Friday 29 October 2010

Up The Revolution - #6

Phil Wilson - God Bless Jim Kennedy
Sometimes the good guys do win, and it’s great news that Phil Wilson’s God Bless Jim Kennedy LP looks like being a real success. Give the record a spin, and a few seconds in you already know this is a particularly perky collection, positively glowing with warmth and humanity. In these troubling times, when everyone seems self-centred and to have a hidden agenda, Phil’s return is especially welcome.
There have been many, many times over the years when I have found myself walking down the street singing one of Phil’s old songs, either a June Brides classic or one from his brief solo career. And there is plenty on this new record to suggest my whistling repertoire will be expanded to feature a few new Wilson wonders. This may not be good news for the world at large, but as someone who considers Hums Of The Lovin’ Spoonful to be the best album title ever it’s a boon to have some new tunes.
Phil’s approach seems breezily easy, but do not ever underestimate how difficult it is to write catchy, classy pop songs. For if it was a simple thing to do our lives might be brightened by a surfeit of snappy turns. Some are gifted, and some are not. That’s the only simple part. Any svengali worth their cut ought to get their poppets and puppets to cover one of the songs on this set, or indeed any gem from the June Brides repertoire. And don’t you raise your eyebrows at me. If Boney M can pluck The Creation’s Painter Man or The Smoke’s My Friend Jack out of obscurity then anything is possible.
Ten years ago I wrote a piece on the June Brides, trying to capture my feelings about the 1980s. I doubt then I would have expected still to be playing Phil’s old songs quite as often as I do, and I am sure I would have been amazed to be enjoying a new LP by Phil as much as I am. What really surprised me on playing God Bless Jim Kennedy is that it is uniquely Phil Wilson. That’s not as daft as it seems. The radio drones on endlessly and it all begins to blur into one, whatever station you listen to, and anyone can be anyone. There’s lots of reference points, but very little identity or individuality. But this new record could only be a Phil Wilson affair. Credit must also go to the sympathetic musical setting, and the welcome presence of Jon on trumpet and Frank on the strings as in days of yore. I am guessing this LP has benefited from being able to take shape slowly and surely rather than a rush recording over a few days under the arches at Waterloo like Phil’s only previous LP. So sometimes the world's indifference has unexpectedly beneficial by-products.
This record may not solve the world’s ills, but it’ll put a smile on your face. If you want some of the ‘Phil-good’ factor, God Bless Jim Kennedy is released on 8 November by Slumberland Records in the US and Yesboyicecream Records in the UK & Europe.

Up The Revolution - #5

Hellfire Sermons - Luminous Crocodile
The best things in life are worth waiting for, so it’s only appropriate that the Hellfire Sermons debut-ish CD is something pretty special. What was it, 1987, the Hellfires’ first single Freak Storm came out? Since then they’ve been a bit like a G.K. Chesterton secret society, whose members convene occasionally. And now their activities are exposed.
For those in on the secret over the years, who have loved the Esurient & Dishy singles, or the (Bus Stop) Hymns: Ancient & Modern collection, the new CD will be a joy as it’s instantly and irrefutably very much the Hellfire Sermons. The only thing that’s changed is that singer Colin Pennington has taken his howls elsewhere. So there’s a little more vulnerability about the group nowadays, but that unsteadiness is very endearing.
For anyone not familiar with the Hellfire Sermons, it’s worth explaining they were once upon a time surfing a new wave that was going to sweep all sorts of old nonsense out of the way. Lots of hopes were resting on them, but they and arguably their labels did their best to confound expectations. This was a time of great debate and theorising. The state of pop was closely studied, and it was agreed that there was a specific strain of music that went through The Action, Easter Everywhere, through Chairs Missing , Fast Product/Pop Aural, The Fall, New Order’s Movement, the Go-Betweens’ Send Me A Lullabye, James’ Hymn From A Village, Who’d Have Thought by Hurrah! And that this pop tradition could be captured in an equation defined as P.E.P.S. That is Pop x Edge x Punch x Depth. The Hellfire Sermons had that in abundance. A magic formula.
Hellfire Sermons may still be the strangest band in the land. And they still have it (P.E.P.S.) in abundance, actually. There is still a gripping battle between melody and havoc, sweetness and abrasion. And they continue to get the balances right. Very right. This is still how pop should sound more often. Even when they’ve given the world every opportunity to catch up, the Hellfire Sermons out-pace everyone. The content is as oblique, abstract, cutting and pointed as ever. The tunes are as irresistible too.
It would be tempting to go on about individual songs, but they are all instant classics. And so it’s time to take up placards and take to the streets to spread the word. You need this record. Trust me! For lovers of modern dance and snappy turns, Luminous Crocodile is out now on the group's own Hidden Heartbeat label.

