Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Rolling and Tumbling

I’ve always really liked a good song title. Sometimes the nomenclature turns out to be better than the actual song itself. In a former world, where exploring music wasn’t as easy as typing the name of an artist into the right torrent site and clicking a button, titles like Blues Run the Game, or Pushed It Over the End, or Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing were just hints contained within biographies, or photocopied on cassette inserts, or listed on expensive imports in the back of weekly rock magazines. Until quite recently I deliberately saved the experience of listening to Bob Dylan’s "Thunder on the Mountain" as a special treat for this very reason, only to find that it was a pretty standard twelve bar dirge - other opinions are available.

Song titles can be hugely evocative things – I think we all pretty much know what to expect from something called “I Will Always Love You” and “It Was a Hell of a Break by Ray Reardon”, but what about “I Often Dream of Trains”, “Life During Wartime” or “The Kid and the Smoking Gun”? And if you're a writer of any stripe there’s the decision of what to call your song. Do you name it after the oft-repeated line in the chorus, after nothing at all or – and this is my favourite, if only because it throws up an amusing number of pub quiz trivia battles – the last line where it only appears once - "Virginia Plain" or "Up the Junction", say. For a while in 1987 my friend James was plagued by a rash of singles released by established bands just after he’d put the finishing touches to his version. I remember Fleetwood Mac and George Michael sparking particular ire at the time for their releases of "Big Love" and "Faith" respectively.

I liked the idea of Cream’s "Rollin’ and Tumblin’" from the point at which I first became aware of it. As far as I recall, this would have been on a cassette inlay in the footwell of my friend Joey’s Mini van as we pulled up by the Felixstowe seafront sometime in the early 1980’s. I saw some pictures from the gig we played later that day on Facebook recently, as it happens. The song itself was originally (as far as any of these things can ever be satisfactorily concluded) recorded by the splendidly-monickered Hambone Willie Newbern (according to an internet site I just typed the title into) and there are apparently hundreds of extant versions, including one by Bob Dylan, which he’s claimed a writing credit for. When, some time ago now, I came away from a SftBH songwriting session with a CD copy of a piano-heavy demo that Our Glorious Leader had recorded with Tony ‘TT’ Turrell I instinctively knew that the very first words had to be “Rolling and tumbling…” and where we went after that would work itself out. Having seen Eagle-friendly songwriter JD Souther mess up an intro at a live gig in Norwich – I think there may have been a misplaced capo involved - I had scribbled down his rueful response - “I tend to treasure my mistakes” – in my pocket notebook, where the phrase sat for quite a while. Its time was soon to come. I sketched out the rest of the lyric, mailed it to James, and waited for the pollice verso.

We have recorded "Rolling and Tumbling" for the new/next Songs from The Blue House album with a lovely introductory soundscape composed by Paul Sartin - one of The Fragrant and Charming La Mulley’s college chums - which places the song in context before he plays a beautiful adaptation of the part Fiddly has been performing at live renditions in the intro. TT does a lovely sweeping descending arpeggio that wouldn’t scare the horses in Billy Joel’s stables and James picks out a simple single string guitar figure, the naivete of which prefigures the vocal melody to come. In order to presage a suitably stirring finale Tony Winn adopts a West 23rd Street hobo persona to fill out the sound with a marvelous harmonica part which, if nothing else, often gives me the opportunity to do that joke about a mouse walking into a music shop wanting to buy a mouth organ.

I’m hardly on that version, if at all. My backing vocal got replaced by a passing Boo Hewerdine (see the George Clooney in Reverse blog from December 2011) although during a later playback he did apparently look up from his breakfast for long enough to comment approvingly on one of my lyrics, which is something I shall treasure like a mistake for some time to come. We performed the song at Helstock this year and, sans piano, fiddle, and any rehearsal in stead of these absences, there was a lovely frailty about the performance that evoked the original feeling I had, sitting in my car in the dark waiting for the (then instrumental) tune to finish and knowing, just knowing, that this song was called "Rolling and Tumbling".


James Partridge said...

In fact, you are in a chorus line with Boo, but one in which he is somewhat louder.

Do You Do Any Wings? said...

You see now I've got this picture in my head of Boo and me in headbands, singing Marvin Hamlisch numbers.