine, This Land Is Your Land and even God Save the Queen - that's the British national anthem, not the invective-spiked Sex Pistols song…), the collective of Young, Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Frank Sampedro appeared to have pitched up in a suburban garage to grunge-up their amplifiers for Psychedelic Pill, a two-CD rant about the world.

On it, the man who once sang "Old man look at my life, I'm a lot like you were", can be found spittling away about everything from MP3s to hip-hop haircuts, whatever they are. Into the bargain we get the agonisingly long - 27-minutes long! - extended jam of Driftin' Back which, perhaps should have been, 22 minutes shorter, especially as it's hard to tell where the verses and choruses stop and go round again. This might put you off, but persevere. Psychedelic Pill is exactly what you want from Neil Young: angry (clearly the puzzle books are some form of therapy), ragged and viciously honest. Long may he continue with buzzsaw guitar gems like this.

17 - Shearwater - Animal Joy
A late entry into the Twenty, owing to the fact my good friend Steven Wilson only introduced me to Shearwater last Thursday, but I have nevertheless made space for the Texan indie outfit who bowled me over with the 11 tracks on an album that needs to be listened to.

Stupid as that statement sounds, this is not an album - and Shearwater aren't a band - you can just put on while doing something else. You need to be semi-captive. In my case, a four-hour drive through the Mojave Desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas provided a concentrated listening platform, the rarely-changing brush landscape intensifying Jonathan Meiburg's thankfully hard-to-pigeonhole material. Another friend of mine recently reminded me of '80s Aussie outfit The Church, and Shearwater could easily fit into that mould of bands from that era who matched challenging lyrics to hauntingly cold tones that dared contradict the warm, over-cooked and over-produced fare of the era. In that regard, you can easily liken Meiburg's vocals to Talk Talk's Mark Hollis, and thus, the same melodic intensity. As an introduction to Shearwater, Animal Joy has been a welcome discovery. be warned, there are seven more I need to acquire.

16 - BB King - Ladies & Gentlemen...
OK, nowhere in the rules says that compilations can't be included in the Tinsel Twenty, and a box set of this sumptuousness simply couldn't go without mention. These last two years, the CD box set, like its DVD cousin, has become something of a cash cow for the superannuated music legend. Top-of-the-heap acts have gone to great length to dish up elaborate boxed packages with which to re-flog their back catalogue, chucking in picture books, signed prints and other paraphernalia to justify the hefty price tags. This long overdue career anthology of the one and only Riley B King was, however, worth every penny, not to mention the Sunday and consecutive evenings it took to joyfully work my way though the career of the Blues' last living legend.

Ladies & Gentlemen... is an epic collection, tracing King's early origins as a bluesman playing big band on Memphis radio stations right through to his justified elevation as elder statesman of a musical genre forged in a different time and a different America. No matter how many times - and how many versions - of The Thrill Is Gone and Rock Me Baby you hear throughout this 22-disc set, you never tire of hearing one of the best loved voices and best loved guitar playing of the last six or seven decades. And at 86, he's still touring, bless him. Everyone should see him once in their lifetime.

15 - Led Zeppelin - Celebration Day
OK, so I didn't say live albums couldn't be included, either. Lifted from the surviving Zepps' one-off 2007 reunion at the O2 (actually part of a tribute show to Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun), there is temptation to level a charge of 'money for old rope' at Messrs Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham Jr for releasing Celebration Day. But, while none of the few live recordings of Led Zeppelin have ever done the old warhorses justice this, strangely, does.

Between the multi-format packages, you can indulge and immerse yourself in a band doing Led Zeppelin very well. Plant, one might suspect, may only be doing the show out of genuine love for the universally loved Ertegun, but Page lets himself go with feverish gusto as he pulls out all the Zepp live chestnuts, playing as if for the first time. The Blu-ray Disc package is worth the small investment, if only to see Page's trademark curled bottom lip evolve into more of a gurn, as he powers through Ramble OnSince I've Been Loving You, the extended freakout of Dazed And Confused and, yes, Stairway To Heaven. There are better ways to hear Led Zeppelin live - the excellent BBC Sessions album for one, and perfecting time travel being the other. But Celebration Day is a fitting tribute to a band that denied themselves a decent sendoff when their original and only drummer went off to that drum riser in the sky and they called it quits almost on the spot.

14 - Lisa Marie Presley - Storm And Grace
Yes, I had to look at that name twice, too. The King's only offspring in the Tinsel Twenty? Well, why not. The rural Kent-dwelling (honest!) rockin' mama delivered one of the albums of 2012 thanks to her own grind and perseverance, following the disappointments of her previous two AOR efforts.

Here she recruited go-to American roots producer T-Bone Burnett, and - incongruously - brought in the likes of Richard Hawley, Fran Healey and Ed Harcourt to work on the content, resulting in hard-edged country-folk, lots of tremolo-shimmering guitar (Hawley's influence) and a soul-baring confessional drawing on marriage (her current one and her second one to Michael Jackson) and growing up. Bridging the American songbook and a British indie rock sensibility, Storm And Grace was a pleasant surprise when it first came out in May, and still is since it's recent (and unexplained) re-release.

13 - Mumford & Sons - Babel
I bought a Fleet Foxes album once. It was shit. All that choral close harmony drowning in echo and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young-wannabe pretence. And then came along Mumford & Sons, which, unfortunately, promised more of the depressing same. At the same time, the music press had us all believe that there was some new Nu-Folk movement being taken over by M&S, and that it was only a matter of time before moustache-less beards (à la Michael Eavis), Aran sweaters and The Wurzels would be back in vogue. Well, thankfully, none of that has happened (although surely it must be time for a Wurzels Night on BBC4?), but the family Mumford has cemented inclusion in the inaugural Tinsel Twenty. Babel tweaks little with the formula of 2010's jaunty debut Sigh No More, but Marcus Mumford turns the street-busking up to 11 and in the process turns their brand of folksy, banjo-driven, beer tankard-swaying pop-rock into something that can - and has been - filling arenas quite nicely. Like a significantly more sober version of a St. Patrick's night out with The Pogues.

12 - Donald Fagen - Sunken Condos
To the list of musical smart arses I commenced earlier in this list, you can always add Fagen, and indeed Steely Dan themselves. The Dan were always pre-eminent lyrical clever clogs, mixing New York jazz smarts with, at-times, frustratingly obscure literary references and even more complicated character-driven narratives that were layered over gently funky, subtly soulful tunes that, in others' hands may have strayed dangerously close to muzak. Sunken Condos revived Fagen's quirky storytelling, retaining his knack for wise-ass storytelling but, more importantly, for making jazz-rock a respectable trade, and not the horror that Spinal Tap's Jazz Odyssey became.

11 - Jack White - Blunderbuss
In which rock's preeminent multi-tasking, is-he-really-just-a-Tim-Burton-character? contrarian channels the honky-tonk bars of his adopted home of Nashville into that particularly odd flavour of post-modern blues he founded with the White Stripes, and sails into the territorial waters of convention without actually dropping anchor, which is good. Blunderbuss is a gentler form of White than he's given us before, using the album to come to terms with divorce without turning it into his own version of Blood On The Tracks. There is blues, and nods to Led Zeppelin, there are traces of the South and all sorts of musical heritage references, in an album that may not be as confounding as some of White's earlier work, but doesn't suffer as some might expect such apparent normalcy would cause. A grown-up album by a musician who revels, quietly, in being pop's outsider.

