Friday, September 29, 2006

Happy Birthday, Marc Bolan!

Happy Birthday to Marc Bolan, born September 30th, 1947.

He would have been 59.

This is his story, according to my impeccable source, the Jackie comic strip The Magic of Marc (in four parts, 1972). One day young Marc is ill in bed when his mother brings him a book about dinosaurs. Marc immediately knows that one day he will be as big as T. Rex. By nine years old, he is practicing Elvis moves in front of the mirror with a guitar, which he cannot yet play.

His parents give the restless Marc some freedom and at 16 he goes to Paris and meets a wizard who teaches him magic and prophesies that there will be a star in Marc's future. Marc appears on Ready Steady Go, with Jimi Hendrix pictured hanging around backstage, as he prepares for his shot at stardom. But it was not to be! There is a setback! The backing band is out of tune and out of sync, and the demoralized young Bolan goes home. But meanwhile, in a pirate ship three miles offshore – to the rescue! It's John Peel with his Perfumed Garden Show, playing Marc's new waxing Hippy Gumbo. John introduces Marc to the Middle Earth club, Marc finds Steve Took, and Tyrannosaurus Rex is born. "We'll be the biggest thing to hit the music scene!"

In the summer of 1967, Tyrannosaurus Rex are playing in Hyde Park, hippies are rapt, and his manager introduces him to his secretary, June. For a split second, apparently, time stands still. From that moment Marc and June are inseparable. After their wedding, Marc meets Micky Finn and in 1970 we see Marc and June feeding swans in the park. Marc says, "If Ride a White Swan doesn't make it, I'm packing it all in."

The rest is history, or at least I hope it is as I never bought part four of The Magic of Marc, and now it's a little too late.

We do know that Marc Bolan, who died on September 16th, 1977 after a car driven by his girlfriend (not June) crashed into a tree, had never driven a car himself, because, according to Jackie, he had a nasty spill from a scooter on his way to Brighton in the early sixties and vowed never to do so.

In fact, I do know a bit more about Bolan than I read in Jackie 34 years ago. One thing that strikes me is that the early records, glossed over by Jackie's barrow-boy-to-pop-phenom account, were remarkably well-produced. They weren't much good, mind you, but they had excellent production values. Bolan, despite his appearance, was always a canny businessman not a long-haired, drug-addled hippie, and he evidently knew how to find the best producers. He recorded under several names and the results, while disturbingly weird, had sound, arrangements and backing that were the best Tin Pan Alley had to offer. I say weird because no amount of Cliff Richard or Billy Fury-style production can begin to cover the eccentricities of Bolan's voice. He was evidently never going to be a pop star on Tin Pan Alley terms, but that mustn't have occurred to him. Eventually he just changed the terms and in doing so trashed the Tin Pan Alley system. Simple once you've thought of it.

Ride a White Swan was a hit, and there were many more after that. Bolan was my first crush. I saw him live once and I still have all the singles. Truck On, as I believe I am supposed to say at this time, Tyke.

Shopping (The movie, not the activity)


DVD 1996, starring Jude Law, Sean Bean, Jon Pertwee and of course Jason Isaacs (for about ninety seconds, and the reason I rented it in the first place).

Once, in the late seventies, when I was a student, I was minding my own business in my East London flat when a local girl, approximately eleven years old knocked on the door. She was with a friend of ten or so. She said, "Do you mind if I break into your flatmate's car? My friend wants to learn how to do it." I later found out her friend was a late starter. Most of them started TDA ('taking and driving away' – stealing cars) at nine, with wooden blocks on their shoes so they could reach the pedals.

I was reminded of her when I watched "Shopping" last night. She must have grown up – or at least got bigger - and made this movie. That would explain everything about it. It would, for instance, explain why it's set in an (unnamed) town that is about 0.01% worse than the real-life London and therefore is set in an unlivable sink of depravity without a single redeeming reason shown why anyone without brain-damage would want to live within fifty miles of its borders. The tale about the wooden blocks on the car-thieves' shoes is told verbatim in the film.