Thursday 28 October 2010

Up The Revolution - #4

Spectorbullets - Spectorbullets (Mayakovsky Produkts)
The world needs more records that provoke a response of: “What was that all about?” So Spectorbullets’ debut CD seems to be timed very nicely. Artfulness and absurdity are, after all, good weapons to use in the war on complacency, convention and careerists.
Spectorbullets is a creative collaboration between Scottish pop legend Russell Burn and (NYC-based) Swedish singer/songwriter Gustaf Heden. Given Russell’s record with the Fire Engines and Win, Spectorbullets’ approach was never going to be orthodox. And somehow Spectorbullets suggest something of the ‘lost’ cabaret tradition, in the true tavern/cafe ‘let’s put the show on here’ sense of improvisation, agitation, immediacy and irreverence. It’s easy to imagine the duo as part of a show that provokes and pokes fun, with dancers and chorus and chaos, where it’s hard to distinguish performers from spectators.
Musically, occasionally, there is a suggestion of fingerclickin’ cool rockabilly swing which will appeal to devotees of Vic Godard’s What’s The Matter Boy? with the odd wild waltz thrown in. The undervalued yet astonishing series of LPs Pere Ubu made for Rough Trade in the early ‘80s would be another handy reference point. Generally, Spectorbullets can be as sardonic as Snatch, as sassy as Sparks, and as swaggering as Svenonius. Those who have cheered on the Fiery Furnaces for years from the sidelines will approve of the ambitious approach, and the rush of words and noise.
The duo’s DIY driven determination to leave (or add) in the rough edges is to be commended. Spectorbullets realise there is no sense in trying to compete with the young entrepreneurs and ambitious pop apprentices. There are other battles worth fighting. And being able to ‘indulge’ their artistic appetites on the new Mayakovsky Produckts is worth as much as fleeting success. Having said that, the rush and roar of the recent hit single Mayakovsky it Ain’t (Chaos It Is) already has the feel of a pop classic and is incredibly infectious in that nagging Nectarine No. 9 way.
The label itself, Mayakovsky Produkts, is a partnership between Russell and writer Innes Reekie. It’s to be hoped they’re urging each other on to be more absurd, arch and antagonistic. For now, the Spectorbullets CD is a great start, and a lot of fun.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Reggie King - R.I.P.

It would be wrong not to pay tribute to Reggie King on this site, as I doubt there would even be a Your Heart Out without him. I have written elsewhere this week about Reggie, for Caught By The River, about how much he meant to me. I have also written various things about Reggie and The Action over the years, such as this piece for the Tangents site. When I wrote the tribute this week, I desperately hoped it would be some horrible misunderstanding, but the news proved to be true. Yesterday I went to Reggie's funeral, in a small chapel in Bexleyheath, just off Church Road where many years before Dave Godin started his Tamla Motown Appreciation Society. The minister spoke of how even at the end Reggie was charming the nurses, singing to them, and still sounding great. One of Reggie's own songs went: "Heed my words and don't give in ..." I made a vow yesterday never to give in, Reggie. This is a piece of film widely seen now, but I remember being given a copy in 1993 and thinking it the most astonishing thing I'd ever seen. Just as I thought when I first heard The Ultimate! Action compilation in 1981.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

From Your Fear ... collected

The From Your Fear edition of Your Heart Out is a collection of posts published during October 2010. The idea was to have a series of linked pieces on a particular theme, and see how things developed. With a Bob Dylan song in mind, and an eye on the news, the gypsy theme was chosen, and this is how things worked out.

Monday 25 October 2010

From Your Fear ... #12

Charles Godfrey Leland seems to have been one of those indefatigable, eccentric and extraordinary 19th Century explorers, travelling the world thirsting for knowledge and adventure. He had a great fascination for folklore, and took a special interest in gypsies. Among his writings is the 1888 book, The Gypsies, which captures his experiences of meeting gypsies in many countries, including Russia which prompted him to write:
“The real medium, however, between what I have, for want of better words, called wild and tame music exists only in that of the Russian gypsies. These artists, with wonderful tact and untaught skill, have succeeded, in all their songs, in combining the mysterious and maddening charm of the true, wild Eastern music with that of regular and simple melody, intelligible to every Western ear. I have never listened to the singing or playing of any distinguished artist and certainly never of any far-famed amateur without realizing that neither words nor melody was of the least importance, but that the man's manner of performance or display was everything. Now, in enjoying gypsy singing, one feels at once as if the vocalists had entirely forgotten self, and were carried away by the bewildering beauty of the air and the charm of the words. There is no self-consciousness, no vanity, all is real. The listener feels as if he were a performer; the performer is an enraptured listener. There is no soulless ‘art for the sake of art,’ but art for direct pleasure.”
Over the years many have shared Leland’s rather romantic view of the gypsy lifestyle. Van Morrison, for example, was known for searching for the gypsy in the soul, dancing round the campfire light, and his Caravan uses the obvious imagery and why not? And then there was Kevin Rowland claiming to be The Wanderer, like his father before him. Back in Russia, shortly after Leland’s study of gypsies appeared, Maxim Gorky had a short story published called Makar Chudra, which tells the story of the gypsy girl Radda and the horse thief Zobar. In 1975 this became the basis of the Soviet film known as Queen of the Gypsies or Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven, directed by Emil Loteanu, with music by Yevgeni Doga. It was a major success in the old Soviet Union, and achieved a degree of recognition abroad. More recently it has gained a new lease of life, albeit in fragmented form, via YouTube where the song Loli Phabay or The Red Apple has become a cult favourite.
The appeal of that particular song and scene, and the film in general, has much to do with the astonishing performance and perfect casting of Svetlana Toma as Rada. One other unforgettable scene, among many, in the film is the performance of the song Nane Tsoha by child star Alyona Buzylyova, who would go on to become a successful gypsy singer. Appropriately the legendary gypsy star Lala Black also has a role in the film. But it is the presence of Svetlana Toma as Rada that is so compelling, with her refusal to submit to nobody.

