Monday, August 17, 2009

Riding Shotgun in the Sky: an Alternative Woodstock

On Friday we opened the anniversary of the Woodstock weekend with some of the best bands to have played in Bethel 40 years ago. Today, we close it with our alternative Woodstock - the bands that turned it down. Retrospectively, you can only say 'ooops'.

Could Woodstock have been even better? You judge...

Led Zeppelin - Dazed and Confused (Led Zeppelin, 1969)

The call to turn down Woodstock came from Led Zeppelin's manager Peter Grant, who wanted them to instead focus on their own headlining tour. Their debut album was still only a few months old and they were in the middle of what was proving to a successful tour making their name in North America. Woodstock seemed like a distraction, and they spent the weekend in New Jersey instead.

Jethro Tull - Living In The Past (Living In The Past, 1972)

Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson apparently claimed that he didn't want to spend his weekend "in a field of hippies", at which point the idea to skip Woodstock seems like a pretty strong one. But given their later history of playing festivals, it's not entirely clear if this was the real reason they stayed away, of if, like so many others, the young band - still very much in their formative stage and trying to capitalise on the success of this single - didn't know what they were missing.

The Moody Blues - Ride My See-Saw (In Search of the Lost Chord, 1968)

The Moody Blues, very much in their psychedelic stage following the release of In Search of the Lost Child and with To Our Children's Children's Children on the way, got as far as appearing on the promotional posters for Woodstock, but instead chose to play in Paris that weekend.

Spirit - Fresh Garbage (Spirit, 1968)

File Spirit under the list of bands who didn't think Woodstock would be all that big. Nevermind, guys...

Bob Dylan - Blowin' In The Wind (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, 1963)

Dylan, a Woodstock resident by this time, was just emerging from his lengthy hibernation after the 1966 motorcycle accident when the festival rolled around. He talked to organisers about a potential slot, but ultimately pulled out when his son fell ill.

The Byrds - Wasn't Born To Follow (The Notorious Byrd Brothers, 1968)

Former member David Crosby may have been on hand with Stills, Nash & Young, but the Byrds never considered accepting an invite to play, put off by the lack of pay for performers and claiming to be burned out by the festival scene.

The Doors - Strange Days (Strange Days, 1968)

The Doors, who would have been one of the biggest names on the bill, were booked to play until a late cancellation. Drummer John Desmore went of his own accord.

Joni Mitchell - Woodstock (Ladies of the Canyon, 1970)

Joni Mitchell penned the last anthem of that weekend, but was never there. 'Woodstock' is said to voice her frustration at missing the event because her manager insisted she keep a booking on the Dick Cavett Show. Good work, Mr Manager.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The King Is Dead

Thirty-two years ago today, Elvis Presley slumped over and died upstairs in his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee.

The King was dead.

But, as journalist Tony Scherman put it, by the age of 42, "Elvis Presley had become a grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self," and that's not how we want to remember him. We want to remember the man they called The King - who exploded forth in Memphis in 1954 to announce to the world that rock 'n' roll had arrived. Elvis didn't invent rock 'n' roll - he just happened to be very close by when it happened, and was the first to nail it.

But he did much more besides. There didn't appear to be single musical style beyond him. He had both the voice and the ear, rarely writing new material but transforming old stuff, redefining songs to the point where no one else need bother recording them again. I'm not much one for marking deaths - I much prefer birthdays, so I've kept this playlist short. We'll be back in January to do it properly when we celebrate the 75th anniversary of his birth.

But in the meantime here are six songs that speak to his lasting influence - they are about, but not by, Elvis, and no other artist in musical history has provoked such an outpouring of creativity from his successors.

Emmylou Harris - The Boy From Tupelo (Red Dirt Girl, 2000)

Cowboy Junkies - Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis) (Trinity Revisited, 2007)

Bob Dylan - Went To See The Gypsy (New Morning, 1970)

Neil Young - He Was The King (Prairie Wind, 2005)

Drive-By Truckers - Carl Perkin's Cadillac (The Dirty South, 2004)

Gillian Welch - Elvis Presley Blues (Time (The Revelator), 2001)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Going on Down to Yasgur's Farm - 40 Years After Woodstock

I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, 'Where are you going?'
And this he told me
I'm going on down to Yasgur's Farm
I'm going to join in a rock n roll band
Joni Mitchell - Woodstock, 1970

Forty years ago today they gathered, almost half a million of them, at the dairy farm of Max Yasgur in Bethel, New York, for three and a bit days that helped define a whole generation. The Woodstock Festival was, from all members of my generation can gather, a total one-off. Glastonbury may once have had a hippy vibe, still there but now hugely diminished, but as an event it happens almost every year, and its legend is spread across several decades. There may now have been six Woodstock Festivals, but the word itself means only one of them - the original 1969 edition - still, as far as many people are concerned, the only one worthy of the name.

