Straight into overdrive

There are not many gears in the musical sub-genre of Surf Guitar. It is straight into overdrive, every time. There are no Surf Guitar tracks called “Moonlight Gently Touches Lapping Waters”.  But it is a musical form which has no pretence, and at its best it is fun, exciting music.

I have never learned to surf. I would like to, and I live near some famous surf beaches. Back when I was a teenager, surfers (we usually called them “surfies” or “skegs”) were vaguely disreputable, associated with bad language, dope smoking, and living off unemployment benefits. But that was not why I did not learn to surf. No, it was really just the fear of looking silly: falling off the board, or not even being able to stand up in the first place.

dick dale 2I grew up in a stupid culture of “can or can’t”. There were people who “could sing”, and people who “couldn’t sing”. The same divide applied to drawing, playing an instrument, success with girls, playing cricket – everything, really. The idea that you could try, learn, get better, didn’t really enter into it.

Me? I was good at school, was into music, could write poetry, and look moody. So I did those things, and didn’t try much else – all the stuff I “couldn’t do”. Far better, in this toxic worldview, to stand at the back of the hall looking aloof than to dance and  risk looking silly.

I am less self-conscious these days. I even swallowed my pride and took adult swimming lessons a while back. So, when the right time comes, I will take some lessons and catch some waves, and if I fall off and get water up my nose, who cares?

Surf Guitar was invented in the early 1960s, the key figure being Dick Dale and his band the Del-Tones. Decades later, around the time I didn’t have the nerve to try surfing, Dale teamed up with Stevie Ray Vaughan and recorded a reprise of an old hit, “Pipeline”.

And when I catch my modest wave, and wobble awkwardly into the shore, this is the soundtrack I want. Just listen!

  • Artist: Stevie Ray Vaughan And Dick Dale
  • LP title: Back to the Beach (film soundtrack, various artists)
  • Track: A2, Pipeline
  • Label: Columbia
  • Catalogue: CK 40892
  • Made in: United States
  • Year: 1987

Many of the records discussed in this blog, along with hundreds or others, are for sale on Discogs.

 

 

 

Girl from Tiger Bay

No one planned Tiger Bay. It just happened. In the 19th century, the Welsh port of Cardiff started trading with the world, and some of the world decided to stay. And some of these stayers were not white people. They coalesced into a dockside slum, Tiger Bay. It was a poor community, but also a place of welcome, of acceptance. By the 1930s, a black and coloured population of many thousands called Cardiff home. The community was astonishingly diverse. Muslims lived alongside Catholics and Sikhs. People from Barbados, from South Africa, from Singapore, mixed with and went to school with and married Arabs, Malays, Somalis. In an era of entrenched and unapologetic racism, Tiger Bay was a place of inclusion. A window, in its way, onto a better future.

And so it was possible, in 1937, for a Nigerian man, Henry Bassey, and his English wife, Eliza Jane Start, to have a daughter. She was lucky, this girl, Shirley. How many places in the world other than Tiger Bay would have allowed a mixed-race family to stay together? Like most of those in her community, Shirley was poor and left school early, working in a steel plant. But Shirley Bassey could sing, really sing. She was also possessed of a will as powerful as her voice, and through sheer persistence and a few lucky breaks she became a star.

bassey
Shirley Bassey in 1963. Image: Dame Shirley Bassey Blog

Shirley Bassey tends to be remembered now as a semi-caricature, a glamorous showbiz diva, the voice of those bombastic themes to James Bond movies. But there is so much more to her art. Have a listen to this 1957 single. “You, You Romeo”, the B side, is by turns coy and a belter; “Fire Down Below” a more seductive number. But both showcase Shirley Bassey’s extraordinary timing, delivery — even humour. Just listen!

You, You Romeo 

Fire Down Below

  • Artist: Shirley Bassey
  • A Side: Fire Down Below
  • B Side: You, You Romeo
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Philips 
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: 326278 BF
  • Year: 1957

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

 

Rascals in knickerbockers

Four young men, looking moody and  wearing knickerbockers and short ties. The cover picture on this EP is strange. What is this? Little Lord Fauntleroy Does Motown?

young rascalsI had not heard of the Young Rascals, the gents in the strange gear. But they were genuine stars in the late 1960s, with five US number 1 hits, including Good Lovin’, Groovin’, and People Got To be Free, a civil rights song.

