Sunday, December 09, 2012

Unexpected tastes

For a final entry in this 'Music Week' (although I'm still playing catch-up after a week of problematic Internet access, hoping to insinuate a few more posts into empty slots earlier in the week - so keep an eye out lower down the page), I thought I'd review some of my slightly more left-field enthusiasms, the musical predilections that people tend to find a bit surprising about me.

A Top Five Unexpected Musical Weaknesses

5)  Early rock'n'roll
And the cheesier, the better! I'm not quite sure when I developed this vice. I suppose I must have had some exposure over the radio when I was a kid, but there was none of this good stuff in my parents' record collection (their tastes were very, very middle-of-the-road). I imagine George Lucas' American Graffiti must have been an important influence; that soundtrack album was probably one of the first (of many) '50s/'60s anthologies I acquired over the years. The Shangri-Las Leader of the Pack epitomises all that is so wonderful - and terrible - about this area of music: cheesy as all hell, yet an utterly irresistible singalong. Here's a 1964 TV performance of the song - ropey sound quality, but worth it for the visuals, especially the hilarious depiction of Johnny the motorcycle rebel. [You can listen to the album version here.]

4)  Henry Rollins
How can anyone not like Henry Rollins? He's so loveably crazy! But sensitive and literate with it. I like quite a lot of American music out at the more punk-ish edge of things (Dead Kennedys a favourite during my college days), but Rollins' work has more depth to it than most of these. Here's the Rollins Band doing Next Time. [Audio only, unfortunately. You can also check out a live video here: terrible picture quality, but a fun performance.]

3)  Country & Western
I mentioned my susceptibility to this yesterday (although I try to keep it hidden around my buddy The British Cowboy, because he proselytises a little too hard). It can be trite and cheesy, yes. But accessibility is not a bad thing. And, thanks to its folk roots, it is distinguished more than most other genres by its tunefulness and its lyrical craft. Hey, beyond just liking C&W, I actually like Canadian C&W. Well, I had a lot of exposure when I lived in Toronto for a year back in the '90s. And the dedicated TV channel there (CMT, I think it's called - Country Music Television) is way better than its American counterpart GAC. This, She's Got The Kind Of Heart That Breaks by Chris Cummings, is one of those earworm songs that got permanently lodged in my head during that year of watching CMT (The Cowboy probably wouldn't even admit this to the C&W fold; too poppy for his taste!). And it's a lovely little video too - a bit of a Gregory's Girl thing going on, with the goofy boys bewitched by the pretty girl who also happens to have superior skills on the hockey rink (so Canadian: they really are all obsessed with ice hockey!). [It's a pity it's such dreadful picture quality (transcribed from a VCR??), but this seems to be all that's available on YouTube at the moment; and likely to be pulled shortly because the record company are such fascists about their videos. As a back-up, here's a nice live performance from 2008.]

2)  African music
Like most Brits of my generation, I got my introduction to this field through the wonderful Sowetan township sounds that Paul Simon incorporated into his Graceland and Rhythm Of The Saints albums in the mid-1980s. That led me to start checking out some compilations of '70s and '80s township bands, as well as, of course, the wonderful Ladysmith Black Mambazo choir who had performed with Simon. A little later, Peter Gabriel's Real World record label started introducing me to people like Youssou N'dour, Geoffrey Oryema, Daby Touré, and the Kenyan nyatiti master Ayub Ogada. And a guy I became friendly with while backpacking around Fiji in the early '90s later sent me a CD of Missa Luba, another tremendous choral record by the Muungano National Choir of Kenya. However, the fountainhead of modern African music - as I only started to discover in the later '90s, not long before his death - was Fela Kuti, the mercurial Nigerian who pioneered the 'Afrobeat' sound, a heady brew of jazz, funk and psychedelia infused with native African rhythms. Here's one of his great instrumentals, Expensive Shit.

And here's a live performance from some time back in the '70s. [You should also check out this great little excerpt from a 1971 documentary about him, shot by legendary drummer Ginger Baker.]

But the top spot today goes to....

