Mr Blue Sky . . .


I’ve been a fan of ELO – Electric Light Orchestra – for several decades, and also followed ELO lead Jeff Lynne after he made his solo album Armchair Theatre in the 1980s. There’s an interesting story about how I acquired a CD version of Armchair Theatre that I blogged about some time ago.

Then there was Lynne’s collaboration with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan as Otis/Clayton Wilbury in the Traveling Wilburys.

While I knew that Lynne spent most of his time producing hit albums for other musicians, and writing new material, I hadn’t realized how unpopular ELO had become since their heyday in the 70s. Apparently they just weren’t cool. That didn’t diminish my enthusiasm for the music and the intricate arrangements of guitars and strings that were ELO’s signature.

So it was a surprise to read last week that BBC4 would be broadcasting a live concert of Jeff Lynne’s ELO that was recorded in Hyde Park, London in mid-September. Now that one passed me by. I finally got round to watching the concert on catch-up TV last weekend – and what pure joy it was. I walked around afterwards with a big smile on my face for at least a couple of hours.

This was the first time that Jeff Lynne had performed live for almost 30 years. You wouldn’t think that from seeing him and his backing band (with original ELO keyboard player Richard Tandy, and other musicians who normally tour and back Take That!), and supported by the BBC Concert Orchestra, playing to an audience of 50,000. It’s reported that when tickets went on sale they sold out in 90 minutes.

During a 17 song set* Jeff Lynne’s ELO treated us to some of the more magical tracks that had been written and first recorded several decades ago. And they sounded as fresh now – perhaps better even – than all those years ago. Having been persuaded by Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans to play live, I guess Jeff Lynne wanted to produce the sound on stage that he had only been able to achieve in the studio. And with the impressive light show as well, he not only achieved his goal but surpassed it. It was simply wonderful, and I could sit down and watch it all over again. There was just one song from his Wilbury days – Handle With Care – as a tribute to deceased members Roy Orbison and George Harrison.

Reviews of the concert on social media sites and in the press were overwhelming in praise for Lynne and his musicians. The old dog can certainly show the pups of the pop world a trick or two! There’s even talk now of some more concerts in the UK and maybe even a world tour. Now that would be something to look forward to.

*All Over The World
Evil Woman
Ma Ma Ma Belle
Showdown
Livin Thing
Strange Magic
10538 Overture
Can’t Get It Out Of My Head
Sweet Talkin Woman
Turn To Stone
Steppin Out
Handle With Care
Don’t Bring Me Down
Rock n Roll Is King
Telephone Line
Mr Blue Sky
Roll Over Beethoven

 

A tale of Dublin soul . . .

North Dublin.

A young man, Jimmy Rabbitte by name, walks through a street market, a horse fair, across a desolate 1960s housing estate, trying to sell merchandise – mainly videos – that he carries in a bag on his shoulder.

He’s on his way to a wedding reception, although he’s not one of the guests. No. He just wants to meet the members of a band who, as he arrives at the reception, are performing a dreadful interpretation of The Searchers’ 1964 hit Needles and Pins. Just as he enters the room, a group of children are running about, and in the melee, one little girl collides with the outstretched leg of an elderly gentleman dozing at one of the tables, no doubt having had one pint too many.

Woken from his slumber, ‘Fuck off’ he snarls at the child, almost the first dialogue in Alan Parker‘s classic 1991 film The Commitments – probably one of the best movies of the 90s.

Well what an interesting way to start a film. And so it went on. If you have ever read any of Roddy Doyle’s brilliant tales of Dublin life, you know that ‘effing and blinding’ is just part of the Dublin vernacular.

Well, I was reminded this past week of when and where I first watched The Commitments because it has just translated to the London stage, to quite favorable reviews.

It must have been about 1992, I guess. Saturday night in Los Baños (in the Philippines). Having finished dinner, we (Steph, Hannah, Philippa and me) sat down to watch a video we’d rented that afternoon from the local store on Lopez Avenue, Dis ‘n’ Dat.

