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#SaturdaySongs No.11 – A Higher Place (and a few more)

October 7, 2017 26 comments

This is going to be a #SaturdaySong piece with a bit of a difference. I won’t follow the usual pattern of telling the story of why a song is important to me: instead, I’ll be focusing on an artist and there will be more than one song. Because he’s worth it.

Anyone who knows anything about rock music can’t fail to have noticed the sad passing of Tom Petty on Monday evening. I treated my Facebook friends and Twitter followers to a couple of his songs to mark the event – prematurely, as it turned out, as the initial reports were a little too quick off the mark. But, by Tuesday morning, his death had been confirmed.

Tom Petty started his band, the Heartbreakers, in 1976, and I was fortunate enough to be introduced to his music from the beginning – their first album was released at the end of that year. Since then, I’ve got every album he has made and play them often. In the mid-1990s I spent a lot of time driving to and from work around the dreaded North Circular Road in London, and Tom’s music was the ideal accompaniment for this. He carried on making albums throughout his career, and these add up to an amazing body of work. His style is described as ‘heartland rock,’ and is representative of the quintessential American rock style: consummate songwriting, brilliantly played with guitars that twang just like the Byrds (another favourite of mine). All being done in his own unique style: when a Tom Petty record comes on the radio you know instantly that it’s him. In style and subject matter he is often bracketed with Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp: I’m not a great believer in labelling music and musicians but I can see the justification for the comparison. It’s no coincidence that I have every album by both of those two gentlemen as well!

Tom was only 66 when he died, taken by a cardiac arrest exactly a week after the end of his 40th Anniversary tour. He had described this as his final tour, and said that he wanted to spend time with his family and grandchildren. He deserved more than a week of doing that, but it wasn’t to be. I guess it’s because my musical tastes were formed when I was in my teens, so the artists are now many years older, like me, but there have been a number of my musical heroes taken in the past 18 months or so. I can’t explain why, but none of them seemed to affect me quite as much. I usually find myself revisiting the artists’ music when they pass, as part of the process of mourning their loss, and I tried to do this on Tuesday. But I couldn’t: it was too painful. That, to me, is the measure of how much his music means to me. It seems that I’m not alone in this, either: there have been many tributes by fellow musicians, both in words and by playing his songs at their own shows, and the front page of Tom’s website is a huge tribute wall from fans.

But I’ve now managed to listen to his music again and, as I said at the beginning, I want to post a few of his songs in his memory and as my own small tribute. The difficulty was where to begin. He has so many well known songs to choose from, and a great many hits. But I’ve chosen as the title piece a track from his Wildflowers album. It is, to me, a typical Tom Petty song, and the title feels very appropriate. This is where he is now:

Possibly my favourite Tom Petty song, even after all these years, is the opening track from the band’s fourth album, Hard Promises, which was released in 1981:

This was one of the two I shared on Monday. That Mike Campbell guitar solo still gets me every time, and I just think that is one of the all-time great rock songs – by anyone. The other song I shared isn’t actually a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song, or even a Tom Petty song. For a couple of years Tom was a member of the most stellar supergroup ever when, with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne he formed the Travelling Wilburys, and this is one of George Harrison’s songs. Sadly, Tom is now the third member of that band to have reached the End of the Line:

If you look closely you’ll see their tribute to Roy Orbison, who died before this video was made. The photograph on the side, and the gently rocking chair and his guitar, are a poignant salute to their friend. I hope that Roy and George were waiting to get the beers in with Tom on Monday night.

I was never fortunate enough to see Tom play live, but anyone who is a fan will know that he closed his shows with the track that was the closing track of their first album, all the way back in 1976. This footage, shot by a fan in the audience, is the final song from the band’s show at the Hollywood Bowl on 25th September, which turned out to be their last show ever:

The sheer enjoyment and exuberance of the band is wonderful to see, and is how I will remember him. Those fans who got autographs at the end really do now have an especially poignant memento. Thank you Tom: we’re heartbroken, but we have your music to treasure for always. I hope that you’ve found your Higher Place.

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#SaturdaySongs No.10 – When I’m Sixty Four

September 16, 2017 39 comments

[There used to be a video of the Beatles version of When I’m Sixty-Four here, but it was removed from YouTube. Copyright police strike again!]

My #SaturdaySongs series came to a rather abrupt halt just before last Christmas, when I was taken ill. I’ve been meaning to bring them back ever since I was better, but for some reason I’ve never quite got around to it. Put it down to a combination of indolence and a sequence of illnesses that have rendered this year a bit of a non-event for me. I had been planning to restart with something very obscure but have decided to defer it and run this one instead. There’s a good reason for this: today is my birthday and yes, you guessed, I’m 64.

As you may well know, this song first appeared on the Beatles’ legendary Sgt Pepper album, which was released just over 50 years ago, on 1 June 1967. There was a fair amount of publicity for this anniversary a couple of months ago, particularly for the re-release of an updated version of the album. I’m usually a little sceptical of these ‘remastered’ records, but this one really is quite special, and adds a whole extra dimension to the sound. The brouhaha took me back to that magical summer of ’67. As I was only 13 at the time – well, until 16th September anyway – I was a little too young to have been a participant in the ‘summer of love’ but that didn’t stop me from enjoying some fantastic music. Those were the days before the BBC started Radio 1, which came along a couple of months later, after the Government had kindly introduced the Marine Broadcasting (Offences) Act and scuppered the pirate radio stations. These had done so much to bring pop music to young people in a hitherto unimagined way, and on a much wider scale than public broadcasting had ever done before. The old Light Programme was no match for them, but at least most of the DJs from the pirate stations transferred to the Beeb and with Radio 1 we had something like them on a longer term basis. Even Tony Blackburn – Heaven help us!

