Friday 24 May 2024

Looking Back ...


Looking for something specific, finding something else entirely unexpected, and getting totally distracted, absorbed, and not caring anyway. It happens all too often. Usually it’s no bad thing. Sometimes it even seems more than a coincidence. As if it is meant to be. This time it was a cheap and cheerful 3CD The Songs of Carole King set that turned up, which was odd as, of late, I had been haunted by that beautiful, almost ancient, song ‘Goin’ Back’, thinking about the past, wondering about the Dusty version and The Byrds’ one, curious about the spell they weave still, but not quite thinking of them in the sense of that old Robert Forster song where he’s musing about who sings better in the dark, Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark. No, no, not that, just really thanking God, or whatever heavenly thing is out there, that we have those recordings by Dusty and by The Byrds to pull us through.

I can’t even remember what I was looking for. It really doesn’t matter. That Carole King 3CD thing: I don’t think I had even played it all the way through before now. It’s one of those collections on Not Now Music, who seem to specialise in the ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ approach to music of the past. Good for them. We need the illumination they provide sometimes. But this set, oh I guess I sort of steered clear because of the ‘high school’ very early 1960s pop connotations, all that Bobby Vee thing going on, which has never been my cup of tea. Actually, that is entirely unfair as it contains recordings by The Shirelles, Crystals, Cookies, Gene McDaniels, Little Eva, The Drifters, Ben E. King, and more, including future songwriting greats Jackie DeShannon and Teddy Randazzo, which is not a bad line-up is it?

But from those early Goffin & King ‘teen-oriented’ songs to their ‘Goin’ Back’ is a quantum leap. It is such a beautiful, bittersweet, melancholic wistful song. And its yearning for a return to the innocence of childhood must have been pretty unusual in pop back then. Now, it’s a common theme in music, and there are plenty of songs about needing to go back, trying to find  one’s self again, trying to get back the feeling you had way back when. Oh, in a way it is ironic that the recordings by Dusty and The Byrds of that song connected so strongly when we were still so young.

I say “we” as that song, those two recordings, were so big in the early 1980s for a certain demographic, a big part of a specific aesthetic, among lost kids raised on Zoo and Postcard Records, heading out of their teens, still saying “Yes!” to fanzines, “Yes!” to belief, heavily into the new Kent LPs and pretty much any other 60s soul collections, psychedelic punk rock compilations, ‘Do You Believe In Magic?’ and old Velvets live bootleg tapes, cassettes of Subway Sect demos, ‘Be Thankful For What You Got’, ‘Ceremony’, stripey t-shirts, Shelly’s DM shoes, black polo necks, red crew necks, last year’s jeans, ‘Action Time Vision’, Singles Going Steady, ‘S. Central Rain’, Edsel’s The Ultimate Action and The Creation’s How Does It Feel to Feel, Fire Engines’ ‘Candy Skin’, Nancy and Lee, ‘Why Can’t We Live Together?’, Astral Weeks, Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’ paired with Melba Moore’s ‘This Is It’ on a Pye Flash Back 7”, ‘Lie Dream of a Casino Soul’ and ‘Fantastic Life’, Nico’s Chelsea Girl, Dylan’s ‘Chimes of Freedom’ and ’My Back Pages’, ‘Love Minus Zero’ and ‘She Belongs To Me’, Joan Baez and Alan Price stealing the show in Don’t Look Back’.

What else? ‘The Kid With The Replaceable Head’ and ‘Little Johnny Jewel’, Chairmen of the Board, ‘This Perfect Day’, War’s Greatest Hits, Buffalo Springfield, Love, ‘Swallow My Pride’, Tim Buckley’s Goodbye and Hello, The Monkees, Shangri-Las, Shelagh Delaney, ‘California Dreamin’’, Blue Orchids, Dexys, ‘Garageland’, Dionne Warwick singing Bacharach & David, Billy Liar and all those old kitchen sink dramas, Weekend, Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners, Astrud, Pale Fountains, Wire, Jonathan Richman, ‘It Will Stand’, Creedence’s ‘Lodi’ and ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain’, Joe Orton, old O’Jays and Staple Singers singles, ‘Shake Some Action’, The Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms, subtitled Continental movies and anything with Anna Karina or Jean Seberg on the TV, old Salinger and Kerouac paperbacks, ‘Cattle and Cane’, ‘Hip Hip’, ‘Penelope Tree’, ‘Where The Traffic Goes’, ‘A Sense of Belonging’, the lyrics of The Jam’s ‘Start!’. Et set. You get the picture.

