If there ain’t no beauty, you gotta make some beauty!

Remembering Maurice White

There are plenty of reasons to be remember and celebrate musician Maurice White. As founder and (joint) lead singer of Earth, Wind & Fire, one of the greatest studio and live bands in popular music; as a great jazz drummer who played with the likes of Ramsey Lewis in the 1960s; as a champion and virtuoso player of that strange and beautiful African instrument, the kalimba (after which the band named their record label); and of course, for the sparkly outfits and great pop/disco hits of the 1970s. But I will remember him most for his production work with other artists such as Jennifer Holliday, Denice Williams and the Emotions.


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Babies, Big History & Bowie (again)


Contrary to popular misconception, lyrics are the least important part of a song. When you hear a great tune for the first time, it’s not words that make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, or make you momentarily forget your own name. If it’s words you’re after, read a book.

Okay, I’m being a bit flippant –  lyrics are sometimes interesting. Oddly, two songs I’ve grown to like recently have been about parents talking to their infants. If I’d known in the first place they were about babies I’d probably have gone “Next!” So there’s one advantage to going with the tune rather than lyrical content. I wonder now, if there’s a whole ‘talking to my baby’ genre out there that I’ve never noticed before? So far I’ve discovered only the two, but who knows?  Continue reading

David Bowie: the Man Who Fell to Earth? 

My review of the Bowie exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert museum a couple of years ago, which appeared in the online journal spiked.

bowieThe enigmatic rock and fashion icon of the 1970s, seemed peculiarly out of step with a decade many associate with flared trousers, awful music and backward social attitudes. But was Bowie really as unique as he appeared, or the 1970s  as bad as portrayed?

The exhibition ‘David Bowie Is’, currently breaking attendance records at London’s Victoria and Albert museum, seeks to tell the story of the star’s life and career using video, audio, an assortment of artifacts and of course some of his most famous outfits. There’s plenty of interesting visual material and lots of information, but while the exhibition attempts to place Bowie in some kind of social context, it fails to really explain his cultural significance and his seeming uniqueness in the 1970s. Continue reading

Twenty Feet From Stardom: the decline of the pop professional

Oscar-winning documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom tells the story of the (mainly) black female singers who provided backing vocals for some of the most famous names in soul and rock music: the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Joe Cocker, to name a few. It’s an entertaining and often engrossing film. Unlike say jazz or rock, there are surprisingly few films about soul music – Standing in the Shadows of Motown from 2002 and last year’s Muscle Shoals are two rare examples of soul documentaries – so this is a welcome addition.

It takes a look at the lives and careers of long-overlooked veterans of the soul-music scene, including singers like Darlene Love, who worked with Phil Spector in the early 1960s, Merry Clayton, who backed the Rolling Stones for many years, as well as Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill, who are working as backing singers today. Many of them are big, colourful characters who make you wonder how they ever took a backseat role to anyone. Some of the subjects are also very modest, if extremely talented, and had or have little desire to be in the spotlight.

At the heart of the film is the question of failure and success. Why do some artists enjoy glittering careers and worldwide acclaim while others fade into the background? Why do some, in the case of Darlene Love, give it all up and find themselves cleaning houses? When you hear what some of these unsung singers are capable of, it’s clear that success is rarely a matter of who is the most talented.

Was it simply a case of bad luck for some singers? Did they simply not get the right breaks, or did they just lack something – the single-mindedness or pop star-sized ego required to make it? As Bruce Springsteen says at the beginning of the film ‘It’s a bit of a walk… that walk to the front is complicated…’. Or is the reason these singers never made it to the top to be found in the conservatism, and possibly even the racism, of the record industry?

Undoubtedly the record industry overlooked and ignored black performers. This was the case until the 1980s when Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston (whose mother Cissy was a backing singer for Elvis) changed the game. As one talking head in the film suggests, the attitude of record executives back then was ‘we’ve already got one Aretha, why do we need another?’. Darlene Love, whose story is at the centre of the film, has plenty she could be bitter about, though she’s never less than magnanimous when she recalls her experiences.

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Dancehall and ‘blues’: from outlaws to mainstream

A dark, packed low-ceilinged room, bodies are swaying (beers in hand), and the deep, melodic bass of Barrington Levy’s ‘dancehall’ favourite ‘Here I Come’ is pumping out of the sound system. It’s an early 1980s illegal blues party perhaps, or some cruddy social club in Handsworth, St Paul’s or Lewisham? But there are no clouds of ganja smoke (no ciggie smoke even), no police raids, it’s not 4.30am and the local streets aren’t blocked by a dozen or more badly-parked Mercs, Golfs and Beamers.

In fact, this is Shoreditch House – the swish private members’ club and hangout for east London’s creative and media trendies. Last Sunday evening, David Rodigan, for more than 30 years the UK’s premier reggae DJ, wooed an enthusiastic crowd with a delicious blend of 80s dancehall, 70s lovers’ rock, and 60s ska, with a dash of 90s jungle. By 11pm it was all over – people have to get up for work in the morning, you know.