I actually liked the movie. I'm really not sure why it seems to get such negative reviews. It's the classic love story, two doomed lovers who find that the forces arraigned against them are overwhelming, but they love and lose anyway, two moths beating their charred wings together in the candle flame.

The movie begins with Jude Law's character, who is called Tommy or Vinnie or Tony or Billy or something like that, in gaol on his release day. Jude Law is very young in this and is impossibly, luminously beautiful. His girlfriend meets him outside in her old car. First business – to "trade in" the car for a new one, by ramming a BMW at a light and stealing it when the driver gets out to take the details. From there on, our loving couple go to a back-street drag race, indulge in the titular 'shopping' by ram-raiding, lure policemen into traps, live in a caravan filled with knick-knacks and various prominently displayed badges of poverty, and meet their friends at Raves and penny arcades by the always-ebbing, never-flowing muddy river.

Something is bound to go wrong with this life of innocence, of course, and it does in the form of Sean Pertwee, as Billy or Tommy or Vinnie or Jimmy or something. Mascara'd and luminously beautiful in his own more twitchy and twisted way, Sean's character does all the same things, but he does them for grown-up reasons – he wants to make enough money to live on. The two hunter-gatherer adolescent lovers and the capitalist grown-up are competing for the same resources (shop windows), and a show-down is inevitable. On the journey we meet Sean Bean as Stevie or Billy or Vinnie or Tommy or something, "Mr Big" of this particular unlivable town, and even Sean is almost-tending-towards-luminous-and-beautiful, what with a well-groomed high-class shining, er, mullet, and perfectly composed Mr. Biggelicious features. The policemen are not going to give up the chase either. Our hero and his girlfriend agree to One Last Job before moving on to a new life, and you know how an OLJ is going to play out in a romantic crime movie. . .

There is quite a bit of humor, but you have to be fast on your feet to catch it, and for those who like such a thing, a very fetching piece of erotic knife play with Sean "Johnny Depp's twitching got nothing on mine, baby" Pertwee wielding a straight razor.

Although the movie's closest cousin may be "The Last Minute" – a British movie about life in the interstices between the places normal people live, the movie's overall feel reminds me of a grittier "Absolute Beginners", a saturated-color documentary of a fantasy London. Some of the shots are breathtaking. The exteriors of the club called the Plaza, and one of the stores, the Alaska, are literally shining examples of the finest British indie fantasy movie genre. The establishing shots of the train graveyard show a wonderland, and one shot where Jude Law is watching a police car burn from inside his own vehicle and he powers the window down, lowering a panel of reflected flames to reveal his face, is astonishing.

Some of the feel of the movie is deliriously *off*, as though the director had never met a working-class person and was going by a description in a badly-translated travel book, say one by a provincial Dutchman. One of the young hoods shouts, "Booyakasha!" and another on his way out "shopping" shouts, "Let's do crime!" Billy and Tommy share accents that are partly public school and partly Cockney. The nightclub scenes look a little bit like they were recreated from a memory of a movie like "Blade" or "Batman" rather than by someone who has actually been to a Rave. Tommy or Billy, whichever is the grown-up one, roughs people up in a genteel, hesitant manner that suggests he's worried about his hands, and one thug looks much as though he learned his look from Vyvyan in "The Young Ones". This gives some of the action the feel of a school play, which bearing in mind the overall level of violence and unremitting lack of moral focus, is actually quite a useful balancing tool.

What else? Marianne Faithfull, sixties beauty and early heroin casualty, makes a very brief appearance as . . . an ex-beauty who looks like she once almost died of heroin addiction. Oh, and Jason Isaacs is in it for about ninety seconds. It is without doubt the worst piece of acting I have ever seen Isaacs commit. It's an embarrassment and I'm sure the director would have left it on the cutting room floor if there had been any other coverage at all for the plot point that Jason's character was there to present. Isaacs wears a baseball cap, evil rug-fluff stubble, and chews gum so artificially-enthusiastically that you want to pinch his cheeks hard to make him drop it like you would a dog that was chewing a wasp. His lines are delivered in a dreadful fake-Cockney and his body-language would disgrace the aforementioned school play. All in all, nothing worth seeing for an Isaacs fan in this one at all.