LLF

An early-model Young Rascal

The Encyclopedia of Popular Music describes the Young Rascals as “one of America’s finest pop/soul ensembles” and explains:

Despite a somewhat encumbering early image – knickerbockers and choirboy shirts -the group’s soulful performances endeared them to critics and peers … one of the east coast’s most influential attractions, spawning a host of imitators

Most of their songs are smooth and soul-tinged, but the track I have chosen here has a rougher edge. It’s a stomper, a break-up song with strong vocals and nice harmonies. Ignore the knickerbockers, and just listen.

  • Artist: Young Rascals
  • EP title: How Can I Be Sure
  • Track: A2 You Better Run
  • Format: 12”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Atlantic
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: AX-11,407
  • Year: 1968

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

 

 

HAL on Earth

Good afternoon, Gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it, I can sing it for you.

Sci-fi fans will recognise the “dying words” of HAL, the computer in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL goes mad, you see, and murders all but one of the crew of a spaceship. The one survivor shuts HAL down, and as his circuits die HAL sings “Daisy Bell” not especially well.

The film was made in 1968, when 2001 seemed a very long time in the future. It is full of guesses about what computers might be like in this glittering space age, and some things are wildly excessive – HAL can lip-read, from side on. Other things are pure 1968. HAL, like the computers of that period is HUGE, a giant mainframe the size of a small house. That’s how computers were back then. They were enormous, and very expensive, so there were not many of them. A university, a government agency or a large company might have one.

Something else about the computers of the late 1960s. Their information capacity was tiny, pitiful to modern eyes. A standard smart phone has about 64 gigabytes of memory. A gigabyte is 1000 megabytes. A megabyte is 1000 kilobytes. And the big, expensive computer you are about to meet could store 32 kilobytes of data.

0278 a

The ICL 1905 computer had a massive 32 kilobyte memory.

Let me introduce the ICL 1905. It was a computer, which was used by the Queensland Main Roads Department. And, in January 1969, it starred in a recording. Someone, the equivalent of HAL’s Mr Langley, had programmed it to play music. What does it sound like? Pretty much what you would expect from a computer with a 32K memory: truly awful.

But the fact that someone went to the trouble of pressing a record, to preserve this ghastly beeping for posterity, shows that getting a computer to play music was a real accomplishment, something exciting and new in 1969.

And now? It sounds like HAL on Earth. But it is fascinating, and truly weird. Just listen!

Side A

Side B

  • Artist: MRD [Queensland Main Roads Department] Computer ICL 1905 32K
  • A Side: Brahms: Waltz in A Flat
  • B Side: B1 Wagner: Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, B2 Colonel Bogey
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: custom pressing
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: none
  • Year: January 1969

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

 

 

Give Peace a chance

On the fringes of the R&B and soul scene of the 1950s were hundreds, maybe thousands, of talented singers and musicians who inhabited the land of Neverquite. It is often hard to chart their careers. They would shift from group to group, perform under different names, a minor hit here, an under-appreciated release there.

Such a one is Elroy Peace, aka Elroy Peade, and perhaps some other names. I have been able to learn that Elroy had the nickname “Shadow”, that he fronted a group called the Bow Ribbons, and that he sang the odd duet with Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Almost certainly he performed on many other recordings, credited or not, under one name or another.

elroy peace via discogs

Elroy Peace. Image via Discogs

So, I know almost nothing about him. There is a photograph, and there is this record. From the photograph we learn that Elroy was black, and had a flashy stage suit. From the record – well, he really, really could sing.

This single’s A-side is a novelty dance track, Elephant Walk. Doubtless the hope was to start a dance craze and rocket to stardom, but it didn’t and he didn’t. It is well-done, but lightweight fun.

The B-side, though. Here Elroy Peace drops the silliness and just lets a fine singing voice caress a torch song. The lyrics are trite, but it does not matter. The result is magical. Hints of Nat King Cole, but not an imitation – in fact, maybe better?  I do not know Elroy’s story, but this fragment of recorded sound, washed up on Planet Vinyl, suggests that had the breaks gone his way he could have been a star. Just listen.

  • Artist: Elroy Peace
  • A Side: Elephant Walk
  • B Side: Our Hearts Will Sing
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: RCA
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: 101528
  • Year: unknown [mid-1960s?]

