Thursday, 30 November 2017

Poem: 'THIS IS ME'


This is me rising at dawn,
this is me scratching lethargically,
this is me drinking coffee,
this is me removing the
circular inspection panel
from the top of my head.
This is me poking about inside
with bloody grey fingers,
this is me extracting a memory,
holding it between thumb & forefinger
in slight distaste.
This is me resealing
the inspection panel.
This is me enclosing the
memory in an envelope.
This is me posting the letter
in this hazy hung-over morning,
hoping it’ll reach you,
to remove the mask,
to remove the face
beneath the mask,
and leave it

Interview: Mike Scott Of The Waterboys


 The Waterboys story, with narration from 
 previously unpublished interview material with Mike Scott


Do you believe in Rock ‘n’ Roll? Can music save your mortal soul? Mike Scott, angel-headed hipster of the upwardly-mobile Waterboys denies it. But everything he does on stage and record denies his denial. With his heroes he’s DISCriminating. All his inputs and references predate Hip-Hop/Electro. At the Sheffield ‘Leadmill’, drenched in aquarium-green spots this Scot called Mike with sweat-damp watch-springs of hair comes on very much like THE Rock Star for the early nineties. He fields a trick or three, a tune or four, and the art of looting the Rock style-hypermarket to maximum effect.

He wears his shirt smock-wise over leather pants, with a spotted tie loose-drawn, and just s hint of Jagger-lips to set it all off. ‘You remember Patti Smith? She knew how to write a good song,’ and he proves it by delivering “Dancing Barefoot”, illustrating the lyrics with neat hand-gestures, riding a ‘Big Music’, a sound density of hideous strength. But Scott’s own lyrics also burn on both page and stage. They get ignited by the kind of effortless aggression of full-tilt stadium boogie electrified by hard edges and brittle guitar runs.

He’s got all angles covered…

On the dressing-room door there’s some felt-tip self-graffiti’d promo from Age Of Chance, with a voluptuously smudged lipstick-printed “Kiss”. But Scott’s winding down with a vodka and coke. Looks to me like a street-boy from a French magazine ad, like he should be smoking Gitanes. And the interview… should I aim for a direct ‘Confessions Of A Pop Performer’ piece? Something confrontational? But instead it comes out ‘…hey! I like those boots!’ They’re pointed-toe, lots of buckles, they’re very…

‘…very Rock ‘n’ Roll?’ Scott offers helpfully.

Yes, I guess that’s the word.

‘They are a bit, yeah.’ He extends a foot, inviting appraisal, turns it left, then right. ‘They go with the trousers. They’re new boots. They won’t look as good as this in a month’s time!’

--- 0 --- 

First time I heard his name, Mike Scott was submitting poems to my arts fanzine – ‘Ludds Mill’. I published one called “Kick It Over” – ‘in the megastores, where the grey people buy/ through the muzak haze, a girl wonders why/ education is slashed and benefits slump/ while prices rocket and violence jumps/ KICK IT OVER!!!’ At the time he was a member of Another Pretty Face, an Edinburgh four-piece formed in 1979. They took their name from a line in the Tony Parsons-Julie Burchill Rock-obituary text ‘The Boy Looked At Johnny’ (Faber, 1978), and they issued a single on New Pleasures in May. “All The Boys Love Carrie” has strong lyrics after the style of Liverpool poet Dave Ward, with guest sax overlay by William Mysterious.

‘With my old group – Another Pretty Face, when I used to go on stage in those early days we were so proud to be there we were just all so switched on, it was like really, GREAT. We were all so confident, really proud and everything. We’d strut around the stage like headless chickens.’

Cut at Barclay Towers in Edinburgh, the single was pressed up in two batches of 1,000 and 5,000, and led inevitably to bigger things. ‘I had a brief flirtation with Virgin Records’ he tells me. This took the form of a hard attacking single “Whatever Happened To The West”, the slower B-side “Goodbye 1970s” sounding even more impressive to these ears with an intricate sax/piano conversation. But album sessions with producer Alan Mair – of the Only Ones, were rejected by Virgin as ‘not commercially acceptable’.

‘They rejected them’ he admits ruefully, ‘not all that unwisely. They were a bit… pretentious. Not as good as they should have been.’ There were eighteen recorded tracks on the tape, featuring a very good “Heart Of Darkness” and “Witness”. Another song – “Graduation Day”, runs ‘and you’re all so blithe and classless and free/ boys who mainline at night have got their best suits on/ Mick has had his teeth fixed, Keith has had a wash/ John talks loud but he can’t make sense…’ The sixties Rock Tsar inputs are obvious. He confesses the influence of ‘the Beatles and the Stones’.

The sixties…? ‘Because it’s sixties doesn’t mean it’s BAD. The sixties were pretty GOOD!’

But – for Another Pretty Face, the watershed from seventies into eighties was not so good. With sidekick John Caldwell – later of the Collector, Mike retreated to Edinburgh playing a mass of gigs, including some with Belfast’s Stiff Little Fingers. But the failed Virgin link-up had taken the group’s heart, and its days were numbered. Mile told ‘Jamming’ magazine ‘in APF there was far too much energy expended in trying to do idealistically sound things all the time, like playing gigs that under-eighteens could get into, playing gigs that didn’t cost much to get into, playing gigs with no Bar and selling Fanzines at the door.’

Scott grew up in Ayr, and his Scots accent remains pronounced as he explains to me ‘I had a year and a half – two years, off the road between that group and this one. And in that two years I must have got a lot smarter or something, ‘cos now I’m not nearly as confident. I’m much more aware of the pitfalls.’ With APF ‘we did fifteen gigs in London, and then split.’ In toto there’d been four singles and a cassette from Another Pretty Face, plus a single as DNV – a temporary group also known as the Bootlegs, and one recorded as Funhouse. They’d also worked with producer Hugh Jones.

But next? ‘Me and Kevin (Wilkinson – drums) and Anthony (Thistlethwaite – sax), had a group called The Red And Black. We did two gigs. That group was a bit ‘loose’. But that was the last time I played on stage… before the Waterboys.’


May 1979 – “All The Boys Love Carrie” c/w “That Not Enough” (New Pleasures Z1) Mike Scott (lead vocals and rhythm guitar), John Caldwell (lead guitar), Jim Geddes (bass), ‘Crigg’ Ian Walter Greig (drums)

1979 – “Death In Venice” c/w “Mafia” + “Goodbye 1970s” as by DNV (New Pleasures Z2), all Mike Scott compositions

February 1980 – “Whatever Happened To The West” c/w “Goodbye 1970s” (Virgin VS 320)

December 1980 – “Only Heroes Live Forever” c/w “Heaven Gets Closer Every Day” (Chicken Jazz JAZZ 1) Producer, Alan Mair. With Mike Scott (vocals), John Caldwell (guitar), Willie Kirkwood (bass), Chic McLaughlin (drums)

April 1981 – “Soul To Soul” c/w “A Woman’s Place” + “God On The Screen” (Chicken Jazz JAZZ 3) with Adrian Johnston (drums on B-side tracks), Ally Donaldson (sax on A-side), Mike Scott (vocals, violin, keyboards), Kirkwood, Caldwell, McLaughlin

1981 – ‘I’m Sorry That I Beat You, I’m Sorry That I Screamed, But For A Moment There I Really Lost Control’ (cassette album, Chicken Jazz ) with “This Could Be Hell”, “My Darkest Hour”, Lightning That Strikes Twice”, “Graduation Day”, “Another Kind Of Circus”, “Out Of Control”, “Only Heroes Live Forever”, “All The Boys Love Carrie”

--- 0 --- 

The Patti Smith connection/preoccupation is an obvious follow-on. ‘I saw her do a poetry reading in Edinburgh in 1978,’ he sounds wistful. ‘She was fantastic, everything that she did. When she was in Edinburgh she had a piano – no microphone or anything, just this upright piano. And she did “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” – the Smokey Robinson song, and a few of her own songs that never came out on record – ever. All those lovely obscure songs.’ Then, more brightly, ‘I’ve got ‘em all on tape.’

