Bobby Womack, Across 110th Street (1973)

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Artist: Bobby Womack and Peace
Title: Across 110th Street
Description: single; album track, Across 110th Street
Label: United Artists
Release date: 1973
First heard: 1997

Help me sing it …

Bobby Womack and I share a birthday: March 4. I was able to bond with him over this vital piece of information in 2003 when he came into 6 Music to promote his Lookin’ For A Love: The Best of 1968–1976 compilation and shot straight into my ever-fluid Top 10 favourite 6 Music guests chart (jostling with Rita Marley, Siouxsie Sioux, Kings Of Leon, Gerald Scarfe, Peter Flannery, Damo Suzuki, Glenn Gregory, Carol Decker and potty-mouthed Sylvain Sylvain). I loved meeting this soul legend – the man worked with Sly Stone, married Sam Cooke’s widow and had a song covered by the Rolling Stones when he was barely out of his teens – and it was privilege enough to bask in his aura, never mind to play out Across 110th Street, one of my favourite funk-soul numbers.

A prerequisite of live music radio it may be, but I can promise you, it’s very weird to sit in a radio studio listening to a classic song booming out over the loudspeakers – and the airwaves – while the person who wrote and recorded it 30 years before sits directly across the desk from you. It seems rude to chat over the playback and yet rude to sit in silence, so you tend to toggle between the two. (I’m guessing it’s weirder if you wrote and recorded the song.) I recall stupidly asking Bobby, “What was across 110th Street?”, just to say something, and he grinned and replied, “Listen to the lyric.” It’s good to have Bobby Womack effectively tell you to to shut up.

Penned as the theme song to the 1972 “blaxploitation” crime thriller of the same name in collaboration with bebop-schooled composer JJ Johnson  and recorded with the backing group Peace along with four other original tunes, the lyric to 110th Street says it clearly enough, although in its genesis it’s not 100% straightforward. Bobby rasps, “I was the third brother of five,” which he was, raised a Baptist in Cleveland to a minister father and church organist mother and something of a child prodigy. But the film – which I’ve never seen – is set in Harlem, not Cleveland, and 110th Street is the boundary between “white” New York and “black” New York. (This was far more of an unofficial “colour line” in the early 70s; it certainly sprang to mind when a cab driver taking me from Manhattan to JFK in the 90s drove that way to avoid the congested tunnels and, yes, we crossed 110th Street.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Womack’s autobiographical take on “breaking out of the ghetto” dovetails perfectly into an urban blues for New York, where rich and poor rub along in a melodramatically heightened way, the whooshing hi-hat, intricate guitar, anxious keyboard jitters and lazy whooo-oo-oo-ooohs of that intro setting the scene with cinematic evocation. “Doing whatever I had to do to survive” in a “day to day fight”, he dreams of “a better way of life.” What’s potent about this bulletin from the frontline of the racial struggle is its ghetto’s-eye view. Pimps “trying to catch a woman that’s weak,”  drug dealers who “won’t let the junkie go free” and that emblematic “woman trying to catch a trick on the street.”

Inevitably, this vivid, urgent, soulful lament to social exclusion and ethnic deprivation becomes a freedom song, those bah-bah orchestral stings pointing up the pledge, “Hey brother, there’s a better way out.” As Bobby said to me in 2003, years before his trendy rehabilitation by Damon Albarn and Gorillaz: listen to the lyric. And listen right to the end, when the fly-on-the-wall commentary (“look around you”) gives way to broader political observation.

The family on the other side of town
Would catch hell without a ghetto around
In every city you find the same thing going down
Harlem is the capital of every ghetto town

Every ghetto town like Cleveland, for one, whose African-American population increased sevenfold between the 20s and the 60s, as city jobs drew workers north (the ethnic mix was still over 50% black in the 2010 Census). The great soul music of the 60s may have been political by its very creation, but it was rarely explicit above a certain seam of despair. Marvin Gaye moved the goalposts at the dawn of the 70s and Across 110th Street seems to be to be in the great tradition of What’s Going On – and indeed Ball Of Confusion by Whitfield and Strong for the Temptations around the same time.

