1981. Bill Drummond is looking for a direction for the Teardrop Explodes, a band he has managed into a chart career but which is growing ever more easily distracted. He solicits advice from his old mate Ken Campbell, back in Liverpool as Artistic Director of the Everyman Theatre, who offers a solution in return for a hundred pounds.
“Wilder,” he says, trousering a wad of cash.
“Is that it, a hundred quid for one word?”
“Yes, and it’s a bargain. Wilder, Bill, it has to be Wilder!”
And wilder it was. Wilder became the title of the band’s next album, while also describing the band’s social lives, enthusiasms and general behaviour. “Wilder” even encapsulated what was going on, one way or another, in Britain’s inner cities at the time: it summed up the increasing brutality being wrought by Whitehall upon the working class, it epitomised the ever more frenzied attacks upon the country’s industrial base and it crystallised perfectly the spiralling mania of foam-faced greed embraced by the very few. And thankfully, it also told of the mettlesome imagination of some of Liverpool’s poetic apostles, as the punk era’s creative shoots blossomed into a harlequin snook of floribunda in a government-sponsored bombsite. Really, Ken, you could have held out for two ton at the very least…
At this time, a 17-year-old with his own ever-wilder curiosity could easily have viewed Liverpool as the centre of some psychedelic wonderland, as the city’s musical and cultural scenes offered colourful distraction from the monochrome assault of its own government. His coming of age, in 1982, may have been celebrated with works of grandeur and invention, from within a milieu that appeared to have mined a rich seam of exotic-looking arty types – although to be fair, almost anybody could look arty and exotic to a shy Dingle teenager with the arse out of his kecks. There was, as ever, wonderful music everywhere and the clubs – first Brady’s, then The Warehouse – were essential ports of call for any touring band, and great nights out to boot. But the expectations of our wide-eyed youth had been enhanced quite early on by an evening in Mr. Pickwicks…
Plato’s Ballroom started its fortnightly residency at Mr. Pickwick’s, usually a bastion of more clearly-defined entertainment, on Wednesday, 14th January, 1981, hosting one of the earliest gigs by New Order. Punk-era bands had played in the club before, but under the Plato’s banner it became a bit more than a gig. Covering both Liverpool and Manchester, it attracted hitherto-unseen exotic-looking arty types, in addition to some confused regulars trying to chat up the new clientele. Before the headliners took the stage, projections of Bunuel films had shown us dissected eyeballs and ant-oozing hand wounds, a poet had been largely ignored, a chap had emerged from a box in a cloud of talcum powder, and best of all, a young local group called Send No Flowers had become the first band to play this strange new place. They were nervous but vibrant, and sounded like they’d kept what they needed from punk, its economy and its cunning use of resources, while distancing themselves from its less subtle aspects – little apparent impression had been made upon them by Slaughter and the Dogs. They were altogether more confident on their single, “Playing for Time,” which cooked something deliciously enigmatic from frugal ingredients. A simple uphill sidewinder bass looked for a fugitive root note, the top halves of some guitar chords wove themselves around Lin Sangster’s russet vocals, the drums made sure it didn’t all go scarpering off in different directions. It was utterly ingenious – there really wasn’t much there, but it had an entrancing alchemy and its three-and-a-half minutes were over far too soon!
Send No Flowers admit defeat in the search for a fugitive root note
Forthcoming attractions at Plato’s would include A Certain Ratio, Alvin the Aadvark and the Fuzzy Ants, Fad Gadget covering himself in shaving foam and a man in a cowboy suit throwing knives at a woman in a sequinned leotard. Going for a couple of pints down Park Road would never be the same after this! And nobody forgot Box Man, God love him – he’s still here, embroiled as ever in his own world of uncompromised artistry. If only we knew what the mystified habitué at the bar was saying to the lady whose pile of blue hair was held up with knitting needles. Perhaps they made a go of it, maybe they came back to see The Pale Fountains…
The youthful Palies appeared at Plato’s in August 1981, alongside Orange Juice and The
Wild Swans, a serendipitous bill that showcased not only Liverpool’s affinity with Scottish post-punk, but also the growing romanticism of the city’s songwriters and the unstoppable move towards austere hairdressing. It may also have been the first Plato’s night that didn’t burden the audience with an overwanked, pseudo-funky Northern drugs band. Quite cherubic, their look said Five Go Rambling In 1932, and their sweetly-crafted acoustic loveliness showed us views of Bacharach and David and Arthur Lee, as seen from the splendour of Low Hill. Their debut single, “(There’s Always) Something On My Mind,” was all of this and more, plush with strings and melodic trumpet and with Michael Head’s vocal sounding occasionally like a giddy young boy, made up to be singing his songs on a proper record and everything! These fellows clearly had never even heard of Slaughter and The Dogs, and under their gentle guidance our young man’s fondness for the music of the 60s grew still further. At some point in their early days, a straight-faced conversation must surely have gone: “So if we go down the pub in walking boots and shorts, with big thick socks and that, we might get signed by Virgin or someone?” “Nah, we’d have to get a mad ol’ fella’s haircut first, off me granddad’s barber…”
The Pale Fountains fan club crosses the ‘oller to London Road on their way to Mr. Pickwick’s
Severe haircuts were indeed becoming a matter of paramount importance, and Liverpool was blessed with any number of traditional barbers, one-cut wonders who had learned their trade in the armed forces, perhaps in an effort to be discharged. Jax, Max’s, Torbo’s, Blind Wally’s, there were plenty who could perform a cheap and effective back-and-sidectomy with half a dozen passes of a Wahl Number One. Victor, in his tiny room in Liverpool’s city centre, remains the most fondly remembered. People would queue inside and out, sometimes for hours, such were the demands of the individual vision of clippering nuance. Our curly young man, trying to sort his bonce out in time for a night on the town, would go home and forlornly inspect his trim, wondering if the problem lay with his own hair or with the exigencies of a salon with no bathroom. Truth be told, there were people whose cuts suggested that they’d been seen to as the man approached Peak Bladder! A poorly-executed or slightly outgrown Victor’s shearing could leave the victim looking like he was wearing a special helmet made of loaf. Nobody would want to go out looking like that, apart from the few with the chutzpah to carry it off as unique.
And who might they have been, then? Well, The Wild Swans would certainly have gotten away with it, although, curse them, nothing about their personal appearance had to be brazened out. Whether by accident or design, no band better epitomised the fleabitten
Having being turfed out of an absinthe bar for public decadence, the Wild Swans head to the Everyman Bistro where they can still cut it in the Third Room.
splendour of Weimar Liverpool’s merchant houses, the frostbitten crumble, the wisely-shopped jumble sale and the yellowing, derelict glamour of the army surplus store. Their first John Peel session, in May 1982, might have been their defining moment, building on their debut single, “Revolutionary Spirit,” while even more evocative of a sepia absinthe advert filmed in an artists’ club. “No Bleeding,” for many their best song, finds the band sounding almost afraid of their own muse, an elegiac yet unvarnished performance flecked with moments of diffidence, as if they’re trying to grasp what they hadn’t expected to come out of them. Indeed, a more polished version, stripped of the Decadence Verité of the Peel session, may have been the song’s worst possible fate, the nervous heat of incandescent creativity gone in the air. Our now-18-year-old, flush with tiny romantic calamities, was one of the many who were stopped dead by the song, their hearts broken on the spot. He rather liked having it broken so deliciously, and that wobbly mono cassette with the session on it would break it afresh every time it poured out of the speaker, each glass tasting as good as the first.
And it was part of a perfect soundtrack to a fabulous night in the Everyman Bistro, the beloved bolthole of creatives, misfits, flaneurs, food and drink lovers even, and, lest we forget, shameless poseurs. The Bistro experience began with a moment’s surveillance from the bottom of the entrance stairs, followed by a walk to the bar and attendant greetings and cautious half-nods. A drink-laden navigation of the next room took a little longer, the letting-on accompanied by various enquiries about who had done what to whom, and how often; and a right turn at the end led to the third room, where trims and trousers and whatever else would be discreetly inspected while latecomer friends were sought. The wait in Victor’s was justified if only to avoid running this gauntlet in a loaf/helmet scenario. At least our young man’s kecks were now on speaking terms with his arse, however uncertain the relationship of his hair to his ears.