10 - Michael Kiwanuka - Home Again
Aright, hands up who thought, when they first heard Kiwanuka's Tell Me A Tale, with its flutes and Young Rascals vibe, they thought they'd walked into some late '60s soundtrack album? Who sat their scratching their heads, nodding to I'm Getting Ready and wondering how they'd missed a soul legend, one who'd who'd perhaps died young or, after hanging out with Richie Havens and Gil Scott-Heron, vanished off the face of the earth, leaving this little known album to collect dust on music history's overflowing shelves for the best part of forty-odd years? The answer, I strongly suspect, is all of us. Home Again trawls the jukeboxes of Harlem and Haight-Ashbury around the time man was first playing golf on the moon to produce an utterly authentic and utterly valid homage to Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Havens and others with a collection of new, but relentlessly familiar-sounding soul and R'n'B treasures that belie Kiwanuka's ridculously young age, but exploit his stunning voice to the fullest.

9 - Rolling Stones - GRRR!
I hear you. No, really, I hear you. Having snuck in box sets and live albums, I'm now including yet another Rolling Stones compilation album which must be, like, the umpteenth cynical attempt by Sir Michael Jagger and Rolling Stones Inc. to screw more money out of the humble fan. Well, in its defence, it does present, arguably, the definitive collection of the Stones' 50-year career, with 50 tracks spanning the earliest hits (Not Fade Away, It's All Over Now and the chart-baiting blues of Little Red Rooster, right through to Doom And Gloom and One More Shot, two archetypal Stones songs recorded in Paris over 48 hours in August.

So, Reason For Owning It #1: you've never owned a Stones compilation and it's about time you did; Reason For Owning It #2: it contains all the Rolling Stones songs you've ever liked (Jumping Jack Flash, Honky Tonky Woman, Satisfaction) as well as loads you'd forgotten you liked (Tumbling Dice, Give Me Shelter and, yes, Mixed Emotions); ReasonReason For Owning It #3: there isn't another band in rock and roll who could pull off a 50-track compilation like this and ensure that none of the 50 tracks - and I mean, none of them - are duds. A feat worthy of purchase.

8 - Lana Del Ray - Born To Die
Being the most hyped new act, and therefore, the most hyped new album since the letter 'H' was invented, placed considerable expectations on the shoulders of the poutsome, doe-eyed young Lizzie Grant from suburban New York. Entering a world of female singers dominated by Adele didn't help, either, and nor did the suspicion that her photogenic qualities may have played a part in Grant/Del Rey's apparent arrival from nowhere. To her credit, Del Rey's rapid ascendancy is down to her own endeavour, the self-generated YouTube hit of Video Games setting the tone for a big-haired album of David Lynch soundtrack-par ballads and noirish torch songs, positively soaked in reverb, big soundstages and the odd twanging bottom E string, suggesting smalltown normality with a Twin Peaks hint of something not right beneath. At risk of setting even more expectations, the next album will be a strong test, but while that develops, and Grant/Del Rey racks up more lucrative advertising deals, Born To Die lives up to the hype by being, perhaps, the most important breakthrough album of 2012.

7 - Dr. John - Locked Down
Mac Rebbenack - better known as legendary New Orleans voodoo-blues, funk and jazz pianist Dr. John, as well as inspiration for The Muppet's Dr. Teeth - returned with with a career-rebooting Louisiana stew of vintage R'n'B and the jazz-tinged groove, produced by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach. Locked Down celebrates the post-Katrina Big Easy with a dig into contemporary themes - set to deliberately retro twists - that have clearly been burning the Night Tripper up. Supported by a hand-picked (by Auerbach) roster of session players, Locked Down frees Rebbenack from his 'Professional' Louisianan persona, his Crescent City version of the Pearly King, all swamp blues, zydeco and creole. It's a delicious concoction of old and new - an allegory itself for the New Orleans emerging from its travails, reaching into Dr John's beating heart and to discover a musical essence that is added a swirling cauldron of the finest funk, rhythm and blues and soul that you'll have heard this year, last year and and maybe next year, too.

6 - The Black Keys - El Camino
Though released in December last year, it was not only close enough to 2012 to be included in this year's Tinsel Twenty, I only bought it in January, so that counts too. So there. The seventh studio album from the Ohio duo, El Camino is a sumptuous celebration of the rock that emerged decades before Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney were even born, ranging from glam rock and blues to punk and British beat pop.

It has been widely recognised as one of the albums of 2012, not least by the Grammy people, but also here by What Would David Bowie Do? for contributing handsomely to this year's listening pleasures. Yes, it may be another hats off to dad rock, or grandpa rock, or whatever snide comparison you wish to apply, but as I experienced up close last night at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, it's the likes of Auerbach and Carney who are, frankly, keeping alive the flame of exciting rock music that used to pack people into LA's Whisky A-Go-Go and the Fillmores East and West back in the day when all anyone wanted was a red guitar, three chords and the truth.

5 - Bat For Lashes - The Haunted Man
As long as I can remember, which isn't long as...what was I saying? Oh, yes... British female artists have been rigidly categorised thus: 'Pop' - Lulu, Sandy Shaw, Petula Clark, Bananarama, Alison Moyet, Annie Lennox, Kylie (yes, she's from Australia, but we count her as one of our own, OK?), Adele, Emeli Sandé; 'Rock' - Sharlene Spitteri, and, er, that's it; 'Off The Telly' - take yer pick from a mass of mediocrity; and 'Uncategorized' - Kate Bush, Florence Welch, Natasha Khan, aka Bat For Lashes. I know there's more, but we haven't got time and, let's face it, I'm right.

Of this trio, you may as well just morph them into a single entity - Katebushflorenceandthemachinebatforlashes - as they're rarely written about in isolation. It's much like being contractually obliged to mention Sean Connery and Daniel Craig in the same sentence as they've both played James Bond. There are obvious parallels between La Bush and The Haunted Man, especially Khan's affinity with unconventional melody, of soundscapes and landscapes, of wistful, whimsical piano motifs and somewhat ethereal woozefests does, that inevitably draw you to compare it with Bush's more recent output, especially the career high and post-modern comeback, Ariel. Khan forges her own path, tackling themes like miscommunication and tragedy with a compelling blend artiness and left-field thinking, plus intrigue and enough drama to make repeated plays both acquiring and ever more richly rewarding.

4 - Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
As denim-clad, motor oil-stained American working class as anything The Boss has committed to tape in his career, Wrecking Ball is the Springsteen album for the age of Occupy, standing up for the modern Depression-blighted America, and all those who struggle within her. Taking well-aimed potshots at Wall Street greed, corporate gorging and any interest Springsteen regards as having contributed to America's downtrodden, Wrecking Ball is, at its simplest, an album for America, by 'meat and potatoes' American, a Levis-wearing toiler, pumping away at a blond Fender Esquire, singing "There's treasure there for the taking, for any hard working man, who will make his home in the American Land."