The Commitments? Roddy Doyle? I’d never heard of either, so had no idea what the film was all about. Not a wise move, in some respects, since Hannah was only about 14, Phillipa 10. There was strong language from the outset, as I described earlier. What to do? Switch off or continue as though there was nothing untoward? We carried on. And we all enjoyed the movie.

So what is Alan Parker’s film (co-written by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais and Roddy Doyle) all about? Young Jimmy Rabbitte wants to form ‘The World’s Hardest Working Band’ and bring soul music – black soul music – to the masses.  As one of the prospective band members reacts to this revelation: ‘Well like, maybe we’re a little white?’

Alan Parker’s genius was in casting a group of youngsters who had never acted before, but who could really sing. Take Andrew Strong, cast as lead singer Deco, for instance. Only sixteen when The Commitments was made, he had an acting and singing maturity way beyond his age. And what a romp the film turns out to be. Needless to say, without spoiling the plot for anyone who has not yet seen the film – but I urge you to do so – it’s all about the formation and trials and tribulations of the band, and its ultimate break-up. It’s too successful.

Don’t worry about the strong language; that goes with the territory. A few years later, when a student in St Paul, Minnesota,  Hannah attended a reading by Roddy Doyle of some of his works. It was held in one of the local Lutheran churches, but true to form, Roddy pulled no punches, ‘effing and blinding’ his way through the various excerpts. Even though it was a church venue, the audience loved it. There’s a time and place for everything – I wish some of today’s so-called stand-up comedians understood the power of the appropriately chosen ‘eff and blind’ rather than sprinkling their acts with gratuitous profanities. I should add, I’m no prude when it comes to strong language on the TV. It can be used impressively to enhance a drama, as the recent series set in Birmingham, Peaky Blinders, has demonstrated. Also, I’m a great fan of Billy Connolly, whose language, for some, leaves a great deal to be desired. But it’s all part of his Glaswegian vernacular, just as Roddy Doyle’s use of this language reflects the reality of life in Dublin.

Guitar heroes

Life has been pretty good to me – most of the time. I’ve achieved many of the things I wanted. There are more places to visit, of course, and hopefully I can begin to knock some of these off my list year by year.

But as I reflect on things, there aren’t many that I wish I had done. Except one.

I wish I’d learnt to play the guitar.

Well, I can almost hear you screaming at the screen ‘Go on, there’s still time’. And being retired I guess I do have (in theory) time on my hands. But frankly, I don’t really have the aptitude – nor the patience.

The guitar was – and continues to be – such a democratic instrument. How many thousands of young men got hold of a guitar in the 50s and 60s, learnt a few chords, and escaped from their quite humble backgrounds? And that continues today, although I have to confess that my music appreciation somewhat atrophied in the 1980s and earlier. My elder brother Ed was given a guitar in the late 1950s, and although he did master sufficient chords for us to play skiffle, I’m not sure how proficient he really did become.

But I love listening to guitar music. So here are some of my ‘guitar heroes’ (who seem to be about my age!) and some favourite tracks (sorry about the adverts on the YouTube clips).

Mark Knopfler
Here’s a young Mark playing Sultans of Swing, that Dire Straits classic, in a 1978 Old Grey Whistle Test appearance on the BBC.

I saw him in concert at Birmingham’s LG Arena in May 2010, just after I’d returned to the UK after retiring from IRRI. What a concert! Mark has moved away from a purely rock focus, evoking a broader folk and country base to much of his current music-making. But whenever you listen to a Mark Knopfler song/tune, there’s no mistaking it. He has a way of introducing refrains into the melody that are just so typical. Listen to this track (just click the title) Cleaning My Gun – you’ll hear what I mean. But Whoop de Doo is perhaps an even better example.

Lyndsey Buckingham
What more can I say? One fifth (one quarter now) of Fleetwood Mac, his guitar playing is truly inspirational. And his song writing is not bad either. Taken from the 1977 classic album Rumours, this has to be my favourite track: Go Your Own Way, filmed during their 1997 The Dance reunion concert:

I saw Fleetwood Mac in concert in St Paul, MN in 2003. Pity that Christine McVie had already left the band by then, but a night to remember. Read an earlier post about Fleetwood Mac.

