The Demise of “The Word”

I’ve written several times before about my reading habits of magazines and comics, most notably here. I used to be a real mag junkie, subscribing to around twenty monthlies at the height of my addiction. These days, apart from a couple of literary quarterlies, the only one I still subscribe to is The Word.

I’ve read Word, as it was first called, from issue one (left), subscribed from issue 3, and looked forward each month to it plopping onto the doormat.

I was really shocked when the announcement came at the end of June, that the mag was folding, and that issue 114 (below) of The Word, as it became, would be the last.

Always more than just a music mag, Word also included all areas of popular culture – films, TV, and even gave pages of space to books each month.  Longer in depth articles combine with short ones, reviews, regular columns, and the always hilarious Worst … and Best pages each month.

The Word’s demographic was essentially anyone who grew up with Q magazine, graduated to Mojo, and then started looking for something else, away from the big corporate publications.  That something was The Word – an independent magazine developed by the team who started Q and Mojo – David Hepworth (who blogs here), and edited by Mark Ellen, whom many of you will know from The Old Grey Whistle Test.  The calibre of the writing has always been wonderful and Hepworth, Ellen and co with their long experience in the music industry have wonderful contacts.  Regular columns from Andrew Collins (who blogs here), Rob Fitzpatrick et al have always been a joy to read.  The free CD which was brought in several years ago has always delighted too – concentrating on less well-known artists.

The last issue arrived while I was on holiday, and I’ve devoured since. It is as wonderfully eclectic as usual – what other magazine would juxtapose an in-depth interview with Robert Smith of the Cure, with a shorter piece on book cover designing with David Pearson (who designed the Penguin Great Ideas series amongst others).

I shall miss The Word.  I loved its mix of subject matter; I don’t feel the need to read dedicated music and film mags any more these days – The Word fitted the bill perfectly for me.

If you’ve never read it – Get it while you still can! 

Hot Rats, it’s Zappa …

The Real Frank Zappa Book by Frank Zappa.

Not so much a memoir as an appealing opportunity to “say stuff in print about tangential subjects” this book is an absolute hoot.  Forthright,  and by turns and hilarious and serious, Zappa is a brilliant host as he intersperses anecdotes from his life with his views on music, musicians, politics, life in general and rock’n’roll. While I only own one Zappa album (Hot Rats), I have encountered lots over the years, being partial to his jazzy infusions.  What always comes over is that for someone obsessed with sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock’n’roll in his song lyrics, he’s deadly serious about his craft.  I wanted to share a couple of contrasting extracts with you to show the measure of the man (bad language alert!)…

On Conducting an Orchestra:
“From the podium (if the orchestra is playing well), the music sounds so good that if you listen to it, you’ll fuck up. When I’m conducting, I have to force myself not to listen, and think about what I’m doing with my hand and where the cues go.”

In 1975, Zappa ended up in court in London over a thwarted plan to get round the musician’s union rules on pay-scales for recordings with an orchestra, by hiring the Albert Hall for a rehearsal for a concert which was permitted. When one of the orchestra members apparently complained that the lyrics they were playing to were obscene, the concert was cancelled a trial ensued at the Old Bailey. The following excerpt is hilarious (well to me anyway)…

“Q: Then “She painted up her face,” to which objection has been taken. What do you say about that?
A: (Zappa) Well, I think that this is an important piece of material, lyrically.
Q: What is the concept about it?
A: To my knowledge, it is the only song in the repertoire that deals with the subject of a girl who is a groupie.
Q: What is a “groupie“?
A: A “groupie” is a girl who likes people in a rock-and-roll band. She likes them very much.
JUDGE: She likes what very much?
A: She likes “the members” of the band very much.
Q: A sort of fan, like a football fan?
A: Only of “the members.”
Q: Like film stars have fan mails?
A: Yes
JUDGE: I did not gather that. I thought you said that this delt with a girl who was in fact a member of a rock-and-roll band.
Q: No, my Lord.
A: I am sorry: girls who “follow members“.
JUDGE: I.e. a follower?
A: Yes.
Q: A sort of fan.
A: Shall I continue with an analysis of this song?
Q: Please do do.
A: It is the only piece of material that deals with a look of the motivations of the girl. Many groups have done songs about groupies, but coverage of that subject has been superficial and the lyrics to this song represent some kind of landmark in the way in which the subject has been dealt with.
Q: Is it intended as a serious song?
A: Well, I would say it is as serious as anything else I do.”