But it wasn’t all beer and bonhomie, of course. Well, not every night. The depredations visited upon Britain’s cities by the Thatcher administration had been particularly brutal to Liverpool. Jobs disappeared hand over fist as the country’s industrial base was dismantled, and while the place limped with unemployment, school leavers faced the corrosive expectation that there was simply nothing out there for them. Thirty years after the Toxteth riots, it emerged that Thatcher was receiving advice to enter the city into a program of “managed decline.” Good of them to tell us. The bards of the town made much of it all, though perhaps none so eloquently or as upliftingly as Pete Wylie. His songs, forceful paeans to strength, empowerment and retaliation in the face of every kind of disaffection, had always bridged the personal and the political, tapping into the zeitgeist of the embattled city yet seldom referring directly to headline events. His mid-82 single, under the name of Shambeko Say Wah!, did all of the above and more.
From this distance, we can see that “Remember” could have been twin-towned with “Paperback Writer.” Not only was it the last of his old-school guitar-powered belters before the move to more lavish production, but like its twin it had an irresistibly relentless beat, an echo of Motown, no middle eight and it wasn’t long enough. Why wasn’t this number one for the whole summer, in an age when even Scritti Politti were aiming at the charts? To a young chap in a post-A-level limbo it now seemed like the sun was shining all the time, and while he couldn’t afford as many trips to the Everyman Bistro as he might like, he’d certainly walk up Hardman Street more briskly with this breathless exuberance in his mind’s ear! Later in the year Wah! would release “Story Of The Blues” and make their eternally-awaited debut on Top Of The Pops. An entire Liverpudlian generation seemed to have something in its eye, even their mothers were filling up, and the world felt just right for a while, like somebody had finally switched on the third bar of the electric fire.
But what to do with all that “leisure?” Well, you could certainly read. There were bookshops to cater to almost every literary leaning and political bent – feminism, socialism, Marxism, anarchism, bagism and shagism. Atticus, on Hardman Street, offered the most enthralling esoterica to Liverpool’s most inquisitive. Here was every cultish, obscure, or heroically opaque writer anybody had ever heard of, or would get round to shortly, honest, and all in gorgeous editions tailor made for rubberneck protrusion from a jacket pocket. Musicians had jackdawed literature for a long time, of course, William Burroughs being a particular favourite: in the 70s, Steely Dan, The Heavy Metal Kids and Dead Fingers Talk had borrowed from his work, as did Liverpool’s Nova Mob and 051, whose title Breakthrough In Grey Room was a direct quote. By the end of the decade 051 had morphed into The Room, frontman Dave Jackson hitting the bookshop again – hmm, did the name of the band refer to the Pinter play, or to the Hubert Selby Jr. novel, mused our hero, now fancying himself as a bit sophisticated? Er, neither. Bugger! It came from a short story in Sartre’s Intimacy, written in the mid-1930s when he was contemplating Husserlian phenomenology. Honest to God, how could anybody keep up with this? Wasn’t two years spent achieving a low grade French A-Level enough? How many Marguerite Duras novels did a chap have to trudge through before he might gain some purchase on the machinations of his town’s bookworm
The Room celebrate a fabulous new album
counterculture? Still, in 1982 the Room’s erudite post-punkery would be lightened by the fresco cantabile of “One Hundred Years,” which sounded like someone putting a book down and rubbing their eyes before running out into the sunshine – especially to somebody despondently holding the knotted tatters of sophistication’s burst balloon. Just after this a line-up change would bring an even more ambitious new album, the luxurious “Clear!” ornamented with Paul Cavanagh’s intricately decorative guitar, and in the fullness of time Jackson would become a lecturer in Creative Writing. Who’d have thought? In case Liverpool hadn’t had enough of Burroughs, in October 1982 Atticus managed not only to present him reading his work in Liverpool’s Crest Hotel, but also to persuade him to come to the shop to do a book signing. Our man with the blown mind, present at both, struggles to this day to comprehend the magnitude of this event which appeared, in the light of the city’s cultural abundance, to have been organised, staged and attended so casually. If he’d read in a countercultural history that something similar had gone on in City Lights or Compendium, he’d have bristled with envy, but this seemed to have been arranged as insouciantly as a gig in The Warehouse.
It was a major event, in any case, and its impact became ever more apparent with the coming years, especially on one eighteen-year-old in the audience. The reading was his first exposure to The Extremely Avant Garde, and Burroughs’ dry delivery of his intractably opaque work brought some semblance of sense to it, albeit, perhaps, a sense entirely of its own. But this was the victory of the evening – in good time the outer reaches of free jazz and any amount of other artistic abstraction would present him with little problem, on account of this early help with viewing it on its own terms. A simple enough lesson, perhaps, but an eye-opener at a time of supernova curiosity!
The imago now surfaced. In two short years an awkward and reserved down-at-heel teenager from the Dingle had become an assured and enlightened down-at-heel teenager from the Dingle, with kecks that fitted where they touched, a vague semblance of a job, an even vaguer semblance of a haircut and a shelf of impenetrable books to read on the bus to the pub. Heaven was in a wild flower, the planets were in his palm, a whole world of excitement and adventure and romance was his for the taking, should he ever get round to it. In the meantime. Send No Flowers morphed into Kit, the Pale Fountains into Shack, Wah! into Wah! Everything, The Room into Benny Profane. Paul Simpson put the Wild Swans on hold for a while to form Care with Ian Broudie and made My Boyish Days a record that sounded like the sun coming up on young adulthood’s rapt awakening, and encapsulated in three minutes the imagination and delight that grew wilder by the day! Pure joy won out, again!
…three hundred, in fact, Easily. Five hundred, a grand, anything – he was only going to chuck it on the fire!
“You like a lot of old Robert Crumb jazz, don’t you?”
A musician friend, Serge Lefevre, was seeking to refresh his palate. My mind started putting together a CD before the question mark even faded, a delectable salmagundi of classics and curios. “Of course, I’d love to, but just give me a day or two to trot out a couple of lines of background for each song…”
Bits of history attached themselves to each other, until all 18 tracks carried some musical, social or biographical detail to add context, or at least amusement. And underpinning all of it, of course, was the extraordinary stylistic development that attended jazz recording as the 1920s progressed. Serge and I, and many others of our age, can surely be forgiven for drawing parallels with the 1960s and 70s, when the market for music spread from comfort to confrontation and delivered creative firebrands and mobs of imitators in equal measure. Do enjoy sorting out the Real Things from the Plastic Bertrands, and good luck finding your own Mark E. Smith!
But now, music, beautiful music, everywhere! Your ears will thank you forever.
Doctor Jazz – Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers (16.12.1926)
Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers form an orderly queue for the charabanc
An absolute joy, part of the gallery of miniature masterpieces that Morton and his band bestowed upon the world in 1926/7. Doctor Jazz was composed and recorded by King Oliver, but Morton’s arrangement and orchestration make it pretty much his own; instrumental touches like Omer Simeon’s long clarinet notes and the whipcrack drum punctuation carry Morton’s imprimatur, and the jauntily relaxed rhythmic flow gives the impression of a happily crowded charabanc bouncing along a seaside road. Your life is already ten times better, and we’re only on track one!
Dippermouth Blues – King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (06.04.1923)
King Oliver’s Jazz Band behaving in a manner sadly frowned upon by the modern jazz ensemble
Gennett Records was born of Starr Piano, a piano-making company in Richmond, Indiana that was seeking to keep up with the times by producing gramophones and, logically, records to play on them. The manager of their Chicago store, Fred Wiggins, could but notice that the boom town’s ever-growing black migrant population had enough disposable income to generate a whole entertainment industry, and that Gennett might do well to grab some of the action. Meanwhile the main recording companies, Columbia and Victor, were too slow both to notice the demographic shift and to pay attention to what the little label from out of town was up to. Consequently, Gennett issued early and even debut recordings by some of the legends of jazz and blues, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, The New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Charley Patton and Big Bill Broonzy, together with any number of upmarket dance orchestras, backwoods fiddlers and gospel shouters – the record industry would not get it quite so wrong again until a Decca executive claimed that guitar groups were on the way out!