Eric Clapton
When has Eric Clapton not been around. It’s said that Clapton became a superstar when he found his voice, when he had the confidence to believe in his own abilities as a musician and singer. Hard to choose a favourite track, but this comes pretty high up – Cocaine:

David Gilmour
I’m a big Pink Floyd fan, and it never ceases to amaze me how Gilmour’s musicianship added so much depth to PF songs. The track Comfortably Numb demonstrates just what I mean; sadly no longer available on YouTube from the Live 8 concert.

Of course, there are others I could also include in my top list: George Harrison, Jeff Lynne (and also read this recent post), Brian May (Queen’s The Show Must Go On with the inimitable Freddie Mercury), Tom Petty (Free Fallin’), Joe Walsh (he’s riffing in the background on this Eagles track, Life In The Fast Lane), and Carlos Santana (Samba Pa’ Ti). I never was a Jimi Hendrix fan (although I can appreciate his musicianship). And George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Tom Petty came together in the wonderful Traveling Wilburys (with Bob Dylan and the late Roy Orbison).

On the other hand, the outstanding folk/blues duo of the late Bert Jansch and John Renbourn (both of Pentangle fame) have to be on my list, somewhere. Ed had the vinyl LP Bert and John, released in 1966, which unfortunately was stolen from me when I lived in Costa Rica in the 1970s. I now have it as the CD After the Dance, released in 1992. But which of the great 15 tracks to single out? I think it has to be Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.

Here’s Rolling Stone’s take on the 100 Greatest Guitarists.

On the classical side, I very much admire John Williams. You would enjoy this CD (Sony SK 53 359), The Seville Concert, recorded in the Royal Alcázar Palace. And it includes Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. There’s quite a lot of music out there, originally composed for the lute, and now transcribed for the guitar.

What is the link between Jeff Lynne, Armchair Theatre, and Hobart, Tasmania?

Jeff_Lynne-Armchair_TheatreIn 1990, Jeff Lynne released his first solo album – Armchair Theatre. I’ve been a fan of Jeff Lynne and the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) for many years. During the 70s I used to listen to cassette tapes of ELO’s Greatest Hits that my brother-in-law Derek had recorded for me from his vinyl LPs. So many great tracks: Mr Blue Sky, Wild West Hero, Confusion, I’m Alive, and Calling America, among many.

I didn’t have a CD player in those days, so my first copy of Armchair Theatre was a cassette tape version, and I almost wore it out in the first few months. Seven songs were Jeff Lynne originals, including the excellent Lift Me Up.

One, Blown Away, was a collaboration with Tom Petty (with whom he’d later form the great Traveling Wilburys, with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Roy Orbison), another was written by Jesse Stone (Don’t Let Go), and two others were iconic compositions: Stormy Weather (by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen) and September Song (by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill).

When I moved to the Philippines in July 1991 I treated myself to a new Pioneer mini-audio system, with tuner, cassette deck and CD player. Before I left the UK, I purchased my first two CDs: Greatest Hits by Fleetwood Mac, and another of the same name by the Eurythmics (I’m a great Annie Lennox fan). I shipped my LPs (and deck) and all my cassette tapes, including Armchair Theatre.

Everything was fine for a few months, but quite soon I began to detect a deterioration in sound quality, and discovered that the dreaded mould was beginning to grow all over the tapes. In fact, in the very humid Los Baños environment, many things were attacked by mould, and we eventually lost quite a number of audio tapes, and VHS tapes.

One of these was Armchair Theatre, so around December 1996 or 1997 I decided to replace it with a CD version (7599-26184-2). But to my disappointment, I discovered that it was no longer listed for sale by Reprise Records.

Where to find a copy? Surely someone, somewhere would have a CD for sale? I did a thorough Internet search (pre-Google) and located just one CD – in Hobart, Tasmania! And this story came back to me earlier this morning because Tasmania was mentioned twice on the BBC news, with reports of the devastating bush fires there, and the defeat of British tennis player Laura Robson in the first round of the Hobart International.

