Saturday, October 26, 2013
The history of the tea towel in rock occupies a sadly neglected nook in the overall pantheon of the fables of the deconstruction of pop history. Greil Marcus barely touches upon it, Johnny Rogan dismisses it in a paragraph, and only Donovan’s perpetual claim that he invented it on every BBC 4 documentary about the sixties that he can claw his way into briefly keeps the subject hovering athwart the listening public’s consciousness.
Like most people, I first became aware of the phenomenon when watching footage of the legendary rooftop concert performed by The Beatles during the sessions for what eventually became Let It Be. Most people can’t get past the horrific plastic mac Ringo is sporting (possibly one of Maureen’s) but once can tear your eyes away it is clear that he has customised his drum kit by carefully placing a tea towel over firstly the floor tom and then the snare. Before the invention of those little gummy blue pads that you can now attach to your drum heads and in the absence of the gaffa tape first introduced to Liverpool by merchant seamen in the thirties (and then eagerly swapped like gum, chocolates and silk stockings with GIs during the war by impressionable young percussionists throughout the home counties) this was the only way to damp down an overly timbalesque snare. With the experience of unsuccessfully trying to record the drum part for Tomorrow Never Knows while the kit was set up in the revolving door at the EMI offices in Manchester Square (John Lennon apparently wanted it to sound like “…a thousand Tibetan monks all paradiddling on temple drums at once”) still fresh in his mind Ringo would have been careful not to draw any attention to issues with recording the kit, and it is also enchanting to think of him absent-mindedly reading a humorous summary of the laws of cricket, or looking at Giles Martin’s and classmates’ handprints, or perhaps reflecting on some mawkish poetry about a mother’s love whilst shuffling his way through Get Back.
Ringo was not alone in his pursuit of sonic experimentation. Across town Dave Mattacks, newly installed as drummer of incipient folk rockers Fairport Convention was struggling to reproduce the loose sound of Levon Helm’s kit as heard on The Band’s Music from Big Pink. “We ended up draping a tea towel across the snare to mute it – give it that subdued basement feel” he told Patrick Humphries some years later in a conversation recounted in the Fairport biography Meet by the Fridge.
Sometimes the old ways are the best. Only last week I myself was involved in recording an acoustic session wherein le batterie, even lovingly attended to with brushes by our sensitive and attentive percussionist, was overwhelming the delicate nuance of the banjo accompaniment. With a knowing sideways glance and a nod to the long and noble tradition of thinking outside the box our drummer rushed to the kitchen, returning with a lovingly wefted little Fairtrade cotton number which he draped over the snare in order to dampen down the intrusive rattle.
It turns out than in these days of electronic gizmos and digitally-manipulated sound technology, where decades of improvisation and recording expertise and moving the mics and damping the room and tweaking the EQs have been reduced to bits and VDUs, you can now just buy a plug-in.
Friday, October 11, 2013
I gave up all this malarkey once, y'know. I thought, "Well, that's it. I've had a good run, I've made people laugh, I've made them cry, I've stood on stage in Blues Brothers shades and a flouncy scarf, I've won a trophy - maybe it's time to move over just in time for some kid from Framlingham to take over and take on the world. But before I go..."
All of this is true.
Before I went, I thought I should record some songs for posterity. Just pretty basic things - I gave Gibbon a CD of Clive Gregson's Strange Persuasions and told him that I wanted it to sound like that. He had a portastudio and a drum machine and a bass so it seemed like a pretty simple plan. Of course it didn't turn out anything like that.
We did a few things late at night and quietly. We booked a live room for a day. My friend Ross could sing and was willing to get the train up from London for an afternoon. Wendell couldn't really shred but he had a twelve-string Rickenbacker and so I got him to play a solo (the last time I'd done that I'd asked him to try and make it sound like "...a musical box running out of wind on a playground situated in the midst of a post-nuclear wasteland", so I knew he'd be up for something as simple as "I want you to tell me how much you love this person with as few notes as possible").
We later re-recorded this song properly for SftBH III - without drums but with proper keyboards, a fiddle player and a pedal steel. TT (who did some truly lovely work on string parts and piano) always giggled at "This could be the pesticide" and "cokehead" in the lyrics. For the record, it's "Best aside" and "Coquette", but, y'know, whatever works for you is fine by me. While I was clearing some stuff up in the kitchen earlier today Mrs Skirky's iPod happened to be on her favourites list and it came on.