Overall I like it. You'd probably hate it. But this is what Netflix is for, ne?

Edit: Only five years later, I learn that "Let's do crimes!" is a quote from Repo Man.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Marc Bolan: Born to Boogie

It will be Marc Bolan's birthday on the 30th. Or rather, it would have been his birthday, if things were different. He died September 16th, 1977, 29 years ago. He was born on September 30, 1947. He would have been 59. I can't imagine him being 59, but dying just before your 30th birthday seems a harsh way to avoid old age.

(Left: the back of the "Bolan" book.)

Last year, the DVD of the T. Rex movie Born to Boogie was finally released on DVD. It contains concert footage from 1972 with 'fantasy sequences' intercut between them. Like The Song Remains the Same, the fantasy sequences are a key insight into the characters of the stars featured in the concert footage. The disc also contains the whole concert without interludes and a whole previous concert from the same day – same songs, different audience and emphasis.

Born to Boogie opens with Marc standing in front of a giant cardboard cut-out of himself, wearing a t-shirt of himself – and getting away with it. Classic, really. I expected it to be far too late on, thirty three years too late, to recapture the feelings I had (of when I loved the prettiest star). But the few cynical elements within me got beaten down like a Wembley Pool commissionaire within a couple of minutes and after that, I was firmly and happily ensconced in 1972.

I really don't remember the film Born to Boogie. I must have seen it; I can't imagine missing out on it. I'd seen T. Rex live a year earlier and much of my life at the time was caught up in collecting pictures and finding articles on Marc Bolan. The fantasy sequences rang a bell, though not a very loud or tuneful one, but the music sequences seemed completely new to me. And what sequences they are. I was surprised by how happy Marc looked. How healthy, how relaxed. How young. It was like falling through a timewarp and finding the past not only earlier, but also a better place to be. Almost like someone had gone back and swept it and aired the beds for us. I'd like to talk to those girls in the audience; I wonder if any of them recognize themselves? Did it take them back, too, to a better time? Is it more comfortable now going to then than it was living back then? Or is it just me?

I didn't remember how much the band rocked live, either. After more than thirty years of just listening to the records, I'd convinced myself that they weren't all that much live. Wrong. They are tight, with a first-class rhythm section and Bolan's unique brand of rhythm guitar and lead fills adding up to a band that could have wiped the floor with any of the contemporary pop bands. Was this really the same band I'd seen looking glum and confused on the Musikladen set? Looked like a different timestream all together. By the time we got to the jam on Get It On, the band was positively heavy.

Marc is an elfin treasure. His spoken voice still gives me chills. His face is as pretty, as clear and guileless, as it is possible to imagine. And Mickey Finn, looking good enough to eat. A mass of raven hair, cheekbones and graceful motion. I'd forgotten how beautiful he was. And I'd definitely forgotten how essential his conga playing was. The girls in the audience too, seem to be part of this odd alternative history where everyone is beautiful and happy. They were so well dressed, so smiling, so into the music. And – I looked because I've lived in America for the last twenty years and people keep telling me that English people have bad teeth – their teeth are so clean and white and straight. Loved it when they went wild at the little bit of vocal ecstasy in Spaceball Ricochet or at "I wanna suck ya!" in Jeepster. And Baby Strange. Aren't they a bit young to appreciate some of these lines? Part of me hopes they are, part of me remembers quite clearly what I already knew at that age, in that era. Part of me back then would have died of happiness if I'd noticed Marc lick the unruly droopy microphone to make it stand up again. I swear, I would. Almost died when I saw it just now, in fact.

Hard to imagine Bolan as a vampire, though. He'd laugh and ruin the mood. Vampires and people who watch the Seal of Seasons play in the surf don't really mix, in my experience. Anyway, after the Tea Party sequence with Mickey Finn playing the worst table-mannered Man of Blood ever, I probably don't want to think about vampires at all.