I’m not entirely sure of the name of the CD store in Hobart – I think it was Aeroplane Records on Victoria Street. I may be wrong. Anyway, I contacted the proprietor by email, and ‘did the deal’. But I still wasn’t sure how to have it delivered to the Philippines. I was slightly concerned that it might disappear in a ‘customs black hole’ in Manila, and wondered if it might be better to have it sent to the UK instead.

Jean-Louis Pham

But then I had a huge stroke of luck. By coincidence, one of my colleagues in IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center, Dr Jean-Louis Pham, was taking his family to Australia for the Christmas break that year, and would be spending more than in week in Tasmania – in Hobart. And it transpired that their hotel was just around the corner from the CD store! My CD was left at the hotel reception for the Phams, and Jean-Louis duly carried it back to the Philippines for me in early January.

And I’ve been enjoying the music ever since. As I said earlier, Jeff Lynne went on to form the Traveling Wilburys with others, has produced records for his fellow Wilburys, and obtained full rights to the ELO name and brand. He released Zoom under the ELO name in 2001, and did all vocals, backing vocals, electric guitars, bass, keyboards, cello, and drums himself (even though there were some guest musicians).

Funny how a news sound bite can bring such memories flooding back.

Thanks to Lufthansa . . .

When it comes to classical music, I like what I like. And that usually means Haydn, Bach, Vivaldi, Boccherini among others, Mozart of course, Beethoven, and my favourite composer – Chopin. I’ve never been much of an opera buff, but gradually, over many years of travelling, did come to appreciate quite a spectrum of this genre.

Travelling and classical music?

Well, during the 1990s (when I was working at IRRI as head of the Genetic Resources Center), I often had to travel from Manila to Europe, mostly to Rome. And at that time – initially for convenience sake, but later by choice – I travelled with Lufthansa. I was fortunate to be able to travel on Business Class for these long flights, and soon picked up a huge number of air miles, enabling me from time-to-time to upgrade to First Class. I quickly achieved Senator status with Lufthansa/Star Alliance. Alas, I have virtually no miles left. I either used them for upgrades or they expired (quite a devaluation) when the rules were changed.

It was on one of these flights back to Manila, after an intermediate stop in Bangkok, that I and a colleague from a sister center ICLARM (now the WorldFish Center) were the only passengers on the upper deck of a 747-400 in First Class. It was before 9/11 and I was given the opportunity of sitting on the flight deck for the landing in Manila – a fantastic experience. And one I was to experience a couple of years later on an Emirates 777 flight from Dubai when, after having visited the flight deck for a chat with the captain and first officer, I was invited back for the landing!

But I digress. I haven’t flown Lufthansa for many years now, because I moved to Emirates as my preferred airline, since it also flew the route MLA-DXB-BHX (Birmingham) and that’s what we took on home leave. It was more convenient to build up an air miles association with Emirates – it began expanding its routes into Europe in the late 90s and into the new decade. In any case, Lufthansa stopped flying to Manila.

The in-flight entertainment on Lufthansa was rather good, especially the classical music channel. And this is what I used to listen to religiously and, as a consequence, began to build up my classical CD collection based on what I’d heard on these long intercontinental journeys.

Among the ‘highlights’ that I heard, and invested in, are:

  • Rossini’s La Cenerentola, featuring Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, released by Decca in 1993 (436 902-2), with the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. I was absolutely (and I use this description advisedly) blown away by her voice and this particular aria Non piu mesta. The video of the aria is not the recording, however.

  • Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, written in 1762, and recorded on Philips (434 093-2) in 1991. The part of Orfeo is played by a counter tenor. In the recording I heard, Orfeo was sung by Derek Lee Ragin, with the Monteverde Choir and English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. The link below is from this recording, and features Ragin singing the famous aria Che faro senza Euridice.

  • Kiri Te Kanawa singing the music of Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) in the soundtrack to the film The Sorceress. This was recorded in 1992 with the Academy of Ancient Music under the direction of Christopher Hogwood. It was released on Philips (434 992-2). I discovered a complete video of The Sorceress on YouTube.