King Oliver’s Creole Band were in Richmond for two hot April days in 1923, cutting the first series of jazz classics made by an all-black band. The previous year Oliver had summoned Louis Armstrong to come and play second cornet with his band in Chicago, and he took the northern train to join a band bejewelled with stars from his home town, among them Johnny and Baby Dodds and his future wife Lil Hardin. The sides they cut for Gennett are among the ancient scriptures of jazz, their commandments guiding the swing and big band eras and beyond – the cornet solos on this disc sound like the entirety of the British Trad boom condensed into one record! If modern ears struggle with the acoustic recording, primitive even for its day, they might enjoy simply cranking it up and marvelling at a band in their moment begetting one of the 20th century’s most significant musicians.
(Footnote, for anybody who might think Gennett sounds like a beacon of indie-label probity… The company’s facilities were available on a contract hire basis for anybody who wished to make records for personal, corporate or any other reasons – payment was upfront, so it made sound business sense. However, in the early 20s, Indiana had the highest Ku Klux Klan membership of all of the United States, some quarter of a million people directing their confused Protestant outrage at the post-war influx of Catholics, Jews and anybody else who wasn’t the same as they were. While the owners of Gennett disdained the organisation personally, they viewed making records for them as mere commercial pragmatism. Indeed, the studio engineer, Ezra Wickemeyer, was said to be a member, leaving us with the uneasy irony of some of the cornerstones of African-American music being recorded by a Klansman!)
Potato Head Blues – Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven (10.05.1927)
And here is Oliver’s second cornet a few short years later. Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five was a studio group, convened at irregular intervals over two years or so and occasionally augmented to the Hot Seven. To listen to their sides is to hear a history of jazz, as their acoustically-recorded beginnings, steeped in the New Orleans tradition of collective cornet/clarinet/trombone interplay, evolve into a whole new language of soloistic panache. While Armstrong’s invention is granted unfettered expression, the records still had an easy-going, last-day-of-term feel about them, a sense that the band was off-duty. In your mind’s eye they are smiling as they casually knock out another in the long line of classics that would shape jazz as we know it!
Such as this one, which gives us all that is great about jazz in three minutes! Armstrong leads the ensemble through the first chorus before taking a sixteen bar break, followed by a fleet 32 from Johnny Dodds’ clarinet, itself worth the price of admission. But a few strums of a banjo precede a stop-time solo that could be used to define jazz to schoolchildren, a bravura display of virtuosity, brazen imagination, even insolence, everything you could ask for from a jazz record, and better dressed for its nakedness.
And to think the record – indeed, a whole swathe of musical history – might never have appeared had it not been for another irony of segregation. To appeal to (or to tap the commercial possibilities of) the booming African-American market, the recording companies launched “race” catalogues in which to place jazz and blues, fearing that too much excitement might disconcert their more sedate white audiences. While the very notion of “race records” might seem controversial, without them Armstrong’s beautiful, thrilling, genre-defining early records might never have seen the light of day, and we absolutely cannot countenance a musical world in which they hadn’t happened!
Weather Bird – Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five (05.12.1928)
And just eighteen months later…
Louis’ Hot Fives and Sevens period only lasted for an aggregate of three weeks, all of the recordings under that name taking place in 22 sessions scattered between November 1925 and July 1928, although this and other small group masterpieces appeared over the following year or so. Louis’ time during “the Hot Five days” was actually spent commuting between two or three club and theatre jobs, and it was at one of these that he met pianist Earl Hines. A year later, working at the Sunset Cafe in Carroll Dickerson’s orchestra, the two men were encouraged by the café’s owner, one of Chicago’s more persuasive businessmen, to form and record a smaller band under their own aegis. More masterpieces followed, as the two men pushed themselves and each other ever further beyond any connection to ragtime or to New Orleans classicism. Weather Bird sees jazz at what by then was its most advanced. Hines was revolutionising jazz piano with what became known as his “horn style,” letting his left hand accentuate off-beats, sudden halts, even silences, as well as adding it to his right hand in following the soloists, egging them on to be more adventurous. Here we find the two great men totally au naturel, the duo setting giving an unadorned and uncluttered picture of what they were capable of, stripping the composition down and restructuring it as Hines moves further away from its initial stride rhythm, their exchanges becoming shorter and shorter as though they’re winding each other up until they fall apart laughing. This is a performance of breathtaking modernity and invention, which over the intervening 90 years has been discussed and dissected with a fervour that shows no sign of abating. Genuine classical music!
Krazy Kat – Frankie Trumbauer And His Orchestra (28.09.1927)
The band was drawn from the Jean Goldkette Orchestra and featured Bix Beiderbecke on cornet. This, in its quiet way, was also pushing at the boundaries of jazz.
Bix’s premature death aroused claims that he was driven to alcoholism by the music he was playing in his later years, popular and symphonic work with the massive orchestra led by Paul Whiteman, the self-styled “King of Jazz,” who had employed Bix and other jazzmen to add heat to some of his numbers. Whatever one’s opinion of the output of this prototype James Last, his musicians were fabulously well-paid and looked after, Whiteman even keeping Bix’s chair (and pay packet) open for him for months on end while he attempted inconclusively to confront his demons. In truth, Bix relished the challenges presented by Whiteman’s tightly-scored arrangements, and still enjoyed the solo spots which gave latitude for his improvisational leanings.
This jazz-tinged “Tone Poem In Slow Rhythm” hails from Bix’s pre-Whiteman days, and shows that he was already keen to experiment in areas other than hot blowing and jamming. Compositionally it was miles away from “hot” music, but he clearly has no problem with playing both the solos and the tricky lead parts. Bix often felt held back by his limited ability to sight read, and it has been mooted that this contributed more to his drinking that any amount of Whiteman material. Had he not died so young, had he applied himself more to his reading, there would have been no saying where he might have gone with it all.
Original Tuxedo Rag – Original Tuxedo Jazz Band (23.01.1925)
The Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, together with their guest list
Now we’ve heard the music at its most advanced, we might ask what it had advanced from. The sides recorded by Oscar “Papa” Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Band on an Okeh Records field trip in 1925, are among the few recordings of New Orleans music made in the town itself, and they are the closest we have to the real thing, to the relentless, rattling thrill, the breathless, clattering ensemble onslaught, the embroidered tumult of the city’s trademark tutti. Celestin led the band at the Tuxedo Dance Hall from 1910, but kept the Tuxedo Band name after it had closed. They remained one of the biggest draws in the Crescent City, and though his music had fallen out of broader fashion by 1926 and the Depression put them out of business altogether, Celestin convened an all-new Original Tuxedo Band after World War Two, proving more popular than ever and even playing the White House for President Eisenhower in 1953. No one was bothered back then about them not being the original Original band, not like nowadays…
Auburn Avenue Stomp – J. Neal Montgomery and His Orchestra (14.03.1929)
The idea of jazz being birthed in New Orleans is romantic, if approximate. True enough, the place enjoyed massive ethnic, cultural and social diversity, and a great need for music appropriate to its many and varied requirements. It’s also true that most of the early jazz masters came from the Big Easy, taking the music with them wherever they went. But the city had no monopoly on street bands, blues shouters, gospel choirs or brothel pianists, and outside of New Orleans, America was a ceaseless criss-cross of travelling dance outfits, territory bands whose role in cross-pollinating American vernacular music can barely be overestimated. Smaller than the major touring orchestras, they’d play for dancers, or perform in Vaudeville revues or generally pursue whatever opportunities the booking agencies could find for them. And their polite dance music and covers of the popular songs of the day would pick up (and drop off) other influences, especially if they were thought to have commercial potential. The list of jazz notables who started out in territory bands is massive – Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, so many more – and the bands themselves continued to thrive into the 1950s, when a changing world called time on them. J. Neal Montgomery’s orchestra, from Atlanta, is a case in point, giving us a very tidy and buttoned-down dance record whose initial unison themes resolve about half way through into a series of twelve-bar solo spots. All of these are dispatched with varying degrees of jazzworthiness, some of the boys embracing their moment with a little more aplomb than others – the clarinet player was positively twitching with excitement, although the chap with the alto sax was clearly knackered after four bars. Terrific fun!
Come On And Stomp, Stomp, Stomp – Johnny Dodds And His Black Bottom Stompers (08.10.1927)
Johnny Dodds taking a dim view of his kid brother’s shenanigans.