Excellent photography. Clear as a bell, all angles covered. Lighting perfect for film, though that white floodlight must have been intensely annoying to people who were watching the concert live. And the sound remix is beyond superb. It's almost uncannily clear. It doesn't even sound live. Another piece of that better-now-than-it-was-then alternative history. Not that I'm complaining. Wait, are those really the words to Spaceball Ricochet? Oh, well, it's a long song. "Golden nose slim, golden nose slim. I nose where you bin." I've never got that pun before. Thirty three years in the making. Quite funny. Wish I'd been swifter as a teen. I probably missed a lot of stuff like that.

Of the fantasy sequences, I have to nominate Electric Wind as my favorite. The segue into A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam bam is just intense. Brings you up and takes you down and treats you like a king. Suddenly you're there – and now, suddenly you're then, too. And then a quick wipe followed by a treat and a half – the legendary Reg Dwight, seen here not sucking. Imagine. That and the rest of the studio set with Elton on the ivories is priceless. His black ensemble, his healthy look, the power and the physicality he brings to playing the piano. Rockin' his great heart out like the Big Bopper. Love the way he bares his teeth at Marc nestled inside his baby grand. The editing on Children of the Revolution is first rate too. Is the first time Ringo has ever been more sober than his friends? Maybe that's the key.

And where do you get a miniature zebra for a bunch of rock stars who need one in a hurry, anyway?

I have that "Bolan" book the kids are holding as they file out of the Wembley Pool Arena. It's a Melody Maker production. Poor MM. Always wanted us to like serious musicians, like, oh, I dunno. Jazz. Emerson Lake and Palmer. People who knew how to play a diminished ninth. But they had to make serious and yet strangely lightweight tomes about teenyboppers instead, written by old Beats and card-carrying journos slumming with fourteen year-old groovers who don't know a time signature from an autograph.

Got to love this set.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Free - Forever Free DVD

I'm delighted to see this on sale. I've been waiting for a properly researched and well-put together Free retrospective on DVD. This one has David Clayton, the biographer who wrote Heavy Load, as a consultant, and the attention to detail shows. This is a definite buy for anyone with an interest in early '70s rock or blues.

There are two discs, one with pretty much all TV studio footage of Free and some other items, and a second disc with the entire set of Isle of Wight footage and all available audio. The second disc includes material from various camera angles, so if you don't like the original edit and you have lots of patience you can mess with it. The Isle of Wight show is awesome, and it's a real charge to have this available in cleaned-up form. The band do a stripped-down set of their most crowd-pleasing songs, which was probably necessary as they were playing Sunday breakfast time. That's actually an advantage for us at home; the light's great in the morning (though it does encourage one persistent lunatic to continuously flash a mirror at the stage) and the band, possibly cowed by a crowd of over half a million, pulls in and plays a tight, energetic set. One only wishes that the film-makers had filmed the encore.

Disc one starts with the legendary Beat Club footage. Beat Club was a German TV show which specialized in 1970 visuals effects like colorful trails and wobbly psychedelic blobs that overlaid the picture. All Right Now is almost completely obscured by clouds, as one might have phrased it at the time. As far as I can tell, Beat Club never provided an audience, but they did provide Orange amplifiers, possibly because they needed less video processing to be eye-wateringly ostentatious on screen. The first session comprises Mr Big, and the second session Fire and Water and All Right Now. Despite the lack of audience, the band seem happy enough playing to each other. Paul Rodgers keeps his eyes closed and sings to himself; this doesn't stop him putting on a fine, heartfelt performance. The camera work is good, and for those studying the instrument techniques, there are plenty of well-lit close-ups.

Lyle's Fashion Note: For Mr Big, Paul Kossoff has a horrible beard and PR is clean shaven. For the other two, PR sports the beard and PK is his normal lovely self. Kossoff, apparently more fashion conscious than I would have given him credit for, wears orange tops both times, cleverly matching the amps' 1970 color-space and intensity. Paul Rodgers switches from white perve-breeks of an almost inhuman tightness in MB to a far less alarming pair of dark red trousers for the second set.