Saturday 23 October 2010

From Your Fear ... #11

Numerous Northern Soul favourites feature a gypsy theme. A song that has something of a tenuous connection is one of many Wand wonders, Billy Thompson’s Black Eyed Girl, which found a whole new audience after it appeared on Dancing ‘Til Dawn, one of the greatest of the early Kent soul compilations in the 1980s.
Black Eyes or Dark Eyes is the English translation of Ochi Chyornye, an enduringly popular Russian gypsy ballad, which started life in 1843 as a poem by the Ukrainian writer Yevhen Hrebinka, and 40 years later was set to a tune composed by Florian Hermann, which some will no doubt argue has its roots elsewhere: “Dark eyes, flaming eyes. They implore me into faraway lands. Where love reigns, where peace reigns. Where there is no suffering, where war is forbidden .. .”
The song has been performed by numerous people, while some have become closely associated with it, like the gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt (in France it’s known as as Les Yeux Noirs) and the extraordinary Polish singer Violetta Vilas. Back in 1917 the Russian writer Alexander Kuprin cited Dark Eyes as one of the “last flickering flames of gypsy singing” which had seemed so alive to him 25 years previously. In an article On The Passing Of Gypsy Song in Russia he argues: “What they offer us to-day from the stage and in cabarets, under the alluring name of a ‘gypsy ballad’ has lost its blood-connection with the gypsy camp and has been shorn of the spirit and very essence of that strange and mysterious tribe.”
Kuprin’s complaint seems strangely familiar. It would be interesting to know what he made of the success of the Russian gypsy singer and actress Lala Black (or Nadia Kiseleva, as she was born to her nobleman father and gypsy singer mother) whose life seems to have been as colourful and as dramatic as the stories written by the 19th Century Russian writers. Graduating from early productions by the famous, pioneering gypsy Romen Theatre in Moscow, like Life On Wheels, Lala found great success just before WW2 or The Great Patriotic War in the film The Last Camp, and her song The Drifter (or Rolling Stone) was a massive success. The Drifter, of course, is another title that will make Northern Soul sit up and sigh wistfully. After WW2 and until her death in 1982 Lala seems to have known all extremes of success and popularity, and her beauty and work still seems to inspire passionate panegyrics.
Kuprin would find much to inspire him in the contemporary collection Russian Gypsy Soul, put out by the Network Medien label as part of a gypsy-themed series of CDs. This is an extraordinary set of recordings, which covers an awful lot of ground, from the sacred to the profane, the traditional to the twisted. The Russian Gypsy Soul compilation is targeted directly at the world music market, which is understandable, but it does mean some adventurous souls will miss out on a collection that will meet their cravings for the unpredictable and uncompromising.

Thursday 21 October 2010

From Your Fear ... #10

“From nowhere, through a caravan, around the campfire light, a lovely woman in motion with hair as dark as night. Her eyes were like a cat in the dark that hypnotised me with love.”
There are few better things in life than the sound of Curtis Mayfield singing with The Impressions. Kent Records did the world a special service in the 1980s by making The Impressions’ 1960s recordings available again. Apart from the group’s sweet, sweet harmonies Curtis possessed the gift of making the familiar spark into life anew, and when he sang about a gypsy woman dancing to a guitar melody the image is so strong.
It’s well documented how influential The Impressions and in particular Curtis Mayfield were in the development of reggae, particularly during the rocksteady era when exceptional vocal outfits and singers thrived. There have been many Jamaican interpretations of Curtis’ compositions, such as Queen Majesty which was covered countless times. The fascinating thing is that even the reggae experts seem unsure why Curtis Mayfield made quite such an impression on Jamaican performers.
Gypsy Woman is another Curtis creation that has been widely covered, by Joe Bataan, Bobby Womack, The Persuasions, Jay &The Americans, and Bryan Hyland, among others. In Jamaica it was most famously covered by Slim Smith with the Uniques. It may be sacrilege to say so but Slim’s singing is somehow even more magical than Curtis’. There is something of an edge to the sweetness, and what is known about Slim’s own tragic story adds to the mystique.
There have been plenty of other reggae related covers of Gypsy Woman. Marcia Griffiths twisted things slightly to sing about her Gypsy Man. And the Mighty Diamonds, Milton Henry and Junior English are among those who have recorded fantastic versions. The gypsy theme is also a recurring motif in Jamaican music. Back in the days of bluebeat and ska Derrick & Patsy sang about another Gypsy Woman, as did the Prince Buster-produced Frank Cosmo, while Errol & His Group had a track on Bluebeat entitled Gypsy. Tony Gregory and Eddie Lovette later had success with Gypsy Girl, with Eric Bubble sang Fe-Me Gypsy.
The Jamaican gypsy motif may not need to be examined too closely. Around the world gypsy is shorthand for romance and mystery and wildness and freedom, and thus perfect for reggae music and its rebel soul. And yet Romany historians will be able to tell tales about how in days long ago Spain deported gypsies to the West Indies, and England and Scotland similarly sent gypsies to the Caribbean. There are even tales of freed slaves owning gypsies in Jamaica. If, however, you read the story of how Tony Gregory came to write Gypsy Girl you get more of a sense that it was something that felt and sounded right. And he might have had something because at the time many a living room around the world was decorated with a Charles Roka reproduction of a painting on an ‘exotic’ gypsy girl theme, much to the disgust of the serious art audience.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