This was one of those books that had sat in my bookcase for several years, and I only picked it out initially to decide whether to put it in the charity pile. But I started reading and got engrossed. This book’s a keeper! (9/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Real Frank Zappa Book by Frank Zappa (with Peter Occhiogrosso). Picador pbk, 1989, 352 pages.
Hot Rats CD – 1969

A Hollywood Musical Interlude

Hooray for Hollywood at the Proms with the John Wilson Orchestra

I was lucky enough to manage to get tickets for my Dad & I for what will be the musical event of the year for me –  to see the wonderful John Wilson Orchestra playing music from the golden age of Hollywood musicals.

This is Wilson’s third annual visit to the proms with his invitation orchestra and singers.  In 2009 they gave us an evening totally devoted to the MGM musicals – the scores of which Wilson and his team had had to re-create – the originals were lost.  Last year, they played Rodgers & Hammerstein. This year we got a grand tour of fifty years of Hollywood musicals with a brilliant array of songs from all the other major musical producers.

Wilson’s orchestra is something else! His handpicked orchestra produce a sound that is truly amazing.  The strings are so lush, the brass have a fantastic timbre, there’s a huge percussion section, a big band rhythm section, two pianos and two harps!  All this goes to make a truly authentic Hollywood sound and they are also the tightest orchestra I’ve seen. What’s more, all the players are really enjoying playing the music – even when they’re chugging away in the background accompanying the others.  They’re augmented by a small choir, the Maida Vale singers, who also sounded lovely.

Then there are the soloists – drawn from the world of Big bands, West End & Broadway musicals, and opera.  All were matched up with songs that showcased their own styles, and all were brilliant in their own ways.

The highlight for me was Broadway star Caroline O’Connor, who was in the Sondheim prom last summer. She sang Judy Garland’s The Man Who Got Away amongst other songs. During the encores, she did a near perfect Ethel Merman impression in There’s no business like showbusiness which brought the house down to end the show on a real high.  The jazz singer Claire Teal did a lovely job of Doris Day’s love song from Calamity Jane, Secret Love, she sounded rather like k d lang .  Lyric tenor Charles Castronovo charmed the whole house with Serenade from The Student Prince (1954).  The lighter songs were mostly sung by Matthew Ford, (new to me, but has sung with the Syd Lawrence orchestra for some time).  He had a lovely softer voice with a lot of humour, and dared to take on Dick van Dyke’s mockney accent in the one Disney song in the mix – Funny Holiday from Mary Poppins. Then there were the two sopranos, Sara Fox trilled the high notes in a Deanna Durbin number, and Annalene Beechey sang the lighter fare. Some of the men from the chorus also got little cameos and they ably stepped up to the mark too.

All in all it was a magical evening. John Wilson is a both a genial conductor, and a musical genius for recreating all the lost scores, and I cannot overstress how brilliant this orchestra is – if only my shaky flashless photo taken on my phone was so good! Our seats were great – in a box on the Grand Tier halfway down the side – we had a wonderful view.

The good news is that the concert will be broadcast on the BBC on Saturday 3rd of September.  I am so looking forward to seeing it all again from a different angle.

The other good news is that the CD+DVD of the first MGM musicals concert is now out too – click for a link to Amazon UK: That’s Entertainment: A Celebration of the MGM Film Musical.  The orchestra is also on tour in major UK cities at the end of November (click here for dates and more info).

… and finally, reading the programme, I saw that Wilson and his orchestra recorded the soundtrack for Kevin Spacey’s biopic of Bobby Darin – Beyond the Sea [DVD]. I thought this was a brilliant film, and Spacey sang all Darin’s songs with aplomb too!