And if all this sounds like someone’s unearthed a desperate lonely hearts ad. then, yeah, it is sort of, for we were isolated individuals or pockets of people not yet connected, but each of us gaining an education and inspiration and a unique look from old records, books, clothes, nearly all bought in charity shops, bringing alive The Clash mantra about being “into rubbish; using what other people have thrown out.”

‘Goin’ Back’, back then, way, way back, seemed to fit perfectly with ‘Wasn’t It You?’, as recorded by The Action, a song that was perfect for Reggie’s smooth singing, the knowing sadness, the sense of a dream scenario turning sour, like the beats after
Dharma Bums, and we didn’t even realise it was a Goffin & King song did we? We only knew it from the flipside of ‘I’ll Keep On Holding On’, where the sleeve said it was by King, Powell, Evans, King. The wrong Kings. It’s such a beautiful recording. I remember Alan ‘Bam’ King saying somewhere that really Reggie was a crooner, and it’s true that he sounds at his best on the ballads. I wish he had recorded more in that style, but it wasn’t to be.

I can recall Reggie saying a career highlight for him had been The Action touring with PJ Proby in 1966, and playing the Albert Hall. I never really paid attention, as it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I never really got the PJ Proby thing, the love Nik Cohn had for him, Van too. He sure could sing, and he was a character. So what? But then I finally heard his 1966 LP Enigma. And that is something else. I have to be honest, and say I haven’t a clue whether it was recorded before or after the tour with The Action, but there seems some common ground: the “come on children” exhortations Reggie utilises so well in The Action’s adaptation of ‘Hey Sah-Lo-Ney’ have an echo in PJ’s ‘Shake Shake Shake’, and the great cover of ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ has a definite The Action-take-on-Tamla Motown thing going on.

Then he covers the Ashford, Simpson, Armstead number ‘I Wanna Thank You Baby’, which had been recorded by Maurice and the Radiants for the flip of ‘Baby You’ve Got It’, a song The Action more than made their own. And, if you search on YouTube, there is some shockingly brilliant live 1966 footage of PJ onstage in Australia, a mischievous demonic soul, going dangerously wild, with his hand cupped by his ear in a very Reggie way, doing ‘Land of a Thousand Dances’. Coincidence perhaps? Who knows.

Enigma is a pretty incredible record, really. PJ had an uncanny and almost unsettling ability to take on the voices and personas of other performers, Nik Cohn wrote about that way back when, so it seems tough at times to work out what’s natural and what’s not. Perhaps it’s the ‘true’ PJ Proby singing on Billy Vera’s ‘People That’s Why’, and it is quite amazing the way it builds and builds, but it still seems strange sung so slowly having been in love with the gloriously galloping Idle Few version from the classic This Is Northern Soul LP on John Anderson’s Grapevine label, again going way back.

The LP closes with two amazing Jack Nitzsche productions. The last track is ‘You Make Me Feel Like Someone’, which I came across via the Johnny Gilliam version on Kent’s Serious Shades of Soul, an absolutely essential CD. And before that is the astonishing version of the Goffin & King song ‘I Can’t Make It Alone’. Elsewhere on the LP is his take on their ‘Don’t Forget About Me’. Dusty would go on and do both these songs on her Memphis LP, a rightly acknowledged all-time-great record that featured four Goffin & King creations.

Dusty in Memphis opens with ‘Just A Little Lovin’’, a song by the immortal team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. On Enigma PJ sings a great version of their ‘Angelica’, which seems to bridge the gap between the early Gene Pitney version and the later Scott Walker one. I don’t think anything can beat Scott’s recording, but a special mention has to be given to Roy Hamilton’s with Chips Moman producing, apparently recorded at Elvis’ behest in 1969, at what would with horrible irony be Roy’s final recording session. It is a remarkable performance.  

Anyway, The Action, and I guess this was as a result of spending too much time leafing through old dictionaries, I recall describing their sound as Rickenbacker tintinnabulation, which is madly ironic as at the same time in Estonia Arvo Pärt was developing his own unique form of musical composition he called tintinnabuli, though it would be many years before I knew about all that. Nowadays I listen to Arvo’s works, especially the choral ones, far more than I do my old records by The Action and The Byrds, because it’s so special to hear new sounds, or rather sounds new to you, to move on. But, back then, I loved The Action and The Byrds, and played them all the time. And there seemed something special about the way The Action so effortlessly connected the latest West Coast folk rock sounds and the mods’ soul music: the best of both worlds. I dare say if I had known back then The Action performed The Byrds’ ‘I See You’ live and that a BBC recording survived I would no doubt have spontaneously combusted while screaming: “It all fits”.

