Blind Boys Of Alabama, Way Down In The Hole (2001)

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Artist: Blind Boys Of Alabama
Title: Way Down In The Hole
Description: album track, Spirit Of The Century; … And All The Pieces Matter (compilation)
Label: Real World; Nonesuch
Release date: 2001
First heard: 2006

When you walk through the garden …

There is, of course, nothing to stop a cover version from making The 143. It’s all about the version. I’m toying with Johnny Cash’s version of Trent Reznor’s Hurt for a place, as I believe it amplifies what’s moving about the original, for self-evident, contextual reasons. Blind Boys Of Alabama’s rendition of Tom Waits’ devilish Way Down In The Hole is embedded in popular folklore forever as the first incarnation to be used as the theme tune to HBO’s little-known cops-and-drug-dealers saga The Wire and that is why it’s included here. (All five versions are on the expansive, dialogue-grouted Wire soundtrack album – Waits’, the Neville Brothers’, DoMaJe’s and Steve Earle’s – and all have both merit and Proustian allure, but this here just about inches it.)

The original appears on Franks Wild Years (no apostrophe, sub-editors, except for the title track, which isn’t even on this album) This means I’ll have first heard it the late 80s sometime, when Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law turned me on to Waits and got me exploring. I’ll be honest, it never leapt out of that lengthy, operatic album’s tracklist for me – I was more about Hang On St Christopher, Innocent When You Dream and whichever version of Straight To The Top (and to be even more honest, I was more about his other LPs which weren’t staged as plays) – but the minute I heard the tune resurrected on Episode One of The Wire, hunched over the DVD pre-Christmas 2006 on my laptop and not knowing quite what I was getting into, and instantly half-identified it, the voodoo magic made itself known.

I have sung – if that’s not too strong a word – Way Down In The Hole at Karaoke Circus (the live-band jamboree that gave both comedians and civilians the chance to knock out pre-chosen toons with a well-versed backing band and sometimes orchestra), onstage at the 100 Club. It was my first go of many over the years, and I chose to “do” Waits’ version, as he was easier to impersonate. It also meant I learned the lyrics, which are typically sincere and twisted at the same time (“Well you don’t have to worry/If you hold on to Jesus’ hand/We’ll all be safe from Satan/When the thunder rolls/Just gotta help me keep the devil/Way down in the hole”). As with so  many of Waits’ songs, he sounds “in character,” so all is never as it seems.

I first heard the Blind Boys Of Alabama, who have now been going for seven decades (never mind The Butler – they really do have a firsthand story to tell about black history), on one of Andy Kershaw’s Radio 1 shows. Their contemporary take on gospel was probably still a little rootsy and rarefied even for my missionary tastes in the 80s and 90s, but many barriers have come down since then. (Anything bracketed under “World Music” seemed forbidding at the time, as if a passing interest might be considered an insult to indigenous people everywhere. This may sound daft now, but it’s how it felt.) Anyway, I logged their name.

As The 143 is all about the song, it’s not necessary to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of an artist’s back catalogue to justify the inclusion of one track. The Blind Boys have done many interpretations in their rich, rough and ready vocal style – harmonised with what sounds like ESP, maybe engendered by the blindness of some key members – and their cover of Way Down In The Hole almost feels like a reclamation. Yes, it’s more conventionally “soulful” than Waits’, but it also takes out some of his smoke-throated mischief, which is why both versions complement each other. While we’re at it, the Neville Brothers inject some funky Creole dirt, thus making theirs another valid argument for the song, while Baltimore locals DoMaJe bring the female R&B and Earle takes it a little bit country. All the pieces matter.

The Blind Boys’ take is quite dainty, with a tickled bossa nova drum beat, and minimal blues guitar. I can’t confidently identify who sings the lead, but it’s going to be Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore or Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, and when whoever it is sings, “he’ll saa-a-ave your soul” it’s as though he’s testifying. If Waits is closer to the Devil – and the hole – the Blind Boys are surely closer to the Lord. There’s age in this vocal, a sandpaper quality that brings heft to “the fire and the fury”. The high-pitched guitar solo is serpentine and precise, and there’s no point in denying it, the whole evocative kaboodle brings the opening-credits imagery of The Wire flooding back: the helicopter going overhead, the view from behind wire mesh of an SUV going by, the coin going into a payphone, the dancing soundwaves of wiretap equipment, the CCTV eye smashed by a flung brick.

