Alaskan punk, a rock and roll classic and a tune to bring a tear to your eyes as Getintothis’ Rick Leach unveils the latest picks in this month’s column..
This is the thing about music.
Just when you think you’re getting bored with it, when you think you’ve heard everything then there’s something new and fresh just around the corner, something to be discovered and to treasure.
After what may seem a lifetime of listening to music- and for your writer, that really is a lifetime, nearly half a century of music- you do find yourself wondering what more there could possibly be.
What could be new? Isn’t it just variations on the same old themes? A simple and crude rehash of some tune you half-remember?
Then you hear a few stray notes, a melody, the ringing of a guitar, the freshness of a voice and that’s all you need. Music excites you once again.
I often wondered that there might come a point when personally, my tastes would ossify and hit a brick wall. There’d be nothing new and I’d end up playing the same old stuff over and over again, looking back through rose-tinted glasses on a time when “music was good.”
I fully expected that to happen.
But it’s not.
There’s so much new music out there that it would be folly to close your ears to the new.
I might not have enough time to listen to even half the music I’ve got, but that doesn’t matter. You’ve got to search for the new.
And the new is not simply the music that’s being recorded and released here and now in 2019. New music is simply music that you haven’t heard yet.
It could be fifty, sixty or seventy years old, but if you’ve not heard it, then for you it’s new.
Hopefully the selections in this month’s Songs From Under the Floorboards is new to you. We’ve got Alaskan punk from 1980, a cracking rock and roll classic, heart-melting doo wop, a crackly gospel wonder and something from France.
Let’s open our ears!
The Anemic Boyfriends: Bad Girls In Love
If you had to think about music from Alaska, what would you expect? I’m presuming that you’re not from Anchorage, and therefore have an intimate knowledge of the music scene in the frozen North.
From my very limited perspective, bearing in mind wide, empty highways with big trucks “hauling” stuff for miles and miles through empty landscapes, that country music would be the obvious fit for Alaska. With an Alaskan twist, whatever that might be.
My background knowledge of the state is based almost completely upon watching episodes of Northern Exposure on Channel 4 in the early nineties.
These were re-reruns of the original broadcasts and weren’t shown in any logical order.
It was a tad difficult to follow a non-coherent narrative flow and although it wasn’t the most taxing of drama, watching the whole thing out of order did make it all slightly confusing.
The entire viewing experience was exacerbated by the fact that Channel 4 chopped and changed their schedules in a seemingly random, almost perverse fashion; one week it would be shown at 11.30 pm on Monday evening, the next week it wouldn’t appear at all, and the following week it would be shown twice, possibly at 8.30 pm on a Wednesday and 1.30 am on a Friday.
It was hard enough to keep up with this randomness, even if it had been broadcast in the correct order, but when episodes were shown out of sequence it became a bit odd.
It was a great programme, by the way, and possibly one of the first TV shows from the U.S which showed the oft held view that British TV drama was the best in the world was just a myth.
Since Northern Exposure there’s been The Wire, The West Wing, Sopranos, Treme, Breaking Bad and a whole host of other ground-breaking stuff.
Here in the UK we’ve got those four dreaded words guaranteed to have you heading for the hills, “Original drama on ITV”. Anyway, all my perceptions of Alaska are based upon a television series which I saw nearly twenty years ago and even then, only in a David Lynchian type fog, thanks to Channel 4 scheduling.
So I have no idea what sort of music goes down well in the biggest state in the US, although I can say with total confidence that this is the only record I ever heard that came from Alaska, and it’s clearly not a country song by any stretch of the imagination.
It’s a 7” single issued in 1980 by Anchorage-based Red Sweater Records.
The Anemic Boyfriends, in that post- punk way of mis-naming, were an all-women band, who didn’t seem to have the best grasp of musical instruments and weren’t exactly technically proficient.
This doesn’t matter one jot because they still came up with an all-time classic single.