My confession that I also have Patti Smith live poetry tapes (1978, ‘Köln Reading’) grabs his interest, and before the evening’s done we’ve worked out some furtive trading arrangements. But first, pursuing the Patti Smith theme – didn’t the Waterboys spend time in New York with Patti’s bassist Lenny Kaye? Didn’t he produce some aborted session for the first album (‘The Waterboys’, July 1983)?

‘Yes, he did. I love his guitar playing, and wanted to co-produce myself with him, sort of match my songs with his ‘Patti Smith Group’ feel. But my record company, Ensign, came between us, and turned it into HIM producing ME. He played bass on the sessions and supplied the drummer from his own ‘Lenny Kaye Connection’ group. We spent three days rehearsing and four days in the studio. Because he was producing he was telling me ‘you’re playing too much guitar, Mike,’ or ‘you’re playing too much piano. Cool it down. Let’s make this one sound like the Rolling Stones.’ But I think, you must beware of that. We did a song called “Bury My Heart” and he tried to make it sound like the Stones, and it just… didn’t work. He was a great guy. It was great being with him for the pleasure – but for the WORK, it was no good at all. I would have been much better doing it myself. Maybe if I’d been producing, using Lenny on guitar – for INSPIRATION in other words, it would’ve been better.’

Did any recorded work come out of the Lenny Kaye sessions? ‘There’s four tracks, “Bury My Heart”, ‘Savage Earth Heart” – do you know that song?, “Girl In The Swing” and “It Should Have Been You”. But we didn’t release those versions. The versions that are on the records are my demo’s that they let us do ourselves. The stuff we did with Lenny remains on a cassette tape in my room, ‘cos it was really sluttish. Didn’t work at all. The sounds were appalling.’

Did you get any interesting stories about Patti Smith?

‘From him? I don’t think so. We talked a lot, but about Patti Smith…? I’m trying to think. The thing that always intrigued me most was what songs they played. That’s what I was interested in. And I was asking Lenny when did they first play “Redondo Beach”, when did they first play “My Mafia” – the reggae song, things like that. I thought Lenny could teach me some of the songs. It’s fascinating all that…’

…all that junkyard angels stuff, liner notes, matrix numbers?

‘Yeah. Reading the run-out grooves.’

--- 0 --- 

The Waterboys started live work in February 1984, and that was after eighteen-months without setting foot on stage. Also, the Waterboys’ line-up had shed Another Pretty Face’s strong regional base. ‘Everybody came from all over the place. Edinburgh is only one-fifth of our locations!’ But press-word on Waterboys came slightly before that live debut. ‘Melody Maker’ made the group’s first release – “A Girl Called Johnny”, it’s ‘Single Of The Week’, praising it thus, ‘there’s an invigorating instability in their approach to Rock ‘n’ Roll, (an) insistent verve, an intimidating sax penetrates the action with unfaltering belligerence, and Mr Scott delivers his unlikely reminiscences with a riveting manic edge’ (19 April 1983). The record was produced by Rupert Hine and issued through Scott’s own Chicken Jazz label. Mike claimed Patti Smith as inspiration behind the lyric – ‘I remember a girl called Johnny, black as hell, white as a ghost/ Don’t talk of life or death, she’d say, I’ve had enough of both.’

He’d actually met Patti Smith in April 1978 at the London Portobello Hotel, ‘I was staying there as a fan, and I met Patti there. She was always really good to all the kids who used to follow her around. I was just one of them’ (to ‘Hot Press’). Elsewhere, in his first major press interview, he explained further, ‘there’s a line about a girl called Johnny in one of her songs, called “Redondo Beach”’ he told Colin Irwin (‘Melody Maker’ 14 May 1983). ‘And I heard a tape she’d done and noticed that Johnny is a hero or heroine on lots of her early songs. So I thought I’d make HER Johnny!’

Yet, as that majestic first single emerged, the band didn’t properly exist, ‘Anthony (Thistlethwaite) was on it, playing sax. There was just the two of us. Kevin (Wilkinson) came later.’

I mention noticing a musicians’ ad placed in ‘New Musical Express’ at the time, recruiting for Waterboys. Scott laughs, ‘he (Kevin?) answered that advert. We got a LOT of guitar players coming around!’

The follow-up single – “December”, came through a Chicken Jazz hook-up with the more major-league Ensign. ‘Big acoustic anatomy of melancholy’ said ‘New Musical Express’, ‘too long and involved for a single, but nice all the same.’

Both singles got sucked onto ‘The Waterboys’ album alongside “The Three-Day Man”, “I Will Not Follow”, “It Should Have Been You”, “The Girl In The Swing” and “Savage Earth Heart”. Following the release of the album, came the promotion. He explained it as a strategy of ‘taking my troops into the territory of the brain’ (‘Hot Press’).

‘We did a European tour supporting the Pretenders’ he elaborates for me. ‘We got a little bit of experience there. We did all over Europe, and Ireland. We had a really good time in Ireland. We’ve been ‘worked-in’.’


March 1983 – “A Girl Called Johnny” c/w “Ready For The Monkey House” + “Somebody Might Wave Back” and “Out Of Control” (Chicken Jazz 12” only, JAZZ CJJ1)

July 1983 – ‘The Waterboys’ vinyl LP (Ensign 1) with “December”, “A Girl Called Johnny”, “The Three-Day Man”, “Gala”, “I Will Not Follow”, “It Should Have Been You”, “The Girl In The Swing”, “Savage Earth Heart” Re-issued Ensign CHEN2 in August 1986, then expanded edition 2002 with “Gala (Unedited)”, “Where Are You Now When I Need You?”, “Something Fantastic”, “Ready For The Monkeyhouse”, “Another Kind Of Circus”, “A Boy In Black Leather”, “December (original eight-track mix)”, and “Jack Of Diamonds”

September 1983 – “December” c/w “Where Are You Now When I Need You” (plus “The Three-Day Man” and “Red Army Blues” on the 12” edition) (Ensign ENY 506)

March 1984 – “The Big Music” c/w “The Earth Only Endures” (plus “Bury My Heart” on the 12” edition) (Ensign ENY 508)

May 1984 – ‘The Waterboys’ (US-only mini-LP, Ensign/ Island IM 1017) with “A Girl Called Johnny”, “I Will Not Follow”, “It Should Have Been You”, “December” and “Savage Earth Heart”

June 1984 – ‘A Pagan Place’ (Ensign ENCL3) with “Church Not Made With Hands”, “All The Things She Gave Me”, “The Thrill Is Gone”, “Rags”, “Somebody Might Wave Back”, “The Big Music”, “Red Army Blues”, “A Pagan Place”. Plus bonus tracks on the extended reissue “All The Things She Gave Me (Unedited)”, “The Thrill Is Gone (Unedited)”, “Some Of My Best Friends Are Trains”, “The Late Train To Heaven (Rockfield Mix)”, “Love That Kills” instrumental, “The Madness Is Here Again”, “Cathy” written by Nikki Sudden, “Down Through The Dark Streets”

--- 0 --- 

FLASHBACK TWO: The Waterboys are midway through a long-distance drag around this once-green and pleasant. They took in a gig at the CND Glastonbury Festival – an event redolent of antique Hippie mysticism, then – fresh from the Continental jaunt with the Pretenders, they go on to play scorching tours with U2 and Simple Minds.

You must enjoy touring, Mike?

‘When you play six gigs there’s bound to be two really good ones. Tonight was absolutely REAL. It’s always real – but sometimes it’s… less real. Like the gig tonight, I felt that here it was fine. But last night in Preston, that was a really BAD gig. When I went on I was – not nervous, but not confident at all. Because it was a Disco, and the audience was there to dance to Frankie Goes To Hollywood.’

Scott’s ill at ease with Disco, and he bad-mouths local muso’s the Thompson Twins from the Sheffield stage. Prefacing a number with a dedication to ‘fuck their shitty smell’, and tail-ending the song with ‘I think we just BURIED the cunts!’ It’s delivered with a teasing arrogance, and an antagonism that’s not entirely artificial. His thesis is the antithesis of Electro-Pop game-playing.

That can be a risky strategy, I suggest – to build up a kind of antagonism with the audience.

He grins broadly, disarmingly. ‘I didn’t REALLY intend it to be.’

From Another Pretty Face…?