There will never be another festival like it. Trying to recreate it is hopeless - all we can do is imagine, which is what this playlist is designed to help you to do.

Richie Havens - Freedom/Motherless Child (Woodstock, 1970)

He kicked off the festival on the Friday morning, so there's no other slot to give him here than first on the bill. Havens was originally supposed to be up fifth, but opened instead. The fans wouldn't let him leave as he received endless ovations, and he eventually ran out of songs. Good thing he did, as he instead improvised this before finally departing the stage, having set the bar high for the rest of the weekend.

Canned Heat - Going Up The Country (Living The Blues, 1968)

Canned Heat were a blues band that over the years ended up having almost as many different members as people in the audience the day they performed this at Woodstock. The song would become the unofficial anthem of Woodstock, thanks in part to its role in the soundtrack to the film.

Creedence Clearwater Revival - Bad Moon Rising (Green River, 1969)

Creedence's set was dominated with tracks from the then newly-released Green River, highlighted by this. CCR played somewhere in between Saturday and Sunday, deep into the night, with John Fogerty complaining the Grateful Dead had overrun so long most people had gone to bed. We struggle to believe the Woodstock crowd were the sort of folks to be asleep by midnight, but then we weren't there...

The Who - Sparks (Tommy, 1969)

As if to further condemn Fogerty's complaint about CCR's "late" slot, the Who played for a little over an hour, starting at 5am on Sunday morning. By this point in the festival, all notion of night and day seems to have been pretty much lost, but it's hard to think of a better way to hear Tommy played live in full than to have the sun rising in the background.

Jefferson Airplane - Volunteers (Volunteers, 1969)

If The Who soundtracked the sunrise, Jefferson Airplane had breakfast covered with an 8am slot. This, for anyone counting, was officially the headline slot for Saturday (And to think Bruce Springsteen got fined for playing past midnight at Glastonbury this year...). Grace Slick came on stage to introduce what she called the band's "morning maniac music", before they unleashed their particularly spectacular brand of psychedelia. Volunteers was then a brand new song - we can only imagine what it sounded like totally fresh.

Country Joe & The Fish - I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag (Woodstock, 1970)

Country Joe McDonald had already played a solo set earlier in the weekend, but he appeared with his band on Sunday evening to get things back under way after a thunderstorm ripped through the site. It was a pretty short set, but was highlighted by this ripping performance of their classic anti-Vietnam protest song. "GIVE ME AN F..."

The Band - The Weight (Music From Big Pink, 1968)

At the time of Woodstock, The Band had only the one album, Music From Big Pink to lean on. What an album it is to have to lean on. The Weight is in the Top 10 Greatest Songs Ever Recorded. This is a fact.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - Wooden Ships (Crosby, Stills & Nash 1969)

This was only the second gig for Crosby, Stills & Nash, who in the three months since the release of their first album had also added the incomparable Neil Young, Stills' former band mate from Buffalo Springfield. He wasn't on stage at the start, but joined them in time for renditions of his own wondrous Mr Soul and, a little later, this timeless classic from the first CSN album.

Jimi Hendrix - The Star Spangled Banner/Purple Haze/Woodstock Improvisation (Woodstock, 1970)

Jimi Hendrix's so-called Sunday night headline slot opened up at 9am on Monday morning. Some folks had already left by then, but those who hadn't caught one of the defining moments of the festival. Many have said Hendrix was far from his best as he worked with a realigned backing band, but his biting rendition of the national anthem, kicking in here just before the two-minute mark, was the most angry and effective he ever delivered and has fuelled the legend of Woodstock ever since.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Under the Covers: The Bedroom Files

The idea of doing an Under the Covers post for the Bedroom files was a gag too poor for me to ignore, so here it is.

It does at least help that, among the hundreds of singles hiding under my bed, there are one or two absolutely stonkin' cover versions on the B-sides.

So, before we put this whole thing to bed (further apologies), here they are...