Jazz antiquity attaches itself with baffling regularity to some of the idioms of the day. Blues, stomps, rags, joys, only the most assiduous student may know in a “blind” test where one ended and another began. This one is definitely a stomp, though. Everything about it is stomping, from the name of the band onwards. By whose measure is “Auburn Avenue Stomp” a stomp after this? This is even more stomping than the Dave Clark Five! The drums are provided here by Warren “Baby” Dodds, Johnny’s versatile if prodigal younger brother who outlived his abstemious sibling by nineteen years, giving him the chance to make two albums of drum solos that showed just how incompletely his 1920s recordings actually served his talent.
Johnny Dodds himself played with impressive adaptability in Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens as well as Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers and King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, although his reputation rests more on the entirety of his contribution than on individual recordings. He died of a stroke in 1940, aged 48, after recurring ill-health prevented him from recording much in the 1930s. So many of the classic jazz recordings of the age are graced with his clarinet, blues-drenched and rich with vibrato.
Beau Koo Jack – The Omer Simeon Trio (21.08.1929)
Omer Simeon studiously avoiding vibrato
In the New Orleans of the early 20th century, lower class blacks, the descendants of freed slaves, found themselves at liberty to pursue some degree of upward mobility. On the other hand, mixed-race “Creoles of colour,” once an elite enjoying privilege, property ownership and education, were sent spiralling downward as increasing numbers of whites were unwilling to accept a three-tiered society. The two groups met somewhere in the middle, or more likely near the bottom, given the attitudes of the time. This is something of a potted version of events, of course, to shed light upon a musical quirk, as the situation added two distinct flavours of jazz playing to New Orleans’ already scrumptious gumbo. The former, often self-taught and with some familiarity with blues and rural music, had no qualms about vibrato, ripped notes or whatever else might add emotional freight to their performance. The Creoles tended to betray classical musical training, every note perfectly formed and executed, nary an elision in earshot. Here we can hear the Creole Omer Simeon (a favourite of Jelly Roll Morton) piping his meticulous clarinet while chivvied along throughout by Earl Hines’ rollicking, ragtime-proof piano. Simeon would work with Hines’ orchestra throughout the 1930s to considerable effect, but the joyous, small-group clarity of this earlier recording presents the work of each man in wonderfully sharp relief. Delicious!
Wild Cat Blues – Clarence Williams’ Blue Five (Featured Soloist: Sidney Bechet) (30.07.1923)
Sidnet Bechet embraces barometric intensity
“Listen, when we were making all that jazz history, Bechet wasn’t even there!” (Albert Nicholas).
It would be lovely, wouldn’t it, to think that the musicians in New Orleans were a big, cuddly, happy family, irrespective of racial or cultural background, and that they all migrated to Chicago at the same time on a train bursting with jollity. Just like Liverpool in the Merseybeat era, when all those contract-waving A & R men met a friendly bunch of loveable rogues and had a nice cup of tea and…oh, hang on…
The early jazz scene had as much rivalry and friendship, often at the same time, as any other cultural milieu. But it also bred its lone wolves. If we look at Jelly Roll Morton, for example, we see a man who by his teens was a highly-regarded pianist in New Orleans’ fabulously extravagant sporting houses and who wouldn’t touch the rougher cabaret bands with a big stick, let alone join them. He only settled in Chicago after years of peregrinations, and even then he didn’t join his erstwhile New Orleans compatriots, preferring to work with the Melrose music publishers and to record only with bands of musicians he’d chosen himself. Sidney Bechet also stood apart and bucked trends with a similar self-assurance. While other well-schooled Creole clarinet players took pride in classical precision, Bechet favoured a vibrato that made him one of the easiest musicians to identify blindfold. As others took root in Chicago, Bechet made only a fleeting and unsettled visit, and by 1919 he was touring Europe with Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra. After chancing upon a soprano saxophone in a London pawn shop, he became the first jazzman to make it a primary instrument, impressed by its fluid fingering and its power to dominate an ensemble. In 1923, following an altercation with a prostitute, he was deported from Britain to New York, where he joined the nascent Duke Ellington band for a few months as well as cutting his first records, including this one with Clarence Williams’ Blue Five.
A Fats Waller composition, “Wild Cat Blues” was Bechet’s first record and he delivers it with the forthright aplomb that he would build upon throughout his career. He leads throughout, his fleet soprano negotiating the relentless four-to-the-bar while Thomas Morris’ cornet sits quietly in the passenger seat. This one performance alone was enough to secure his place as the first great saxophonist in jazz (Coleman Hawkins was playing in the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra at this point but his true solo style would be hampered for a while by the band’s material). In the 1930s Bechet would make records of barometric intensity with trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, as well as many with various other musicians that showed a heart-rending understanding of the blues, in both form and feeling. It remains a tragedy, though, that he was too doggedly independent to develop the group empathy that would have brought about a consistent and invincible body of defining work.
The Stampede – Fletcher Henderson Orchestra (14.05.1926)
Fletcher Henderson at the peak of the meat product bartering boom
Meanwhile, up in New York, before the First World War, Vernon and Irene Castle had become stars of screen and stage, appearing on Broadway and in silent films and prompting a massive dance music craze. Such was their rise that the “dance hall,” once deemed a source of rather humble entertainment, became hugely fashionable, and as bigger and bigger dance halls began to spring up, the sizes of the dance orchestras ballooned to the point where the Castles’ musical director, James Reese Europe, staged a concert in Carnegie Hall in 1914 that featured a 125-piece band! Even the more humble outfits were three or four dozen strong – really, what did they all do?
The bands had to trim down somewhat, and as the banjo sections and what have you were given their cards, we were left with something approaching the standard dance-band model: brass and saxophones to give weight, embellished by a clarinet’s higher-pitched excitement. In the meantime, however, New York had seen an influx of migrant workers and musicians from the south, bringing with them a demand for the blues-soaked, rough and ready music they’d left at home. As this demand met the borderline hysteria that accompanied the arrival of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1916, the dance bands split roughly into two camps – those who continued to play in the old-fashioned sweet and symphonic style, and those who sought one way or another to embrace the changes, employing hot players and incorporating improvised passages into their repertoire.
Fletcher Henderson had moved to New York from Atlanta University, ostensibly to embark upon a course of postgraduate research but instead being drawn into music publishing, where he built up an impressive list of contacts. Working with arranger Don Redman, he was looking to create a modern jazz orchestra, although the catalyst for this would not be found until 1924, when Louis Armstrong was coaxed to New York from Chicago, where he had recently left King Oliver. Even then, it was a while before his energy spread to the rest of the band. Some of the early records sound as though he’d been parachuted in as the obligatory jazz star, the effect being almost as incongruous as the Sex Pistols appearing as guests on the Mike Yarwood Show. It was a full year before the others caught up with him, his influence becoming more apparent after he’d left, but when they did…
“The Stampede,” another Fats Waller composition, sees a galvanised Henderson orchestra charging headlong with a distinct sense of purpose, finally beginning to wrest themselves free of their earlier stodginess. Rex Stewart shows his clear adulation of Armstrong by his fiery cornet breaks in the opening theme, fine trumpet work from Joe Smith keeps the engine stoked in the second half, but in between bursts forth a solo from Coleman Hawkins that shows how he would become the tenor player by which others would be measured for some years to come. He is clearly fizzing with an excitable energy, placing accents before and after beats and making every note sound positively bulbous with life. Henderson’s musicians were now among the finest of their time, and their ability to cram three minutes with excitement, detail and surprise was to be equalled only by the Ellington bands. While Jelly Roll Morton was crafting beautifully ornate small group masterpieces at the same time, his records sounded, to some extent, like miracles being wrought from history. The Henderson orchestra, on the other hand, was beginning to sound like the future, dance band and jazz traditions simply providing grist to the mill of the combined creativity of the individual musicians. Magnificent!
