Wednesday 30 April 2008

Eartha Kitt... Purr' fect

It was great to see Eartha Kitt back on our TV screens at the weekend, performing live on Jools Holland’s show. At the age of 81 she appeared very sprightly, and in considerably better nick than yours truly!

Like most people around my age, I guess the first time I really became aware of her was as Catwoman in the 70’s reruns of Batman. My father informed me at the time that she was a singer, but I don't think I heard any of her songs until the early 80’s. Unfortunately, her 80’s output was not a true reflection of her work -- as this was the time of a bizarre effort to reinvent Ms Kitt as a disco/Hi NRG act! Almost 60 at the time, I doubt she was particularly comfortable about being marketed as the next Divine, Hazel Dean or Dead or Alive, but she gave it her best shot and even had a couple of hit singles on the trendy Hi-NRG label Record Shack (‘Where Is My Man’ and ‘I Love Men’). There was even an odd collaboration with Bronski Beat (Cha Cha Heels) a little while later…man, the 80s has a lot to answer for…

I knew Eartha had been a big influence on some of the artists I enjoyed, particularly Marc Almond, so I picked up a greatest hits, which on the face of it, seem to do the trick… and that was it for 10 years or so! Then a few years back, while driving to Dorset on holiday late one Friday night, we found ourselves struggling for something to listen to. The CD player was broken, and there was nothing on the radio (how come radio is so bad on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings anyway?!). In desperation we went with BBC Radio 2 and their cheese-fest ‘Friday Night Is Music Night’! This was followed by a documentary on Eartha Kitt, which was nothing short of riveting. What a life this lady has led..

Born in South Carolina in 1927, and abandoned soon after, she was brought up by neighbours, who at the age of six had her cleaning, cooking, gardening, cotton picking, tending cows and many other chores. A chance meeting with a dancer (who had stopped Kitt to ask for directions!) Led her to auditioning for a dance school, and by the age of 16 she was touring the world with them. Sheer determination saw her branch and out to become a singer in the late 1940s. She was dogged by racism throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s, and unbelievably, even her first record label (RCA) tried to scupper her career by making her release the song 'Uska Dara’ as a single. In true Mel Brooks ‘Producers’ style, they were convinced this song, sung completely in Turkish, would be a surefire flop, giving them an ideal excuse to fire her from the label. Delightfully the single was a surprise hit, and RCA were forced to see out their contract.

Unlike the tedious WAGs, models and dullards who just seemed to be famous for being famous, for whom releasing an autobiography is a yearly affair, Eartha Kitt is one of the few who actually warrants the three autobiographies she has written. I have them all, and can highly recommend them if you can track them down.

Anyway I digress, back to that radio show… Interspersed with her story and interview, a number of lesser-known tracks were played (lesser known to me that is! All that really means is they weren't on that greatest hits CD I bought!). These tracks were simply stunning, and much more interesting than many of the 'safer' tracks chosen for the best of album. Even to me in the 21st century, these songs sounded exotic and worldly -- what must they had seemed like 50 years ago? How incredibly exciting these songs must have sounded back then, in comparison with her contempories such as Doris Day, Connie Francis and Rosemary Clooney.

I decided that I must pick up some of her albums, but much like my attempt to catch up on Barry Ryan, nothing was available. Just like Ryan, you get pages of CDs when you search, but they are all different ‘Best Ofs’ and ‘Greatest Hits’, containing pretty much the same tracks.

Over Christmas I read a couple of reviews in the Sunday supplements praising the CD release of Eartha’s second album ‘That Bad Eartha’ (still no sign of her first album though!). A quick scoot round the web informed me that in the USA, this release also had her third album ‘Down To Eartha’ squeezed on, so no prizes for guessing which version I went for!

On its arrival I played little else, completely mesmerised by the cosmopolitan feel, with songs sung in English, French, Turkish and Swahili. Both albums sound remarkably fresh, the arrangements are beautiful and there is an exotic, over the top feel throughout. Add to this her genuinely unique vocal sound, and it is easy to see just how Marc Almond must have been influenced by her work.

