Saturday 7 December 2013

An A-Z of the Blues

A is for Africa, which is where it all began, and for Angola, the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary which rang with prison worksongs, an echo of African call-and-response. 

B is for Blind, a prerequisite for any self-respecting bluesman, and also Bullfrog, as in, “I got those Bullfrog Blues”, a mysterious ailment common in parts of the Deep South and Ireland (Rory Gallagher, you dummy).   

C is for Cripple, probably as a result of hopping all those trains (see also H for ‘Honky Tonk Train’). And also Chicago, of course. 

D is for the Devil and the deep strain of hellfire and brimstone that permeates the country blues. Think ‘I’d Rather Be the Devil’, ‘Me and the Devil’, 'Hellhound on My Trail’, etc. 

E is for Estes. Sleepy John. Broke, Hungry, Ragged, Dirty yet Undefeated. 

F is for Furry, as in Furry Lewis and the effect of moonshine whiskey on the larynx. 

G is for Gutbucket, which is as low as you can go. 

H is for ‘Honky Tonk Train‘ and the eternal steam engine, an enduring symbol of romance and escape. Great Railway Journeys of the Blues include ‘Bald Eagle Train’ by Bukka White, and ‘Travellin’ Blues’ by Blind Willie McTell. 

I is for the first person singular, as in “I Feel So Bad”, or, more unusually, “I’m So Glad”. which brings us neatly to… 

J is for James. Skip James. For his ethereal falsetto voice and startling individuality. J is also for Jug, the poor man’s bass fiddle.  

K is for King. BB, Albert, Freddie. In fact, all sharp electric blues guitarists are called King, except for Eric Clapton, who isn’t. 

L is for Lucille, the name of BB’s guitar, and also Lucille Bogan, who explored the far frontiers of filth with the incomparably obscene and surreal ‘Shave ‘Em Dry’, recorded in 1935. 

M is for Memphis. Home to Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Bobby Bland, BB King, the Memphis Jug Band, Nathan Beauregard (see ‘O for Old’), Willie Mitchell, Elvis Presley and the Ancient Egyptians (oops, sorry, that’s another Memphis). 

N is for Nawlins, the cradle of jazz and romper room of R’n’B, as demonstrated by Professor Longhair, Guitar Slim, Huey P Smith, James Booker, Dr John (not to mention the Crescent City Soul Brigade: Irma Thomas, the Dixie Cups, the Meters, Allen Toussaint &tc &tc). What a town! 


O is for Old, as in Old-Time Blues, Old Friends and Old-Timers like Nathan Beauregard who made his record debut - on The 1968 Memphis Country Blues Festival (1968, Blue Horizon) - at the age of 102. “It seems amazing that no-one should have recorded this unique artist before” wrote the sleeve-note writer.  

P is for Pony, as in ‘Pony Blues’ and ‘Stone Pony Blues’ and Patton, Charley, the Founder of the Delta Blues and creator of the Pony Blues tune family. I also remember Gus Cannon exhorting “Mule Get Up in the Alley”. A similar beast and the same idea.   

Q is for Queen of the Blues, that’s Koko Taylor, as opposed to the Empress of the Blues (Bessie Smith) and the Mother of the Blues (Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey). 

R is for ‘Rolling Stone’, the Muddy Waters tune that gave the popular UK combo their name. 

S is for Smith. Just as early religions worshipped women, so did early blues fans. And an unfeasibly high number were called Smith! Notably Bessie, but also Mamie and Clara and Trixie.  

T is for Hound Dog Taylor. The infusion of raw punk energy into the blues, generally credited to RL Burnside’s 1996 record A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, has an earlier source in the eponymous album by Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers, a waxing on Alligator Records in 1971. Hound Dog Taylor radiated chaos and ramshackle charm up to his dying day (December 17, 1975).   

U is for Underdog, which is the root of the blues condition.  