There is an exceptionally beautiful piece of footage in circulation of The Byrds in 1967 performing ‘Goin’ Back’ on the Smothers Brothers’ TV show, with Gene back in the fold momentarily. Do I remember reading Crosby had walked out after having a strop over recording that song? Oh boy. I mean, I can understand having a problem doing ‘Oh! Susanna’, but ‘Goin’ Back’? Really?

I have sweet memories of first hearing The Byrds’ version of ‘Goin’ Back’ on The Notorious Byrd Brothers, which at that time you could only get in a gatefold double-LP edition paired with Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I really wasn’t sure about the country direction at first, didn’t have a clue who Gram Parsons was, but I do recall Creation Records’ Joe Foster being a big advocate of that record and saying we should check out The Flying Burrito Brothers and the other country rock Byrds records. He was right.

Having said that, maybe the best pop writer of the time, Sounds’ Dave McCullough got there first in 1982 by describing the songs by my new favourite group Hurrah! as all being little ‘Chestnut Mare’ orgasms. Very handily, Lightning’s Old Gold offshoot had just reissued ‘Chestnut Mare’ as a single paired with ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’. WH Smith used to stock Old Gold singles, and some of those releases were invaluable at that time: Bob & Earl’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’ backed with Jackie Lee’s ‘The Duck’, for those of us trying to put the jigsaw together as part of the 1979 mod revival, and we had no idea about Mirwood back then. Also I recall The Tams’ ‘Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me’ paired with our anthem “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy’. And Aretha’s ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ coupled with ‘Respect’, two songs Kevin Rowland spoke about a lot, along with Highway 61 Revisited.

‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’ is the other Goffin & King song on The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Were The Byrds the first to record it? I think so. Carole herself would record it shortly after on Now Everything’s Been Said, the LP she made with Charles Larkey and Danny Kortchmar as The City. As reflected in the tone of songs like ‘Goin’ Back’ and ‘Wasn’t It You?’, Carole and Gerry Goffin had grown up, grown apart, grown disillusioned, and gone their separate ways. But The City LP still has some incredibly beautiful recordings of their songs on, like ‘Snow Queen’, ‘Man Without A Dream’ and ‘All My Time’. It’s a great record, and there’s a nice Light in the Attic reissue. ‘Snow Queen’ in particular has a great jazzy feel rhythm-wise, like The Byrds’ ‘Dolphin’s Smile’. Was there a connection with Jim Gordon on drums? I don’t know. I know it seems to point towards Pentangle’s ‘Light Flight’, another song Dave McCullough pointed us in the direction of via a 1983 review of ‘Hip Hip’ and ‘Flowers’ by Hurrah!

Billy Fury must have loved that LP by The City as he recorded four of the songs for his lost late-60s Parlophone singles. I guess he had a natural affinity with the Goffin & King team. His immortal recording of their ‘Halfway to Paradise’ is by many miles the highlight of that 3CD Carole King collection, and the combination of Billy’s singing and Ivor Raymonde’s dramatic orchestration still sounds so good. Poor old Johnny Ray may have moved our mothers’ hearts in mono, but Billy Fury’s ‘Halfway to Paradise’ is the one we’ll remember them singing forever. There are bittersweet memories of the better ear inclined towards the radio, an index finger held up, signifying silence, the eternal playschool teacher, and an intent, rapturous expression on her face as she listened closely to Billy sing one more time.

Another British singer, Kenny Lynch, contributes a very respectable version of ‘Up on the Roof’ to that Carole King collection. It’s not Laura Nyro but it’s fine. Around the same time Kenny recorded a rather more than decent cover of the Goffin & King number ‘Hey Girl’. It’s a song originally recorded by Freddie Scott, and aptly the flipside ‘The Slide’ appears on that Songs of Carole King set. Being very slow off the mark I only realised recently there is an excellent Freddie Scott CD out on Kent, Mr Heartache, which draws on his recordings for Columbia as well as for Bert Berns’ Shout label a little later. The collection has an exceedingly cool shot of Freddie on the cover, and some astonishingly fine recordings on the disc itself.

Most of the tracks are arranged by the great Garry Sherman, and are very much on a par with the incredible work he did with Kenny Carter, and are manna from heaven for lovers of the emotionally-drenched ‘big city’ ballad form. Speaking of which, a particular highlight is Freddie’s version of ‘My Arms Aren’t Strong Enough’, a song Sherman co-wrote, and which may be familiar from the slower, absurdly intense recording by Judy Clay, which I heard for the first time on Kent’s New York Soul Serenade, which is right up there with the best things they have ever put out. It also features a remarkable recording by Walter Jackson of Goffin & King’s ‘No Easy Way Down’. I mean, we all love Dusty’s version, but this one is something else.