1)  Michelle Shocked
I'm sorry - I'm an über-fan. I was completely blown away by her 1988 debut Short Sharp Shocked, and have bought everything else of hers I can get my hands on since. I saw her play live at the Apollo Theatre in Oxford (unaccountably renamed the New Theatre a few years ago) round about 1990, and it was one of the most enthralling shows I've seen (actually, not wonderful all the way through; she was experimenting with a 'big band' sound that didn't really suit her, and wasn't entirely winning over the audience; but then there was an interlude in the middle where the band left the stage and she played three or four songs solo on her guitar - and that was a shivers-down-the-spine experience). She is, I think, possibly the greatest female singer-songwriter of my generation - and certainly the ballsiest, the most politically engaged.

This song, Come A Long Way, is a particular favourite of mine, one that I often play to pep myself up before heading out for the evening. The beautiful tune gives it a very upbeat feel, although the subject - riding around the soulless streets of Los Angeles all day on her motorcycle to try to avoid having it repossessed - is actually rather downbeat.

An autobiographical anecdotal postscript:  In a bar I used to drink at quite a lot during my Oxford days, the student Beer Cellar in New College, they had an entire Shangri-Las album. This was just after CD jukeboxes had started to appear (so, I suppose it must have been during the early '90s, when I was working back in Oxford for a while, rather than when I was an undergraduate in the '80s). I wasn't a member of this college, but a mate of mine had been the elected student Bar Steward there for a while, and I'd hung out drinking with him so often that most of the staff had got to recognise me - and come to assume that I was a member of the college (it was stricter than most in trying to limit access to members only). I was still able to get away with this four or five years later, when I started hanging out there again - this time, in pursuit of a girl! On one occasion, I even managed to persuade them to grant admittance to two of my Oxford Union drinking buddies of the time, passing them off as my father and my younger brother - a somewhat implausible blag, since their ages were ten years either side of mine. But I digress....

Yes, I was fascinated to discover a whole Shangri-Las album - none of which I'd ever heard before, apart from Leader of the Pack, of course. I wasn't sufficiently fond of the group to check out many of the other songs, though. And other punters in the bar were apt to be intolerant even of my frequent selection of Leader of the Pack; I might have provoked a riot if I'd cued up any of their more obscure tracks. Once, I did a bad thing: I succumbed to a sudden mischievous impulse to feed pound coins into the machine until I could select the whole album, 10 or 12 Shangri-Las songs back to back. I never heard them myself, of course; I fled the scene of the crime as soon as Leader of the Pack had finished. And I didn't dare to go back to that bar for quite some time.

Bonus Treat  -  Henry Rollins on modern 'music'


KingTubby said...

Fela Kuti has been my main man since 1980, when I managed to purchase about 10 of his LPs in one go, and subsequently bought many more. Probably Black President is my favourite followed by Open Close (noted for its clammy organ sequences). Earlier stuff is better that latter stuff.

Ellie Greenwich and hubby BM were truly awesome song writers. Have you heard her version of Walking in the Rain.

(Jeez, if the opportunity availed, I would have let Veronica have her way with me.)

Funny you mentioned American Graffiti. I think one of the faint background sounds in the flic was Sally go round the Roses by the Sweet Inspirations, which I was checking on the net this morning.

My song at present is Ooh Pooh Pah Doo.... Taj Mahal's great brass driven version.

We shall continue this particular conversation, FROOG.


Froog said...

I recalled you were a big fan of Fela, KT. Thanks for the recommendations. I don't really know that much of his stuff. I discovered him too late, unfortunately. I always think of the stuff I collected on vinyl prior to the early '90s as the core of my music collection and the canon of my tastes. Things acquired later on CD - or digital download - just don't seem to make as deep an impression. I think it's because there's so much ritual around playing vinyl, it makes it a much more richly immersive experience: playing a record even once fixes it in the brain - and the heart - more vividly than playing something 10 or 20 times on CD. (I have similar misgivings about the shift to online reading: I don't lose myself so deeply in a story, or remember it so clearly, if I've only read it on a screen. I'm never going to be a Kindle adopter.)

Do you have any thoughts on the other African artists I mentioned?