3 - Paul Weller - Sonik Kicks
It would be hard to imagine Paul Weller wearing even a shred of denim, such is his prevailing commitment to the Mod effete, but in Sonik Kicks he dials his own TARDIS back to 1968 and gathers in the psychedelia of that moment for an album that most would consider his best in years, although that would suggest that its predecessors had been less so. They weren't. It's just that Sonik Kicks is even better.

The prolific Weller presents a third installment in his journey of free-spirited expression, following the pastoral England of 22 Dreams and the boppier Wake Up The Nation, here he rummages around in his musical box of Lego bricks to dismiss any contemporary influences and instead taste from as diverse a reference set as Lou Reed, Nick Drake and even the eccentric Englishness of Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Sonik Kicks deserves attention for its sheer variety and self-assured maturity. It's an album that one moment is about jangly two-minute pop songs and the next, frantic ska, before tripping off into more psychedelia. This is an album which joins Weller's stuffed suitcase of soundtracks to England, riverside picnics, warm summer sun and blades of long grass. He may appear dour, but Sonik Kicks finds him smiling, contented and, perhaps, even more emotionally bare - and comfortably so - than at any time in his career.

2 - Alabama Shakes - Boys & Girls
It's not often that you can fall for an entire album after its first few bars. But that's exactly what happened with Boys & Girls. As sweaty as The South is muggy and mosquito-infested, this is one of the most throat-grippingly brilliant debut albums I've ever heard, brilliantly capturing the Alabama Shakes' reputation for stomping live performances of southern soul and blues-infused swamp rock. Boys & Girls is an album that could easily have been recorded in a single, 38-minute session, such is its no-nonsense feel.

Such stripped-back authenticity is no affectation and, despite the obvious nods to Janice Joplin in Brittany Howard's throatsome singing or Creedence Clearwater Revival in Heath Fogg's riffs (especially on Hang Loose), this is no pastiche, no parody, but a continuation of a musical style unencumbered by contemporary garnish. Boys & Girls is an amazing debut and a relief to anyone worried that the prevalence of Simon Cowell and his television breed has in some way brought about the end of both live music and music built on the simplicity of a voice and three instruments. For the good of us all, the Shakes need to come back with a sophomore effort to reassure the casual listener that this is not a flirtation but a long-term relationship.

1 - Richard Hawley - Standing At The Sky's Edge

One Sunday morning in May, the erstwhile Sean Hannam posted on Facebook that The Observer was streaming the new album from Richard Hawley in its entirety and, as someone who'd hitherto passed Hawley by, it would be worth my Sunday morning indulgence. Thus, from the comfort of my own bed, I dialled up the stream and 2012 took an instantly different musical course. I played that stream two more times before I got out of bed. Up until this point, my musical taste had never extended much to morose Northern rockabillys who appeared happiest keeping their own company in the furthest corner of a deserted pub, a pint of Guinness and a copy of the New Statesman on the go.

Over several acclaimed albums like Lady's Bridge and the ethereal Truelove's Guitar, Hawley had attached his distinctively swoonsome 50s croon to melodic guitar rock, rockabilly, introspective country ballads and sweeping, strings-ahoy epics. Within them found Hawley making subtle commentary on life around him. On Standing At The Sky's Edge, the 45-year-old is positively shaking a fist at a troubled world via an energetic release of psychedelia, huge power chords and reverb so cavernous they only stop when they meet Dante's ice cream van somewhere near the bottom. 

Standing At The Sky's Edge has plenty of dark, plenty of shade and plenty of light. Breathtaking and then surprising by turns, it drags you by the scruff of the neck while at others it leads you by the hand, pulling you through 56 of the most invigorating musical minutes you will enjoy this year. Simply, a stunning record.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

It's great to be here, it's great to be anywhere - Keef turns 69

Britain's Daily Mail, a newspaper you can regard with varying degrees of editorial pointlessness, surmised in June that Keith Richards - the Human Riff, the Human Lab, and a dozen other nicknames reflecting both guitar prowess and indestructibility - was now so broken, so ravaged by arthritic hands and addled memory that he was finding it hard to perform.

Almost in unison, a section of the paper's permanently seething readership waded in with a barrage of reaction, some berating Keef for even being alive, others suggesting the Rolling Stones had ended their relevance a long time before and should now just give up.

This may go some way to explain why, when the band announced their four 50th anniversary shows, a nuclear mushroom cloud appeared above Middle England as concerned representatives of the Mail's readership turned apoplectic at news Richards, Jagger, Watts and Wood - with a combined age of 273 - were to roll once more.

Well, today we can make that 274, as Richards chalks up his 69th birthday. It's an unlikely milestone, even he'll admit. This apparent freak of nature, who only gave up hard drugs eight years ago, has, for the best part of adulthood, tested human pharmaceutical endurance to its limits while seeing so many contemporaries succumb to rock's lethal distractions. He is at a loss to explain how he has survived and others didn't. Perhaps he should just say "pleased to meet you - hope you guessed my name".

Much of Richards' homespun philosophy can be found in his brilliant book Life. A stupendously refreshing read, Life tells Keef's story with well managed honesty and  little obvious  attempt at embellishment, either of the hard truths or the apocryphal tales. It is an engagingly rich story of a boy emerging from London's bombsite-ridden suburbs to embrace the music of America's impoverished south, turning such an unlikely affection into the spiritual heart of the most famous - some maintain greatest - rock and roll band of the last 50 years.

That's an accolade that welcomes challenge: bands have come and bands have gone. "Every generation throws another hero up the pop charts", sang Paul Simon, and the Stones have faced plenty of competition. They've also faced plenty of challenges of their own, not least of which the sibling fractures between Richards and Jagger that have seen them fight, tussle and, seemingly, fall apart irreparably on regular occasions.

Something, however, has always brought them back together again. Richards has always maintained that he and Jagger share a true brotherly love, a bond that occasionally breaks. In his words, Richards has, though, tended to paint Jagger as the more nefarious Glimmer Twin, the posher of the two middle-class Dartford boys, the Stone with the business sense and, now, the knighthood.

Richards, on the other hand, has frequently played up his image as the Stones' pirate captain, the rock'and'roll rogue: unpredictable and possibly dangerous, like John Belushi's character Bluto in Animal House, but beneath it all, fundamentally a good guy.

For a while - particularly in the wake of John Lennon's murder - Richards regularly carried either a knife or a gun, or both. He's not the Stone to be messed with by any order. Just go to YouTube and find the memorable clip from their 1981 tour, when Keith sees a fan jump on stage and starts charging towards him and Jagger (who deftly takes a swerve), removes his Telecaster by the neck and hacks the fan to the ground before strapping the guitar back on to continue playing. "The cat was in my space," said Richards, matter-of-factly, "so I chopped the mother down". That's why you've got to love Keith. Liam Gallagher may have looked like he could do something like that, but you suspect only Keith Richards would.

Over the last few months I have been immersed in the Rolling Stones. Whatever commercial voodoo they performed around their 50th anniversary has clearly worked. I've bought their book and visited the Somerset House exhibition of the book's photographs; I've acquired Blu-ray Discs and DVDs of them in concert in the 70s, 80s and 90s, of them jamming with their great hero Muddy Waters, in the brilliant Stones In Exile documentary, and setting new records on the Bigger Bang tour. And I've spent a frustrating 30 minutes attempting to blow what's left of my life savings on a ticket to one of - any of - their London and New Jersey shows. Somewhere there is a bulldozer with a tongue logo on it shovelling cash into four or five large piles.