I do hope he’ll do another show next year!

Hornby does it again!

Juliet Naked by Nick Hornby

I don’t know how he does it, but there’s something about a Nick Hornby book that so hooks me that I feel part of the story – I can always identify with some of the characters.

Juliet Naked is the story of a lost rock star, a completist fan and his partner.  Annie and Duncan have reached that point in their lives where their shared love of the reclusive US rock star Tucker Crowe isn’t enough any longer.  Duncan, one of the world’s foremost Croweologists is obsessed by the man, his music, his lyrics, his concerts; Annie’s interest is waning – she needs more than this from life – a baby is at the top of the list.  Meanwhile Tucker had walked out of a tour some years ago, leaving the world of rock’n’roll to his fans. He has been living quietly since, raising a brood of alienated children all by different mothers.  Ever the commitment-phobe, he is gradually realising that his latest relationship with the mother of his six year old kid Jackson won’t last either.

The release of the demo sessions from Crowe’s best album ‘Juliet’ as ‘Juliet, Naked’ that is the catalyst for change in all of their lives.  Duncan raves about it, Annie hates it preferring the honed final version, and unusually for her she posts a review on the net and Tucker reads it and emails her.  This schism is driving a wedge ever further between Duncan and Annie and when Duncan is unfaithful they split; anyway Annie is becoming rather entranced by her growing virtual relationship with Crowe, who will come into both their lives in reality soon…

Hornby’s big themes of lives wasted, mid-life crises, that families require work, and obsession are worked out in his characteristic fluent and witty style with some moments of pathos thrown in.  He is sympathetic to all of them, yet doesn’t let them get away with it, they have to suffer the consequences of their actions.  He knows them, understands their needs and obsessions (as I felt do I!),  and this makes for an engaging and satisfying read with all ends tied up neatly.  As a companion piece to the wonderful High Fidelity, if you liked that you’ll certainly enjoy Juliet, Naked which could be seen as the next chapters in the lives of Rob and Laura. The main characters here being that bit olde,r and needing to do that last bit of growing up with their mid-life crises, make this a wistful and bittersweet book which may be of less interest to bright young things, but will surely resonate with more mature music fans!

(8.5/10) I got given this book, but would have bought it anyway!

To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
Juliet, Naked
High Fidelity

The World of Ephemera #4

Sorting through mountains of papers, one happy discovery has been a folder containing many of my childhood drawings and doodles that my Mum had kept.  It has been absolutely wonderful to be reunited with them, and indeed a real trip down memory lane as I can remember many of them. My daughter has been especially interested as there are loads of fashion designs, (very late 1960s into the ’70s – all flares and bright colours).

Digressing for a moment, one of the things I’m nowadays very proud of, is that we were a musical family – we all played the piano and, Dad played (actually still plays) the organ, I did violin, little bro later did trumpet, and Mum always sang in choirs.

Alongside that, we were going to the regular Childrens’ Concerts at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon – introducing us to the lighter side of classical music at an early age.  I got the trips to the ballet too – seeing one of Margot Fonteyn’s last performances in Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker every Christmas.

Then from about the age of eight, I got taken to the Opera. I did love sitting up high in the Amphitheatre at the Royal Opera House and Coliseum.  Again we started off with lighter fare by Rossini with The Tales of Hoffman  and The Barber of Seville, before moving on to Mozart’s Magic Flute.  Now going back to those drawings, I obviously enjoyed the costumes in this production, as there is a whole set of them – but here’s Papagena.

Still on a musical vein though, I also found this snatch of ‘song'(!)  My hand-writing around 1970 era.  I have no recollection of penning this tuneless little dirge though – I can only hope it was to entertain my brother or as an exercise for my music theory exam I would have been sitting around that time. 
The Lyrics read:

I’m a G-nu, A G N U,
No-bod-dy loves me
Ev-rey bod-dy hates me,
I have no friends.
chorus
We don’t hate you
We all love you
You are our friend.
So there.