So was the reference to the Thompson Twins wise, Mike?, particularly to a Sheffield audience?

‘I DO hate the Thompson Twins’ he answers, quite reasonably. ‘Are they REALLY from Sheffield?’

They’re from Chesterfield, which is just down the road. They used to play with the Human League in pubs here, Tom Bailey used to teach in Sheffield. ‘Oh no!!! THE THOMPSON TWINS ARE FROM SHEFFIELD! That’s like slagging Lindisfarne in Newcastle!’

A voice from ‘John Clash’ squatting next to him, ‘but they’re still a bunch of fuckin’ cunts.’

Scott nods sagely. ‘They are.’

--- 0 --- 

For the ‘A Pagan Place’ (1984) album ‘the songs were written over about two years. Really they were… “The Big Music”, “A Pagan Place” itself, and “Rags” are all from the same time. All the others were written in 1982. A long time ago.’

And for the results – was he pleased with the way the album turned out? ‘I think so. I’m not pleased with some of the tracks. There’s a few I don’t like. The first track –“Rags”, is a bad mix.’

‘New Musical Express’ called the album ‘a most convincing blend of youth and mastery, of sky-rocket rush and sacred conviction’, commending its ‘promethean sweep’ (11 August 1984). ‘Melody Maker’ wrote of Roddy Lorimer’s ‘incisive trumpet breaking the surface of the music with a flourish as bright as gleaming chrome’ (2 June). While less specifically, Helen Fitzgerald claims Mike Scott’s ‘songs are gift-wrapped and stamped ‘deep and meaningful’, and sometimes, they really ARE’ (‘Melody Maker’ 24 November 1984).

‘This Is The Sea’ (September 1985) – eighteen months later, is a torrent of gift-wrapped lyrical meaning, a new sophistication and maturity that’s to become even more pronounced – ‘unicorns and cannonballs, palaces and piers/ trumpets towers and tenements, with oceans full of fears/ flags, rags, ferryboats, scimitars and scarves/ every precious dream and vision, underneath the stars…’

But first – a step backwards. We talk some more through influences.

Patti Smith? We’ve done that.

Iggy Pop? ‘An animal. But an intelligent animal!’

And what about Bob Dylan? Scott saw Dylan in Newcastle at St James’ Park, 5 July 1984, and ‘his whole persona and performance, everything about the man, was totally great. He did lots of GOOD old stuff, and seven or eight songs with just an acoustic guitar. He went off-stage and let the bass-player do a number. Then he came back and the band fucked off. He did “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” as the first solo song, and…’

I got temporarily alienated from Bob Dylan during the time he became a born-again Christian, but, according to Scott, ‘he didn’t play any of the songs from the ‘Slow Train Coming’ (1979) or ‘Shot Of Love’ (1981) albums, nothing from that religious sort-of period. He seems to have gone back on that.’

Yes, but Mike, even on Dylan’s subsequent albums – like ‘Infidels’ (1983), on the “Jokerman” track, he’s singing about ‘Leviticus and…’

Scott completes the line for me, ‘…and Deuteronomy. Yes, but it’s GREAT. A great song. Have you ever seen the video? He’s not ramming the religious angle down your throat anymore, he’s not saying YOU MUST READ THE BIBLE. He’s ditched all that stuff years ago.’

And – switching tack, what about Scott’s Scots accent? How does that go down with foreign journalists?

‘I try to speak s-l-o-w-l-y, and make it very c-l-e-a-r. They would say, about “A Pagan Place” – ‘vot is zis song about? Vot is ze Pagan Place, Mike?’ And I have to start to try to explain, in English, to this Dutchman, this well-intentioned Dutchman…’ He throws up his hands in mock-despair.

We laugh it down.

Then, deadpan, I ask ‘what does “A Pagan Place” mean, Mike?’

‘Ah-ha. Do you REALLY mean that…?’ A pause, then ‘it’s just symbolic.’

--- 0 --- 

The Waterboys score their first Top Twenty single (“The Whole Of The Moon”, no.26, 2 November 1985, then no.3 on reissue 13 April 1991, beneath Chesney Hawkes “The One And Only” and James “Sit Down”) from their first Top Twenty album (‘This Is The Sea’) – then drop out to busk around Irish Folk Clubs for two years. Hardly a smart career move, at first glance. Line-ups become confusingly fluid, the group loses Karl Wallinger who quits to form World Party in early 1986 (sticking with Ensign for hits including “Message In The Box”, no.39, June 1990, and “Is It Like Today” no.19, April 1993), and expands by taking in new personnel, including Steve Wickham from Galway, Jay Dee Daugherty, Sharon Shannon etc, and more ethnic, more Celtic influences.

And all the while, press interest – conversely, grows. The Waterboys assume a new legendary status with a mystique fuelled by the l-o-n-g absence, the myths and rumours that emanate from alleged recording sessions as far afield as Boston, Dublin’s Windmill Lane, and San Francisco, and by cassettes and bootlegs of Irish pub and village hall concerts.

And when the album finally arrives – the double set ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ (October 1988), it exceeds all expectations. Mat Smith in ‘Melody Maker’ calls it ‘quite simply the finest album of this, or perhaps any year’. Old heroes live forever, and old influences – the Beatles, jostle with new role-models – Van Morrison, with Scott reading Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” into the run-out grooves of Morrison’s “Sweet Things”. Then there are traditional Irish songs (“When Ye Go Away”), a cod-Country reference to Hank Williams – ‘I don’t care what he did with his women, I don’t care what he did when he drank/ I wanna hear just one note from his lonesome old throat/ anybody here seen Hank?’. And even Gaelic vocalist Tomas McKeown singing Scott’s setting of WB Yeats 1889 poem “The Stolen Child”, all jostling alogside some of Scott’s own most violently well-crafted lyrics, ‘the world’s full of trouble, everybody’s scared/ landlords are frowning, cupboards are bare/ people are scrambling, like dogs for a share/ it’s cruel and it’s hard but it’s nothing compared to what we do to each other’ (“We Will Not Be Lovers”).

‘And yeah’ says Allan Jones, ‘the Waterboys are a glorious vindication of Rock’s maverick sensibilities’ (‘Melody Maker’, 7 January 1989).

--- 0 --- 

Mike Scott is literate. He recalls with obvious pleasure an interview he did with Irish music-paper ‘Hot Press’ that wound up ‘talking about books’. He tries to head our conversation in the same direction. Claims his song “Girl In The Swing” took its title from the 1980 Richard Adams novel (his fourth novel ‘The Girl In A Swing’). And how about other writers? – like, say, William Burroughs? ‘Burroughs has a great voice’ he opines. ‘I’d much rather HEAR him read his stuff than read it myself. Because the voice that I read it with in my brain is not as good as HIS voice.’

And there’s a story behind “Red Army Blues” on the ‘A Pagan Place’ album. ‘There’s a book I read called ‘The Forgotten Soldier’ by Guy Sajer (1965). He was French, from near the German border. So near that when they were short he was conscripted into the German Army! The Germans got pretty short at one point. Anyway, it’s just the story about his life on the Russian Front, and I thought it was pretty good. I’m very interested in the Russian Front for some reason, can’t quite explain why, so I wrote a song about it. But I changed it around, I wrote it from the Russian side, from their point of view – because the Germans were invading THEIR country. The Russians were in the right.’

Then there’s Kurt Vonnegut – he also got caught up confusingly in the war, as a POW blitzed by his own side in the Dresden fire-bombing! ‘I’ve read… no, I’ve SEEN his ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ (1969), and that was my initiation to him – the movie of his book.’

See what I mean? The guy’s literate. His lyrics read like the lyrics of a literate musician. He assembles his songs with care – even lines that, on the surface, seem deceptively simple (‘all these games/ fuck my brain’ on “The Ways Of Men”) are lethally timed to metre and rhyme. They work exactly. Running through the Waterboys back-catalogue track-by-track he casually undersells the devastating “Somebody Might Wave Back” as ‘an optimistic little song’, and still refuses to be drawn too deep into the complexities of “A Pagan Place”. ‘The story itself is all in very basic language’ he protests. ‘It’s just about me, arriving at a place. A mental place. After various adventures. A mental state.’

