Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What did I miss at Chelsea? Nothing, apparently.

Twitter/Chelsea FC

The arrangement we had was this: I would go away on holiday for a couple of weeks, recharge the batteries, reconnect with reality and all that, and Chelsea would do something about their form. Thus, a 4-0 win over Maccabi Tel-Aviv, a 2-0 win over Arsenal, and a 4-1 win over Walsall were recorded.

And then the day before I get on the plane home, a 2-2 draw against Newcastle. OK, perhaps a warnng. And then last night, 48 hours after I'd returned to my adopted Parisian soil, Chelsea lost to Porto. Coincidence?

Well, right now, I'll take any explanation. Whatever confidence and mental strength returned to José's team while I was soaking up the Sicilian sunshine had evaporated by last night, and with much the same rapidity as my tan is fading. The most perturbing thing of all is that Mourinho, for all the sports press's conciliatory acknowledgement of his proven brilliance as a manager, currently appears to be moving in the opposite direction of the plot. Why else would he have moved on from blaming errant doctors for his team's ills, to singling out individual players...and not exactly the right ones?

Before last night's game there was talk him that no Chelsea player was 'untouchable', with up to six players at risk of being dropped for the Champions League group game against his old club. Noticeably, John Terry sat the entire game out on the substitutes' bench, with last season's PFA Players' Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year, Eden Hazard, suffering a similar penance until 20 minutes from the end.

Granted, Terry's pace has increasingly been a question (face facts - he'll never be Esher's answer to Usain Bolt, which explains his choice of disabled bays to park outside chip shops...) when the faster, younger Kurt Zouma is available, but even then the 34-year-old's lionine spirit has carried Chelsea through many a European fixture.

Hazard's starting absence was more baffling: true, he hasn't been the player he was last season, but he's still one of the quickest and most inventive forwards in the game. Loic Remy, Oscar and Radamel Falcao didn't even get on the plane to Portugal, suggesting they were being made to atone for their lack of success in front of and around goal. But has Costa really been any better? Oscar does, it must be said, blow hot and cold, which might explain why Mourinho chose the on-fire Willian, plus Pedro and Ramires to start in the attacking midfield roles.

However, one of the real villains of the piece, Branislav Ivanovic, continues to play and, in Terry's absence, captains the side. He has consistently been the worst element in a chronically ineffective defence so far this season, and yet for apparently spurious reasons, Mourinho seems to prefer him over Azpiliqueta playing at right-back, with newboy Baba Rahman coming in on the left.

Even when it is obvious to the most comprehension-challenged individual like me that Ivanovic has gone missing too often - last night he lost Brahimi, which eventually lead to André André (so good they named him twice) scoring on the rebound just before half time - something seems to be perilously wrong about his apparently untouchable inclusion.

And if the answer to Matic undeperforming in the holding position is to bring in John Obi Mikel - whose ever-presence in the team for the last nine seasons has baffled everyone - you can be easily tempted to think that Mourinho is now writing his teamsheets in green crayon.

On the one hand he defends his selections as not being personal ("No punishment, just a decision" - an explanation not far from Michael Corleone's "its strictly business"...) and then in the same breath denounce the woeful defending ("It makes me really angry because the easiest thing to do is to defend set-pieces"), which may have been improved by not having the worst defender out on the pitch.

There is, too, some valid argument from Rio Ferdinand last night on BT Sport that Chelsea lack leadership on the pitch. Ivanovic - the club's vice-captain - is nowhere near Terry in this regard. In fact, despite Terry being regarded by most non-Chelsea fans to be as reprehensible an individual as it's possible to be, short of beng a practising pedarist or Donald Trump, he is by far one of the greatest leaders on the pitch English football has produced in a generation.

And, yet, when his leadership is needed most, he's on the bench, starting at the tracksuit stitching on the assistant coach sat in front of him.

There is something foul and ragged about Chelsea right now. As WWDBD? wrote a couple of weeks ago, the mentality of the side which so imperiously won the Premier League title last season has disappeared. It's down to the manager to fix it, but will he if players are being arbitrarily dropped?

Mourinho appears to have tried most tricks in his Special One playbook: in the course of the last six weeks of competitive play, Chelsea have suffered five defeats. During this time, he has attempted to deflect attention (casualty: Dr. E Carneiro), he has been beguilingly nice about his under-performing players, he has cranked up the criticism and maid veiled threats, and then gone and dropped players which, frankly, could have been useful.

Of the players that have responded, only Begovic (who had a mighty wobble during pre-season) has shone, with Willian and, as a sub, Ramires demonstrating any kind of fight of the kind Terry himself wouid and has exhibited in the past.

Fight is not a word you would readily choose to use with Diego Costa, and when he's not trying to start one, or suspended from causing one, is at least a threat. Still, he himself questioned the mentality of the players around him: "We are all united. It's not a good moment now. We must do more," he said, presumably through an interpreter on the club website. "We have a good squad with a great deal of quality. We have maybe lost some confidence in three or four games."

There is no maybe or some confidence about it. The mindset at Chelsea right now is all wrong. It's up to the manager to fix it. And maybe, just maybe, the application of tough love isn't the way to do it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Island Life - holidaying in Montalbano’s back yard

© Simon Poulter 2015

Let’s just agree on this, right away: there is no right or wrong when it comes to holidays. One person’s Andean hillwalking is another’s brass-rubbing in Norfolk. Equally, you are more than entitled to spend two weeks at some Mediterranean drum doing nothing more demanding than reading Grisham while turning a darker shade of mahogany. 

Holidaymakers are welcome to their Maldive scuba-ing, their Andalusian basket-weaving, their Phuket beach bumming, their Cornish "chillaxing" or even their Disneyland/world adrenalin rushing and endless queuing. All these are fine by me. Because a holiday is what you make it, right? It’s your day off or long weekend or week or three-month sabbatical to do whatever makes you feel good, rested and better. 

Me, I start out with good intentions. I’ll say to myself that this year I’ll satisfy myself just by loafing about poolside, with sleeping the primary meat in a sandwich of the outbound and return flights. However, it rarely - if ever - ends up that way. 

I have, previously, chosen a week at an ersatz boutique hotel in Los Angeles, under the false expectation of getting papped on the rooftop terrace amongst the enfamed and glamorous, in the hope of it leading to a career in film/television and impossible riches beyond. Alas, while my man boobs may have provided momentary interest to an idle and, frankly, myopic photographer, I soon realised just how far out of my league I was in the LA hotel narcissism stakes and spent the rest of that holiday stuck in traffic listening to classic rock radio.

© Simon Poulter 2015

This year, and from where I write, I’ve returned to Sicily. Again, with the sworn intention of doing nothing except alternating sleeping with dips in the pool, eating, and reducing my accumulation of rock and roll biographies. But, as Nostradamus himself could have predicted without so much as batting an eyelid, the hire car keys have proven too much of a temptation to simply leave in the hotel safe. Because, so it would seem, I am a restless soul when confronted by beauty.

This is my fourth visit to Sicily, the first being 1997 when I arrived on the day of Princess Diana’s funeral, in what turned out to be a blessed escape from hearing Elton John singing “Goodbye English rose…” for the billionth time that week. Some have politely “questioned” (i.e. made thinly-veiled criticism) my return to somewhere I’ve been to before: yes, I know there’s a world out there, and that Asia, Australia and New Zealand, South America, the Middle East and even parts of both my home country and [current] adopted nation offer destinations I could have seen for the very first time. There are even a few of Uncle Sam’s 50 states in which I’ve yet to breathe the local air, something that might come as a surprise to my kith and kin.

So sue me, then, if I’ve shown no ambition by coming back to this giant Dorito perched off Italy’s big toe. Quite why I love Sicily so, however, has only really occurred to me on this trip, and that is the realisation that it is a feast for all senses so gargantuan that you wish you could just ask for a doggy bag with which to consume more of it when you get back home. 