The recording quality isn’t the best but they do sound mightily pissed off; which is always a good thing. The B-side to Bad Girls In Love, by the way, Guys Are Not Proud is one of the oddest reggae influenced songs you’ve ever heard.
Is there a big reggae scene in Alaska? Not on the strength of this track, but again, that doesn’t matter either.
Jackie Brenston: My Real Gone Rocket
What a song this is. Not only does it kick in so hard on the first note to the last of its 2 minutes 10 seconds; a classic length for a pop song (maybe all singles should have a maximum limit of 2 minutes 30 seconds and there should be legislation) but it’s a virtual copy of what can be considered to be the first ever rock and roll song, Jackie Brenston’s very own Rocket 88.
Rocket 88 was released six months earlier than My Real Gone Rocket and was a number 1 hit on the R & B chart- as well as being one of the best-selling singles of 1951.
Although this follow up flopped-maybe because it was much too similar – for me it doesn’t make it any less precious. It’s still a great record and well worth making sure you have a copy.
As for a bit of background about the mighty Jackie Brenston, his only hit was Rocket 88 and was recorded by Sam Phillips before he set up Sun Records.
It was Sam Phillips who called Rocket 88 the first rock and roll record. This is a contentious assertion, but who is in a position to argue with Sam Phillips?
It was the success of Rocket 88 that apparently made Sam set up Sun Records as he realised that by both producing as well as releasing the records could make him more money. Both tracks were released on Chess Records even though they were recorded by Sam Phillips.
Other facts about Jackie Brenston.
He was born on August 15, 1930, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the Delta town where Highway 49 meets Highway 61.
It was where Son House, Charley Patton and Robert Johnson worked their magic in juke joints at the outskirts of town. And where, according to House, Johnson literally sold his soul to the Devil one night, standing at the crossroads.
It was where Muddy Waters, who had grown up listening to and learning from those men, made some of his first recordings.
It was where John Lee Hooker and Eddie Boyd were born.
Furthermore, Ike Turner was the pianist in his band and played on both the aforementioned tracks before they fell out.
Jackie never had another hit after Rocket 88.
He hit the bottle hard and became an alcoholic. He worked off and on as a truck driver before he died in Memphis in 1979 at the age of 49. Fame – what a bummer.
But spooling away there will always be that voice. “When I cruise through your town like that great North-Western, you can tell everybody there goes mighty Jackie Brenston.” Yes indeed.
Camille: Pale Septembre
I can put down any interest in French music (Luciole, L, Francoise Hardy etc) to Camille, and specifically to this album.
There are some records which are better than you could expect them to be and others which are a bit of a slight disappointment.
There are some that fall into the first camp (i.e. surprisingly good), which become a little tedious after a while and turn out not to be that special after all.
Some of those in the latter category, causing simply a bit of a shrug initially, turn out in the end to be not that bad after all.
If I’m going to be brutally honest, out of the few thousand records I’ve managed to hoard over the past nearly fifty years or so, I’d guess that there are only 50 or so, probably many less, closer to 20 – that I could consider to be 100% classic.
By that I mean (if an album), every track is perfect, there’s no filler, nothing I’d ever get bored with, nothing that’s too obvious or too calculated, nothing that’s clearly been ripped off from someone with a much more original mindset and nothing that is just plainly crap.
There are plenty of good albums that blow it simply for having one or two tracks that have a smidgen of these characteristics.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly what is required to attain perfection-it’s intrinsically intangible and just intuitive. It’s all subjective anyway.
There may be good albums that seem to hit the mark but that all dissipates if your mood changes; you may hear them when you’re in a particular frame of mind and think that they are the bees knees, the greatest piece of art ever- but the next day they’ll just leave you cold.
So, there aren’t many records that are, at the same time, stone cold classics, ones that you know from the very first time you hear then that they are very, very special and will stay with you for the rest of your life. Through thick and thin.