We play word-games. Is there a religious/anti-religious slant to the use of the word ‘Pagan’? ‘No, no, it’s not specific in that way.’

So ‘Pagan’ is just used for its emotive-evocative value? A ruminative pause. ‘I use the word seriously – as I was telling the audience, I use it seriously and, I think, with respect.’ He fences expertly around definitions, religious allusions can provide ‘a powerful store of imagery’. He mentions Bob Dylan again as an example of same…

Then, ‘Crass have used it too. They had an album title – ‘Stations Of The Crass’ (1979), y’know? It took me a few years before I got the joke there!’

For non-Catholics, the joke is a pun on ‘Stations Of The Cross’. Get it?


October 1985 – “The Whole Of The Moon” c/w “Medicine Jack” (the 12” has “The Whole Of The Moon (full version)”, “The Girl In The Swing (Live)”, plus “Medicine Jack” (Ensign 12ENY 520) no.26 on the chart. Reissue as Ensign ENY 642, when it reaches no.3

September 1985 – ‘This Is The Sea’ (Ensign ENCL5 – reissued as CHEN3 in August 1886) with “Don’t Bang The Drum”, “The Whole Of The Moon”, “Spirit”, “The Pan Within”, “Medicine Bow”, “Old England”, “Be My Enemy”, “Trumpets”, “This Is The Sea”, no.37 on UK album chart

October 1986 – “Medicine Bow (full version)” c/w “Don’t Bang The Drum” + “The Ways Of Men” (West Germany and Holland only, Ensign/Ariola 608-081)

December 1988 – ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ (Ensign Double-LP CHEN 5) with “Fisherman’s Blues”, “We Will Not Be Lovers”, “Strange Boat”, “World Party”, “Sweet Thing” (Van Morrison song), “Jimmy Hickey’s Waltz”, “And A Bang On The Ear”, “Has Anyone Here Seen Hank”, “When Will We Be Married” (Traditional song, adapted), “When Ye Go Away”, “Dunford’s Fancy” (Steve Wickham song), “The Stolen Child” (words by WB Yeats), “This Land Is Your Land” (Woody Guthrie), no.13 on UK album chart

January 1989 – “Fisherman’s Blues” c/w “Lost Highway” (Ensign ENY 621) no.32, reissue as Ensign ENY 645

June 1989 – “And A Bang On The Ear” c/w “The Raggle-Taggle Gipsy (Live at Glasgow ‘Barrowlands’ 1989)” (Ensign/ Chrysalis ENY 624) no.51

May 1993 – “The Return Of Pan” c/w “Karma” + “Mister Powers” and “The Return Of Pan (Demo)” (Geffen GFSTD 42) no.24

July 1993 – “Glastonbury Song” c/w “Chalice Hill” + “Burlington Bertie And Accrington Stanley” and “Corn Circle Symphony” (Geffen GFSTD 49) no.29 Do you believe in Rock ‘n’ Roll? Can the ‘Big Music’ (if not the attendant persona) save your mortal soul? While rejecting the hype-casting of Rock, Mike Scott rejuvenates it, and still works very much in its vital tradition. ‘That’s all I want to do. Play something RAW.’

Patti Smith was totally taken up by the mythologies of Rock. ‘Oh, yes.’

Is that something that’s true of you? ‘No. I think I’m quite free of that. Despite the leather trousers! I’m quite free of that.’

When push gets to shove – even without promiscuous promotion, and despite his denials, Mike Scott is the ideal candidate for hype-casting. He played the Rock role naturally, unconsciously, like a second skin. The Waterboys were, and could have remained a nice little earner.

But Scott aimed higher, and chances are he’s gonna take it a lot further yet.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Poco: Pickin' Up More Pieces


Album Review of: 
by POCO 
(Beat Goes On BGO CD 612 BGO, 
PO Box 22, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk IP28 6XQ 

Poco are the special secret shared by those who used to devour ‘Dark Star’ and early ‘ZigZag’. A band with all the right Country-Rock credentials – founder Ritchie Furay was formerly the guy-inbetween Stills & Young in the mighty Buffalo Springfield, plus the bassist Jim Messina (later of Loggins &) and session-pedal steel protégé Rusty Young from the Buffs ‘Last Time Around’ (July 1968) finale. Massive in the States across some twenty low-charting albums and thirteen singles, they rarely took the trouble to tour Europe or play ‘Whispering Bob’s’ ‘OGWT’, and hence never achieved a commercial ripple over here. Unlike – say, the Eagles.

This nicely-packaged double-CD collects their first two complete vinyl 12”ers from mid-1969 and June 1970 respectively, pretty much confirming what we remember. Light, pleasant Beatles/Byrds harmonies picked out over Rusty’s sweetly sighing dobro. A soft touch of strings or surging horns (“Tomorrow”). Nothing too musically or lyrically heavy. Up-gearing into the mildly fuzz-tone Rock of “Short Changed”, before easing back into sprightly hoedown instrumental mode (“Grand Junction”). The second disc includes the catchy CSN-ish hit single “You Better Think Twice”, allied to the yearning Country heartbreak-schmaltz of “Honky Tonk Downstairs”, through to the extended (15:47 min) Latin percussion work-out “El Tonto De Nadie, Regresa”. I’d always assumed the band were named for the juvie Cowboy novel-exploits of ‘Pocomoto’ which I used to read at school. Apparently not. Apply within. But the sunshine honey-coated nostalgia vibe to their ‘sittin pickin and a-grinnin’ is real. But then of, course, these sides arrived some time before their fondly remembered ‘Rose Of Cimarron’, and even longer since he became the Reverend Ritchie Furay…

Published in:
SONGBOOK no.4 (Summer)’
(UK – November 2004)

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

SF: Charles Platt's 'THE GARBAGE WORLD'


 Originally serialised in two parts in ‘New Worlds’ magazine, 
 Charles Platt’s ‘The Garbage World’ (1967) remains a 
 startlingly confrontational – and effortlessly readable novel. 
It’s well-worth revisiting.

 ‘Platt is a ‘writer’, and he doesn’t care for labels…’ 
 (Philip José Farmer)

Shit. Eat, excrete and reproduce. That’s what organisms do. That’s the behavior humans share with every other organism in the biosphere. As a literature of speculation, Science Fiction has dealt extensively with future-cuisine and the varieties of sexual expression. But has very little to say about the other basic function. Brian Aldiss ‘let defecation commence’ with his explosively satirical ‘The Dark Light Years’ (1964), concerning the alien Utods to whom excrement is central to their culture. Charles Platt’s ‘The Garbage World’ (1968) takes the subject down an alternate cosmic s-bend.

In his introduction to the ebook edition, Platt writes that ‘human colonies in the asteroid belt were a common feature of science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet in all the stories and novels that I ever saw, the writers ignored a fundamental problem. People generate trash. If you’re living on an asteroid, where are you going to put it?’ (‘A Scatological Singularity’, 2017). So Kopra becomes the garbage asteroid, a ‘foetid cesspool of a world’. Its name a play on coprophilia, coprophagia, coprology, coprolite and other words derived from the Greek ‘kopros’ for dung. ‘The asteroid is named Kopra, just in case anyone didn’t get it.’

Located in an asteroid belt, not specifically the one orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, but it seems to be in the future solar system, with the other planetoids of the group terraformed into antiseptic pleasure worlds which have been dumping their waste products onto Kopra for a century. Until it’s become a compost heap of steaming waste, viscous brown garbage-dunes hazed in pungent yellow gas, with trace-radioactivity producing jungles of mutant plantlife. The Kopran inhabitants – ‘defiant social rejects’, live a primitive life by scavenging from the ‘brown landscape of steaming refuse’ deposited by incoming blimps, which are shaped like ‘giant, fifty-foot-long sausages’. Again, a fairly obvious symbolism.