The track’s foreshortened to a minute and a half for TV – that guitar solo lasts a measly bar – so it’s a treat to hear it at its full three minutes. I’ve not yet heard it in situ on 2001’s Grammy-winning Spirit Of The Century album among the more traditional gospel tunes, but you’ve got to hand it to them for making Tom Waits fit, and for making his song their own.

The Clash, Groovy Times (1979)

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Artist: The Clash
Title: Groovy Times
Description: Track, The Cost Of Living EP
Label: CBS
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

NEW
EXTRA POWER
INTENSIFIED
WAKING UP THE DEAD

I don’t mind being quoted when I cite The Clash as “Britain’s greatest ever rock’n’roll group”. For me, they are. On points, they even see off The Smiths; and their finite output of five studio albums* over six productive, metamorphosing years out-toughs any historic claim by the Rolling Stones. (When, on their B-side to White Riot, they declare, “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones … in 1977”, lines are drawn and battle comes down.) How much do I like The Clash? I can even put up with Sides 5 and 6 of Sandinista!

As established elsewhere, I was too young for punk’s year zero, but this just made the whole scene all the more attractive to me while I fumbled my pubescent way towards its heart of darkness in 1979, making healthy mistakes along the way. I was fascinated by the Clash – their clothes, their songtitles, the stencils, the picture sleeves of their singles. I remember seeing the cover of English Civil War reprinted in Smash Hits, with its still from Animal Farm, and wondering what it sounded like. In May of that year, I took the plunge, purchasing The Cost Of Living EP, figuring it was good pocket money value at four tracks. Although I Fought The Law dominated, I was quickly indoctrinated by the other three songs, originals, which were like no other band I’d heard before.

To this day, I still rate the urgent, “Hello, Cleveland” stomp of Gates Of The West and the expansive, London-centrically exotic Capital Radio (officially Capital Radio Two, as it was a re-recording, although I wasn’t to know at 14) over more iconic Clash sides like Guns Of Brixton, Clash City Rockers, even (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais. They were always a sharp singles outfit, but there was something secret about these B-sides, in particular Groovy Times.

There’s content in all of Joe Strummer’s lyrics. But this one beguiled me at first listen. Its “see-through shields”, the dead that had to be picked up “out of the broken glass”, and those lorries bringing “the bacon in” – what vivid dystopian scenes he wove. Who was “the nervous triggerman”? Was he the same man as the “king of early-evening ITV”? (I’ve read since that the latter was Bill Grundy.) And what happens when they put you in “a dog suit” (those words almost barked by a hoarse but in-character Strummer), “like from 1964”? When we learn that “the housewives are all singing”, we feel a sneer against conformity and control. Even the Biblical prediction that these Groovy Times “have come to pass … forever more”, sends shivers down the spine.

As a hardened, cynical, better-read adult I can see my way through the imagery – poetic, questioning, reactionary, blackly comic – but it’s the melodic sweetness of the backing vocals, the rather nifty, treated mouth organ (credited to “Bob Jones” ie. Mick), and the Mamas & The Papas-like chant of the chorus, not to mention the acoustically picked solo, that add a discordant lightness to the dark. It’s odd to pick out such a little-known song to represent the entire output of such a magnificent, hitmaking band, but there’s not much that’s unique about The Clash that isn’t in Groovy Times. For one, I can’t think of a more definitive Strummer vocal performance (“Hey, Groovy!”), those words spat out with such righteous fury and agitated saliva. And Topper Headon is all over that kit, with inventive fills a-go-go. This is not a song, and thus not a band, afraid of sounding palatable. (“Have you seen these charts?” whoops Strummer on Capital Radio.)

The Clash felt dangerous to me in 1979. Theirs was strong meat. While I was comfortable calling in the whole of the Undertones’ catalogue, and that of 999, I never felt fully qualified – perhaps politically? – to allow The Clash into my young life. My friend Craig had London Calling, so I had no need to invest. I purchased it years later on CD, although by then I’d picked up a vinyl copy of Sandinista! at a record fair and weighed it lovingly in my hands, more than ready to go around the world with a band who’d so comprehensively broken out of punk. My appreciation of what they did has strengthened with the years.

I entered discussions with Virgin about writing another music biography after Billy Bragg’s and we put some thoughts together about a definitive tome on The Clash. But I didn’t have the history with them and though my heart was in it, my boots weren’t.