While this accumulation will be due in part to Sir Mick Jagger's assumed stewardship of Rolling Stones Inc. (actually, a Dutch-registered public limited company called Promotone BV which holds its annual company meetings in the curious-to-say-the-least location of Amsterdam), the company's Chief Riff Officer and CEO Jagger's fellow Wentworth Primary School, Dartford, alumnus, Richards, might be comfortable with his rewards, but remains at his happiest strumming a blues in an open D tuning.

These last few weeks, the more Stones material I've been exposed to, the more I've come to appreciate their music, especially its subtlety. That is not a word you associate with the Stones, who've often been regarded by music snobs as a Premier League Status Quo for the chugging, thumbs-in-belt-loops-ahoy boogie of Honky Tonk Woman, or the cringeworthy street patois of Miss You, and it's equally abhorrent disco beat.

But then listen carefully to Sympathy For The Devil, Paint It Black or Gimme Shelter, or some of the live standards like Monkey Man or Tumbling Dice or Midnight Rambler, along with lesser known gems hidden away on their 26-odd studio albums. Why, even more recent fare like Love Is Strong and Doom And Gloom - knocked out in a Paris studio over a couple of days - still deliver the goods as far as Rolling Stones songs go.

You could say that for half their careers, the Rolling Stones have faced calls to quit on the grounds that they're too old. Keith Richards, at 69, may be today a more avuncular version of his former self, with his clean living and throaty, bronchial laugh (not to mention his parodic turn as Captain Jack Sparrow's father in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise - with Johnny Depp happy to admit Sparrow was based on Richards), but he and his ageing band have endured.

That endurance has come from tampering little with the brand: The Beatles started out as rock and rollers before discovering psychedelia and inventing progressive rock; The Who applied a rock edge to Tamla Motown; Led Zeppelin deconstructed and then reconstructed the blues; but the Stones are and have always been the Coca-Cola of rock.

Sure, like Coke (Classic anyone?) they've taken a few ill-advised diversions, but today the Stones remain, pretty much, the same thing enjoyed by each generation that has come across them. Snobs blame this absence of variety on a fairly limited musical spectrum, but much of this is down to Keith. It is, mostly, his songs and riffs that have dictated the Rolling Stones musically.

Richards might have willingly - and at times, to his patent regret - left the running of the band to Jagger, but the spirit of the Stones, the heart and soul of the Stones belongs to him. It was Keith, not Brian Jones who found the triangulation point between the Mississippi Delta, Chicago and London. It was Jagger who then took the concoction and turned it into something more exotic, more 5th Avenue than Dartford High Street, like Levi-Strauss turning workwear into the most enduring fashion item of modern history.

But that's why we love Keith. If he has pretensions and delusions of grandeur, he keeps them well hidden. He has amassed a fortune, and his properties display copious evidence of his wealth, but unlike the apparent airs and graces of his writing partner, Richards doesn't overplay the finer things in his life.

To see him on stage today, earnestly toiling away on his collection of Telecasters and other luthiered exotica, is to see a master craftsman at work. He may never be a virtuoso in the manner of a Clapton, a Beck or a Page, but I don't think he particularly cares. And nor should you. Happy Birthday Keith.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Good evening Hammersmith!

You've bought the singles, bought the album, bought the concert ticket, bought the T-shirt, bought your bus ticket home and now you're being asked to buy it all over again as a live album of the show you've only just returned from. And, yes, you will buy it.

If you were at Newark's Prudential Center last night, I'm sure, soon, there will be a live CD/DVD/Blu-ray Disc package of this or one of the three other gigs in the Rolling Stones' run of 50th anniversary shows - two in London, two in New Jersey.

Over their fifty years as a band, they've released no less than 22 live performance albums. Such is their relentless self-merchandising under tireless CEO Mick Jagger (eight of the 22 albums are archive releases, brought out since the Stones' last full tour), that you wouldn't bet against a 23rd.

Stones live albums have, generally, caught the band in their natural musical habitat and, if you're prepared to work your way through the 22, you come notice just how much they have evolved, even if you hold some deep-seated prejudice about the band from London's suburbs who adopted the Chicago blues and went on to become easily the greatest rock and roll band in the world.

You should, then, start with the apostrophe-abusing Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!, released in September 1970 (and re-released in 2010 as highly recommended 40th anniversary box set) captured the band in two shows in New York and Baltimore just as they were in the midst of, arguably, their most creative period, with Let It Bleed already recorded and Sticky Fingers about to go into production.

It captures a band in subtle transformation from boisterous, God-help-us-if-your-daughter-brought-them-home British beat and blues merchants into louche, 70s rock monsters.

The Beatles were, it appeared, on the way out, and new, heavier rivals like Humble Pie and Led Zeppelin were emerging from the 60s. Woodstock, Monterey and Isle Of Wight had set the bar for rock performances for the next few years, as had Jimi Hendrix, who died just three weeks after the Stones released Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! to acclaim, with critics hailing it the best live album ever.

Fast forward to 1978 and The Rolling Stones: Some Girls Live, which was released last year along with the repackaging of Some Girls, and you get the full-on Stones in the 1970s, Keith Richards now clearly out of it on whatever laboratory he was living from, Ron Wood enjoying life as the 'new' Stone.

Musically, though, the 'weaving' of Richards and Wood's guitar is already starting to become more evident on Some Girls Live. Critics have suggested that the junkie Richards became a lazier guitarist, contributing rudimentary riffs to live performances while the more accomplished soloist Wood made all the effort. Not so: on Some Girls Live you can hear a distinct new Rolling Stones emerge, with Charlie Watts - solid to this day - at the back, Bill Wyman's often under-rated bass playing holding it together strongly, Richards and Wood over the top of it all with their guitar fabric, and Jagger out front, camping it up for England like Andy Pandy.

Fast forward again to 2004 and the Live Licks album, recorded on their 40th anniversary greatest hits tour and you have the corporate Stones, a polished, sports stadium band who, like some giant human jukebox, pick and choose their set lists on a night-to-night basis and can command guest appearances from Sheryl Crow (on Honky Tonk Woman) and Solomon Burke on their cover of his song, Everybody Needs Somebody To Love.

There may, inevitably, be some dross in the Stones' 22 live albums, but there are some gems too. But 22 live albums in 50 years: compare that to their great rivals, The Beatles, who barely lasted four years after their first hit record before they gave up touring altogether. The only evidence that The Beatles ever played live at all are the clips of news footage of performances drowned out by pre-pubescent screaming, or the somewhat tired and strained vibe of their 1969 Savile Row rooftop performance. If only someone had only recorded them at Hamburg's Star Club in 1960, or at the Cavern on their triumphant return to Liverpool two years later.

The live album has been one of the music industry's most contested products, regarded as either cynical plundering of the over-benevolent punter's bread, man, or pointless filler between studio albums. As the Rolling Stones have frequently demonstrated, the live album has - and continues to be - fittingly reflective of their supreme stagecraft.