V is for Victor. That’s Victor Brox, the veteran UK bluesman. When he found out I was writing a book about Bill Leader, the folk producer, and not Victor Brox, the veteran UK bluesman, he took it on the chin. “Did you know I used to sing with the Spinners?” he said, referring to the popular Liverpool folkies. No, I didn’t. “Of course they weren’t called the Spinners then. They called themselves the Sheep Shaggers.” Typical Victor. I might get round to that book yet.  

W is for Williamson, Sonny Boy. He appropriated another singer’s name and adopted the pinstripes and bowler hat of the London city worker of the time. He was foul-mouthed (“Little Village, muthafucker”), never sang a song the same way twice and played blues harp like no other.   

Y is for Yazoo, a peerless label founded in 1960 by Steve Perls, and dedicated to early US blues, country and even a little jazz. Robert Crumb cartoons graced some of the covers, as in the celebrated 'Truckin' My Blues Away' (above).    

Z is for Zydeco, the Louisiana offshoot of the blues. 

Peter Bocking... is a Jazzist: The Bocking Memorial Blog #5

Ever since I was 14, I have felt different. Oh yes, I played in skiffle groups like the other boys and later soaked up the culture-crunching music of rock 'n' roll. Never again will there be such an assault on a generation's musical perceptions. Nobody will hear "a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom" the way we heard it for the first time, but whilst everyone was looking at the cove with the pompadour and mascara moustache, I was watching the band.

Yet there was a sense of something missing. Something nobody was telling me. Surely there were more than three chords? I'd counted the frets. There were definitely twelve. They must be there for a reason, but what?

As I grew older, I still played with the chaps in what were then known as groups (bands implied at least five or more), but still I knew I was different from the others. From books and records, available only at a certain type of shop, I learned that there was a whole new world of forbidden delights: chords with exotic sounds and even more arcane names - Bb13b5b9. What to do with them? You sure as hell couldn't play them all the way through 'La Bamba', though I tried.

Discovering the kind of club where other people like me went was a liberating experience - everybody played D13#11 through everything and even had a set of matching scales.

Slowly I came to terms with the newly awakened me, trying everything that was on offer, even to the extent of some really hardcore jazz-funk. My unempoyability grew with my proficiency and I would go anywhere just to improvise, devouring new and abstruse scales daily. Finally the mere sound of a chord would induce a response akin to Tourette's Syndrome: "ah-fazily-diddly-do-dah". This is where we came in.

My name is Peter Bocking, and I'm a Jazzist...

Dedicated to Maureen Glaser (d. 23.11.13), a true friend and a rock for Peter, and also his erstwhile singing partner. 


Wednesday 4 December 2013

Advice to my brother, who was wondering whether to buy Silence by Michael Mantler for £15

I'm not sure you'll like Silence (text by Harold Pinter). Edges strongly towards the avant garde. What are your feelings about Escalator Over the Hill? That might be the nearest reference point. On the other hand, if you have a yen for great British eccentrics like Robert Wyatt and Kevin Coyne, it's indispensable. 

I'm not sure if it's not a specialist taste (I like it though: I remember playing it in my Willesden bedsit. It's got a very seedy Willesden bedsit feel and I strongly related to it). I don't think collectors have latched onto Michael Mantler (they haven't latched onto Kevin Coyne beyond the Dandelion period, though Robert Wyatt has a cult following, I'm sure). 

A check on popsike indicates that the CD issue coupling two Mantler LPs, Silence and No Answer (starring Jack Bruce, and even more unlistenable: Sam Beckett text) fetches more than the original LP Silence. My hunch is that £15 is over the odds. 

On further investigation...

My records - based on an analysis of prices gained or not on eBay - show that within the past year a copy of Michael Mantler, Silence, didn't sell at the asking price of £15, whereas Michael Mantler, The Hapless Child (w Robert Wyatt, with Edward Gorey text, and more accessible than either Silence or No Answer, in my opinion) fetched £7.

There you go: I know the price of everything and the value of everything. 

The Complete Chris Ackroyd vs Vladimir Putin 1-61

Chris Ackroyd, who manages to lead a fulfilled life without a computer, asked if I could send a message to the world. Well, I sometimes have...