And to think that Fats Waller allegedly sold the tune to Henderson as part of a job lot of nine tunes, in exchange for a plate of hamburgers. At least it was a large plate…
The Chant – The Original Memphis Five (26.11.1926)
The Original Memphis Five conjuring up a musical hex that will eventually reduce pianist Frank Signorelli to the size of an amoeba
The OM5 was established in New York in 1917 by dance band stalwarts Frank Signorelli and Phil Napoleon. They made their first record under the name of The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (see below), although reports vary as to whether this move was blessed or protested by the actual band. After that they spent the 1920s recording hundreds of sides under a bewildering variety of names, frequently acting as a studio splinter group for recordings supervised by leaders of bigger dance orchestras seeking to harness the energy of the jazz that the ODJB had brought to New York, and for whom some or all of them may have been working. Thus a band that had never been to Memphis recorded with equal geographical licence as The Tennessee Ten, The Savannah Six, Jazzbo’s Carolina Serenaders and Ladd’s Black Aces. No, they weren’t black and no, we don’t know who Ladd was, but at least they were ace! Phil Napoleon, by the way, was an influence on the young Bix Beiderbecke.
Singin’ The Blues – Bix Beiderbecke (04.02.1927)
Bix looking suave
“Singin’ The Blues” was credited to the Frank Trumbauer Orchestra, an aggregation drawn from the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. The record shows perfectly how Bix’s relaxed but ingeniously subtle middle-register playing style suggested a new direction for some jazz players. He could play hot with the rest of them, for sure, but he wasn’t one to chase top C, and his gorgeous pastel solo here seems barely to step beyond the range of the conversational human voice – a ripped note in the middle of it comes as quite a shock. And Bix isn’t the only star of the show – Frank Trumbauer’s undulating sax offers a lovely contrast, and a short clarinet break from a squiffy Jimmy Dorsey ties things up nicely, but we must not overlook the priceless contribution of Eddie Lang, whose guitar manages both to propel the whole thing and embellish it with solo playing within the ensemble. There were other musicians present too, among them Chauncey Morehouse on drums and Miff Mole on trombone, but through luck or judgement they were placed near the back of the room, allowing the frontline to create an uncluttered classic that sounds like a picnic on a riverbank.
Bix died in 1931, aged 28, and legends sprung up swiftly around his premature demise, not all of them without foundation – yes, alcohol played a very large part. But then, as now, such speculation does no favours to a complex man and a discreetly brilliant musician.
The Pearls – Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers (10.06.1927)
Even dogs were spellbound by Jelly Roll Morton
Morton led a picaresque life. By his teens he was a piano “professor” in Storyville’s most esteemed sporting houses, a respect far ahead of that enjoyed by other musicians. He left New Orleans shortly afterwards when his family discovered that he was not, as he had told them, working as a night watchman, and threw him out on to the street. He toured the southern states in a Vaudeville revue; elsewhere he made money as, variously, a gambler, a pimp, a pool shark, even as a musician. Somewhere in all of this he wrote and arranged music that would form the basis of his reputation, and on settling in Chicago in the 1920s he recorded his compositions on piano rolls and solo discs before signing to the Victor Talking Machine Company and preserving them in their pomp with a well-rehearsed band picked from the finest New Orleans musicians in the city. The sides cut by the Red Hot Peppers are among the high watermarks of jazz antiquity, indeed of any kind of musical endeavour. More than any other jazz musician of the day, Jelly viewed the three-minute recording window as an opportunity rather than a limitation, and his classic sides are self-contained masterpieces of exquisite detail, like little symphonic haikus. Even after years and years of listening they continue to yield surprises and subtleties in the arrangements, instrumental colorations and harmonic details, unnoticed elements of genius, and they will never die
“The Pearls” was a tribute to a lady of some standing within Jelly’s orbit, perhaps from one of the notoriety establishments where he was held in such esteem, who knows..?
Mojo Strut – Parham/Pickett Apollo Syncopators (December 1926)
The hilariously-named Tiny Parham, as depicted by Robert Crumb
You know how sometimes a record just doesn’t do it for you because you know that everything that’s going to happen in it has happened within the first thirty seconds? You know how ashamed you are to be so dismissive? You know how part of you wonders if this means you’re tiring of music itself? The Parham/Pickett Apollo Syncopators have felt your pain. They will sort you out.
Tiny Parham (piano) and Leroy Pickett (violin) led the pit orchestra in Chicago’s Apollo Theatre in 1926. As might be expected from a band that had to shift moods instantaneously and precipitously, their record is, well, full of stuff. A cheesy “look-out-behind-you” opening gives way to an eastern-promise ensemble section driven along by some rather determined tub-thumping, which takes us in turn to a jovial violin lead and a stop-time trumpet break. And in the second minute we have a fat-bloke trombone interlude and a solo on wooden blocks (or is somebody tapping his teeth with his fingernails?) before the reeds and the tubs take us to a final collective dash for the tape. Half a dozen records for the price of one, fabulous!
Parham cut forty-odd sides for Victor in the late 20s, a number of them being compared to the contemporaneous Duke Ellington records on account of their painstaking attention to detail and almost cinematic imagination. Some people, on the other hand, were rather less circumspect about the whole thing…
Crazy Quilt – Dixon’s Jazz Maniacs (January 1927)
Mastery of the clarinet is notoriously hard won. There is unavoidable pressure on the mouth, teeth and neck. The slightest wrong movement can cause squeaks and dropouts, and the correct pitching of notes in the outer reaches of its range can be positively treacherous.
None of this even remotely troubled Vance Dixon, however. His unfettered performance here, blowing his blackstick to kingdom come with an abandon that leaves the listener feeling winded, sounds almost like a distant precursor of free jazz. A couple of years later he surfaced with a new band, Vance Dixon and His Pencils, but the move from Maniac to Pencil carries a palpable sense of diminuendo – even a title as promising as “Meat Man Pete” failed to crawl out of the ordinary, despite a vocal by Papa Too Sweet.
Original Jelly Roll Blues – Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers (16.12.1926)
The Spanish Tinge, earlier today
“if you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz.” (Jelly Roll Morton)
Cuban music had found popularity in the USA in the nineteenth century and beyond, the habanera and tangana cropping up in the work of formal composers like W.C. Handy. Jelly believed that “The Spanish Tinge” (his description of the rhythms of Afro-Spanish music) was integral to music that should be “sweet, soft, plenty rhythm;” indeed, he loosely organised his own compositions into Blues, Stomps and Spanish Tinge. This wasn’t the first Spanish Tinge that he’d written and recorded, but it was certainly the most explicit, even featuring castanets to banish the shadow of doubt, and it sashays fabulously into the Red Hot Peppers’ impeccably furnished ballroom. Would the Latin American influence have made such inroads into jazz without Morton’s encouragement? Well, probably. But would it have been as much fun..?
Dixie Jass Band One Step – The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (26.02.1917)
The ODJB and their teddy bear, as exciting in their day as The Clash were in theirs.
And where better to end than at the very beginning? Here we have one side of what is generally considered to be the first ever jazz record. (The other side, “Livery Stable Blues,” found the band imitating farm animals, a mercifully short-lived novelty). As with rock’n’roll, you could point to earlier musical hybrids, perhaps to the proto-jazz sides cut by James Reese Europe or to any number of ruggedly enthusiastic ragtime records, but this is our “Rocket 88.” The ODJB had formed in New Orleans, taking notes at the feet of King Oliver and others, and moved first to Chicago in 1916 then to New York in 1917. As it happened, they were following in the footsteps of Freddie Keppard’s Original Creole Band (honestly, early jazz had more originals than a vinyl fetishist’s record collection), who a year or two earlier had also proved a hit in both towns and would have been the first to record but for Keppard’s mistrust of the whole thing. But if Freddie was a success, the ODJB was a sensation, and their residency at Reisenweber’s restaurant in Columbus Circle caused near-mania throughout New York society and among many of the city’s more stolid dance orchestras. They could now do nothing wrong: the records they cut for Victor in February of that year were instant hits, the London Palladium booked them for a nine-month, fervour-spreading tour of Britain, and they returned to a hero’s welcome. They remained in good favour for a couple of years and their influence was massive, bands cut from similar cloth turning out untold quantities of equally dementing records in the “new” style (like this one) but in due course their material became more banal until 1925 when their leader, Nick LaRocca, put the band on indefinite hold following a nervous breakdown.
