Carleen Anderson’s soul soothing ‘Peace in the Valley’ opens the eighth mix in the Shoebox Selections series. Do you, by any chance, believe in fate, in the sense that you hear something at precisely the right time? For this was a song (well, let’s call it a prayer!) which I had completely forgotten about until sorting through some old CDs, but it was so very much meant for me at that moment. There’s something in Carleen’s composition, and the way she sings it, that really connects deep inside, and I am not ashamed to say that it got me through a (to put it mildly) difficult time. Even now I cannot listen to this song all the way through without clenching my teeth and fists, digging my nails into my palms, while looking up to the heavens and, through tears, asking: “Why?”.
Listening back to the start of that mix I think it’s pretty evident I was not in a good place. Carleen’s spiritual, The Bees, then that astonishing Charlie Rich recording, his ‘No Home’, with intimations of The Beatles and Rachmaninov, and those devastating opening lines: “And when I needed you to help me, really needed you, you left me … all alone”. Oh boy. Then Blue Orchids’ ‘Conscience’ and I can’t even go there. Just listen. No words needed. And I can recall, a few days after the mix was posted up, sitting on a bench outside a hospital, listening to those songs, weeping, praying for something, for strength from somewhere. And listening to Carlene, to Charlie Rich, to Martin Bramah, I knew they were there, for me, that they’d been there too. What is it Carlene sings? “Hope when there’s sadness. Peace in the valley. Beyond all this madness”.
This song, this incantation, appears on Carlene’s 1998 CD Blessed Burden, on which she is at the top of her game. It feels like it would have been a happy time making that record. It seems to have been a close circle of friends involved: Carleen with Paul Weller, Brendan Lynch, and all the gang. At times, yeah, it strays into ‘heavy soul’ territory, and you can imagine a bit of a Doris Troy or Merry Clayton start-of-the-’70s vibe being aimed for, but at other times Carleen taps into something else, something uniquely spiritual, particularly on ‘Peace in the Valley’.
On this track Carleen is backed by the guys from Push, namely Ernie McKone on bass, Mark Vandergucht on guitar, Crispin Taylor on drums, and Mick Talbot on the Hammond. And, on ‘Peace in the Valley’, what is so remarkable is the restraint, in both the singing and the playing. No guitar solos (thank Christ!). No histrionics. Just layers and loops of rhythm and melody. Maybe taking the group back to their roots (wasn’t there a Weather Prophets connection early on? You might think they were, ahem, oceans apart!) with a metronomic Meters thing going on? It is the lightness of touch that is so striking, just so very beautiful and right.
The other track of Carleen’s which really stands out is the incredible ‘Leopards in the Temple’ which closes proceedings. It’s just Carleen at the piano, accompanied by a string quartet, playing with themes from a Kafka parable, one which is even more relevant post-Trump, Farage, Johnson and the grossly offensive behaviour they have normalised. In a way it perfectly complements Carleen’s words from ‘Apparently Nothin’’, sentiments which seem truer than ever.
Another highlight from the LP is Carleen’s cover of Van’s ‘Who Was That Masked Man?’ It’s lovely, very stripped down, basically just Paul Weller accompanying her on guitar and piano. Come on, I love Veedon Fleece so much, so I may be biased, but I can’t be the only person reading the news over the past 18 months who has had that song on the mind? Interestingly, I don’t remember anyone else, other than Carleen, covering it. I don’t even recall any other versions of tracks from Van’s Veedon Fleece, which is intriguing. May be the songs are too personal. Maybe no one is brave enough. Who knows?
Actually, cover versions of songs from that early part of Van’s solo career are not plentiful. The great exception is Dexys having a hit with ‘Jackie Wilson Said’, but in a way that was later. If you look for contemporaneous-ish cover versions from, say, Astral Weeks through to Veedon Fleece you are not spoiled for choice, not compared to the thousands of covers of ‘Gloria’ there were around the world. Jackie DeShannon springs to mind, recording ‘I Wanna Roo You’ and ‘And It Stoned Me’ (not my favourite Van Morrison songs!), but then there were connections, a kinship, and she also sang backing vocals on Hard Nose the Highway.
Of those early LPs Moondance was the one that seemed to connect with performers in the States. Aptly Merry Clayton did a great version of ‘Glad Tidings’, and Nolan Porter recorded a beautiful ‘Crazy Love’. Actually, there were plenty of recordings, relatively, of ‘Crazy Love’, but there don’t seem to have been too many of ‘Moondance’ itself early on. Grady Tate did a gorgeous take on it, and a few years earlier Irene Reid with Horace Ott had recorded a fantabulous jazz version which is something else, so sensuous.
If you want to while away the wee small hours, disappearing down this particular rabbit hole, there are a few gems to seek out. One is the great Roy Head (yup Mr ‘Treat Her Right’) and his cover of ‘You Got the Power’, a lost b-side of Van’s, on the flip of ‘Jackie Wilson Said’. Then there’s Buddy Rich and his instrumental of ‘Domino’ which surely somewhere is a Northern Soul favourite played religiously as the sun comes up over the piers of the years. Then there’s Los Dínamicos Exciters, from Panama (and I believe they have cropped up on a Soundway compilation), who took Van’s ‘Gypsy Queen’ and made the spiritual connection with The Impressions and that campfire which has always been at the back of our minds.