  • Swedish virtuoso trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger playing the Trumpet Concerto in E flat by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). This was released on Philips (420 203-2) and was recorded in 1986, with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, under the direction of Sir Neville Marriner. The CD also has trumpet concerti by Hertel, Stamitz, and Hummel. This video is not, however, the same as the CD recording.

Were we that restless?

I have just finished reading a very entertaining book, The Restless Generation by Pete Frame (see my 5 April post). The sub-title is How rock music changed the face of 1950s Britain. It’s definitely worth a read if you get chance – I left the important book information in the other post, at the end.

Pete Frame discusses the roots of rock music in Britain during the mid- to late-1950s, the personalities involved, and the development of the various music genres – and the opposition to and lack of understanding of this music by the powers that be in the BBC and the music recording industry. It’s also interesting to know how few (of the thousands) of young men (and just a handful of women) who took up the guitar actually ever made a success in show business. And to a certain extent the book relates how they were exploited by the industry.

The traditional jazz revival, spear-headed by Ken Colyer and Chris Barber really lies at the roots of skiffle music in Britain, and its further evolution into rock ‘n’ roll. Barber in particular has to be credited with bringing over to the UK many American black musicians who had a rhythm and blues background, especially from delta blues as they developed into southern Chicago blues. Rock music (and the recording of music) was way ahead in the USA. Early rock musicians in the USA had access to recording studios and instruments (such as the Fender Stratocaster, for example) which were just not available in the UK. And, more importantly, record producers who understood the music.

Skiffle (headed by Lonnie Donegan) led to rock ‘n’ roll, to folk, to the blues, alongside the continuation of jazz of course. In the USA the evolution moved towards bluegrass as well.

Famous rock singers in the UK were Tommy Steele (featured on the book cover), Marty Wilde, Cliff Richard and Billy Fury.

But what’s also interesting is how the various musicians moved back and forth between groups, constantly falling out, making up, moving on – and sometimes achieving fame. And another thing – how young many of them were when they started, only 15 or 16 in some cases.

But don’t take my word for it. Go and find a copy of The Restless Generation, and have yourself a good read. You won’t be disappointed.

The Beatles, Lonnie, and me . . .

If you visit The Beatles Story in Liverpool, you will see this photo (taken in about 1958) in one of the exhibits. Two small boys – one playing guitar, the other (literally) on tea chest bass – entertaining their Mum and Dad and two friends, Geoff and Susan Sharratt.  That’s my elder brother Ed and me on guitar and bass. The reason why will become apparent as you work your way through this post. Incidentally, through this post, I’ve reconnected with Geoff and Susan after more than 50 years!

Fast forward three years to November 1961. I became a teenager. Time to rebel, join the throng.

Trouble was, the infamous rebel years of early rock ‘n’ roll in the UK had come and gone, and passed me by. The rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon first hit the UK around 1956 with Bill Haley & His Comets (he of the kiss curl) with Rock Around The Clock, that had teenagers all around country dancing in the aisles – and elsewhere. The Establishment (and the musical press) was outraged. Elvis was still big of course; Tommy Steele had made a name for himself, and others like Marty Wilde, Cliff Richard, and Billy Fury would take up the cause.

It was just 15 months before The Beatles would have their first No. 1 with Please Please Me in early 1963, and followed by She Loves You in August that same year (I was 14 by then and vividly remember the electrifying moment when it was debuted live on black and white TV), one of the fastest selling singles of all time, and immediately cementing the reputation the the band.

But in the mid- to late-fifties there was another genre that influenced hundreds of musicians and, for a few brief years, was one of the biggest musical crazes in the country.

That craze was skiffle, a fusion of rythm and blues, folk, and country that originated among African Americans in the southern states of the USA, but which was given an upbeat treatment over here. The term ‘skiffle’ was apparently coined by Bill Colyer, elder brother of jazz cornet/trumpet player Ken Colyer, who had led the traditional jazz revival at the end of the 1940s. After a spell in New Orleans immersing himself in jazz, Colyer managed to get himself deported from the USA (for breaking Louisiana segregation laws), and on returning to the UK became a member of a ready-made band that had been formed by jazz trombonist Chris Barber. To attract Colyer to join they agreed to call the band Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen. But rather than spend time writing about this, let’s hear Ken Colyer himself talk about those early days in an interview with George Melly in 1980.