“The Garbage World” formed the ideal ‘New Worlds’ serial for its time, a scatological satire to satisfy New Wavers, yet with a fast plot-driven space-adventure narrative for those who prefer more traditional SF forms. It first appeared in two-parts in issues nos. 167 and no.168 (October and November 1966), under Michael Moorcock’s editorship. The first episode cover-illustrated by Keith Roberts with inner art by James Cawthorn. To Platt, it was what Moorcock saw as being ‘easily accessible’, ‘which was the term he used for fiction that people would not find too challenging. If readers started with the conventional stuff, they might be more willing to try other stories in the magazine that were somewhat unconventional.’ Delving deeper, it’s also a cleverly disguised nudge at the disposable consumer society with Junk-Yard Angel counter-culture cross-overs. Even now, in the twenty-first century, there are Third World peoples who inhabit landfill sites and live by scavenging through the waste matter of the affluent free-market cities all around them. Platt simply got in first. The serial graduated into novel-form through Berkley Medallion in November 1967, before its UK debut as part of the Panther Science Fiction imprint in 1968.

The plot opens with a first-contact situation when an imperial navy Survey ship from the ‘Government of the United Asteroid Belt Inhabited Pleasure World Federation’ alights in the garbage dunes for dialogue with Isaac Gaylord, headman of the shanty village. Gaylord picks his nose, and when he scratches his head small insects and dirt-flakes drop from his scalp. He resembles the protagonist in Philip José Farmer’s 1962 story-compilation ‘The Alley God’, which Platt ‘revered’.

The confrontation leads to a cultural stand-off represented by the hygiene-obsessed worlds represented by Captain Sterril (sterile), to whom Kopra is ‘a blemish in the flawless purity of the rest of the asteroid belt,’ and the Koprans contentedly wallowing in filth, ‘trapped at the anal stage of their development.’ The action hinges on a scheme to evacuate Kopra while vital upgrades are made to its ‘botched’ artificial-gravity, which is threatened by a century’s unwieldy build-up of waste. Or is this a pretext for something more sinister, as Lucian Roach begins to suspect? While there’s a star-crossed lover’s flirtation between Roach, the expedition’s Observer and Recorder, with the lovely Juliette, Isaac’s grubby daughter.

Platt was once ‘Ralph T Castle’ – ‘which is an anagram of my real name’, on Facebook, until he came out from behind the guise on 17 August 2017. ‘For many years I’ve kept my name separate from Facebook because I didn't want to be searchable here. But I think fewer young people are using Facebook these days, and the overlap is unimportant. If you were ‘Friended’ by Ralph T. Castle you’ll see me as Charles Platt when I complete the Facebook renaming process.’ Me? I ‘Friended’ both Castle, and Platt.

I frequently refer to Platt’s ‘Who Writes Science Fiction?’ (Savoy Books, 1980), a collection of interviews with writers he terms ‘the weirdest and most wonderful inhabitants of the literary worlds,’ across the SF spectrum from Isaac Asimov and EC Tubb through Robert Silverberg and Brian Aldiss to Philip K Dick and Harlan Ellison. Although he claims his own greatest influences were Alfred Bester – ‘the great innovator of the 1950s’ who ‘alone among science-fiction writers of his generation, seemed truly keyed into modern media, and the arts, urban style and fashion’, and JG Ballard – ‘the great innovator of the 1960s’. Born in London, 26 April 1945, he edited his school magazine through which he published early Michael Butterworth fiction, and freelanced his own photography. As early as December 1963 he was contributing letters-of-comment to the BSFA magazine ‘Vector’, to Graham Charnock’s ‘Phile’, and cover-art for the fanzine ‘Beyond’ (April 1964). His first fiction sale – “One Of Those Days”, appeared in ‘Science Fantasy’ (no.68, December 1964) under Kyril Bonfiglioli’s editorship. A brief niggling marital dialogue exasperated by heat and noise, leads to accidental domestic death.

He started writing full-time after dropping out of Cambridge University, where he’d studied economics for a couple of terms. Graduating to ‘New Worlds’ for the novelette “Lone Zone” (no.152, July 1965), in which amoral Loners roam the depopulated Linear City Seven, ‘the entire material resources of the earth plundered in a panic-stricken rush to build for a generation that never arrived.’ Four feral youth and one confused civic are pursued through a JG Ballard landscape of empty malls and towerblocks, trekking through empty London, skirting the Cenlon centre where a semblance of outmoded civilization survives. With Platt aged just twenty, it’s a remarkably consistent bleakly existential future-vision, singled out by Ballard himself as a ‘wholly original attempt… to enlarge the scope and subject matter of science fiction’ (in ‘New Worlds’ no.167).

Platt played keyboards with various Rock bands, which might have fed into “The Failures” (‘New Worlds’ no.158, January 1966), where Gregg – vocalist with the charting Ephemerals is beguiled by enigmatic Cathy, to eventually lose her. With minimal SF content, Gregg restlessly frequents the transient beat-group milieu of a Notting Hill Gate crash-pad with detailed descriptions of rolling joints and getting high, vivid with dialogue and speeding atmosphere. It was followed by “The Disaster Story” (no.160, March 1966) a brief personal rumination on surviving the end of civilization. And, working chronologically through his published tales, by “The Rodent Laboratory” (no.165, August 1966) – where rats in a population-density experiment mirror the laboratory-bunker compression around them, both enclosed societies peaking into breaking-point.

At the same time, his ability as book-jacket designer, photographer and illustrator became an asset when the name ‘Charles Platt’ was added to the ‘New Worlds’ colophon as ‘Designer’. He also graduated to editing stints. ‘I just had to keep cranking out an issue of ‘New Worlds’ every month’ he tells me. ‘Sixty-four pages plus covers.’ He went on to co-compile the paperback-format ‘New Worlds 7’ (1975) with Hilary Bailey. ‘It didn't leave me with much time.’

His sequence of tales was nevertheless followed by a unique joint effort with the amazing Barrington J Bayley, “A Taste Of The Afterlife” (no.166, September 1966). Anticipating Joel Schumacher’s 1990 movie ‘Flatliners’, and its 2017 remake, the story concerns the use of ‘afterlife’ techniques in a Cold War espionage setting, where Fairweather is ‘killed’, and then functions as a ‘pseudo-electromagnetic field entity’ to penetrate and sabotage a Soviet installation. After being attacked by enemy afterlifers, he reawakens in his own body, only to learn that the project is to be endlessly repeated as the political confrontation escalates. Religious interpretations of the ‘soul’ are dismissed as ‘nonsense’, in genuinely original metaphysical speculation, albeit in a fast-moving plot.

Platt’s next appearance was with the two-part “The Garbage World”, trailered as ‘an entertaining new satire dealing with the very quintessence of capitalism’. Well, maybe. The concept had been bantered around ‘during one of many drunken evenings at Michael Moorcock’s London flat... we were taking a break from working on ‘New Worlds’ magazine, and I was sitting on the floor while he strummed an out-of-tune acoustic guitar.’ Platt recalls how ‘I mentioned that I was contemplating a novel set in a world of garbage,’ and, despite Moorcock’s amused incredulity, he went ahead and developed the idea.

‘I wrote the novel in a small ground-floor flat at 70 Ledbury Road, in the Notting Hill area of London’ he recalls. ‘I no longer lived in the decaying tenement full of sociopaths and drug users that had inspired “Lone Zone.” My current accommodation seemed quite civilized, being furnished with wall-to-wall carpet. Actually it was car carpet, which my father had obtained wholesale from Vauxhall Motors, where he was Chief Engineer. The carpet had an industrial look, and I slept on a second-hand mattress on the floor, but by my standards, it was sumptuous’ (‘A Scatological Singularity’, 2017). ‘The Garbage World’ has since evolved into e-format. Platt explains ‘I had to write an introduction to the electronic edition, and I wondered how I managed to make a two-part serial into a novel. But I didn’t take the trouble to find out. Just lazy I guess.’

In fact, there are differences between the slim magazine version, and the resulting expanded novel. In the serial even the Koprans wear air filters within their nostrils. And the muddy drunken orgy at the Garbage Impact site was originally set in the village itself where ‘they built a great bonfire in the road, and all the lights and all the TV sets were turned on, each one tuned to a different station. The people just seemed to like a lot of background noise.’ To Lucian, ‘the idea of such permissiveness was unsettling,’ although he’s wavering.