The Granada Doing Their Thing show is the stand-out. This British TV program has an audience (albeit one which on the whole looks as though it had been seeking a quiet place to chew its cud and was surprised to find itself faced with a full-tilt blues-rock group), and it displays a refreshing lack of psychedelic effects. It also has Orange amps, but they appear to belong to Juicy Lucy. Free's equipment is in front of theirs, in regulation black. Accordingly, SK, sitting at the back with the Orange amps, is the only one wearing a matching top and the rest of them, like the amps, have reverted to type, including the wearing of infeasibly tight trousers by their front man, who here opens his eyes and sings to the audience. The band look very happy to be playing together, smiling and reacting to each other's signals.

The tracks are Ride on Pony, Mr Big (again), Songs of Yesterday, I'll Be Creepin' and All Right Now (again). All's right in the beard world, too, with PR wearing his shaggy black one and PK clean shaven. All of the songs in the set are worth watching over and over again (I already have). Mr Big kicks ass, but All Right Now is the one for guitarists to watch. Instead of the usual familiar staccato riff, for some reason PK decides to hint at the chords that stand silently behind the riff but are usually left out, turning the rhythm upside down and providing any would-be Keith Richards listening with material to develop at least three more riffs on their own. (His solo here is disorganized, as the same sort of thing applies. That's rock'n'roll.) There's enough energy in this closer to wake up some of the audience members to a relatively rousing baa-ram-ewe ovation.

The picture and camera-work are outstanding. There are some nasty flares on bright reflections and microphony (horizontal-bands of sound-on-vision) on one camera, but it comes across as cute, a visual marker that the camera, like the amp, is pre solid-state, and They Don't Make 'Em Like That Any More.

There's plenty of other material on the DVD. A very nice Stealer with Koss busting some classic moves. A Top of the Pops performance which is good looking, but clearly not the band's cuppa tea. My Brother Jake, which I've never been able to stand. OMFG how I hate that song. It sounds like The Hollies on Quaaludes. The best looking track, however, is a VHS-derived All Right Now of unknown provenance (it might tell me on the insert but the insert is so brown, wiggly-fonted and authentically hippy-looking that I can't read it) featuring the entire band looking like real rock stars, shot from below, under great stage lighting, with their long hair combed and a blessed lack of weird-beard experimentation. I don't know if it's the traditional rock'n'roll lights or the fuzzy and warm VHS quality, but PK and PR look like the Plant and Page analogues they could have been if things were only slightly different. They look great together.

There are several sets of interviews with PR, AF and SK, and some interviews with Simon Kossoff, Paul's brother. There is also a long sequence of live footage shot by Simon Kossoff, which doesn't have any sound but, hey, this is a completist disc, so it's all there and make of it what you will. Of the interviews, I will confine myself to saying that Simon Kirke has won the aging gracefully event, and is currently gorgeous (and witty). There are a couple of tributes to Kossoff, including some great stills. There's a short piece of film from Simon Kossoff showing his brother and his dad (David Kossoff) eating fish 'n' chips, a lovely piece of film that works as the inverse of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, a brief look at two connected people eating in a diner, doubly poignant when one reflects how PK died, insecure and lonely, a few years later. (Lyle's etiquette note: PK holds his knife like a pen. Bad guitar god!)

I've tried not to gush too much about Kossoff's guitar playing here. He's at his peak in this period and it's all a treat to hear. Consider the miraculous way his rhythm playing sounds to be there even when he's dropped the majority of it for the solo. His solos are justly famous and none of this footage disappoints in that regard. But I can't spend too much time saying how great he is, as the one thing that jumps out during this DVD is that the whole band is great; each one of them is way above proficient. It's unbelievable that all four could just meet more or less by accident and all be so good. What a shame it didn't last!

Note October 1, 2006 - the new DVD player did indeed cure it. . The comment below is obsolete.

Technical notes: It's probably mean of me to carp about this since I bought a UK disc on and I'm trying to play it on US equipment. When the official US release takes place it may be considerably improved. But, the package says that the disc is Region 0 and NTSC so I expected it to play on unmodified equipment. However, my US DVD player had issues with the menu of disc 2, and is very reluctant to play disc 1 without freezing. Of the computers in the house, one will play the discs using Power DVD but not Windows Media Player, and the other one won't touch it with Power DVD and it plays with only an updated (v11) Windows Media Player. I'm upgrading the house DVD player shortly. Hopefully that will cure it.