From Your Fear ... #9

David Essex has done more than most to improve the public’s perception of gypsies. He has won over hearts and minds as a romantic Romany charmer of a pop star and in his official role as Patron of the Gypsy Council. Nevertheless the UK’s popular press persists in portraying the gypsy, Roma and traveller communities as feckless felons out to steal the land from under our feet.
David’s Rock On remains one of the greatest and strangest debut 45s of all time. It catapulted David into the pop stratosphere where he would remain. Hot on the heels of his appearances in the stage musical Godspell and the film That’ll Be The Day, Rock On was the perfect introduction to a unique talent. The pop audience instantly took to David’s disarming, cheeky Cockney persona, and his thinking tinker Jack-The-Lad gypsy charm. But what still gets lost is the sheer oddness and invention of his hits, even though in the ‘90s he was celebrated by a number of pop acts like Saint Etienne, Denim, Happy Mondays and Massive Attack.
On the first few David Essex LPs his teenybopper audience will have heard some curious cuts, which were a right old mix of Caribbean, Latin, Gospel , Music Hall, and the good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll that saved his East End soul. It helped having seasoned session men on board like Chris Spedding, the guitarist whose remarkable story spans free jazz, John Cale, Linda Lewis and The Wombles, via The Vibrators who appeared on TV with him when he performed his Mickie Most-produced hit Motorbikin’ . Spedding also produced the Pistols’ first demos.
The title track of David’s third LP, All the Fun Of The Fair, captures something of the enduring, strange fascination with fairgrounds which is that mix of bright lights and fun rides mingled with the greasy glamour of impending violence. Fairground folk, the travelling showmen, fortune tellers, and bare-knuckle fighters are among the clichés of gypsy culture in the UK, though quite what proportion of people involved with fairgrounds today are from a Roma background is very much open to debate.
Among the people who have helped gypsies in the UK find a voice was the writer, film maker and social campaigner Jeremy Sandford. He is remembered most for Cathy Come Home and Edna, The Inebriate Woman, but among his other works was Gypsies. Published in 1973 this was an attempt to allow gypsies to explain themselves to the wider world. It was updated and reprinted as Rokkering To The Gorjios in 2000 at the same time Sandford released a film, Spirit Of The Gypsies, celebrating the music and lifestyle of gypsies in the UK. David Essex and his (Pavee) mother featured in the film, and David is quoted as saying: “My mother taught me always to be proud and never to deny that you are a Gypsy. Gypsies are free range people and Gypsy songs are songs of the open road, of wandering and of liberty. A land without Gypsies is a land without freedom!”

Sunday 17 October 2010

From Your Fear ... #8

When writers resort to using the word ‘diaspora‘ in a pop context it’s time to take to the hills. Diaspora, however, can reasonably be used in relation to the spread or migration of a race, such as the Romany families. While origins remain muddled and scholars tie themselves up in knots, there is naturally Romany representation throughout Europe and beyond, where the same issues recur, raising questions about perception, persecution, integration, education, and so on.
And where there are gypsies there is music, but that’s not straight forward either. While some maintain traditional art forms, others embrace the pop culture of the time and place, while some celebrate the best of both worlds. In Poland, for example, Ewa Demarczyk emerged in the ‘60s with her dramatic ‘sung poetry’, perfectly looking the part with her striking presence, raven black hair, and her extreme dramatic performances of gypsy-themed numbers such as Cyganka . On the other hand there is Michal Burano, whose background was Lovari, a long-established Romany family. He can be seen in his ‘60s prime with astonishingly passionate performances such as Ja po tobie nie placze, where he comes across as a Johnny Ray or Gene Pitney figure with the intensity and exoticism magnified one hundred times.
Finland is another country with a long-established Romany presence and no doubt ongoing issues. It’s also a country with a far more interesting pop tradition that it’s given credit for. Among the performances featured in the trans-global pop project Anywhere Else But Here Today is Anneli Sari, a singer from a Roma background. She is featured at a very young age exquisitely performing the Rolling Stones’ As Tears Go By. Ever since Marianne Faithful’s version appeared this has become a song that lends itself perfectly to feminine interpretation. There are clips readily available, for example, of Nancy Sinatra, Nara Leao, and Jackie De Shannon performing the song, while of course there is also the immortal footage of Marianne seated in a bar singing it in Godard’s Made In USA.
Among other female performances of Stones songs is Vashti’s Some Things Just Stick In The Mind. She, of course, would in time become infamous for her romantic lifestyle choice, fleeing London and travelling around the Hebrides in a little green gypsy caravan with her boyfriend Robert, a horse called Bess, and a dog named Blue. Ironically latter-day Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood did come from a Romany family. And Keith Richards has acknowledged there was a bit of a gypsy thing going on in several Stones classics, such as Paint It Black and Mother’s Little Helper. It must have been a lingering influence from the gypsy families who made a home on Dartford Heath or Crayford Marshes.
In the mid-‘70s Anneli Sari openly acknowledged her Romany or Finnish Kale roots by recording with the gypsy group Hortto Kaalo, and appearing in a pioneering TV special performing selections from the sessions. Anneli’s work with Hortto Kaalo is really delightful, and intriguingly there seems a strong French chanson influence in there too.