There are comic sequences of a hung-over Gaylord stumbling amok aboard the Survey Craft, befouling Lucian’s cabin with vomit and filth – more explicit in the novel than in the serial, and confronting the prissy Minister Larkin (a character based by Platt ‘on my fastidious tutor, Ellis Larkin, at the London College of Printing and Graphic Arts. I saw no need to modify his name’). The disciplinary action that follows the chaos results in Lucian dispatched on a three-day trip to round up feral Kopran nomads, with Gaylord hunting his stolen ‘hoard’ of salvaged treasures, and Juliette aboard the tractor as guide.

With the power-source and radio sabotaged, they’re wrecked in a mud-lake where they’re attacked by a giant predatory slug. In the novel, they’re rescued by junk-hunting nomads, only to fall into a fissure opened up by storm-lightning, garbage-tremors and blimp impact, to be rescued again by nomads using long roots as cables. In the serial they encounter no wild nomads at all. Either way, they must trek back on foot through a deluge of piss-yellow rain, while Lucian and Juliette overcome their cultural differences sufficient to get it together in romping love-making, splashing around in an oozing muddy pool.

In correspondence Platt points out that ‘you will also find numerous tiny differences between the text of the US novel and the UK novel, because the US editor, Damon Knight, believed in doing a lot of line editing. He showed me a few sample manuscript pages, and I said ‘Go ahead, do whatever you like.’

Following the serialization of “The Garbage World” came “The Total Experience Kick” (no.169, December 1966) – collected into Judith Merril’s influential anthology ‘England Swings SF’ (Doubleday, 1968) as well as Michael Moorcock’s ‘The Best SF Stories From New Worlds no.2’ (Berkley Medallion, 1969), before “The City Dwellers” (no.176, October 1967) took him forward both into the new format ‘New Worlds’ and into his next novel ‘The City Dwellers’ (Sidgwick & Jackson, March 1970), which reconfigures the early magazine tales.

Although obviously related to the “The Failures”, and to the passages in the novel that mirror it, “The Total Experience Kick” story is a stand-alone spin-off, a music-technology satire where Joe Forrest of Sound Trends infiltrates Harry King’s laboratory intent on learning its secrets. The ‘Total Experience Kick’, he discovers, is a kind of sensurround psychedelic-feelie emotional-feedback projection that has propelled Marc Nova to overnight stardom and evolved the industry in ways that subsequent real-life developments only in part reflect. SAM – Statistically Average Man operates as a test-audience now does for new movies.

The novel itself links expanded versions of “The Failures” to “Lone Zone” into a potential ‘Greybeard’-world, in which the SF-elements – cybernet, synthfood, dream-relax machines, zero-G booths, can seem irrelevant and time-locked. Gregg is no longer with the Ephemerals group, and no longer opens with a Lennon-McCartney number (“The Total Experience Kick” quotes ‘the last three chords in “She Loves You” are the best example’). Gregg wears tomorrow-clothes and plays Total Experience shows. Characters are adrift in a milieu of drugs and casual sex. Doomsayer thalidomide-victim Jameison is smashed to death, after first predicting how declining populations will affect future urban communities ‘Something’s happened, no-one knows what. Psychological, biological… all I know is, women aren’t having children. And the economy’s showing the strain.’

A bridging sequence about Julius and Hilary in their rural retreat, torn apart by city revelers, takes the narrative over into the vast urban emptiness of Lone Zone, where the city has become a ‘giant concrete graveyard’. With Part Four shunting further into a final orgy of destruction as The Last Generation devolution hold riot nights with Mad Max autos between ‘the tall apartment blocks, empty and dead, but magnificent in their stark bare symmetry’. Essentially the story from no.176 – the Twenty-First Anniversary issue of ‘New Worlds’, its stark photo-art catches the mood as survivors Manning and Carole abandon urban living, walking ‘on slowly along the street, heading northwards, towards the city limits and the countryside.’ Despite its fragmented structure the novel builds into a genuinely affecting vision of entropy and slow depopulation.

And then there’s ‘The Gas’ (1970). In an introduction to an expanded 1980 Savoy Books edition Philip José Farmer explain how the book ‘uses a science-fiction premise as the rationale for the wild, orgiastic, often violent and sometimes humorous events.’ The escape of a yellow chemical vapour from a secret germ-warfare laboratory has the effect of deleting social inhibiters to extents way beyond the limits of current political correctness, and more into the openly ribald historical mainstream of Sadean pornographic writing. No taboo is too sacred not to be drawn into the playful swirling tongue-in-every-imaginable orifice tale, as Vincent attempts to reach wife Judith in London, stealing cars and a light aircraft with hitchhiker Cathy and an old priest in tow, through a grotesque comedy of erotic excess. ‘She was screaming, he was shouting, they were both coming, the car was a rocketship aimed at the stars, all the jets were firing, colours flashed in front of his eyes.’ It becomes darker as Vincent heads north with his family in a station-wagon, with blasphemous Nuns, cannibalism, an exploding landlady, and the scabrous revenge Platt inflicts on the Cambridge academic elite.

Meanwhile, on Kopra, issues are also brought to an explosive climax. Gaylord’s effete adopted son Norman is revealed as the perpetrator of the hoard-theft, and of sabotaging the expedition with murderous intent, in a misguided attempt to gain off-worlder approval. A clean misfit in a dirty world, he commits dramatic suicide in the serial when his scheme fails. For the novel, Platt takes pity on him and rescues him. While Larkin’s sinister secret plans are not to implement vital upgrades to the offending asteroid’s ‘botched’ artificial-gravity, but to use a ‘hundred-megaton shaped charge’ to blast it into four precise pieces which can then be discretely re-sited, while the inhabitants are mentally-purged through psycho-surgery… Lucian too, seeing as he’s ‘gone native’.

With guile and resourcefulness the Koprans use the Survey Ship to escape, as Norman’s tampering with the charge results in the ‘garbage world exploded into a million muddy fragments in a burst of red-hot fire, while a thousand sterile pleasure worlds cowered before a vast cloud of filth.’ As Lucian and Juliette make love on the control cabin acceleration couch, the partying evacuees have any number of befouled new Kopras to settle. In a happily messy conclusion.

The conventional writer-evolution from short-stories into novels was ruptured by Platt leaving England in 1970, and settling in New York – into a ‘horrible five-feet-by-ten-feet $30-dollar-a-month room’, where he ‘wrote some undistinguished novels in order to finance an itinerant life-style’ including – according to a book-blurb, a handbook on outdoor survival, ‘a biography of a striptease artiste, and an intercourse positions guide’. He was then appointed consulting editor at Avon Books where he was instrumental in their ‘rediscovery’ list of SF classics, before he claims ‘science fiction diverged from me.’

‘Most of my friends know that I write educational books for young people under the name Charles Platt,’ he says now. Yet despite his diverse creativity-levels across the decades since, the 1960s Charles Platt legacy of tales and books remains collectable and highly readable. When I tell him I’m rereading that phase of his work in general, with a focus on ‘The Garbage World’ he responds ‘Ha! What a strange thing to do! It’s kind of you, though, to remember my old book.’

Humans are a garbage-producing species. The earliest evidence that archaeologists find of cave-habitation is the midden spoil-tip. The legacy we leave for future generations is landfills and oceans of floating plastic junk-islands. In Platt’s fiction, it’s possible to make a case for a shared tendency towards direct fleshy responses over literary intellectual ones. In ‘The City Dweller’ Cathy gives up her tainted luxury life-style, to surrender into the drugged sleazy sensuality of the Slum Zone. In ‘The Gas’ repressed libidos are released with orgiastic results. Just as Lucian is seduced into seeing the muddy virtues of the Kopran life-style. But although Earth itself has become a ‘Garbage World’, as a comment on our urban over-obsession with antiseptic germ-free hygiene, if anything the situation has intensified. Because contact with dirt – as Lucian discovers, can occasionally be beneficial.