Out Of The House For a Couple of Days


I’m surprised I’ve been to Sacramento often enough to start to dislike it. I can barely remember being here before, but I have, several times. Somebody put the State government here, which I would say was an error, but who knew? And at least it’s out of the way. Where that all falls down is, I have to go see the government sometimes.

I realized I was in the right, or more exactly, wrong, airport after I got downstairs from the international airport-glitz of the terminal into the ground transport area which features, as I’m sure you all know, giant sculptures made out of thousands of pieces of luggage stuck together. The overall effect – abandoned baggage in a windswept dry cold hangar in a plain in the middle of nowhere – adds up to a certain hick-horror-story ambience that is right out of a teaser for an X-Files episode. Who’s to say the long-vanished owners didn’t make the right decision?

Checking into the hotel was a study in the art of marketing the Sacramento way. The receptionist, who appeared bonded to the hotel like a House Elf (“I was here when it was an apartment building,” she said), offered me the choice between “a small room with a queen bed or a really, really large room with two twin beds”. Since I’m an honorary American, I chose the one that was too big for my needs and which had a whole extra bed I’d not be using. “Since you put it that way, I’ll have the really, really large room,” were my exact words, in fact. Dobby seemed to think this was hilarious. Tired, I managed by some equally witty sleight of verbiage to avoid being dragooned into the program of classical music which was underway in a downstairs cavern. Instead I paced around in the enormous room and tried to work out whether it would be worthwhile to switch on the almost invisibly distant TV.

In the event, I decided to go out for a meal. There wasn’t a lot going on; at first I thought that it was because I’d been banished to the boonies of the capitol because this was a cheapo state government trip, but it turned out I was only a few hundred yards from Sacramento Convention Center (motto: We’re Closed!) and the fine array of remora-like foodstuff-vendors in attendance. Unfortunately, they were closed too. I settled on the Something Or Other (probably Capitol, they all are) Grill. As I walked in, an over eager waitress knocked a stand of leaflets over on me. “The scary thing is, Shell’s *your* waitress”, said a cheerful maitre d’. “I’ll keep my legs tucked well under the table,” I allowed, which produced more gales of laughter. Apparently I’m a born comedienne.

I did get some evening entertainment to replace the classical music. I began to listen to the two diners next to me. They had an interesting conversation about job-lot bomber jackets before the waitress came over to spill things on them.
“I want a steak pink, what is that called?”
“Rare? Medium rare?”
“Is medium rare cold?”
“Medium rare is warm.”
“Pink and warm?”
“Yes, sir,” said Shell.
“Are you sure you’re talking about steak?” said number two.

Their dinner conversation, with occasional detours into mass-bomber jacket purchase and other pyramid schemes, went like this:
“Why do you want raw steak?”
“It’s not raw, it’s rare.”
“It’s not cooked.”
“It is cooked. It’s just not cooked hot. If you cook it hot, it destroys the structure of the meat.”
Long pause.
“This is sourdough. You know what it is with sourdough? You don’t want to know why they call it sourdough.”
“I *don’t* want to know why they call it sourdough.”
“I’m going to tell you why they call it sourdough. They call it sourdough because, when they get the dough, they leave it to rise, and rise and rise, and rise until it . . . “
“Until it don’t rise no more?”
“No, until it’s sour. Because it’s gone off, see. They leave it to go sour, which is like rotten. Sourdough is like rotten dough.”
“Sourdough, huh.”
“It’s like cabbage.”
“In what way?”
“Cabbage is just rotten lettuce.”
“Rotten lettuce, huh.”
“Yes. No, I mean. Sauerkraut is rotten cabbage. That’s it. They leave the cabbage to go rotten.”
“Sauerkraut, huh.”
“Here’s the Merlot.”
“You know why wine is good for you?”
“Why is wine good for me?”
“It’s the grapes. In the skin, it’s good for you. They have Tantric Acid in the skin.”
“Tantric Acid, huh?”
“S’good for you.”