There are plenty of places that deliver what Sicily does - perfect weather, pristine beaches, stunning scenery, fascinating history, dribblingly-good food and wonderful people - but few that deliver all of it so nonchalantly, almost to the point of lacking any ambition to do so. And that’s the part I like.

© Simon Poulter 2015

Sicily - as a land - isn’t knowingly pretty. It’s not one of those Gwyneth Paltrow-perfect places that, if it didn’t live and breathe, you would swear was a tourist authority construct. But nor is its beauty just skin-deep.

We Brits and our Yankee cousins, in particular, can bang on about Tuscany, for example, with contractually-obliged references to undulating hills, chianti, and your pick of Florence, Sienna or Lucca (and don’t get me wrong, but these are cities and a region I adore), but Sicily delivers graduated degrees of visual exhilaration and geographic intoxication in an enticingly different manner, and, in my view, in more substantial quantities.

First of all, Sicily isn’t Italy. It’s Sicily. An island fought over by X, Y, and Z and several more in between over the course of ancient and modern history. Today it might enjoy semi-autonomy from whichever government is this week running the country, but it is no more “Italy” than Russia is a part of either Europe or Asia. 

It’s this individualism that makes Sicily such a perfect pace for the Italianophile to spend a couple of weeks: you get to enjoy the bits of Italy you like - mad driving, breathtaking architecture and insanely ornate places of worship, food and drink you would wallow in like Gina Lollobrigida in the Trevi fountain if you could - while consciously turning a blind eye towards the things you don’t like. That, ashamedly, are the obvious signs of poverty that remain in Italy’s less than prosperous Mezzogiorno, and the husks of suspiciously incomplete buildings that dot the countryside in the most incongruous manner - multi-story commercial buildings in the middle of nowhere and miles from any urban centre, that have been started and then abandoned. 

Some will hint at criminal involvement, others corruption in both high and low places, while others will simply be resigned to it being what it is, much like the filth of fly-tipped rubbish that piles up uncollected alongside roads (as do prostitutes who ply their trade openly on bizarrely remote stretches of highway, like lay-by fruit sellers, so to speak).

© Simon Poulter 2015

Intense summer heat and the genetic makeup of myriad invading peoples have made Sicilians a hardy breed. In towns that cling to hills like limpet colonies, neighbours live on top of, underneath and right beside each other. Proximity is not a social drawback here as it is to us repressed Brits. Thus a Sicilian will stand on your heels in a queue, or attach themselves to your rear bumper without once considering the imposition it causes. Being close is just their way.

Speaking of Sicilian roads, they are worthy of their own guidebook alone [*makes note to call publisher next week*]. If you take the Italian reputation for cavalier driving and then crank it up past 11, you will come close to the motoring experience here. 

Overtaking on stretches of highway where it is obviously unadvisable is as much a part of the way of life as the nuclear-strength coffee which, now I think of it, probably contributes to the driving culture. There’s no point in harrumphing when you see a car coming towards you on your side of the road here - it knows what it is doing, as does everyone else…even if a head-on collision of the most dramatic and calamitous kind is clearly about to happen. But never does.

In mitigation, there is a cause: apart from the three main autostrada - between Palermo and Catania, Messina and Syracusa, and Syracusa and Gela (except it doesn't get that far) - driving anywhere in Sicily can be an exercise in extreme patience as all the roads are single carriageway. Which means on weekdays you will get stuck behind a procession of tectonically slow trucks belching out acrid diesel smoke, while a hotshot in an Alfa impatiently sits on your tail waiting to accelerate past. In a no-passing zone, obviously. 

Like other crazy car cultures - Paris and cities in south-east Asia spring immediately to mind - there is something intuitive about motoring in Sicily. It shouldn't work but it just does, like ant colonies. Miraculously, no-one ever seems to get in anyone else’s way, regardless of the obvious risks taken.

What Sicily lacks, quite deliberately it would seem, in major automotive infrastructure it makes up for in roads that edge their way around the magnificent Sicilian interior, hugging hillsides and coursing through hilltop towns high enough to feel like you're flying, before twisting and turning down into deep valleys

Sicily can be a driver’s paradise. While there are plenty of places where it is patently not - Palermo being one, trying to park in most of the other urban attractions being another - the island is criss-crossed with gloriously rolling roads where you can ivariably be the only human being for several kilometres in any which direction. 

Some of these roads are awful, pothole-infested disasters, but many others allow the time to meander the breathtaking Sicilian interior, its seismic history having carved out in great, fertile valleys and mountains with towns nestling in them like something out of Mordor.

At its eastern end, it is impossible to go anywhere without seeing the enormous, classically conical outline of Mount Etna looming in the haze. No wonder it inspired Greek legends. With its ever-present puffs of sulphuric smoke, and occasional up-spits of lava and rock, it's an awe-inspiring sight that looms over Catania like an imperious guard. Indeed, Etna’s reoccurring prominence is such that you see it from everywhere and in everything - rather like Roy Neary, Richard Dreyfuss’s Devil’s Tower-obsessed telephone engineer in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

© Simon Poulter 2015

Indeed so much of Sicily is cinematic, and, yes, as you travel through it, it’s hard not to have Nino Rota’s music from that Coppola epic in your head. Many a tourist will head for the very real Corleone, not just for its literary and cinematic connection (including being, ironically, birthplace of Al Pacino’s maternal grandparents), but because of its genuinely grim history. It is, though, a pretty, if functional town and, presumably, well used to tourists traipsing through it. 

© Simon Poulter 2015
Pacino’s scenes in The Godfather as the young Michael Corleone, on the lam after shooting the murderous Sollozzo and his corrupt police ally McCluskey in New York, were filmed at the eastern end of the island, in and around Etna and Taormina. It is well worth the pilgrimage to the altitudinal town of Savoca to see Bar Vitelli, where he asks for the owner’s daughter’s hand in marriage, later leading to her death and his return to America. The current proprietors are not as accommodating, but they are extraordinarily nice people, the drinks are cold, the ice cream is exquisite, and it provides a very welcome refuge from the intense midday heat,

During my first visit to Sicily I was asked by a close relative, who will remain nameless, how conspicuous the Mafia were here, as if expecting to confirm men in black suited men on street corners flipping coins like George Raft. They’re not, but that said, organised crime's presence here is well documented. 

The Sicilian economy - indeed the economy of the entire 'Mezzogiorno' south of Italy - seems unable to escape the fingers of mafia groups, though Sicily’s Cosa Nostra has been eclipsed in recent years by the more powerful ‛Ndrangheta operating from across the Straits of Messina in Calabria, and by the Napoli-based Camorra. Barely a night goes by without television news reporting a capo's arrest or a racket being broken up. Still, you have more chance of encountering a shark than a mafioso, and as we all know, the odds of bumping into Jaws himself is pretty slim to begin with.

But if there is one criminal influence that is bringing tourists to the island, it is the fictional police inspector Salvo Montalbano of Andrea Camilleri’s Il Commissario Montalbano novels and the 26 brilliantly engaging, feature-length TV films made by Italy’s RAI since 1999.

© Simon Poulter 2015
Camilleri set his books in the fictional southern Sicilian town of Vigàta, imagined to be in the area of south-western Sicily where he grew up. The TV films, however, were filmed around the historic south-eastern towns of Ragusa, Scicli, Modica and Noto, as well as the picturesque seaside resorts of Punta Secca (where you can find la casa di Montalbano - now a fully functioning B&B) and Donnalucata, the latter of which I have spent the last two weeks.

Quite rightly, the Montalbano films (and, more recently, the prequel series Il Giovane Montalbano - ‘The Young Montalbano’), have worked like no regional advertising campaign ever could. They have elevated the Baroque beauty and sleepy sandstone of these towns via complex and invariably surprising whodunnits, and their cast of regulars - Luca Zingaretti (with whom I share a birthday - I mention apropos of nothing) as the elder Montalbano, the preening deputy Mimi Augello, Fazio his loyal understudy, and the clownish Catarella, the station receptionist (played by Angelo Russo, a native of Ragusa itself). I implore you to buy the Montalbano box set. Clichéd as it sounds, each of the almost two-hour films have the magical ability to transport you to this sub-drenched corner of Sicily.

Getting here for real, however, has become somewhat easier. On my last visit, three years ago, the only option was to fly in to Catania’s Fontanarossa airport and then endure a lengthy drive through the baking countryside to the coast. In 2013, however, the former Cold War airbase at Comiso (the American nuclear cruise missile bunkers are still visible next to the runway…) was opened up to serve commercial airlines, with Ryanair - yes, I’m sorry - becoming the first to fly and out from various parts of Europe (though at least, for once, Comiso is actually close to where you might intend to stay...). Alitalia have since added a scheduled daily service, while charter carriers fly in during the main summer season. It should only be a matter of time before others cotton on to the appeal of this region of Sicily.

Because even if you only come here on a Montalbano pilgrimage, you will be rewarded and then some. Not for nothing has the Val di Noto been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site for the architectural glories of the seven towns within it, many the result of remarkable rebuilding work after an earthquake in 1693.

To return to my opening argument, you can, if you want, come to Sicily and plonk yourself down on one if its southern coast’s pristine beaches for two weeks and never even bother walking up the steps of a cathedral. But if, like me, you are possessed with a mildly inquisitive nature, or even a fully restless spirit, you can have both the beach time and the exploration time on this island and still feel rested and nourished. 

You can live like a king for relatively little, dining out on all manner of aquatic fauna (the pesce spada alla griglia - grilled swordfish - is to be recommended) and indulging the deliciously zesty local wines. You can indulge history or simply soak up the sun. Holiday life, to borrow from Talk Talk, is truly what you make it.

© Simon Poulter 2015

Friday, September 25, 2015

Some actual Bowie news!

What Would David Bowie Do? has never idled for too long on The Dame himself, as that was never its purpose. But today it enjoys no end of pleasure to declare that, being September 25, it is not only [KLAXON!] exactly three months to Christmas Day, or that it is the day that New Order release their hugely anticipated new album Music Complete, but that it is also one of those hens teeth-rare days when there is some actual, proper Bowie news.

I say "some", but don't go off too half-cocked: the day didn't begin, as it did on Bowie's birthday in 2013, with - gasp! - a new single and - gasp again! - a new album forthcoming (although it is believed that there could be plenty more to come in the middle distance).  

No, today's bounty is the release of David Bowie: Five Years - 1969-1973, the first of a series of career-spanning box sets, and which contains the first six original studio albums, including newly remastered versions of David Bowie AKA Space OddityThe Man Who Sold The WorldHunky Dory and Pin Ups, and a remix of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars previously only available as part of that album's 40th anniversary package. On top of that there is Re:Call 1, a two-disc compilation of non-album singles, single versions and B-sides, and two live albums - the brilliant (and once only available as a bootleg) Live Santa Monica '72, along with Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture Soundtrack. 

Enough? No, there's even more: a previously unreleased single edit of All The Madmen that was never issued, as planned, for the US, and Holy Holy, a 1971 single for Mercury that has never been available since. Add to the package a "lavish" (aren't they always?) colour booklet featuring a considered introduction by head Kink, Ray Davies, and notes from long-time producer Tony Visconti. All of this is available in a choice of either a 12-CD package or a 13-disc vinyl set, all pressed in 180g, which could present a transportation challenge to Shoreditch hipsters on their vintage bicycles.

Box sets of this kind are, of course, for prosperous completists and the wealthily curious (the CD package comes in at £98 while the vinyl set runs to an eye-watering £185), but there is enormous merit to such indulgence, as this particular collection charts the formation of the David Bowie character we have come to worship today.

The David Bowie album, with Space Oddity at its outset, presents an artist moving on from anonymous flirtation with R&B and the theatricality of Anthony Newley and Jacques Briel, to grasp the zeitgeist of 1969's new toy, outer space, drafting in the talents of then-Strawb Rick Wakeman, Mick Wayne, Visconti and Herbie Flowers, amongst others to construct this musical world that was neither in the psychedelic camp of the day, or the prog rock and folk rock camps that were to be set up in the subsequent years.

But even that album was just a sharpening of the stick for the incredible run that would follow, starting with The Man Who Sold The World - the dress rehearsal for Ziggy and the Spiders (with Bowie working with Mick Ronson and 'Woody' Woodmansey for the first time) - taking more familiar form with Hunky Dory (an assault of ready classics like Changes, Oh! You Pretty Things, the astonishing Life on Mars, Andy Warhol and Queen Bitch) followed by Ziggy and Aladdin Sane (which met a lukewarm response on release, but still contains giants like Drive-In Saturday, Panic in Detroit and The Jean Genie), and only wobbling slightly with the disappointingly executed covers album, Pin Ups (Sorrow being its only real highlight).

With Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, the 'drug years' and the Berlin trilogy to be chronicled in the next box sets or sets, Five Years, together with all the accessories that accompany the first six albums within it, establishes the artistic enormity and audaciousness of David Bowie's prolific first decade as a serious performer. Even if that art tailed off in the 1980s, the 13-year period from Space Oddity to Let's Dance is one unrivalled by any other musician I can think of. Its first act, chronicled here, can only be - and should be - marvelled at.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Comfortable? Yes. Numb? Not quite…: David Gilmour - Rattle That Lock

As qualified students of This Is Spinal Tap know only too well, solo projects can be torturous, laboured exercises in vanity imbued with a touch of petulance.

Some, though, unleash talents hitherto hidden by stronger forces in the mother band. A case in point is George Harrison who, having accepted his place amid the creative river of molten magma that was L&M, erupted through a fissure with his own release of tectonic pressure, the extraordinary three-disc All Things Must Pass.

Though he was to never, really, hit such highs again in his solo career, when playing the Fab fan's parlour game of choice - Which Beatle Had The Best Solo Career - Harrison's full first album on his own usually edges the McCartney catalogue for brilliance, while McCartney generally edges Lennon for consistency. Ringo also made a few, apparently.

I only raise this since David Gilmour has just released Rattle That Lock, his fourth solo album in 37 years, the slackard, and in the wake of declaring Pink Floyd formally over with the release of The Endless River, last year's collection of unused Division Bell material, embellished and released, rather like a "pre-owned" BMW as 'nearly new'.

Gilmour's self-titled solo debut appeared in 1978 amid the widening Floyd power struggle between himself and Roger Waters, and it showed. Though lacking any of the obvious spite that Lennon and McCartney traded in their post-Beatle releases, it was patchy and unfocused and seemed more of an exercise, like The Endless River, of emptying the proverbial store cupboard of odds and sods that hadn't been deemed usable by the band.

Rattle That Lock, however, appears some 21 years after that last Floyd album proper and indeed a full ten years since Gilmour's own last studio album, On An Island. With only an extensive tour of that record and a few guest appearances (as disparate as The Orb and Ben Watt) to show for his time in clover, Rattle That Lock should represent a dam wall's breach of inspiration. In fairness, it isn't, but that doesn't mean it's a bad album at all.

Compared with its predecessor, there is more frivolity, both musically and lyrically (Gilmour's wife, the novelist Polly Samson, continues to provide words, writing for five of the album's seven non-instrumental tracks). No more is this so than the title track. On the one hand, Rattle That Lock is a Chris Rea-ish dad dance of a song: Gilmour himself admits that its rhythmic foundation was the frilly "berling-bling-bah-da" jingle that heralds announcements at French railway stations (he'd heard it at Aix-en-Provence station and sampled it on his iPhone) and that it had "made him want to dance".