Monday, 30 October 2017



open the wardrobe
see the bodies hung inside,
who shall I be today?
sometimes a rational decision
other times a capricious whim,
I need an upgrade of new flesh,
a delicious adornment, as a gown
to hold against myself in the mirror,
yes, I enjoy having a vagina
but sometimes I prefer a penis,
today I’m young, tomorrow perhaps
I’ll choose the wisdom of great age,
slip on the garment of colour-coded bodies
ebon or Byzantine gold, switching scenarios
one by one, tentacle-fingers, starfish eyes,
embroidered as a bishop, lizard scales,
webbed feet, ocelot fur, my eyes are flame,
my cheeks maps of unknown planets,
Asiatic tattoos or albino Hispanic
a Nordic dancer, a bantu nymph
I forsake fixed form to match my mood,
shrug off bodies to squeeze into new ones
some are winged, others silver filigree,
limbs protrude in careless afterthought
smile for an hour, frown a month away
blood circulates as rush of dark waters
as surely as ocean tides,
flip through bodies
how to decide,
who shall I be today…?

Thursday, 26 October 2017



 Overview of: 
(1971, One Way Records, reissued BGO CD 165) 
(1993, Morgan Creek Records, reissued Polydor 519 6142) 
(2003 Live 2CD, Rude Girl Records) 

Drew Barrymore. Michael Jackson… Britney Spears. Child protégés have it tough. Janis Ian explains, in a cheek-and-tongue related fashion, ‘just how often I’m compared with Britney Spears’. In response to the ensuing hilarity she concedes ‘it’s an uncanny resemblance, I must admit. I did get a very good review in Maryland recently that compared me quite favourably with Britney’. Janis Ian – neé Janis Eddy Fink, began playing the Greenwich Village Coffee House Folkie circuit at fourteen. A year later she was charting high with her own “Society’s Child”, a bitter emotion-charged interracial love affair torn apart by adult intolerance and hypocrisy. White-girl-meets-black-boy – ‘they call you ‘boy’ instead of your name’, girl-loses-boy, girl-blames-society, all interpreted through one of Shadow Morton’s more sympathetic productions. As she replays it live it’s still a remarkably mature and stunningly powerful song.

‘I had my first hit when I was fourteen’ she narrates. Early fame, followed by the come-down, ‘a period of my life where it was pretty dark’ and ‘I’d had to move back in with my Mom. By the time I wrote this next song I was nineteen and in the words of one critic I was a washed-up has-been. I wanna thank him for making me angry enough to just write a truthful song’. That truthful song – “Stars”, the title-song of her 1974 album, tells the pain of early stardom making it almost as relevant, to stretch an analogy, to Britney as it is to Janis Ian. And she was well into her first of many come-backs, in a smoother Joni Mitchell vibe, but still impacting the ills of the world head-on. “This Train Still Runs” becomes a personal metaphor, her ‘baggage weighs a ton’ but ‘I’m not done’. ‘Present Company’ (1971) – her fourth LP, re-visits her early-seventies trauma, while ‘Breaking Silence’ (1993) updates the misery memoirs following a bout of violent marital breakdown and her newly-discovered lesbian self-awareness (she divorced filmmaker Tino Sargo, and subsequently married attorney Patricia Snyder). When someone yells out ‘we love you’ she responds ‘I didn’t spend all that money on therapy to disregard that’. Remarkably precocious and assured from the start, setting her sometimes precious poesy into sparse sensitive shimmers of instrumentation, with elements of confessional therapy giving it all a tense nervy edge, her albums can be unsettling.

Early titles like “Insanity Comes Quietly To The Structured Mind” and “Forty-Second St Psycho Blues” betray an earnest fragility she’s never quite kicked. She writes tear-jerking self-analysis in the first person, her biggest American hit – “At Seventeen”, is a painfully maudlin paean to acne’d misery, savagely introspective and to be listened to with a tear-absorbant Kleenex handy, about ‘those of us with ravaged faces, lacking in the social graces… inventing lovers on the ‘phone, who call to say come dance with me, and whisper vague obscenities’. She explains how, although the initial spark came from a ‘New York Times’ feature in which a debutante complained how ‘she’d learned the truth at eighteen’ – which didn’t scan so was age-revised down, the confessional song took her three months to write. The adolescent trauma she assumed to be so uniquely isolating went on to touch surprisingly universal sensitivities.

Her songs are diary entries with literary pretentions, one record sleeve frames her alienation through a shattered window against a wedge of books artfully contrived for their intellectual effect – Colin Wilson’s cod-philosophical text on the benefits of isolation ‘The Outsider’, Albert Camus in translation, always a dead give-away, and as a personal reference point, ‘The Greenwich Village Bluebook 1974-75’.

That said, ‘Present Company’ does catch her at something of a melodic low, joyless and humourless, with doses of compensation injected by the near-gutsy drive of “My Lane”, against the attractive “Here In Spain”, “See The River”, and “Can You Reach Me?” (‘…would you teach me to be free?’). ‘Breaking Silence’ is stronger, enveloping her predictable themes of cathartic pain, incest, and doubt in cracked and muted washes of highly personal acoustics with soft jazz touches. Among the titles is “Some People’s Lives” which she originally wrote for Bette Midler, and a wistful “Guess You Had to Be There” looking back at simpler sixties times.

Yet she’s capable of wresting humour from her own persona, chastising her enthusiastic audience ‘this is the Janis Ian show, you’re supposed to be depressed by now’. She throws ‘Purple Haze’ quotes into the complex instrumental work on the ten-minute “Take No Prisoners”. She adds scrabbled guitar-fret effects and ascending harmony-chimes to “Take Me Walking In The Rain”. There’s a Greek Leonard Cohen pacing to “Between The Lines”. And she moves from Joni Mitchell lightness, through falsetto feints, into the jaunty jazzy-jump of “Fly Too High” with punching horns and sax solo, prefacing it with ‘just ‘cos you guys thought we wouldn’t do any old songs’. Dance-miester Giorgio Morodor produced the original version for its inclusion on the soundtrack of the Jodie Foster movie ‘Foxes’ (1980). Then there’s “Cosmopolitan Girl” which even eulogises the benefits of a vibrator. But when she talks about the magic and the alchemy of song, of being born ‘with a talent’ and working ‘both as a woman and an artist’, she’s probably angling more towards the subtle eroticism of “Ride Me Like A Wave”, or the delicate gender-free fragility of the acoustic “Jesse”. From ‘Stars’, Roberta Flack later had a hit with “Jesse”. Janis co-wrote “Berlin” with Pop multi-tasker Linda Perry.

But the harrowing holocaust testament “Tattoo” stands starkly, and touchingly alone. But of course, like the young Drew Barrymore, Michael Jackson… or Britney Spears, the teenage Janis Ian was very much THERE, and it could be argued she’s still working her way through its consequences. ‘Not that I have anything against Britney Spears’ she explains carefully, with calculated pauses for effect. ‘I mean, what’s not to like? She’s young… she’s tall… she’s blonde… and she’s really rich’. Ending with a one-word punchline, ‘slut!’

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Instrumental Rock 'n' Roll: JOHNNNY & THE HURRICANES


Expanded Album Review of: 
(Smith & Co SCCD 2429, October 2010) 

There used to be a magazine called ‘Beat Instrumental’ which would have loved this two-CD plus one-DVD package. Its glossy black-&-white pages specialised in that wave of vocal-free groups who’s tuneful danceable novelty 45rpm’s scored highly in the international charts through the late fifties up to around the brink of the Beat Boom. Duane Eddy, the Shadows, Sandy Nelson, the Ventures, B Bumble & The Stingers, and – of course, sax-led five-piece Johnny & The Hurricanes. The irritatingly catchy “Rocking Goose” was blasted above the opposition by a squawking riff accidentally produced by leader Johnny Paris (born Poscik) when rinsing his tenor sax-reed in the washroom, blowing into it produced a comical gimmicky mutant rasp instantly seized upon to punctuate the precise 1:50-minute single. It became one of seven UK Top 40 hits issued, and hoarded here, on the black-&-silver London label.

From Toledo, Ohio, the group got together at Rossford Catholic High School with the intention of playing back-up to local vocalists. As the Orbits, they became a big club draw in the Midwest region, and amiably agreed to help out singer Fred Kelley when he scored a Detroit audition with ‘Talent Artists Inc’. Kelley failed the audition, but the group were signed by hawkish Detroit A&R entrepreneur Harry Balk who leased them to newly-formed Warwick records in their own right. The details of the contract would hurt for decades, ensuring the group saw little remuneration for their hits.

