Five things I did not know about Ella Fitzgerald

Five things I did not know about Ella Fitzgerald

  1. She was born in 1917 in Virginia, but moved with her mother to New York State as a child, part of the Great Migration of African Americans seeking a better life in the northern states.
  2. Her mother died in a car crash in 1932, when Ella was only 15. She fell out with her stepfather and became homeless for a time.
  3. Her first hit was a version of a children’s rhyme “A Tisket A Tasket”, released in 1938
  4. In 1954 she was three days late to a tour of Australia, because she and three other black tour members were not allowed to board their flight from Honolulu to Sydney.
  5. She was active in the Civil Rights movement and refused to perform at segregated venues.

512px-Ella_Fitzgerald_in_September_1947

Something I did know: Ella’s was one of the great singing voices. This is one of her back catalogue. “I’ll Never Be Free” was a minor hit for her in 1950. Singing with Louis Jordan and his fine band, Ella makes it just shine.

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  • Artist: Ella Fitzgerald
  • A side: “Dream a Little Dream of Me” (with Louis Armstrong)
  • B side: “I’ll Never Be Free” (with Louis Jordan)
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Decca
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: Y6302
  • Year: 1950

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

Jungle king

If the highest purpose of music writing is to make the reader open up to music which has not previously had much appeal, then the best music writing I have ever encountered appears in a sci-fi novel about a giant rat with magical powers.

King RatChina Mieville is an endlessly inventive writer of imagined worlds, inhabited by preposterous creatures: walking talking cacti, convicted criminals whose legs have been replaced by steam engines as punishment, giant moths which feed on human thought … and those are just the easier ones to describe.

He is a Londoner, and some of his stories are set there. Sort of. It is real London, but also charged with dark magic, warring ghosts, the fiendish and the impossible. One of the London stories is King Rat. It features a character, Natasha, who is a Drum and Bass DJ. Mieville describes her, at her computer and working on her art:

She scrolled through the selection and plucked a favourite bassline from her digital killing jar. She had snatched it from a forgotten reggae track, sampled it, preserved it and now she pulled it out and looped it and gave it another life … This was the backbeat, the rhythm of tortured music. She loved it. Again her hands moved. A pounding beat joined the bass, cymbals clattering like insects. And the sound looped. Natasha moved her shoulders to the rhythm. Her eyes were wide as she scanned her kills, her pickled sounds … they segued smoothly into the rolling bass, the slamming drums.
This was Jungle.
The child of House, the child of Raggamuffin, the child of Dancehall, the apotheosis of black music, the Drum and Bass soundtrack for a London of council estates and dirty walls, black youth and white youth …

All of which brings us to DJ SS, who came into the world as Leroy Small. Growing up in Leicester, he got into break-dancing in the 1980s and began making a name as a scratch DJ while still a teenager. He became a pioneer of the rave scene in the UK and one of its early stars. He set up a vinyl record label, Foundation Records, which became a leader in Jungle and put out hundreds of releases, of which this is one.

5002 label

Okay. I am a white guy in middle age, and my first musical love was folk and roots. Jungle and its many cousins will never be my first choice of listening. But having read King Rat, I half understand. I sort of get it. I can appreciate the skill of the work and the point of the whole thing. If you know and like this style of music, you will need no convincing. But if, like me, the Jungle is foreign , still give it a go. Turn up the volume, emphasize the bass, and just listen.

  • Artist: DJ SS
  • Release title: S Files (Case File 2)
  • D Side (release is two discs): Let It Go
  • Format: 12”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Formation Records
  • Made in: UK
  • Catalogue: FORMLP014CF2
  • Year: 2004

 

Those Rambunctious Monkees

They are the Pinocchio of pop music, The Monkees. The four members were brought together by the producer of a television show. They were hired as actors, to play the roles of members of a fictional band. The show, and the music in it, became enormously popular. In the late 1960s they were seriously likened to The Beatles. Some wit dubbed them “the Pre-Fab Four”.

monkees_tv_guide

Image: TV/Tropes

Pinocchio-like, there was some deceit involved. In the first two albums credited to The Monkees, the members of the “band” did not actually play the music – they sang the vocal tracks, but that was all. They wanted to play, but weren’t allowed to. That came later – this artificial creation, this made-up pop group, won artistic control.

Pinocchio-like, they were transformed into a real band.