Do you think I Should enter it for the Eurovision Song Contest? 😀

Russian echoes of Waiting for Godot

The Concert Ticket by Olga Grushin

The story in this wonderful novel was inspired by a real event – that of the eighty year old Stravinsky returning to Russia in a ‘for one night only’ comeback concert; the queue for tickets started a whole year before.

Set in an unnamed Russian city some time during the height of the totalitarian regime, the streets abound with kiosks selling various goods.  When Anna discovers a new kiosk with a queue already forming, despite it being shut and there’s no indication of what it will sell, she bags her place, and thus begins a marathon that will involve her entire family. Anna is a school teacher, her husband Sergei is a frustrated professional musician who was assigned to play the tuba after the ‘change’, and student son Alexander helps out too. Rumours spread that the tickets will be for a special concert featuring an exiled composer, and each member of the family dreams of what they’d do if they got the ticket.

The line develops its own life, becoming a complex social structure, with myriad families all holding their allotted place – all taking shifts in waiting to get the single ticket per place. One of its members wonders what’s really going on …

‘All I’m saying is, it’s a very efficient way of disposing of people’s time, don’t you see? Thousands of us, some waiting for stockings, others for symphonies. But what if there aren’t any stockings, what if there aren’t any symphonies, so to speak? What if all of this is just a means to keep the masses occupied and hopeful – a cheap solution to the problem of time?’
‘Wait, does this idiot seriously believe that the State is maintaining a system of phony kiosks just so we waste our time waiting for things that don’t exist?
‘No, no, I’m not claiming that’s how it is, I’m only saying it philosophically. Like a metaphor, a metaphor of life, do you understand?’
‘Well, metaphor or not, this smells of subversion to me. You’d do well to keep your voice down – ‘

Waiting in the line becomes an obsession for all of them. Their jobs suffer, they don’t talk to each other any more except to arrange shift patterns. They begin to display all the traits of addicts – the line is their life now, their neighbours in the queue replace their families; the line is the only place were hope still lives. Whiling the hours away in the line is preferable to anything else. There is much philosophising about time and Sergei muses with himself and his neighbours in the line …

‘Here’s a question for you: Does waiting make time move faster, or slower?’
‘Slower of course. Everyone knows that time flies when you’re happy, but when you’re waiting, each moment crawls by.’
(Each moment, they say. Ah, but moments are akin to snowflakes, no two alike. Some extend back like powerful microscopes, zeroing their light on some spot in the past, until the recollection, bright, enlarged, is spread for your contemplation as if under glass. Others remind you of that curiously unpleasant mathematical paradox, that hapless runner trying to reach point B from point A in eternal increments of half the remaining distance, doomed never to attive at his destination, the units of time sliding one out of another life endless smaller compartments hidden in larger ones, again and again and again, suspending time in an agony of futile anticipation. Then, of course, there are others, light and enjoyable, fleet and indistinct like dreams, like delightful whooshes down a slide in some forgotten park, like so many of their moments spent waiting, spent daydreaming, here – if they but knew it. Here, then, is a better question for you: If you’re happy when you’re waiting, what happens to time then?)
‘Me, I just can’t help wondering – we’ve given up almost a year of our lives for one or two hours of enjoyment. Is it worth it?’

I really loved this book. It felt so authentic – well the author is Russian; she perfectly captures the dreary lives of people just trying to get by under the regime but always dreaming of better things – and we get to live their hopes and aspirations with them. Like Vladimir and Estragon, Beckett’s two tramps in Waiting for Godot, the waiting is what they do best, with the lure of things happening tomorrow.

I definitely want to read Grushin’s first book, The Dream Life of Sukhanov having read this fantastic novel. (9.5/10) I bought this book.

N.B. This book has also been published with a different title – ‘The Line’ outside the UK.

I was a ’70s teenager!

As I’m currently reading a real chunkster with some way to go, I thought I’d post about music today.

