Something wonderful grew

Joseph Shabalala had a dream. He was to create a male voice choir which would sing with heavenly harmony and bring change to his land and to the world. All of which, for a black man in Apartheid South Africa in 1964, was preposterous. But Shabalala did form his choir, and though it took a long time, he did help bring change to his country, and to the world.

black miners

Black South African miners, c. 1960. Image: South African History Online

The music of the group later called Ladysmith Black Mambazo had its origins in South Africa’s mines. To support their families, many black men had to spend much of the year far from their homes and families, living in single-sex barracks near the mines. Their wives and children were forced to remain in designated “homelands”. Conditions for the miners were appalling: South Africa’s mines are so deep that they are heated by the Earth’s core – temperatures at the face can exceed 40 degrees. Safety gear scarcely existed.

From this hardship and loneliness and exploitation, something wonderful grew. The men, exhausted and far from home, formed choirs, and developed a style of singing which fused the traditions of miners from different regions, along with western church music.

Joseph Shabalala and his choirs (there were different ensembles and names over time) mastered this music, especially the styles known as mbube and isicathamiya. Mbube is a brasher style—the name means “lion” in the Zulu language—while isicathamiya is gentler, more subtle. Both incorporate a call-and-response pattern, with complex shifts in rhythm and extraordinary many-part harmonies.

Shabalala

Joseph Shabalala in 2010. Image: World Music Central.org

Like most people outside Africa, I first heard Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland. The group, already huge in their native land, toured the world and became symbolic of the struggle against Apartheid. White minority rule came to an end, more peacefully than anyone could have dreamed, in 1993

The journey since has been hard. As I write, South Africa is at a crossroads. The African National Congress, the one-time hero of the liberation struggle, is struggling to reform itself. Since the end of Apartheid, the ANC has continually been in power. As happens when any group stays in power for a long time, greed and corruption and mismanagement have crept in. But every revolution passes through growing pains, disappointment and reversal. Better days will come.

In politics, no one ever achieves harmony in the way Ladysmith Black Mambazo does in music. But such beauty, borne of such hardship, remains inspiring, a symbol of the best in humanity. Just listen!

  • Artist: Ladysmith Black Mambazo
  • Album: Homeless (compilation)
  • Track: A5 “Baleka Mfana” (roughly translated, ‘run away, boy!’)
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Dino Music
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: DIN 084
  • Year: Unknown (compilation late 1980s)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and more than one thousand others, are for sale via Discogs

A hint of Latin Lover

To most of the Anglophone world, the name Manuel evokes the harried Spanish waiter who had the misfortune to work at Fawlty Towers. But before John Cleese created Basil Fawlty, Manuel must have been a bit exotic, a name with a hint of the Latin Lover about it. How else to explain an act called “Manuel and the Music of the Mountains”? This Manuel was an extraordinarily successful band leader and orchestral arranger from the 1950s on.

bbc1

Wrong Manuel.

It is no surprise to learn that Manuel was actually a Yorkshire lad, born in Todmorden, a small town near Manchester. His real name? Geoff Love. And no, “Geoff and the Tunes of Todmorden” doesn’t have much of a ring to it. But here’s the thing: Geoff Love’s story was more interesting than “Manuel’s” could ever be.

He was born in 1917, the child of a black American father and his English wife. Think about that for a moment. Imagine growing up in Yorkshire as a mixed-race child in the 1920s.  Love left school at the age of 15, and worked as a mechanic – but he also played trombone, well enough that he become a professional musician, working the dance-hall circuit. After serving in the war, he studied orchestration and became a successful arranger working for major record labels. He arranged major works for Frankie Vaughn and Shirley Bassey, not to mention Laurie London’s version of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”, which topped the US charts in 1957.

geoff love

Geoff Love. Image: Todmorden News

Again, remember that this is a black guy, and this is the 1950s.

So, Geoff Love’s success is an amazing story. Under the moniker of Manuel and the Music of the Mountains, he pumped out dozens of records. Many of them sold in the millions: he had one platinum and fifteen gold records.