You can understand why The Monkees wanted to be free, but their early, semi-artificial records stand up well. Okay, mostly. Hearing Davey Jones reciting sentimental poetry is like being having luke-warm treacle poured over your head. Twenty seconds gives you the picture …

But mostly, it is great – bouncy pop, with the odd harder rocker and some hints of musical theatre. Here is a fun track from their second LP, all about the complexities caused when the object of your affections has, annoyingly, a family.

  • Artist: The Monkees
  • Album title: More of the Monkees
  • Tracks: B3 The Day We Fall In Love (extract); A5 Your Auntie Grizelda
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: RCA
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: COS 102
  • Year: 1967

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

Brisbane boys, briefly

It is our national day, here in Australia. Imaginatively called “Australia Day”, 26 January is the anniversary of the proclamation of a British penal colony, New South Wales, in 1788. The date is becoming increasingly contested. Indigenous people resent it, calling it “Invasion Day”. There are more prosaic reasons for wanting a change. Australia is a federation of states, of which NSW (though the oldest, largest, richest and most powerful) is only one. The presumption “NSW = Australia” is simple common sense in NSW but it annoys the rest of us mightily.

aust day

All class, Australia Day is. Image: Adelaide Now

So, the date is becoming a battle in the culture wars. The odd thing is that until twenty years ago, no one really cared much about Australia Day. It was a a public holiday like Labour Day and the Queen’s Birthday: a welcome day off, but otherwise something about which people knew little and cared less.

Me, I am not big on flag-waving. I love my country, but my country drives me mad. I am a proud Australian, but often Australia makes me sick with shame. I imagine that this is pretty much how every thinking person feels about their homeland. Still, it seems appropriate to mark Australia Day with something Australian. Well, kinda Australian.

The brothers Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb were born on the Isle of Man. In the late 1950s, the family migrated to Australia. It was in Brisbane that the brothers Gibb began performing as the Bee Gees, and it was here that they had their first hit, “Spicks and Specks”, in 1966.

The Gibb boys are best remembered for their 1970s disco period, but they were more of a soft rock band before then. And they were good, they really were. Lovely tight harmonies, excellent song-crafting, polished arrangements. The lyrics, not so strong. But still, this disc from their pre-disco era stands up well. “Mr. Natural” didn’t chart anywhere much except Australia, and this track, the B-side, never even made it onto an album – but it is a good pop song.

Okay, let’s face facts. In 1967, which is to say as soon as they possibly could, the Bee Gees returned to the UK. But for a decade or so, these Manx-born Britons who went on to become one of the most successful pop bands in recording history, lived in suburban Brisbane. Does this make them Australian? As Australian as many other things we claim in these parts. It doesn’t matter much to me.

  • Artist: Bee Gees
  • A Side: Mr. Natural
  • B Side: It Doesn’t Matter Much To Me
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Spin
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: K-5492
  • Year: 1974

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

Distributed in health-food stores

Back in the 1980s, there was a thing called “New Age”. It was a not-quite-religion, a mish-mash of spiritual practices and beliefs all broadly rejecting materialism and suggesting people slow down. Sort of Buddhism-lite, for prosperous Californians. It was a bit self-centred – long on attending health spas and short on volunteering at soup kitchens – but basically harmless.

My main objection to New Age stuff was olfactory. New Age markets and shops and such were invariably accompanied by the heating of essential oils and the burning of incense. Fine for those who like it, but incense makes me sneeze and get a sinus headache – it is almost instant. Hard to connect with your previous lives, dude, when you feel like someone is tightening a G-clamp across your temples.

wh smaplerThere was also a thing called New Age music. In hip circles, to call music “New Age” was a bit of an insult. There was truth in the caricature: dolphin calls echoing over synth washes, with maybe the odd didgeridoo and Tibetan musical bowl to add street cred. Incense of the ear.

But the best of it what got labelled New Age was worth a listen. The format offered talented musicians an opportunity to break out of the restrictions of commercial music. They could turn the volume down, riff on a theme and see where it led, trusting that listeners would give the sounds a fair go. If this sounds a bit like jazz, it is: a lot of the best practitioners of New Age had some jazz in their past.