I was born in 1960 (I don’t feel that old mind!), so my teenage years spanned the whole of the ’70s. I can’t help but look back on the decade through rose-tinted glasses, and will forever remember the 1973 Christmas Top of the Pops. Once glam went out of fashion, pop was never so much fun again. Luckily we do get nostalgia trips on the box now and then; and the TV series Life on Mars was pure joy with its soundtrack from my youth. Glam and disco were brilliant, but punk largely passed me by – I veered off down a folksy, soft and prog rock route, but please don’t hold that against me!

So today, pop-pickers, we have my top ten 70s singles, chosen as my 1970s teenaged self. I compiled a list of songs I adore; ultimately all these songs still have their hooks in me. They’re songs I can still remember most of, if not all, the lyrics to; songs whose guitar riffs, sax and keyboard solos, even drum breaks, I still have a tendency to mime to; and they are all songs that make me feel happy or send a little shiver down my spine. Some good criteria for picking great pop singles, and I hope you’ll agree that not everything about the ’70s was bad!

1. Dec ’71 – Horse with no name by America. At 11yrs old when this came out, I was almost a teenybopper; David Cassidy was to become my idol of choice! However later at about 16, I and my classmates at my all-girls school discovered US folk/soft rock together in a big way with Bread, John Denver, and of course America. Several of us had guitars and we used to sing and strum every lunchtime, broadening our previously Beatles dominated repertoire with songs such as Horse with no name – which has an irresistible strum-along riff and la-la chorus. It’s B-side Sandman had an even better guitar part. Unfortunately America weren’t to go on and repeat this chart success but did produce a string of well-received albums that I still enjoy.

2. Jan ’72 – American Pie by Don McLean. This is a rare thing – a narrative semi-acoustic pop song with literate lyrics crammed full of cultural references and it’s 8.5 minutes long. It shouldn’t have worked perhaps, but the almost throwaway last line of the first verse is the killer – “the day the music died”. It was another of those lunchtime singing session songs for us schoolgirls. McLean has always refused to explain the song, however it is generally accepted that it is a tribute to Buddy Holly and commentary on the lack of good time music since that fatal air-crash fifty years ago. (Apparently it starts in mono and ends in stereo, but I’ve not checked that out). You can find a fascinating analysis of the lyrics on don-mclean.com, his official fansite.

3. May ’75 – I’m Not In Love by 10CC. Best known for uptempo numbers full of ironic humour, this superb bittersweet love song marked a change for 10CC. It couldn’t have been a hit without Eric Stewart’s breathy, plaintive voice, enveloped by synthesizer swirls. It’s a beautiful sad song and just thinking about it now brings a small lump to the throat – one of the best-ever love songs without a doubt, and for me the greatest song that 10CC ever crafted.

4. Nov ’75 – Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. Arguably one of the greatest singles ever with that groundbreaking video, BR is pure opera. My brother got me the sheet music for Christmas – it might be worth a fortune now if I hadn’t written in transposed chords to play it in an easier guitar key (it was written in E-flat). However, I digress; imagine the scene with me at the piano being Freddie Mercury playing with all the flourishes, and singing at the top of my voice. This is the ultimate singalong magnum opus whether you’re alone at the piano or with your mates and their air guitars in the car – Party on dude!

5. Feb ’76 –Rain by Status Quo. Quo were massive in the 70s and we frugged along to all the hits. Three chord wonders or not, they rocked, and being a local (South London) band we were all fans; I was drawn to Francis Rossi’s sideburns and waistcoats rather than the blonde locks of Rick Parfitt. This hit is more bluesy than its predecessors, slightly slower, and with a fourth chord or more it’s my favourite from the Blue for You album. We, like the band, were all denim clad by then; trying to find the widest flares – I had some superb brushed denim Brutus bags I seem to remember, aah – those were the days.

6. Apr ’77 – Hotel California by The Eagles. The Eagles blend of country rock with pop sensibilities was never better than in Hotel California. Though I loved this song in the seventies, I love it even more now as it has taken on mythic status for us. My other half was on a job in Norway which kept getting extended, and the little guest house where he stayed took on the mantle of being where “you can check out any time you want but you can never leave”. What a killer lyric – Nuff said!