Obviously, a lot of people loved what he did.

I have to admit it. I am not one of them. I have listened, with open ears, and it just not my cup of decaf cinnamon chai-latte. There is something about the way the string section often takes up the melody line, filling the aural space usually occupied by a singer, which grates. But that is only me, and millions of people think otherwise. Here is Manuel’s take on the Latin jazz standard “Perfidia”. Just listen.

  • Artist: Manuel And The Music Of The Mountains,
  • Album: Ecstasy
  • Track: B1 Perfidia
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: World Record Club
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: S/5246
  • Year: 1972

Many of the records discussed on this blog, along with more than 1000 other titles, are for sale on Discogs.

Tough love

The Beatles throw a long shadow, such that other parts of the rich musical tradition of Liverpool can get a bit lost. Like many other ports and industrial centres, Liverpool drew waves of migrants in search of work. Each community brought their own music, and the result was a melting pot of influences from all over Britain and Ireland and beyond. This is not to gloss over the poverty, discrimination and sheer hard grind Scousers often faced, but there was creativity, solidarity and humour as well.

spinners guardian

The Spinners. Image: The Guardian

One face of Liverpool as the Singing City was the Spinners, a folk group (not to be confused with the Detroit soul outfit of the same name) which formed in 1958. The Spinners became a fixture on the folk scene, and then took their music to wider audiences. Their repertoire was a mix of their own original material, traditional songs, and the work of other songwriters. This is one, “Liverpool Lullaby”, written by fellow Scouser, Stan Kelly-Bootle. It is a song of tough love, and is funny, dark and tender, all at the same time.

Just listen.

  • Artist: The Spinners
  • Album: The Singing City
  • Track: B1 Liverpool Lullaby
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label: Philips
  • Made in: UK
  • Catalogue: 6382 002
  • Year: Unknown (early 1970s?)

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

 

 

 

 

 

When the boat comes in

If you were around in the 1970s you are likely to remember When the Boat Comes In, a television drama set in a working-class British town in the years after the First World War. It was a drama about disillusion. The men who returned from “the war to end all wars” struggled to deal with their personal trauma, and the poverty and injustice they faced as workers.

wtbci

James Bolam and Susan Jameson in the TV series When The Boat Comes In, 1976. Image: Newcastle Chronicle

The theme to the show, “Dance Ti Thi Daddy”, became an unlikely hit. A traditional song from the Newcastle region, it is a bold and skillfully executed piece of music – a semi-funny, semi-dark traditional song, sung in full Geordie, with an ingenious arrangement, incorporating the sounds of a brass “works band”. It is wonderful.

The singer was a man called Alex Glasgow. I didn’t even know the name, though I remember the song well. A native of Newcastle-on-Tyne, he absorbed the musical heritage of that city: a mix of music-hall comedy, folk traditions, union songs, church music, and pub singalongs. Glasgow was a singer and songwriter of great versatility, and his music drew from all those sources. He was a political man: a working-class warrior. But what is most impressive is the maturity and depth of his songs. He was on the side of the union, but he was awake to the bullshit that unionists and progressives often spin.

“I Shall Cry Again” is a lament, sharp-edged and honest, of a true believer whose beliefs are being tested. Just listen.

  • Artist: Alex Glasgow
  • Album: Now & Then: Tyneside Songs Old & New
  • Tracks: A1 Dance Ti Thi Daddy; B5 I Shall Cry Again
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label:    MWM Records
  • Made in: UK
  • Catalogue: MWM 1011
  • Year: 1976

C-grade Christian

Johnny Cash sometimes described himself as a “C+ Christian”. Robert Hilburn, in his wonderful biography of Cash, observes:

Most thought this American icon was just being humble. To those who’d been close to him at various points, it appeared he was being a bit generous with his evaluation. But there was  no question Cash believed. He wasn’t using his religion as commercial strategy.

Cash was a flawed man, and he knew it. His honesty about those flaws were part of his greatness. He made a gospel song, even one which was perhaps a bit twee, meaningful precisely because of that.