An unplanned meeting during my NME years with Mick Jones in Hamburg was regrettable (he had some beef with the paper that was nothing to do with me but he treated me with a sneer nonetheless.) More fruitfully, I met Strummer in 1999 for Q magazine and he did not disappoint. Proclaiming his insomniac love for the defunct Collins & Maconie’s Movie Club (we were the kings of early-morning ITV!), teasing the security guards at the corporate office where we met with a block of hash and threatening to set off the sprinklers by lighting a roll-up, he insisted we repair to the nearby Irish pub for our chat, where we threw out the plan of him answering readers’ questions and instead jawed about Burma. (He took away the questions so that he could answer them properly, and, true to his word, sent them back to us by post.) He was a year younger then than I am now, but boy did he look good. When he came to pass in 2002, I was so stunned that morning I went into 6 Music just to sit in the same room as Gideon Coe, a bigger Clash fan than I.

A reader from Oslo asked: “Are you still as cool as your photo?”
Strummer replied: “No-one is.”

I had a title for the Clash book I never wrote: The Housewives Are All Singing.

* I don’t include Cut The Crap. Who does?

Crosby, Stills & Nash, Marrakesh Express (1969)

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Artist: Crosby, Stills & Nash
Title: Marrakesh Express
Description: single; album track, Crosby, Stills & Nash
Label: Atlantic
Release date: 1969
First heard: 2011

I smell the garden in your hair …

Gotta love BBC4’s music documentaries. I don’t care how many times they re-slice the cake and roll out the same old clips of Woodstock, Carnaby Street, that bloke in the Smiley face t-shirt pumping his arms and the police boarding the Sex Pistols’ boat, I’ll be there, taking it all in, again. Although there is comfort in recognition, and self-congratulation in shouting out, “I’ve been there!” or “I know him!”, I relish being educated and – in hippie parlance that seems altogether relevant in the circumstances – “turned on.”

Two years ago, I found myself totally absorbed by Hotel California: LA From The Byrds To The Eagles, a 90-minute revel in West Coast rock, sun-bleached, country-tinged and dope-softened. Having long ago fallen under the spell of the Eagles and the Byrds (and, by extension, Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers), it struck me while watching this doc that Messrs D Crosby, S Stills and G Nash represented a six-legged, par-moustachioed gap in my knowledge. Suitably enthused by this latest lecture at the University of Four, I did something about it the very next day and purchased Crosby, Stills & Nash, hooked in by clips of Suite Judy Blue Eyes, You Don’t Have To Cry, Guinnevere and – surely the keystone track of the time and place – Marrakesh Express, a locomotive little ditty that encapsulates all that was heady and infused about the late 60s and Laurel Canyon, and which I wasn’t aware of ever hearing before. (I know they played it at Woodstock, but I don’t think it’s in the film of the gig.)

Written by Graham Nash when he was still in the Hollies but famously rejected by his parochial bandmates, precipitating his split and overdue relocation to California, Marrakesh Express makes me “want to go to there” (in the words of Liz Lemon). Not to Marrakesh and the train full of “ducks and pigs and chickens”, but to 1966-68, when such mind-freeing experiences in Casablanca and Goa were coming back in the battered suitcases of white musicians to Sunset. The beat is essentially skiffle. The riff is high and squeaky. The vocals breathy, sometimes out-of-breathy. It’s almost like a kids’ song. Although, for a “supergroup” its single writing credit suggests it as a solo effort, that’s how they rolled (only one track on the album has a multiple credit) and in any case, the three-part harmonies in the chorus are sublime. It’s a key component of this marvellous calling-card debut, and works in isolation as well as in situ. It’s a gem that I feel I shall always now carry with me, its uncanny ability to “sweep cobwebs from the edge of the mind” often required on voyage.

There are some records whose simple sleeve image makes you want to own them. I may have been late catching up, but I will always love the way Crosby, Stills and Nash sit in the wrong order on that duffed-up sofa outside a condemned shotgun shack: Nash, Stills and Crosby, as yet unnamed as they pose in thrift-shop repose, a clapboard prelude to the coolest DFS advert in the world.

Incidentally, I don’t wish to preempt or tantalise, but having hereby enshrined Crosby, Stills & Nash in The 143, in accordance with my own self-imposed rules I am still permitted to include contributions by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (I think you can guess which song I’m thinking of), Young (Cortez The Killer still battling it out with Old Man), the Byrds (perhaps one of their classic early covers) and Buffalo Springfield (again … take a wild guess), which could prove the most fertile, cross-pollinated patch in the final allotment.