In the rhythm section was a young banjo player, Anthony Donegan, who was to become one of the most influential musicians of the 1950s, and change his name to Lonnie (as a salute to black blues and jazz guitarist, Alonzo ‘Lonnie’ Johnson). Well, for whatever reason, Colyer fell out with the entire rhythm section of the band, especially Lonnie Donegan, and wanted to fire them. Instead, he ‘left’ the band, and was replaced by trumpeter Pat Halcox who would remain with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band (in its many guises) for many decades*.

During the interval at jazz gigs, The Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group would play, with Lonnie on guitar and vocals, Barber on double bass, and Beryl Bryden on washboard (watch the videos at the end of this post, taken from a 1991 TV program This Is Your Life, and has Lonnie with Beryl Bryden and Chris Barber reunited in Part 2). Released on Decca in 1956, Rock Island Line (first recorded in 1937 and popularized by black blues artist Lead Belly) was a major hit, and the first of many for Lonnie Donegan.

Skiffle took off in a big way, and was soon being emulated by young boys (and some girls) all over the country. Skiffle was accessible. All you needed was a cheap guitar (and learn some rudimentary chords), a tea chest bass or washboard for rhythm, and you were in business. Apparently at one time there were 700 skiffle groups in Liverpool alone, among them The Quarrymen fronted by John Lennon.

And that’s how my elder brother Ed and I got into skiffle. We had fun, and on occasion we’d be rolled out to sing in public. I hate to think what we sounded like, but we were always politely received.

We sang Lonnie’s songs: John Henry, It Takes A Worried Man, Cumberland Gap, Digging My Potatoes (all about infidelity and oral sex – I wonder if we or our parents had understood the lyrics we would have been allowed to sing them), Putting On The Style, and my favorite, I Shall Not Be Moved.

Now, back to The Beatles Story. In developing the exhibits the curators wanted to tell the story of skiffle and how that had been a major influence on budding musicians in the 1950s, including The Beatles. And trawling the Internet, they came across the photo of Ed and me on his personal web site, and asked permission to use it. Below is the first version of the exhibit display they shared with us, but it has changed in some of the text and captions subsequently.

My nephew Alec took the next two photos on a recent visit to The Beatles Story. That’s my great-nephew Sammy standing in front of the display; he’s 10, and 1.40 m tall.

And here is Ed’s guitar, more than 50 years later, minus a couple of strings.

It was made by Alfredo Albertini of Catania (Italy), although on the metal saddle it does say Made in West Germany.

Ed developed a real passion for jazz, particularly for the music of Chris Barber and Duke Ellington. He’s one of the webmasters for the Official Chris Barber site. I moved towards traditional folk music for many years, and particular folk dance. Now my tastes are quite eclectic, as I have discussed in recent posts (on being a castaway; Fleetwood Mac; AKUS). But it’s interesting to know how many musicians today owe their roots to Lonnie Donegan and skiffle (such as Mark Knopfler, for example).

Lonnie in later years
In 1991, Lonnie was the guest on the popular TV series This Is Your Life. Here are two videos (Part 1 and Part 2)  from YouTube, with Lonnie reunited with Rock Island Line colleagues Chris Barber and Beryl Bryden (at the end of Part 2). Chris Barber talks about Lonnie and the band at the end of Part 1.

Click to watch Lonnie being interviewed by the late great John Peel at Glastonbury in 1999. Lonnie died of a heart attack in 2002.

And if you want to read more about the music of the fifties – and the influence that Lonnie Donegan had on a whole raft of musicians – I thoroughly recommend The Restless Generation, by Pete Frame, published in 2007 (ISBN 978-0-95295-407-1). It’s available through Amazon for about £12.50, and in the USA for $22-30 (also on Kindle). It’s a highly entertaining, amusing, and an ever-so-irreverent account of the rise and social influence of jazz, skiffle and rock ‘n’ roll.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*Chris Barber turned 80 in 2010, and is still playing after more than 60 years. He has probably had more influence on jazz and popular music than any other musician in the UK in the 20th century.