The next day, back at Sac International, (even the name seems rather wrinkled and baggy), I found I had made airline booking mistake category one. All business airline bookings are errors in either category number one or number two. Number two, of course, is arriving with only twenty minutes to spare and not having enough time to put your shoes back on and rush for the gate before the plane pulls away. Category number two, my most frequent error because I’m such a wet weed, is ending up with three hours to kill at the damn airport. Today we had the delight that our meeting had finished an hour early, so I had four hours to kill at Sacramento International.

Once through the several checks, I found myself in the Sac paradise I remembered so well. Only four hours to kill, and the usual generous spread of restaurants to eat at. Trouble is, I’d eaten at most of them over the years, and already knew what was available. I’d eaten a pizza at the Capitol Grill, and already knew they came frozen from the pizza parlor next door, so that killed two birds with one stone. Manchu’s Wok didn’t sound like food. Eventually I settled on the First Down, or some other sports bar name. I’d eaten there before too, and while it had been vile, it had been edible. I plumped for 50 Yard Line Chili, or somesuch, which was ‘served’ in a bowl made by hollowing out a sourdough loaf and throwing away the inside. So that’s what they do with the sourdough after it’s risen and risen until it don’t rise no more! It’s a disposable plate for chili!

Of course the plane was delayed, so I had plenty of time to watch CNN on the airport monitors. I did get out my laptop to play a DVD, but as I unfolded it, a little old lady opposite me said, “With you people it’s all work, work, work!” so I felt like some sort of cheat and typed this instead.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Blues-Godzillas Menace Sunderland Locarno!

Free was my favorite band for a long time in the early seventies. I was born at the wrong time for classic-rock credibility, so I managed to miss out on seeing them live in real reality. I did see Paul Kossoff much later, which is another story, but I regret missing out on Free. This week, a retrospective DVD was released with all the existing studio and Isle of Wight footage on it, all pristine and restored and in some cases from several camera angles.

There was a big surprise for me in the videos: Kossoff's sheer physicality. On stage he is never still. He plays guitar with his whole body, swaying and rocking and stomping – and screaming, head thrown back as he leans against 200 watts of Marshall stacks. Of course I'd be screaming if I were leaning against Marshall stacks too, but that'd be because the outrageous volume would make my kidneys bleed. With Kossoff it appears to be more feeling the mood than actual pain. Watching him do it is a plain joy.

It was Kossoff's birthday last week (September 14th). I'd just finished an SF story dedicated to him (not actually about him, though, Free fans) and mailed it off to a British magazine. In the run up to writing the story I'd listened to every Free track I had. I am currently soaked in Free music and a very nice feeling it is too.

For me the best album is the first, "Tons of Sobs", which is so raw that it jumps if you sneak up on it and poke it in the vinyl. There's not much actual production going on by the producer, as far as I can tell, but the band has twice the presence of most young blues bands, so that more than makes up for it. Most of the compositions are original, based on strong bass riffs that just don't quit. There's some acoustic numbers, even, but nothing like most of 68's blues-rock output, which seemed to suffer from a Great Folk Scare hangover of fire-breathing pink-elephant proportions. Free clearly never got caught in that stampede and failed to cover any totally crap English folk songs, including not covering Greensleeves, and especially not covering Dobson's Morning Dew, for which I am truly grateful. Instead, for standards they go for the serious blues.

I've seen a review somewhere that said the teenage Free were perhaps too young to be taken seriously singing grizzled old blues bar standards like "Goin' Down Slow", but I think it's tailor made for teenagers. What 18 year old doesn't think he's past his peak and dying? I think it was even a theme in Adrian Mole. It sounds somehow very English, and very fine indeed. And talking of the blues, the concentration of hormones in the band at that age was sufficient to generate the Testosterone Event Horizon, only beyond which does playing a song like Albert King's "The Hunter" seem like a good idea.