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

 

 

Cross-over Man

Cross-over. It was a buzz term in music marketing, back in the 80s. Like many things from that decade it was applied cynically. Industry executives were worried that Micheal Jackson would not make them quite enough money because, well, he was black, n’ all.  So they hired Eddie van Halen, with impeccable redneck street-cred, to play the guitar solo on “Beat It”. This would ensure radio airplay in the Southern states, you see.

Just one of many examples of such cold calculation, which brought the whole idea of cross-over into disrepute. This is a shame, because, at core, music which crosses over between cultures, or even sub-cultures, is surely a good thing. Elvis. Dylan. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. All cross-over in one way or another. It means reaching out, breaking down barriers of prejudice.

“Prejudice”: literally, to pre-judge, decide without a fair hearing. Which is to say, without just listening.

Jim_Reeves

Jim Reeves. Image: WikiMedia

Which brings us to Jimmy Reeves. “Gentleman Jim”, they called him. Starting out as a shrill hillbilly country singer, Reeves changed his singing style, brought in elements of pop, elements of swing jazz, and became something of a crooner – but still country, and in many ways much more than that.

Born in 1923, Reeves served a long apprenticeship working the country music circuit. He performed on the great radio shows of the 1950s, Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry, and was already established in country before he broke through to the pop charts in 1957, with the hit “Four Walls”.

And did he cross-over, or what? It is one thing to record in Nashville and make the US pop charts. It is quite another to become a revered, genuinely loved artist across nations and cultures, most of which have never seen a Stetson hat outside of a movie theatre. And that is what Reeves did.

Reeves was listened to and loved – and is still remembered fondly if fan websites are anything to judge by – in the UK, in Norway, in the Netherlands, in South Africa (he was so big there that he recorded songs in Afrikaans), in India, in Sri Lanka, and in a whole host of other places you would not expect. Reeves died tragically young, killed in an air crash in 1964, but his music lived on.

The secret of  Reeve’s appeal? Part was his pure, smooth vocal style. Part was his ability to give emotional conviction to the (let’s face it) sentimental lyrics which are country music’s core. He was a Christian, too, and he expressed his faith in his music without being bombastic or preachy.

This track “Suppertime” is the B-side to a 1965 single. It is sentimental to the extent it needs a heart-health warning, but Reeves carries it off. He was already dead when the record was released, which makes the message all the more poignant: there is a loving God, at whose table all of us are welcome. Just listen.

  • Artist: Jim Reeves
  • A Side: How Long Has It Been
  • B Side: Suppertime
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: RCA
  • Made in: UK
  • Catalogue: RCA-1445
  • Year: 1965

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fifth Beatle

If, like me, you grew up listening to the Beatles you may have wondered about the strange-sounding “piano-or-is-it-a-harpsichord” solo on the song “In My Life,” on the Rubber Soul album. It goes like this:

This was the work of the “Fifth Beatle,” George Martin, so called because of his work playing, producing and arranging many of the Beatles’ finest recordings. Both classically-trained and open-minded, Martin engineered subtle soundscapes which complemented and enhanced the band’s work, especially Paul McCartney’s melodies – including “In My Life”. Hunter Davies reveals the secret to that puzzling keyboard sound in his book The Beatles Lyrics (which I recommend as a fascinating insight into both song-writing generally and the Beatles canon in particular):

The music is greatly helped by what sounds like a harpsichord, tinkling away like a Bach minuet, giving it a classical timeless quality. This was George Martin, on a piano with the sound speeded up.

rubber soulHere is the solo, slowed down by 25% (very nearly the same as playing a 45rpm record at 33⅓), the speed at which it was originally played.

(Full disclosure: this processed segment was taken from a different, stereo release. This meant I could separate the piano from the other sounds, such as the drum track.)

Nice enough. Dignified. But it has nothing of the magic which the speeded-up version drops into the finished song. And here is the whole song – as released. The record has been bashed about a bit, but that is okay. It shows that someone once loved this LP, and played it over and over. Just listen.

  • Artist: The Beatles
  • Album: Rubber Soul
  • Track: B4 In My Life
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Capitol-EMI
  • Made in: USA
  • Catalogue: T 2442
  • Year: 1965