On the other hand, and as its lyrics (inspired by Book 2 of Milton’s Paradise Lost) do say, "rattle that lock, lose those chains”, Gilmour does seem to be loosening himself from the legacy of Pink Floyd’s tendency towards the melancholy and to live a little. "It’s quite late in life to start finding one's feet, I must admit," he told Uncut magazine recently. "Or at least, to find them again." That even means a remix by Youth, no less, on the album's ‘deluxe edition’. Fancy that - a remix of "Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour". He'll be 70 next year, and with his whispy white hair and beard starting to resemble Ernest Hemingway in his dotage. You can allow him some overdue indulgence.

There is a loose concept behind the album - that of an unnamed man's day. OK, not the most outré premise, but it provides a rough canvas from which to start with the familiar territory of the instrumental 5am. Ironically, perhaps, Roger Waters' first post-Floyd album, The Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking, was built around the real-time period of a man in mid-life crisis dreaming between, precisely, 4:30:18 and 5:12am.

Gilmour’s 5am provides, possibly, via the intention of its sequencing, a sonorous reminder of its author being ‘the guitar of Pink Floyd’, with its Shine On You Crazy Diamond, 'dawn of time' synth wash and "haunting"™ two-note guitar motif. The album ends with another instrumental, And Then... which tumultuous orchestration adding texture, rather than any bombast, to an appropriate bookend to complement the opening.

The folkish, acoustic Faces Of Stone - which sort of recalls John Lennon’s Working Class Hero in its bucolic pace - digs at age-driven reflection, with Gilmour recalling in his own words how “We sat on the roof, the night overflowed/No more was said but I learned all I needed to know.” Nostalgia reappears in the cod jazz of The Girl In The Yellow Dress, a hat-tip, perhaps, to the music of his childhood home, before he discovered the rock and the roll. It is harmlessly charming, with Jools Holland’s ivories supplying slowed down woogie sans boogie, if a little contrived, as if to defy those expecting an album of soaring Comfortably Numb guitar solos.

Gilmour’s bluesy fluidity has quite rightly been hailed down the years, and from a technical point of view, I’ve always been amazed that his playing has never elevated him higher in the lists that guitar enthusiast magazines frequently generate. What should, though, not be forgotten is that Gilmour continues, at 69, to possess one of the most under-rated voices in rock music.

In Pink Floyd, his mellifluous falsetto often poured oil on the vinegar of Water’s nasal, somewhat manic voice. Here, Gilmour’s voice is wonderfully honeyed. On the beautiful A Boat Lies Waiting it is augmented - and perfectly so - in close harmony by Graham Nash and David Crosby (who sang on the On An Island title track).

The track is a warm tribute to Rick Wright - often and correctly regarded as the Floyd’s George Harrison, and whose keyboards added so much to its legacy - who died of cancer in 2008 having completed the full tour for On An Island, even while ill. While far from being mawkish, A Boat Lies Waiting is a tender farewell - "What I lost was an ocean/Now I'm drifting through without you/In this sad barcarolle", with Wright himself making a ghostly spoken appearance via an audio clip much like that of Floyd roadie Roger "The Hat" Manifold on The Dark Side Of The Moon’s Us And Them, which Wright wrote, of course.

The Guardian somewhat sniffily described Rattle That Lock as being "weighed down by its own opulence", and while there is some validity to that charge, the review's concluding snark of too much "muso virtuosity" was way off the mark. Gilmour's guitar playing has always been part of - as he says himself - the "palette" that defines him. A zillion record sales in almost 50 years says that this hasn't been disregarded, and given the expanse that he covered with Pink Floyd in that band’s history, it would be insanely counter-intuitive for him to have handed in an album of cautious restraint and obtuse, obscure instrumentation.

For some Floyd heads, it will take a long time to accept the band’s end, even if they ceased to be a creative force a long, long time ago. I doubt, though, that Gilmour is all that interested in trying to attract a new following, but in his fourth outing as a solo artist, he has edged ever-so vaguely away from the place in which he forged his reputation, and, as he prepares for his eighth decade, has rattled the locks that tied him to it.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

It's only rock and roll: Keith Richards - Crosseyed Heart

So let's get the obvious out of the way, right now: rock's Pirate King has never, ever, been blessed with a singing voice. Guitar chops, obviously, and in vast abundance on this, only his third solo album. But singing, no. 

That said, whatever satanic cocktail Keith Richards has so enthusiastically consumed over the course of his 71 years has turned his voice into an extension of his self-drawn caricature - gnarled, roguish, bourbon-soured, tobacco-stained.

And that, to be honest, is a huge part of Crosseyed Heart's tremendous appeal. Richards has long been anointed as the cool Stone, the vagabond-hearted half of The Glimmer Twins, the one with the avuncular, bronchial cackle who has become, alarmingly, far too much like John Sessions' brilliant Stellar Street take on him.

Sessions and Phil Cornwell's inspired imagining of Mick and Keef as Surbiton shopkeepers was, of course, a hilarious reinvention of the structured, ambitious, business brain of the operation (Jagger) and the louche, Jack Daniel's-slooshed reprobate (Richards), an image the latter's wonderful autobiography, Life, did little to dispel, either. But with the Stones continuing to coin it in from their 50th anniversary tour (which began almost three years ago), and now knowing how, once, what it took to bring them all into the same room, let alone the same stadium, it's fair to say that the brains of the Rolling Stones are spread pretty evenly.

Where their creative core is, is another matter. While Jagger has never been a shrinking violet when it comes to songwriting (case in point: Miss You - though credited to Jagger/Richards - was actually co-written by the generously-lipped one with Ronnie Wood), it has always been clear where the Stones' energy comes from. Because it is here, on Crosseyed Heart.

Richards' virtuosity as a guitarist rarely gets mentioned by a press more concerned with his apparent chemical imperiousness. And, as with all musicians of his vintage (which is considerable), critics will always hark on about how far back you have to go to find the high points (no pun intended). Of course, Let It Bleed, Exile On Main Street and Sticky Fingers were incredible, Some Girls still good, and those that followed patchy, but there is little in the Stones' canon that you would regard as truly bad (including, yes, Bridges To Babyon).

You can argue, too, as much as you like that everything the Stones have done since 1968 has been self-derivative, and if you wanted to be gimlet-eyed about it, Crosseyed Heart, doesn't do much to change any of that. But that, to be honest, would be to deny Richards (whom, we all suspect, genuinely doesn't give a proverbial) the satisfaction of producing easily the best of his three solo albums to date.

Indeed, Richards is gloriously laid back on this album - not musically, just in how relaxed he appears to be, from the cover shot to the generous wealth of material - 15 tracks in all. Richards might stray rarely from the blues - the title track opens the album with an exquisite slice of acoustic Delta which fizzles out with the Richards opining "that's all I've got" before launching into Heartstopper with the grinding, Telecaster familiarity of the guitarist's more famous gig crunching deliciously through.

There is plenty of variety - Richard's love of Caribbean climes beams through on a spirited cover of Gregory Isaacs’ Love Overdue - and autobiography, too, with the self-depreciating Amnesia recalling his appropriately Keith-esque fall from a coconut tree ("Knocked on my head, everything went blank. I didn't even know, the Titanic sank") and the Latin-tinged Robbed Blind alluding to the criminal disappearance of illicit pharmacological supplies. 

On that score, ho-ho, Richards drifts in and out of warm, sepia throughout the album, that voice sitting somewhere between Tom Waits and Willie Nelson as he reflects on the sublime Nothing On Me about how he has dealt with the sling and arrows - and live bullets - that have come his way, or his relationship with challenge on Trouble (”Baby, trouble is your middle name. The trouble is that that's your game.").