As you know from other entries in The 143, soul about boy-meet-girl is fine by me. But soul and funk with content frees your mind.

Oh yeah, that’s what the world is today.

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The Velvet Underground, Venus In Furs (1967)

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Artist: The Velvet Underground
Title: Venus In Furs
Description: album track, The Velvet Underground & Nico
Label: Verve
Release date: 1967
First heard: circa 1988

I came at the Velvet Underground from the wrong direction. Which was, for me, the right direction. Alerted to their significance by all those bands who formed because of them, I identified many of their key songs via covers in the early 80s – Sunday Morning by Strawberry Switchblade, All Tomorrow’s Parties by Japan, Femme Fatale by Propaganda, Sister Ray by Joy Division, Bauhaus’s live version of I’m Waiting For The Man – and came to fully understand their disproportionate influence when Bobby Gillespie stood up and drummed a few years later. I can say with confidence that I didn’t intimately acquaint myself with a Velvets LP until the 90s, when my rock history radar wouldn’t stop twitching and I discovered the archeological beauty of HMV’s 3-for-2 warehouse-clearers.

Can coming at the Velvet Underground via Lou Reed be considered the wrong direction? In 1989, by then a cub reporter, I treated the brand new New York as a pivotal LP, and loved every pore of it. I went to see Lou live at the Hammersmith Odeon and found my heart in my mouth when he actually told someone in the circle off for talking while he was doing a link. War stories from fellow NME scribes who’d had an audience with the man (and had to wait for him) mounted up. I put on some wraparound shades, applied a wraparound tourniquet and waded in.

What I really liked about the Velvet Underground, aside from the self-evidently attractive art school context for their willful, Warholian wailings and the fact that they existed in black and white, was how slow they were. These unknowable people, one of them apparently Welsh, barely visible behind an imagined lava-lamp slide show, seemed in no hurry to change the course of narco-art-rock. Even the jittery Waiting For The Man seemed a prelude to subsequent slowdown. While I cherish Pale Blue Eyes and I’m Beginning To See The Light on the third, Cale-free album and bits of Loaded, there really is only one Velvet Underground LP, The Velvet Underground & Nico. And from it, Venus In Furs always rises to the top and blooms like an exploding plastic inevitable in a heroin muffin.

I realise now that it’s John Cale I miss on the subsequent albums, as it’s his shrieking, bird-like viola that gives Venus both its macabre momentum and its reason for being. (Perhaps it’s also Andy Warhol’s absence I lament as his curatorial influence also fades post-banana.) I know little of the source novel of the same name by Leopold Sacher-Masoch, who sounds like a rum sort, and have myself lived a stimulating enough life without recourse to sado-masochism, “shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather” and “downy sins of streetlight fancies”, but isn’t that the point of the Velvet Underground? To sound like they’re having way more deviant and complicated sex than you are?

This song sounds like forbidden fruit, a sacrificial drone recorded in a secret place behind a secret door with a secret knock, in a thick fug of analgesic vapour among cross-dressing whiplash folk. It’s in the Library of Congress these days, of course, but even subversive art can be co-opted into a verified canon with the luxury of time passing. I am surely now too old and sensible to be fooled by the Velvet Underground (Venus was recorded not in Noo Yoik but in Hollywood, for God’s sake), and yet, if anything, their parallel recitation of the end of the 60s becomes more vivid and exotic. I guess part of it is academic – Venus Is Furs is important because of who made it, when they made it, where they made it, what books they were reading at the time, and for whom they played it; it’s also important because of the album from whence it was never ripp’d (one of those albums for which every track has its own Wikipedia entry) – but the bulk of its appeal remains visceral. It gets me right there.

When Lou calls out “Severin, Severin!” to the book’s submissive protagonist as he blurs the lines between master and servant, it would be rude not to get sucked into the costumes and the adornments and the bended knees of whatever wickedly unsubsidised kind of theatre this is. Cale’s caterwauling catgut, Tucker’s death-knell beat, Morrison’s almost inaudible bass, Reed’s intoxicating guitar with its strings tuned to the same note … on and on and on it marches. Who actually wants it to end after five minutes?