"The Hunter" has to be the crassest song ever written and Free tackle it as though they intend to wrest the Crass Crown from the then-current owner, Crassula McCrass, winner of the 1967 Crassest in Class Competition. The song is about hunting down pretty little women with a loaded Love Gun and the music, unbelievably, almost manages to match the lyrics in caveman rockist stomp. The track starts out with a guitar-and-drums full-frontal assault that roars in like black bomber berserkers out for dripping scalps, and throughout the song the band genuinely sound as though they are charging recklessly forward like a herd of hungry Godzillas. (Five foot six inch, hairy, eighteen year old white British Godzillas, mind you, which now I'm old makes them seem cute rather than sexually threatening.) There isn't anything from that time period to touch it. The big three albums of 68-69 (Terry Reid's Terry Reid, Led Zeppelin's Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck's Truth) couldn't get near that level of sheer attack. It's not at all clear to me why Free didn't win the British hard rock race that started then.

I surely do love that whole album. Even the cover, which seems to invent heavy metal covers all on its ownsome.

Led Zeppelin and almost everyone else covered "The Hunter" at about the same time, in fact, with similar but less high-octane results. Led Zep themselves even penned a top-three entry in the crass women-hunting genre, Whole Lotta Love. But Paul Rodgers, evidently taking as some sort of a challenge the fact that the crassest song ever written was already out there, wrote several songs of like sentiment – "The Stealer" ("I said 'Hey good lookin', you're comin' with me,") and "I'll Be Creepin'" ("You can change your address; you won't get far,") and of course "All Right Now" ("Maybe she's in need of a kiss.") I think All Right Now takes the (king) biscuit (time) away from Whole Lotta Love, there, but YMMV as they say.

I know you've heard "All Right Now". You can't have missed it, and your brain is probably humming it all right now. Oops. What you may not remember is the structure. The song starts off with guitar and drums alone, and then the vocal comes in, for the first verse. It isn't until the chorus that the bass guitar joins in. Only when you hear it do you realize it wasn't there before; the bass drum was doing its job. When it does join in, it's a typical Andy Fraser bass run, not exactly hiding its light under a bushel. It disappears for the next verse, and Free is back to a two-piece with a vocalist. That two instruments alone can more than keep your interest is remarkable. For the middle eight, the piano joins in and provides the rhythm playing for the guitar solo. I don't have to describe the solo, which must be the most played one in the world (save perhaps Stairway), and certainly the most imitated. It starts low, builds to high and loud and seems to provide a commentary rather than an instrumental. Kossoff's guitar actually speaks. You can almost work out the words. When Rodgers sings the girl's disgusted line, "Love? Lord above!" the guitar restates her words by saying something. . . wry. Something very expressive. Something Yiddish. Wait, I got it! The guitar says, "Putz!"

All three Free crass contenders featured excellent riffs, classic bass, the best rock drumming ever put down and some of the most soulful, accomplished vocals you can imagine. I never played them for any of my friends because all of them were feminists and I'd have been thrown out of the yoghurt-weaving club if I was caught listening to lyrics about being ambushed in the shadows and given what's in store. (This little secret of mine got more complicated in the eighties when I bought a Zodiac Mindwarp album ("Kiss the barrel baby, meet your god.") At that point even the male feminists gave up on me. I'm just so unreconstructed.)

As with many things about the early seventies, it's a shame Free's not around now. The biggest loss is the little lion Kossoff himself, dead now for thirty years. I hope he had a nice 56th birthday, wherever he is.

First Post

Everybody has to have a first post, I suppose.

Peromyscus leucopus is the White-Footed Mouse. It's mainly known among mice as a vector for Lyme disease. An infected tick bites a mouse, and infects it. Later, another tick bites the mouse and becomes infectious itself. The tick may go on to infect a deer or a human. The mouse itself doesn't appear to suffer from Lyme disease.

No, there is no underlying metaphor or world-view behind the name, involving disease, horrible arthropod-vectored infections, not suffering from same oneself while infecting others, meme transfer or any other such postmodernism. I picked Peromyscus for an email name years ago when I worked in Lyme disease testing, because it was something that wasn't already taken and I could easily spell it. Now it's a blog name also.


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