Still performing at the age of 81 (how I would have loved to go to one of her shows in London last week, but the £95 price tag rather put the kybosh on that one), Eartha Kitt is one of the last true larger-than-life legends. Yet criminally, unlike many of her counterparts, her place as an immortal music legend is far from sealed. With so little of her material available to buy, there must be a real danger that in 10 or 20 years time, she could be all but forgotten as an important singer, largely responsibly for changing the attitudes of record companies and buyers alike back in less enlightened times... I sincerely hope I am proved wrong.

Listen to Uska Dara from 'That Bad Eartha' here:

Listen to 'The Heel' from 'Down to Eartha' here (Marc Almond did a cover of this track some 30 years later):

Here is Eartha performing I Want To Be Evil (also from That Bad Eartha):

And finally, Eartha performing 'Aint Misbehavin' with Jools Holland last week:


Monday 21 April 2008

Killing Me Softly...

I’ve thought long and hard about this post, but I'm going with it anyway! I just hope my bloggin’ licence isn’t revoked as a consequence… I mean, exactly where do you start with a review of a murderers music career anyway?!

Charles Manson’s first recordings were made in 1967 -- 2 years before the atrocities he and his 'family' carried out. At the age of 33, he'd already spent more than half of his life in juvenile detention centres and prisons (mainly on charges of burglary), but it was whilst he was incarcerated in the United States Penitentiary at McNeil Island between 1960 and 67, that Alvin "Creepy" Karpis (a former member of Ma Barker's gang) taught Manson to play guitar.

On his release in March 67, Manson set his mind on ‘going straight’ and becoming a musician, and travelled to San Francisco to do just that. Soon he had the interest of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and producer Terry Melcher (the son of Doris Day), who set up a recording session for Manson to make some demos. He recorded more demos in 68 (again with Wilson), but there was little interest in his material, and Manson soon became disillusioned with the whole idea. Bizarrely, it is the snub from the music industry that is actually cited as a possible motive for the Tate\LaBianca murders (8th and 9th Aug 69), revenge on the entertainment industry as a whole, for not furthering his musical career.

All of his demos from the 60s have been reissued numerous times (most famously the 68 session was released as Lie: The Love & Terror Cult in 1970, to finance his murder trial), but after his life imprisonment sentence in 1971 you’d think that would be the end of it. Yet believe it or not, Manson’s recording career took an even more sinister twist (if that's possible!) after this point, as incredibly, over the last 37 years, he has continued to release numerous albums of prison recordings ‘from the inside’ (the most recent in 2005)…. Even Amazon are known to carry a few of his albums, and some of his rare releases command big money on eBay.

There is (rightly) some unease about listening to these recordings -- and almost certainly some double standards too… would I be interested in hearing the musical talents of Ian Huntley or Myra Hindley perhaps? A resounding NO, yet if you can get over the main hurdle that you're listening to a murderer (a rather large hurdle granted!), his 60’s material is surprisingly good. Like a warped Dylan, he sings acoustic psychedelic/blues/folk songs with a real (albeit deranged) passion, with comparisons to anything from a young Willie Nelson or Hank Williams to Arlo Guthrie, Don McLean or even Art Garfunkel… yes really!. He actually has quite a good voice, his lyrics are heartfelt and his guitar playing is impressive. Yes, hours of subversive fun await you, playing it to all your unsuspecting elderly relatives, asking them to “guess the singer”!

The man and the crimes he carried out have all been judged, and I have nothing but contempt for them... but is it possible for his music to be judged seperatly?? Can you dispise the man yet enjoy the music? If only those albums really were a young Willie Nelson, I’d be guilt free!! As it is my only crumb of consolation comes from the fact that I’m only really interested in the 60’s recordings, and they were at least recorded prior to him becoming a viscous mass murderer!!

It’s also interesting to note just how many artists have covered Manson’s material over the years, The Lemonheads, Red Cross, Beach Boys, Guns n Roses, The Brian Jonestown Masacre and Marilyn Manson have all recorded his songs over the years... I wonder who the royalties go to??!

If you're curious, but don't feel it’s right that Manson (or anyone else for that matter) should profit from the sales of his albums, I can offer you the nearest you're likely to get to a 'guilt free' listen. A fellow Blogspot blogger has set up 'Manson Music', where you can download almost every album for free (including all the 67 and 68 demos).