But they have remained loved, however history may have treated them. By the late 1930s, the “New Orleans Revival” led any number of enthusiasts to dig ever deeper into the roots of the music, and history was re-written. Or, more accurately, “written.” Earlier accounts had been blessed with far less information and a certain amount of assumption, leading to a widespread belief that jazz had been immaculately conceived in Victor’s recording studio. But now there was testimony from Jelly Roll Morton, Bunk Johnson and Sidney Bechet, among many others, all of whom waxed eloquently of the rough and ready jazz played many years earlier in New Orleans and beyond. It’s hard now to imagine a time when this wouldn’t have been common knowledge, but back then the news was ruinous to the trailblazing reputation that had been foisted upon the ODJB. The music won, thankfully, and while they were ultimately shown up as being perfectly decent and fortuitously placed (if not wholly original), their records became cornerstones of the New Orleans revival and formed some of the urtexts of the ensuing Trad boom. And why wouldn’t they? A hundred years later they still sound crazily energetic, crude, manic, almost grating but impossibly thrilling, rattling with the bone-shaking momentum of a cycle ride down a cobblestone hill with solid tyres and no brakes. You can almost hear your mother shouting at you from the bottom of the stairs to turn that bloody racket down! Jazz could only, possibly, be a force for good in the world after starting like this – ageless maybe, deathless undeniably
Does anything in our shopping basket recycle its own ordure quite as romantically as wine does? While other items find their way to the shops via the path of purity, the wine route demands wellingtons, and its shelves present us with a whole glossary of evocative terms which ultimately tell us that we want this stuff because it’s full of gunge. Indeed, the quantity of it we want seems to be in direct proportion to the amount of contributory gunge, delivered in such cunning guises as:
1. Maceration. This gives red wine tannin, body and colour, and entails leaving the wine on the stems, stalks and skins left over after pressing – none of which you’d otherwise have much use for. Least of all putting into your mouth. If you want a big, meaty, deep-coloured and tannic beast of a wine, then the chances are it will have sat for some time on its own detritus.
2. The Ripasso Method. This is a popular Italian way of producing often delicious wine, whereby grapes are fermented over the residuum of the production of another wine, usually Amarone. So all the stuff that was unpleasant enough to feature in point one lives to fight another day!
3. Filtration. Many wines will produce some sort of unpleasant sediment, and may need a degree of filtering before bottling. The extent of filtration will depend on the whim of the winemaker, so the consumer might get to enjoy some of the unpleasant sediment as well!
4. Fining. Even after filtration the wine will need to be clarified, as residual proteins can make it look unappetising. So to get your tummy rumbling it will be treated with ground fish bones, or dried egg white, or even with a clay called bentonite. Yum, perfection achieved!
5. Muscadet Sur Lie. “Sur Lie” translates as “on the lees,” the lees being a layer of gunk produced by dead yeast cells during the fermentation process. The flavours of the wine are enriched by prolonged contact with said gunk, especially if treated to battonage, which is the process of stirring up the gunk from time to time. Idiomatic French speakers might also recognise “sur lie” as a regional dialect term meaning “on gunk.”
6. Riddling. Champagne is produced by the secondary in-bottle fermentation of a still wine, and thus can’t avoid a certain amount of precipitate because the lees form in situ. Riddling is the process, manual or mechanical, whereby the bottles are gently tilted to encourage the precipitate to accumulate in the neck. Mmm, keep talking! And after that…
7. Disgorgement. The goo is frozen into a pellet, the cap is removed and the pressure of the bottle ejects it. All over the place.
8. Crusted Port. Port revels in its involvement with its attendant refuse, but honorary mention can surely be made of the crusted port style. This receives additional bottle-ageing so that more crud can develop, and so that the producer can call the end product “crusted,” while meaning “crud-enriched.”
9. Decanters. Now you’ve been persuaded to pay more for a bottle of wine that’s clearly superior because it’s full of crap, you will be encouraged to buy an expensive crystal decanter to pour it into, because, hey, what’s all that crap? Who on earth would want that?
10. Flor. While ageing, a fino sherry runs the risk of oxidation. To lessen this risk, a protective layer of yeast residue called flor is encouraged to form across the surface of the wine, offering an attractive seal against the perils of the outside world. This not only adds depth and tanginess to the wine, but it also illuminates a process whereby a wine’s own cack can stop it from turning into cack; a bit like never washing your hair to preserve its nourishing oils. Except it works. But perhaps a Lifetime Achievement Award can go to…
11. Wine Writing. Just like wine itself, wine writing is often enriched by a healthy dollop of sludge. It might occasionally leave an unpalatable taste, but without the odd shovelful of madness and delusion, wine writing would be a dull and monochromatic documentary, instead of a three-dimensional, technicolour experience that offers a rewarding plot for every different taste and which keeps the audience coming back for more. Again, just like wine itself. So please don’t cut the crap, things would be awful without it!
A quick flick through the pile tells me I need seventeen. Hang on, are we including the box set? Twenty-six it is, then! Sorry? Oh, “actually need?” That’s different from “has hoarded,” is it? Hmm, don’t like the sound of this…
You’d think either figure would offer a more than reasonable grasp of the achievements of a musician whose recording career was as brief as that of the Beatles. But who’s talking about reasonable graspers? We’re talking about the musical accumulators here, those who might struggle with the “actually need” element of the question. I’m sticking with seventeen for Albert for the time being, but that might change…
A super feller, apparently
One of the real reasons for the advent of the CD
Accumulating music was a lot less complicated when I was a youngster. There was vinyl. That was it, more or less. Vinyl was finite, at least, although a friend’s purchase of three differently-sleeved copies of “I Don’t Need To Tell Her (I’m A Super Feller)” by The Lurkers may have suggested otherwise. There were cassettes too, which enabled the devout accumulator to stockpile a huge private armoury of John Peel sessions, but which lived in the constant peril of mechanical fatality. And be honest, they could never compete with a dodgy pink vinyl EP by the Stranglers, or a French bootleg 7-inch by “Le Velours Souterrain,” which cost 20p in a junk shop. The advent of the CD meant that whatever obscure tune had necessitated a pink EP could take its rightful place among the bonus tracks, where it could be safely ignored by all but the frankly unwell. But nonetheless, anybody with a more esoteric preference might still have found it unevenly represented in provincial record shops, where the offering may or may not have prompted further enquiry. Not that further enquiry was necessarily the best seed to sow…
Who would believe this was bought in a junk shop?
It was sown in my own mind quite early on, as my affection for Punk Rock grew in proportion to public disapproval. The singles box filled up nicely (only two by the Lurkers, mind you), but LPs would have to wait until I was emancipated from the domestic chore economy. Full-time employment, then, set me on a path which often crossed that of the accumulator, and few things encountered en route illustrate the journey quite like my fondness for the chastening racket of an avant garde saxophonist from the 1960s…
A torrential outpouring of baffling noise, earlier today.
The first Albert Ayler album I ever bought was a vinyl copy of “Live in Greenwich Village,” a torrential outpouring of baffling noise from 1966, with a matching cover. Needless to say, it was the greatest record I’d ever heard, and similar was required as a matter of urgency. Local stores carried a mere few of Ayler’s less essential albums: one made in Denmark with a band he’d never met before, another with a trumpeter who didn’t know what was going on, and a soundtrack LP to a forgotten art house film. True, all of these offered the required baffling noise in varying degrees of tumult, but his definitive recordings were still missing in action, especially “Spiritual Unity,” (June 1964), his defining work and the album that could get a space alien to understand free jazz. But once it was found and digested it all suddenly made sense, as surely as “God Save The Queen” defined punk’s chaos to an excitable teenager! The clueless trumpeters and baffled pick-up bands on early records became signposts on a road to Damascus, the cellists and harpsichord players on that came later now seemed like obvious developments of an art of which he was the true master. Every Ayler record in the racks suddenly had a place in a historical scheme, and suddenly I “actually needed” all of them. An album of tortured spirituals recorded in a loft in Manhattan? Yes please! A one-sided LP of assault-and-battery racket with his brother squawking at inhuman velocity on trumpet? What else! Mono recordings made on a portable cassette player in a Bowery hovel full of drug dealers? Accept no substitute!
Albert Ayler’s finest half hour, and a definitive free jazz album. For some, the road to Damascus started here. For others, it didn’t.