Friday 15 October 2010

From Your Fear ... #7

Emir Kusturica’s Underground has been credited with sparking an interest in Gypsy Beats and Balkan Disco, which somehow makes you believe in the human race all over again. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to see this film at the cinema or later on video or DVD will surely have been consumed by a sudden overwhelming passion for the Balkan brass band sounds that are used so effectively on the soundtrack. The music was created by Goran Bregovic and his use of the Balkan gypsy sounds eerily, illogically summons up suggestions of Mandrill, Pigbag, Fela, Bar-Kays, and something fundamentally anarchic and punk rock.
So it’s an appropriate soundtrack for a visual feast of a film that tells the story of firm friends Blacky and Marco from the eve of the Naxi/Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, through the resistance activities of Tito’s Partisans where as absurdly flawed Robin Hoods they cause as much mischief and disruption as possible while profiteering, through the post-WW2 non-aligned Communist era of ‘power, corruption and lies’, and the bloody madness that followed the fall of Communism. It’s a sprawling epic of a film, but it contains some of the most glorious scenes in cinematic history. The moment, for example, where Marco is fighting a collaborator is priceless, as Blacky joins in with the line: “No guys, we don’t play that way.”
Tito’s own instructions at the time, in response to the atrocities committed in the name of the Nazis, were for the different factions in Yugoslavia “to rise like one man in battle against the invaders and collaborators, murderers of our peoples. Do not falter in the face of any enemy terror. Answer terror with savage blows at the most vital points of the Fascist occupation bandits. Destroy everything – everything of use of use to the Fascist invaders.” That was the way Blacky and Marco did play, albeit by some very flexible rules.
Underground as a film had a wider than expected audience after winning the Palme D’Or at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. It was not, however, the first time Kusturica and Bregovic had worked together. The soundtrack to the 1988 film, Time Of The Gypsies, was another of their much-loved collaborations, which again draws on the Balkan gypsy musical traditions wonderfully effectively and irresistibly.
There have been some amusing spats in recent years over the use of what can be loosely called Balkan or gypsy inspired sounds, with some concerned about exploitation. There have been those that have taken exception to Bregovic and Kusturica profiting from plundering the Roma musical heritage, as if they were a modern day musical version of the racketeers Blacky and Marco. The role of authenticity and adaptation in music is such a tricky issue, and one as old as the gypsy race, where it’s just as difficult to trace truth and origins. There is a case to be made for the rip-off of Roma music, but for the purists there are plenty of collections of original gypsy music from 78s, field recordings, etc. in circulation. While, for others, something like the Underground soundtrack could be the entry point to a whole new musical world.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

From Your Fear ... #6

Yugoslavian actress and singing sensation Olivera Vuco took Paris by storm in the late ‘60s with a series of 72 sell-out shows at the Olympia. Legendary figures such as Salvador Dali and Gilbert Becaud vied to pay homage, record companies fought for her signature, and no doubt poets were moved to write passionate verses for her. And with Olivera’s striking looks and compellingly sultry voice it’s easy to understand why she inspired such devotion.
Olivera, who also used the professional name Olivera Katarina, was for a while in the ‘60s and ‘70s incredibly popular in the former Yugoslavia for her unique performances of folk and gypsy songs from around the world. If you track down any of her recordings from that era, or watch any of the performances restored to life on YouTube, then it’s hard to resist becoming addicted to her larger-than-life magical blend of the exotic and elegant.
Yugoslavia itself at the time had a thriving music scene, which drew considerable inspiration from the UK and USA. There is a story to be told about how, for example, black American soul and r ‘n’ b had such an impact on a generation of performers in an eastern European communist country. Some of the contemporaneous covers were anything but obvious: Nada Knezevic, for example, doing a glorious interpretation of Garnet Mimms’ Cry Baby, and the astonishing Josipa Lisac (with the group O’Hara) singing The Temptations’ You’ll Lose A Precious Love.
So, in a way, Olivera’s style of performing was out of step with the new pop, tapping into something very different and far more ancient. She actually trained as a drama student in Belgrade, and oddly enough Olivera’s early musical influences seem to have included Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, so her story is not a simple one of growing up performing Balkan folk and gypsy songs in out-of-the-way cafes. But Olivera is wonderfully full of contradictions. Her vivacious presence can be misleading, for on record her vocal delivery can be spellbindingly chilling. Nowhere is this is more evident than on a remarkable 1968 EP which contained four ballads, with words by famous poets. Among these was Balada o Vijetnamu (Vest sa Juga...), based on a Te Hanh poem about the My Lai massacre, which is quite extraordinarily moving and haunting, capturing the horror perfectly.
As an actress Olivera’s most famous role is in the 1967 film I Even Met Happy Gypsies, written and directed by Aleksandar Petrovic, using traditional Romani language and music. The film was an international success, picking up prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, where Olivera also got to perform, apparently alongside Dionne Warwick. Ironically many years later the flamenco rumba outfit the Gipsy Kings would initially find success playing to the Cannes set. Father (spiritually and literally) of the Gipsy Kings, Jose Reyes with Manitas da Plata, can be seen on video performing for an entranced Brigitte Bardot and indeed Salvador Dali. It’s interesting to consider whether Jose’s path ever crossed with Olivera’s. What a perfect combination they would have made.