Manson Music Blog

A much lighter post next time... promise!


Sunday 13 April 2008

The Psychedelic Soul of Charlie Salvidge

I'm investigating new music all the time, but sometimes you do wonder if everything is starting to become a bit mediocre… or worse, perhaps you're losing the knack for spotting something a bit special. Then, right on cue, something like this turns up, the ‘ol Spidey sense immediately starts tingling and confirms that your quality control switch was set just right all along!

A chance conversation a couple of weeks back put me on to Charlie and his work. I got in touch with him, he sent me his demo CD and I was immediately impressed. Listening to his demos, you know he's done his homework, and has an incredible understanding of music. We've all heard artists that are so influenced by something or someone, that they just end up sounding like a poor imitation. Charlie (22) has risen above all that though, he's soaked up classic 60s material (from the likes of the Beach Boys, the Pretty Things, the Strawberry Alarm Clock, the Nazz, 13th Floor Elevators and much much more) dissected it, digested it and come up with something new. This is no Austin Powers style 'tongue in cheek' pastiche, this is serious stuff which on one hand manages to sound new and fresh, yet is also reminiscent of so many of Charlie's influences. Imagine the Byrds with Hendrix on guitar, or the 'Head' era Monkees jamming with a 60’s Status Quo.

Of the nine tracks on his demo CD, only two have the polished finish of the studio (complete with authentic 60s production values), yet it matters little. The remaining seven (all recorded on his home PC) have a raw charm, and the quality of his material shines through. I was keen to find out more about Charlie, and he kindly filled in some blanks for me….

What instruments do you play?
Mainly guitar, a bit of bass, some elementary keyboard and a sprinkling of drums.

Listening to your songs, you’ve obviously got a great knowledge of music. What first go you into that 60’s psychedelic sound?
I grew up listening to my Dad's record collection, which consisted mainly of ex Radio Bristol singles he'd 'borrowed' from his work. It was really only the obvious things like Strawberry Fields & Pictures Of Matchstick Men that made an early impression on me. I was so naive I didn't realise there were any other groups who'd done songs in a psychedelic vein until we went on a school trip to Stratford On Avon. The Shakespeare play we saw was pretty dull but on that trip I bought an Uncut magazine which had a free CD with things like Tomorrow's 'My White Bicycle' and Dantalian's Chariot's 'The Madman Running Through The Fields'. I got it home, had a listen & thought 'Blimey!'

You list dozens of influences, but if you had to choose, who has influenced you the most and why?
It's always an easy choice to say the Beatles but for me I think it's true. They're really the only band who ever had a consistently high standard of work, my favourites are all the great B sides & album tracks that often get overlooked; I'll Cry Instead, Rain, If I Needed Someone... the less poppy ones which are perhaps a tad more experimental. It's only been in the last 2 years that I've been scratching the surface of the wealth of rare 60s & 70s stuff that's out there - discovering crazy underground stuff and bands who never quite made it big at the time like Pandemonium, July, Wimple Winch, Mike Stuart Span - They were all so ahead of their time and I always wonder what sort of people originally went out and bought their singles. At the time they were all just pop groups that would release one flopper of a single on Deram or something, make no money and go back to working on a building site. Perhaps it's only now that we can fully appreciate their inventiveness in the current musical climate.

How do you approach song writing? Is it a tune 1st or some words? How do you work?
It varies, often I'll be drifting off to sleep at night and get a tune in my head, it's weird sometimes because I can actually hear a complete sound - the band playing and everything, so I'll get up and find the chords or the line and record it quickly. Then when I'm writing a new tune and it needs another bit, I can listen back to the bits I've come up with and slot one into the song if it fits. The other way it happens is when I hear some amazing track and think "I'll write one like that!" I try not to rip things off but I think there are a few songs of mine that are obviously inspired by about 4 separate classics.

How many songs have you written to date?
I'd say about 10 really good ones, another 15 half decent ones, and many others lying around unfinished. Sometimes you get a great idea, write a few verses & think, 'hmm, this is crap actually' then it just lies dormant awaiting the day it can be re-vamped, or turned into a paper aeroplane.