Paul Weller, for example, can be similarly compared, having been responsible for some brilliant in-concert releases over the years, from music press front cover flexidiscs (I still own - somewhere - a Style Council EP from Sounds featuring a blistering version of Curtis Mayfield's Move On Up) to numerous plugged and unplugged sets on his own. And I haven't felt short changed or ripped off by any of them.

While it is true that some live releases are little more than greatest hits collections with added theatrical ambiance, many are deservedly landmark records in their own right. Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison relaunched his career, capturing a raw and emotional performance in front of inmates at California's Folsom penitentiary, and coming on the back of the legendary country singer's struggle with drugs.

With this context, a song like Cocaine Blues becomes more than just ironic, and when you hear a tannoy in the background ordering an inmate to report in somewhere, you have a live album as thrillingly unpolished as possible.

Simon & Garfunkel's Concert In Central Park was another landmark, mostly for the fact it brought the warring duo back together again. The concert wasn't so much meant to be a reunion as a benefit show for New York's Central Park itself.

Despite being in the midst of some of Manhattan's wealthiest real estate, the park was in a state of disrepair. So, apparently, the idea of half a million people traipsing through it for a pop concert seemed to be the answer… Concert In Central Park could be seen as a live greatest hits album of Simon & Garfunkel, which is includes some of their own solo material. It's rough-round-the-edges (Garfunkel is said to have been unhappy with his vocals), but it superbly reminds you what made them folk-rock's superstars.

Rough-round-the-edges, on the other hand, is what you want from The Who. Their Live At Leeds album, with its brown paper cover art, epitomises The Who live throughout their entire career - what you see (and hear) is what you get.

A loud - even on an album - run through their late '60s 'standard' set, with hard core performances of Young Man Blues, Substitute, Eddie Cochran's Summertime Blues, and a 14-minute assault on My Generation, it has been hailed as the best live rock album ever, but that's always going to a subjective viewpoint.

There are, obviously plenty of  live albums to remind us that some acts are no more exciting live as they were in the studio, which will thankfully explain the absence of One Direction Live From The Budokan in your record collections any time soon.

Other live releases early on in careers, however, give fascinating insight in greatness to come. David Bowie's Live In Santa Monica '72 is possibly the greatest example.

It had been available for many years as a bootleg, but in being released as a limited edition CD four years ago, Bowie fans finally had their hands on an official version of a performance by the Dame in the midst of his Ziggy Stardust persona, with guitarist Mick Ronson at his absolute best, with the pair (and the other Spiders) romping through Rock’N’Roll Suicide, Life on Mars, Queen Bitch, John, I'm Only Dancing, The Jean Genie and Suffragette City, the latter presenting punk a full two years before anyone in New York had the idea of getting grungy with rock and roll.

Some live albums have built reputations as notable as many of the greatest studio albums. Frampton Comes Alive! has probably become more famous than any other album in the canon of Pete Frampton, the former Bromley schoolmate of David Bowie and Humble Pie founder.

Released in 1976 it provide to be another contradiction to the era of punk. While, elsewhere, some of Frampton's own contemporaries were spitting their way through the punk explosion (he's only a two years older than Joe Strummer…), here was this frizzy blond-haired pretty boy producing one of the biggest-selling albums of the 1970s, a live double album to boot, and one containing extended guitar solos.

Today, Comes Alive! comes across as somewhat pedestrian, the result of endless spins of the album's Show Me The Way, Baby I Love Your Way and Do You Feel Like I Do America's myriad classic rock radio stations. But there was a time when virtually every record collection featured that blue-spined double disc package with its distinct full-frame cover shot of Frampton looming out.

Another live album of genuine note is Seconds Out by Genesis. Recorded during their 1976 and 1977 tours for their A Trick Of The Tail and Wind And Wuthering records, it presented a band in transition.

After Peter Gabriel left in 1975, and Phil Collins stepped forward to become their new lead singer, the band started shifting towards more accessible material. Genesis were still telling stories, rather than performing pop songs (their first 'love song', Follow You, Follow Me wouldn't appear for another year), but Collins had clearly replaced Gabriel's somewhat aloof theatricality with his own impish, stage school-based cheeky-chappiness, which you can on the likes of Robbery, Assault And Battery and what was, then, their only hit single to date, I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe).

Seconds Out is a brilliant live album for its production quality. Plenty of bands have regarded live albums as well-intentioned 'gifts' for their hard-core fans, a souvenir of a memorable night, an acclaimed tour or simply a must-have for the collection with extended jams and unreleased cover versions capturing the band in their pomp and prime. Others have regarded them as official mitigations of bootleg recordings. Seconds Out is, even today, a live album I love for its authentic capture of the acoustic atmosphere of a big gig - the crowd's roar as a band breaks into its opening number, and complicated and intricate songs that fill up the entire soundstage of your home stereo system to the extent you easily replicate the experience of being there at home. Without the beer-sticky floor of course.

But as album sales dwindle (and, perversely mainstream bands make more money these days from live shows), there is a proportionate decline in live album releases too, presumably because there are marketing people advising that "core demographics" no longer go in for them.

It remains, so it would seem, for the old guard to keep the live album flame lit. Like Led Zeppelin. For a band that didn't really go in for releasing anything other than studio albums in their prime, they have been relatively prolific since their demise, with the awful The Song Remains The Same and How The West Was Won, not to mention Page and Plant's No Quarter 'unplugged' entry. By old, I mean either those old enough to have been on the original Woodstock or Monterey line-ups, or those who wished they'd been old enough to be there.

Led Zeppellin weren't at either Woodstock or Monterey, but then it's arguable that by the time they took hold, they'd have been too big for either festival.

It is ironic that the Zepp have released more live material since they folded than was ever available during their career, with the recently-released multi-format Celebration Day capturing their one-off 2007 show at London's 02 arena in honour of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun.

It was, by all accounts of those who were there, a memorable show. But memorable for what? Probably seeing Page, Plant and Jones together again, with John Bonham's son Jason providing uncannily similar chops to his late dad on drums.

Is it a classic Zeppelin show? Probably not, but this is where the fan's compromise comes to effect: you know it won't be quite like Led Zep were at one of their legendary Los Angeles gigs in the early 1970s, at a time when they were the ultimate rock bad boys on the road, but Celebration Day still goes to demonstrate why Jimmy Page has been one of the greatest rock guitarists since he was a teenage session player from Epsom, Surrey, playing on songs by Lulu, Marianne Faithful and, believe it or not, the Rolling Stones and The Who.

This year's London 2012 Olympics, with its opening and closing ceremonies, perhaps suggested that the big stadium filling acts are in decline. Bruce Springsteen, U2 and their protégés Coldplay are amongst the few truly 'big' stadium bands left for whom you might want to buy a live album afterwards. Coldplay are certainly making the most of their elongated greatest hits show at the London 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony, by releasing Mylo Xyloto Live 2012, which captures the junior pomp rockers in their most arena-packing filling, U2 crown-usurping majesty.

The golden age of live albums was, however, without doubt the late 60s into the early 1980s. Hardly anyone who played Bill Graham's legendary Fillmore in San Francisco, or its sibling Fillmore East in New York during the 70s failed to release a live album on the back of such shows. The Fillmore East's unique acoustics even made for a more pristine recording that captured the hall's legendary ambience.