7. Dec ’76 – Haitian Divorce by Steely Dan. The Dan’s only top twenty UK hit struck a particular chord with me; not least because I’d just found out that the guy I fancied from afar for ages was into them. This was a possible way in? Needless to say that romance never worked out, but I did fall in love with Steely Dan. I adored their cleverness, the tightness of the groove, and the nasal tones of Donald Fagen’s voice, although I can remember being shocked when I first found out where their name came from (if you don’t know, don’t ask, ditto 10CC!). Haitian Divorce was very different from the rest of the chart fodder at the time, so this stood out from the crowd for me.

8. Oct ’77 – She’s Not There by Santana. This version of The Zombies’ 60s hit is one of those rare covers that is better than the original. Giving it the Santana Latino treatment with a great organ accompaniment provides a backdrop for some blistering guitar & keyboard work towards the song’s climax. I later bought the 2CD Santana Ultimate Collection only to discover that this song is on CD2, along with all the duds rather than on the brilliant CD1.

9. Aug ’78 – Three Times A Lady by The Commodores. I turned eighteen in May ’78 and as there were loads of 18th birthday parties around then, I decided to make mine an end of summer celebration before we all went off to university or back to school instead, and held it the first weekend of September. This track was number one and was just the classic smoochy single I needed to make the party a success. It took me a while to track it down though – all the usual shops in Croydon had sold out.

I splashed out and also bought Jilted John (left) and Quo’s Again & Again. All three singles went down a treat, and I think I got my slow dance to The Commodores (but with whom I can’t remember). I’m told the party was a hit and it must have been OK as we only had a couple of part bottles of Cinzano left at the end.

10. Dec ’78 – Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick by Ian Dury & the Blockheads. Dury and Chas Jankel took punk and funked it up. Sheer brilliance. Witty lyrics full of double entendre delivered in Dury’s half-singing, half-talking style helped to take this to the top spot. Ian Dury provided some musical relief from the excesses of punk that I really enjoyed. He is sorely missed.

And that makes ten. What didn’t make it? Well there were a few hard choices and in the end I left out: Got to get you into my life – Earth, Wind and Fire (fab Beatles cover); Metal Guru – T.Rex – My dad hated this!!! Follow you follow me – Genesis, just a little too soppy; Bridge over troubled water by Simon and Garfunkel; and sadly somehow neither of the Davids – Bowie nor Cassidy made it either – I wasn’t a Bowie fan in the 70s, not getting into him till later on.

What are/were your favourite singles of the 1970s?

John Martyn R.I.P.

Just heard that one of the greats of jazz-folk John Martyn has died. He was only 60 and was made an OBE in the New Years Honours just recently.

I never got to see him live, and only really discovered his music in 1991 when he released The Apprentice as it featured Dave Gilmour, but that was a good starting point to work back from. Solid Air was perhaps his greatest classic album with its title track written for Nick Drake, and Grace and Danger his most personal, however my personal favourite is Cooltide from 1992 which was really jazzy, and has an absolute classic track in Jack the Lad.

R.I.P.

Mummy, what’s your favourite song? …

… asked daughter Juliet, who since her Dad bought some noise cancelling headphones has been glued to the family iPod. Well, where to start? I couldn’t possibly choose just one song, so in time-honoured Desert Island Discs fashion will try to limit it to eight! Here they are, in no particular order:

Everybody knows by Leonard Cohen from I’m your man which features some incredible poetry along with the ‘Angel Chorus’:

Everybody knows you’ve been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows

Dance the Night Away by The Mavericks from Trampoline. This is my ultimate good-time get up and dance track.

Can’t Take My Eyes Off You by Andy Williams. Perhaps my ultimate sing-along track.

Raindogs, the title track from the album by Tom Waits. My favourite artist ever.

Rain Song from Houses of the Holy by Led Zep which is quiet and lovely and features the most amazing jazzy chord sequence (A flat 9 on the fifth fret slides into G9 – I bought the sheet music book so I could play it).