With collaborations from Norah Jones, the Stones' late saxophonist Bobby Keys (much loved by Richards and the source of one his biggest falling-outs with Jagger) and various members of his X-Pensive Winos side outfit, Crosseyed Heart is almost a companion piece to the Life book. Part confessional, part trivial, part celebration, it is as fulfilling an album as any you could expect to listen to from a rock star who, after more than 50 years at the very apex of the game, is still right up there.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Minds over matters - the mental state of José's strugglers

I'm sitting in a cafe at Milan-Linate airport, people watching. I agree that in some countries that could qualify as a misdemeanor, but here in Italy, it is positively go-with-the-flow. 

Around me, the impeccably shod and effortlessly chic are going about their own. Small clusters of excitable locals are windmilling at each other with that entirely proprietary Italian form of sign language. It's quite possible that the topic of conversation is tonight's Milan Derby. This is a fixture that traditionally suggests more portent than it actually delivers, but then derbies often do. 

The difference, of course, is that Internazionale and Milan share the San Siro stadium, a model of local accommodation that Chelsea and Tottenham might adopt if they both move into Wembley while their respective grounds are rebuilt.

Inter was, of course, José Mourinho's first club after he walked out of Chelsea on September 20, 2007 "by mutual consent", following an indifferent start to the season that had, two days before, seen the then-defending Premier League champions draw 1-1 with Rosenborg in the Champions League in front of a Stamford Bridge crowd of just 24,973. 

It was their third successive game without a win, having previously been beaten 2-0 by Aston Villa in the domestic league and drawing 0-0 with Blackburn Rovers. Amid credible rumours of a breakdown in Mourinho's relationship with Roman Abramovich, his departure left Chelsea fifth in the table.

Today, following a similarly indifferent start to the season, Chelsea are fifth from bottom. Let's read that again: the reigning Premier League champions are, five games into the season, fifth from bottom. That's two places above the relegation zone. By tomorrow evening, they could be in the bottom three.

To add to the alarming circularity of Chelsea's situation today and that of eight years ago, I was five days into a holiday in Sicily, walking up Cefalù's La Rocca, when I received a text message saying that Mourinho had left Chelsea, a few weeks into his third season in charge. Today I'm on my way back to Sicily. Perhaps I might just switch my phone off completely for the next few days.

After yesterday's 3-1 defeat at Everton, Chelsea are in crisis. No two ways about it. And yet Mourinho's apparent serenity is a worrying reflection of the lack of any notable team improvement since the first game of the season. They have now lost three of their first five league games, with a win and a draw apiece. The worst start to a season since 1986. Put another way, by the comedian Ian Stone on Twitter: "So we have a left-wing Labour leader and Chelsea are shit. Ladies and gentlemen - welcome to the 70s."

“I am not feeling any pressure,” Mourinho, said after yesterday's game at Goodison Park, where Everton's Steven Naismith scored a hat-trick in return for the single consolation goal by Nemanja Matic. “The results are the worst results ever in my career. I am not happy but I am coping well with the situation. The priority is to keep doing what we are doing, the players are feeling enough sadness.” What about the fans?

Bluntly speaking, Mourinho's priority absolutely shouldn't be to keep on keeping on. There are no excuses to draw on, noconspiracies to blame. Chelsea's defenders are being beaten too easily, its forwards are painfully lacking confidence in front of goal, the midfield is not creating. 

Opponents have, over the last two seasons since Mourinho's return, figured Chelsea out. Defenders know what to expect of Costa and Hazard, attackers know that Ivanovich, Terry, Cahill, Azpiliqueta and even the formerly imperious Matic can be stretched. The midfield can't create. Chelsea need new tactics and a new mindset. Or, perish the thought, a new manager.

I won't buy, any more, the charge that they are tired and jaded from last season's exertions and a lack of preparation in pre-season. Not at all. Physical improvement can be worked on. It's what the club's expensively assembled Cobham training ground is for.

But the mental side of things requires a different regime, and for me it's the area that needs the most work. Because the spark plugs in Chelsea's game are just not firing properly. The win-at-all-costs mentality that won them the league back in May is painfully and starkly invisible. And it will only get worse.

"Confidence is low," Mourinho said yesterday. "It looks like everything is more difficult. The biggest concern is everything is going against us. We know we are making mistakes and every mistake, we are punished.

Football fans in general want to see action being taken, not excuses or cod philosophy. Mourinho might be a master of mind games and diversionary tactics, but now is not the time for his brand of mangled doublethink ("I am champion, the players are the champions. I don’t blame my players and I don’t blame myself. I don’t accept the results, I am responsible for the team, I am not happy with the situation and I am not happy with myself").

And yet he is defiantly sanguine. "The results are the worst in my career," Mourinho said yesterday. "They are not adapted to my quality, my status, but I am coping well with the situation. I am not feeling pressure," to which he added: "I think the refugees are under big pressure." Well deflected. Draw attention to something else.

No one, not even the most ardent fan of Bill Shankly's oft-quoted maxim, will regard the results of a football team as anything remotely close to the plight of the unfortunates fleeing Syria's living hell. But at least they have the singular determination to abandon all that they have and know to reach their objectives.

Even allowing for Mourinho's suspect English (in which "moment" has a multitude of uses), some of his proclamations recently have not instilled much confidence in anyone that his charges are being sent out with the right stuff.

"Chelsea can win the next match against Arsenal for sure," he said yesterday. "The title? I don’t know. It depends on us to improve a lot and also depends on other clubs that are at the top of us to lose matches."

Really? Five games in and we're getting the "it's out of our hands now" concession? How positively Wengeresque! In fact, the further Arsenal move above Chelsea, the more Mourinho sounds like the Frenchman.

That is not what Chelsea's players, let alone its fans, want to hear. Comments like "Even if we win every game between now and the end of season, we still depend on other results [to win the title] may be the reality, but with 33 more games to go, Chelsea need to play every game like their last, to have a winning mentality, no matter what to be, basically, who they were last term.

"I am the man for the job," Mourinho proclaimed yesterday as the first slashes of credibility lowered the odds on him getting the sack. Again. "I don't think there is better man who could come and do my job." Maybe not. But if he can't satisfy Abramovich a second time around, and after endless changes of manager since his 2007 departure, then I don't know who can. 

The man for the job Chelsea needs right now must be a supreme motivator. There's no questioning Mourinho's skills as a tactician, and certainly none as a wind-up merchant. But today there is a big question hanging over his capabilities to prepare the heads of his players, let alone their feet.

Ever since that ridiculous episode with the club doctor and physio on the opening day of the season, there has been something unsettled and niggly about Mourinho. He even cited, jokingly I think, that the laptop didn't work during yesterday's pre-match team briefing. That is not a winning mentality.

Any manager - regardless of whether they've just been promoted or have just been crowned Premier League Champions - will say that it is still early days. But for Chelsea - this Chelsea - to be on the verge of dropping into the relegation zone is nothing short of eye-watering calamity. We all agree that no one has a divine right to being in the top flight, let alone the top half of it. But even the most gnarled and acidic Chelsea hater must conceal their glee and be genuinely alarmed at how a team that won at a canter last season, should be nose-diving so abruptly as they are right now. 

"The trouble for José is that he’s never managed a losing team,” Harry Redknapp said last night. We'll he has, and we all know what happened when he did.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Like black holes in the sky - Wish You Were Here turns 40

One of the breakthrough moments of my youth would be considered by others as nothing particularly remarkable. Listening to a “borrowed” (i.e. stolen from my brother) copy of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were, I discovered that I could, sort of, emulate on my little, nylon-stringed Spanish acoustic guitar, the bluesy fluidity of David Gilmour throughout the record - which was released 40 years ago today, and remains my favourite Floyd album by far.

From the haunting, echoey “jing-jing-jing-jang” motif at the beginning of Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V), to Gilmour's Stratocaster run that comes a few moments later, I discovered that my apparent ear for mimicry had more meaningful purpose than simply annoying family members with impersonations of Muppets.