What chance does the zealous convert have at a time like this, how can he end up with anything but a big pile of music? In due course more reissues were snapped up as they appeared, CDs were bought to replace LPs, new versions of CDs were bought to replace the old CDs that had been bought to replace the LPs, and all of these digital formats were eventually stored on the hard drive – well, you remember what happened to the cassettes! And still more music reappears, his debut recordings with a mystified Scandinavian band, live concerts from just days before his death in 1970, his very last official album, which had bagpipes on it. But I’ll save those for later – what do you think I am, crazy? And anyway, show me the Velvet Underground fan who, surrounded by nearly every note they ever played, actually owns a copy of their very last, Lou Reed-less album…
The Original Memphis Five enjoy taking due precedence over Pink Floyd.
But should we scoff? After all, accumulators amass all this stuff because they’re curious, because they love it enough to take a chance on something they’ve never heard before, because they might not hear it on the radio, because until recently they couldn’t just listen online. None of this stuff is sold to them, as such – indeed it’s their constant nagging that governs the outer limits of the reissue market. Not for them the six-disc box set of Dark Side of the Moon while they’ve never heard a record by The Original Memphis Five, nor the Amazon review when they could just talk to somebody in a shop. And they want to share it with you, whether you ask them or not – you want a mixtape, the accumulator is on the case immediately!
You do not own this album. Nobody does.
If we follow their manias, they’ll take us down little back alleys to specialist shops full of jazz records, or reggae, or whatever, and they’ll talk at length to the chap behind the counter who will have found them a shellac 78 by the Original Memphis Five , or a white label pre-release 12-inch by Doctor Alimantado, or even a Dutch Lurkers single, because, well, that’s what they’ve always done. And somewhere in their ranks lie the future historians, the writers, the archivists, the people who will quietly keep all this stuff alive while buying music becomes as thrilling as buying a pint of milk.
So, how many Albert Ayler albums does one man need, again? Twenty-six, just for starters…
“Whaddya mean, you’ve never heard of Prag VEC? What’s the matter with you?”
Everybody who works with people younger than themselves has had this very conversation, perhaps more than once. This time it prompted me to ferret about for my own ancient Prag VEC single, in breathless anticipation of its rosily-recalled excitements. But I’d lost it. Damn! An internet trawl for a download drew a blank, not just on this but on a variety of other tunes which once seemed as commonplace as the weather. Indeed, it became apparent that a lot of music which may once have been considered a little obscure now appears, in the bright new dawn of the digital age, to be hopelessly obscure. Legally, at least. If you thought the internet opened the front door to all the music in the world, you might want to call round on late-70s DIY pioneers the Desperate Bicycles and see if you can get so much as a twitch of net curtain. The Dogma Cats? Doberman Pullover? Footnotes to a forgotten John Peel show at best, and obscure enough to make Prag Vec appear bigger than The Beatles. Of course, the bands themselves may be responsible for this, and in some very terrible cases it’s possible that even the internet can’t be bothered with them, but for now let’s have a look at the forgotten stuff at the very back of the cupboard…
The Brinjal Fusiliers – Bantam Pagoda (1983)
An Indian punk band, writhing with all the venom of their western forebears. The B-side is, to all intents and purposes, the same song, but even faster. They appear mainly to be shouting about gay rights, or the lack thereof, in their home country, although a lot of the lyrics are indecipherable, if only to keep them out of trouble.
Crust – The Madness of Mountains, Parts One and Two (1980)
Formed by students in Aberystwyth, Crust became the embodiment of the hard-working, hard-touring heavy rock band, playing admired but seldom trendy venues like Liverpool’s Moonstone. On this evidence, their music was something else, the single fading in to a series of slow, earths-core guitar riffs that don’t develop as much as just, well, exist. The lyrics are an occasional but indistinguishable wail, and after four minutes or so the whole lot fades out, only to resume on side two. One suspects Crust were an “albums” band, so it was a shame that nobody asked them to make any. Legend has it that the band split up on the day their van died, out of respect to their most valued member.
The Spenglers – Get A Grope On Yourself (Exi-Disque, 1977)
Three art students from Toulouse shrilling over an oddly familiar churning riff. Some people thought that this miniscule French-only release was the work of a University-educated British band having a laugh with the accusations of sexism that were regularly levelled at them. Even more people thought it was somebody having a laugh at the band, which was far more likely. And very easy.
Doctor Trumble’s Brain Emporium – the Lovable Onion (Callymazoo Records, 1986)
A reissue of a “Freakbeat” record from 1968. Bill Fleet of Callymazoo Records, a lifelong collector and archivist of 60s music, had for some time enjoyed unrivalled access to the vaults of many record labels, and his dust-downs and reissues have done much to enrich our understanding of the music of the day, whether we’ve asked for them or not. Doctor Trumble himself – Derek Treble, as he was baptised – worked by day as a pharmacist in Earl’s Court, and as such was popular with many of the scenesters of the time. This, their one flop single on Deram, featured cameos from a host of session luminaries, all of whom had forgotten about it by the time they’d repaired to the pub. The Doctor now lives quietly in West London, his musical legacy limited to this forgotten 45 and a long-deleted compilation album shared with the likes of the Crocheted Doughnut Ring and Gertie Himmler’s Infinite Potato.
Gramsci’s Hourglass – County Road Fantasia b/w Birko Meffs (1985)
An early effort to rehabilitate drug offenders by the medium of popular song, recorded pseudonymously by a Liverpool band mired in narcotics abuse. Inexplicably, it was funded by the Government, and, perhaps more explicably, it was lousy. Although it failed hopelessly, there were some lessons learned, but not as many as there were instruments nicked and budgets fiddled. The band’s members largely faded from view, but their singer/accountant/removals man, operating under a variety of names, now administers http://www.bagheadtrabs.co.uk, specialising in sartorial and home interior options for the chemically unpredictable.
Dobermann Pullover – Live At The Rat Club, 1979 (Cassette Only)
In the wake of punk, a lot of ideas were bandied about as to how to change the music industry. Most of these were terrible, but none so bad as the cassette-only release. Usually issued by bands incapable of self-editing, these would normally consist of a sloppy gig recorded on a portable cassette recorder from the back of the room. In mono. This mess was chucked up when the band played fourth on the bill to Throbbing Gristle and the Good Missionaries at London’s Rat Club’s Second Annual Festival of Revulsion. It consists of half a dozen lengthy, unmusical and hectoring improvised dirges, entirely in keeping with the rest of the evening’s menu, and was apparently a “limited release.” Whether it was the supply or the demand that was limited has, like the band, long been forgotten.
Barrington Camp and His Cyclones of Syncopation – Singing In The Bathtub (1957)
Barrington Camp – Piano/Vocals
Rusty “Clarinet” Lewis – Trumpet
Mick Toss – Clarinet
Alan Leathers – Bass
Hans “Dutchy” Rudd – Drums
Musically anomalous, perhaps, but this band’s journey into the collective amnesia was as swift as that of anybody else listed here. As jazz’s followers famously split into modernists and traditionalists, a lot of bands who thought the whole thing was daft faded somewhat into the background. The Cyclones were one such band, hitched to the fast disappearing dance band movement and rather distanced from both Trad and Be-Bop. When the work dried up, Camp himself became a handsomely paid studio musician in the film industry while the rest took an ill-advised foray into the avant garde under the name of Lewis, Leathers and Toss.
The T.Rex Pistols – Truck On Tyke/No Feelings (1981)
London’s T.Rex Pistols were a two-trick pony, neither trick requiring a great leap of imagination. This immensely entertaining live flexi-disc was sneaked out as a free gift with issue one of the singer’s fanzine. They split shortly afterwards, having exhausted both themselves and their trick bag on a short tour with their friends, The Sex Beatles. In short order they reconvened as “T.Rexcellence,” performing one trick very well and becoming one of the earliest progenitors of the Tribute Band movement, often supporting themselves as their sideline band, Bing Crimson.
Sonny Rollins and his band are being filmed playing Ronnie Scotts in 1974. As Sonny introduces Swing Low Sweet Chariot with a brief tenor solo, the camera moves to the man who until now has been playing soprano sax. He is wearing a small white headscarf, a voluminous yellow shirt, a black leather waistcoat, a black and yellow kilt, knee length argyle socks and a pair of brown Jesus sandals. But there is something strange about the picture: he has put down his saxophone, and is now playing…BAGPIPES!