And thus, between the two venues, there is an enormous list of live releases from the likes of Henrix, The Grateful Dead, Steve Miller, Otis Redding, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Zappa, The Doors, Cream (and other Clapton vehicles), The Byrds, Carlos Santana, The Allman Brothers, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Pink Floyd. Indeed, there was a time when if you hadn't released an album with at least one of the Fillmore venues in the title, you really weren't anything.

Today, do we need them? The live album harks back to an era before everyone carried a recording studio around in their pockets, as they do today. Live albums were meant to prevent bootleggers sneaking shoebox-sized cassette recorders into gigs and making off with second-rate bootlegs.

Today, however, the concert experience is a gymnastic exercise in craning through a sea of smartphones recording shaky but high(ish) definition clips for YouTube and posterity. And often, by the time you've caught the bus home, much of the show you've just seen will have already been posted online, with reasonably good quality picture and sound.

The only thing you don't get on a professionally recorded live album is the noise of people next to the iPhone owner, yakking on about their recurring flare-up of cystitis, or arguing about whose round it is...

Saturday, December 15, 2012

New York - yeah, just like I pictured it

Picture: Simon Poulter
New York was - like Stevie Wonder's Mississippi émigré in Living For The City - just as I'd pictured it when I first came here almost 20 years ago.

American cities are like that. You almost know what you're going to get before you get there. What never prepares you is the scale and, in New York's case, the energy. It's hard to describe, but when you're here, you feel it. It pulses from every street and every block, night and day.

Like all great cities New York commands superlative. Even in the face of Chinese urban expansion, New York is still the world's most densely populated city, and it feels it.

It's 12 million citizens may sprawl across five boroughs but for the most part we think about Manhattan, that Daliesque teardrop of an island seemingly built on one flat piece of Lego and piled high with hundreds of multi-story Lego columns sprouting upwards.

23 square miles of steel and concrete, streams of yellow taxis and constant bustle. New York's energy keeps it going 24/7, and that's just one of the reasons why I love this self-styled "greatest city in the world". It is here that epitomises the image of steel canyons more than anything else.

It's here you want to be, whether melting you credit cards in the 5th Avenue boutiques, or doing equal financial damage for a Broadway show ($200 at face value prices to see Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross anyone?), or the needle-bearing haystack that is Manhattan's bewildering away of restaurants.

You can come here for the weekend and just for the hell of it. Because it's a seven-hour flight that makes a weekend trip doable, because - or, in my case, it's just before Christmas and I needed to come back. I've developed a craving for New York. I don't want it all the time, mind, but having last been here just over a year ago - for a memorable birthday on 11.11.11 - I wanted to gulp in another extended breath of New York's chilly winter air and a whole lot of the holiday season.

New York is an incredible hub of world life. From publishing and fashion to music and theatre, more than any other city in the world, it's where the good things in life take place. It's also where some of the less good things in life take place, but as a tourist, there's very little to bring you to Wall Street.

Not far away, however, is a reason to venture south: the 9/11 memorial. It's hard to imagine the Twin Towers that once stood on that plot. But I remember being overawed by the size of the World Trade Center on my first visit here, taking the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island excursion from Battery Park, with the towers in the background.

They looked like steam funnels, representing the toil and graft that New Yorkers put in, regardless of their trade. Exactly a month after 9/11 I was in a taxi coming over one of the bridges from Queens and I was just stunned by the gap in the skyline. 

The absence of those towers made New York's topography look like an old man's teeth with the front set missing. But on that same visit, I got to recognise the real New York: it's not a compressed jungle of anti-social curmudgeons, but a city just getting on with life. To stand on a street corner and watch ordinary people - office workers, shoppers even street hustlers stop and spontaneously applaud a passing fire engine brought a lump to my throat and a simple memory I will never forget. Because that was New York getting back on its feet.

Picture: Simon Poulter

A month ago it was doing it all over again after Sandy tore up the Atlantic states, turning New Jersey and New York upside down in particularly unpleasant fashion. Once again, New York cleaned up and got back on with being New York.

If you're in the privileged position of having holiday days to burn off before the end of a year, a three or even four-day trip to New York is the perfect destination: never too short to miss out on the mustn't-miss attractions, never too long to feel like you're running out of ideas.

It is absurd to think of Manhattan - even at this time of year - as merely an elongated shopping mall. From a European perspective, retail therapy is still the main reason people come. For Brits, the days of 2-for-1 currency exchange are long gone, but with a pound and and even a euro buying you a dollar-and-half, it still makes sense filling up your second permitted suitcase here (another reason to keep the loathsome Ryanair in Europe...).

Picture: Simon Poulter
But once your plastic has been slapped about like La Motta in Raging Bull, there's no shortage of places to go and things to do, depending on your tastes and interests.

First-time visitors will make a beeline for the Empire State Building, but there is just as thrilling an experience to be had at the top of The Rock, the observation deck up on 30 Rockefeller Plaza - yes, 30 Rock.

For culture you have the magnificent Museum of Modern Art, MOMA, New York’s most popular individual attraction hosting more than five million visitors every year. And it's not difficult to see why.

You may want to spend your entire weekend in New York shopping, but do allow yourself some time to come here (and it's open on Sundays, too, so there's no excuse).

Equally, a little bit of Subway time (and I'm not talking about six inch sandwiches) and you can get out and see the bits of Brooklyn, Queens or rustic Staten Island that Sandy left standing.

All three are areas to devote time to: Brooklyn is a city within a city, and as ethnically diverse as any in the fabulous melting pot that is New York itself. And, should you be so inclined, includes Coney Island, the somewhat quaint seaside resort with its fairground rides providing thrill-seeking New Yorkers with a different type of adrenalin rush that that they normally get just crossing the street.

Then there's Queens, New York's dormitory, founded by the Dutch (the influences are still there - Flushing was named after Vlissingen), and the first borough you're likely to see if you fly in via Kennedy airport. Staten Island is a charming, peaceful appendage to New York, more village than urban sprawl, it is a place to pull on walking boots and explore, and it's only a short ride across the bay on the Staten Island Ferry.

Picture: Simon Poulter

For me, the jewel of New York City is Central Park. Plenty of cities enjoy giant green lungs places like this - London's Regents, Hyde and Richmond parks, Berlin's Tiergarten, Amsterdam's Vondelpark, the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, and so on - but somehow Central Park is the greatest of them all, a beautiful and tranquil oasis in a truly hectic metropolis, curtained by the über-expensive properties of the Upper West and Upper East sides.

Picture: Simon Poulter
Here you can bike ride in safety, stretch your legs and feel at peace with the world, even the at-times crazy world on its borders.

Here you'll also find the tranquil Strawberry Fields, the memorial to John Lennon, who was shot dead in front of his apartment building, The Dakota, just across from the park.

New York can be a mad place. Lennon's death no better example of the kind of darkness that can befall America.

20 children and six adults shot dead yesterday morning at a Connecticut junior school demonstrate how that madness never goes away for long. But that should never be a reason not to come here. New York may be loud, brash and intimidating, but it's intoxicating energy is like the metropolitan equivalent of a shot of Red Bull. You would't want to be drinking it all day long, but a blast every now and again does the soul good. It's great to be back.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Remembering Mr. Pitiful

Early one May morning in 1965, Keith Richards woke up in his St. John's Wood flat with a three-note riff in his head. He grabbed a cassette recorder and an acoustic guitar and quickly committed the riff to tape before going back to sleep. Or so he thought.

