Monday, January 24, 2011

"Don't Believe a Word"

One of the institutions that we in the UK are spoiled by is the BBC: a public service broadcaster whose reach and whose repertoire extends beyond the dreams of even the most megalomaniac of media moguls. A true multimedia behemoth. What we in this country tend to forget is just how trusted the BBC is around the world as a paragon of accuracy and of impartiality. Its motto is "Nation shall speak peace unto nation", but it might as well be "Truth is the only safe ground to stand on." Whether you're in Kinshasa or Kentucky, it's reliable, regular as clockwork and impartial.
For so many years it was the only "live" record of the UK's history, in documentaries, in light entertainment, even in vox pops on the evening news. Only now, through the internet and through painstaking efforts by curators, archivists and historians, is the BBC's real importance really becoming evident, through a never-ending stream of archive recordings that shine a light not on the world-changing events of years ago, but on the everyday components of life.
I'm not here to start an argument about the value of taxpayer-funded broadcasting; all I can say is that for my part I think I've got out much, much more than I've put in. Thanks, Auntie. Oh and thanks also for that Thin Lizzy retrospective the other week.
One of the things you tend to do with the BBC is use it, but forget it's there. You switch on the radio, you turn on the television and chances are you're tuning into the Beeb. Chances are the program that draws you in, piques your interest, or entertains you is on the BBC. But you'd be hard pressed the next day to remember what channel you were watching or listening to.
Sadly (or not), the same was the case with Thin Lizzy. Too often, if you're a rock fan you can be seduced by the sheer technical wizardry of a guitar virtuoso like Jimmy Page or Richie Blackmore, or the vocal calisthenics of an Ian Gillan, or the polyrhythmic genius of a Ginger Baker. Too often, bands rely on one individual's skill or talent to push them out of the ordinary. You remember their songs for a solo, for an outstanding vocal.
With Lizzy, that wasn't the case: you remember their songs because they're irresistable, unstoppable. Two great guitarists, a superb drummer and a sublimely talented bassist/singer/songwriter meant that the band was always perfectly balanced. And though Phil Lynott was the undoubted star of the band, he didn't outshine the rest of the band in the same manner that other stars have. They were all just as good as each other.
The reason I was comparing Thin Lizzy to the BBC was because, for many years they were as reliable and solid as the Beeb. Albums got better and better - the five albums from "Fighting" to "Live & Dangerous" are as steep a quality curve as you'll find anywhere in rock - they refined their sound until the twin-guitar harmony attack was absolutely perfect, and they managed to walk the narrow path of hard rock without it becoming heavy metal pastiche. In this they were undoubtedly saved by the Irish heritage and Lynott's mournful voice. He's not your typical hard rock singer, nor are his lyrics archetypal rock - his songs seem to come from Springsteen territory rather than the edges of self-indulgent oblivion. "The Boys Are Back in Town" comes across like a statement of criminal intent, but it's really just about any Saturday night.
*This* particular song is probably the best example of the band's ability to marry the sound and attitude of rock with surprisingly sensitive and thoughtful lyrics. Lynott's voice is at its most mournful, the lyric is as open and honest as anything a wannabe bad boy ever wrote, self-aware and full of the sort of rogue-ish charm that Lynott was known for.
It's short, sweet and as good a way to remember this much-missed man.

Of course it's hard to think of Phil Lynott without a smile and a chuckle for his immortal line: "Is there anyone here with any Irish in them? Are there any girls here who'd like a little more Irish in them?"

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Lido Shuffle"

I've been toying around with an entry here for about six months. I started out planning to pick my favourite blue-eyed soul performance (not *singer*, just *performance*), but that spiralled completely out of control; before I knew it I was juggling Lowell George, Todd Rundgren, Boz Scaggs, Tom Johnstone and Michael MacDonald, Robert Palmer, Paul Rodgers, Rod Stewart, Jack Bruce, Dan Zanes of the Del Fuegos and about a hundred others.

See, if this blog teaches me anything, it's that there is no science to this music appreciation business. I can't be one of those pipe-smoking critics who talks about the technical aspects of singing, traditions and the like. I either like a song or I don't. If I like it, watch out! I start reading up, doing my research on Wikipedia, AllMusic etc until I know just about everything there is to know about a song.

Somewhere I remember reading a quotation on trying to analyse humour: "It's like dissecting a frog," the quote goes; "It can be done, but the frog tends to die in the process." And sometimes I feel like that about my occasionally obsessive approach to the simple, harmless act of appreciating a work of music.

Why analyse, why obsess?

Having said all this, what I seem to be describing is an extended teenage phase. I mean, we all lay on our beds with the headphones on and the lyrics sheet in our hand when we were teenagers, right?

So this is normal. It's dragged on a bit, but it's normal.

So, as part of the intense research I described at the start, I have spent a lot of time listening to Messrs Marriott, George, Palmer, Rundgren et al over the past few months, in an effort to try and pick what I think is the best blue-eyed soul performance of all.

Any great soul voice has something unusual about it: Rod Stewart had his sandpaper, Lowell George had the beautiful southern inflection (just listen to the way he sings the word "southern"), Michael MacDonald has his falsetto, Steve Marriott had his passion. They all *work*.

That's the reason they're all SongsWithoutWhich. Because they travel with me all the time, they come around on random shuffle at the strangest moments and they make me smile, sway, tap my feet. I just have to stop being anal about it.

And for that reason I wimped out. I can't pick a favourite: I'd choose a different one every time. But what I *can* do is share a performance that I treasure. I remember loving this when it was first released, enjoying the idiosyncratic vocal (it sounds vaguely gargled, doesn't it?), and the unstoppable rhythm.

Boz Scaggs hasn't been a prominent mainstream name, unless you're into Steve Miller or Donald Fagen, but by God he has a voice.

The first video shows how much fun you can have making music, even if it isn't the best performance of the song.

The second is an older, wiser Boz and a slower, much more menacing version. I cna't imagine how many years separate the two performances - a lifetime, it seems, but they're both fantastic.