Paul Weller - I Shall Be Released (Out of the Sinking, 1994)

Weller was always a fan of the odd cover on the b-sides of his singles (before going full-bore with the Studio 150 project) and none was better than this version of the Dylan classic, which he makes sound like his own even though we've all heard it a million times before.

Supergrass - Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) (Alright/Time, 1995)

Odd to think that this was my first introduction to a song the original of which I would come to count among my all-time favourites. When I first heard this as a musically-ignorant indie kid, I'd no idea that within a few years I'd have become a country nerd with a whole Kenny Rogers sub-section in the record collection. This being something of a country-funk song, it's ideal for Supergrass, who predictably nail it on what was their first big-label release.

Hole - Credit In The Straight World (Live) (Doll Parts, 1994)

I've never really made my mind up about Hole. It seems every time I listen to them, I love them, but something stops me from being an actual fan. Ah well. We won't worry about that. Either way, the Doll Parts single was one of the first CDs I bought (I can still remember the days when I had about 30 of them, and they were actually kept in order of acquisition - the mind boggles at trying to do that now). On it was this, a fine version of the track from the Young Marble Giants, Welsh post-punkers from the early 80s.

Kula Shaker - Hush (Hush, 1999)

Kula Shaker were one of those talented bands that ended up being all too short-lived in their careers because, well, they just didn't seem quite geniune enough. So faithfully did they echo late 60s psychedelia that it never really seemed much more than a novelty. It's a shame, because some of their stuff, not least Grateful When You're Dead, was fantastic. In the only one of these covers to be anything more than a B-side, here they tackle the Joe South-penned Deep Purple classic Hush with typical gusto.

Manic Street Preachers - Can't Take My Eyes Off of You (Australia, 1996)

In some ways, this sounds as though the Manics just tossed it off at the end of a recording session, but when the original material is this strong, you can only go so far wrong. Originally recorded by Frankie Valli in 1967 but nailed by Andy Williams a year later, this song has now been covered more times than the cracks in Madonna's make-up.

And with that, we'll close the door on my old room. Until the next time...

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Bedroom Files

Close the door. Stick on the headphones. Turn up the volume...

So I was home at my mum and dad's at the weekend, and before I'd fully assessed whether or not it was a good idea, I'd gone into my old room and started digging around the literally hundreds of old singles which are hiding under the bed (let's just make sure we don't tell mum exactly how many of them there are...).

Inevitably, there are huge swathes of dross (witness a shocking number of Rialto singles). But I did pick out a handful that reminded me of old times in a good way. Here's hoping they bring back a few memories for you too...

Ben Folds Five - Brick (Whatever and Ever Amen, 1997)

If there was one song that was going to inspire me to start digging under the bed in the first place, it was this. Leaving it under there was criminal from the start. I've never been mad about Ben Folds Five, but if ever one song alone could make me love a band, this would be a serious candidate.

Fountains of Wayne - Sink To The Bottom (Fountains of Wayne, 1996)

This neatly sums up so many of the singles under my bed - when they were first released, I was obsessed with them, and then half the time I never even bought the album. However, whereas that was probably a wise move in so many cases, I can't help feel like I'm missing out in having Fountains of Wayne as a blind spot.

Laxton's Superb - The Sugar's Gone (The Sugar's Gone single, 1997)

Fitting in neatly with the acoustic-driven indie pop that dominated in the immediate wake of Britpop (see the Bluetones later), Laxton's Superb came out with a handful of singles that suggested they were on to something, but before we got to know them, they were dropped by their label. Allegedly, a self-released, self-titled album materialised in Japan, but I can't say I've been over there to verify this. Still, nice to remember this one...

Blameless - Breathe (A Little Deeper) (Breathe single, 1996)

This Sheffield band released only one album, The Signs Are All There, but somehow forgot to include their best song, which is this. You wonder who makes these decisions.

Geneva - No One Speaks (Further, 1997)

I've been having a lot of arguments/debates/polite discussions about singers' voices this week, which is probably something to do with each of the following three factors: the new Wild Beasts album being released; Joanna Newsom being on in the pub the other day; my ongoing, always-present obsession with Neil Young. But however you look at it, there are certain voices which pretty much dictate the kind of music you make. Geneva front man Andrew Montgomery could never, for instance, cover an Arctic Monkeys song. A set of lungs like that, you're pretty much locked into epic soundscapes. They were on Suede's Nude label, and you can hear a little of that in there too, just not, ultimately, quite so good.