Here it is. https://soundcloud.com/doyoudoanywings/in-my-arms
Friday, October 04, 2013
I am in receipt of a slew of mails and tweets from The New Wolsey Theatre regarding their revival of the so-called ‘jukebox musical’ Our House, which takes the back catalogue of eighties pop funstrels Madness* as a starting point and then weaves a compelling narrative throughout in order to produce a compelling, evocative and fun evening out for all the family. Or, if you’re Ben Elton, involves you dashing off a bewildering load of old tosh on the back of a fag packet in crayon before trousering eye-watering amounts of cash and hanging out at parties with Robert De Niro.
This minds me to recall my own time in musical theatre, playing the part of Hank Jr. Jr. in the stage production of The Perfectly Good Guitars, which played at The New Wolsey, at Ipswich Music Day and the Place des Héros in Arras as part of a cultural exchange. The narrative explored the story of what was originally the Guitare family and followed their fortunes throughout generations of Guitars as they journeyed from their original home in France to Nova Scotia, Maine and finally Louisiana, each new step of the journey prompted by the then-current patriarch of the family becoming involved in an unfortunate “…bit of trouble with a local girl”.
In reality this was simply a scheme cooked up between myself and one Tony James Shevlin after some time idly speculating whether we should form a band simply for the express purpose of being able to put every guitar we owned on stage at the same time – I only had the four to bring to the party but he had half a dozen at least and was able to throw in a couple of basses for good measure. After we’d come up with the name, Shev fleshed out the concept and made a few calls until we had a cast of actor/musicians – Wendell G, TT, Billy-Bob, and the Mandolin sisters (and cousins) Ophelia and Emmylou – with small back stories which meant that we could drop a bunch of our favourite bits of Americana into the mix and have a ball at the same time.
Once we had arranged the set list we allocated showcase numbers to each of the group so that numbers like Steve Earle’s Only When I’m Blue, Tompall Glaser’s Streets of Baltimore, Love Hurts, and Bruce Springsteen’s From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come) fitted snugly into the narrative, each monologue ending with a resigned “…with a local girl” before we kicked into the song proper. It was the latter which gave us the biggest surprise at our first rehearsal when Tony ‘TT’ Turrell, (operating under his regular nickname) burst note-perfect into the rollicking key-change boogie woogie piano solo which closes Dave Edmunds’ version and which we’d previously agreed might be a bit much to drop into someone’s lap given the deadline we were operating under, which was to get the show on at The Wolsey as part of the Ip Art festival that year. After that we all upped our game a bit.
Shev based the show around the concept that we as a group had come to Ipswich to see where Daddy was stationed during the war (he’d been asked to leave after a bit of trouble with…well, you get the picture**) which we affected to be mightily impressed by. He wrote lines based around the gifted happenstance that a few town centre buildings had been recently converted into licensed premises (“They had a theatre, and they turned it into a bar….even the job centre is now a pub!”) and that “They even have a Route 66!” “It’s a bus route Wendell – it goes to Martlesham…”
By making it a show rather than a gig we managed to fill most of the venue on the night and many happy theatre-goers congratulated us on our American accents in the bar afterward – a couple even going so far as to ask us how long we were over for. The trip to France may have slightly confused the non-Anglophone audience, not least because many of the line up were also playing gigs with their regular bands at the same festival (“Eet is ze same singer as yesterday…but zis time ‘e ‘as got a ‘at!”) but probably the finest compliment to our thespian integrity came when we performed at Ipswich Music Day. As we compared notes in The Milestone - about five minutes walk away from the park down the hill - afterwards (“A triumph darling – you were wonderful! Mwah! Mwah!”) the landlord approached us with a mischievous grin playing about his features. “I had one of the people who saw your act in here earlier” he twinkled. “Saw the first two numbers, stomped out of the park, down here, ordered a pint and addressed us all in part and no-one in particular. ‘I can’t stand those fucking Yanks’ he said”.
*Other descriptions are available.
**Allegedly based on why Geno Washington skipped town. Possibly. Yes, that one.