Monday 11 October 2010

From Your Fear ... #5

Anyone attracted to the Achilifunk - Gypsy Soul 1969-1979 collection and anticipating Van Morrison-style mysticism and Romani romanticism will be disappointed. Anyone, however, who has ever been bewitched by Bataan, Barretto, boogaloo and Fania fun ‘n’ frenzy will be delighted by this Spanish set.
Gypsy soul? Flamenco funk? Andalucian or Catalan rumba? While it’s likely the listener will be too busy hipshaking, fingerclicking, footstomping and handclapping to worry about appellations and authenticity, it’s easy to see how the music on this set would drive an ethno-musicologist to despair when the sounds seem to have absorbed just about anything going. The relation to the art of flamenco may be strained, but that irreverence is part of the fun of it.
There is an irony to a Cuban musical form flourishing in Franco’s Spain. Musical seeds are scattered on the wind, and take root in the unlikeliest of places. The Cuban rumba form embraced Spanish and African roots, and it’s amusing to see how rumba rebounded and flourished in parts of Africa and Spain. Rumba was particularly popular in Senegal, for example. And many people with a passing interest in global sounds will be familiar with the Orchestre Baobab’s legendary Pirates Choice collection. If for some the moment of musical maturity is when they realise they have more Neil Young records than they have LPs by The Fall, for others it will be when the rumba soaked sweetness and charm of Pirates Choice overrides the yen for something more obviously awkward and African.
One of the stars of the Achilifunk collection is Peret, whom the writer Alexandre D’Averc describes as “mould-breaking gitano genius, Pere Pubill i Calaf, his majesty Peret, who was to become the undefeated heavyweight champion of the rumba catalana. Peret crossed that local sound with his own great conception of music - colorful sounds, with flavors borrowed from every type of Caribbean music. Here was a Romany James Brown look-alike, who shook his hips in a way that even Elvis himself would have to admire. His records on the Discophon label sold like hot cakes en the early seventies, and in the wake of his success a whole generation of artists appeared on the scene. These were performers who had the know-how and the skills earned from hard graft under countless marquees and at neighborhood parties.”
Search for more Peret on YouTube and the chances are you will come across the revolutionary work of the TV director Valerio Lazarov, who left Rumania to work in Spain in the late 1960s. Hunt around and you will find his early TV production El Irreal Madrid, the title and content of which give a clue to Lazarov’s approach. During the 1970s he must have caused quite a stir in Spain with his disorientating techniques, surreal settings, and delightfully deranged dance routines, which were way ahead of their time in terms of pop presentation. Speaking of being ahead of its time, the music on Achilifunk (which covers a lot of ground) was so far ahead of its time Beyoncé and her Single Ladies have only just caught up.

Saturday 9 October 2010

From Your Fear ... #4

Stumbling uniformed on a clip of Las Grecas dancing along to their hit Te Estoy Amando Locamente it’s tempting to think: “Aha Baccara”. But anything more than a brief glimpse reveals how wrong this reaction would be. The girls’ singing and dancing, in perfect unison, almost disinterestedly, is mesmerising, and the combination of their strident voices and the wailing rock guitar suggests something very different than the Euro-pop norm.
Investigating further it becomes clear Te Estoy Amando Locamente was a massive hit in Spain in the mid-1970s, and remains a karaoke favourite there. Logically it would have formed a part of many holiday makers’ Costa Del Sol soundtrack, and yet it didn’t ‘crossover’ and remains, with its accompanying LP Gipsy Rock, pretty much unknown and unavailable in the UK, which is intriguing. There are not even that many facts about Las Grecas available in the English-speaking parts of the web.
It is possible to learn Las Grecas were sisters Carmela and Tina Muñoz Barrull, gipsies from Carabanchel Bajo, on the outskirts of Madrid. The two sisters, ignoring family opposition, appeared at many popular flamenco venues in the Spanish capital where they were seen performing by producer José Luis de Carlos, who signed them to CBS, and came up with the idea of putting them with a bespoke hard rock band, formed by the best studio musicians of the time. It was an international group which included Caribbean percussionists and a Portuguese guitar player, Johnny Galvao, who would become their main arranger. The repertoire was pretty varied too, ranging from funky flamenco to a cover of Brazilian ‘young guard’ legend Roberto Carlos’ Te Amo, Te Amo.
The sound on Gipsy Rock and other Las Grecas recordings is pretty unique. At times there seems to be an Arabic/middle eastern feel to the girls’ singing in its eerily dispassionate harshness. Another reference point would be Ruth Copeland’s magnificent recordings for Invictus in the early ‘70s. And the Parliament/Funkadelic connection is not as odd as it might seem, and certainly no more strange than a cover of a Spanish hit (Oh Lord, Why Lord by Los Pop Tops) appearing on the first Parliament LP.
Later Las Grecas recordings have more of a disco feel, though these still don’t really have the populist appeal of the cosmopolitan Common Market-produced Baccara, who were a Spanish duo, discovered in Germany, placed with a Dutch producer and a German songwriter who was married to one of the Liverbirds (beat group). Baccara, as is well documented, have their own unique place in pop history, with Edwyn Collins telling the world that the lyrics of Intuition Told Me So (pt 2) were borrowed from the Baccara hit Yes Sir I Can Boogie, which goes: “Already told you in the first verse, and the chorus …” One of the great enduring moments of Eurodisco.
The Las Grecas story may have had a tragic ending, but there are still some majestic recordings to track down and a film to be made of the Las Grecas story.