I have been listening to those guys one hell of a lot lately: Freddie Scott, Kenny Carter, Walter Jackson, plus Chuck Jackson and Lou Johnson. My God, they could be as smooth as hell, in tuxedos, crooning like the very best and most sophisticated saloon singer, but then they would without warning ignite or explode, moving onto a totally different emotional level, pouring their heart out, exposing so much hurt and anguish it doesn’t seem possible, but there they go. Kent, in their peerless catalogue, have dedicated collections by each of those guys, and they are all amazing. For a more general overview of the form there is the stylish Soul Voices: 60s Big Ballads from 2020, a pivotal CD for me, one I have played over and over to draw strength from.

A highlight of Soul Voices is Freddie Scott singing the Goffin & King composition ‘Where Does Love Go’, another Garry Sherman arrangement, which works wonderfully well. Freddie’s original hit recording of ‘Hey Girl’ can be found on the first in the Kent series Birth of Soul. For some unfathomable reason I never bought them at the time, but I have been playing the first few CDs in the sequence a lot of late, and they are so good. Plus there is the added bonus of elegant and erudite liner notes by Dave Godin, which are a joy to read, and complement perfectly the pored-over words that accompany his Deep Soul Treasures series.

Were Dave’s words for Birth of Soul in 1996 his first for Kent? I assume so. Thinking about Dave Godin’s sleeve notes, I recently stumbled across his words for a 1976 Joan Baez compilation on the budget label Golden Hour, a 1970s phenomenon. I am no audiophile, but I think it is fair to say the sound quality on Golden Hour LPs wasn’t always great. Nevertheless I set great store by collections of The Kinks and Françoise Hardy, and they were very much a part of that early 1980s ‘education’. Sadly, I have no recollection of seeing the Joan Baez compilation.

Dave’s sleeve notes are wonderful, and very much him. Here’s an extract: “Above all, Joan Baez is essentially a child of her times, and whenever in the future the musical creations of the 60s are recalled, she, along with her friend Bob Dylan and the sadly under-rated late Tim Buckley, will, more than many others, reflect the political and social turmoil and upheaval that the United States of America went through in this period.” Now, I knew from the essential Eddie & Ernie collection on Kent that Dave was a Dylan fan, but to find out he was a Tim Buckley fan too makes me immeasurably happy, particularly coming on top of Norman Jopling in his memoir Shake It Up Baby! saying: “Buckley’s current LP was Goodbye And Hello, an adventurous record that contained, among other gems, the beautiful and mysterious ‘Morning Glory’ – one of Peter Meaden’s favourite records.” Were they, Norman, Peter and Dave, all there at that Queen Elizabeth Hall Dream Letter concert in 1968? I like to think so. I like to picture it.

Was Dave a fan of Joan Baez? It very much seems so, as he writes: “Nobody will ever be able to tell with any certainty if any of her songs did actually make anybody sit down and think, so let future historians note my present testimony that they made me do just that.” He adds: “The remarkable ‘There But For Fortune’ with its compassionate concern with troubled aspects of the Human Condition was greeted by a right-wing newspaper when first issued in Britain as ‘subversive and corrupt’, but the true spiritual concern that lay within it escaped their notice.” Again, those lines make me grin madly, as Joan’s hit version of Phil Ochs’ lovely song was once a Radio 2 staple, and very much another of those old ‘better ear leant to the radio, with the forefinger raised for hush’ songs. Ah life! Little things mean so much, and no one can take them away. They can help keep us going, and they can put us back in touch with our roots, where we’ve come from, who we are, and what our shaping forces have been. That is a good thing, and something worth occasionally goin’ back for.

1 comment:

  1. I think that Smothers Brothers footage is my favourite Byrds clip. They look so effortlessly cool; I much prefer the turtle neck and mustache look on McGuinn to the earlier granny glasses and moptop one.

    I remember the Old Gold Chestnut Mare release, probably the first time I heard that particular song of theirs. It would be years before I learned about its Gene Tryp context and that the song was an adaptation of the Buckride from Peer Gynt. Parts of the lyrics are almost literally translated from Ibsen's text, which I kind of loved.

    Lovely piece; it's triggered a whole lotta memories, mostly fond ones. Putting a smile on my face, albeit tinged with a distinct sense of becoming older. Going back indeed.