So, the more I listened to Wish You Were Here - usually again and again and again - the more my confidence with that Spanish guitar grew. I learned the slowed-down funk of Have A Cigar and the lucid chords accompanying Welcome To The Machine. And, of course, like all would-be buskers and student party strummers, I learned how to play the Wish You Were Here title track, inside and out. However, as much as I appreciated the album for its musical qualities, it would be a long time before I would appreciate what the album was actually about.

Wish You Were Here marked a turning point in Pink Floyd’s career. When recording began in the first week of January 1975, the band had emerged from The Dark Side Of The Moon becoming their creative and commercial zenith. Touring for the album had gone on long into 1974, during which Floyd had tried out new material, including Shine On You Crazy Diamond, and a couple of extended tracks that would eventually end up on 1977’s Animals.

Early Wish You Were Here sessions were notably jaded. The band was physically exhausted from both touring Dark Side and coming to terms with its success. And with it was a creeping cynicism towards the music business itself, along with the alienation that came from playing to bigger and less intimate audiences on the road (a theme that would build further with Roger Waters’ infamous spitting incident during the Animals tour, culminating in one of the core themes of The Wall).

To all intents and purposes, The Wall marked the formal demise of the ‘classic’ Floyd line-up - Waters, Gilmour, Rick Wright and Nick Mason - but all four of them have, at some point in time, acknowledged that the beginning of the end began with Dark Side and its success.

“We were at a watershed,” Waters told film maker John Edginton in his excellent 2012 documentary Pink Floyd: The Story of Wish You Were Here.

“I think it could have been easy to have spilt up [after DSOTM], but we didn't because we were frightened of what was out there in the great beyond and outside this incredibly valuable trade name, Pink Floyd."

“However," Waters said in the earlier Edginton documentary, The Pink Floyd & Syd Barrett Story, “we were over, as far as the band of brothers notion is concerned.” The band had become somewhat disconnected with each other. The creative process - and pressure - to come up with a successor to Dark Side also lead to days of complete inertia at Abbey Road.

Waters, as he increasingly asserted himself as the band’s creative force (several years after principle songwriter and founder member Syd Barrett had been eased out as his acid-fired eccentricities rendered him unreliable), came up with Shine On You Crazy Diamond as a long, nine-part suite broken into two sequences that would bookend the album, with three shorter songs in between. Although creative tensions between Waters and Gilmour, in particular, were already evident at this point, the band went on with the idea.

Though the album wasn’t intended to be particularly about absence, Shine On You Crazy Diamond was, beyond any doubt, a love letter to Barrett, a childhood friend of both Waters and Gilmour. His escape from reality brought about, on Wish You Were Here, some of Waters’ best writing on any Floyd album, especially Shine On, with lines like “Now there's a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky.”, “You were caught in the crossfire of childhood and stardom, blown on the steel breeze.” and “You wore out your welcome with random precision, rode on the steel breeze.”

The melancholy nature of Waters’ words - and melancholy is one of his go-to states - were matched by an epic sweep of music, beginning with the ‘dawn of time’ keyboards, a G-Minor chord inspired by experimentation with wine glasses. Gilmour’s famous guitar motif had “popped out” one day on an acoustic guitar. To commit it to record, he decamped to Abbey Road's cavernous orchestral studio to set his guitar and amp up with the room's enormous acoustics.

My first encounter with Shine On You Crazy Diamond had actually occurred earlier at school, when an English teacher played us a BBC Radio production of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner, narrated by Richard Burton. Brilliantly, the BBC prefaced the first line with that opening section of Shine On. I was hooked. Especially on that echoey, haunting guitar riff.

“Somehow those notes evoked Syd and his disappearance and absence, especially in Roger,” Gilmour explained in Edginton’s film, but also pointed out that absence and disengagement were also increasing in the band itself.

“After Dark Side Of The Moon we had to assess what we were in this for - were we artists or businessmen? - and why we would want to continue doing it. Roger has said that we may have been finished at that point. He may have been right.”

The band’s own absence, and the loss of Barrett, are rarely far away on any of Wish You Were Here’s songs. Have A Cigar, for example, swipes at the music industry and its affect on the band, and indeed the pressure on Barrett in the early days to deliver hits.

Ironically, Have A Cigar became a minor hit, with its cynicism accentuated by the guest vocal performance of Roy Harper, brought in since Gilmour’s falsetto didn’t seem right for the track, and Waters' own vocals weren’t cutting it. Harper virtually acted his way through the song, adding theatrical spite to the self-reverential quip, “Oh by the way, which one’s Pink?” - a famous reference to the industry ‘suits’ who’d never understood that Pink Floyd wasn’t a single person, but a portmanteau of southern bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.

Waters explored the hand that was feeding him further on Welcome To The Machine, with its vituperative reflections on record industry manipulation (“What did you dream? It's alright, we told you what to dream”) and the angry, throbbing VCS3 synth representing, in Waters’ own words, “that monstrous grinding thing that chews us up and spits us out”.

At the heart of the album is what will always be for me one of the most eloquent, direct and, indeed, perfect songs ever written, the title track, Wish You Were Here. It’s country-blues simplicity - there’s no wonder it has become a staple of amateur guitarists everywhere - backdrops the angst of its words:  “So you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain. Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail? A smile from a veil?”.

Again, there are the complications of fame: “Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? Cold comfort for change?”, with Waters ending the section with a dig at his own situation: “Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?”.

By Floyd standards, the song Wish You Were Here is short at just five minutes and forty seconds. But in that relatively brief interlude, it perhaps contains more emotion than the traditionally middle-class Englishmen that Pink Floyd were would normally expose themselves to. It is a song that can reduce grown men to tears through its beauty and simplicity, and mournful blues that adds flourish to the overall theme of loss and sadness that Wish You Were Here as an album concerns itself with.

Famously, eerily and, to this day, largely unexplainedly, Syd Barrett appeared at Abbey Road while Floyd were coming to the end of making the album. On June 5, 1975, they noticed a clinically obese man, with a shaven head and shaved eyebrows, standing at the back of the studio.

At first, Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason couldn’t recognise who it was and, frankly,  how such an eccentric-looking individual had been allowed past the Abbey Road commissionaire.

Gradually it dawned on them. Tears rolled down cheeks. The once handsome, lithe, buoyant individual with a magnetic personality now had a look in his eyes "like black holes in the sky”, as Waters would write in Shine On You Crazy Diamond.

Wish You Were Here was released on September 12, 1975 with the themes of absence, loss and the music business machine enigmatically captured by the artwork of Storm Thorgerson, the band’s Cambridge schoolfriend, who had designed the famous ‘prism’ cover of The Dark Side Of The Moon.

Recognising that his artistry was limited to photography, he interpreted Wish You Were Here’s agenda very literally, with pictures such as that of two men shaking hands on a Hollywood studio lot, with one of the men on fire (no visual effect - stuntman Ronnie Rondell really was set on fire for the picture).

Another featured a diver arrowing into Mono Lake, the eerie salt water expanse near the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park in California. Although Thorgerson’s choice of location was for artistic impact, he couldn’t have picked a better place for thematic resonance, being a six-hour drive up Highway 395 from Los Angeles and the entertainment industry madness therein.

13-minute, synthesiser and guitar-based, quasi-orchestral songs may not be your cup of tea, then or now, but for an album recorded in the phlegm-free two years before punk, Wish You Were Here  sought somewhat quiet reflection on many of the symptoms of rock music that had appeared in the post-pop period.

The “crossfire of childhood and stardom” spat out casualties and broke up friendships, and started to poison the creative structure of bands like Pink Floyd which had emerged during that incredible, remarkable period in musical creativity that began with Elvis Presley and became “progressive” with The Beatles in the decade that followed.