Thursday 7 October 2010

From Your Fear ... #3

Gabor Szabo’s Gypsy ’66 was a pretty controversial record in its way. In the context of other Impulse! releases such as John Coltrane’s Ascension and Archie Shepp’s Fire Music it was bold to be performing pop hits of the day by the Beatles and Bacharach in an easy listening/bossa jazzy way. But label boss Bob Thiele and guitarist Gabor Szabo liked taking risks.
Gypsy ’66 was the first solo set by Gabor, but he already had quite a pedigree through his work with Chico Hamilton where he developed his distinctive single string style on sets such as Chic, Chic, Chico and El Chico, as well as the soundtrack for Polanski’s Repulsion. On the record Gabor worked with Gary McFarland, who already had quite a reputation for being brave enough to blend jazz and contemporary chart pop. Lovers of Gary’s work will warm to the arrangements on Gypsy ’66 and in particular the irresistible contributions on flute from Sadao Watanabe. The highlights of the record, however, are the title track and the complementary Gypsy Jam, where Gabor reveals something of his Hungarian origins with performances of a rather more experimental and exotic nature.
The links between Gabor and Gary would continue through to their cult label Skye Records in the late ‘60s, which they ran with Cal Tjader. Mike Alway’s él label and VampiSoul have done some excellent salvage work on Skye’s back catalogue. And Alway stimulated interest in Gabor’s work with a CD release pairing Bacchanal with 1969 for an audience more ready to appreciate the way the guitarist mixed pop with more adventurous aspects.
It was, apparently, one of Gabor’s regrets that he wasn’t taken more seriously as a jazz musician. And yet even in the ‘60s his influence was pretty powerful. His influence can be heard in Lee Underwood’s work with Tim Buckley. The Doors were fans, as were Santana. It seems to have been the track Gypsy Queen from Spellbinder, his second set for Impulse!, that seized other artists’ imaginations. And among those that covered it would be Leon Thomas, on his 1972 Blues And The Soulful Truth LP for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label.
Hearing Leon Thomas sing The Creator Has A Masterplan, on Pharaoh Sanders’ Karma LP for Impulse!, is one of the great pop experiences that people need to go through. Hearing Louis Armstrong joining Leon Thomas to sing The Creator Has A Masterplan is another life-affirming revelation, but that’s another story. It must have been tough for Leon Thomas living in the shadow of The Creator Has A Masterplan, so it’s worth making a case for his interpretation of Gabor’s Gypsy Queen. This ten-and-a-half minute virtuoso performance comes complete with all the howls, yelps, yodels, and speaking in tongues you would wish for. Leon’s extraordinary singing on Gypsy Queen is underpinned by Stanley Clarke’s fluidly funky bass and Airto’s dancing drums, complete with firecrackers that never cease to surprise, and if this combination doesn’t make the listener dance in an abandoned fashion ...

Tuesday 5 October 2010

From Your Fear ... #2

Tim Buckley’s Lorca remains a remarkable record. 40 years after its release, Lorca retains the ability to surprise. It is easy to take Tim’s works for granted, but Lorca still seems to have hidden depths worth exploring.
In his book Blue Melody the guitarist Lee Underwood, Tim’s friend and comrade, included a short but revealing account of the period leading up to Lorca. Memorably Lee describes Tim performing in combat boots, a symbolic act, as he took the fight to the audience. Tim’s struggles to stretch himself and find new ways of expressing himself were not universally welcomed, but it is this quest for the new that sets the Lorca era apart.
It seems to have been a period of frantic self-education, with Lee and Tim seeking fresh inspiration from a variety of sources. Among these Lee mentions the poet Lorca, the jazz avant garde, and modern classical composition. It is easy to identify with the energy and enthusiasm with which they immersed themselves in these strange pleasures. There is a suggestion of kids being let loose in a sweet shop in their approach to absorbing music, which is something increasingly familiar in our digital age.
Among the names Lee mentions which helped to fuel their creative desires are Luciano Berio, Cathy Berberian, Krzysztof Penderecki and Olivier Messiaen. It is as if after the sweetness of the early Elektra recordings they consciously sought strength in dissonance and clashes. It seems that discovering artists in other musical spheres who were prepared to take risks and experiment provided the impetus for them to be bolder and more abstract in their own work.
The bass player John Balkin is credited as a vital catalyst in this process, with his extensive knowledge of avant garde jazz and contemporary classical composition. He also played an absolutely vital part in the recording of Lorca and later Starsailor, with his intuitive bass playing. If you listen to the extraordinary Anonymous Proposition it is as though John is performing a duet with Tim, capturing perfectly what the song needs in terms of colour, and knowing no more is needed. Intriguingly Lee and John met while working with Herb Alpert’s Mariachi Brass. Lee had other similar strange fateful introductions, such as meeting Maury Baker, who would play drums on Starsailor, while they were both working with Zoot Money.
It was a gradual evolution that gave Tim the confidence to improvise and use wordless singing techniques, exploiting spontaneity onstage, when the audience perhaps were really there to hear him sing about dolphins. It didn’t all change overnight. Over a period of time he and his group were able to experiment during certain songs like Gypsy Woman, gradually finding a new voice and sound. It was partly the frustration that came from not capturing on record what they felt Gypsy Woman should be that drove Tim, Lee and co. on. Such an attitude and approach could be deemed pompous and po-faced, so it is worth remembering the fire that burned in the Buckley camp ...