"Thank God for that little Philips cassette player," Richards recalled in his autobiography, Life. He knew he'd put a brand new tape in the night before, but on inspection, saw that the tape was at its end. "Then I pushed rewind and there was [I Can't Get NoSatisfaction," and, he explains, 45 minutes of snoring.

"It was just a rough idea," Richards remembered, "the bare bones of the song, and it didn't have that noise." That noise being the demonic Gibson fuzzbox-fed sequence of notes that would become the Rolling Stones' signature song.

Mick Jagger recalls that his Glimmer Twin's original sounded more country on the original acoustic guitar-played tape. "It didn't sound like rock. But [Keith] didn't really like it, he thought it was a joke... He really didn't think it was single material, and we all said 'You're off your head.' Which he was, of course."

Richards' dissatisfaction with Satisfaction was that he felt the riff should, in fact, have been performed by horns rather than a guitar. Two months after a horns-free Satisfaction was recorded for posterity - and acclaim as one of the greatest pop songs ever - Georgia-born soul and blues singer Otis Redding walked into Stax Studios in Memphis to record, over the weekend of July 9, 1965, his third album, Otis Blue.

Amongst the songs - and at the suggestion of Booker T & The MGs guitarist Steve Cropper - Redding took a stab at Satisfaction Richards' guitar riff was replaced by a more upbeat brass fusillade by Wayne Jackson and the Memphis Horns. The song, dreamed up thousands of miles away in a North-West London apartment, was finally recorded as Keith Richards had imagined it.

With a collection of Redding originals like Respect and I've Been Loving You Too Long and covers like Satisfaction, Sam Cooke's Change Gonna Come, Solomon Burke's Down in the Valley, and B.B. King's Rock Me BabyOtis Blue established Redding as the undisputed King of Soul.

It was, however, a throne he would continue to occupy for just two more years before - until December 10, 1967 - 45 years ago this week - when he tragically joined Buddy Holly, Jim Reeves, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens in a tragic line-up of early pop stars to die in plane crashes.

Redding's Beechcraft Twin Beech plane - which he often co-piloted - was a symbol of his rapidly acquired business acumen.

Unlike many of his blues and R'n'B contemporaries, who invariably had found themselves ripped off contractually and perpetually touring to pay off divorces and paternity suits, Redding had, by the time he died at just 26, built a portfolio of good investments, such as the plane and his beloved 'Big-O' ranch in Round Oak, Georgia.

Born in the small Georgia town of Dawson (Pop. 5500) on September 9, 1941, the Redding family moved to the 'big' city of Macon, 100 miles away. At school, Otis discovered a talent for music, repeatedly entering a local talent show, winning its five-dollar prize 15 times before being barred from entering the contest further.

By the age of 21, Redding had become a member of a local Macon band, Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers. When they landed a recording session at Stax Records in Memphis, the tall, striking Redding managed to secure a solo recording for himself - which produced the ballad These Arms of Mine.

Like the hits that followed - Try A Little Tenderness, My Girl, Mr Pitiful and I Can't Turn You Loose (later adopted by The Blues Brothers) - These Arms of Mine instantly captured Redding's strength: a formidable voice, seeped in the South's gospel, blues and even country music, that was both hopelessly romantic and rebelliously sexual at the same time.

Satisfaction and Otis Blue catapulted Redding into another level of superstardom, notably a black performer challenging the pop charts at a time of continued segregation in America.

As the '60s progressed - in all meanings of the word - so did Redding's career as he established his leadership of the soul movement, leading packaged tours of Stax artists throughout North America and Europe, touring along with protogées like Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas and Arthur Conley.

Redding made worshippers out of young British blues performers, like Eric Burdon of The Animals who became a close friend, and Pete Townshend of The Who, whose 'maximum R'n'B' maxim fitted perfectly with the sweaty soul that the elegant Redding had crafted in Memphis and exported across the northern hemisphere. Another disciple was schoolboy Peter Gabriel who, in 1967, travelled up from his outrageously exclusive public school, Charterhouse in deepest Surrey, to see Redding play in London.

"I was extremely lucky, when I was 17 years old, to go and see Otis Redding perform at the Ram Jam Club in Brixton," Gabriel told ABC's Nightline in 2010. "When he came on, it was like the sun coming out. It was just this amazing voice, totally in command, great band, great grooves and passion that permeated everything." 19 years later, Gabriel repaid the impact Redding had had on him by releasing Sledgehammer, an unexpurgated tribute that even included Wayne Jackson and the Memphis Horns on the track.

When The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, on June 1, 1967, barely five years had lapsed since them recording the sugary I Wanna Hold Your Hand. And yet here they were with an opus of free-thinking psychedelia, that opened up and expanded people's minds in a way few recordings had done before. Otis Redding listened to it constantly as he took temporary accomodation on a houseboat on the other side of the San Francisco Bay in the hippy commune of Sausalito while playing a week's residency at the Fillmore West. Inspired by Sgt. Pepper and the body of water between him and San Francisco, he wrote his own signature song, (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.

Compared with the energetic oomph of much of his other songs, Dock Of The Bay was a gentle, simple song, musically and lyrically. A strummed guitar motif, which seemed to copy the gentle lapping of the cold bay's water against the houseboat, was married to the down-home story of Otis's life so far - "I left my home in Georgia, Headed for the 'Frisco bay". It became his biggest hit. And the last song he ever recorded.

On the night of Sunday, December 10, 1967, while at the pinnacle of his career, Otis Redding's Beechcraft crashed into a lake in Madison, Wisconsin, while attempting to land at the nearby municipal airport. The crash killed Redding and four members of the Bar-Kays, his backing band. He was just 26-years-old and left behind his wife, Zelma and their three children Dexter, Carla and Otis III.

"The irony of Otis Redding was his personal ambition to fill the gap left in the soul world by the shooting in 1964 of Sam Cooke," wrote Soul Music Monthly magazine in a tribute published soon after Redding's death. "In an all-too-short career he achieved that ambition — and achieved it so decisively that in the last four years no one has filled the even larger gap left by his own death."

"His loss was all the greater because he was the man who turned soul from a minority interest in Britain into a major explosion," SMM added.

There have been plenty of soul singers since - singers cut from the same southern traditions, white singers like Janis Joplin who have channeled the same vocal passion. But not even contemporaries like Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Eddie Floyd, Isaac Hayes, Ike and Tina Turner, Al Green, Marvin Gaye or Sly Stone came close to the lethal cocktail that Otis Redding perfected for the five short years of his career.

"His death was a loss to the whole world," said Steve Cropper at the time, reflecting the sentiment of the entire 'Memphis Brotherhood'. "Nobody will ever know what he had in store for them. He was just starting to get into something. He was starting to get out of hard rhythm and blues. He went beyond that. He was hitting everybody all over the world."

Redding's influence found its way far and wide: Peter Gabriel may have been hiding it while performing Supper's Ready in Genesis, but as a former drummer stimulated by 'groove', there was a frustrated soul boy fighting to get out of that prog rock titan. You could say much the same about Robert Plant - a blues singer performing heavy rock - he, too, was channeling the boy from Macon, Georgia.