You’ve recorded demos of 9 tracks, two of them you did in a studio, how did that go?
The studio tracks I actually recorded in my mate Dave's garage in Gloucester, which was handy as I only had to pay him £20 a time. He's got all the studio gear up in his room with a multicore cable running downstairs through the hallway and into the garage. The acoustics in there obviously aren't typical of most studios but all the eggboxes, bikes and washing machines give the sound some interesting characteristics. Actually we put an extra mic on top of the washing machine in the hallway for the drum break in 'Change In You' and I think it sounds pretty good! I wanted to experiment a bit more - a lot of bands in the sixties for example might have only used two mics on the drums, one for the bass & one for the snare, and sometimes you can get a better effect that way. One of the challenges was to try and make the tracks sound authentic and I think we achieved the desired effect despite doing it all on computer.

How many of the instruments did you play on those tracks?
I'm pretty sure I played everything apart from the bass on Harris Tweed and the flute solo on Change In You, both played expertly by Dave Poyser. We used his family piano & a battered old Philips Philicordia organ too!

What can you tell me about the tracks Harris Tweed and Change In You?
I wrote them both in late 2006, Harris Tweed is about the old dilemma of looking a state but having to leave the house to go to work, then being looked down upon by the upper classes and 'straights' of this world - but ultimately not really caring anyway. I suppose the tune itself is 'Hey Joe' inspired, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. So many people have said to me how they can't believe it's a modern track. One of my friends was saying when he first heard it he was looking it up on the internet to see if it was an old unknown psych song from the sixties! Listening to it now I can see what he means, I just tried to make the production sound authentic, ADT* on the vocals, phasing on the drums etc.

*ADT - Artificial Double Tracking, a method used in recording studios in the sixties whereby the output signal from one tape machine is fed back in with a slight delay to create the illusion of two separate vocal tracks.

Change In You is a homage to that sunny West Coast Byrds sound, but some people say it sounds Lennon-ish too. It's just another of them 'girl trouble' sort of numbers. I had about 5 acetate 45s of it cut with a cover of the In Crowd's 'Blow Up' on the B side.

Do you have a live set up?
At the moment I'm getting a band together with Uygar Sen (guitar) and Jake Gladman (bass), they're both top musicians and great guys to hang out with, we don't have a permanent drummer at the moment so we've just been rehearsing and going through songs, tightening them up and so forth. As soon as we get a drummer and feel we're ready, we're going to start the gigging & recording. We already have had a lot of promising praise and a lot of mates who are in established bands on the scene seem eager to hear what we can do.

So what’s in the pipeline for you?
I don't want to reveal too much but look out for a limited edition Harris Tweed 7" very soon...

Where do you see yourself in a years time?
With a bit of luck, with a recording contract and making a bit of money. Should that not happen I just want to hang around the periphery of the London music scene and edge my way into the industry to work in some capacity.

Top 5 albums you’d take to a desert Island?
I'd have to say I couldn't live without Sgt. Pepper, David Bowie's Hunky Dory, The Piper at The Gates of Dawn, The Magic Rocking Horse and the first Nazz album - an album I rarely listen to because it makes me frustrated of it's perfection. But I've thought about this before and all the records would melt anyway. I think I'd rather just take a piano and teach myself Debussy's Claire-De-Lune over a prolonged period of time.

So there you go, I think Charlie Salvidge is a really exciting prospect, but why not check him out for yourself, as he’s kindly allowed me to post two of his songs right here. Do yourself a favour and give em a go, and if you're one of the growing band of subscribers to Start The Revolution Without Me, do please pop over to the site for a listen, I’d hate you to miss out!



Visit Charlie's MySpace page here

Thanks to Charlie for the interview.


Tuesday 8 April 2008

Shaun Tan - The Arrival

I've mentioned before that I am a long-time comic fan. As young as five years old, I remember my father bringing home comics for me on a Saturday evening after a days work (usually titles such as the Beano, Dandy or Beezer). By the time I was 9 or 10 I was off to the newsagent every Saturday morning with my pocket money at the ready, eager for the latest editions of the large number of British comics available at that time (Whoopee, Whizzer and Chips, Buster, Monster Fun, Krazy etc etc). Not long after that I discovered superhero comics and added Spiderman, Batman, Hulk, Captain Britain and more to my ever expanding list.