I’m told that these parties normally take place up on the club’s stunning roof terrace, alongside the open-air swimming pool, and overlooking the City. Last time around, though, the neighbours complained about the noise (some things don’t change) and so tonight we’re down in the basement club called ‘Concrete’.

Time may fly, but it doesn’t seem all that long ago that blues parties and dancehall music were in the eyes of many (politicians, the police and the media to be precise), synonymous with crime, drug-dealing, prostitution, so-called ‘yardie’ gangsters, race riots, inner-city decay and any other form of social breakdown you can think of. For most people though, going to ‘blues’ represented little more than having a good night out with their friends, where they could listen to music they’d never hear in the city centre bars and nightclubs that half the time wouldn’t let them in anyway.

Thirty years ago, I would never have thought that the music of the Jamaican dancehall and the (black British) blues party would have found its way into the hearts of today’s cultural elite. Colonising Mars would have seemed a more likely prospect. Then again, 30 years ago I wouldn’t have believed our political leaders, policymakers, judges and policemen would take to using anti-racism, equality and diversity to shut down our freedoms (rather than our parties). How times change.

Published on spiked, 12 September 2013

Living on plastic credit cards

Truly one of the greatest pop songs there ever was, from Stephanie Mills’ first Motown album ‘For the First Time’, recorded when she was 18 years old. Mills was the original star of The Wiz on Broadway, and when Motown bought the rights, they apparently wanted her out of the way so their big star, 40something Diana Ross could take the role of young Dorothy. By way of compensation, it seems, Motown gave Mills a record contract and paired her up with veteran composers Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the duo who helped to define the sound of pop music in the 1960s with Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick.

Every track on the resulting album is classic Bacharach and David – they don’t put a foot wrong. And Stephanie Mills, the ‘little girl with the big voice’ sounds so much older and more accomplished than her 18 or so years. But the album flopped. Motown apparently failed to market the album is any significant way. And maybe some thought (unfairly) that the songs and the production smacked a little too much of the previous decade for the early 1970s, when black music and changed so much. And even Stephanie Mills herself confessed in an interview that she thought the album had been a mistake (I’d love to know if nearly 40 years later, she still thinks that way).

Quality so often counts for little in pop music history and the album has still achieve anything more than minor ‘cult status’.

‘Living on Plastic (Credit Cards)’ is a particularly evocative song about living on the edge. The lyrics throw up some wonderful visual imagery;

There goes the Greyhound,
I guess I missed the bus again,
Another comes at 10.

Looks like Chicago,
and yet it sounds like Tennessee,
it’s all the same to me.

Thank heavens it was made in the days before video. It’s a song for the imagination. An inevitably literal video interpretation (confused woman standing at bus stop, Greyhound sailing away in the distance etc) pop promo would just kill it.

Finally, the sparse production is warm and sumptuous and inch-perfect. They throw in horns and strings and yet still keep the arrangement sounding sparse. There are some wonderful knocking noises and twiddly sax sounds that have kept me fascinated for the last 40 years. And of course, Stephanie Mills sings like an angel. What a loss to music and cinema that she never got to star in the film version of the Wiz.

Listen to the whole album if you can. It’ll be your friend for life.


Opera for the masses, by the masses?

This is a slightly longer version of the article that appeared in the Independent on 15 March 2012. I’ve been working with Birmingham Opera Company as a volunteer member of their chorus for their two most recent productions.

In a disused tin-plate factory in a backstreet of Digbeth in Birmingham, an extraordinary thing is happening – a brand new, full-scale opera is being born. This can only mean one thing – world-renowned opera director Graham Vick is back in town, and his one-production-a-year Birmingham Opera Company has once again sprung into life.

Birmingham Opera Company has been staging groundbreaking opera in unusual locations around the city for more than a decade. It has never based a production in a traditional theatre, opting instead for large disused, or unlikely urban spaces; a shopping mall, empty factories, an abandoned ice rink and even a former city centre bank.

With the absence of conventional stage and seating areas in such venues, BOC have developed productions that cleverly blur the distinction between actors and audience. The audience is in the thick of it, herded and moved around as the action unfolds around them, and quite often becoming unwitting participants. Birmingham Opera Company’s audience gets to experience the full musical force of opera, up close and personal. They are engulfed by the sound of the orchestra, a huge chorus, and of course, the lead soloists. It’s better than a royal box.

In the spirit of Vick’s desire to experiment, break new ground and to never repeat, the company has commissioned an entirely new opera for this year. ‘Life is a Dream’ was written by composer Jonathan Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton and is based upon a mythological tale by 17th Century Spanish playwright Calderón. The company has had less than three months to bring this new opera to life.

The surprising part about this most unusual of opera companies is that its chorus and cast of actors are ordinary members of the public who volunteer their services. Birmingham Opera Company actively encourages people from across the city, with little or no previous experience of either opera or performance, to join the cast.