British Racing Green - Penniless Man In Guccis (Penniless Man In Guccis EP, 1997)

Last week saw Jack's Records in Sheffield finally succumb to this sad era we live in. The best second-hand store in the city closed its doors for the final time, and I didn't even find out until after the event. Perhaps that was kind of something to do with it. I did buy my fair share there back in the day, and one of the highlights was this. Locally tipped as the next big thing, British Racing Green died almost as quickly as they arrived, but I don't care what anybody says, I still love this song.

Drugstore feat. Thom Yorke - El President (White Magic For Lovers, 1998)

The number of songs on this list that have stood the test of time is perhaps small, but this would be among them. Getting Mr Yorke to pop along to your recording session helps, but there's no denying that is was quite rightly the career-defining moment of a band who started out doing largely forgettable punk songs. As if it to prove its longevity, I've just picked up Uncut and seen they're doing a comeback gig in Camden next month.

Hefner - The Day That Thatcher Dies (We Love The City, 2000)

Perhaps it's because its so deliciously wrong that we love this song. Unlikely to figure on any official tributes when the former Prime Minister finally leaves us, I'm guessing this will nevertheless accurately reflect how a lot of folks will feel. To follow lyrics like "Even though we know it's not right, we will laugh and sing all night" with the sound of school children singing the "Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead"...well, there's only ever been one word for it: Fantastic.

Silver Sun - Golden Skin (Silver Sun, 1997)

Is there such a thing as comic book-rock? Can I create that label now? Plenty of riffs get cranked out of the guitars involved, but its all so well animated as to not quite be real. Anybody even slightly involved in the movement will also, by default, be huge in Japan. Should this label stick, let's have Silver Sun as the faces of the genre. Hey, it's not groundbreaking, but it's great pop music.

Smaller - Is (Badly Badly, 1997)

First, even if you've never heard of Smaller, know this - you have. Meet lead singer Peter 'Digsy' Deary. That's right, the Digsy who wants to have you over for dinner, to give you strawberries and cream, until your friends all go green for his lasagne. Noel Gallagher's mate actually claims to hate lasagne and that song, so we'll move on, but I thought you should know who we're dealing with. Hearing this again takes me back to the greatest gig I think I ever went to, at Leeds Metropolitan University back in February 1997. These boys opened, followed by an as-yet unsigned Embrace, and then capped by the band who defined my entire adolescence (and much since), the Longpigs.

The Presidents of the United States of America - Peaches (The Presidents of the United States of America, 1995)

This is entirely silly. But it takes you back, right?

Dark Star - I Am The Sun (Twenty Twenty Sound, 1998)

Just for a while there, I entirely adored this whole album. Sticking it on again at the weekend was like being 17 all over again. Maybe it was the fact that they landed a support slot with the Longpigs that had me convinced they were the world's next great act. For a band that made such a rollicking noise, they instead died with an unbecoming whimper. Sigh.

The Bluetones - The Fountainhead (Expecting To Fly, 1997)

The combination of its re-release earlier this year and a mate who swears by it have caused me to revisit Expecting To Fly recently. And what a pleasant experience it has been. While I'm not going to say its great or anything, its an entirely charming album that I'd totally left behind. Comparisons made at the time and since comparing them to the Stone Roses were always taking it too far, but I'm glad to have this one back in the main collection.

The Longpigs - When You're Alone (Lost Myself single, 1996)

Very, very little of the Longpigs' back catalogue is buried under my bed. It's all too good. But I did come across this, a rare example of a Richard Hawley-penned song from before the band imploded. It's fair to say it wouldn't find a home on any of his solo albums, but not because it isn't pretty ace.

Ocean Colour Scene - The Riverboat Song (Moseley Shoals, 1996)

Maybe it's just because it featured so prominently on TFI Friday, but this seems like one of those tracks that, just briefly, defined a whole period in time. There was so much talent in Ocean Colour Scene that they almost feel like something of a supergroup, formed out of the backing bands of mod greats like Paul Weller. Having a mate in the form of Noel Gallagher helped them get attention too. Sadly they ran out of ideas after only two albums of real note, but what they left behind is worth remembering.

Look out in the next couple of days for the Under the Covers special edition on the Bedroom Files. Then we'll look into growing up (not really).