The perfect combination of music, the words, and even the artwork, makes Wish You Were Here an album which, forty years on, peerless. It may not be The Dark Side Of The Moon - and that’s a good thing, since that album should be regarded distinctly in its own right - and it may well have been the start of Pink Floyd’s precipitous slide into dysfunction, ego battles and Waters’ own increasing inability to reconcile with his own demons (particularly the wartime death of his father),

It is no surprise, then, that Wish You Were Here has been described by various members of the Floyd as the favourite of their canon, one of “grief and anger, but also love” in Waters’ words, “the most complete album”, in Gilmour’s.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The croon prince - Richard Hawley's Hollow Meadows

After the exquisite psych-pop of Standing At The Sky's Edge three years ago, Sheffield's finest returns to the gentler, glitterball-sparkling slow dance of his earlier recordings with his eighth studio album, Hollow Meadows, released tomorrow.

Once again Richard Hawley muses on the fortysomething preoccupations of ageing, families, relationships and whether all that can be achieved in life has been or ever will. OK, written like that, it does sound like you're in for an utter gloomfest, but Hawley's sublime gift is his ability to turn angst into something poetically charming.

Like most Hawley albums, Hollow Meadows is named after an actual location in Sheffield, in this case, the site of a disused hospital in a small village on the Steel City's Peak District's borders. With time on his hands from an extended recuperation (broken leg, injured back), Hawley discovered that the area was originally known as Auley Meadows, possibly deriving from his own forebears who lived there between the 14th and 17th centuries.

While this isn't, apparently, addressed directly by any of the album's 11 songs, the coming to terms with life events - both good and bad is a recurring theme on Hollow Meadows. "I actually spent months and months not being able to move and it made me think about things a lot," he told the NME in June, explaining what such a confinement could do to the spirit: "It could make you quite negative and I've been concentrating on trying to think about good things."

"Balance your inner being with the outer world and make an equilibrium between the two," Hawley added. "That sounds like real complicated bullshit but trust me, when you’re laying on your back, not being able to move for four-and-a-half months, the weird shit that runs through your head is quite odd."

On Hollow Meadows that manifests itself as at-times brooding introspection that digs deep into the prosaic (What Love Means, about his daughter leaving home), the romantically vivid (Welcome The Sun, which reflects on his recovery), single-minded heroism (Heart Of Oak), the profound (Which Way - the album's breakout single which asks "Which way should I go - is it high or low") and human vulnerability (Tuesday PM - "not everyone's bulletproof on the battlefield).

2009's Truelove's Gutter showcased the Yorkshireman's talent for creating warmth out of cold space, engagement out of sparsity, bold statements from minimalism. Hollow Meadows returns to that, with its dreamlike, shimmering ballads and Hawley's trademark baritone. It is romantic, but never mushy, drawing strongler parallel to the rhinestone-encrusted bittersweetness of Johnny Cash's later work, like The Beast In Me.

And despite temptation to compare much of Hollow Meadows with slower nights at the Grand Ole Opry, there is a folkiness to the album - albeit with oceans of reverb - with folk virtuoso Martin Simpson (Hawley's neighbour) adding banjo and slide guitar to the latin textures of  Long Time Down, which explores the deeper recesses of a relationship gone bad. Jarvis Cocker, Hawley's long-standing friend, also shows up, adding bass parts to Nothing Like A Friend.

Standing At The Sky's Edge was a well-deserved breakthrough for Hawley, as well as a bold one in so boldy abandoning the Orbison-like melodrama of its predecessors. Some, of course, failed to see the point, questioning why Hawley had swapped croon for crunch. But as a songwriter, Sky's Edge moved him into new lyrical territories, territories which, despite Hollow Meadows returning to the romance of Coles Corner, Late Night Final and Lady's Bridge, builds on a storytelling prowess that makes this an album that requires, deserves and insists on being listened to over and over again.

Coming from Yorkshire, Hawley is as blunt as they come, so he would probably hate this: but he really should be considered a national treasure.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Face time - the short story of mods, rockers and mayhem

Twitter/Rod Stewart

Hurtwood Park Polo Club might sound like the last place you'd expect some of rock greatest hellraisers to pitch up. But as it sits in the heart of Surrey's 'rockbroker' belt (Eric Clapton's Hurtwood Edge estate is nearby) and is owned by a drummer - as drummers do - it might be a logical place as any for the surviving members of the Faces to stage their first gig together in 40 years.

Not surprisingly, the one-off show last Saturday was a sellout, with proceeds going to the Prostate Cancer UK charity, a cause close to the drummer in question, Kenney Jones, who was diagnosed with the disease two years ago. Equally not surprisingly is that the seven-song show delivered everything the audience expected, four decades on, with Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood and Jones (and nine other auxillary musicians) retaining the at-times chaotic but engaging looseness that made the Faces one of British rock's best, if briefest, live draws in the early 1970s. All that it lacked were bassist and the band's creative heart, Ronnie Lane (who died in 1997), and Ian 'Mac' McLagan (who passed away last December) who both played an essential part in the brief but enduring history of this bunch of herberts.

Saturday's reunion, proper, (let's not consider the Mick Hucknall-fronted revival...) came just over a week after the band released The Faces - 1970-1975: You Can Make Me Dance, Sing or Anything, a five-disc box set containing their four studio albums plus a collection of odds and ends.

Its release, along with Saturday's gig, warrants a reassessment of a band whose blues and folk-infused bloke rock was enhanced (though some say clouded) by a reputation for boozy shenaningans, and often overshadowed by peers the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who and even Stewart as a solo artist.

There has never been complete consensus as to whether the Faces' studio efforts ever ranked as classics in an era of extraordinary rock album output. But 1970′s First Step, Long Player from 1971, A Nod Is as Good as a Wink…to a Blind Horse from the same year, and their final cut, 1973's Ooh La La, underpinned a delightfully geezerish flavour to the early '70s oeuvre.

This tone was set in the band's origins as the Small Faces, formed in London's East End in 1965 with singer and guitarist Steve Marriott, Lane, Jones and, later, McLagan (who replaced original ivory tinkler Jimmy Watson). With a magpie-like ability to assimilate different styles, from Tamla and R&B to psych-pop, the Small Faces built a reputation to match their West London counterparts, The Who, for sweaty, gritty, energetic, and decidedly working class pop-rock (which provided the genetic blueprint for Paul Weller as well as other elements of Britpop to this day).

When Marriott left to join Humble Pie (another band which, in WWDBD?'s opinion deserves better recognition) they crossed the capital to draft in West Drayton-born Wood, a rhythm guitarist who'd been a part of the London's western Mod scene as a member of The Birds (the British variety) and later The Jeff Beck Group, which featured one Roderick David Stewart on vocals.

In 1969, in an effort to help out his brother Art exhaust a recording contract, Wood formed Quiet Melon for a one-off album, drafting in Stewart from the Beck group and the Small Faces' Lane, Jones and McLagan to help. Following this so far? If not, you'll understand why one of the great staples of music journalism as I grew up were Pete Frame's 'family trees' - elaborately constructed charts of how bands like the Faces came to be formed, where their members came from and how they related to other groups, and the spinoffs and side projects they spawned.

From prog to punk, Frame's family trees covered every genre, but the charts that forged the greatest fascination for me were those that plotted how incestuously interconnected British rock music was in the 1960s and early 1970s, a complexity that Frame was trying to get his head around as a music journalist when he came up with the format.

In Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, at Abbey Road and Olympic Studios, and at The 100 Club, The Marquee and the Crawdaddy, musical dynasties were formed. Groups like Band Of Joy and The Yardbirds divided like cells to produce Led Zeppelin, while members of The Graham Bond Organisation, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers or The Spencer Davis Group found their way into Cream or Traffic or Fleetwood Mac. The Rolling Stones hung out with The Beatles, The Who hung out with everyone else, and London - in particular - became a village of musically-minded drinking buddies, aspirational schoolfriends and casual acquaintances alike. On the other side of the Atlantic - indeed, on the other side of America - LA's canyons thralled to a similar beat, as groups like The Byrds (the American variety), Poco, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Buffalo Springfield cross-polinated to produce the likes of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Eagles.