One label which did New Age well was Windham Hill Records. They started out in the late 1970s in – you’ll never guess – California. A guitarist, William Ackerman, was asked to record some of his tunes on cassette for friends, and radio stations picked them up and vinyl records followed. Ackerman’s girlfriend, Anne Robinson, was a skilled graphic designer: she created a distinctive minimalist look for the label: avoiding rainbow tie-dye cliches she created restrained images, framed in white.

Windham Hill became underground-popular – initially the records were “distributed in health-food stores and book stores” – then broke into the almost mainstream. Billboard magazine, for well or ill, created a “New Age and Contemporary Jazz” chart, and Windham Hill became its star label for many years.

It all seems long ago and far away. The label was sold, then sold again, then merged, and now exists somewhere in the “legacy” section of the Sony catalogue – which is better than not existing at all.

This LP was a sampler, released in Australia in 1985. I discovered it, a few years later, at a dark time in my life. I was couch surfing, and in a bad place. One of the couches (my eternal thanks to the people who provided it) was in a room with a record player. There were not many records, but this was one, and I played it a lot. It is soothing, relaxing – all that stuff – but I also loved the folky-jazzy-“who cares, really?” style.

It is music which says: “just be”. You can call it “New Age” if you like, or “Contemporary Jazz”, or something else altogether. Okay, not “Easy Listening”. But just listen.

  • Artist: William Ackerman
  • Album title: An Invitation To Windham Hill (Various Artists)
  • Track: B4: “The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Windham Hill Records
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: ‎WHA 1
  • Year: 1985

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

The lady vanishes

On a Cathay Pacific flight bound for Hong Kong, some years ago, I idly flicked through the entertainment channels on the small television in front of me. Among the options was an animated cartoon of Winnie the Pooh, familiar except that Pooh, Piglet and the rest were all speaking Cantonese.

Winnie the Pooh, created by English writer and humourist A.A. Milne in the 1920s, has become truly global. So much so that it is now risky to refer to Pooh, or to share an image of him, on social media in China. It could be taken as a slight against Premier Xi, you see, who is said to resemble Pooh.

Capture 1

Image: ABC News

Milne also wrote several collections of verse for children. These were hugely popular in their day, but time has not been as kind. Listening to this EP, I can see why. Many of the poems, especially those about Christopher Robin, have a slightly-off sweetness. Others are, well, a bit creepy.

when wwvy

Image: Discogs

“Disobedience” tells of a possessive three-year old boy who demands that his mother never leave the house without him. One day, Mother does go out alone, and vanishes. Despite desultory efforts to learn what has happened, Mother is never seen or heard of again. The end.

As we say in Australia: bloody hell! Can’t see that getting published now. Mind, I had this record as a boy, and loved the poem, thought it clever and funny – nothing more. Maybe we overthink these things.

  • Artist: Poems by A.A. Milne, performed by David Tomlinson
  • EP Title: When We Were Very Young
  • Track: B2 “Disobedience”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Children’s Record Guild Of Australia
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: R 53
  • Year: 1966 (first issued 1957)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

Dancing on the wall

It was a year of miracles, 1989. The Iron Curtain which had divided Europe for 40 years, which seemed as permanent and indestructible as the pyramids, was swept aside. Communist regimes, ruthless police states all, collapsed like portable picnic tables hit by a car. And the most amazing thing? Scarcely a shot was fired. People were just fed up, and they gathered in town squares and demanded that the revolting, corrupt apparatchiks of the Communist government surrender power. And they did! People were dancing on top of the Berlin Wall! It was smoother in some places than others – there was real bloodshed in Romania. But it seemed a new dawn, a chance for the world to become a better place.

Oh, and there was Bros. A pair of pretty boys. In the classic English style, they had a hint of breaking both ways. They put out records, and were hugely successful.

I confess: it is a little hard for me to understand why. Having been around in the 1980s, I can take polished hi-gloss dance-orientated synth-pop, or I can leave it. To my ear, Bros is a kind of vanilla-flavoured Michael Jackson. But Planet Vinyl is a broad church. It is always a good thing that people make music, and Bros do what they do well. This is “Astrologically,” the B side of one of their many top ten singles. Profound it ain’t; danceable it is.

No idea if the people dancing on the Berlin Wall had Bros on the boombox, but it is perfectly possible. In a strange way, that is the point. People should be able to dance to whatever music they like – that is freedom.

  • Artist: Bros
  • A Side: Too Much
  • B Side: Astrologically
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: CBS
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: 654647 7
  • Year: 1989

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs