Blue Moon: not once but four times (a teenage dream re-blogged)

Blue Moon: not once but four times (a teenage dream re-blogged)

Back when the 50s had just turned into the 60s, in the days of listening to Radio Luxembourg at night on a valve radio that glowed in the dark; in my early teenage days, before the beat from out of Liverpool had shaken things up – in those days, one of my favourite singles was ‘Blue Moon’ by the Marcels. I was just a kid and with the innocence and ignorance of youth I had no idea that I was listening to a Rogers and Hart show tune from the thirties: what I heard in the animated nonsense ‘bomp-baba-bomp’ of the bass man’s intro and the unrestrained wails and chants of the rest of the group was teenage magic.

So it was with great pleasure that I read this post by Thom Hickey on his always enjoyable Immortal Jukebox blog. It’s such a wonderful piece of writing that I felt compelled to share it here. Continue reading “Blue Moon: not once but four times (a teenage dream re-blogged)”

Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all

Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all

Andy Warhol looks a scream
Hang him on my wall
Andy Warhol, Silver Screen
Can’t tell them apart at all
David Bowie

He was one of the stupidest people I’d ever met in my life. He had nothing to say.
– Robert Hughes

Walking around Transmitting Andy Warhol at Tate Liverpool, I realised I haven’t got much time for Warhol.  Oh, I get what he was saying, and I know about his impact on the art world.  But looking around this small but well-chosen selection of his work I cannot find one work that really moves or inspires me, nothing that reflects the beauty or the mystery in the world, or speaks to the realities of daily life as experienced by most people now, in our time of austerity. Continue reading “Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all”

Thea Gilmore: on tour in New Brighton

Thea Gilmore: on tour in New Brighton


In the Blue Room of New Brighton’s Floral Pavilion Thea Gilmore was explaining how she and partner Nigel Stonier had, for the last five years, organised a literature and music festival in their home town of Nantwich in Cheshire.  ‘Anyone know the material for a fifth anniversary?’ she asked.  One guy suggested bacon.  ‘Er, no…but you can stay at my house anytime’, she responded.  The answer is wood, and wood became the theme for the concert that Thea and her band gave at this year’s festival: every song had to be wood-related, and it fell to Thea to sing an old German folk song made famous by Elvis Presley.

‘Wooden Heart’, sung solo by Thea midway through Sunday night’s show in New Brighton, was just one of the spine-tingling highlights of a superb concert; to hear it was worth the price of admission alone.  She took the song at a slower pace than Elvis and scoured it clean of the jaunty, tripping rhythm of the original, paring it down to the intimate love song that lies at its core:

Can’t you see
I love you
Please don’t break my heart in two
That’s not hard to do
Cause I don’t have a wooden heart

Gilmore is an accomplished vocalist who can belt out a mean rocker or, as here, infuse a romantic ballad with a sensuous intensity.  She did a creditable job of retaining the original German words sung by Elvis a year after he had completed his military service in Germany:

Muß i’ denn, muß i’ denn
Zum Städtele hinaus,
Städtele hinaus
Und du mein Schatz bleibst hier

(Got to go, got to go,
Got to leave this town,
Leave this town
And you, my dear, stay here.)

Earlier, Thea Gilmore had arrived on stage with her band, comprising guitarist, producer and partner Nigel Stonier, Che Beresford on drums, Alan Knowles on acoustic bass and accordion and Tracy Bell on keyboards.  On two numbers the band was augmented, and its average age considerably reduced, when joined onstage by six year-old Egan – Nigel and Thea’s eldest child – who wielded a child-size violin.

Gilmore had kicked off with ‘Contessa’ from 2008’s Harpo’s Ghost, and there were to be a fair few numbers from the extensive Gilmore back catalogue in the course of the evening – for as she informed us, after tours promoting albums of songs by Dylan and Sandy Denny, she was thrilled to be doing what she likes doing best, singing the songs that she writes herself.  She’d thought long and hard about the songs she really wanted to sing, and had dusted off a fair few which have not been performed for years. She’s halfway through recording a new album, due out in the spring, and at the gigs there is very limited edition EP available, called Beginners – because it’s a sort of taster for the main course to follow. She did two numbers off the EP, and one completely new song which may, or may not, be on the next album.

There were no Dylan covers in this show, but there were two of the previously unpublished Sandy Denny songs that Gilmore was commissioned to set to music, which comprised the album Don’t Stop Singing and were featured in the tribute show that toured the country this summer, The Lady: A Homage to Sandy Denny.  Here she featured ‘Don’t Stop Singing’ and the Olympic summer single ‘London’.

Following the pen-portrait of an unwelcome reminder of a dissolute past in ‘Contessa’, we were treated to Thea’s angry and bitter portrayal of political arrogance  in ‘God’s Got Nothing On You’ before she presented a song off the new EP, ‘Beautiful Hopeful’, all about the tribulations that await young musicians entering today’s music business. A little later Thea talked at some length about the process of making an album: always having too many songs, finding that after a while a dozen or so songs seem to chime together, leaving many more to be sadly cast aside. This was by way of an introduction to one of those songs – ‘The Amazing Floating Man’ – that appears on the new EP.  Thea half-apologetically presented the song as being about the banking crisis; it was a solo a capella performance that lifted the hairs on back of your neck:

Roll up, roll up
For the best show in town
See him balance the books
As the markets crash down
And he never does much
But he does what he can
The Amazing Floating Man

By way of complete contrast (and you do get that with Thea – her songbook displays a tremendous variety of mood and material) we were treated us to a lively performance of the raunchy ‘Teach Me To Be Bad’: as she said, a song that ‘celebrates sex and the little devil in all of us’:

If I were coming off the rails
Dropped my eyes and dropped my dress
Would your moral stand prevail
Or would you fold like all the rest
Ooh ain’t we got fun
Ooh let’s come undone
I said one two well hand me a light
Oh three four I don’t wanna be right

By way of contrast, another new song from the EP, ‘Me By Numbers’ carried the refrain:

I can be a good girl
I can be a queen
I can be a soldier
I can be the thinking man’s dream
I can be a warrior
I can be the eye of the world
But  most of all
I can be a good, good girl

Thea Gilmore grew up in Oxfordshire, her interest in music developing from listening to her father’s record collection, which included Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and The Beatles. She began writing poetry at the age of 15 as a way of coping with the divorce of her parents, and got an early start in the music industry, working in a recording studio and recording her first album Burning Dorothy as a teenager in 1998.  In the following four years she released three more albums that earned her a growing critical reputation, but no chart success. It was around this time that I first discovered her songs: I remember listening repeatedly to Rules for Jokers, her third album that had standout tracks such as ‘This Girl Is Taking Bets’ and ‘Things We Never Said’, on the drive to and from work in 2001.

That album also included a song called ‘Inverigo’ that I could never really figure out: it had a lovely melody, but the meaning of some of the lines, and particularly the title, always puzzled me. On Sunday night, introducing the song to the audience in the Blue Lounge, Thea solved the mystery.  She wrote ‘Inverigo’ in Italy, in the town of the same name; she was there with her partner,  Nigel Stonier, who was recording an album.  Though the trip, for her was ‘little more than a jolly’, at the time she needed to convince a record company that she had songs worth backing.  ‘Inverigo’ was written in the company offices, they liked it, and she got a contract.  After the concert, as Thea signed my copy of her new EP, I explained how that title had mystified me for a decade or more. ‘Well, there you go’, she replied, ‘puzzle solved’.

We are running from storms of our youth into more of the same …
We are free as the wind through the trees or so we are told …

In the last 15 years, Thea Gilmore has produced another ten albums, and has established a reputation as one of Britain’s leading songwriters.  Though they can be a little uneven, each of her albums contains at least one gem that ranks alongside the work of the best lyricists.  Joan Baez recognised her worth, picking up on ‘The Lower Road’ from Liejacker, and recording her version of the song on The Day After Tomorrow, and inviting Thea to join her tour.

After she recorded ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ for a Dylan covers CD for Uncut Magazine in 2002, the accolades poured in, including one from Bruce Springsteen who, on encountering Gilmore backstage at a 2008 concert, showed his appreciation for the track, calling it ‘one of the great Dylan covers’. For, alongside her own songwriting credentials, Thea Gilmore is also a gifted interpreter of songs written by others.  Some of these are to be found on Loft Music, an album of cover versions she put out in 2004; it includes wonderful interpretations of songs as varied as Pete Shelley’s ‘Ever Fallen in Love’, John Fogerty’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’, the great Phil Ochs song ‘When I’m Gone’, and ‘Buddy Can You Spare a Dime’.  Other favourites include great versions of Pete Burns’ ‘You Spin Me Round’, Yoko Ono’s ‘Listen The Snow Is Falling’ and Springsteen’s ‘Cover Me’.  And then of course there is her album of songs by Sandy Denny, and her recreation of Bob Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding.

I have my own strong favourites from her own compositions; one that I always hope she will sing live is ‘Old Soul’, and she did not disappoint on this occasion.  When we hear a song it may have a personal meaning that can differ from the writer’s original intent.  I listened to ‘Old Soul’ a long time before I became aware that old souls are those that have experienced several previous incarnations from which they have gained greater wisdom.  On this video clip, Thea introduces the song, talking about how it was written while she was pregnant, and how the lyric’s meaning for her was related to the imminent birth of her child:

To complete an evening of great music, Thea returned for the obligatory encore: a rousing rendition of the apocalyptic call to arms, ‘Are You Ready’, with its chorus ‘We will ride, are you ready? reinforced by blistering accordion, before things quietened down with another new song, a hushed ballad ‘Goodbye My Friend’.

Setlist

  • Contessa
  • Don’t Stop Singing
  • God’s Got Nothing on You
  • Beautiful Hopeful
  • Red White and Black
  • Teach Me To Be Bad
  • The Amazing Floating Man
  • Me By Numbers
  • Old Soul
  • Roll On
  • You’re the Radio
  • Inverigo

Encore:

  • Are You Ready?
  • Goodbye My Friend

See also

Jerry Leiber: those oh so golden oldies

Mike Stoller, Elvis Presley and Jerry Leiber study sheet music for Jailhouse Rock in 1957

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand by me

My generation grew up to a soundtrack that consisted to a large extent of songs written by Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber, who died yesterday at the age of 78.

Leiber wrote the lyrics and his partner, Mike Stoller, added the music to create some of the most enduring classics in the history of rock ’n’ roll, including ‘Hound Dog’, ‘Yakety Yak’, ‘Stand By Me’, ‘On Broadway’, ‘(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care’, ‘Love Potion No. 9’, ‘Jailhouse Rock’, ‘Riot In Cell Block No. 9’ (just a couple of the songs they wrote with a prison theme), ‘There Goes My Baby’, ‘Young Blood’, ‘I’m A Woman’, ‘Searchin’, ‘Some Other Guy’, ‘Kansas City’ and ‘Is That All There Is?’ to name but a few.

Jerome Leiber was born on 25 April 1933, in Baltimore, where his parents, Jewish immigrants from Poland, ran a general store. When Jerry was 5, his father died and his mother tried, with little success, to run a small store in one of the city’s worst slums. When he was 12, she took him to Los Angeles.  It was while attending Fairfax High School in Los Angeles and working in Norty’s Record Shop that he met Mike Stoller, and the two began writing together.

Stoller later recalled the first call he got from Leiber:

When told me on the phone that he wanted to write songs, I envisioned some kind of song I didn’t like because I was into Charlie Parker and Lester Young, and also had developed an interest in serious music, and I thought he had in mind  something that I would find saccharine and uninteresting.  But when he came over, I could see that a lot of his stuff was blues, and I had always liked blues.’

In 1950, this definitely set Leiber, who was still attending school in a predominantly Jewish section of the city and working at a record store there after school, apart from the crowd. Stoller again:

I wouldn’t say that we were the only Caucasians interested in the blues, but generally speaking, it was unusual for teenage white kids to be involved, knowledgeable, and interested in black popular music

Leiber would contribute the streetwise lyrics while Stoller, a pianist, composed the catchy tunes rooted in rhythm and blues, to produce songs with black singers and groups in mind.  In 1950, at the age of 18, they sold their first two songs.  The Robins recorded ‘That’s What The Good Book Says’, while Jimmy Witherspoon cut ‘Real Ugly Woman’, a relic from the days when misogynistic lyrics were commonplace:

She’s a real ugly woman
Don’t see how she got that way
And every time she comes around
She runs all of my friends away