Comics played such an important part in my childhood, and it saddens me that the great institution of the British comic is now all but dead. Pop into your local WH Smith's and you'll see dozens of comic titles, but they are all now TV related ones (Simpsons, Shaun the sheep, Sponge Bob, Thomas the Tank Engine etc). Although barely recognisable from their heydays, the Beano and Dandy are still there… just. Clinging on for dear life with an ever reducing readership (consisting mainly of adults keeping up their childhood addiction), but I fear the end is in sight for them both.

I'm sorry that my son won't have the thrill of those weekly titles containing the adventures of a dozen or more regular characters -- and what about those Christmas annuals?! Always top of my list for Santa every year! I still maintain it was comics that really got me excited about reading, and books.

Since my childhood, I think I've only ever had one big falling out with the comic medium -- the obligatory split around 16/17 years old, when you decide comics are for kids, "and I'm not a kid!". Ironically, visit any American comic book shop these days, and you'll notice an incredible amount of the titles on display are marked "for mature readers only" -- yup, even the comic book has now grown up (in America at least).

The sheer number of US comics is mind-boggling -- maybe 70 or 80 titles released every single week. By default a lot of these are mediocre to say the least, and my enthusiasm for comics does go up and down as a result. These days, superheroes are probably my least favourite type of comic, and I concentrate on real-life stories by the likes of Harvey Pekar, Dan Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Joe Sacco, Terry Moore, Jeffrey Brown, Kyle Baker, The Hernandez Brothers, Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell etc, but these gems are few and far between.

I guess one criticism I have of the current comic industry is that it has all become a bit safe and formulaic. Enter Shaun Tan – a 34 year old Australian artist who for the last 10 or 12 years has been writing and drawing children's storybooks. He suddenly decides he'd like to try his hand at a graphic novel, despite having never even read one! Freed of the chains of comic book protocol, Tan has broken the mould and re-written the graphic novel formula. And never has the word 'graphic novel' been more apt too, as apart from its title -- The Arrival -- it contains not a single word of dialogue, yet it says more than any of the titles currently on the shelf. It's is a thought-provoking and moving story about immigration, and as there are no words, I can't say for sure the period the story is set in, however I'd guess it’s around the 1950s.

Starting in the homeland of the central character, you experience his anguish, as he makes a heart wrenching decision to leave his family, and go in search of a better life for them. Tan’s background in children's books means he has learnt to use pictures to describe stories, and he expertly conveys the oppression and fear that has gripped the country they are so desperate to flee. The character takes a boat to a foreign land, and this is where the book really comes into its own…. A number of reviews have described this book as 'surrealist', and whilst the drawings do take an odd slant at this point, the reason behind it is pure genius. Experiencing this new world (which I think may be New York, but I can't be sure) is confusing, lonely and scary to our man, and by using a surrealist style to draw this new city, its inhabitants and machinery, you actually get to experience these feelings too.

At one point, the central character needs to travel further afield, and in order to do so, is faced with a bizarre looking object full of leavers, dials and funnels. He stands completely perplexed by this alien machine, until a kind-hearted passer by operates the machine for him. This was the point where I first ‘got it’, as it instantly reminded me of foreign holidays where simple tasks like buying a bus or train ticket, suddenly become the most stressful situations imaginable! The book continues in this vein as our man struggles to find a place to stay, food and work. The story grips you from start to finish, as he desperately tries to carve out a future for his family.

With The Arrival, Shaun Tan has instantly created one of my all time favourite books (of any medium), and completely rejuvenated my interest in graphic novels a result. I’ve been through it maybe 15 times already, each time spotting something new. The artwork is without doubt the best I’ve ever seen in any comic\graphic novel, and the story brings out just about every emotion.

If you've always avoided comics, thinking they are 'low rent' or 'kids stuff', but you like great stories, great story telling and incredible artwork, this intelligent book is likely to change your opinion forever.

You can buy The Arrival here at Amazon, or just check out yet more glowing reviews!

Visit the Official Shaun Tan Website here