There’s simply no way this music was recorded ten years before punk. It’s obviously a Capricorn One-style conspiracy. There are bands making so-called rock music today that sounds like it is an early evolutionary step on the way to a generation of bands who might one day dream of sounding like the Velvet Underground, if only they could be arsed to read a book.

 

New Order, Regret (1993)

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Artist: New Order
Title: Regret
Description: single; album track, Republic
Label: London
Release date: 1993
First heard: 1993

Look at me, I’m not you

In the immediate aftermath of Ian Curtis’s untimely death, for Joy Division to not just carry on but fundamentally reinvent themselves under a new banner and ultimately alter the face of British alternative pop, seemed, in that cruel summer of 1980, a mission impossible. The term “regroup” doesn’t cover it. As New Order (the name itself a manifesto), they shuffled Bernard Sumner to the front, added Gillian Gilbert at the back, recorded two existing Joy Division songs in the new formation, Ceremony and In A Lonely Place, and produced an LP that looked and sounded and felt like Joy Division minus Curtis and plus extra synth. As relieved as the discerning were to have them back in business, and so soon, Movement was robbed of sunlight by the Joy Division memorial Still, and it all felt a bit like a holding pattern. Then they went to New York, and the next ten years were about bringing it all back home.

Between the rule-rewriting Temptation in 1982 and the final long-player before the band’s first split, Republic, in 1993, New Order really did bestride the twin worlds of pop and dance like four blushing Colossi. They even outlived Factory. Regret, the majestic lead-off single and a hit all over the shop, was number one in Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play charts and Modern Rock Tracks, which just about says all that you need to know about New Order. Is it dance? Is it rock? Does it – to deploy the cliché – sound better in a club? Or in a barn? Or in a field? The answer is that it sounds better anywhere and everywhere. (I listened to it a lot, alone, in a one-room studio flat in Streatham in South London and it worked for me.) If New Order started out as three young men and one young woman with “weight on their shoulders”, they ended their first ten-year stretch on top of the world, looking down – you might say – on Creation.

That osmotic blend of guitar and synth which falteringly paints in the sky before it starts, as if touching up one of Peter Saville’s oddly sincere stock library photographs on the packaging, can surely, mathematically, never be bettered. Building on a fine repertoire of previous New Order and Pet Shop Boys hits, Stephen Hague sets a template of sleek, slick vistas and bevelled sophistication. It’s oysters without grit, a city skyline without TV aerials, a billboard panorama without imperfections, a sound so deep and wide and tall it bleeds off the edges of most pop music’s expectations and resets the aspect ratio. Barney’s guitar still maintains its trademark melancholy but the overriding theme is celebration. (Hey, it’s a song called Regret that speaks of wounded hearts, complete strangers and being upset, you see, almost all the time. That kind of celebration.)

Blue Monday may have history on its side, True Faith the video, Fine Time the Balaeric cool, and World In Motion a rare sense of fun, but Regret is the crowning achievement of a little band who could. A good deal of Joy Division’s eternal appeal lies in the struggle – the quest to hew magic out of limited virtuosity – but mastering their instruments did not rob them of their personality. It is found not just in Barney’s non-classical voice, distanced and chorused in the mix, but in the idiomatic nature of his lyrics: “Maybe I’ve forgotten the name and the address of everyone I’ve ever known … I would like a place I could call my own, have a conversation on the telephone … I was upset you see, almost all the time”. It’s amazing how much soul there is in his childlike delivery and in these storybook couplets. (This is a man who, on Every Little Counts, on Brotherhood, actually sang, “Every second counts/When I am with you/I think you are a pig/You should be in a zoo.”)

The whole of Republic is a showpiece. But Regret is pure cinema. I saw New Order on a boiling hot afternoon at Reading that year and entered a higher state of consciousness when I heard the riff to Regret, one I am physically unable to resist miming. I cannot play the guitar. This is important.