Afterglow by Genesis from Wind and Wuthering. I know it’s from the Phil Collins era, and I know it’s one of their most soppy songs, but it means a lot OK!

Vincent Black Lightning 1952 by Richard Thompson from Rumor and Sigh. I was a biker chick for a few years (with red leathers) and this narrative song about a man, his bike and his girl is magnificent, especially live!

But, I couldn’t do it in eight because there’s some classical bits I just had to have …

Rhapsody in Blue by George Gerschwin – This Andre Previn version used to be my favourite – lush and romantic. Then I found the Bournemouth Symphony Orch version with Andrew Litton (appears to be unavailable now) which follows the original orchestration closely.

The Tallis Fantasia by Vaughan Williams. This version by the Academy of St.Martin in the Fields with Neville Marriner is superb – the Academy’s strings are always beautiful, and suit this lovely, lovely music so well.

And lastly for some sheer romantic indulgence (as if the two above aren’t enough) – Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2. I couldn’t pick just one movement, I have to have it all! You can’t go far wrong with Ashkenazy playing Rach.

Enjoy the rest of your Sunday!

A Musical Interlude

Tom Waits – one of music’s best-kept secrets…

You may not know his name, but you’ll know his songs – Rod Stewart’s cover of Downtown Train or Springsteen’s Jersey Girl for instance. You may recall a distinctive looking actor in supporting roles in some of Coppola’s films perhaps. What you may not know is his own voice; despite the fact that it is so much his trademark, he famously sued and won when someone impersonated him in a TV advert soundtrack.

To describe his voice as a bourbon-soaked, gravelly barroom growl would be to do him a disservice as it’s far more than that. It’s another musical instrument, but one latterly from the theatre or circus, not from any conventional orchestra.

He’s also been around for a while … first making albums in the early seventies. Songs on his early albums such as Small Change are populated with hoodlums and drunks, pimps and whores, people down on their luck. The arrangements are piano-based with some lush strings, bar-room blues contrast with jazzy basslines.

Then he moved from Asylum to Island records and changed direction with a ground-breaking trilogy of albums starting with Swordfishtrombones in 1983. On this album, his music becomes at the same time – more theatrical and also more guitar and percussion based. In his band, Marc Ribot is no ordinary guitarist having a more avant-garde style, and the percussion includes a wide array of things to hit apart from drums and cymbals – marimbas in particular. Waits himself uses a harmonium, organ or accordion instead of the piano too to create this new distinctive orchestration. His albums from 92’s Bone Machine take the Kurt Weill influence to extremes, being less accessible and more avant-garde in a fairground sort of style (although always interesting) before a return to his 80s style in 1999’s Mule Variations.

…and my favourite Waits album?

It’s Rain Dogs – the sequel to Swordfishtrombones, released in 1985. There is not a single dud track from the first Singapore and the anticipation of a journey just beginning, right to the end and the world-weary Anywhere I lay my head. As usual we meet a motley groups of Waitsian characters from Uncle Vernon in the percussive Cemetery Polka to Brooklyn girls in the sublimeness of the aforementioned Downtown Train. We meet the guys Walking Spanish – prisoners walking down death row and see the seedy side of life on 9th & Hennepin. My personal favourites are Jockey full of bourbon and the title track, both of which are about booze and carousing, and although they’re not lullabies are strangely soothing musically. Several tracks are boosted by the appearance of Keith Richards too. This character-fuelled album is upbeat and uplifting and totally addictive. Listen to this if you don’t believe me …

He did some concerts in the UK earlier this year – the first for ages. But he only gave 2 performances and both were in Scotland – lucky them. Tickets were over £100, but I read the reviews in the music press and it looked like they were worth every penny.

If you want to explore Tom Waits, Small Change, Rain Dogs and Mule Variations mark melodic and accessible places to start from his early, mid and later career respectively – I love all of them.

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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Small Change
Rain Dogs
Mule Variations