Their first hit composition was ‘Hard Times’, recorded byCharles Brown, which was a rhythm and blues hit in 1952. ‘Kansas City’, was first recorded in 1952 as ‘KC Loving’ by rhythm & blues singer Little Willie Littlefield, but later became a number 1 pop hit in 1959 for Wilbert Harrison, before being recorded by The Beatles on Beatles For Sale in 1964 . In 1952, they wrote ‘Hound Dog’ for blues singer Big Mama Thornton. The song was later an enormous hit for Elvis Presley in 1956, making Leiber and Stoller the hottest songwriting team in rock ’n’ roll. They went on to write ‘Jailhouse Rock’, ‘Loving You’, ‘Don’t’, ‘King Creole’ and other songs for Presley, despite the fact that Leiber loathed his interpretation of ‘Hound Dog’:

To this day I have no idea what that rabbit business is about. The song is not about a dog; it’s about a man, a freeloading gigolo. Elvis’ version makes no sense to me, and, even more irritatingly, it is not the song that Mike and I wrote. Of course, the fact that it sold more than seven million copies took the sting out of what seemed to be a capricious change of lyrics.

In the late 1950s, they moved to New York and joined the constellation of talents in the ‘Tower of Song’, the Brill Building.  There they wrote some of the most admired songs in the rock ’n’ roll canon which became hits for the Drifters, notably ‘On Broadway’, ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Spanish Harlem’.  They wrote a chain of hits for the Coasters, including ‘Charlie Brown’, ‘Young Blood’, ‘Shoppin’ For Clothes’, ‘Searchin’, ‘Poison Ivy’ and ‘Yakety Yak’. ‘Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots’, recorded by The Cheers in 1955 was covered by Edith Piaf as ‘L’ Homme a la Moto’.

At the piano: Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller. Standing, left to right: Atlantic's Nesuhi Ertegun & Jerry Wexler; The Coasters: Carl Gardner, Dub Jones, Billy Guy, Cornel Gunter; Atlantic's Ahmet Ertegun. (1959)

Stoller has rejected the notion that they were crafting songs specifically for the new teenage market:

We wrote to amuse ourselves. I guess we were talking over ideas some, but you’re influenced by everything that goes on around you, and I don’t think we ever made any conscious decision about what to write or how to write or what direction to write in. In fact, I know that we didn’t. If we were amused, if we really liked what we did, we had a pretty darn good shot at having a hit, because we were our audience, and we were, on some level or another, typical of the people who bought our records. Not necessarily that we were the same as they, but we were not that far removed. There was something universal about the humour, or the emotional content, that caught the teens.

You can say that again!

The hits continued into the early 1960s with classics such as ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Spanish Harlem’, but when the Beatles broke in America in early 1964, the music industry changed very quickly. Leiber and Stoller began concentrating on production, founding Red Bird Records, which turned out hit records by girl groups like the Dixie Cups (‘Chapel of Love’) and the Shangri-Las (‘Leader of the Pack’, ‘Walking in the Sand’).  They sold the label in 1966 but continued working as independent producers and writers. Two memorable songs from this period were recorded by Peggy Lee – ‘I’m a Woman’ (1963) and ‘Is That All There Is?’ (1969).  Their last major hit as producers was ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ by Stealers Wheel in 1972, while one of their last major songwriting successes was ‘Pearl’s A Singer’, recorded by Elkie Brooks.

‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’, a 1954 hit written for the Robins, was adopted in 1995 as the title of a Broadway musical based on the Leiber and Stoller songbook.  To close, lets put a nickel in the jukebox and enjoy highlights from that magnificent songbook, the soundtrack for to the fifties and sixties:

Hound Dog – Big Mama Thornton with Buddy Guy

Classic live performance recorded in Germany in 1965 as the American Folk Blues Festival passed through.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe – The Robins

Young Blood – The Coasters

Shoppin’ For Clothes – The Coasters

Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots – The Cheers

Jailhouse Rock – Elvis Presley

You’re So Square – Buddy Holly

Kansas City – Wilbert Harrison

On Broadway – The Drifters

Spanish Harlem – Ben E King

Stand By Me – Ben E King

Is That All There Is – Peggy Lee

Pearl’s a Singer – Elkie Brooks

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller Documentary

Links