The first – the frantic dance-disc “Crossfire” in April 1959, was recorded in Detroit movie theatre ‘Carmen Towers’ to get the desired reverb effect. The second, a rocked-up version of old Cowboy song ‘Red River Valley’ retitled “Red River Rock” was the first to front their prominent pop-pop piping Hammond-organ style enlivened with bursts of rough sax. It also became their first cross-over to the Euro market. Once the formula was devised, it was open to endless variation. Interchangeably smart-suited with slicked-back quiffs, their line-up was fluid from the start, with Royaltones’ drummer Bill ‘Little Bo’ Savitch replacing Don Staczek, who in turn had replaced original drummer Tony Kaye. Nevertheless, the group up-switched to New York’s Big Top label, recording in their Bellsound Studios, where organ-player Paul Tesluk also helped out by adding his distinctive sound to fellow Big Top label-mate Del Shannon on the hits “Runaway” and “Hats Off To Larry”. The group also backed Del on tour, and shared his manager, Irving Micahnik. All the while, their live music, and ‘B’-sides, took on a harder edge, not that it mattered. Hits continued, with the attention-grabbing Sergeant-Major’s shout opening “Reveille Rock” – ‘alright you guys, rise and shine!’ then ‘Wake Up!’ With Johnny & The Hurricanes playing up a storm, who could sleep? There are stinging guitars driving “Sandstorm” ripped up by greasy coarse-edged sax, through to the lumpy rhythms of “Old Smokie” in July 1961, by which time Paris was the only constant figure, using the group-name as a convenient trademark.

‘Record Mirror’ proclaimed the highly-marketable “Rocking Goose” ‘the last of the true rock hits’. Perhaps, for instrumental-freaks, they were right. Paris knew his stuff. He’d started out imitating Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, before the example of Bill Haley’s honking saxist Rudy Pompilli redirected his talents into the new ‘Rock thing’. After Johnny & The Hurricanes were dropped by the majors, he formed his own label – Atila, to market more of the group’s music. He toured, including sharing a Hamburg bill with the Beatles, taking different Hurricanes line-ups well into the 1970’s.

At their peak, singles were the predominant Pop currency, with cash-in albums hastily thrown together and sometimes – whisper it soft, with tracks produced by session musicians when the group itself was touring. Some – including Del Shannon, claim that the band got a first hear of their latest record by tuning into their Volkswagen tour-bus radio, and then had to learn it. In subsequent interviews Paris always denied this. No, there were guest players drawn in to help out, but the essential Hurricanes’ ‘meaty stuff’ was always there. Well, maybe. But there were other scams. Their jaunty hit “Beatnik Fly” was revamped from an 1846 minstrel song ‘Jimmy Cracked Corn’, a traditional ‘public domain’ property for which management duo Micahnik & Balk claimed writer credits (as Tom King & Ira Mack). Check out the back-catalogue, and the tight-fisted duo repeatedly rebranded out-of-copyright tunes as a conniving strategy to siphon away yet more lucrative royalties. There again, it was the dawn of Rock, there wasn’t an extensive repertoire of original material to draw on. And Blues and Folk continually reinvents its past in new guises, if with greater credibility. And ultimately… does it Rock? Yes, it Rocks! Even so, while the hits still carry an undeniable supercharge, it’s debatable whether anyone but the most ardent reader of ‘Beat Instrumental’ would really want quite such a comprehensive anthology of their back-catalogue.


Johnny ‘Paris’ Poscik (sax), Paul Tesluk (accordian, then organ), Dave Yorko (lead guitar), Lionel ‘Butch’ Mattice (bass), Tony Kaye (drums). Later members include Lynn Bruce (drums, replacing Savich)

April 1959 – ‘Crossfire’ c/w ‘Lazy’ (US Warwick 502) Billboard no.23

July 1959 – ‘Red River Rock’ c/w ‘Buckeye’ (US Warwick 509) US no.5 – (UK London HL8948) no.17 10th October 1959. With new drummer Don Staczek

October 1959 – ‘Reveille Rock’ c/w ‘Time Bomb’ (US Warwick 513) US no.25 (London HL9017) UK no.13 26th Dec 1959. With third drummer Little Bo Savich

February 1960 – ‘Beatnik Fly’ c/w ‘Sandstorm’ (US Warwick 520) US no.15 (London HLI9072) UK no.15 13th March 1960. ‘Beatnik Fly’ based on tune also known as ‘Blue Tail Fly’

May 1960 – ‘Down Yonder’ c/w ‘Sheba’, reviving ‘Way Down Yonder In New Orleans’, their first for US Big Top label (London HLX9134) US no.48. UK no.12 5th June 1960

September 1960 – ‘Rocking Goose’ c/w ‘Revival’ (London HLX9190) US no.60 (‘Revival’, based on ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’, was also US no.97). UK no.18 14th October 1960 (reissued as HL10199 c/w ‘Beatnik Fly’)

December 1960 – ‘You Are My Sunshine’ (Big Top 3056) US no.91

December 1960 – ‘Stormville’ LP (London HAI 2269) UK LP chart no.18, with ‘Milk Shake’, ‘Cyclone’, ‘Hungry Eye’

March 1961 – ‘Ja-Da’ c/w ‘Mr Lonely’ (London HLX9289) US no.86. UK no.17 24th February 1961

April 1961 – ‘Big Sound Of Johnny & The Hurricanes’ LP (London HAK 2322) UK LP chart no.14, with ‘Mr Irving’

June 1961 – ‘Old Smokie’ c/w ‘High Voltage’ (London HLX9378) UK no.12 28th June 1961 ‘High Voltage’ is a re-working of ‘Stack-O-Lee’

‘Farewell Farewell’ c/w ‘Traffic Jam’ (London 9491) reviving ‘Now Is The Hour’

‘Salvation’ c/w ‘Miserlou’ (London 9536) a rocked-up version of folk-hymn ‘Bringing In The Sheaves’

‘Minnesota Fats’ c/w ‘Come On Train’ (London HL9617) titled after Paul Newman’s movie pool playing hero of ‘The Hustle’

‘Whatever Happened To Baby Jane’ c/w ‘Greens And Beans’ (London HL9660) movie theme

‘Money Honey’ c/w ‘That’s All’ (UK Stateside SS347)

‘Rene’ c/w ‘Saga Of The Beatles’ (Atila 211)

‘I Love You’ c/w ‘Judy’s Moody’ (Atila 214)

‘Wisdom’s Fifth Take’ c/w ‘Because I Love Her’ (Atila)

Johnny & The Hurricanes Live At The Star Club’ (Atila ALP 1030) with I Should’ve Known Better, High Heel Sneakers, Do You Love Me, Red River Rock, You Can’t Do That, Love Nest, You Really Got Me, Jambalaya, Beatnik Fly, Money, Time Is On My Side, Down Yonder, Satin Doll

‘San Antonio Rose’ (Germany only, Heliodor label)

1967 ‘The Psychedelic Worm’

The Best Of Johnny & The Hurricanes’ (London TAB 32) with Crossfire, Red River Rock, Lazy, Buckeye, Walkin’, Reveille Rock, Time Bomb, Sandstorm, Beatnik Fly, Down Yonder, Sheba, Rocking Goose, Revival, You Are My Sunshine, Ja-Da, Traffic Jam, Old Smokie, High Voltage

August 1976 ‘Soda Pop Jive’ (DJM) compilation EP includes ‘Red River Rock’ and ‘Reveille Rock’, plus the Dixie-Cups and the Shangri-Las

Johnny &The Hurricanes: the Collection’ (Castle CD-CCSCD 182) with Red River Rock, Down Yonder, The Hurricane, High Voltage, Rene, Walking, Rocking Goose, Hot Fudge, Ja-Da, Reveille Rock, Honky Tonk, Rock-Cha, Beatnik Fly, Sheba, Crossfire, She’s Gone, Thunderbolt, Bean Bag, Buckete, Cut Out, Old Smokie, Rockin’t, You Are My Sunshine, Catnip

1981 ‘The Jets’ (EMI EMC 3356) authentic UK Rock ‘n’ Roll trio assisted on this album by Blockheads Mickey Gallagher & Davey Payne, plus Johnny Paris