Special mention must be made of Johnny Rivers and his 1970 set Slim Slo Slider which may well have been the first LP to be named after a Van song, except Johnny’s version of the title track is more of an adaptation really: the flute follows the script, beautifully, but there’s no Ladbroke Grove, no dying, rather it’s about being born again, with a hint of ‘Astral Weeks’. Ironically, it was Dylan’s Chronicles with its praise for Johnny’s take on ‘Positively 4th Street’ that got me interested in his work, and Slim Slo Slider is a beautiful record. Johnny never does too much, and he has such an ache, a hurt, a yearning, in his voice at times, which is why his ‘Brass Buttons’ works so well. Anyway, according to John Tobler’s liner notes to the BGO CD, Van some years earlier was just as enthusiastic about Johnny’s interpretations, and these guys are hard to please.
Johnny also recorded a beautiful version of Van’s ‘Into the Mystic’ but my favourite is the one by Ben E. King which I am completely obsessed by. It comes from his 1972 LP The Beginning of It All which came out on the independent Mandala label, and he sings it straight, the arrangement is beautiful, there are no surprises, but because Ben E. could bring a certain maturity to proceedings there seems a weariness and a sadness in the homecoming that even Van doesn’t quite reach. Oh boy, this recording is quite something.
Apparently, Julie Felix also recorded ‘Into the Mystic’ in 1974, but I have to confess I haven’t heard it. So, the only Van cover from the UK in the early 1970s I know is by another exceptional emigree, the remarkable and truly internationalist Shusha, who covered ‘Young Lovers Do’ beautifully, as a decorous echo, on her 1974 United Artists LP This is the Day, which is another record I am currently obsessed with, having recently dug out my old BGO CD. It forms part of a series of albums she made in the 1970s with Gerald T. Moore after he left the wonderful Heron, whose spiritual ‘Lord and Master’, with its beat(ific) group balladry and harmonics, is a particular favourite here.
Shusha’s work seems to be off the radar at present, which is a shame. Ironically, the only record of hers readily available to buy or stream is a collection of Persian love songs and mystic chants. Her This is the Day is a strange old record, though. The presence of Gerry Conway and Pat Donaldson may be a coincidence, but Sandy Denny would be a close comparison at times. Like an Old Fashioned Waltz (my own favourite Sandy record) must have been a recent release and a possible inspiration, and that impression is strengthened by Harry Robinson doing string arrangements for Shusha. It may be blasphemy but this Shusha LP is an easier listen than some of Sandy’s records, less rocky which just might have something to do with G.T. Moore’s own reggae related activities which give a suggestion of weightlessness.
While there are a couple of compositions by Shusha, G.T., and his former Heron colleague Roy Apps, most of the material is covers, and what an intoxicating, bewildering mixture: the opening quartet alone is Captain Beefheart, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan and Jacques Brel, which ain’t bad going. And has anyone else ever named an LP after a Captain Beefheart song? I doubt it. Certainly not in the same year the title track was released, I’m sure.
It’s funny: that song, ‘This is the Day’, the Captain B. LP it comes from, Unconditionally Guaranteed, is one I was a bit dismissive of as a young man, but that’s the way things are: my loss. It sort of feels like Shusha and co. turn the song into a beautiful folk ballad. It is, along with Jimmy James’ ‘I’m Glad’, my favourite Beefheart cover. And the Captain’s own recording of ‘This is the Day’ is so, so very lovely. And the song itself: it’s a lost Richard Brautigan fragment of a story, isn’t it?
Looking, out of curiosity, to see what Shusha there is on YouTube (and there’s not much), I came upon a couple of clips of TV appearances from the late 1970s by Shusha and G.T. Moore and colleagues. For a brief moment, as they perform ‘Too Many Rivers’, there are hints of Jonathan Richman around the same time, when he was doing his Rock ’n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers thing. The other clip is a cover of the old standard ‘Love is the Sweetest Thing’: a song which always makes me think of Peter Skellern, and I guess it makes sense as this was the era of Pennies from Heaven when a TV series by Dennis Potter was a big thing.
Anyway, most of the line-up there, with G.T. Moore on guitar, Kuma Harada playing bass, and Darryl Lee Que on percussion, would also play together a short while later on Poly Styrene’s gorgeous Translucence, one of my favourite records. And in the same timeframe G.T. would also be out at the Black Ark studios to participate in the recording of The Return of Pipecock Jackxon, all of which makes a strange kind of perfect sense.
And talking of old-fashioned waltzes, quite probably my favourite part of Shusha’s This is the Day is the cover of Cole Porter’s immortal ‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’, and if you know and love Kenny Carter’s gloriously anguished recording, then the Shusha recording of ‘Ev’ry Time’ may come as a bit of a shock, albeit a pleasant one. At heart the Shusha interpretation is a plaintive folk ballad or torch song, but halfway through the proceedings it’s like members of the Early Music Consort burst into the studio and have a bit of a cavort, spectacularly misjudging the mood, before being shepherded out, leaving Shusha to carry on calmly. They do, however, return for another brief burst of Renaissance dance music at the end, and presumably everyone then joined in for a jig and reel. It is gloriously absurd and addictive.
Listening to it the other night I suddenly realised that I was dancing around the living room. Well, okay, it was more an old codger galumphing about rather than a rebel waltzing on air, but that’s not the point. It had been a long, long time since I had danced spontaneously, which is where we came in, with Carlene’s ‘Peace in the Valley’ and all that went with it. It felt good, and at the end I couldn’t stop laughing. Maybe, one day, some sweet day, when all ‘this’ is over, if we ever get out of these blues alive, we can all get together and someone will put the Shusha track on over the soundsystem and you’ll join me in one last, well, you know. Meanwhile, I’m going to sail magnificently into the mystic with Ben E. King once more.