My first memory of hearing this song, and the whole Sgt Pepper album, goes back to 12 May 1967. This was a Friday, and we all rushed home from school so that we could hear the new Beatles album being given its first airing. This was on the pirate station Radio London, which had scooped an exclusive to broadcast the album for 8 days before anyone else was allowed to play it. My memory has always been that the show was hosted by Kenny Everett, but as he had been fired from the station two months previously that memory may be faulty! But he had strong links with the Beatles, being a fellow Liverpudlian, so maybe he did do it. Or perhaps it was Dave Cash, with whom he used to do the Kenny and Cash show? Either way, it was a magical experience, even though I was sitting in my bedroom in front of a pocket transistor radio, which by modern day standards would have had appalling sound quality. But it was how we got our music in those days, and the memories flood back whenever I play the album – which is often.

Looking back, it is interesting to see what four young men in their early 20s thought it would be like to be much older. My hair may be much thinner than in those days, but I’m lucky to still have it: a legacy from my father, who turns 90 next month and still has a good head of hair! I’ve never rented a cottage on the Isle of Wight although my now ex-wife and I did stay in a hotel there for our honeymoon, so that’s quite close, isn’t it? I don’t have any grandchildren but, when I do, I somehow doubt that Vera and Chuck will be considered as possible names. My son-in-law is called Dave, though. And there’s an undeniably quaint feeling to their view of the future: I’m not sure that many people still knit sweaters, and fifty years ago life expectancy was much lower than it is today, so 64 would have felt older than it does now – that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

I had a hard time finding an original Beatles version of this song to illustrate this post. As I said at the top I did find a fairly recent one, but it suffered from the very active control over Beatles music that seems to be applied on YouTube and was deleted. There are masses of alternatives though, to give you a taste of the song. Plenty of amateur covers, including a bassoon group, a chamber orchestra, various choirs, a barbershop quartet and so many wannabes. Then there are the covers by recognised artists: John Denver (ok if you like him, I guess), Cheap Trick (not bad), the Killers (unspeakably bad), Judy Collins (yes, really!), Kenny Ball (lots of clarinet), all topped off by this amazing version by Cliff Richard:

I simply had to include that, once my hysterical laughter had subsided. Those dance moves, eh? But then again, I always did think Cliff Richard was a twat so I wasn’t exactly well disposed towards it, though I’m glad I found it: I haven’t laughed so much in ages! I also found this, which purports to give someone’s view of what 64 year olds look like:

As someone says in the comments, the people featured look closer to 84 than 64. I don’t look that old yet, do I? I just feel like it, some days 😂

PS: I’m planning on bringing you some more #SaturdaySongs soon, although maybe not on a weekly basis. See you again, I hope.

#SaturdaySongs No.9 – Boy With A Moon And Star On His Head

December 17, 2016 12 comments

For today’s #SaturdaySong I’ve chosen a track from one of those milestone moments we all have in our lives. The album which included this song was released in late September 1972, a week before I made the huge step of going to university. Apart from holidays and school trips this was to be the first time I had ever lived away from home, and the magnitude of that moment is still etched in my memory. The album in question is Catch Bull At Four, which was the fourth album by Cat Stevens in his singer/songwriter career (he had to take a year out after his earlier pop career, having been very ill with tuberculosis). As I already owned the previous three it was a nailed on certainty that I would buy this one too, and I was in the record shop the day it was released.

Cast your mind back to those days. We consumed our music mostly by the medium of vinyl. Cassettes were becoming more popular, but still had some way to go before they were a main medium – many albums were still released on vinyl only. Vinyl albums were heavy and bulky, and I was travelling to uni by train, so it was impossible to take my record player and albums with me. It was a further five weeks before I could get a lift home for a weekend and pick up my music, and knowing that this separation was about to take place I played the album almost every waking moment before I left for my step into the wild world. Today’s song is this:

That has always been my favourite song on that album and for me is inextricably linked with going to university and taking a big stride into my future life. I never saw Cat Stevens play live at that time, although I would have loved to, but I did finally see him much later. His records were released on the Island label, and to celebrate 50 years of the label they ran a series of concerts for a week in May 2009. I was lucky enough to win a ticket in a newspaper competition and spent one of the most magical evenings of my life reliving all of those years. By then he had converted to Islam and was known as Yusuf Islam, but he had retained the connection with his previous musical life – it still made him money for his foundation – and when he sang the first of his early songs, Where Do The Children Play from the Tea For The Tillerman album, it felt like the whole audience was singing along with him. I found a cosy place to watch the concert, and was joined by a group of people who worked for Island Records. They were as surprised as the rest of us at an unannounced appearance of U2, who performed a four song acoustic set, and I came within 10 minutes of being asked to the backstage party: unfortunately, the spare pass they had was claimed late in the evening by the record company owner’s son for his girlfriend, who had lost hers. It was still a wonderful evening though.

If you’ve been following my #SaturdaySongs you’ll know that I said I would be devoting this month to seasonal songs, and may be wondering why I’ve chosen this one. Listen to the story told in the song and you’ll understand why: if this isn’t a modern-day retelling of the nativity then I don’t know what is! Granted, it isn’t a virgin birth, but the gift of a son blessed with wisdom and magical powers is unmistakeably linked, and I make no apologies for including it in my December selections.

Videos of the song are very hard to come by, and the one above is the best sound quality that I could find. As a bonus, here is a much more recent version, taken from a concert less than three months ago. It is wonderful that Cat/Yusuf is still performing this song 44 years on, and the respectful, rapt silence of the audience adds to the gravitas, I think:

“I’ll tell you everything I’ve learned, and Love is All, he said.”

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