Sunday 3 October 2010

From Your Fear ... #1

As Tragoudia, the Greek-themed edition of YHO, went to press debate was raging about the French government‘s crackdown on Roma encampments. While for some this was a cheap and cynical crowd-pleasing act, for others it had sinister echoes of the Fascist era and the way the Jewish and gypsy populations were targeted.
Tragoudia itself drew to a close with a brief piece on the composer and campaigner Mikis Theodorakis. One of the great man’s works it refers to is his Romancero Gitano song cycle, which he completed in 1967 as the military junta seized power in Greece. This song cycle used Federico Lorca’s poems that were part of his romancero gitano, or if you like ‘song of the gypsies’. Theodorakis identified with Lorca’s tales of the gypsy as outlaw and outsider, finding a link with the way Greek people (and in particular Jews and Communists) suffered under the Nazis. And of course the Spanish people under a Fascist regime after Lorca’s death.
In Tragoudia, mention is made of how Maria Farantouri recorded a selection from the song cycle while in England at the start of the ‘70s, accompanied by John Williams on guitar, accentuating the Spanish themes. While Theodorakis’ own version features far more aggressive, driving rhythms, Williams’ arrangements are more reflective and introspective, even chillingly stark at times. There is a kind of irony for many a listener in that John Williams achieved great success with his recording of the classical Spanish styled composition Cavatina after it was used in the film The Deer Hunter.
Listening to Maria Farantouri sing with John Williams accompanying her, it is hard not to think of Miles Davis and Gil Evans creating their Sketches of Spain, and the way they immersed themselves in the music. The famous Nat Hentoff sleevenotes dwell on Gil as the autodidact, and how he studied library books on “Spanish – particularly flamenco – music and the life of the Spanish gypsy.”
There is a memorable Miles quote in the sleevenotes, which I love: “That melody is so strong that the softer you play it, the stronger it gets, and the stronger you play it, the weaker it gets.” It is maybe for that very reason that I have come to love Arleta’s later interpretation of Romancero Gitano so much. It’s so raw and sorrowful, with just Arleta’s deep voice and the accompaniment of acoustic guitar. Arleta was a real revelation when I came across her work, in many ways the embodiment of the 1960s ‘new wave’ or neo kyma, where Françoise Hardy and Joan Baez met traditional Greek folk songs. There is something so spectacularly sad in her singing that it really feels as though you are intruding listening in. The striking cover of her Sto Rythmo Tou Agera LP from the late ‘60s with her silhouetted, seated and playing an acoustic guitar on a hillside desolate, is just a perfect image for her music.
On YouTube there are a couple of clips of Arleta in the ‘70s where it looks as though she is in someone’s living room performing, and the sound is almost non-existent, which in a bizarre way leaves more to the imagination. And yet it would be wonderful to have footage from that era of her singing selections from Romancero Gitano like this ...

Friday 1 October 2010

Up The Revolution - #3

The Girl With The Replaceable Head - Death In Gateshead
“You’ve either got it honey, or you ain’t” claimed the Rich Kids, and it’s oh so true. The Girl With The Replaceable Head certainly has it. And I need to tell the world about it. Sometimes it’s tempting to write about a record as soon as you have it. Other times it’s better to wait, and write about how you feel about a record after having lived with it for some time. The Girl With The Replaceable Head’s Death In Gateshead is a record I’ve played maybe more than any other over the past few months. It’s something quite beautiful.
It would be a waste of time to describe what The Girl With The Replaceable Head’s record sounds like, who Sylvia sings like, and so on, because many people could take the same materials and not come anywhere near to creating anything as special. So, instead, this is what The Girl With The Replaceable is really like:
· Reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids and imagining what it was like to hear the young Patti sing her poetry with Lenny Kaye playing his guitar in the background;
· Knowing your battered box set of Cassavetes DVDs is worth so much more than any new Apple gadget or accessory;
· Sitting on a crowded bus into town on a wet Thursday and dreaming of driving down to Mexico with Kerouac and Ginsberg spontaneously spouting poetry as the car radio plays jazz in the background;
· The occasional violence you feel towards your home town when you can’t remember what’s keeping you there;
· Hearing those other Nancy & Lee songs for the first time;
· Playing The Long Night Out by the Blue Orchids for the first time in a long time;
· Buying a Richard & Mimi Farina record because you’ve fallen in love with the cover;
· Thinking of the young Jonathan Richman and Robert Quine following the Velvet Underground;
· Understanding why the sequence goes The Fall, Feelies, Fire Engines, Françoise Hardy, Frank Sinatra.
· Knowing intuitively what to leave out and what should never be there in the first place.
In her own words The Girl With The Replaceable’s Death In Gateshead is “an 11 song soundtrack executed to varying degrees of low-fi vibration, played against a backdrop of ‘60s brutalist architecture and small town un-creativity. Lost concrete souls, unwittingly interwoven, all searching for something (who knows what).”
Somewhere in the background Taffy plays a very famous Fender Jaguar. Together Sylvia and Taffy have made me remember why I love pop music. That’s not as daft, or as simplistic, as it seems.
Death In Gateshead is available on vinyl only from outlets wise enough to stock it, or go ask The Girl direct at