In the hands of lesser people, this might be an entirely patronising endeavor, but this is no New Labour-style ‘social inclusion project’. Birmingham Opera Company’s productions are not designed to make opera ‘relevant’ to the experiences of inner-city youth or build the ‘self-esteem’ of people so often labeled ‘underprivileged’ or ‘vulnerable’. As one critic noted; ‘none of the works it has staged… has seemed an obvious choice for a company that involves as many local people as possible in every production’. Vick himself adds “if we were introducing audiences and participants to a new art form, then let it be to the art form at its most challenging and spiritually powerful.”

The reason an opera company consisting of so many novices can perform to such a high level is due to the BOC’s conviction that we are all, with a push, capable of raising our game. The amateur chorus and actors work long and hard in order to meet the standards Vick expects for his productions. Crucial in this mix is the support of professionals. Vick has assembled a team of actors, choreographers and musicians who train and work alongside the amateur cast.

Each section of the chorus, for example, has at least one ‘embedded’ professional, otherwise known by the dreaded term ‘mentor’. ‘Mentors’, usually newly graduated singers out to gain more experience themselves, are employed to offer guidance, support and hopefully some inspiration to the volunteer singers.

Then, of course, there are real stars of the show, the principal soloists. As well as using some of the best and most established singers around, Birmingham Opera Company offers much-needed opportunities to young talent with star potential. The two major roles in ‘Life is a Dream’ are played by respected lyric tenor Paul Nilon and sensational young American baritone, Eric Greene. The remainder of the cast also follows this same pattern of combining wisdom and experience with new talent. And, of course, all the soloists work and rehearse alongside the volunteer chorus and cast. There’s no place for big egos at Birmingham Opera Company.

To conclude, what Graham Vick and his company demonstrates so well is that opera, regardless of when, where and by whom it was made, can speak to us all and enrich our lives. When parochialism, ‘relevance’ and the politics of identity encourage us look inwards and backwards, the passion of Vick and his team to involve and teach the general public about opera, and his faith in their ability to understand and appreciate it, should be applauded and encouraged. The world premiere of ‘Life is a Dream’ is on 21 March at the Argyle Works in Birmingham.

Where’s the ‘In’ Crowd today?

Article inspired by Dobie Gray, who died this week. First published at spiked-online.com December 2011

Dobie Gray, the US soul singer who provided the theme tune for a new generation of uppity British working-class youth in the 1960s, has died. Gray’s 1965 underground dance hit, ‘The “In” Crowd’, fitted like a bespoke Italian suit for the swanky and urbane kids who had even the upper classes chasing their shirt tails. Future-oriented and cosmopolitan, with little time for the outmoded conventions and deference that had choked the country for so long, they were the ‘in’ crowd.

This new, can-do optimistic mood was epitomised by, but by no means restricted to, the snappily-dressed hipsters known as Mods. The Mods first appeared in early 1960s’ Soho. They wore sharp Italian suits, frequented Soho’s Italian coffee shops and danced to the exuberant music of young black America, where equally momentous social changes were afoot. First the Mods and then, soon after, working-class kids up north, developed a strong affinity with the sound coming from across the Atlantic. In America, young blacks were making music that reflected their experiences of contemporary urban life. Years later, UK music paper, the NME described ‘The “In” Crowd’ as ‘Gray’s postcard-to-home from the wonderful Big City’. Life in America’s booming cities held out, for the first time, the possibility of relative freedom and affluence for young black people, something that had been way beyond the reach of even their parents. Continue reading

Message to MOBOs: ditch the victim act

Article on the UK MOBOs (Music of Black Origin Awards) published by Spiked-online.com in October 20011

Ahead of tonight’s awards, isn’t it time we stopped making a concrete distinction between ‘black’ and ‘white’ music?

The Times (London) has called it a ‘whitewash’ while black newspaper the Voice asks if it’ll be ‘all white on the night’. This year’s MOBO (Music of Black Origin) awards, taking place tonight, are attracting more than their usual share of criticism. The problem, allegedly, is that so many of this year’s nominees are white.

Adele and Jessie J are just two of the most high-profile Caucasians to receive nominations and, according to Will Hodgkinson of The Times, the suspicion is that these white stars are there simply ‘to make the MOBOs a high-profile event’ while lesser-known black performers are overlooked. It is claimed that the awards have fallen prey to exactly the same kind of discrimination they allegedly set out to combat when they were set up in 1996. Continue reading

Howard Tate

Howard Tate“It was his voice that grabbed you. Straight from the church—B.B. King and Sam Cooke rolled into one but more energized, with perfect phrasing and emotion to spare, capped by an amazing falsetto he called on at just the right moments.”
Al Kooper, www.gadflyonline.com

I was saddened to hear about the death last week of one of my favourite singers, Howard Tate. He came up in a previous blog, ‘Forget about the past‘ about the passing of his long-term collaborator, writer and producer Jerry Ragovoy.

“There’s never been any better than Howard Tate. Fantastic!” Ry Cooder

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