In 1970 the tectonic plates of rock music were still moving. The Beatles were splitting up and the Stones were heading off into exile. Like an unregulated football transfer window, people would go off and play with anyone else. Inter-band mobility was rife and supergroups emerged from nowhere, and often disappeared just as fast.

People sat in on others' sessions, simply because they'd been in the studio next door. British bands "invaded" America and added further acquaintance, while iconic American acts like Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters were still coming to the UK without their own backing bands, using local British talent instead.

Jamming together, initially in rehearsal rooms borrowed from the Rolling Stones, the Faces gelled, turning their natural interplay as highly complimentary characters into a collective force of supreme musicianship that was also artfully ragged around the edges, unpretentious and in contast with some of the too-serious musicianship emerging at the turn of the 1970s.

The Faces were a perfect storm: Wood replaced Marriott's guitar work with his own prowess on the slide and pedal steel. Lane, McLagan and Jones provided the melodic and rhythmic glue. And the grittily soulful vocals of Stewart - the former North London gravedigger discovered by Long John Baldry busking at Twickenham railway station - matched or even exceeded those of Small Faces frontman Marriott.

"The band was full-on from the beginning," McLagan told Creem magazine's Dave Marsh during the band's first tour. "No shucking and jiving, no stops to tune, no delays. This is not just great rock'n'roll - and it is that, for The Faces have one of the two or three best rock shows of the '70s - it is professional rock'n'roll, with all the concomitant drawbacks and advantages."

Those drawbacks, Wood would explain in his excellent autobiography Ronnie, would be tour boredom, which would lead to ever more creative ways to pass the time, usually drunk, and with the concomitant advantages being groupies by the busload.

In the studio, however, it took a while for the Faces to find their groove. Their debut album, First Step, was produced by the band themselves and was somewhat patchy, opening with a so-so cover of Bob Dylan's Wicked Messenger and drifting from blues to folk to light pop without any clear structure.

There are, though, a couple of highlights, such as Flying which makes great use of Stewart's voice, Wood’s often criminally underated guitar playing, and McLagan's Hammond organ. First Step also features the revelation of Ronnie Lane singing his own composition, Stone, in which he demonstrated an uncanny vocal similarity to George Harrison.

Lane, though, admitted that First Step wasn't very strong, but studio discipline - or a lack of - played a part in that. "To date, it's been a far better band on stage than in the studio," he told Andrew Bailey in 1971, "mainly because, up till now the standard of recording has been bad. We're using Glyn Johns now and it's a hundred percent better. The album we've nearly finished is right, at last."

That album was Long Player, released in March 1971, and which suggested better to come, but still faced criticism for a lack of direction.

"We all have reason to be a trifle disappointed with [the] Faces’ new Long Player," wrote Rolling Stone's John Mendelsohn. "For, consistently good casual fun and occasionally splendid though it may be, it’s by no stretch of the imagination going to save anybody’s soul (as an album by someone very enormous indeed ought) or even rescue the FM airwaves from the clutches of such increasingly cloying items as Elton John." Ouch.

Long Player did, however, show greater direction than its predecessor, and perhaps more definition of individual contributions. Sweet Lady Mary is one of the greatest songs Lane, Wood and Stewart wrote together; Richmond is delightfully wistful folk-blues, with Lane again on vocals and Wood's slide guitar shining through on a song inspired by the south-west London suburb Wood moved when he bought 'The Wick', actor John Mills' former home on Richmond Hill, which became a hub for Wood, his family and his rock star chums.

Big N’ Ruin is more in keeping with the ballsy, bar-room blues band that the Faces were, ultimately, at their core, while the album contains a rarity for the period - a live recording alongside studio tracks, with a stunning cover version of Paul McCartney's then recent hit Maybe I'm Amazed.

In a way, the inclusion of a live track spoke greater volumes about the Faces as a live act , but that was to change with their third album, A Nod's As Good As A Wink...To A Blind Horse, which became their commercial breakthrough.

Released the same year as Long Player, Nod - with it's stage picture on the cover - contained the song that captured perfectly the band's spirit: Stay With Me, a ribald tale of rock'n'roll tail chasing which remains to this day a staple of classic rock radio in the US.

Long Player and Nod may have been separated by just a few months in recording terms, but the latter was leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor, embracing the energy of the Faces as a live entity, such as the cover of Chuck Berry's Memphis, Tennesse, drawing on their laddishness with Too Bad and You're So Rude, but not completely ambandoning themselves to hedonism, with Lane's Debris showing a contemplative side.

In the autumn of 1972 the Faces entered Olympic Studios in Barnes to record, with producer Glyn Johns, their fourth album, Ooh La La. By this time, Rod Stewart's parallel solo career had begun to take off, itself a novelty in the early '70s (a few years later when Phil Collins released Face Value people immediately doomed Genesis on the basis that a singer couldn't possibly have two careers). As a result, distances began to grow within the band.

Much of Ooh La La was written or co-written by Lane, including the title track, which was penned with Wood (and subsequently turned into his own signature song).

It's mixture of carefree breezyneess and cynical recollection ("I wish I knew what I know now, when I was younger...") hinted at an unstated desire for escape. Lane would quit the band in July 1973, two months after Ooh La La was released, and after Stewart had allegedly told Melody Maker that it was a "stinking rotten album", claims he later denied. Ooh La La is a good album, lighter than its predecessor but another patchwork. There are gems - the title song being a standout, but also Cindy Incidentally, If I'm On The Late Side and Glad And Sorry.

Time, though, can be an indecent fraud. While Stay With Me and Ooh La La have stood their test of time - the former on radio and the latter on TV commercials - their endurance bely the blink of the eye that, relatively speaking, the Faces existed within.

A reputation, built on the road during uproarious tours of America, and the sheer energy of their bluesy rock'n'roll, created a somewhat mythical creature that, if we were honest, has never been able to compete with the Stones (which Wood would inevitably join in 1974 - having already worked with Mick Jagger on writing I Know It's Only Rock'n'Roll (But I Like It)), or Led Zeppelin's breadth and depth.

The Faces are, in many respects, a strange entry in the logbook of 1970s rock giants. In an era of collossal albums like Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street, Who's Next and any of the first few Led Zeppelin records, the Faces were never the biggest sellers - Nod and Ooh La La reached No.2 and No.1, respectively, in the UK charts, but performed less impressively elsewhere.

After Lane's departure they would soldier on into 1975, releasing You Can Make Me Dance, Sing, Or Anything, which paralleled the Stones' and Stewart's own questionable flirtation with disco in the mid-'70s, and the awful live album Coast to Coast: Overture and Beginners, a major disservice to the reputation of a quintet which had created a unique stage dynamic like no others at the time. By the end of 1975 the Faces were effectively no more.

When you look at Pete Frame's family tree for the Faces, there is clearly more going on above, below and around the band than within the band itself.

Lane would go on to make some great solo albums before his death from multiple sclerocis in 1997; Stewart would join the pantheon of LA-based expat rock stars whose success, fame and wealth transcend anything you'd regard as normal; Wood would become a de facto Rolling Stone in 1975, where he remains to this day; McLagan continued to be in demand, including studio and touring work for the Stones, Wood's New Barbarians, Bob Dylan, John Mayer and as a member of Billy Bragg's The Blokes.

And Jones would become the drummer in The Who following Keith Moon's death, before becoming the rockbroker belt polo club owner he is today, a position of respectable gentility in stark contrast to the three bands in which he made his fortune including the one, in particular, which contributed a short but energetic chapter to rock's family history.