Cash ISAMThis is one of those songs. The arrangement could be better. No need for the backing vocals! Simple, spare would suit the song. But Cash’s voice carries it. It is the voice of a common sinner, the C-grade Christian, asking for forgiveness. Again.

Just listen.

  • Artist: Johnny Cash
  • Album: Hymns of Gold (compilation of various artists)
  • Track: B1 “I Saw A Man”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label: K-Tel
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: NA451
  • Year: Unknown (c. 1975). Song recorded 1958.

Pelted with bourbon bottles

To dare question the might and majesty of AC/DC in Australia is to risk being pelted to death with empty bourbon bottles.

They are an iconic, much-loved band, titans of popular music. They are Australia’s most successful international act, for decades. Not just success: AC/DC has street cred as well. They have a lane-way in Melbourne named after them. Bon Scott, lead singer in the band’s glory years, has a bronze statue in Fremantle. People come to see it, and all.  The hip and young as well as the plump, middle-aged and nostalgic love them.

BON

Notes TripAdvisor: “Great statue of Bon. Was surprised it was a bit small  … Not sure what Bon would make of the seagulls landing and pooping on his head though.

Now. I am happy for AC/DC that they followed their dreams and made a lot of money and in course of doing so thrilled millions of fans. I am sad for Bon Scott that he drank himself to death. I remember when they burst onto the scene with “Long Way to the Top” and a surfie’s panel-van-full of other hits. I quite liked them then. But I was eight years old then. I have moved on.

ex hits 75Not that they need me. Their early records are valuable collectors’ items. I have this track only because it appeared on Explosive Hits ’75, one of those compilations the record companies used to put out each summer. This LP makes for strange listening now: Al Martino, the Bay City Rollers, Frankie Valli … and AC/DC! This is their take on the blues-rock classic “Baby Please Don’t Go”. Me, I think they make a meal out of it. A Jim Beam bottle flies overhead, shattering on the wall behind me. But this is Planet Vinyl. Ignore me, and just listen!

  • Artist: AC/DC
  • Album: Explosive Hits ’75 (compilation of various artists)
  • Track: A6 “Baby Please Don’t Go”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label: HMV
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: TVSS.19
  • Year: 1975

First Australian country singer on the Moon

Reg Lindsay was one of the giants of Australian country music. Unlike a great many country singers, in his day, he was a real stockman (which is what we call a cowboy, in these here parts). He only thought about a musical career after being injured while riding a bull at a rodeo. While convalescing, he spent a lot of time listening to country music on the radio, and was inspired to enter a talent contest. Some successful recordings won him a radio show, and later a television program, and in the 1950s and 1960s he became the face of country in Australia.

Reg_Lindsay

Image: Curly Fraser (State Library of New South Wales), via Wikimedia Commons

In my country, “country” means, first and foremost, Slim Dusty. Reg Lindsay was his contemporary, semi-rival, and brother-in-law (their wives were sisters). Reg was, no getting around it, by far the better singer of the two. Yet Slim’s Aussie twang and his songs of the outback are remembered and loved, while Reg’s smoother baritone is increasingly forgotten.

This should not diminish Reg Lindsay’s achievement. His best-known song was “Armstrong”, about the Lunar landings. Not the most obvious theme for a country singer, but appropriate in a way. Reg Lindsay was the first Australian artist to perform at the Grand Ol’ Oprey, in 1968, and is now honoured with a plaque on Nashville’s “Walkway of Stars”. Such recognition, to a stockman listening to country radio while recovering from a rodeo accident, would have been unimaginable.

Lindsay was a pioneer, first Australian country singer on the Moon.

Here he is on a much more down-home, ordinary-life, country-music-staple theme. Hello blues!

  • Artist: Reg Lindsay
  • Album: Country Music Comes To Town
  • Track: A1 “Hello Blues”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label: EMI
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: OEX-9647
  • Year: Unknown (mid-1960s?)

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