The musician in question was one Rufus Harley, famously the first to make a primary jazz instrument of the Highland Bagpipe. He enjoyed great respect over what felt like a very long recording career, and was quite given to wearing Scottish garb, sometimes topped off with a Viking helmet. His work by no means offered the only recorded use of bagpipes in jazz, however. Dutch saxophonist Peter Bennink was a devil for the things, and Albert Ayler even paired them with an ocarina on one of his acclaim-dodging later albums. But are bagpipes really the most obscure instrument to be used in jazz? As the music has ceaselessly sought to reinvent itself, should we be at all surprised to see the instrumental pallet being broadened somewhat?
Let us go back to 1924, and hearken to the new waxing by Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, a rendering of the popular show tune “Mandy, Make Up Your Mind.” It starts out nicely enough, with Louis Armstrong piping away cheerfully over Sidney Bechet’s soprano sax and Charlie Irvis’ cowshed trombone, and after Eva Taylor’s vocal interlude comes Bechet’s famous contrabass sarrusophone solo. I’m sorry? Beg pardon squire..? The sarrusophone was a double reed brass instrument invented in 1856 to replace the oboe and bassoon in outdoor bands, neither of which carried well in the open air. What Bechet was doing with one is anybody’s guess, but he despatches his solo with pleasing elegance, before allowing the beast to snore contentedly in the background for the ensemble finale.
The Mound City Blue Blowers celebrate getting lucky
The year before, in St. Louis, the Mound City Blue Blowers had formed with just a kazoo, a banjo and a comb and paper. This kind of spur-of-the-moment instrumentation was nothing new – New Orleans was a breeding ground for rough and ready spasm bands at this point – but the Blue Blowers got lucky, had novelty hits, augmented their line up with early luminaries such as Eddie Lang and Jack Teagarden, and their leader, Red Mackenzie, kept the name and some or other form of the band afloat until well into the 30s. The chosen record, Arkansaw Blues, was their first, and according to Mackenzie himself sold over a million copies following its release in 1924, perhaps because it was the first time the full sonic and emotional spectrum of the kazoo/comb-and-paper combination had been so wrenchingly displayed
The simple and untempered delights of swanee whistles, jugs and kazoos also had common currency in Vaudeville, minstrel revues and medicine shows, but if we poke around the darker corners of the homespun instrument department we’ll soon find the stovepipe. This was indeed a stovepipe, but bent and tweaked until it could offer some semblance of musical backing to whomever felt their performance might be thus enhanced. And what did it sound like? Well, it sounded like somebody making funny noises into a bendy metal tube, as demonstrated by this 1927 recording by Stovepipe No.1 and David Crockett. (The “No. 1” was presumably adopted to avoid confusion with Daddy Stovepipe, Stovepipe Johnson and Sweet Papa Stovepipe). The stovepipe itself is not to be confused with the gaspipe clarinet, of course, which wasn’t an instrument but a style of playing which was popular in various musical entertainments between around 1910 and 1930.
Wilton Crawley trying not to let on that his legs were tied in a reef knot.
It embraced all manner of freak effects, animal noises, laughter, honks, howls and squawks. The players were usually multi-tasking entertainers, comedians, acrobats and what have you – the chap on the chosen record, Wilton Crawley, even doubled as a contortionist. Crawley was a passable singer and a decent musician, despite his occasional lapses into rasping degeneracy, and his bands were invariably studded with gleaming musicians – the pianist here is no less than Jelly Roll Morton!
Yes, Dorothy, you will have to pay two fares on the bus home.
As jazz developed, some surprising music was cajoled from apparently jazz-proof sources – step forward Ray Draper on tuba and Dorothy Ashby on harp. Ashby made the harp her primary instrument in 1952, initially playing free shows, weddings and dances to prove to her fellow musicians that it could be a going concern in a be-bop context. She made a number of successful albums in esteemed company, the best being with flautist Frank Wess, such as the record below (“It’s A Minor Thing”), although her output diminished after she settled in Los Angeles to run her own theatre group.
Ray Draper and his pocket tuba.
Ray Draper was not the first jazz tubist, but in 1957, aged just 17, he led an album bravely sharing front line duties with John Coltrane, whose self-willed tenor was not to be tangled with at this point. The chosen track sees the two instruments getting along quite amicably on the theme, but their differences become apparent at 3.19, when Draper’s sea monster solo is coming to an end and Coltrane basically pushes him out of the way!
And they say men can’t multi-task
From around 1958 onwards, and especially as the avant garde kicked in, an ever-widening range of instruments was brought into the fold, while new vocabularies were written for familiar instruments. Roland Kirk was known for augmenting his tenor with stritch and manzello – elderly members of the saxophone family – and for playing them all at the same time, bringing novelty and emotional freight in varying measure. This track, from his 1965 album “Rip, Rig and Panic,” shows a fabulous improviser showing off his party trick to tasteful effect. A bit shaky at the end, perhaps, but a small price for such a sterling performance! Sun Ra, a bandleader since the 40s as well as a fierce intellectual and a masterful showman, had pretty much tired of all restraint by 1961, and shortly after moving his band from Chicago to New York his music and its instrumentation moved in ever more challenging directions. Self-released albums with titles like “Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow,” “Other Planes of There” and “Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy” featured things like Jupiterian Flute, Sun Harp, Space Dimension Mellophone and Neptunian Libflecto, to name but a few.
Sun Ra gives it some on Astro Space Organ. Probably.
Some of these were curios found in thrift shops, while others were modified versions of more conventional instruments, given peculiar names to propagate the current mythology of the band, who always got plenty of good noise out of them whatever they were. This excerpt from Moon Dance (“Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy,” 1963) would appear to feature Sky Tone Drums and Astro Space Organ, but who knows, it could just as easily be a heavily reverb-ed Bontempi!
“Axis of melody, rhythm and pure sound?” Are you sure about that? Man, you guys kill me!
Elsewhere in the avant garde, Ornette Coleman had famously formed a pianoless quartet in the late 1950s, with the idea that the absence of a traditional harmonic mooring would allow space for his alto sax improvisations to roam around more freely. Albert Ayler had written a whole new language for the tenor saxophone, based largely on all the sounds conventional playing had sought to avoid, and driven along by sheer energy, as evidenced by the chosen tune (“Ghosts, First Variation,” from Spiritual Unity, 1964) Musicians were now free to stand at any point they wished on an axis of melody, rhythm, harmonic invention and pure sound. Or to make as much noise as they felt like, if you’d rather. In Chicago, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians became wholly consumed by such ideas, not only leaving stuff out, but making funny noises with what was left, and a bunch of their top bananas, the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet (soon to morph into the Art Ensemble of Chicago), summed it all up when they made an album called “Sound” in 1966. The album, which sought to explore the notion that the silence in which musical sound was suspended was as important as the sound itself, was actually a record of great historical importance; using conventional instruments to make sounds for which they were not apparently designed, and deploying a battalion of “little instruments,” whistles, bells, ocarinas, melodicas and what not, it paved the way for a far less aggressive expression of the ideas of the free jazz avant garde. But was it still jazz as we knew it? You’d need to listen to the whole album to make your mind up, but here’s an excerpt from “The Little Suite” to whet your whistle…
And on it went. After this it was open season, as any number of artists felt their perfectly decent music was incomplete without a couple of rhythm logs or a handful of finger cymbals. In 1971, saxophonist Marion Brown corralled a top flight band to join him in making an album of improvisations intended to evoke a day in a forest in Georgia, wherein a gaggle of non-musicians added texture and colour by rattling away at some saucepan lids stuck to a board. A while later in Germany, guitarist Hans Reichel invented his own instrument, the daxophone, cheerfully developing an entire mythology around its supposed creator. And for a 1994 tour of Britain with his Creative Music Orchestra, Anthony Braxton had written a piece with a short break for sheet-of-tin-foil-blown-with-hair-dryer! Well, maybe it’s not too far from the comb-and-paper, but have we not come some way from the original question? Having established that virtually anything can have a place in the jazz scheme of things, are we still wary of bagpipes? Only two people can answer this – Rufus Harley and Sonny Rollins, take it away!