Otis Redding may have been a soul performer, but the southern blues were within him. The irony, however, of him covering the Rolling Stones' most famous song is that he helped turn them into an even bigger R'n'B band, still going 45 years after that fateful night in 1967.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Dignity restored?

Many years ago, when he was a stand-up comedian and not creating musicals about Queen, Ben Elton performed a brilliant routine about our small-mindedness when travelling on public transport.

In particular, he drew attention to how we become utter gits when trying to avoid spending a train journey sat next to anyone, and especially anyone undesirable, you know, moron with tinny music seeping from his headphones, musty old person chain-sucking Worthers Originals, any member of parliament.

Thus, Elton surmised, we wait at the platform gate with "Double seat, double seat, gotta get a double seat," riffing away in our heads because, let's face it - when it is clearly better to arrive than to travel, because the latter is usually purgatory - having that single space next to you on a train is public transport nirvana.

When sharing your travels with others, space - and especially personal space - is a premium. Like prisoners sharing overcrowded cells, any square inch you can call your own is a square inch of dignity maintained. This - and Elton's 'Double Seat' bit - reared up in my consciousness this week when European budget air travel pioneer easyJet announced that it was "phasing in" allocated seating. In other words, phasing out the dignity-stripping experience of you, your travelling companions and the little luggage you can take on board, legging it across a rain-strafed apron to be up the plane steps to bag yourself a window seat or a row of three.

Like Elton's granny-bashing charge to acquire dual-perch rail comfort, the queue for an unallocated seat with airlines like easyJet brings out the very worst in people. Everyone is considered an adversary, no matter how benign their appearance. You stand there in the queue, shuffling inch-by-inch as it hunches closer to the thin strip of elasticated tape that is the only thing keeping you herded in like sheep, waiting for your boarding group to move.

If you've paid for 'Speedy Boarding', you smugly look upon those without, knowing that your 50 metre dash to the aircraft door will reward you with an entire jet plane to choose your seat from. You momentarily think of those poor suckers in their 'ordinary' groups who'll just have to take their chances like refugees fleeing a war-torn country. Yes, I'm not proud, but I, too, have compared those passengers in the final boarding group to those desperate Vietnamese trying to board the last American Huey out of Saigon.

When the airport's most powerful person - the airline employee whose swipe card opens the departure gate exit - finally declares its time to go, normally decent people are unleashed on each other in feral competition. You couldn't imagine Cary Grant traveling this way.

So, following a trial early this year, easyJet has decided to join the grown-ups of air travel and is introducing allocated seating. This, trills their press release, "because passenger research showed that the boarding process could be a source of stress for some customers and in some case,  a barrier to them flying with easyJet." No shit, Sherlock.

"Offering allocated seating on all of our flights is the single, biggest change the airline has undertaken in its history and an example of easyJet trying to do all it can to make travel easy and affordable for our passengers," explained the airline's UK director, Paul Simmons, stating that passengers had told them  that allocated seating "was important to them", presumably because that's how it has worked throughout the modern history of commercial aviation, where you would at least be offered "window or isle", and in the bad old days of flying like a beagle in a perfume laboratory, "smoking or non-smoking?".

I know it's naughty of me to chide easyJet alone: flying Southwest Airlines in America - the airline on whose business model was largely copied by easyJet and the other low-cost carriers - is an exercise in tactical gamesmanship that wouldn't go amiss on the sports field.

As someone who used to fly Southwest frequently out of Silicon Valley's gateway airport, San Jose, I got to recognise the lengths fellow passengers went to ensure they were in 'Boarding Group A', and avoid the badge of condemnation that was 'Boarding Group D'.

There was a technique to getting into Group A, but it required dedication. Getting to the gate by 6.30am for a 7.30 flight to San Diego was rarely enough when you'd arrive to discover a small troop of hardened road warriors camped out in front of the desk, having been their since 3am the day before, as if queuing outside the Apple store for the latest iPhone. Madness. Just to get a window seat.

Budget air travel may have brought us closer the destination, but certainly not the experience. In giving us affordable access to exotic city destinations, or in Ryanair's case, airports 100km from exotic city destinations, our inner gits have been unleashed cheaply on the world.

This is a far cry from the era when jetting off for a weekend in Biarritz meant wearing a suit and smoking a pipe while stewardesses - as they could be called then - served martinis at 30,000 feet. Now, you have to be dressed for hand-to-hand combat at the gate.

That said, 9/11 took much of the blazers-and-pearls glamour out of air travel. In America, where prior to that atrocity getting on and off planes was somewhat akin to catching a bus, flying by plane became a shoe-removing, belt-undoing, strip-searching ordeal, replicated everywhere else. Before you'd even started struggling with that packet of in-flight nibbles, you were exhausted by the sheer D-Day landing craft crapshoot of getting on to the plane itself.

While the nightmare of airport security may be something we all have to endure - regardless of the class of travel - the notion of elitism between travel classes has never been a major problem.

However, the idea that, by paying an extra £7.50 for easyJet's former Speedy Boarding option gives you a decidedly unegalitarian edge over your fellow passengers, who will sit in the same seats, with the same class of service, and the same menu of extortionately-priced sandwiches and soft drinks, makes it all the more absurd.

I made it a personal policy not to fly with the budget airlines some time ago. For a start, I discovered their savings were rarely that. Once you add up all the extras, fees and spurious charges, you more or less pay the same with a 'scheduled' carrier as with a low-cost flyer. And why should you have to be put through the grief of paying for your ticket, paying extra for your boarding card, extra for a bag slightly larger than a pencil case, a 400% mark-up on refreshments? It doesn't make much sense at all.

However, easyJet's abandonment of the free-for-all hasn't been at the expense of extra charges. You will still be charged £3 if you want a specific seat, £12 for a seat in the front row or £8 if you want sit in rows 2 to 5. Bizarrely, if your preference is an exit row, which will have a little more knee room than the rest of the plane, easyJet will take £12 off you. It's worth noting that on most easyJet flights - which operate Airbus planes - the mid-plane exits are over the wings. Which are also the planes fuel tanks. Not that ideal a location in the event of a crash. Just sayin'.

Ryanair, the market leaders in finding new ways to screw money out of the passenger, have also introduced preference-paid seating. However, in charging £10 for an exit row seat, reports started appearing that their aircraft were taking off without anyone sat next to an emergency exit, a legal requirement under many aviation regulators - and which prompted the Irish Aviation Authority to investigate.

Still, easyJet maintain that it's us, this is all about. "This is an example of easyJet trying to do all it can to make travel easy and affordable for our passengers," said Carolyn McCall, easyJet's chief executive.

"Our customers asked us to trial allocated seating and we are really pleased with the positive passenger feedback during the trial". As should McCall's shareholders. The new system means that easyJet will now be able to make money from all seats on a plane rather than the 30 they reserved for Speedy Boarding passengers.

Travel does broaden the mind, and unleash our fantasies. Who doesn't feel like James Bond when first entering a hotel room, opening and closing wardrobes just to ensure trouble isn't lurking. But the experience of getting there comes at a cost.