They’ll always fit irrespective of the mood you are in and they won’t be swayed either by the vagaries of fashion or the vagaries of your own tastes.
They won’t fade slowly away from your radar, slipping away to be just another record filed away on the shelves.
On this point, there’s always a certain sadness when I come across a record that I haven’t played for a while, and remembering it to be a thing of splendour and beauty, hear it as if for the very first time and realise that it’s not as good as I thought it was.
Once you’ve hit that point there’s really no going back.
All this preamble leads to, somewhat predictably, Le Fil by Camille which ticks all these boxes and more.
Pale Septembre is just a taster for the album. I could have picked any track off it for this month’s column. Every single one is a blinder.
If the idea of a French singer, singing solely in French (obviously), with little or no musical accompaniment, nothing really except her voice, doesn’t appeal, then all I really need to say is that this album would not only be in that exclusive list of 20 or 30 truly great records, but easily would be in a whittled down top ten.
It really is that good.
Rev. Gary Davis: I Am The True Vine
Rev Gary Davis was born in 1896. He was also known as Blind Gary Davis. This is useful as it might stop anyone of a certain age getting confused with the mullet-coiffured Radio 1 daytime DJ from the 1980’s, Gary Davis. Or, bearing in mind the type of music he played, Deaf Gary Davis.
Rev Gary Davis was born in Laurens, South Carolina, one of only eight children born to his mother who survived to adulthood.
His father was killed when Davis was only 10 years old, shot dead by the Birmingham High Sheriff. Apparently Davis had not been treated well by his mother, and his father gave him to the care of his paternal grandmother before he himself was killed. It’s not known whether Davis was born blind or not. Times must surely have been tough.
During the late 1920’s he moved to Durham, North Carolina and started recording for a local record company and collaborated with other blues musicians including Blind Boy Fuller. Sometime during the early 1930’s he converted to Christianity and became ordained as a minister. This is where he swapped his Blind for a Rev.
Davis recorded a shed load of music, most of which has been issued and re-released on compilation after compilation after his death in 1972.
Like a fair few early blues musicians, he was “rediscovered” by folk aficionados in the 1950s and he played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.
Although he increasingly expressed a preference for playing gospel and spiritual music (being a Rev) – and this is a gospel song – he had no qualms about still playing non-spiritual music during the early 60’s.
In Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One, Dylan recalls seeing Davis play Greenwich Village and switching from pure Gospel to the Devils music i.e. blues. This was something that he was supposed to have renounced, being ashamed of it.
Dylan remembered Davis belting out Yonder Stands the Cross and then switching straight to Baby, Let Me Lay It on You.
At a recording session for his music publisher in the mid 60’s Davis recorded Oh Glory How Happy I Am and followed it up with Cocaine Blues. Maybe it’s just impossible to shake off the blues.
The Clovers: Fool Fool Fool
On this track The Clovers are doo-wopping and sweetly vocalising about how I was a ‘fool fool fool’ to be taken in by a woman and how foolish it was to fall in love.
They aren’t singing about me personally of course. The Clovers are singing in the first person. It would have been ultra-cool however to have had a doo-wop group singing about me.
Like a lot of doo-wop songs though, it’s a totally sad and heart breaking tale of love, loss and betrayal.
There’s something about the sweetest tunes having the saddest words joined with them. It’s like having the perfect balance.
Doo-wop music probably evolved to the point of perfection. It just couldn’t get any better.
It’s difficult to think of any other genre of music that’s so well-defined and fits so tightly within certain parameters.
When I hear the best doo-wop songs-and they all are invariably brilliant- it’s nearly impossible to think how they could be improved upon.
If I had to think of any art form at all that is beyond improvement, music, theatre, film, fine art, anything really, then it’s got to be doo-wop.
And if doo-wop doesn’t move you if not to tears,or at least a lump in your throat, then you’ve got a swinging brick for a heart.